Last week I opened up a shiny new box containing a board-game. The words “War on Terror” screamed out from the lid, and I found myself nervously hoping that this was a fantastic piece of satire. It was. Funny, extremely pointed and clever. And the game itself was tremendous fun – I found myself having to decide whether to build an oil-rich empire or build terrorist cells. I did both, ended up wearing the Axis of Evil balaclava, but lost Africa and Western Europe to a bigger, more powerful empire builder (my nine-year-old son).
The axis of evil
Back in September I wrote an article reflecting on George Bush’s famous Axis of Evil speech. It’s been a decade, and I wanted to understand how my readers viewed the evil three – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. I also mused over what they might consider “evil” in today’s world. I was overwhelmed with responses – nearly 300 people took time and effort to write their feelings, some very passionately, others pleading with me to report back and not to “tamper” with the results. The exercise crashed the free survey site I set up, and without paying a fortune I have only been able to access the first 100 responses. They are un-tampered with. I promise.
Here is some analysis of the thoughts left. Because of the length of contributions, which have taken some time to read, I have split this into four articles. The first on the list is Iraq. Close to my heart, the only one of the three places I have actually visited (and written a book about). In coming articles I will write one about Iran – a country in a curious and potentially worrying diplomatic wrangle as I write this; another about perceptions of North Korea; and the fourth article will compare results and look more at where people think evil in this world lays today.
Some respondents were cynical about my motives – they often are. In my interview with Faisal Qureshi, the first question he asks is am I working for an agency!? My motives for sparking this debate stem from a professional and academic interest in the perceptions of people, places and events – especially as they are presented to us in the media. It’s something I write about, make films about and make art about.
Obviously this survey has its flaws, which many of you pointed out. I was able to gather from the data what countries people lived in, but little else. Over half of the respondents were from India with only just over a quarter from Pakistan. Other nations represented in smaller numbers were the USA, Afghanistan, Australia, China, Nigeria, Singapore, Taiwan, The UK, and USA. I enjoyed how several writers referred to themselves as global citizens. One person simply put that he was from “earth”. Another person gave their stance on evil away in the first question by saying they were from the “United States of Capitalism Corruption Torture and Power”. It was to become a theme.
The origin of correspondents is probably more interesting for me than you – to know where my readers are based - but of course when looking at the results one has to bear in mind that levels of access to information will be different country to country. It was suggested that I should have looked into the characteristics of respondents – such as age, religion, etc. That, however, may have proved an exercise akin to a PhD research – so you will have to just take this as it is. I also believe that complete anonymity was important in providing a platform for people to speak freely. Apologies to those who supplied email addresses that I haven’t been able to reach each of you personally.
“A lovely chunk of earth, currently being pressed upon by big brother. Getting roughed up for no good reason”.
The first thing that stood out for me was that respondents generally viewed “Iraq” the country in terms of the US-led military occupation which started in 2003 and is due to end this month. The question was what are your perceptions of “Iraq” the country – clearly these seven years have had a huge impact on what we think of this nation. Only 5 per cent mentioned Iraq as having an ancient civilisation, rich with culture and a great history. And only one person mentioned the arid climate. There was no mention at all of the many things I associate with Iraq: succulent dates; poets; passionate football fans; temperatures I didn’t think humans could survive; two great rivers; Babylon; and Kingfishers. This provided me with a stark reminder of what an overwhelming narrative war can be. And begs the question, how helpful is this unbalanced perception in the healing of a nation?
The other overwhelming feedback was that it was the USA and often more specifically George Bush who was perceived as having “ruined Iraq” – nearly a quarter of respondents felt this way (23 per cent). Only four respondents (out of 100) mentioned other nations/peoples involvement – which were “UK”, “The West”, “Saudi”, “Russia”, “Arabs”, “UN”. No one mentioned Israel in relation to Iraq (for a change). So pointed was the fury towards the United States that some even suggested I should have included a specific question about the perception of the USA and its foreign policy. In view of the answers I’m not sure that was needed!
Another headline from the survey was an overwhelming perception of how dangerous Iraq is - one in five people generally perceived Iraq as violent, dangerous or “rife” with terrorists or insurgents, and/or perceived Iraq as “war-torn”. One said it was “the worst place to live on earth” and another likened Iraq to a “burning train”. In closer commentary on the recent conflict, the same number of people (19 per cent) felt that the US-led invasion had been built on a lie. This was a fairly strong narrative. Seven years since the conflict began people are still very angry (and writing in capital letters!) that no WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION WERE EVER FOUND. Many of the responses were laced with conspiracy theories, and one in 10 people felt that oil had lead to the nation’s sorrows. However, 15 per cent of the respondents felt very strongly that Saddam was a tyrant leader who needed to go, and notably some felt more positive about Iraq’s prospects.
In additional comments, many said that completing the questionnaire helped them think (even meditate on) what they accepted as “news” from the mainstream media. Others identified a real difference between reading/watching news on mainstream channels over the internet and gathering “news” from other sources online. The results showed that a massive 83 per cent of respondents formed their impressions of Iraq as a result of the news media – in one form or another. Nearly half were also influenced by official statements. What is surprising for me about this finding is that for the majority of opinion surveys I have ever run or examined, the media and politicians/government are usually amongst the least trusted when it comes to communications. Word-of-mouth communications are generally the most trusted. Perhaps what this rather crude survey reveals is that trusted or not, it can have an influence on the perceptions we build of a place. This is even more striking in the results for North Korea, but I will leave space for that later.
For the record, I agree entirely with one respondent who identified the "Axis of Evil" as a tool of war propaganda and as such not a useful framework for debate. I might wear the balaclava and play the game (which is now available as a very brilliant iPhone App by the way) – but in doing so, much like running this survey, I am being satirical. The best way to break down any prejudices about whole nations is to ask people to examine them – and to have a good look at them yourself to understand.
Results in more detail:
23 per cent think that the US/Bush have ruined Iraq.
19 per cent perceived Iraq as generally violent/dangerous/full of terrorists/insurgents/war torn.
19 per cent believe that there was no WMD – the war was a lie/illegal/just wrong.
15 per cent thought Saddam was bad/ruthless and needed to go.
13 per cent think Iraq is a mess/chaotic/ruined/in need of stability/organisation/struggling.
10 per cent of people felt Iraq was a harmless/beautiful country before the US-led operation.
9 per cent believe that having oil has been Iraq’s downfall.
9 per cent said they felt Iraq had simply been unlucky/unfortunate or felt pity for the people.
7 per cent said that Iraqi people were good people.6 per cent felt positive about Iraq and felt it was a very misunderstood country.
6 per cent highlighted the irony that Saddam had been backed by USA in Iran-Iraq war – the US created/backed “the beast” and then turned on it.
6 per cent thought Iraq was getting better/no longer “evil” now that Saddam has gone.5 per cent perceived Iraq as a country plagued by oppression/conflict between religious/ethnic groups.
5 per cent perceived Iraq as an ancient civilisation, with a rich history.
3 per cent thought the conflict was a breakdown of diplomacy.3 per cent thought Saddam/Iraq was no worse than some other countries before the invasion.
3 per cent thought that Iraq got what was coming because of its relationship with others e.g. Pakistan, Arabia, Iran and non compliance to AIEA.
3 per cent said that Iraqi people were bad people.2 per cent had no opinion on Iraq.
2 per cent perceived Iraq as being in a state of anarchy.1 per cent said that the Sunnis had ruined Iraq.
1 per cent mentioned the climate – “It’s hot. It’s dry.”
1 per cent thought Iraq was poverty stricken.
1 per cent thought Iraqi people were against the UN/US forces.1 per cent thought Iraq was a “closed country”.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.
Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and international relations. Her main research interests are in the perception of places and people as presented in the media. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011.
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.