The banality of goodism

In 1955, Aimé Césaire, the great anti-colonial poet and agitator, published his classic Discours sur le colonialisme.

‘Colonisation,’ Césaire argued, ‘dehumanises even the most civilised man; … colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; … the coloniser, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.’

The C-word sounds crass in the context of Western involvement in Afghanistan: this is, we’re told, a temporary deployment, nothing more. Colonialism implies rapine and despoliation, whereas our intervention in Afghanistan was framed, right from the start, by ostentatious declarations of high-mindedness.

Nonetheless, with the occupation now lasting twice as long as the Great War, it seems well past time to investigate the domestic consequences of what’s becoming a decidedly neocolonial conflict: to ask, like Césaire, not only what we have done to Afghanistan but what Afghanistan has done to us.

Let us begin at the beginning, back when even the tabloid polemicists sold the Afghan intervention, not as a down payment on the US alliance, but an impeccably ethical endeavour.

‘Australian military forces are joining a long-overdue fight against evil,’ wrote Piers Akerman in the Sunday Telegraph in October 2001, in a typical column. ‘Is that too difficult to understand?’

But if conservatives invoked a rhetoric of morality, liberal supporters of the invasion went considerably further, developing that rhetoric into an expansive theory about the ethical basis of intervention: a philosophy that we might call ‘goodism’. In Australia, for instance, the late Pamela Bone articulated an explicit case for understanding the entire War on Terror as an avowedly feminist struggle. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘is international public opinion not outraged at the treatment of women in Islamic fundamentalist societies? Why is it easier for millions of people around the world to see America as the great evil, rather than the countries in which governments ignore such horrific abuses of women?’

For Bone, our own remarkable decency was so extensive as to hinder us from fully appreciating the tremendous wickedness of our enemies.

‘Can we,’ she asked, ‘in our niceness, stop telling ourselves they are justified in their hatred of us?’

We could and we did, and the wars went ahead.

Today, discussions around Afghanistan are still enveloped in the goodist fantasy constructed by Bone and her co-thinkers: particularly, the notion of the NATO invasion of Afghanistan as an unprecedented feminist venture. When, for instance, in October 2010, Paul Howes lauded the Afghan mission in the Daily Telegraph, he explained:

Before the invasion, women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan were forced to keep themselves remain [sic] almost completely covered at all times in public. … Clearly, something had to be done for these people.

Curiously, no-one mentions that the disastrous Soviet intervention between 1979 and 1989 could have been glossed in almost identical terms.

The Russian war in Afghanistan really began when the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took power in a military coup. The PDPA, almost at once, faced a determined revolt. And what fuelled the insurgency? ‘It was the Kabul revolutionary Government’s granting of new rights to women,’ explained the New York Times, ‘that pushed Orthodox Moslem men in the Pashtoon villages of eastern Afghanistan into picking up their guns.’

The uprising spread throughout the country, with the mujahideen consistently targeting unveiled women and girls in schools. A palace coup inside the government made no difference and the regime appealed to Moscow to intervene.

Before and during the Russian occupation, in other words, Afghanistan was not, in fact, one of the ‘countries in which governments ignore … horrific abuses of women.’ Indeed, by the end of the Soviet intervention, 60 per cent of those teaching at the University of Kabul were women. There were women serving – even commanding – in the Afghan army. There were female doctors, and nearly half a million girls in school.

All of that disappeared with the mujahideen victory.

One might think, then, that the goodist apologia for NATO’s intervention – the invasion as a just war in defence of Afghan women – applies with even more force to the Soviet occupation.

Except that, of course, the Russian invasion mission became a moral and political catastrophe. The story of that venture’s descent into the abyss casts contemporary goodism in quite a different light, which is perhaps why it’s a tale almost never told.

The PDPA was forged by a tiny layer of Afghan professionals – teachers, engineers, lecturers and the like. Its cadre was schooled in the Soviet Union and returned determined to modernise their homeland, a country where half of all children died before age five and the average life expectancy was 40 years. The new government promised to redistribute land, cancel debts for peasants, mandate compulsory education (for girls as well as boys) and reduce the bride price that encouraged women to be sold as chattel.

So far, so goodist.

Yet the PDPA lacked any support in rural Afghanistan. The tertiary-educated activists the government sent into the villages looked down upon the illiterate peasants they’d ostensibly come to help, while for their part the villagers harboured a deep – and historically justified – suspicion of outsiders in general, and governments in particular. Not surprisingly, unfamiliar notions like secular coeducation were not immediately embraced.

The regime, acutely conscious of the tenuousness of its rule, responded to dissent with coercion: arresting – and often torturing or killing – rebellious peasants. As the revolt intensified, the government unleashed the full might of the military – and, in the process, managed to unite the most oppressed of the nation with the very landowners who kept them poor.

When the Soviets invaded, they retread from many of the PDPA’s reforms – stressing, for instance, their abiding respect for Islam. But they also massively escalated the war. Over the next decade, the Russians devastated Afghanistan until about two-thirds of the entire population had been killed, wounded or forced to flee, leaving the country a shattered wreck, and paving the way for the agonies that followed.

Of course, the Soviet Union did not invade to promulgate feminism. Afghanistan has been a plaything of great powers for a century or more, and the Russians worried that, if the PDPA fell, they’d lose control of the region. But Soviet propaganda about defending the people’s ‘social gains’ cemented for ordinary Afghans an association between, on the one hand, secularism, modernity and the rights of women and, on the other, military occupation, torture and indiscriminate bombing.

If nothing else, the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan should serve as an antidote to backslapping nonsense about the novelty of the US-led invasion. Imperial powers have, in fact, always cloaked their invasions in sanctimony. As far back as the Boer War, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury rationalised the bloody conflict that pioneered the concentration camp as ‘a war for democracy’.

‘We seek no goldfields, we seek no territory,’ he assured the world – even though, as Bertrand Russell quipped, Britain still – strangely – ended up acquiring both.

More specifically, goodist-style contrasts between the civilised mores of the imperium and the incorrigible barbarism of the natives are as old as colonialism itself. The gunboat in the harbour always arrived for the ostensible benefit of the ‘new-caught, sullen peoples’ rather than the East India Company. Suttee in India, human sacrifice in the Americas, cannibalism in the Pacific, foot binding in China and so on: these (undeniably horrific) phenomenaon were all used, at various times, to rationalise conquest and to justify dispossession.

Césaire made the point particularly eloquently in Discours sur le colonialisme. Surveying Western accounts of the evils worked by native peoples, he wrote:

The conclusion is inescapable, compared to the cannibals, the dismemberers, and other lesser breeds, Europe and the West are the incarnation of respect for human dignity. But let us move on, and quickly, lest our thoughts wander to Algiers, Morocco, and other places where, as I write these very words, so many valiant sons of the West, in the semi-darkness of dungeons, are lavishing upon their inferior African brothers, with such tireless attention, those authentic marks of respect for human dignity which are called, in technical terms, ‘electricity,’ ‘the bathtub,’ and ‘the bottleneck.’

Today, Algiers and Morocco have been supplanted by Iraq and Afghanistan, and ‘the bathtub’ replaced by ‘the waterboard’, but the argument remains unchanged.

The Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan was not – any more than its Soviet counterpart – undertaken to liberate women. Yet the Americans, like the Soviets, have made genuine efforts to establish more opportunities for girls. Not surprisingly, these efforts have not been crowned with success.

And why would they be? If the Afghan cadre of the PDPA could not impose reforms at gunpoint, what chance do foreign invaders have? ‘The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician’s head,’ Robespierre once explained, ‘is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign country to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries.’

Where the PDPA were, at least, locals, the Americans come from an entirely different culture. More importantly, where the PDPA resorted to force only in the face of rural non-compliance, the US arrived in the country via military conquest, and maintain their narrow foothold by constant demonstrations of their capacity for deadly violence. Why would we expect the Afghan people to disassociate the foreign clinics that heal their children from the foreign bombs that kill their children, when everyone knows that the first are only possible because of the second, that the schools belong to the same mission as the Predator drones?

Such is the paradox of goodist intervention: liberal reform depends on precisely those measures that render liberal reform impossible.

For instance, US officials and Western pundits urge President Hamid Karzai to dissociate himself from the corruption of his immediate family and their cronies, suggesting (not unreasonably) that an administration of more-or-less overt gangsters might lack a certain democratic credibility. Yet, according to the New York Times, Ahmed Karzai – the President’s brother, a notorious drug lord, and the focus of numerous graft allegations – has worked for the CIA for the last eight years. The Washington Post subsequently reported that the agency, in fact, bankrolls numerous representatives of the Karzai court, despite, as the paper tactfully puts it, ‘concerns that it is backing corrupt officials and undermining efforts to wean Afghans’ dependence on secret sources of income and graft’.

Why is the CIA doing this? Because, as the Soviets knew, an unpopular occupation cannot survive without its flunkies, with the hired informant as fundamental as the punitive raid and the detention centre. That paradox again: on the one hand, bribing government officials undermines the Karzai regime; on the other, the Karzai regime depends upon a counterinsurgency campaign that, in its turn, rests on bribery and corruption.

None of this would have surprised Césaire.

‘They pride themselves on abuses eliminated,’ he wrote. ‘I too talk about abuses, but what I say is that on the old ones – very real – they have superimposed others – very detestable. They talk to me about local tyrants brought to reason; but I note that in general the old tyrants get on very well with the new ones, and that there has been established between them, to the detriment of the people, a circuit of mutual services and complicity.’

But Césaire also makes another point, noting that imperial ventures necessarily reshape not only the victims but also the perpetrators.

In an oft-quoted passage, he declared:

We must study how colonisation works to decivilise the coloniser, to brutalise him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilisation acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a centre of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and interrogated, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.

To update the argument, you need only ask what political and cultural consequences you’d expect internationally from, say, the Bush administration’s normalisation of torture against Muslim detainees; the construction of Guantanamo to house Muslim prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial; the launch of a pre-emptive invasion, a war declared unlawful by most legal scholars, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Muslim; the routinisation of assassinations and other extrajudicial killings of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen; and the persistent refusal to hold anyone accountable for any of these. Is it not likely that such measures would establish throughout the industrialised world certain ideas about Muslims and their place, certain notions about how they might be legitimately treated?

Let’s look, as Césaire suggests, to Europe.

In Holland, Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, seems set to play kingmaker for a new government. Wilders advocates banning the Koran, prohibiting immigration from Muslim nations and forbidding the construction of mosques. In Switzerland, a historic centre of tolerance, the state has constitutionally banned the building of new minarets. In Austria, the Freedom Party (yes, it’s a popular name), which polled 17.5 per cent at the most recent election, wants to do the same, while also outlawing face veils. France has already prohibited the burqa; similar laws are mooted in Italy and Belgium. The English Defence League marshals shaven-headed hooligans to chant ‘Muslims out!’ in towns across the nation. In Germany, former finance minister Thilo Sarrazin sold, in a month, 600 000 copies of a book claiming that high fertility rates among the Muslim community have diluted the country’s collective IQ.

Crucially, this rising tide of prejudice and hatred correlates not with anything Muslims might have done but rather with what is being done against them. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a time when you’d expect anti-Muslim sentiment to peak, George Bush – scarcely a model of sensitivity – visited an Islamic centre to absolve Muslims of collective responsible for the atrocity and declare Islam a religion of peace. Today, that entirely asinine statement – delivered, mind you, while the rubble of the towers still smouldered – would be considered electoral poison by senior Republicans, many of whom have embraced hysterical protests not only against the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ but against the construction of mosques as far apart as Tennessee and California.

It is difficult to hear the ugly clamour of the new Islamophobia and not recall the traditional slurs against Judaism during Europe’s darkest days. Jews, said the bigots of the early twentieth century, were eternal foreigners, disloyal interlopers who bred uncontrollably and immigrated in swarms. They kept to themselves, they ate strange foods, they wore odd clothes, and their sinister religion mandated their involvement in criminality and political extremism.

Yes, today’s discourse against Islam marshals an identifiably pogromist vocabulary and, in Europe at least, it swells the ranks of groups with historic ties to the far Right or even neo-fascism. But Islamophobia also represents something new, since it deploys the ancient tropes of bigotry not in the form of blood-and-soil racialism, but in the politically correct vocabulary of contemporary liberalism.

Geert Wilders, for instance, says that Mohammed, were he alive today, would be hunted down as a terrorist. But Wilders insists that his is a fundamentally tolerant organisation. ‘Whatever colour or sexual preference,’ he explained to an interviewer, ‘whatever people have, it doesn’t matter as they’re all welcome in our party and we don’t discriminate in any way.’

The anti-Islam ideologues might be feminist (Ayaan Hirsi Ali), atheist (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) or even assertively homosexual (Pim Fortuyn famously denied being a racist on the basis of his penchant for Moroccan boys) but their formulations invariably contrast secular modernity – multicultural, tolerant of women’s rights, etc. – against Islamic backwardness and totalitarianism. Thus the group Stop the Islamisation of Europe can use as its slogan: ‘racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.’

How does this work? It’s useful to return to Australia where Islamophobia, though clearly rising, has not yet been entirely mainstreamed, and its manifestations are rawer and thus more easily analysed. The sporadic agitation against burqa wearing in this country seems, on one level, almost literally insane, resting upon hallucinogenic panics about purdah-wearing bank robbers and the like. When, in the Age, Sushi Das recently demanded guidelines ‘governing face covering for people such as teachers, doctors and magistrates’, those not inflicted by the Islamophobic pathogen might have wondered in exactly which jurisdiction the gentle burghers of Melbourne felt sufficiently menaced by burqa-garbed magistrates so as to require legislative redress.

Significantly, while right-wing provocateurs like Cory Bernardi and Fred Nile have endorsed a ban, the most consistent agitation has come from self-proclaimed feminists like Das. How to explain the peculiarity of a movement that historically campaigned for women’s right to dress howsoever they liked metastasising into a push for female dress codes? What does this evolution tell us about Islamophobia today?

The prospect of an Australian burqa ban seems to have been first raised by Pamela Bone. ‘Muslim women want and are entitled to be part of the society,’ she wrote in September 2005:

But by insisting on wearing the veil they are as good as guaranteeing they won’t be. It’s hard to think many businesses requiring face-to-face contact are going to give a burka-clad woman a job.

No, you can’t ban women wearing the veil in the street. But schools, businesses and public offices have dress codes and are entitled to insist on them. It would be a very good thing if Muslim schools, which are taxpayer-supported, took the lead in saying to Muslim women: If you want a job, you will have to show your face.

Though Bone’s case was implicitly (and, in parts, explicitly) pitched as an argument with burqa-wearing women themselves, it teetered on – and often fell into – an overt call for coercion. Muslim schools should discourage the burqa and, if they didn’t, they should lose their funding; Muslim women should show their faces – and those that refused should be sacked.

Sushi Das’ column in 2010 illustrates the development of the argument. Compulsion was simply taken for granted – at least, for the aforementioned teachers, doctors and magistrates.

In such roles, seeing a person’s face is crucial for proper and respectful human engagement. A flicker of an expression can tell us so much.

The burqa ban debate is not about robbing people of their identity or wanting to crush Islam. And it is not just about facilitating communication. It’s more than that.

In a society in which we celebrate human rights, promote free institutions and respect representative government, no matter how imperfect those efforts might be, we are entitled to feel proud of our enlightened ways. Preserving and enforcing full rights and benefits to women is a significant achievement of modern society.

Significantly, the ‘we’ that ostentatiously congratulates itself on its enlightenment is explicitly non-Muslim. Das does not seek to convince the burqa wearer: in fact, the Muslim woman is accorded no agency at all. She is not part of the conversation; she is talked about rather than to, an object to be discussed and controlled by liberals ‘proud of our enlightened ways’, not a person making her own decisions about her own life and her own clothing.

In a curious fashion, then, the anti-burqa feminists (we might also have mentioned Elizabeth Farrelly and Virginia Haussegger) become that which they oppose. In the name of combating a garment that, they say, silences women, treats women as objects and excludes women from the public sphere, they … silence women, treat women as objects and exclude women from the public sphere. Ostensibly championing freedom, in practice they seek to deny it.

In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, the great theorist of liberalism, famously explained that restrictions on individual freedom were only legitimate when those liberties harmed others. Since no-one can seriously claim that a handful (a few hundred? a thousand?) of Afghan and African immigrants choosing to wear face veils imperils anyone else in the slightest, you would think that a ban on the burqa self-evidently fails the test.

But Mills also makes certain qualifications.

‘It is,’ he explains, ‘perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. … Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.’

The connection between goodism abroad (humanitarian war) and goodism at home (burqa bans) becomes, then, clearer. The ideologues of Islamophobia are, as they repeatedly ensure us, impeccable liberals – doughty defenders of progress and enlightenment and rights for all. They are, however, liberals who have concluded that ‘free and equal discussion’ doesn’t apply to Muslims, the ‘barbarians’ of our contemporary age. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with such people, and the same immaturity of Islamic faculties that legitimises military occupation overseas also mandates coercion at home.

‘An equation,’ said Césaire. ‘Colonisation = “thing-ification”.’

You can’t tell people what clothes to wear but you can do whatever you want to things, even those in human form.

In his new book Obama’s Wars, the journalist Bob Woodward cites David Petraeus as explaining: ‘You have to recognise that I don’t think you win [the Afghan] war. I think you keep fighting. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.’

Defense Secretary Robert Gates apparently agrees. ‘We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely,’ Woodward quotes him saying. ‘In fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.’

These are extraordinary statements, avowed declarations that Afghanistan belongs to America for the foreseeable future, and that the people there can, indeed, look forward to nothing more than implicit obedience to the self-styled Akbars and Charlemagnes of the contemporary era.

The historic achievement of Césaire’s generation was that, in the course of the anti-colonial struggle, it established the agency of the developing world and the right of its peoples to make their own choices, so much so that, today, when we read dusty texts in which the functionaries of the Raj argue for a permanent British presence by contrasting parliamentary traditions with the savagery of native custom, we recognise at once the racial dynamic at play. By contrast, the historic achievement of goodism lies in the removal of the colonial stigma from the twenty-first century’s neocolonial wars, the normalisation of violence and despotism in the name of social reform, and thus the enablement of a new kind of bigotry.

Oh, of course, that was not the intention. No doubt many of the goodists were – and still are – honestly and sincerely outraged at the Taliban’s savage misogyny, just as many British officers in India genuinely felt repulsion at (for example) the indigenous murder cult of thuggee and other local practices.

But, as the protagonist explains in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American (the classic account of atrocities wrought by good intentions), ‘innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.’

To date, Islamophobia has not, within Australia, become the mass political force it is in Europe and, increasingly, the US. But the basis has been laid. The war in Afghanistan will not deliver liberal reforms to the people of Afghanistan. Rather, the longer it continues, the more it will foster anti-Muslim bigotry throughout the world, a bigotry promulgated under the rubric of liberalism.

From the campaign to civilise barbarism, said Césaire, comes ‘the negation of civilisation, pure and simple’. The tragedy of Afghanistan illustrates precisely what he meant.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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