Sunday, March 30, 2003

Colonialism Redux?

I love my country and its ideals passionately, but a sense of history is not always our strong suit, especially other people's history. Our egocentric culture, can blind us to the other side. When perplexed briefers try to explain the unexpected resistance and concurrent lack of uprising by oppressed Iraqis, they attribute it all to repression by a despotic regime. That may in part be true, but Iraqi dissidents also have little reason to trust us. It was only yesterday when a President Bush abandoned them and benignly watched their brutal slaughter. It's hard to see why anyone would want to chance that again under what is assuredly seen by them as the reign of the Bush "Crown Prince." But I think the underlying problem may be much more profound. Saddam may be a brutal dictator, but his people seem to be saying "he is our brutal dictator." The trouble with this invasion of foreign troops is that it raises the ugly head of Colonialism, something not far from the immediate memory of Iraqis. Perhaps Americans could introduce a greater measure of democratic governance, but they are asking, "is it our governance?" And let's not forget that our most visible "willing" coalitionist, the British, were a principal, and not welcome, Colonial power in the region just scant decades ago.

Forget whether you believe the threat Iraq posed to the world community is credible. Perhaps that is our issue, but it isn't theirs. As many experts have told us, the Arab world suffers from chronic low esteem. It infuriates their youth — makes them lash out and do unspeakable things. Feeding that unease is that people in the West, people who don't even share their belief system, feel it's their right and obligation to reengineer Arab societies, impose what many in the region see as an alien way of life. "Been there done that," they say. All these dictators in the region may be bad, but they represent emancipation from Colonialism. In fact, one might argue that the single most important issue for the Muslim world is the potential of return of Colonialism.

Listen to the rhetoric and it's clear that it has become the overriding issue in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the consistent deal breaker. Ironic as it may seem, the Israelis, who played an active and critical role in ousting the British from Colonial rule after World War II (some among them, like the founders of a predecessor of today's Likud party, using terrorist tactics), are now seen as a Colonial power close to home on the West Bank. It's not that Jews worship differently from Muslims, it's that they are perceived as alien occupiers, not inconsequentially a Western rather than Near Eastern society. People fighting for their real or perceived homeland are not dispassionate combatants. They don't just sit down, have a cup of tea and work things out. Nobody wants to be reminded of Viet Nam and this conflict hopefully will end quite differently, but the Vietnamese were fighting for their homeland. It shouldn't be lost on us that in the end, the Southerners whom we desperately tried to Americanize, cast their lot and loyalties with their Northern countrymen, however repressive they may have been.

So, looking at this Iraqi incursion in the context of Colonialism, one really has to wonder if it's winnable in the long term. George Bush truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi street. Something which, despite now using more politically correct language, he probably still sees as a Crusade. I don't think that works. I know it wouldn't work if someone came to these shores with similar designs wanting to impose their cherished system on us. Perhaps Iraq was a threat. Perhaps they harbor terrorists. Surely their citizens suffer under a monstrous dictatorship. But refashioning them in our image, however great it might be, seems a human conceit. My theological training tells me that only God has that power.

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