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Of Persian snake charmers: Racism and global hegemony

The author, citing recent remarks about Persians, bemoans the fact that racism is alive and well in diplomacy.

Last Modified: 10 Oct 2013 12:13
Murtaza Hussain

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.
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In his address to the UNGA earlier this month, Netanyahu used language completely alien to the typically careful discourse of international diplomacy when talking about Iran, writes Hussain [AP]

In 1920, the American historian Theodore Lothrop Stoddard published his famous work "The Rising Tide of Colour Against White World Supremacy". The book is notable today for its frank discussion of the central role that racism played in geopolitics; especially in the context of the Western imperial project in Asia and Africa. In it Stoddard wrote:

"The brown world, like the yellow world, is today in acute reaction against white supremacy … when faced by non-white opposition, white men have in the past instinctively tended to close their ranks against the common foe …. Future generations have a right to demand of us that they shall be born white in a white man's land."

While we rightly recoil today from the crude racial categorisations espoused by Stoddard, during his time, such views were extremely popular and were openly echoed at the highest echelons of political power. President Woodrow Wilson argued to his cabinet in 1917 that the United States must "keep the white race strong against the yellow" and that "white civilisation and its domination of the planet rested largely on our ability to keep this country intact".

Going further, President Theodore Roosevelt openly discussed the benefits of "the expansion of the peoples of white, European, blood during the past four centuries" and stated that in his view: "democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portion of the new world's surface".

That such men were committed military imperialists flowed naturally from their worldview; one in which the races of the world were organised into a clear hierarchy and where it was their prerogative to brutally subjugate all others.

While it has become impolitic to publicly express the same views today, contemporary events suggest that just beneath the surface the same impulses motivate many supposedly rational advocates of military action against "the brown world" in our own era.

In this are clear echoes of the stunningly ignorant claim - popularised during the era of the Iraq War - that 'Arabs only understand force', and that thus uniquely among human beings, they are incapable of appreciating empathy or conciliation.

Of Persian snake charmers

Where Roosevelt and Wilson inflicted the brunt of their violence on the peoples of Asia and on the "coloured" populations of their own nation, their modern heirs have in recent years directed their own state violence overwhelmingly against the peoples and nations of the Middle East.

The neoconservative hawks who were the architects of Iraq's destruction - apparently unfazed by their ghoulish record in this regard - have in recent years set their sights on the nation of Iran as their next target. To this end, crippling sanctions - designed to literally "take the food out of the Iranian peoples' mouths" - have been implemented in an effort to inflict maximum suffering on the civilian population and to generate favourable conditions for another war. Disregard for the basic humanity of the many Iranians who will die in the course of such policies is a necessary accomplice to this project.

However, in recent weeks it would seem that a major setback has occurred to the neoconservative plan for another US war. A new Iranian government - conciliatory in its tone where its predecessor was shamelessly provocative - has come to power with the stated intention of reaching peaceful detente with the United States. Such a development necessarily makes the possibility of war more remote, and, to the chagrin of the neoconservatives, these overtures appear to have been cautiously welcomed by the administration of President Barack Obama.

With their prized new war seemingly snatched from their grasp, it has been remarkable to watch the vast tantrum of anger and indignation among some hawks, in which the same racist beliefs which characterised past imperialism have bubbled back to the surface with remarkable speed.

From warnings to "beware of Persian snake charmers", to allegations that for Iranians "deception is part of their DNA", the prospect of a peaceful detente with Iran has brought out a seemingly inexhaustible cavalcade of frankly racist rhetoric.

As part of this campaign, long-time Pentagon official and neoconservative stalwart Harold Rohde has published a helpful primer on the apparently-monolithic "Iranian mind" and the dangers it poses in any negotiation. According to Rohde:

"Compromise (as we in the West understand this concept) is seen as a sign of submission and weakness. When the West establishes itself as the most powerful force and shows strength and resolve, Iranians will most likely come on board ... it is for this reason that measures of good-will and confidence-building should be avoided at all costs."

In this are clear echoes of the stunningly ignorant claim - popularised during the era of the Iraq War - that "Arabs only understand force", and that thus uniquely among human beings, they are incapable of appreciating empathy or conciliation.

Similarly, according to this overtly racist argument, Iranians too are unlike any other humans on Earth and are in fact more akin to animals or small children who must be shown firm discipline as opposed to respect or decency in the course of any negotiation.

With remarkably ignorant worldviews such as these informing their strategies, it is unsurprising that US foreign policy in the Middle East has been such a catastrophic failure over the past decade.

Dispatches from 'the villa in the jungle'

On October 1, Binyamin Netanyahu attended the UN General Assembly to deliver an unapologetically aggressive, demeaning and hostile speech directed towards the just-elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. In his address Netanyahu used language completely alien to the typically careful discourse of international diplomacy, calling Rouhani "a wolf in sheep's clothing", characterising him as an untrustworthy liar, and bizarrely stating at one point that "Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake [uranium] and eat it too". It is difficult to imagine such language openly directed against any other elected leader in a diplomatic forum such as this.

But as a representative of Ehud Barak's "villa in the jungle" and the state that Theodor Herzl correctly said would exist as "a rampart of Europe against Asia", Netanyahu was not alone in his overt condescension towards Iran and the Iranian people. A senior Israeli official also advised his US counterparts not to trust any Iranian offers of dialogue as "Persians have been using these [duping] tactics for thousands of years, before America came to be".

The darkly humorous coda to this spectacle was Netanyahu's suggestion - days later - that  he would "consider" taking a phone call from Rouhani if one were proffered. Ostensibly, this consideration would come only if the Iranian president were to grovel on his knees and beg for such an opportunity, even in the wake of Netanyahu's unabashed insults and threats towards him.

It's not enough that Rouhani says he wants peace; he must first acquiesce to the absolute subjugation and humiliation of the nation of Iran as a precondition for any negotiation.

Live on your knees

In this episode one can glimpse a microcosm of a dynamic that has long been at play in the Middle East. For many, what is desired with Iran is not peaceful negotiation but rather total capitulation. In this view detente would be a failure; what is required is to utterly crush any "Asiatic" country that dares to wield an independent foreign policy in a region otherwise populated by pitiful satrapies.

It's not enough that Rouhani says he wants peace; he must first acquiesce to the absolute subjugation and humiliation of the nation of Iran as a precondition for any negotiation. Indeed, regardless of the government in power, Iran has long been the target of similar malice whenever it has sought to assert its own rights as a sovereign nation.

In the 1950s the liberal, secular, and democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh was faced with almost identical rhetoric as that which Rouhani's government receives today. Before being deposed by a brutal CIA-orchestrated coup, Mossadegh was described in Western press accounts as "an incorruptible fanatic", "impervious to common sense" and a man who by nationalising his country's oil had "issued a defiant challenge that sprang out of a hatred and envy almost incomprehensible to the West".

That Mossadegh was an admirer of the US and a committed democrat made little difference. For the crime of asserting Iran's right to its own natural resources, he and his elected government were utterly destroyed. As Christopher de Bellaigue noted in his seminal work on the topic: "there was disquiet across the white world", about Mossadegh's "show of Oriental bad form".

The religiosity or lack thereof of Mossadegh's rule was completely irrelevant in this formulation. For this reason it can be seen why contemporary Iranian religious leaders such as Ali Khamenei - born out of the blood and ashes of Iran's recent past - have so forcefully and repeatedly sought to convey the message to the United States that: "We are not liberals like [Salvador] Allende or Mossadegh whom the CIA can snuff out."

Racism and war

As much as it did during the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the prime impulse behind military imperialism (in addition to seemingly insatiable greed) has always been a barely concealed racism towards the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Liberal Western thinkers have at certain points in history succeeded in checking the most heinous and self-destructive impulses of the hawks who feed off of endless war, but they persist in their machinations nonetheless. As the Iraq War demonstrated, such actors can still exert their will onto the world when circumstances are right.

While we like to believe the polite fiction that our policymakers are generally intelligent, reasoned and rational, at certain moments the mask slips and we learn that of the crude bigotry and arrogance which informs much war advocacy. We discover that the reason war is apparently both necessary and desirable is due to the deficient DNA of foreigners; to their incurable Oriental untrustworthiness and their fanatic desire to assert their own national sovereignty.

While in many ways civilisation has matured, the racist impulse - so clearly articulated by Roosevelt and Wilson - to subjugate and destroy the disobedient peoples of far flung lands has not dissipated in some quarters. It would be prudent to recognise it today for what it is, lest the horrendous crimes of the recent past be repeated.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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