Iraqi Olympians Trash the Occupation Troops
"The image of the Iraqi soccer team in this Olympics, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? It wouldn’t have been free if the United States hadn’t acted."
President George W. Bush, Beaverton, Oregon, August 6
"At this Olympics," a Bush ad informs the voters, "there will be two more free nations—and two fewer terrorist regimes."
But midfielder Salih Sadir, member of the Iraqi Olympic soccer team, is furious that the Bush-Cheney campaign is using the presence of Afghan and Iraqi athletes at the Athens Games to bolster his election prospects. Sadir’s response? "Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign," he told an American reporter. "He can find another way to advertise himself." Does the midfielder think Bush has freed his country? Doesn’t sound like it: "We don’t wish for the presence of the Americans in our country. We want them to go away."
Star player Ahmed Manajid comes from Fallujah, hotbed of the Iraqi resistance, and declares that if he weren’t playing soccer in Athens he would "for sure" be fighting alongside his people. "I want to defend my home," he says. "If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that mean they are terrorists? Everyone [in Fallujah] has been labeled a terrorist. These are all lies. Fallujah people are some of the best people in Iraq." "How," Manajid wonders, "will [Bush] meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes."
Team coach Adnan Hamad stresses, "My problems are not with the American people." (Notice how people fighting U.S. imperialism almost always distinguish between people and government, while U.S. imperialism almost always blurs the distinction—because racist ‘us vs. them’ thinking, as the Nazi pioneers among many others have shown, is so extraordinarily useful?) "They are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything The American army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the stadium and there are shootings on the road?"
Such statements are of course not surprising to anyone following events in Iraq, including strong advocates of the war who think U.S. geopolitical gains from the occupation are well worth the cost of incurring Iraqi hatred. The latter will respond, as did a Bush spokesperson, that "Twenty-five million people in Iraq are free as a result of the actions of the coalition." They’ll argue that those whining about slaughter of men and women, and shootings on the road, and publicly endorsing resistance to invasion, are at best ungrateful, and at worst, terrorists. (Surely the names of these athletes, whom Bush calls "fantastic," have been duly logged with Homeland Security, along with the names of any prominent persons accusing Bush of crimes.)
Many a Fox-fed casual consumer of the constructed news doesn’t yet get it. Good, decent Iraqis, including high-achiever types like these Olympic athletes, are overwhelmingly hostile to the occupation following the (criminal) invasion last year. True, the "free press" in this "free" country, controlled by enough people to sit comfortably in your living room, has let pass some reportage indicating the depth of the Iraqis’ rejection of their country’s rape.
A "Coalition"-sponsored public opinion poll last June indicated that only two percent of the Iraqi population supported the occupation. This caused a tiny blip in imperial reportage, the import of the information never digested nor presented dispassionately by the corporate press that is unable, constitutionally, to promote basic, honest discussion.
On that occasion the influentially ignorant Fox propagandist Bill O’Reilly declared his honest thoughts: "I don’t have any respect by and large for the Iraqi people at all. I have no respect for them. I think that they’re a prehistoric group that is—yeah, there’s excuses. Sure, they’re terrorized, they’ve never known freedom, all of that. There’s excuses. I understand." (Jesus, how big of you, Bill!) "But I don’t have to respect them because you know when you have Americans dying trying to, you know" (you DO know, don’t you?) "institute some kind of" (whatever) "democracy there, and two percent of the people appreciate it, you know, it’s time to—time to wise up."
In other words, there’s nothing wrong in principle with invading countries whose people are "prehistoric" and who maybe even have "excuses" to explain their lack of appreciation. But the "big lesson" the perpetually sour-faced, people-hating O’Reilly, whose practice on Fox displays utter contempt for "democracy" by any definition, who has advocated the leveling of Manajid’s hometown Fallujah, draws from this is that "we cannot intervene" using ground troops "in the Muslim world ever again." "What we can do," the fair and balanced bully pontificates, "is bomb the living daylights out of them, just like we did in the Balkans Bomb the living daylights out of them. But no more ground troops, no more hearts and minds, ain’t going to work They’re just people who are primitive." This, in the American mass media, in early 21st century.
On the one hand, one has to appreciate that the legitimate struggle of a sophisticated, educated, mostly Muslim people against aggression causes racist airbag O’Reilly to discourage further Iraq style military actions, if only on the basis that local ("primitive") people resist them. On the other, his Hiroshima solution repels thinking people of various political outlooks. The audience most influenced by the O’Reilly-types is not much interested in the nuances of international affairs in general, is impatient with all the details that make Sunni different from Shiite, Iranians and Afghans different from Arabs, this terrorism from that terrorism, bin Laden from al-Sadr. "Hey man, look, it’s us against them, they attacked us, we weren’t paying enough attention, now finally we’re going after them, and hey you’re either for us or against us"
Fortunately, this audience includes some subscribers to Sports Illustrated, and as it so happens, all the comments I quoted above appeared in this highly popular magazine which rarely occasions political controversy except when it publishes its "swimsuit issue" which offends some people. Its varied readership might not share O’Reilly’s proudly broadcast disrespect for the Iraqi people. They might even read with some sympathy the comments of athletes from the Iraqi team, that has won upset victories over Costa Rica, Portugal and Australia while retaining its national dignity under the current circumstances.
Architect of these victories, Coach Hamad reasonably tells Sports Illustrated, "Many people hate America now. The Americans have lost many people around the world" Some readers will say, as would O’Reilly, "Damn the ungrateful bastards." But Hamad’s sentence concludes "and that is what is happening in America also." Is he saying that he thinks that many Americans join his own people in hating imperialism? Maybe he’s talked to some American athletes and coaches who have told him they disagree with the war. Let’s hope so. Anyway, every American sports fan, and all American good-doers, should applaud the coach for making the distinction between people and government, and spread the word that the flower of Iraqi youth believes what should long since have been obvious to the masses in the USA: the invasion and occupation are wrong.
"For sure" the "best people" from Iraq, in and out of the stadium, ought to exert themselves ("faster, higher, stronger") to overcome the injustice inflicted upon their nation. They will receive by their legitimate resistance no laurel wreaths, but just maybe, through exertion and will, they will help create greater freedom for their people—even though they struggle with an opponent who doesn’t recognize rules, accurately keep score, or play fair.
Salaam, Iraqi Olympians. May you show Bush how fantastic you really are, on and off the field.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org