The double standards in political commentary regarding the war in Ukraine have been widely discussed — from the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees (while Arab refugees face closed doors), to the support of Ukrainians’ right to self-determination and resistance to invasion (while these are denied to Palestinians), to the US and Europeans decrying the illegality of invading a sovereign nation (while ignoring our own histories).
One additional form of bigotry in some comparisons of Ukraine and the Arab World is particularly galling and requires a response.
An example: 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, wrote:
“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.”
So much is objectionable in these two sentences; most egregious is the writer’s underlying thinking, i.e., Ukrainians are more deserving of defense than Kuwaitis. Looking more closely reveals the bias (and ignorance of history) that led to this observation.
We can dismiss the comparative size of the two countries. I feel certain the writer wouldn’t claim that Egypt, because of its size, is more worthy of defense than Israel.
As for their forms of government, the writer clearly doesn’t understand that Kuwait, while a traditional society, has a vibrant political culture, with highly competitive parliamentary elections. The parliament has a long history of challenging government ministers, frequently clashing on matters of policy and accountability. While Ukraine does have a democratically elected executive, its governance has not been without turbulence, unsavory characters, and charges of corruption. The form of government can’t determine a nation’s worthiness to exist or a people’s right to self-determination.
The Times’ columnist appears to view Ukraine as more deserving of support than Kuwait because Ukraine comes from “largely peaceful Europe” while Kuwait is located in the “war-torn” Arab World — in other words, invasions and violence are expected from Arabs, but not Europeans. These few words demonstrate a willful ignorance of history and a healthy dose of bigotry.
“Largely peaceful?” In the last century, Europeans fought two bloody World Wars in which more than 60,000,000 people were killed. First, millions of young men were sacrificed as pawns in a competition between European powers. Then, the birth of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain gave way to an even more deadly war including 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 control and brutally suppressed rebellion. The end of communist rule brought more violence in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, and the rise of far-right movements across Europe.
Beyond these murderous conflicts, European powers were fighting to expand colonial holdings or, by mid-century, repressing colonies that had independence movements. Millions of Arabs, Africans, and Asians died seeking to throw off 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 there. European colonial powers then drew artificial lines dividing peoples and creating new states to serve their own interests. They pitted religious, tribal, or ethnic groups against one another, or gave lucrative concessions to compliant partners, who prospered at the expense of their compatriots. In these regions European powers left a legacy of division and seeds of future conflict.
Europe hasn’t been “largely peaceful,” and deserves significant blame for the Arab World being “war torn.”
My intention isn’t to dump on Europe nor totally absolve Arabs from responsibility for their current situation, nor pick on one NYT writer. Rather, my point is that the invasion of Ukraine isn’t a solitary blot on an otherwise pure European landscape. Russia should 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