Anti-Arab Bias and Ignorance of European History

Europe has no reason to think of itself as absolved of all guilt

Much has been written about the double standards in political commentary regarding the war in Ukraine. This has been on display in the way that Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed (while Arab refugees have found doors closed); that the Ukrainian right to self-determination and resistance to invasion has been supported (while these same rights are denied to Palestinians); and that the USA and Europeans have decried the illegality of invading a sovereign nation (while ignoring our own histories of having done the same to many other countries).

There have been so many examples of these and other instances of double standards, as well as articles calling them out. But one additional and sometimes subtle form of bigotry on display in some comparisons of Ukraine and the Arab World is particularly galling. It requires a response.

The invasion of Ukraine isn’t a solitary blot on an otherwise pure European landscape. Russia is to be condemned for its invasion and Ukrainians deserve their freedom— not because they are Europeans from a “largely peaceful” continent, but because invasion and occupation by bullies are wrong wherever they occur and whoever they are

Here’s an example from a prominent New York Times columnist comparing the world’s response to Russia’s preparation to invade Ukraine with its response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait:

“Kuwait is a small authoritarian emirate, representing few grand political ideals, in a war-torn region. Ukraine is a democracy of more than 40 million people, on what was a largely peaceful continent home to major democracies.”

There is so much that is objectionable in these two sentences; most egregious is the point that underlies the writer’s thinking, i.e., Ukrainians are more deserving of being defended than Kuwaitis. Looking more closely at what he is saying reveals the bias (and ignorance of history) that led to this observation.

We can dismiss the comparative size of the two countries. Size isn’t really the issue; while I have no direct evidence to make this claim, I would feel certain the writer wouldn’t claim that Egypt, because of its size, is more worthy of defence than Israel.

As for the forms of government involved, the writer clearly doesn’t understand that Kuwait, while being a traditional society, has a vibrant political culture, complete with highly competitive parliamentary elections. The parliament has a long history of challenging government ministers, frequently clashing with them on matters of policy and accountability. And while it’s true that Ukraine has a democratically elected executive, its governance has not been without turbulence, the presence of unsavoury characters, and charges of corruption. In any case, the form of government can’t be the measure of a nation’s worthiness to exist or a people’s right to self-determination.

From the above quote, it appears that the Times columnist feels Ukraine is more deserving of support than Kuwait is because Ukraine comes from “largely peaceful Europe” while Kuwait is located in the “war-torn” Arab World— in other words, invasions and violence are to be expected with the Arabs, but not Europeans. In just a few words, the writer demonstrates a willful ignorance of history coupled with a healthy dose of bigotry.

“Largely peaceful?” In the last century, Europeans fought two bloody World Wars in which they killed more than 60,000,000 people on their continent. The first of these wars saw millions of young men sacrificed as pawns in a competition between European powers. This was followed by the birth of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain, which then gave way to an even more deadly war that witnessed an effort to exterminate the Jewish people, mass murders of Poles, Russians, Gypsies, and others, and cruel and indiscriminate mass bombings of cities (by both sides). At war’s end, Europe was divided with the establishment and expansion of the Soviet Union which repressed and murdered millions as it consolidated its control and the brutal suppression of rebellions against its rule. With the end of communist rule, there was more violence in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, coupled with the rise of far-right racist movements in many European countries.

During the last century, when European powers weren’t engaged in murderous conflicts among themselves, they were fighting wars to expand their colonial holdings or, by mid-century, using brutish repression in a last ditch effort to maintain their hold over the colonies they were in danger of losing to independence movements. During this period, millions of Arabs, Africans, and Asians lost their lives seeking to throw off the European colonizers who had conquered their lands, exploited their treasures, and denied them their rights.

But the legacy of “largely peaceful” Europe didn’t end with their departure from the lands they had despoiled. To serve their purposes, European colonial powers drew artificial lines dividing peoples and creating new states out of whole cloth. In other instances, they courted one indigenous community and placed it in a dominant position over others — oftentimes pitting religious, tribal, or ethnic groups against one another. In still others they gave lucrative concessions to compliant partners, allowing them to prosper at the expense of their compatriots. Thus, in almost every region they colonized, European powers left a legacy of division and the seeds of future conflict. The bottom line: Europe hasn’t been “largely peaceful,” and a healthy dose of blame for the Arab World being “war torn” can be found in the way European powers ruled, divided, and distorted the Arab polity.

My intention in writing isn’t to dump on Europe or totally absolve Arabs from responsibility for their current situation. Nor has it been to pick on one New York Times writer, as this same observation has been shared by others. Rather, my purpose has been to make clear that the invasion of Ukraine isn’t a solitary blot on an otherwise pure European landscape. Russia is to be condemned for its invasion and Ukrainians deserve their freedom— not because they are Europeans from a “largely peaceful” continent, but because invasion and occupation by bullies are wrong wherever they occur and whoever they are.

The writer is President of the Arab American Institute


Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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