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Amir Butler: Liberation through Occupation?


By Amir Butler

Baghdad will fall within days. Saddam will be killed, the Iraqi army routed, and the Ba’ath Party relegated to the garbage bin of history. Democracy will bloom, and peace and tranquility will descend on Iraq, and then the entire Middle East. Muslim radicals will transform en masse into social democrats. There will be no more war or terrorism, and everyone will live happily ever after. Even the mothers of children whose limbs have been blown off by allied cluster bombs will, in the words of the British Defence Secretary, "one day" thank Britain for their use. So goes the chimerical script plotted by the Bush administration and their coterie of neo-conservative advisors.

However, like so many an American production, Gulf War II is a re-run of a British classic. Almost 85 years to the day when Tommy Franks spoke of "liberating" Iraq and not conquering it, the British Lt General Stanley Maude had assured the people of Iraq: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators". For the Iraqis of the early 20th century, "liberty through occupation" meant having their country carved up, a puppet regime put in place, buttressed by British military might, followed by years of bloody rebellion. The Arabs killed 450 British soldiers and wounded 2,000. The British deployed 90,000 soldiers to liberate the country and ending up liberating over 10,000 Arab souls from their bodies. In an irony typical of so much in our history, the British used the weapons of mass destruction (poison gas) of their day against the Iraqi resistance fighters.

Now it’s all being repeated again: the same language; the same bravado; the same promises of "liberation" and "democracy"; the same lies; and the same descent into violent chaos.

Is America any more sincere in its objective of "freeing" the Middle Eastthan the British were in "freeing" Iraq from the Turks during World War I? Here’s the litmus test: When America articulates its vision for the Middle East of regimes falling and "democracies" appearing in their place, is it also willing to accept that these democracies may not be secular and may not be as malleable to American interests as the previous regimes? In other words, does America also recognize the right of the people to decide their own system of government and elect the governments that they, the people, want?

I think not. This war is not being fought to give the Muslim world the kind of freedom that, when sincerely exercised, will bring into being governments that may oppose American interests or may actually reflect popular anger on the Palestinian issue.

Yet, clearly, the Muslim world is in need of some change. Almost all of the countries are ruled by despotic dictatorships hated by their constituents. Whilst we are amongst the richest societies, we have amongst the lowest levels of literacy and are plagued with intellectual, political and economic stagnation. Political violence and unrest are features of almost all.

However, the idea that the export of secular democracy to the Muslim world at the barrel of a gun will solve the Muslim world’s problems is completely detached from the realities of Muslim society.

The reality is that most all Muslim countries are already secular. Nobody can doubt the secular credentials of a country like Egypt where wearing a beard and praying your morning prayers in a mosque can be an invitation for security forces to harass you, or a country like Turkey where women are banned from graduating from university if they wear a scarf.

At the same time as governments and the elites of the Muslim world are staunchly secular, the common people are not. It is this schism betweenthe leaders of the Muslim world and their constituents that forms the sociological basis for most of the political violence that blights the Muslim world. In Egypt, for example, the violence of the al-Jamaah al-Islamiyyah organization (whose leaders went on to become ideological powerhouses of al-Qaeda) was a reaction to the extremist violence of the Nasser regime. When Muslim activists began peacefully calling for an increased role for religion in the state, the Arab nationalist Gamel Abdel Nasser initiated a program of imprisonment, forced disappearance and torture to quell dissent. The reaction of the people was violence directed at the state, which escalated into a cycle of violence that continues to this day in the form of assassination of tourists and government employees.

Likewise, the civil war in Algeria that left thousands dead was a result ofthe government’s intervention in the country’s first ever free election. When it became apparent that Islamic parties looked set to win, the government cancelled the election. With democracy suspended, the people rebelled and the country was plunged into a civil war that left thousands dead. In the same year, the Turkish army removed the democratically elected Refah party from power, because the mild Islamic character of the party offended the military’s Kemalist sensitivities.

That extreme behaviour by a government begets extreme behavior from its constituents is a truism that the American government should consider as its centurions march across the Middle East and its bombs fall on Arab cities.

Muslims are increasingly asking for Islam to play a role in the affairs of the state and for governments that actually represent the interests of their constituents rather than "bunker regimes" that view their constituents as an enemy. If America thinks that imposing, at the barrel of the gun, American-backed secular regimes in place of the current secular regimes is going to lead to some sort of Muslim Enlightenment, then it is dangerously wrong. Muslims don’t want secularism and to be subjects of some Arab Quisling; they want and will fight for true democracy and freedom to choose their own systems of government. And when George W. Bush promises "freedom" to the Muslim people, this is definitely not the type of freedom he means.


Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC). Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC) PO Box 180 PASCOE VALE SOUTH VIC 3044 Email: Web:


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