Why So Many Iraqis Hate Us? Try "Towel Head" On for Size

An added barrier to getting to know Iraqis beyond skin color and stereo-types is the wholesale ignorance of Islam.
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In the five years that the U.S. military has occupied Iraq, the reasons for hating Americans have mounted: the looting of Mesopotamian treasures, rising violence and crime in the streets, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the leveling of An Najaf, and also add "sand nigger" and "camel jockey" to the list. By all accounts large numbers of American servicemen and women have shown courtesy and respect for Iraqi citizens whose land they occupy. But it is rose colored journalism that someone misses what is apparently a widespread practice in Iraq--the racial denigration of Iraqis, including both insurgents and non-combatants. That was a common observation cited by nearly two dozen former soldiers and marines testifying recently at the grossly under-reported Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Among those bearing witness was Mike Prysner. He was 21 when he was deployed to northern Iraq in 2003 with the Tenth 173rd Airborne Brigade. He said just about every day for the entire year he was in Iraq he heard derogatory language being used to describe the Iraqi people. " .....Towel head and camel jockey and most disturbing of all, sand nigger. And these words did not initially come from my fellow soldiers but from my platoon leader, my sergeant, my company first sergeant." Prysner said a term used to describe the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, was turned into an insult for Iraqis. They're called "Hajji". "Hajji was the enemy. Hajji was every Iraqi -not a person, a father, a teacher or a worker," said Prysner.

According to other ex-combatants and some reporters, the coloring of Iraqis is as broad a phenomenon as was the racialization of Vietnamese in Vietnam, who were dehumanized as "gooks". "I've seen graffiti written on the back of seats in humvees that says all Hajjis must die," said Quill Lawrence, a correspondent for the BBC program in the U.S, the World. He was formerly embedded with US. troops. Lawrence said that stereo-typing of Iraqis is quite common among U.S. military personal and contractors. "You have a GI -if he's sane--is legitimately frightened by the real possibility of being blown up all the time and everybody looks like a target and that means someone with a beard. Someone with a swarthy complexion to a dark complexion. It's racial profiling of the most primal type."

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban told me that an added barrier to getting to know Iraqis beyond skin color and stereo-types is the wholesale ignorance of Islam. She teaches the anthropology of race and racism at Rhode Island College and is an advisor to the US military. "Right after Baghdad had been secured one of my students says they heard in the early morning hours the dawn call to prayer and they thought it was a call to arms and they were at the battle ready -ready to shoot anything that moved. He came back and said how awful he had felt--because he is an African American man--He had stereo-typed people the way that he had been stereo-typed at home."

In putting together a radio version of this report we spoke with some Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad. None wanted to be identified by name but they seemed acutely aware of how they are perceived. Here's a sampling of comments: "The American people do not care about the Iraqis because of the Iraqis color, because even the American black people see Iraqis as ignorant while the Iraqi civilization is 3000 years older than the American one, and it was the Americans who destroyed the civilization." Another man told us: "There is no doubt the Americans despise other races, even inside the United States, and they do not treat them with respect let alone dealing with the Arabs and particularly the Iraqis."

Testifying at the recent Winter Soldiers hearings, veteran Geoff Millard said he understood why many Iraqis feel anger toward Americans. He cited what happened after a young machine gunner in his company made a split second decision to spray a vehicle heading toward them. "That day he killed a mother, a father and two children. And after the officer in charge briefed it to the general, in a very calm manner, he turned in his chair to the entire division level staff and he said and I quote 'if these fucking Hajjis learn to drive this shit wouldn't happen'."

In the summer of 2006, forty members of Congress petitioned then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to launch an investigation into skinhead, Klansmen and other racist extremists in the military. They also asked the Pentagon to discharge soldiers involved in racist activities or groups. The results of that investigation are not clear. But the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Birmingham, Alabama believes the situation may have worsened. According to the SPLC Intelligence Report "large numbers of extremists had infiltrated the armed forces in recent years by taking advantage of recruiting standards that were relaxed due to wartime manpower shortages."

But the problem of coloring Iraqis is not limited to extremists. It appears to be rampant. So what is the U.S. military doing to discourage racism within the ranks. Dan Henk, director of the Air Force Culture and Language center at Maxwell Air base, told me "I don't think we'll ever be able to totally eliminate that tendency in military operations but I can tell you that the US military and particularly the US air force where I work, is going out of its way to make leadership aware of just that kind of thing." Professor Henk says cross-cultural programs designed to combat the prejudices that many Americans bring with them to Iraq have borne fruit, particularly during the so-called surge, since more servicemen and women now come into direct contact with Iraqis. According to the Pentagon and various media accounts, relations between Iraqis and Americans on the ground have improved somewhat from a year ago.

A new BBC poll finds that the presence of US troops is still roundly opposed by 72% of Iraqis, but that is down by seven points from six months ago. Overall however, there is little that the US (or any occupation army) can do to change how it is regarded by Iraqis. And dehumanizing people, whom ostensibly you are there to help, only exacerbates an already explosive situation. The degree of dehumanization is apparent when you click on a You Tube video that was posted last year. It features a burley guitar-strumming American serviceman singing a song about killing "a Hajji" woman, to wild applause and laughter from fellow troops.

"As the bullets began to fly, the blood spread from between her eyes and then I laughed my night with glee. Then I hid behind the TV and I lobbed a load in my M16 . I blew those little girls to eternity. "

Whether the surge succeeds or fails, the U.S. military faces a nearly impossible task in winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis, especially if they are thought of as "towel heads" and "hajjis".

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