Learning from the Universal Experience of Victimisation
an interpretation of a lecture presented by Dr. Ilan Pappé for the Kurdish Society at the University of Exeter
by Mahroo Rashidirostami and Jeremy Wildeman
On the evening of Wednesday March 14th, 2012, the University of Exeter’s Kurdish Society invited Dr. Ilan Pappé to speak at an event commemorating the 1988 Halabja Chemical Attack and broader Anfal Campaign in Iraq, in which Saddam Hussein‘s Ba’ath Party committed a campaign of organised genocide murdering between 50 000 and 180 000 Kurds.
Click here to Listen to Dr. Pappé’s lecture: http://soundcloud.com/thinkir/the-universal-experience-of
Dr. Pappé uses his lecture for the Kurdish society to describe not just the horrific act of genocide carried-out against the Kurds, but also to establish a direct link between them and other victims who have suffered a similar fate. In so-doing he describes the international forces, both seen and unseen, that lie behind the perpetration of such horrific acts of injustice. In the case of the Middle East, these include international financial interests concerned primarily with Middle East resources, petroleum, and a military industrial-complex that needs both war and buyers to sell its surplus weapons to. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case, those narrow financial interests are given much greater weight than concerns for basic human rights and justice, just as those same interests have been used to define the very national boundaries of the Middle East itself in spite of the aspirations of the people living there.
In establishing a link between victims of genocide and collective punishment, Dr. Pappé in his lecture cannot help but to connect together two of the groups who have suffered the most in the Middle East as victims, Palestinians and Kurds, as well as the Israelis, representing a Jewish people who themselves were the victims of a horrific genocide in Europe but now are the victimisers of the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, as can be revealed by an appallingly rich variety of examples, victimisation is a universal experience that can happen to any group or be perpetrated by any society, anywhere, and at any time. Whether it is the Halabja Massacre of the Kurds or the murder of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatilla, there is no hierarchy as to who suffered the most. For Kurds and Palestinians, often at odds as to who has suffered the most, Dr. Pappé’s argument would seem to call on both sides to work together and learn from one another’s experiences as victims, in order to fight for justice and help prevent any further atrocities from taking place elsewhere in the world.
As an Israeli Jew who lost members from both sides of his family in the Holocaust, Dr. Pappé warns us of the fallacy in becoming too ensconced in one group’s singular tragedy, somehow considering it to be more unique or more grave than any other. This has nothing to do with learning from and honouring the victims of that tragedy, by recognising the forces behind them and addressing the evils they caused. Instead, that type of singular remembrance only serves to promote narrow political interests and may end up being used as a tool to justify one group’s victimisation of another. In this very way Israel has, as a Jewish state, used its own experience of victimhood as a justification for carrying-out acts of victimisation against the Palestinian people.
Dr. Pappé’s argument would be for both Kurds and Palestinians to not become too lost in their own singular experience as victims. Rather, they should learn from their shared experiences, along with Jews, to struggle against such acts ever taking place again. Only by universalising and understanding this shared experience of victimhood can different ethnic groups and international society effectively address the root causes of these evils in order to prevent them from repeating themselves over and over again, such as further chemical attacks, collective rape of women, mass abuse of a population through starvation and malnutrition, ghettoisation of people, daily systematised abuses of civilians, and genocide.
As the recent Libyan and Syrian experiences will attest to, the world will react to certain atrocities but not to others. A blatant double-standard exists where international law and human rights are not applied equally when Western and other powerful interests are in conflict with them. This paradox is particularly obvious to those living outside of the West, such as when Saddam Hussein wondered why he had to leave Kuwait after a United Nations resolution when Israel ignored multiple resolutions against its occupation of the Palestinian people. Academics still display a short-sited propensity for relativising brutality or creating hierarchies of brutalities, considering some to be more extraordinary than another, and to believe that some groups somehow have more of a propensity to commit such crimes than others. Politicians and their corporate benefactors continue to act callously in favour of narrow and short-term financial interests, just as when the United States supported and then turned a blind-eye to its Iraqi ally as it committed one of the greatest acts of genocide of the 1980s. Unfortunately, as of yet nothing has changed in 2012 from 1988. Halabja’s legacy is not being honoured and genocide is not off the agenda.
Nonetheless, Dr. Pappé seems to dream of a better world where civil society actors and academics work together to prevent further tragedies from taking place. He hopes that together they will actively seek out and understand the shared and common experience of victimisation in order to fight against the forces that lie behind it. By learning from the universal experience of victimisation and how no one tragedy is truly unique, they can help establish a shared sense of humanity and idealised international society that is committed to justice and equality for all.
Mahroo Rashidirostami is a graduate of English literature (MA) from the university of Tehran and Kurdish Studies (MA) from the University of Exeter. She is currently doing a PhD on Kurdish theatre at the Centre for Kurdish Studies, University of Exeter.
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