Three years ago in New York City, I met a young Iraqi, a student in New York University. This was an Arab cultural event: a night of music, book reading, and poetry recitation. The Iraqi was younger than twenty. A gentle face, looking reserved: he approached the podium, took out a piece of paper, and read a poem he had written with pain about his stolen childhood-the years of missiles and falling bombs, dead bodies, burnt buildings, and horror. These were the years of the devastating war between Iraq, and my place of birth, Iran. With tears in my eyes, I listened to sorrowful words of the young man, and imagined the horror inflicted on millions of other men and women, young and old, in these two neighboring countries for eight years. The meeting ended. I ran out, introduced myself to the young Iraqi, and thanked him for his sobering reminder of the horrors of war.
I remember the night the Americans began their aerial attack on Iraq in 1991. I had returned home from the airport when I heard the horrifying news. No time wasted, I went to Time Square to join thousands of anti-war activists who had vowed to be there to protest the war, showing their support for the innocent Iraqis under the barrage of American bombs. Many were silently weeping. I embraced a friend, saying no words. We were in a state of disbelief. A drama had begun. It had begun in our name.
For nearly a decade, the world watched with complacency the U.S. and British violence against the Iraqi people. An economic blockade was imposed on the country, while American and British fighter jets bombed the country routinely. What has been the result of the continuous U.S. action? Chronic malnutrition has affected nearly one in four Iraqi children for much of the last decade. Infant mortality increased from 47 to 108 deaths per 1000 live births, while child mortality (under five years of age) increased from 56 to 131 deaths per 1000 live births. More than a million and a half people died in Iraq as a direct result of those sanctions. The great majority of the victims were infants, children, elderly and chronically ill persons. UNICEF reported in 1997 that 4,500 children under the age of five were dying each month from hunger and disease, making 500,000 the number of small children killed by the blockade. It is now November 2002. A new drama is unfolding, a new assault on people’s lives, and a new act of crime in our name. I am an Iranian-born American citizen. I spent half of my life in Iran, and the other half in the United States. They are beating the war drums in my current “home”, the United States. I joined the others signing the statement, “Not In Our Name.”
Wars are devastating. They destroy, kill, annihilate, and inflict pain on bodies and souls of innocent people. The Iraqi citizens are helplessly anticipating these outcomes: bomb shelters, burnt bodies, crying children, and chest-beating mothers. Imagine the life experience of an Iraqi girl born in 1980. If she survives the falling bombs this time, some day, she too will write a story of her life in three wars, 10 years of bombing, and a stolen childhood.
It is now a cliché to say that the world changed with the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. But, the world did change with the election of George Bush to the presidency of the United States. A new agenda emerged, the old rules of the game were abandoned, and internationally agreed laws and protocols were disregarded. “With us or against us,” emerged as the dominant political discourse. “Regime change,” and “preemptive strike” became non-contested policies. We witnessed the realization of the “Empire” so finely articulated by Antonio Negri and Michael Heart.
Regime change is as old as the empire. The Americans have a long history of forcefully changing governments in other parts of the world. Iran, Dominican Republic, Chile, Nicaragua, and Haiti are but a few examples. What is different now is the open discussion and the overt plans to change another government, and the silence of the other states. Many states, from Europe to Iran and Turkey, have opposed the attacked on Iraq from their own narrow self-interest. None has seriously questioned the emerging world order and challenged the empire. And indeed, many are silently benefiting from the new orthodoxy. The Israelis invade Palestinian cities and murder innocent civilians. They too are engaged in the act of “preemptive strike.” And the world watches with minimal reaction. The Russians see their natural right to enter Georgia to haunt “Chechen terrorists.” Setting up “buffer zones” in other sovereign lands is becoming an accepted norm. Welcome to the world of preemptive strike!
A maddening new game has begun. The result is, undoubtedly, increased worldwide violence. We have entered a new era of violence, one that is fueled by a quest for world domination and profiteering. Perpetrated by a band of riotous and arrogant fundamentalists in the United States, the recent violence is disguised by the language of democracy, and human rights. It uses the human rights of the Iraqis as a pretext for its war-an attack on the homes of those whose rights are to be defended and protected!
The new violence has many victims. Not only people’s lives, but also their rights are its targets. Aided by the September 11 tragedy, the new violence is wrapped in the language of fighting terror. This too has become a new orthodoxy. Political opponents and critics of states across the world are labeled supporters of terror. From the United States to the poor countries of the Third World, human rights and civil liberties are under attack. Among those branded terrorists, are the increasing number of migrants and asylum seekers. Fleeing devastating economic, social, and political conditions at home, millions are on the road to the West in hope of a better life. Many are from the war-torn Moslem countries in the East. But, the Moslem migrants are not accepted in the West. The West is closing its doors to those desperately in need of protection: the victims of war, Islamic fundamentalism, and economic violence. War, political dictatorship, economic sanction, and poverty have caused the dislocation of a growing number of Iraqis in recent years. The continuous threat of a U.S. invasion is already causing more stress and the possibility of a new Iraqi exodus. A disastrous human movement similar to the 1991 mass escape by the Kurds is expected to occur. But, this time, the uprooted people carry with them a stigma deeply engraved in Western attitude and policy: they are potential terrorists; among them are the enemies of the West. Driven away from their homes, they will be kept outside the fortress Europe. Even the neighboring Turkey will not accept the Iraqi refugees.
War instills fear in the hearts and minds of people. “Are we next?” asked an Iranian friend living in Tehran. A nineteen-year-old Iranian asked me in fear about his own future. The Iranians are worried. They too have memories of falling bombs, missiles landing on their schools, crippled bodies, and death. Like their neighbors in Iraq, the Iranians have been subjected to repression and persecution in the hands of their own government, and aggression from outside. Assaulted by their own government, they reached out to embrace the embattled Americans after September 11, held candle light vigils, sent messages of sympathy, and showed their genuine sorrow. But, not long after that, along with Iraqis and North Koreans, they became the “Axis of Evil.” The specter of war is haunting the Iranians once again. Iranians, Iraqis, and many other helpless ordinary people in the Middle East are anxiously watching the developments around them, praying for peace. They are the first victims of the war. They rely on the rest of us to stop this madness.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is an international political economists and the author of Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights (SUNY Press, 2002). He is currently in the Middle East researching for his upcoming book, Embracing the Infidel: The Secret World of the Islamic Migrant (Verso Books).