In 2001, a few days after 9/11, I sat in a hotel room in Riverside, California and listened to President Bush address the American nation. It was a good speech. But it included what seemed to me an extraordinarily ignorant question.
‘Why do they hate us?’ he asked Americans.
‘Don’t you know any history?’ I almost shouted back, at once angry and disbelieving.
I was transported to November 1956, when I heard that British, French and Israeli forces had attacked Egypt to secure the Suez Canal. Behind my door in our university residence were my greatcoat, slouch hat and Lee Enfield .303 rifle. Australia’s Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, was declaring our support for the Mother Country.
I couldn’t believe it. Australian troops would be fighting in the Middle East for the third time in less than 50 years. And I would be one of them, a national serviceman whose military career had been prompted by the Korean War.
Not that I was anti-British or anti-Menzies. Like so many others of my age, I simply assumed that national interests were at stake, and I was the bunny who would defend them (and the Mother Country). Anyway, we had won the war and were, by definition, the goodies.
But I was a budding historian too. So I was aware that in Iran there had been a coup in 1951 after their Prime Minister, Mossadeq, nationalised the oil industry. It was called a ‘popular uprising’ in the West, but it was odd that there would be a popular uprising against the nationalisation of foreign-owned oil assets.
As time passed I became aware that the maintenance of the Abdul Aziz dynasty in Saudi Arabia had been materially assisted by executives from American oil corporations. But why not? The US did after all pay for the oil. Oil was important. I knew that the British had been instrumental in propping up Arab rulers of various kinds throughout the Middle East, and that they had had an interest in Iraqi oil (the Iraqis finally nationalised their oil companies in 1972).
In the Cold War, I was again on the side of the goodies: ourselves, the Americans and British.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
My doubts started towards the middle of the Vietnam War, when I realised we had taken sides in a civil war that had begun as a rebellion against (French) colonial masters. Surely the goodies were in favour of helping people build their own country, as in the case of Indonesia. Why had we muffed it? The longer we were in Vietnam, the unhappier I became.
By then, I knew about the idealist and realist schools of international relations. The former wanting a better world, the latter seeing the real point as the protection of national interests. I developed a sense of Australia’s ideal role as akin to that of Sweden: an armed neutral, staying out of big-power squabbles but making it clear that it would protect itself and be effective in doing so.
In 1973 I taught an introductory course in political science at Sydney’s Macquarie University, built around ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland. From that course we (the class and its teacher) discovered how powerful a sense of unfairness is, and how widespread, too. All of us could point to incidents in our own lives where a deeply felt injustice had occurred, a slight never forgotten.
Since then, I have come to the view that injustice, or unfairness, can be found in all societies as an underlying and most powerful dimension in politics. It is part of all colonial struggles. In our own society, it is part of the genesis of unionism and the ALP; it underlies the feminist movement, Aboriginal land rights, the fight over State aid to private schools, and the fights that small communities have when large corporations seek to displace the corner store.
That sense of unfairness causes deep anger and the preparedness on the part of the angry to do things out of the ordinary.
I do not think we need to look very far to explain why those in the Middle East might hate us. We don’t have to invent a coming titanic struggle between Islamic and Christian civilisations (Ã la Samuel P Huntington). We don’t have to search for a dark conspiracy of evil men bent on the destruction of the world as we know it (Ã la the entire Bush Cabinet). The former course takes us into Crusade mentality, while the latter takes us into the world of super-hero comics.
We only have to imagine that Iraqis and Afghanis and others are people like us who are fed up with foreigners who think they own the world, or feel they need to safeguard ‘their’ oil supplies, or to put up another barrier against the former Soviet Union, or to use one local regime (Iraq) against another (Iran), or to safeguard ‘their’ Suez canal.
It is the foreigners’ indifference to the human beings who actually live in these countries that gets them angry. We wouldn’t put up with it for a moment. Why should they? To assume that they are misguided is to assume that they are both different and inferior to us. I see no reason to think so.
Perhaps a thought experiment is needed. Imagine that Australia’s large stocks of uranium have for some reason become enormously important to the rest of the world. A ‘friendly’ country suggests that it would nice if they helped us develop the ore body, and before we know it they have troops inside our country and lots more close by.
Another major country offers to help us if we sign attractive deals with them about the mineral, and our government seems interested. The first country organises a coup to ensure that the party in power is displaced by one much better disposed to its interests.
Our domestic politics is in turmoil, and then strange things start to happen to people who speak out against the change in government – they disappear, they have car accidents, a child of theirs is kidnapped. Before long, nasty things happen to people from the other side, too, and more foreign troops appear.
Outside our country people, express their sorrow at what is happening. But they need our uranium too, so they don’t do much. According to how you write the scenario, our country can drift into civil war, or become a satellite of one or other of the big powers. We are not a happy lot, and crazy people do desperate things. What do we want? We want all the outsiders to go home and leave us alone.
Far-fetched? I don’t think so.
The general scenario could be applied to most countries in the Middle East over much of the 20th century. But the recent consequences for our country are also dire. In the name of a ‘war on terror’ we have demonised Afghans, Iraqis and Muslims generally. Because we have sent our own troops into other countries, we of the civilian population have to support our own soldiers, and that makes their opponents the ‘enemy’ a detestable word.
The decision to be part of the Coalition of the Willing has enormously harmed Australian civil society, because it has manufactured suspicion about those who live here. It has led to the drawing up of extraordinarily draconian laws, the doubling in size of an intelligence organisation that could become a kind of ‘secret police’, the invitation to us to report on our neighbours to the authorities, and an increasingly authoritarian stance on the part of our Government.
What sort of a democracy are we becoming?
I want very much to have these things undone, but I know (with that sick sense you have when you can say, ‘I’ve seen this happen before’) that some of it we can’t undo.
So is there anything that we can do? I think that there are five main activities that could humanise this conflict, and bring it to an end:
– We can ask that our Government recognise how intolerable it is for any society to be occupied by another country, however well-meaning the occupiers are;
– We can ask that the Government set out clearly what our national interest is in doing what we are doing in other countries, and that it says clearly how long our troops will be there;
– We can ask that the Government remember that democracies always have a harder row to hoe than dictatorships, and that is a price we should cheerfully bear (I seem to remember that the World War II was about this sentiment);
– We can ask that our Government drop the notion that there are matters too secret for us to know about, for Australia is a well-educated and well-informed society;
– We can ask, and go on asking, that our Government avoid the use of intemperate and thoughtless language.
And we can go on asking further questions when we get answers. We can ask our MPs and Senators. We can ask the Opposition. We can ask each other. This is still a democracy, and we should act as though it is.
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