Comprehending Our Violence: Reflections on the Liberal Universalist Tradition, National Identity and the War on Iraq
Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2007
24 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2006
This essay presents some preliminary thoughts about the linkages between current human rights universalism and the practice of violence in the form of wars and interventions. I draw three parallels that may help us think about the current wars on terror and in Iraq. The first parallel concerns the progress of liberal universalist thought from the Enlightenment period in which a concern for rights coexisted with the justifications for imperialism. In the current era the succeeding line of universalist thought is that of human rights which similarly coexists with the overt and tacit support for violence that deprives some humans of their lives.
The second parallel concerns the use of national identity. In the imperial era, the justification for rights either given or withheld was closely linked to constructions of national identity. Similarly, today there is a resurgence of nationalist discourse in which the construction of U.S. national identity is used to justify the violence that is done against Iraqi citizens. This discourse which constructs the U.S. as ontologically civilized and the Iraqis as barbarians is used to justify the violence that is done to them.
Finally, the last parallel concerns violence in general. During imperialism, the scrutiny for acts of violence was borne largely by the native. Because he was constructed as a barbarian, his violence was made far more obvious as further evidence of his lesser development. In the present circumstances, a similar scrutiny is borne by the Iraqi insurgent while the violence of the coalition forces remains veiled beneath euphemisms like collateral damage. The torture scandal at Abu-Ghraib presented an opportunity to reverse the gaze but because of its interpretation as an aberration that falls squarely outside the "normal" and the failure to widen the debate to other violence, this opportunity was largely lost.
These three parallels taken together suggest that the old liberal hegemonic order of imperialism with its conflicting narratives of rights and oppression has been carried forward and sublimated into a human rights regime. And human rights are now deployed to justify violence against "human rights abusers". Because of this continuity, there is a need to create a new universalism born organically from the struggles of subordinated peoples that eliminates old-order imperialist justifications for the oppression of others while claiming to support human rights.
Keywords: Identity and Human Rights, Torture, War on Iraq, Liberalism and War
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