From Bob's archive: Provocation/mini-skirts

This is another from the archive, from June-July 2007, when Salman Rushdie was made Knight Bachelor by the Queen. It was originally two posts, but the second followed on closely from the first.

The clerical fascists of Pakistan and Iran, and their supporters in the UK like Lord Ahmed, have spoken of Rushdie (or, in this case, the British state for honouring him) provokingMuslim anger, even violent anger, including suicide bombings. I didn’t think that many people here would treat that notion with anything but contempt, until I read discarded copies of Wednesday’s Times and Independent on the train today, and saw lots of letters from people with very British names, including relatives of British soldiers serving in Iraq, expressing exactly that view.

The idea of provocation has been expressed many times by western leftists and liberals. The idea that 9/11 was an example of “chickens coming home to roost” or that 7/7 was “blowback” for Iraq are variations on this theme.

A similar logic is at work in the claim that “we” (the West) are responsible for the tens of thousands, or indeed (if you accept the rather contentious Lancet methodology) hundreds of thousands (or even, if you have Lenny Lenin’s “dialectical” grasp of maths, “nearly a million”) deaths in Iraq. Clearly, the Coalition is directly responsible for many deaths in Iraq– insurgent combatants, but also far, far too many civilians killed as a result of criminally stupid blunders, tactical errors, excessive uses of force, mindless displays of muscle. But, the argument goes, “we” are also responsible for those killed by the insurgents and the sectarian gangs and the Al-Qaeda operatives and so on, because we removed Saddam, or simply because we are there.

These claims about provocation and responsibility say something about agency. Specifically, they say that “we” (the West, white folk) have agency – and “they” (the Muslims, the brown folk) don’t. “We” rationally calculate our actions – they simply respond mindlessly. This view is profoundly racist; it infantilises Muslims. It is time “we” gave Muslims enough respect as to hold them morally to account for their actions.


At the every end of yesterday's Today programme, a nice lady, a journalist, I didn't catch her name, was asked why this is such a dangerous time for journalists (a propos of the welcome release of Alan Johnston). She answered (and these are not exact words): "Because of our foreign policy", followed immediately by: "journalists are not distinguished from their countries' governments". There are two problems with this.

The first is simply that most of the journalists who are in danger are not from "the West" (which is presumably the "us" she refers to). Just to take Iraq, over 100 journalists have been killed since 2003 (70 murdered, 38 caught in the crossfire), of whom 86 were Iraqi. Most of these were killde by insurgents (62 confirmed). (And this does not count the 39 media support workers killed - all Iraqi except for one Lebanese). The overwhelming majority, in fact, work for Iraqi news organisations (63 of the journalists, 23 of the support workers). In fact, one Western journalist has been killed in Iraq this year, Russian Dmitry Chebotayev, killed along with American soliders in a roadside attack. Prior to that, the last were Paul Douglas and James Brolan, killed in May '06, killed by an insurgent bomb.

Globally, 85% of journalists killed are local correspondents, not foreign correspondents. The second most dangerous place for journalists is Algeria, where in fact it is often Islamist journalists targeted by the government, then Russia, where government-backed thugs kill dissident journalists with impunity, then Colombia, where journalists are at risk from right and left. In other words, the idea that it is "our" journalists "they" are killing is predicated on an ethno-centric view of the world.

The second, and more important point is about that word "because". Concentrating solely on Western journalists killed by insurgents, the journo's second statement, that the killers don't distinguish between "good" Westerners and "bad" Westerners is surely the correct "reason". That is, the racist, murderous, anti-Western ideology of the insurgents is what drives them to kill, not "our" foreign policy. Blaming our foreign policy is like blaming a rape victim for wearing sexy clothes.


BenSix said…
But, the argument goes, “we” are also responsible for those killed by the insurgents and the sectarian gangs and the Al-Qaeda operatives and so on, because we removed Saddam, or simply because we are there.

The state is partly responsible for terrorism in Iraq, yes. One can be blamed for engineering the creation of conditions in which harmful occurrences are made more probable.

Consider an analogy that's not a million from your's: guy X and girl Y go clubbing. She asks him to give her directions home and, despite being aware of the crime rates in the area, he describes a route that takes her through the roughest part of town. She gets assaulted. The assailant is, of course, as responsible for the crime as anybody can be but there's an additional onus of responsibility that falls on guy X because his carelessness made it far likelier that something so unpleasant would occur.
Waterloo Sunset said…
It gets even more complex if we look at Afghanistan.

Is it really that unreasonable to suggest that "we" bear some responsibility for the rise of Islamism there as "we" armed and financed the mujahideen through Operation Cyclone?
bob said…
Good points. On Afghanistan, yes, "we" were responsible for the rise and arming of jihadi Islamists against the Soviets, and bear direct responsibility.

On the clubbing analogy, also true.

However, there is an enormous difference between saying "X bears an additional onus of responsibility for Z's crimes against Y" and saying "Z's crimes against Y happened *because* of X".
Waterloo Sunset said…
Surely the latter is generally shorthand for the former anyway.

Let us take the statement "the abandonment of the working class by the Labour Party led to the rise of the far right". (Which I think is a statement you'd still have a lot of political sympathy for?)

By saying that are we really a) suggesting it's the only contributing factor to the exclusion of any others or b) denying the moral agency of far right activists?

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