The enemy of my enemy is not my friend!
Nadje Al-Ali, UK/Iraq
July 22, 2005
For those of us living in London, the recent bombings in the British capital
brought home the daily violence, the horror and fear of millions of people
living in many places around the world. For the first time, it was our
relatives in Iraq who anxiously called to inquire about our health and
well-being, not the other way around as it has been the case for so long.
Right now, Iraq must be the most acutely dangerous place in terms of both
occupation forces as well as militant resistance. Yet people in many other
cities around the world have to live with that daily fear: Whether in
Baghdad, Ramallah, Jerusalem or Kabul, violence is a daily burden on
everyone's mind if not an actual occurrence.
Although many friends I have been politically involved with in the context
of anti-sanctions and anti-war activism agree that the so-called "war on
terror" can not be fought with bombs, only few seem to acknowledge that
neither can we fight US imperialism with violence. This is particularly the
case where most of the victims of this violence are innocent civilians. In
Iraq, for example, thousands of men, women and children have been killed
just because they happen to be passing by, or waiting at a petrol station, a
market, a mosque, in front of a police station or a street at the wrong
time. Can we call the killing of Iraqi civilians, foreign humanitarian
workers (and, I would also add, diplomats) resistance? For me, the idea of
these killings being a necessary if regrettable 'by-product' of the fight
against imperialism is as twisted and perverse as the infamous statement by
Madeline Albright about "a price worth paying" when speaking about the
thousands of Iraqi children dying in the context of economic sanctions and
the attempt to contain Saddam Hussein.
To make it very clear: in my activism and writings, I have been
anti-sanctions, anti-war and anti-occupation. But being against, never meant
automatically being for someone or something. That held true for the
dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in the past as well as for those fighters
terrorizing the Iraqi population today. What I have found so disheartening
and frustrating when participating in anti-war and anti-occupation events
during the past months is the black and white depiction of the world and the
lack of clarity where the Iraqi resistance is concerned. At the recent World
Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul, for example, almost every speaker either began
or finished his or her talk with a similar statement: "We have to support
the Iraqi resistance!" Many speakers added that this was not just a matter
of fighting the occupation inside Iraq but part of a wider struggle against
encroaching neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism and imperialism. But none of
the speakers explained to the jury of conscience, the audience and their
fellow speakers what they actually meant by 'the resistance'.
No one felt it was necessary to differentiate between, on the one hand, the
right of self-defence and the patriotic attempt to resist foreign occupation
and, on the other, the unlawful indiscriminate killings of non-combatants.
Neither did anyone question the motivations and goals of many of the
numerous groups, networks, individuals and gangs grouped all too casually
under 'the resistance'—a term that through lack of clear definition has
been used to encompass various forms of non-violent political oppositions,
armed resistance, terrorism and mafia-type criminality. Again by failing to
explicitly define and differentiate, proponents of the unconditional support
slogan end up grouping together the large part of the Iraqi population
opposing US occupation and engaging in every-day forms of resistance, with
remnants of the previous regime, Iraqi-based Islamist militias, foreign
jihadis, mercenaries and criminals.
Views about armed resistance vary amongst the Iraqi population reflecting
the diversity of Iraqi society, not simply in terms of religious and ethnic
backgrounds as many commentators would like us to believe, but diversity in
terms of social class, place of residence, specific experiences with the
previous regime and the ongoing occupation as well as political orientation.
However, based on talks with friends and family inside as well as various
opinion polls, I would argue that the majority of Iraqis do not translate
their opposition to the occupation into support for militant insurgents
killing Iraqis. I also find it hard to believe that the majority of Iraqis
would actually support the kidnapping, torturing and killing of foreign
workers whatever their occupation.
Ironically it is the lack of security on the streets of Iraqi cities today
that persuades many people, who in principle want US and British forces out
of their country, not to ask for an immediate withdrawal. Obviously the lack
of security is an effect of the recent war and the ongoing occupation. The
latter is without doubt a brutal continuation of an illegal war, having
already killed and maimed thousands of civilians through numerous
conventional and unconventional weapons. US and UK troops have been involved in the systematic torture of prisoners as well as other violations of
international human rights conventions and humanitarian law. But the fact
is that when an Iraqi leaves his or her house in the morning wondering
whether he or she will see their loved ones again, it could either be a
sniper or bomb from the occupation forces or a suicide bomb that could kill
them. To abuse an old cliché, Iraqis are caught between many rocks and many
The culture of violence and the underlying fascist ideology of many of the
groups operating on Iraqi soil today is not a viable alternative to US
imperialism. While we all know that Bush is not about freedom and democracy,
please let's stop calling local and foreign suicide bombers "freedom
fighters". I am not sure how long most of those unconditionally supporting
the resistance today would last inside Iraq if the militant insurgents
responsible for killing and kidnapping Iraqi civilians and foreigners would
There is no doubt that the previous Coalition Provisional Authority and the
various transitional governments have lacked credibility amongst the
majority of the Iraqi population. Reconstruction has been incredibly slow
and fraught with corruption and ill-management. Yet, the seeds for genuine
political transformation, the rebuilding of physical and political spaces
and a non-violent opposition to foreign occupation have been made more and
more impossible by the increasing violence and instability caused by the
insurgence. And there are non-violent ways of resisting: continuous images
of hundred-thousands even millions of Iraqis —men, women and children of
all ages and backgrounds—demonstrating peacefully on the streets of Iraq
would send a very forceful message across the world: a message that could
not be ignored by Washington and London, especially if Iraqis are joined by
people all over the world taking to the streets in solidarity.
At the same time Iraqis, lobbying their own government—as flawed as the
process of election was—through civil society associations, city councils
and various other institutions, can resist foreign encroachment and the
imposition of outside political actors, values and economic systems. Iraqis
at the grassroots level did start to group together, mobilize and resist
non-violently, and they continue to do so. Women activists have been at the
forefront of these actions and initiatives. Yet, the political spaces have
been shrinking not simply as a function of ongoing occupation and the type
of government in place, but also, and crucially, because of the lack of
security caused by violent insurgents.
For those of us concerned about the erosion of women's rights inside Iraq,
Islamist militants pose a particular danger. Many women's organisations and
activists inside Iraq have documented the increasing attacks on women, the
pressure to conform to certain dress codes, the restrictions in movement and
behaviour, incidents of acid thrown into women's faces. and even killings.
It is extremely short-sighted for anyone not to condemn these types of
attacks, but for women this becomes existential. Women and 'women's issues'
have, of course, been instrumentalized—in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq.
We know that both Bush and Blair have tried to co-opt the language of
democracy and human rights, especially women's rights. But them
instrumentalizing women does not mean that we should condone or accept the
way Islamist militants are, for their part, using women symbolically and
attacking them physically to express their resistance.
It is high time to be much clearer about what we should support and what
not. It is high time to abandon the unconditional support for terrorists and
criminals responsible for the killing of Iraqi civilians. It is high time to
acknowledge that Iraqis inside are divided along many different lines and
that glossing over these differences does not help national unity in the
long run. It is high time to seriously look for non-violent means of
resistance to the occupation in Iraq and wider US imperialism. It is high
time to recognize that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
Dr. Nadje Al-Ali is senior lecturer in social anthropology at the Institute
of Arab & Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. She is a founding
member of Act Together: Women's Action on Iraq, and a member of Women in
From Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), July 22, 2005.