Sympathy for the Devil

Saddam Hussein détournement. Suleymania, 2005.

I remember the Iraq War like a terminal disease. It took over my life, causing me to feel completely at its mercy. I recall the American media gleefully covering their own tanks and Humvees storming through the southern deserts. I awaited the moment when Saddam Hussein’s Arab (by which I thought Muslim) neighbors would come to his defense. It never came.

I was raised by the dystopia of it all: the sleepy and complacent news outlets that did not interrogate the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction which Curveball later admitted he fabricated; the debates I lost at my Saskatoon elementary school about whether or not Canada should have joined the American coalition. And the sudden outcry about Saddam’s poison gassing of Kurds at Hallabjah, which Western countries made possible, and then ignored. Most of all, I remember being raised with a sense of loyalty to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

It was bizarre to me, as a Pakistani child growing up in Canada, respecting the liberal rule of law, that some of my family members expected me to pray for Saddam’s safety during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Why were we supporting a dictator? I didn’t understand something crucially important about Pakistani transnationalism. Particularly strong forms of solidarity have emerged with countries in Western Asia. Although this is partly a result of reduced cultural affinity with southern Asia, due to a permanent state of war with India, much of it is also a result of our shared colonial histories.

Pakistan and Iraq are complex countries with artificial geographic boundaries drawn by Great Britain, which cut across the sort of homogenous ethnic communities that once served as the basis of European states. Military strongmen and martial law are a common feature of their histories, although Pakistan has jostled between an elected elite of landed gentry, and military dictators espousing various levels of spirituality. The list goes on, but these reasons do not explain the loyalty that I was raised to feel towards Iraq. I was twelve when America’s occupation began, and certainly did not have a deep enough understanding of international affairs to rationalize these sorts of connections.

The first time I heard about Iraq was in regards to Western sanctions against the country, during the 1990s. My mother used to tell me dark stories about how the Americans were producing a humanitarian crisis on purpose, robbing the Iraqis of food and medicine because they enjoyed meddling in other people’s affairs. She was disgusted with  American military interventionism, which, as I learned growing up, has always struck a chord amongst Pakistanis, due  to our history.

During the Cold War, American intervention in Pakistan is largely regarded as having been essential for strengthening its military-civilian elites. After India became a leading member of the nonaligned movement, Washington built a strategic relationship with Pakistan in order to secure Western interests in South Asia. This relationship evolved greatly under the Nixon Administration, which lent significant support to exploitative local leaders and the country’s bloated military establishment. Many Pakistanis view this support as having been essential for the emergence of General Zia ul-Haq as a military dictator, who fiercely circulated fundamentalist forms of religious practice influenced by the Islamic Revival. Later, the Reagan Administration offered more support and security, going a step further to intervene in the region by supporting the most reactionary elements of an anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan.

Saddam and Bush. London, 2005.
Saddam and Bush. London, 2005.

When taking into account lingering bitterness from British colonialism, the three U.S. administrations which attacked Iraq were perceived to be descendants of a long and bloody tradition of Anglo-American interventionism in South Asia. Their meddling drive was seen as simply being played out against Iraq rather than Pakistan this time. It was considered to be further insulting that U.S. activities in Iraq were being carried out with slogans regarding the barbarity of military dictators assaulting values of democracy, considering that the Bush Administration was actively supporting the government of General Pervez Musharraf as an ally in the war on terrorism.

The war appeared to have ended with President Bush declaring that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” while standing in front of a tacky banner with the lettering ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ written on an American flag backdrop. I heard bitter statements about how my relatives wouldn’t watch any coverage of the next war in Arab states, because “they did nothing to help Saddam Hussein.” Regardless, it seemed to be over. Unbeknownst to me, however, there was a hell slowly emerging in Iraq that would serve as the basis for new feelings of solidarity with Iraqis, for young Pakistanis, like me. Considering the violence beginning to overtake Pakistan at the time, as a consequence of the US led war in Afghanistan, and you can understand why.

Something had happened that I still cannot completely understand. The Bush Administration had completely neglected to formulate a sound and properly democratic plan for governing Iraq. Baghdad was being torn apart by relentless looting and increasingly organized violence. Every day, I would learn more about the unfolding anarchy,  from the same foreign media outlets that terrorized me with images of U.S. fighter jets pounding the city during the US invasion of the country. It was a horrific atmosphere for a child, particularly one who lived in an emigre nexus that had clear personal and historical reasons for feeling connected to the conflict. Donald Rumsfeld’s repeat reassurances that everything was fine appeared especially disingenuous to me. But who was I to object? I was from Pakistan, after all. Not Iraq.

I watched the news for the next few years, horrified by the barbarity of it all. The suicide bombings, and the beheadings felt intensely intrusive, as though they were touching me, and my body, personally. I suffered from nightmares of being shot and drowned (read waterboarded.) I had no experience with Iraq, but it was not hard to feel personally violated and humiliated by it all the same.  Call it my ‘body politic’. I experienced Iraqi politics intimately. I did not believe that anyone could view current events in this manner and be normal. Years later, I would understand that I was wrong.

Most importantly, I saw the violence in Iraq the same way that other Pakistanis, particularly those affected by the Soviet and U.S. occupations of Afghanistan, saw their own pain in the collapse of Baghdad. There are narratives in Iraq which hold appeal for the repressed everywhere, really. Pakistanis are just one of many populations that have done this. I’m sure that there are other ways to connect to the violence, separate from the reasons that inform our own identification with it. But this is my story.

We will mark ten years since the occupation of Iraq began fairly soon, and with it the emergence of a brave new world. The brutalities of the Iraqi insurgency and civil war have become the catalyst for an Orwellian frontier state of drone strikes and nighttime raids into Pakistani cities. Iraq’s front lines revitalized Islamic militarism and became a training ground for dispossessed young men who are today putting their skills to use throughout Asia. Indeed, the entire region has been destabilized by the conflict. I can’t think of any better explanation for Pakistani-Iraqi solidarity than that. No wonder my parents were so resentful of the United States.


Photographs courtesy of Grietje & Barien and  squaregraph. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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