A Black Perspective on the War

Speech  given at Black People Against the War in the Gulf meeting , 5 April 1991, Race & Class (32/4 April 1991)


This is not our war, this is not the war of Black and Third World peoples. This is not a war for us, this is a war against us wherever we are, whether in Europe, the United States or any part of the Third World. That is my first point Secondly, the terms of debate on which this war is being conducted are not our terms of debate. They are not our questions, they are not our principal concerns. We are not concerned with whether or not Saddam Hussein is a dictator so much as with who put him there. We cannot be concerned with Iraqi small power designs on Kuwait to the exclusion of American big power designs on the Third World that the liberation’ of Kuwait is going to entail. It is not our question whether the incursion into Kuwait and the occupation of Palestine are linked.

It is not our question whether Israel has the right to exist or not. Of course Israel has the right to exist. Israel does exist. It is the one existence that none of us can deny. It exists in our everyday lives. It exists in every consciousness of our being. It exists in the maiming of our children, the dispossession of our old people. the brutalisation of our young. It exists in the decanting of the Palestinian population from Palestine through justifiable homicide, through judicious and judicial imprisonment, through political exile as once the Caribbean was decanted’ of the Arawaks, the Americas of the Indians and Australia of its Aboriginal population.

Israel exists, above in the collective unconscious of the oppressed and the exploited as once that consciousness existed in them. Israel exists, above all, as an object lesson to us that we do not ourselves become oppressors in the name of our oppression. Of course Israel has the right to exist. That is not a problem for us, for Black and Third World people. We do not deny Israel’s right to exist. What we do deny is Israel’s denial of the Palestinians’ right to exist -in Palestine. That for us is the crux of the matter. The rights of the Palestinian people to their land and to their existence —that is central to the concern of Black and Third World peoples in this war and after this war.

As for the question of linking the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that is not really a question for us. Because everything in our lives is linked. The invasion of Kuwait is linked with the occupation of Palestine, the invasion of Lebanon is linked with the occupation of Grenada, the invasion of Panama is linked with the occupation of East Timor. Hunger and famine are linked to exploitation; race and power and poverty are linked. The presence of Third World peoples over here and the presence of multinational corporations in the Third World are linked. They are all links in the chain of imperialism.

And racism and imperialism are linked. We see the links in our everyday lives, we know the links viscerally, in our guts. We have no problem with linkages. Our problem is to stop the white powers-that-from de-linking us from ourselves, detaching us from our histories. That is our problem.

Nor is the question of whether Saddam Hussein is a dictator or not of so much import to us as who put him there. For if he is a dictator, he is a dictator created by, and kept in situ by, American capitalism-like all the dictators of the Third World, like all the authoritarian regimes, pseudo-parliamentary or openly totalitarian, in the Third World in Chile, Haiti, Sri Lanka, South Korea, El Salvador, Guatemala. The names are legion. In every single Third World country almost without exception the powers that rule us are the powers that have been installed by American imperialism and the satraps of American imperialism. Getting rid of our dictators does not get rid of the system that put them there. Black dictatorship and white imperialism are two sides of the same coin. Our problem is to get rid of both Our problem is to decide our own governments, to make our own choices, our own mistakes-and put them right as and when we think fit-to make our own histories. We need to have the political freedom to decide our governments, the economic freedom to make our choices, the cultural freedom to make, and remake, our histories. That is what democracy means to us not the democracy’ that is foisted on us, for our own good, by those who know what is best for us. Not the democracy that pretends to fight a war for democratic values while denying those values in the very act of prosecuting the war. For not only is this war a war of sanitised warfare, bereft of real people, but a war also of sanitised values, bereft of real morality. Not only is this a war being fought on the basis of technology, but our consent to the war is being bought on the basis of technology. The technology that fights the war on our behalf is also the technology that disinforms us as to why we are fighting it. The controllers of the technology of communication condition not only what we see and hear but how we think and feel-or, rather, by conditioning what we see and hear, they make sure that we do not think or feel any differently from them. We are in a time of technological authoritarianism.

Men and women are going off to die in a war that they were led to believe could not be avoided for a lie they were led to believe in. They are as much unwitting cannon fodder as those who died on the fields of Flanders. And foremost among them are the Blacks, the Hispanics and the poor whites, those victims of Reaganite policies who have no employment, no prospects, no way out of the ghetto. Is it any wonder that they should swell the ranks of the so-called volunteer army of the US of A? Or that African-Americans should represent 25 per cent of the fighting force (when they are only 12 per cent of the population) or that they should be the majority in the front line? What choice do they have? What democracy for them?

What, then, if these are not our terms? What are our terms, what are our concerns? How should we look at what is happening today? How should we look at this war from the Black and Third World perspective from the experience of our own history and our own consciousnesses?

What concerns Black and Third World people is not just the war but the new order, the new imperium, which is emerging from the ending of the cold war. I see this war as an interlude or, rather, a rite of passage from the old American imperialism to the new. The ending of the cold war has left the United States the sole super-power in the world. The contestation between the West and the East is over, and the West is free to range over the South, marauding at will. This war,the war with Iraq, is a flexing-of-the-muscles exercise, a casing-the- joint exercise, a testing of the opposition, a sounding of the hangers- on. It is an exercise in establishing the unipolar, monolithic super-power hegemony of the USA. It is a dry run for the second American century, but this time under the pretended aegis of the United Nations.

Remember, once before, when Britain ruled over us, how, by inveigling us into its way of life, its language, its beliefs, it made us, the subject peoples, a party to our own subjugation-the black skin, white masks syndrome? Today, it is not the peoples of the Third World who are being won over but the states of the Third World, and not so much through a cultural imperialism that denotes a way of life as through a cultural imperialism that denotes a way of governing. It is a sort of political cultural imperialism the imperialism, that is, of a political culture which, on the one hand, defines as non-democratic, and therefore untenable, any regime that does not serve Western interests and is prepared, on the other, to overlook, and indeed sustain, the most brazen dictatorships so long as they serve Western interests. And it is that same political culture which, at another level, holds that all nations are equal in the United Nations but that those who serve Western interests are more equal than others. Once more we are being set against each other and made accomplices in our own despoliation.

At the very moment that Western powers have acknowledged that the United Nations has something to say in the settling of international disputes, the United Nations has ceased to say anything to us. From being ineffectual and irrelevant, the UN has now become a pliant tool of American imperialism. And the new uncontested American imperium is going to land the Third World with the rulers that it does not want, a standard of living which is barely above starvation level, and with ecological devastation to keep Western petticoats clean. Only a few weeks ago, a the GATT talks in Geneva, the industrialised countries warned that if Indonesia continued to ban the felling and export of raw logs so as to protect its own environment, the corporations in the USA which needed timber for raw material would be h Indonesia would have to remove its export ban on logging or face trade sanctions. Another aspect of the new imperium was also evidenced at the same talks when William Brock, a senior GATT negotiator, pointed out that ‘We must get away from the anachronism that developing countries need to feed themselves, given the ready availability of US cereals.’ He therefore called for the removal of government subsidies on food production in Third World countries. Let them eat wheat, was his curt message, American wheat!

If the war in the Gulf is a passage to a new political and military order, the GATT talks are the passage to a new economic and commercial order.

But that is not to say that the war in the Gulf is not also an economic and commercial war over the price and availability of petroleum and, therefore, a war about the standard of living of the American peoples and the peoples of the West – and not just because America needs oil for energy, but because Western life-style is petroleum-based. Your shirts, your furnishings, your nylons, your curtains, your fabrics, your insecticides, your fungicides, your fertilisers, your washing-up liquid your detergents are all petroleum-based. The West’s economy is founded on petroleum-based industry, petroleum-based agriculture, petroleum-based life-styles. And the US consumes 25 per cent of the world’s oil while producing only 4 per cent.

It is this political, economic and military penetration of Third World countries by Western governments that has begun once again to dispossess and displace our people and lead to the vast and rapid-fire shift of whole populations in our part of the world-from countryside to town to oil-rich country and to Europe and America. And it is these migrants from the more impoverished parts of the Third World Palestinians, Egyptians, Philippinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Vietnamese-who have built the infrastructure of the sheikhdoms and serve in their homes as servants and slaves. In Kuwait alone there are over 12 million (72 per cent) non-nationals, over half of whom are from the Middle East and over a third from Asia. Given that the population of Kuwait is just over two million, the number of Kuwaitis who actually work must be even less than the number of Kuwaitis who actually vote. And yet no Western commentator on this war has bothered to remark on these Third World workers left stranded and close to starvation in huts and tents, or on the consequences of that to their dependants back home. This is not their war either.

Nor is it the war of the migrants and refugees and asylum-seekers who have been thrown up on the shores of Europe and serve as the flexible and disposable work-force of post-industrial capitalism. And yet it is these people, designated as Pakis or Arabs or Muslims (anybody dark would do to qualify), who are being subjected to an increasingly undifferentiated racism in the media and on the streets. Mosques from Marseilles to Batley have been fire-bombed, women have had their head-scarves torn off in the middle of our city centres, individuals are stopped at random and beaten if they do not denounce Saddam Hussein, Arab community centres are daily receiving death threats.

The arbitrary rounding-up, detention and deportation of Middle East nationals by the government has further sanctioned the idea that we have here in Britain a fifth column, an enemy within. But then anti-Arabism and anti-Islamic sentiments have never been far from the surface of British life as was shown in the Rushdie affair, when everyone from street thugs to politicians and intellectual socialists’, with varying degrees of brazenness and coyness, gave vent to their racist sentiments against Muslims and Arabs. We are once more in the midst of a Crusade against ‘the barbarians’ (the phrase belongs to the Belgian Minister of the Interior).

As a consequence, a the bits and pieces of racist belief have become telescoped into each other, and every stereotype reinforces another. The Arab gets telescoped into the Muslim, Iranians become Arabs, Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalism gets mixed up with oil sheikhs holding the West to ransom, the Turks who clean the streets of Western Europe and provide domestic help to its middle class suddenly become part of an invading army. All Asians are ‘Pakis’, and Paki passes as a synonym for mad Muslim. And all Muslims are Iraqis. 

This new racism makes no distinction between one Black and another, between refugee and settler, between Muslim and Hindu. Our fight, then, is not only against the new imperium, but against the new racism, the anti-Arab racism, the anti-Muslim racism

We are all Muslims now.