During the last years of the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev was President (mid- to late nineteen eighties), a group of Soviet journalists was invited to see how a “free press” in the US worked. This was intended to teach the Soviets the ways of the Western media now that Gorbachev had launched glasnost (openness). At the end of the tour, the Soviet journalists were duly impressed, so impressed in fact that one of them asked: “how do you achieve such conformity without breaking people’s fingers?” Among the many myths assiduously peddled by the West is that of its free press. This works in tandem with such other myths as the “free world”, as opposed to the captive nations that lay behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. With collapse of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Soviet Union, the Cold War has also been relegated to cold storage although the mindset has not disappeared; Cuba and Venezuela continue to suffer the ill-effects of a cold war mentality that lingers in the US.
In recent years, a new vocabulary has emerged. The Red Peril has given way to the Green Peril; instead of communists, Muslim fundamentalists are the new enemy out to get the West by indulging in terrorism. “They hate our freedoms” is a mantra popularized by George W. Bush but despite his departure from the White House, it continues to flourish in political Western vocabulary. This was stated as recently as last month by John McCain, the defeated US presidential candidate, when talking about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He argued that these people should not be set free because they hate “the American way of life.” Freedom, as far as McCain and his ilk are concerned, is contingent upon loving the American way of life. And what is that? Eating greasy hamburgers, drinking six packs of beer a day, killing 30,000 people annually with guns and consuming 40 percent of the world’s energy resources while constituting only 5 percent of the world’s population?
With the election of Barack Obama, a new set of myths is being invented to add to the list that has already been peddled for decades. Topping the list is “change”. Repeat a lie often enough and people will begin to believe it. The Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels would be proud. Obama’s rhetoric about change has been swallowed not only by gullible Americans but also by many Western-doting Muslims; for them Bush was an aberration, Obama comes as a breath of fresh air. He will restore “American values”, they argue. How much they are willing to be duped!
Let us examine some of Obama’s rhetoric of change. The day after he was sworn in as president last January, he suspended the military tribunals and said he would shut down Guantanamo Bay within a year. Three months later, he backtracked on the tribunals. On May 13, he announced he had decided against releasing photos of American soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib or posing with Iraqis that had been tortured to death. The excuse he advanced was that this would be used by the enemies to whip up hatred against Americans! There was no hint that the Americans are prepared to improve their atrocious behaviour. A week earlier, his Attorney General Eric Holder had announced that nobody involved in or providing legal justification for torture would be prosecuted. End of story.
Beyond these policy pronouncements and prescriptions, the entire vocabulary is mangled in such a way as to render the English language meaningless. Some of it is of recent origin; other is long-standing. Let us consider some of the expressions used and what they actually mean.
1: Overseas Contingency Operations
Formerly the “global war on terror”, this evoked such negative reaction worldwide and helped recruit so many people in the anti-US struggle that Obama felt it had to be dropped. But one must keep in mind the Orwellian twist inherent in the new expression for the same policy: ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’. It sounds like a military operation launched for legitimate purpose.
2: Collateral damage
This is used when American forces kill innocent civilians anywhere, in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. The impression being conveyed is that this was not intentional. How could anyone accuse Americans of killing civilians even if a million Iraqis have been murdered in the process of liberating them and Afghan civilians continue to die in aerial attacks, the most recent of which was witnessed in Bala Baluk in Afghanistan’s Farah province where some 140 civilians were killed on the night of May 4-5. Last August, in a virtually identical attack, 90 civilians were killed in Heart province on the night of August 21/22. The Americans’ standard response is to first deny any such incident ever occurred; then they admit to a few casualties trying to minimize the impact. The next line of defence is to blame it on the wicked Taliban. Once incontrovertible evidence emerges from those remote parts of the world, the story then changes to the Americans investigating the incident. The American media continue to play a supportive role in this cover up. After many weeks if not months, when the truth is final out, the Americans dismiss it as collateral damage and claim they have issued instructions to field commanders to be more careful in future to avoid such ‘collateral damage’.
3: Afghan Public Protection Program — AP3
This is an ill-considered effort to arm local men against the insurgents has been almost universally condemned within Afghanistan. It is called the Afghan Public Protection Program — AP3 for short. This is bound to lead to civil war in Afghanistan. While the mighty American army equipped with state of the art weapons is unable to defeat the ragtag bands of tribesmen, the US thinks the best way to defeat them is to get them to fight each other. There will be no protection for the Afghans, only more killings.
4: Enhanced interrogation techniques
It is in the matter of the torture of detainees whether at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram or the scores of “ghost” prisons run by the US military globally that the most egregious crimes have been committed. While the US is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture as well as the practice being banned under the Geneva Conven-tions, the Americans have devised new expressions for this practice. It is referred to as ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’. The horror that is conjured up by the use of the word torture is neutralized by this soothing expression. Some of the methods used are: waterboarding that simulates drowning; hanging by wrists from a ceiling for prolonged periods of time lasting several days; holding in extremely stressful positions; keeping in very cold or hot temperatures; depriving of sleep that is euphemistically called the ‘frequent flyer program’, and of course cutting skin with razor blades. According to US officials, torture is defined as any process that results in organ failure or death. Thus, breaking someone’s limbs or slicing their skin with razor blades is not torture.
5: Extraordinary renditions
When the Americans arrest a person and illegally ship him to a third country, this is referred to as ‘Extraordinary rendition’. One must give them credit for creativity; they are always able to come up with exotic expressions that conveniently camouflage the serious nature of the crime being perpetrated. It is illegal to ship people to third countries; the only country where they can be sent to is the one whose citizenship they hold. The US has arrested and kidnapped hundreds, if not thousands, of people to other countries where people have been mercilessly tortured at the behest of the US.
6: Will of the International Community
This is an old expression and predates the vocabulary of the “war on terror”. In the days of the Cold War, the US and its Western allies used the expression, “Free world”. Those that lived in Eastern Europe, appropriately termed the Iron Curtain, were not free. Now a new expression has been coined; it is called the “Will of the International Community”. What or who constitutes the international community? The US, Israel and Britain; the rest of the world does not count. People living outside these three countries are non-persons.
7: Free speech
This is another expression frequently used when attacking Muslims. Western officials, journalists and other commentators claim a divine right to attack Muslims, Islam and their values and make the most outrageous allegations, all in the name of “free speech”. The Prophet of Islam can be denigrated but Muslims must not even protest because if they do, they are being backward and have not imbibed the values of tolerance that are so prevalent in the West.
8: Spreading hatred
The other side of the free speech coin is of people that are accused of spreading hatred. This is invoked when Muslims respond to attacks against them and expose US, Western or Zionist crimes. In fact, there is a direct relation between the champions of free speech on the one hand and their attack on Muslims accusing them of spreading hatred, on the other. Criticism of Israel is immediately conflated with anti-Semitism. This is an attempt to silence critics of Israeli crimes. The same holds true of critics of US or Western policies in the Muslim world. Thus, those who oppose Western imperialism and militarism in Muslim societies are branded as terrorists and people who spread hatred.
This is a propaganda war in which Muslims have no choice but to fight back and hard. Remaining silent or assuming that people will automatically know the truth is not an option. Muslims will have to develop their own media outlets to confront this vicious propaganda. It is not easy but there is no alternative. Muslims will ignore it at their peril.