Sunday, October 10, 2004

It's not weak to see Iraq's ambiguities

The Age is turning out to be a source of comfort to me today.

You wouldn't know it from our politicians, but resistance in Iraq is a complex phenomenon, writes Waleed Aly.

In his C. D. Kemp Lecture in May this year, John Howard described the continuing conflict in Iraq as a "contest of ideas"; a contest between the agents of freedom and democracy, and the supporters of violent repression and dictatorial Taliban-style governance.

Thus, armed resistance to the coalition's military intervention was a violent and brutal campaign of terrorists and extremists designed "to undermine Iraq's hopes of representative government and a free society". Iraq was the front line of battle in the war against terror; an apocalyptic, ideological struggle against those who would terrorise us, not because of anything we have done but simply because of who we are and the values for which we stand.

This construction implies that any resistance in Iraq is an extremist, terrorist monolith, motivated by an irrational, axiomatic hatred of Western values and Westerners.

That same resistance last week released Italian volunteer aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari. The "two Simonas" returned to Italy, bringing much joy to their nation. But they also brought an important, unexpected story.

Their captors had apologised and asked for their forgiveness when they realised the women were in Iraq to provide aid to local Iraqis. "They didn't touch us," said Torretta. "They treated us with great dignity." Her kidnappers had given her a box of sweets as a farewell gift. They also gave her English translations of the Koran.

It is not my intention to romanticise the kidnappers. They still kidnapped two women. That is a crime, irrespective of how the hostages were treated.

But we must at least recognise that this is not the behaviour of blind, bloodthirsty terrorists determined to exterminate the West, and who have resolved to attack us indiscriminately, simply for who we are rather than what we've done. Had they been such, they would have brutalised both women and then executed them. Instead, they were clearly more concerned with what their hostages had done (provided aid to the people of Iraq), and not who they were (citizens of a nation with an unwelcome military presence there).

Of course, there are substantial terrorist elements of the resistance that are guilty of utterly shocking crimes against humanity. The two Simonas could easily have shared the fate of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, who was executed in August when Italy refused to withdraw troops. It would be dishonest to pretend that resistance to Western occupation in Iraq is uniformly noble.

But that is precisely the point: it is dishonest to pretend that the resistance is uniformly anything - and that includes uniformly terrorist.

Occupation always creates an extraordinarily complex environment, and Iraq is no different. The resistance there encompasses myriad groups, with diverse motivations.

The sociopolitical milieu is layered and complicated. The resistance's diversity is subtle and nuanced. It is not amenable to simplistic, sweeping categorisation. To acknowledge this is not to support the resistance, or even oppose the US-led invasion.

Against this background, Australia's political rhetoric surrounding Iraq is exposed for the crude, comic-book politics that it is. It rests on a construction of appallingly simplistic, absolute binaries: good and evil; democracy and terrorism; freedom and fundamentalism.

By contrast, the United Nations' special envoy in Iraq, Lakdhar Brahimi, painted a more subtle picture at a Baghdad news conference in June. He suggested the coalition should talk to some of the people behind the Iraq insurgency because there may be prospects for negotiation. "I think it's a little bit too easy to call everybody a terrorist," he said.

Easy and politically convenient. Reducing Iraq to a battleground between good and evil, between freedom and terror, makes it easy to ridicule criticism of the coalition's Iraqi excursion as the immoral appeasement of terrorists.

Increasingly it seems Australian politics demands such dichotomous simplicity. Acknowledgment of ambiguity is easily made a sign of weakness.

Tragically though, the real weakness is in obfuscating the complexity of our perilous world, since this prevents us from generating sufficiently sophisticated responses. Our crude rhetorical strictures compromise the efficacy of our action.

When asked if they realised how dangerous Iraq had become, Torretta said, "It's not possible for us to understand what's happening there any more". If only our political leaders had the honesty and courage to say this, too.

Melbourne lawyer Waleed Aly is on the executive of the Islamic Council of Victoria.

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