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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Books: The certitude of conquerors

October 14, 2008

Across time, the ways in which empires justify their existence and
ways are remarkably similar.
Ramachandra Guha,
The Hindu
October 12, 2008

The pundits in the Beltway insist that the trouble is entirely
religious, whereas in fact it is mostly political, namely, that
neither Shia nor Sunni want to be ruled by foreigners in uniform.

I have been reading A.N. Wilson's book After the Victorians, a survey
of British social and political life in the first half of the 20th
century. Unlike some other British historians, Wilson is aware of the
fact that at this point in time his country had an empire. His book
thus moves between developments at home and at abroad. One chapter or
section may focus on debates in the House of Commons; a later chapter
or section, on imperial policies in Asia and Africa.

Early in the book, I came across an account of the invasion of Tibet
in 1904 by troops of the British Indian Army. The man who led the
charge, the maverick adventurer Francis Younghusband, later wrote to
his superiors that "I hope His Majesty's Government will never lose
sight of the central fact that British interest in Lhasa is positive,
legitimate and inevitable, and that Russian interest is factitious,
ulterior, and pursued with unfriendly designs".
The nature of ideologues

It is in the nature of nationalist ideologues to claim that their
nation is always right, and infallible. We may have no doubt that, on
their part, the Russians believed that the British interest in Tibet
was spurious and even mala fide, whereas they had a legitimate right
to nose about in that country. (In fact, both nations had imperialist
designs, seeking under the pretext of national security to assume
control, directly or indirectly, over the people and resources of Tibet.)

A little later in the book, Wilson speaks of the rise of Zionism. We
learn that Chaim Weizmann, on his first visit to Palestine in 1907,
dismissed the Arab residents as "primitive people" and said the
Jewish immigrants would be "bearers of the torch and the preparers of
civilisation". Once more, one sees the nationalist ideologue's
unshakeable faith in the rightness of his cause. The Zionists wished
to colonise Palestine, a land they had ancient ties to, but where
they had not lived for centuries (or perhaps millenia). But were they
to create a State of their own, they had, somehow, to deal with the
inconvenient fact that Palestine was already populated by another
people, the Palestinian Arabs. So they claimed that part of their
Divine Mission to the Promised Land was to uplift the savage. The
Arabs, in other words, ought actually to be grateful to those who
would dispossess them of their land and homes, since in exchange they
would get Civilisation.

Reading further into the book, I moved, with A.N. Wilson, to the year
1920. The British, messing around in West Asia, had taken control of
what is now Iraq. The natives protested against the occupation,
whereupon the War Secretary in London, a certain Winston Churchill,
ordered punitive air raids on Arab villages (the use of poison gas
was also considered). The protests intensified, with the rebels
blowing up bridges in the Basra area to impede the movement of
British troops. Watching the conflict escalate was a young American
diplomat, W.H. Gallacher. In a dispatch he sent back to the United
States, Gallacher wrote:

'In my opinion the trouble all started from the bullheadedness of the
British, first in persisting in the belief that the trouble was
mainly religious whereas it is entirely political, and secondly in
persisting in the belief that they can scare the Arab into
submission. The average Englishman seems hurt and surprised, he can
hardly believe that others do not like him, so he puts Arabian
antipathy down to religion'.
Striking echoes

It is said that all historians write with one eye to the present.
When he plucked this quote from his sources, I do not know whether
Wilson had one eye on the conflict in Iraq today. The parallels are
striking indeed. The contenders in the American Presidential race may
differ on when and how to withdraw American troops from Iraq, but
they are agreed on one thing — that the fault for the mess lies with
the Iraqis. Senator Obama thinks that the Iraqis must "step up to the
plate" and take responsibility. Senator McCain thinks that the
Americans can scare the Iraqis into submission. Meanwhile, the
pundits in the Beltway insist that the trouble is entirely religious,
whereas in fact it is mostly political, namely, that neither Shia nor
Sunni want to be ruled by foreigners in uniform.

Thankless job
As for the average American, he cannot believe that other countries
and cultures may actually not like him. So he puts down their
antipathy to envy. The Arab is jealous of the United States, which is
not merely the most powerful and wealthy country in the world, but
also the noblest and best. We may think that the motives for the
invasion of Iraq were strategic and commercial, that is to say, the
security of Israel and the control of oil. However, the average
American is convinced that the "Boys" went in to help the Iraqis, to
make them less like themselves and more like the average American. If
some Iraqis still persist in resisting this make-over, it must be
because of their backward and irrational beliefs. Who, in their right
mind, would ever suspect or oppose the noblest nation on earth?
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