Those Pesky Arabs

The Middle East has long been US journalism’s Achilles heel. Faced with the scale of the US imperial footprint in the region and the violence required to establish it, they have to perform some incredible feats of language and narrative to veil US responsibility for so much of what cripples democratic and social development in the region. They rely on cultural essentialism, ethnic stereotypes, racist simplicities, and ahistorical representations and blame Arab society, culture, religion, and traditions. When that isn’t possible, they point the finger at the demons US policies create–think ISIS–while giving a free pass to the ongoing and continuing violent presence and actions of US intelligence, military, and political forces in the region.

This is despite decades of US support for compliant and unpopular dictatorships in the region and working to prevent people’s struggle for building more equal and democratic societies. For two generations, the US has sided…with tyranny and injustice.” Edward Said reminds us. “No struggle for democracy, or women’s rights, or secularism and the rights of minorities has the US officially supported.” [Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, Vintage Books, 1994:300].

To this list, we can add illegal military invasions, ongoing occupations, drone strike campaigns, torture centers, death squads, private mercenary militia, and Special Operations units operating across the region. However, US journalists will cover the Middle East, its communities, politics, and social struggles as if the material and structural reality of US political, military, and economic interests are irrelevant.

Take, for example, Emma Green’s reports about a besieged Arab Christian community facing violence and discrimination from their Arab Muslim compatriots. [Emma Green, “The Impossible Future of Christians in the Middle East”, The Atlantic, May 23, 2019]. Her piece centers on the Christian communities of Iraq. In most all such articles on this topic, missing from Green’s writing is an acknowledgment of a world of violence, precarity, fear, suspicion, fragility, brutality, and economic insecurity created in the aftermath of the US invasion. Even when the facts are in front of the journalist, s/he may quote obvious historical details, or s/he shies away from completing the picture. It becomes impossible for her to acknowledge that Shia-Sunni violence, or even that of ISIS, does “not emerge in a vacuum; rather, [it is] part of a whole ecology of cruelty” enveloping the country [Alireza Doostdar, “How not to understand ISIS,” OpenDemocracy, October 13, 2014].

Green claims that “discrimination is written directly into the constitution,” which, as she tells us, was “drafted two years after the 2003 US invasion, the document declares Islam the country’s official religion…This shapes life in mundane yet meaningful ways.” And yet, she fails to join the dots that the US interim government drafted the “discrimination into the constitution” and not the Iraqis. This Orientalist and ahistorical view of Iraqi society was prevalent not just among journalists but also among the US administration that took control of the country in the aftermath of the invasion.

Relying on outdated, racist, reductive, and essentialist ideas of Arab society, most of which were fed by colonial imaginaries, the US administration and many journalists reporting from Iraq fell back on an imaginary “Islam” as the single relevant explainer of the situation in the country. Any resistance to the US occupation was not rational but ‘a problem within Islam,’ precisely a problem within Sunni Arabs’ sectarianism and its inability to accept a Shi’a majority government. The uprisings were more a result of “a 1400-year-old dispute” rather than a determined refusal by a people to subjection, repression, and occupation. [Tim Jacoby & Nassima Neggaz, “Sectarianism in Iraq: The Role of the Coalition Provisional Authority,” Critical Studies on Terrorism, Volume 11, Issue #3, 2018; Reidar Visser, “The Western Imposition of Sectarianism on Iraqi Politics,” The Arab Studies Journal 15 (2): 2007–8:83–99]. For journalists, it is “ancient hatreds” and not the illegal and concurrently incompetent US occupation and the violence it unleashed that explains the suffering of the communities in the country.

Never mind that the sectarian violence in Iraq was a direct consequence of the US invasion and the imposition by the US of a sectarian political and civic structure. “Sectarianism that currently exists,” Eric Davis points out, “is the result of Iraq’s political economy, rather than ‘ancient hatreds.’” [Eric Davis, “Rebuilding a Non-Sectarian Iraq,” Strategic Insights 6 (6): 2007:1–11]. It has emerged due to the political and social struggles for power in the wake of the post-invasion Iraqi constitutional design implemented by the US. It is the US Coalition that turned “Iraqis into sectarian extremists of a kind completely alien to the country’s long history of sectarian coexistence.” [Reidar Visser, “The Western Imposition of Sectarianism on Iraqi Politics,” The Arab Studies Journal 15 (2): 2007–8:83–99].

The habit of seeing Middle Eastern and other Muslim societies through a ‘sectarian’ lens is an old Orientalist practice deployed by colonial powers to ‘divide and rule’ and reduce complex socio-political issues into simplistic religious conflicts. [Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, Oxford University Press, 2006; David Ludden, Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India, Oxford University Press, 2005]. It was a tactic deployed to absolve colonial practices, politics, and interests from being held accountable for the violence and brutality that ensued as a result of them.

As Toby Dodge points out, the Americans fundamentally understood Iraq to be a nation “irrevocably divided along ethnic and religious lines between homogeneous and mutually antagonist communities of Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurd.” The sectarianism and the bureaucratic, legal, and political structures that made it concrete were introduced after the American occupation because this is how the country was perceived. This sectarian trope,” as Dodge reminds us, “dominated American perceptions of Iraq to the exclusion of almost anything else. [Toby Dodge, “Tracing the Rise of Sectarianism in Iraq after 2003,” London School of Economics (LSE) Middle East Centre workshop, June 29, 2018 here: (last accessed December 2023)].

But for journalists like Green and others covering similar stories, Iraq–a nation under American military, economic, and political occupation–becomes an “independent,” “sovereign” nation where its Muslim population imposes Islam, represses Christians, and brutalizes women because that is just how they are. It allows for the country’s history to be turned on its head. The violence of US invasion, occupation, and restructuring of an entire society is transformed into “ancient hatreds” because it helps veil the fact that the nation’s sufferings, crisis, and social and economic catastrophes are the direct result of decisions made by the American occupation leadership, including the structure of its constitution, the counter-insurgency practices, the gangsters installed as a puppet government, the creation of a compliant media and the neoliberal reorganization of the economy. [Omar Dewachi, Ungovernable Life; Mandatory Medicine and Statecraft in Iraq, Stanford University Press, 2017].

Her reductive and ahistorical depiction of Iraq, its people, and its suffering at the hands of the US war machine is not only immoral but a transparent form of journalistic negligence. And it isn’t even the first, and I am sure it will not be the last. The same reductive frames were used by Eliza Griswold of the New York Times when she produced her article on this ‘panic’ of declining Arab Christian communities in the Middle East. She relied on the same simplistic frames and equally relied on the same tactic of disappearing the US occupation and the barbarism of the aftermath of its invasion of the country. [Eliza Griswold, “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” New York Times, June 26, 2015]. ].

The Muslims and Islam are a gift that keeps on helping US media absolve US imperialism. But few things are more beautifully, passionately, and persistently gift-wrapped as a congratulatory present for US imperialism than the Arab and/or Muslim woman.