One of the earliest philosophers to wrangle with the blurred relationship between language and reality was the Buddhist Nagarjuna. He contested that reality is constructed by language as opposed to language essentially imitating reality.
But he was only one of many. Not one school of philosophy, whether in its conventional Western definitions nor in the more broad-spectrum Eastern schools, failed to battle with the subject. Not that philosophers enjoy killing time, but the issue at hand was and remains most relevant.
Take as an example the bloody clashes in the southern Iraqi city of Basra between angry Iraqi protesters, police and British forces on September 19, where several Iraqis, including a police officer were killed. Two awesome, although entirely contradicting narratives emerged from the ashes of the Basra battle.
One narrative was visual, largely suppressed by the US media, and was aired repeatedly on Arabic television channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The visual narrative was of violent clashes between mostly unarmed yet enraged Iraqi protesters and British forces, a British soldier fighting fire, bloodstained Iraqi police officers and so forth. There was also the total destruction of an Iraqi police station, almost completely razed after British armored vehicles moved in to ‘rescue’ two of its agents who were arrested by Iraqi police for what was described as ‘suspicious’ conduct.
By considering for a brief moment the unlawful war, occupation and the surrounding political context, only one plausible conclusion can be realized: Iraqis see the British forces in Basra as occupiers and the latter behaves as such. There can be no other way to fathom or articulate that relationship.
Such a conclusion however, can only be achieved under unreserved objectivity, a task of which most of us seem incapable. Thus the written and spoken element becomes indispensable and is deployed generously to help construct or deconstruct the events.
But piecing together and then relaying what may seem as too overwhelming or baffling a reality requires an unfaltering commitment to objectivity as well, a quality that has become the antithesis of today’s politics and journalism.
So how did the bloody images of Basra become deconstructed to create their own separate reality? First, consider the two sides involved: the ‘democratically’ elected Iraqi authorities in southern Iraq and the British military.
The governor of Basra denounced the British attack. He described it as “barbaric, savage, and irresponsible.” Local police authorities called the British aggression ‘terrorist’ Iraqi police acted according to what they perceived as proper under the following circumstances: two foreign looking men, dressed in traditional Arabic clothes refused to yield at a police checkpoint and opened fire at local police, killing and wounding several, while driving a vehicle that was allegedly laden with ‘explosives’.
But Iraqis are not and never were a match for British propaganda, injected by the state and parroted by both British and American media.
While there is no denial that both narratives have been inconsistent at times, and the official account, particularly in some British media, received due scrutiny, the overwhelming interpretation of the events by both sides was largely consistent.
However, the British government and military seemed to comment on an entirely different event. Despite initial confusion, both eventually streamlined their account: The two soldiers were on a ‘routine’ mission, we were told; they were unlawfully detained; they were transferred to a nearby house that is owned by members of Iraqi militias, which are backed by Iran; that the latter is irate at the British efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear program, thus the Iranian interest in destabilizing Iraq is the Mullahs’ way of evading international pressure, etc.
The official British story defies common sense. Why would the Iraqi authorities that derive their legitimacy from the British and American military presence pose any threat to the lives of the two British soldiers? Was that threat so imminent that it required such a fantastic show of force to further humiliate the already scorned Iraqi police and murder several people? Why were the British ‘special forces’ dressed in Arabic-style disguise?
The great majority of British and American newspapers, with a few exceptions, chose to avoid any critical inquiry into the British government and military account. Rather, they questioned the integrity of the local Iraqi authority and selectively chose to quote the forgiving statements of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari, who classified the entire episode as all too common in such times. More, Al-Jaafari, asked the British to stay a while longer to help Iraq win its fight against the ‘terrorists’.
Meanwhile, crafty media ‘experts’ in expensive suits assumed the role of recycling the latest British military invention infused by the Basra clash: the Iraqi police have been ‘infiltrated’ by Shia militia, particularly the extremists of Badr Brigade and followers of Moqtada Sadr. Now media pundits are diligently working to establish a direct link that will conveniently indict Iran.
Language has once again deconstructed what visuals originally portrayed. The desperate attempt of Iraqis to assert a level of sovereignty in their own country becomes a mega conspiracy, where the aggressor and the victim swap roles in a twisted sort of way.
Once language managed to skew reality in a favorable direction, British defense secretary John Reid returned to his style of positive diplomacy: “We will not cut and run and we will not leave the job half done. We stand by Iraq when times are tough and we will be a committed friend, not a fair-weather friend.”
The above is yet more proof that Reid and his boss are likely to carry on living in the shadow of their own reality, well equipped with ready-to-serve misleading language, which is in turn readily embraced by the media and its self-designated experts and decoders.
The Iraqi reality, however, is too grim to bear any resemblance to what the British and Americans are disseminating. The bloody images, the ever rising death toll, the mounting insurgency are all indicative of an occupied country revolting, where the line between occupied and occupier is most clearly manifest.
Ramzy Baroud, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He can be reached at [email protected]