History Repeats Itself

America, like Napoleon, takes colonialism to absurd lengths

Sorry for the unprofessional language, but the decision taken by the Iraqi governing council to make April 9 Iraq’s new national day is utterly stupid. But colonizers are generally stupid. Colonialism is based on intentional omission of information; blindness is a structural component of colonialism; the colonial master sees Africa but not the Africans, Palestine but not the Palestinians, Iraq but not the Iraqis. Nevertheless, the American stupidity in Iraq is, like many things American, exaggerated.

When Napoleon first came to Cairo, he first tried the American trick to make an invasion look like a liberation. In a pamphlet distributed in Alexandria one day before the city fell into the hand of French troops, Napoleon’s translators introduced the expression “al-Umma al-Misriyya” (the Egyptian community or nation) for the first time to the Arabic language. Napoleon claimed to be liberating the Egyptians from the Mamlouks, who were foreigners; he was a savior rather than an invader. Of course, to the people of Cairo, the Mamlouks and the Ottomans were no foreigners; Islam, not nationalism, was the basis of political identity. “Al-Umma al-Islamiyya” (the Islamic community, sometimes translated as the Islamic nation) was the only Umma around, especially when it came to dealing with Europe.

Napoleon was quick in understanding that his invention did not work, so he swiftly changed his discourse. In order to avoid the inevitable comparison between his campaign and the Crusades, he kept asserting that he himself was not a Christian and that he had attacked the Pope’s seat in Rome. In his meeting with the notables of Cairo and the sheikhs of Al-Azhar University in July 1798 he claimed to be a Muslim himself. The officers of the French Army were ordered not to attack women, not to drink wine in public and not to enter mosques. He appointed a ruling council, just like the one Paul Bremer has composed in Iraq. Fourteen sheikhs of Al-Azhar university were now the administrative government of Egypt under French occupation. Their decrees all started by declaring the there was no God but God and that Mohammed was His Prophet. He even made this council of 14 issue a fatwa (a religious edict) stating that Napoleon was the awaited Mahdi, a religious figure, whose appearance, Muslims believe, would fill the land with justice just as it has been filled with oppression. They claimed that 20 verses of the Koran implicitly referred to Napoleon!

It did not take the Egyptians long to respond to this nonsense. After a couple of months, Cairo was burning under the feet of the French. The younger sheikhs of Al-Azhar declared jihad, complaining that the clerics who supported Napoleon had become French and therefore ceased to be Muslims (a move that proved very effective in convincing many of the 14 sheikhs to rethink their political alliances, and join the revolt). The invaders were invaders after all, and they had no right to rule over Muslims, this was a new crusade, and Napoleon, despite his continuous declarations, was no different the Louis IX, and he deserved no better a destiny (Louis IX was locked in a judge’s house and hit with a thick stick everyday until he was returned to France on ransom).

The British colonial discourses after World War I were no different. They claimed to save the peoples of the Middle East from despotic Turkish rulers, whom they, i.e. the British, decided were foreign to the region. The scheme did not work then either, and a lot of blood had to be spilled in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq just to get the message through: “We hate you and we want you out of our lands.”

Nevertheless, clumsy and useless as these French and British measures were, the American policies in Iraq are much worse. Attacking Iraqi civilians had started 10 years before the invasion. The mass killing of Iraqis by the invisible weapon of mass destruction called the embargo could not have left kind feelings in the hearts of Iraqis. Then, right after the invasion, more killing of civilians, searching of homes, unveiling of women and humiliation took place.

America’s “war on terrorism” has turned into a war on sentiments and feelings; any sympathy for Islam or Arabism is seen as a political danger, and that is stated in so many words. The first step the Americans took to “bring democracy to Iraq” was postponing elections indefinitely, only because the results might not suit them. Now this declaration by the governing council that April 9, the day Baghdad fell, is the national holiday, is just as stupid, ridiculous and useless, as the declaration by the 14 sheikhs that Napoleon was the Mahdi. Only this time, even the cautious steps that were taken by Napoleon and later on by the British are not there. When Napoleon declared that he was the Mahdi he was not massacring the people of Cairo yet; the massacre came later on. The Americans, on the other hand, have been in the massacre business for more than a decade, and now they are making this Napoleonic claim of being the saviors of the country, thus adding an enormous historical humiliation to an even greater historical injury.

America’s occupation of Iraq is not only a return to the age of classical colonialism. It is much worse than that. It is something much lower, something more vulgar, more brutish, more humiliating and therefore much more dangerous; dangerous to Arabs, to Muslims, to humanity at large, and of course to America.

Tamim Al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet living in Cairo. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star

Courtesy Raja Mattar