by John W. Payne by John W. Payne
One of controversial cartoonist Ted Rall's most recent pieces is captioned "If Terri Schiavo Was Iraqi." The image is that of a hospital bombed by an American jet moments earlier, the message being that no one in America cares what happens to Iraqi citizens, and, sadly, Rall seems to be largely correct. Over the past few weeks, the media has sustained itself by consuming nothing but Terri Schiavo, and while her death is tragic, the massive coverage lavished upon it eclipses the fact that deadly firefights and car bombs are still fairly common events in Iraq. When the esteemed British medical journal The Lancet published an article in late October 2004 finding that at least 100,000 Iraqis have been killed because of the invasion and subsequent occupation of their country (the study excepted Fallujah because it was impossible to make any reliable estimate about the deaths in that city, so obviously the number is actually much higher), the story was on the news…for one night. So, to recap, the thirteen-day death of one woman who most doctors ruled brain dead was practically broadcast minute by minute on twenty-four hour news networks and then usually loudly argued about by two equally asinine individuals, while the news that the United States government probably killed well over 100,000 people in a year and a half received a perfunctory two-minute mention one night and then faded from view.
Why is this? Certainly nationalism plays a role: from an American nationalist's point of view, a foreigner's life can never be valued as highly as an American's, especially in times of war. But this cannot be the whole story. Suppose for a moment that America invaded and occupied some Western European nation. Can anyone seriously imagine the American government, in this day and age, treating its people with such disdain as to declare "We don't do body counts" for your dead? I think the difference is that Western Europe is predominately Christian whereas Iraq is overwhelmingly Muslim and often perceived by Americans as monolithically so. In most Americans' eyes, this adds an additional layer of otherness to Iraqis that Europeans lack, and although we may not like to admit it, there is a tremendous hostility to Muslims in large parts of the American populace.
For example, when I first returned to my small hometown in Southeast Missouri after the terrorist attacks of September 11, I was passed on the main highway through town by a Chevy Silverado bedecked with two large American flags, and written on the back window was something to the effect of "Bomb Those Towelheads." I also noticed that the truck was receiving honks of support and thumbs ups from a large minority of the other drivers on the road. What is striking about the driver's statement, aside from its blatant racism, is how encompassing it is. While "Bomb Afghanistan" may not have the same panache, it would have been more specific to the situation, but instead the term "towelheads" was chosen, which could include basically every Muslim anywhere. The message presents a strident us versus them mentality defined by religion. A substantially moderated version of the same mindset was expressed by religious right leader Pat Robertson in an August 2004 speech to several hundred evangelicals in honor of a visit by Israeli ambassador Daniel Ayalon. Robertson described Israel as a first line of defense against "a fanatical religion intent on returning to the feudalism of eight-century Arabia." He continued, "[t]he entire world is being convulsed by a religious struggle; the struggle is whether…the moon god of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is supreme." Putting aside the bizarre notion of Allah as a "moon god" and the near implication of polytheism in the statement, Robertson, a major leader of the Christian right, clearly divides the world into two warring religious camps. It is not surprising that anyone who shares a similar mentality is absolutely without remorse for the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis…that is, as long as they regard Iraqis as uniformly Muslim.
But this is not actually the case. There are 800,000 Christians in Iraq, 3% of the population, far higher in relative terms than the 1% of Americans who are Muslims. And, as Arnold Beichman recently noted in the Washington Times, their fortunes have declined precipitously since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. It seems that Islamic fanatics in Iraq see the Christians as American collaborators, which is often true because many Iraqi Christians speak both English and Arabic, so they have often served as translators, but even when this is not the case they are seen as American supporters because America is a predominately Christian nation. Consequently, churches have been bombed, an Archbishop has been kidnapped (he was subsequently released), and Christians are frequently gunned down. Iraqi Christians have responded by fleeing the country, often to Syria, which remains a secular, Baathist dictatorship. I cannot help but think that if more American hawkish Christians knew the dramatic harm the war has done to the cause of Christianity in Iraq they would, at the very least, be more incensed over this war.
Of course, Iraq is simply the most visible example of Christian decline in the Middle East. In relative terms, the Christian populations in Lebanon and among the Palestinians have declined significantly since the end of World War II, and one of the reasons is American foreign policy as it has been constituted over the last forty years. America is seen as a Christian nation, and when it so willingly supports Israel and attacks predominately Muslim countries, the image of Christians everywhere is tarnished. American Christians face a choice: support Christianity or support American foreign policy, because they cannot do both. Also, it behooves opponents of the war in Iraq in particular, and current American foreign policy in general, to learn about the Middle East's many peoples and educate others about them. The region is far from monolithic in any area. There are Arabs, Turks, Assyrians, Persians, Kurds, Pashtuns, and others, who may be Muslim (Sunni, Shia, and Sufi), Christian, Druze, Zoroastrian, or Alawi. There are even smatterings of Jewish communities left in Turkey, Syria, and, yes, even in the theocratic Iran. The more people understand that the Middle East is differentiated and complex, the less likely it is that someone will fearlessly state, "Bomb Them Towelheads."
John Payne [send him mail] is a senior at Washington University in Saint Louis majoring in history and a proud native of Poplar Bluff, MO.