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What's in a Name? Insurgents and Resistance in Iraq
by A.G. Hopkins
Sunday Nov 21st, 2004 1:38 AM
The assault on Fallujah is intended to eliminate 'insurgents' from one of the most important centers of opposition in Iraq and is therefore a significant moment in the struggle to control the country.
What's in a Name? Insurgents and Resistance in Iraq

by A.G. Hopkins

The assault on Fallujah is intended to eliminate 'insurgents' from one of the most important centers of opposition in Iraq and is therefore a significant moment in the struggle to control the country. The term 'insurgent' has become the accepted way for both hawks and doves to refer to armed opposition in Iraq and is now used as if its meaning were unproblematic. The most recent studies, for example, assume a common understanding of the word and concentrate instead on strategic, battleground matters. Yet the term is far from being transparent and is also loaded with political claims. To investigate it is to consider the nature of the enemy. This is, self-evidently, an important exercise: we cannot claim to comprehend the world unless we can be sure that we are describing it in the most appropriate language. Ill-fitting descriptions may have far-reaching consequences for public understanding and formal policy-making.

At first sight, the term 'insurgent' appears to be a neutral way of referring to a plethora of militant opposition groups. However, further inspection shows that it conceals more than it reveals. Down to the eighteenth century the term was used mainly to refer to clouds, waves and other non-political 'uprisings'. Thereafter, it was increasingly employed by governments, national and dynastic, to describe armed opposition that stood outside the law. Washington sent troops to quell insurgents during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794; Lincoln used the term to refer to the Confederate states; the uprisings against antique states in Europe, such as Habsburg Austria, in 1848 and Tsarist Russia in 1905 were also referred to as insurgencies. In the twentieth century the term was exported from the states of the West and applied to armed opposition to colonial rule and to hostile elements during the Cold War. The Arab Legion organized by Glubb Pasha attempted to uphold Britain's position in the Middle East by taking on both Zionist and Palestinian insurgents in the 1940s; France battled insurgents in Indo-China and Algeria in the 1950s. The United States undertook a campaign to 'subdue and civilize' Filipino insurgents in 1900, and entered similar, if also much wider, engagements in Central America and Vietnam after World War II.

It is evident from these examples that the globalization of the term has been accompanied by an expansion of its meaning. Nineteenth-century usage referred mainly to militant action against legitimate and in many cases long-established governments. In the twentieth century, the term was adopted by powers that lacked these qualifications. Although British and French colonial rule was long-established by 1950, it had been imposed or maintained by force, and ultimately it failed the test of legitimacy because it could not command popular consent. In the 1960s commentators referred similarly to the Vietcong insurgency, even though the presence of the United States in Vietnam was neither long-established nor founded on popular support.

An established, legitimate government is not necessarily a good government and may be undesirable on any number of grounds. But it bases its action against insurgents on its constitutional and legal authority. Colonial or other alien forms of rule cannot easily make this claim. They are obliged to find alternative grounds to justify suppressing those they call insurgents. But they continue to use the term because they need to attach as much legitimacy to their own actions as possible while denying it to those who oppose them. Typically, they have attempted to do this by presenting themselves as bearers of superior values. In the colonial era these were referred to as civilization and development; in the post-colonial era they are freedom and democracy.

We may agree that these are highly desirable ideals. The problem is that, in the absence of consent about either ends or means, they have to be imposed by a combination of authoritarian and military measures. The British and French found that delivering civilization and development to their colonial empires called for an unexpected degree of civil and military intervention, and also took far longer than had been anticipated. The United States is now repeating much of this history. The paradox of seeking to implant freedom and democracy by military means is starkly visible - the more so because it is taking place in what was thought, until recently, to be a post-colonial world.

The grounds for referring to the militant opposition entrenched in Fallujah as insurgents are therefore questionable. There is no established, legitimate government in Iraq; there is only an occupying force and a selected, provisional administration. The alternative basis for claiming legitimacy is also unconvincing. It relies on a set of values, however lofty, that are determined by the external power and applied variously according to time and place, and on means of transmission that lack the basic ingredient of popular consent.

What are the alternatives? After the invasion of Iraq, opposition elements were not immediately referred to as insurgents because they appeared to be too few in number and too disparate in character to justify using the collective term. Reference was made instead to 'thugs', 'assassins', 'terrorists', 'foreign elements', Ba'thists and other pockets of 'dead-enders'. However, as the militant opposition increased in scale and organization, it was upgraded to being an insurgency. Frequent reference was, and still is, made to terrorism and terrorists, but these terms are not easily applied to the opposition as a whole because its actions are not directed primarily at the civilian population. Terrorist acts continue to take place and innocent individuals, Iraqi and foreign, are caught in the struggle. But the main effort of the militant opposition is concentrated on ejecting the United States from Iraq.

When historians look back at the anti-colonial forces that arose in the twentieth century, they generally reclassify the elements that colonial rulers termed insurgents, agitators, terrorists and fanatics by referring to resistance and nationalist movements. This terminology takes account both of the lack of legitimacy associated with colonial rule and of the legitimate aspirations of the subject peoples. It also appears to fit the realities of militant opposition in Iraq better than the term insurgency. It is true that militant groups have their own agendas, lack a national organization and have yet to produce an undisputed leader. But none of this debars them from being called a resistance movement: they qualify because they are united by their determination to end the occupation of their country by foreign powers.

We might wish it were otherwise. We might also comfort ourselves by seeking to deny the legitimacy of aspirations that in other circumstances we would be willing to endorse. After all, the United States was itself created by rebels (who can properly be termed insurgents), who defended their liberty and with it their patria against a foreign oppressor. As matters stand, official policy towards Iraq is caught in a classic imperial paradox: denying realities will retard understanding and perpetuate flawed policies; admitting error will have sizeable political consequences. But if political lead is to be turned into democratic gold, or at least into political stability, it will require working with aspirations for self-determination instead of against them. The alternative is hubris, and after hubris, as Britain and France found, comes nemesis.

Tony Hopkins is a scholar of imperialism and author of "An Economic History of West Africa". Hopkins was for many years a Professor at the Centre for African Studies at Birmingham University, and later Smut Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently the Walter Webb Professor of World History at the University of Texas in Austin.
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American Collective Guilt for the Bush HolocaustMentifexSunday Nov 21st, 2004 3:38 AM

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