by Roya Arab
The first time I encountered terrorism was when I was very young. Holed up in our hotel in the 1970s, the Intercontinental by Hyde Park roundabout, we stared out of our suite onto the emptied wide street as a search was undertaken for the bomb. This was an IRA tactic; they would make claims of bombs to disrupt routine and once in a while there would actually be a bomb. A decade later in the mid 1980s, with the Iranian revolution behind us and now in exile due to my father’s affiliations, I was studying for my A levels. I used to work on Saturdays at major stores in the West End. Each one had a code for when they had received a ‘call’ and staff were to subtly search for bombs. In school, a Spanish friend told me about the Basque separatists in Spain. I then learned about the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, far left groups in Greece and fund-raising for the IRA in dissident Irish-owned bars across North America. On TV, IRA spokespersons were shown with their voices blanked out. These were also the very first voices when the people of Northern Ireland gained expression in the political system.
When I became a mature student of archaeology, distant and recent histories became of great interest to me. By now, in the early 2000s terror was almost synonymous with the Middle East. This really intrigued me – having been educated in the West, it was the IRAs and ETAs I knew about. When we had left, Iran was a secular state. An abiding memory is reaching for our head scarves as we approached the holy city of Qom. Religion was respected, yet modernity embraced. A decade on it was an Islamic Republic (having expelled and expunged the nationalists, socialists, intellectuals and others who helped create the revolution) coming out of an eight year war with Iraq. The Iran and Middle East I left in 1979 was fast changing alliances and the very fabric of its social and political structures. The invasion of Afghanistan by USSR, months after the Iranian revolution and the siege of the Iranian embassy in London by Arab separatists in 1980 heralded decades of devastation, internally and externally operated, haunting the Middle East for some time to come.
1999 North Iran- Visiting Nomads with family and locals (with a red bag on my first visit after 20 years of exile)
Islam was once the home of mystical Sufism, spread over exotic places filled with ancient archaeological remains, diverse cultures and awe-inspiring landscapes and a popular destination for culture vultures and hippies. Now the region seemed solely associated with terror and war. So where had all this terror begun? I asked.
The first terror attack in the Middle East that I found reference to was carried out by Jewish settlers against British forces who had tried to stem the flood of Jewish people arriving in a land designated by the Balfour declaration, as a Jewish Homeland (gaining nation status after WWII). The Naqba provides the alternative reality of the shameless and on-going land grabs. Here we are in one of the key areas of contention in the Near East, all having heard about the Palestinian ‘terrorists’, not realising their teachers’ input.
Let’s take Saddam Hussein, a key western ally. During his eight-year war with Iran he was so fully in bed with US leaders that a simple non-committal response from an American ambassador to his suggestion of invading Kuwait in 1990 made him think it would be okay to invade after his western-backed assault on Iran. Saddam invaded Kuwait and became the new enemy. For the first time Saudi Arabia allowed a US military base on its soil, supposedly for the war, but still there today. Bush senior told the Iraqi southern Shiite and the Kurds in the North to rise up. What is revealing is whilst the Kurds were granted semi autonomy in the North with a US-backed no-fly zone, the Shiite in the South were abandoned (mainly in fear of Iran’s Shiite links), suffering major persecution. Furthermore the ancient marshes in the south were drained, killing with them a millennia old rich culture. This intentional breakdown of Iraq’s multicultural society was a grave and major contributor to the subsequent Shiite-Sunni fallout that we see plaguing the region today. This had also been preceded by the earlier external strategies of breaking down fragile links in Lebanon in the 80s, and what is being tragically played out in Syria today.
In what I see as a twist of irony, Saddam the old friend, now a foe, was indicted and hung for the murder of his civilians with gases sold to him by his Western allies. I didn’t see anyone taking him to court for using those very same Western supplied chemical weapons on Iranian civilians! Nor did I see any Western companies charged with supplying Saddam for chemical warfare!
Then we have Osama Bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, who was trained by the US to lead the Taliban against the Afghani Mujahid (Socialist Muslim fighters – this was still when the USSR was feared and any alignment with Russia was to be disrupted). So the Taliban with whom there is an on-going struggle and Osama Bin Laden, the forefather of Al Qaida (an organisation that seems to operate without any particular base or centre, instead having become an ideological premise that various groups pin their activities on) were Western constructs.
The most baffling part for me is the concept of “Western allies”. Considering the ill-advised selections, if there was ever an oxymoron, surely it is this! Pakistan, whose borders with Afghanistan blatantly house the most extreme Islamic elements and madrassas (Islamic Schools that have been hijacked by extremists) are largely funded by Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Wahhabi Sunni Islam, which informs the ideologies of Al Qaida, Taliban and Salafists); while the West hawks copious quantities of arms to the Arabs in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia.
Here we are not even reviewing the arrival of extremist Islam into the African continent taking on many a different shade from the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt (a century old organisation having been originally formed to counter colonial occupation), or the recently emerging Salafists (dressed in political clothes) in much of North Africa, all the way to the militant Al shabaab. The penetration is as deep as it is varied. For me as an Iranian/Persian non-practicing Muslim living in the West with a surname like Arab, these events have resonated deeply. Interest in my land’s history, poetry and fine art were gradually replaced with questions rooted in fear and ignorance in my new home.
Terrorism seems to be solely associated with Islamic groups with little or no reference to earlier terror acts in the region or indeed the massively erroneous and self-serving Western policies and misinformed alliances that only succeed in lining a few pockets from the spoils of war and leave nothing but decidedly charged disruption and destruction behind.
We need to have a transparent reappraisal of this disastrous situation and begin to hold politicians accountable by taking meaningful legal action against world leaders whose tenure has resulted in long-term conflict and destruction; much like bankers, it seems that politicians are rarely, if ever, held to account for their destructive mistakes and misuse of power.
Looking back at the changes to the face and nature of terrorism, from in between the times when our family visited in the 1970s to now, after 33 years living in diaspora, it is heartbreaking to see images and films of cities in Iraq, Cairo, Damascus and Afghanistan. In the 1970s free of terror, living in diverse societies and moving forward in time… forty years on it could not be more different. What happened and who else but the innocent citizens pay the price?
Roya Arab is a UK based Iranian archaeologist and musician (Honorary Research Assistant, Institute of Archaeology, UCL). Her research is centred on the socio/political and economic uses and abuses of the past in the present – currently focusing on the destruction of Near Eastern heritage wrought by internal and external conflict. Her work involves the promotion of Iranian culture through its rich history, music and art. Website: Roya Arab