Robert Fisk has a well-earned reputation as one of the most honest and hard hitting foreign correspondents in the British media. He has worked in Northern Ireland, where he exposed the presence of the SAS in the mid-1970s, as well as Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon. It was here, as a witness to the immediate aftermath of the Israeli-organised Sabra and Shatila massacre of 2000 Palestinian refugees, that his journalism took on its current form: angry, passionate, and as he puts it “partial on the side of the victims”–a style of journalism which, unfortunately, is not shared by many of his colleagues in the profession. In the midst of a torrent of lies and propaganda emanating from our media about British and US policy on the Middle East, Fisk’s writings are a breath of fresh air–although the hellish reality he depicts does not always make for pleasant reading.
When I met Fisk in Christchurch College, sandwiched between an earlier speaking engagement in Bristol, and a lecture at the Oxford Literary Festival–seemingly without a moment’s rest–we began by talking about the role of journalism in times of war. Firstly, I wanted to know, does journalism, by sanitising or justifying war, also have a role in perpetuating it?
There are several things. First of all, there’s the inability of many journalists from the United States to actually tell the truth about the Israel-Palestine situation–hence, occupied territories are called disputed territories, the wall is called the security barrier, a colony or settlement is called a neighbourhood or an outpost. Which means that if you see a Palestinian chucking a stone, if it’s about an occupation, you can understand it, but if it’s about a dispute, which you can presumably settle over a cup of tea, then obviously the Palestinians are generically violent. So you demean one side in this appalling conflict.
Then you have this business where television will not show what we see, for reasons of so-called “bad taste”. I remember once being on the phone to a TV editor in London when Jazeera were asked to feed some tape of children killed and wounded by British shell fire in Basra, and the guy started saying, “there’s no point feeding us this, we can’t show this”the first excuse was, “people will be having their tea, so we can’t put it on”, and then it was, “this is sort of pornography, we don’t show this”. And it ended up–it is mesmeric to listen to this stuff – the last thing was “We have to show respect for the dead”. So we don’t show any respect for them when they are alive, we blow them to bits, and then we show respect for themSo because of this – and these bloodless sandpits with ex-generals pontificating – it becomes a game; you start propagating this idea that war is primarily about victory or defeat – when in fact, it’s about death, and the infliction of massive pain.
I was in Iraq in 1991, when the British and Americans had been bombing one of the highways. There were women and children dead and in bits, and all these dogs came out of the desert and started eating themIf you saw what I saw you would never ever think of supporting war of any kind against anyone again.
But of course, the politicians–our leaders–are very happy that these pictures are not shown, because they make war more attractive, less painful.
Do the British public never get to see this, more realistic, picture of war?
Look, if an Iraqi soldier is obliging enough to die by the side of the road in a romantic pose, and you can get him against the skyline without any boiled flesh – you know, “the price of war: an Iraqi soldier lies dead”, you know the sort of caption by now – you can do that.” But that’s about it.
Journalistic standards are degenerating rapidly in other areas too. Watching the news two weeks ago, I was shocked to see Yassin Nassari and Abdul Patel referred to by the BBC as ‘terrorists’–not “alleged” or “suspected”, but straight down the line “terrorists” – when the only charges they faced related to “possession of materials” (Islamist literature and video), and they had not even been accused of planning terrorist attacks, let alone carrying any out. Has ‘terrorism’ become a ‘catch-all’ phrase?
I’ve seen cases in the United States where the evidence of terrorism is a copy of a Lebanese newspaper.
I’ve just had an interesting example of what’s going on. I was lecturing in Ottawa to 600 Muslim Canadians, and I said to them “you are absolutely right to exercise your right to free speech to attack the United States and Israel when they kill people, commit torture, occupy other people’s lands- but why don’t I ever hear you condemning the regimes in Egypt, Damascus, Libya and so on?” Silence. I couldn’t work it out.
So what was going on?
Later, I was driving across Canada with two Muslims and they told me. In Canada, if they speak out against these regimes–the Syrian regime, or the Egyptian–what happens is that these various countries have their own muhabarat people in Canada–security people–who will then pass home the message that certain people are speaking up against Mubarak, Assad, or whoever. Then, under the new friendship between intelligence services, the Syrian or Egyptian regime tells the Canadians that there is a potential terrorist–anti-regime, right?–and CSIS, the Canadian version of the FBI, starts putting taps on them. So, by exercising their freedom of speech against dictatorships, they end up being suspected of terrorism by their new country of citizenship. So the result is, at the end of the day, they are silent. As I would be too, in their position.
What about the silence of the rest of us, who are not so easily excused? With ever dwindling numbers on the anti-war demonstrations, have we forgotten what is really going on in those countries suffering Western “liberation”?
You keep having to say to people in London, “but it’s real”–because most people don’t have any experience of war in the West anymore. There isn’t a single one of our political leaders with any experience of war. Bush dodged it, Cheney dodged it, Powell was in Vietnam, but he’s gone. Hollywood is their experience of war. And when you send people off to war, and your experience is Hollywood, you might be a bit shocked when they start dying. At the end of the day, it isn’t real to them.
But it’s all too real to the inhabitants of the Middle East, who have been subject to Western sponsored blitzkrieg and massacre for decades–from the ongoing nakbah against the Palestinians, through Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the US arming of Iraq in the 8 year war against Iran, the 1991 Gulf ‘War’, and subsequent economic genocide of UN sanctions on Iraq–not to mention the West’s backing for the dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. All of this has been witnessed first hand by Fisk, who believes the Muslim world has shown incredible restraint in the face of all this oppression:
I’m surprised 9-11 didn’t happen before, that it took that long. Now, whether that is because it took a lot of planning, I don’t know, but I am amazed that you can knock on a front door in the West Bank and not have them slap you in the face–instead of that, they offer you in for coffee and a meal. Can you imagine putting it the other way around–if we were being bombed and occupied by Arab armies and a friendly Arab reporter turned to chat, I don’t know if I would open the door; would you?
The true extent of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan has been masked by the massive use of mercenaries–hidden from the troop figures. Estimates suggest 1000 have been killed in Iraq alone. Fisk is one of very few journalists to call them by their name, as opposed to the “contractor” euphemism:
“Just as the wall is called a fence instead of a wall, and it’s a neighbourhood not a settlement, so these are now contractors rather than mercenaries. I’ve always called them mercenaries. When they say two ‘contractors’ have been murdered, the idea that they are going around in an armoured humvee loaded with weapons doesn’t come into the brain pod immediately does it?”
What is your experience with these mercenaries?
I noticed that in 2003, they were popping up with belts loaded with machine gun bullets in the hotel I was in. It was obvious they were going to attract attacks like honey. So I went to some of them and said “look, for god’s sakes, can’t you just keep your weapons in your room?” – in those days, you weren’t being attacked in the street – “you’re making this out to be a barracks–you’re endangering yourselves and you’re endangering us” And this guy walked up to me with two rifles–he’d overheard the conversation–and he said, “well when you’re in trouble mate, don’t come asking me for help”. I said, “I don’t want your fucking help, I want you to leave.”
But they didn’t leave. And the big excuse for staying now is, of course, the looming spectre of civil war. Is there, then, a functional value to the occupation of the “civil war theory”?
The first man I ever heard mention the danger of civil war in Iraq was Dan Semor, spokesman for the occupying power in the Green Zone in August 2003. No one had ever heard about the danger of civil war before, no Iraqi ever mentioned it. I remember thinking, what are they trying to do, frighten the Iraqis into obedience?
I’m not suggesting that the American military are trying to stir up sectarian strife, but it’s not impossible that there are certain institutions operating either at one remove–i.e. with Iraqis or not – in order to get militias to fight each other rather than fight the Americans. The French did that in Algeria–it’s a fact. I don’t know if the same thing is happening in Iraq, but given everything else that’s gone on–murder, torture, etc–who knows?
But you don’t actually have to set off car bombs to do this. Look at the way we as journalists publish all these maps, you know–Shi’ites at the bottom, Sunnis in the middle, Kurds at the top. The British did the same in Belfast – green for Catholics, Orange for protestants, medium sherry colour for mixed areas, for people who are inconsiderate enough to marry across the religious divide. But we don’t, obviously, do these ethnic maps about Birmingham or Bradford or Washington. I could draw you an ethnic map of Toronto, with the suburb of Mississauga green for Muslim. But they wouldn’t print it. Because in our superior, civilised Western society, we don’t acknowledge it. In their society, we spend our time pointing it out to them. I was in New York some months ago, and on the front cover of Time was “How to tell a Sunni from a Shia.” Can you imagine it? And one of the ways was look at the licence plate of the car. So, you know, we contribute to civil strife, by constantly saying, “look at the guy in the next village”. So you don’t need to set up car bombs to divide people, you can do it quite successfully just by constant repetition – civil war, Shiites, militias, Sunnis, power. You create the narrative. And then in due course, people fall into line because it is the only one they get.
I once asked the brother of s Sunni dentist who had been shot dead, “So, will there be civil war?” He replied, “Why do you people want us to have a civil war? I’m married to a Shi’ite–do you want me to kill my wife?” He said, “We’re not a sectarian society, we’re a tribal society–the Duleimis have got lots of Sunnis and Shias.” And that was a response, you see, to an idea that had been set off by Dan Senor, the official spokesman for the occupying power.
Unfortunately, the sectarian lines are becoming clearer in Iraq by the day, with the US army building walls to create separate ghettoes in Baghdad, and with the Kurdish north now negotiating its own oil deals. The Western imposed solution for Bosnia was full-scale ethnic partition. Will this be the future of Iraq?
Bosnia was in Europe, so eventually, we wanted to switch the war off. Iraq is a different matter–we’re in Iraq for oil. If the national product of Iraq was asparagus, we would not be there, I promise. There are parallels with Bosnia, not least indifference towards the Muslim victims–we did nothing for them until the war had consumed a quarter of a million of them–and we don’t care about the Iraqis. But I think there are big differences with Bosnia. There are more parallels, I think, between the NATO-Serb Kosovo war, because that is where we got people used to the idea that bombing civilian trains on railway bridges, bombing hospitals, bombing TV stations was OK. So when we hit lots of civilians in Iraq, it was “well, we were doing that back in Serbia, weren’t we?”. We bombed Al-Jazeera in Kabul, they bombed Al-Jazeera in Baghdad, which was not even an Iraqi station. So I think the Kosovo war started off the acceptability of doing these things.
Whatever the occupier’s plans for Iraq, and whatever barbarities it imposes, one thing is for sure–the future of that country is not entirely in their hands. Even with their full scale promotion of sectarian violence in 1950s Algeria, the French were still forced to leave. The dilemma for the US in Iraq, as Fisk puts it, is that “they must leave, they will leave, but they can’t leave–that is the equation that turns sand into blood”. For those who want to understand this process, and what it means in human terms, rather than simply be lied to about it, Robert Fisk’s reporting is a good place to start.
DAN GLAZEBROOK writes for the Morning Star newspaper and is one of the co-ordinators for the British branch of the International Union of Parliamentarians for Palestine. He can be contacted at email@example.com