BOOK REVIEW / A guinea-pig witness from the heart of darkness: Cruelty and silence - Kanan Makiya: Jonathan Cape, pounds 18.99

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The Independent Online
IRAQ was and is the heart of darkness. With meticulous scholarship, Samir al-Khalil proved as much in 1986 with Republic of Fear. The book sold several hundred copies in the West but failed to find an Arabic-language publisher. An eminent Arab scholar in the United States is said to have advised one publishing house that the manuscript 'insults' the people of Iraq.

That was before the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Thereafter Republic of Fear became an overnight best-seller in Europe, America and - in badly translated pirate editions - the Middle East. Suddenly there was a market for al-Khalil's lucid, well-documented expose of the horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Even so, Arab intellectuals and journalists continue to denounce the author for his alleged anti-Arabism (ergo his pro-Americanism) during the Gulf war. These are the people who, three years on, are still trying to argue that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was an American plot and who, in the late Eighties, ignored or denied Saddam's slaughter and ethnic cleansing of the non-Arab Kurds. They are the purveyors of a grand conspiracy theory which casts the Arab nation as the victim of Western cultural and political imperialism.

In Cruelty and Silence, al-Khalil, an exiled Iraqi Shia now writing under his real name, Kanan Makiya, turns the tables on those who accuse him of being a traitor to the Arab cause. He condemns them and their political mentors for their silence in the face of the cruelty that exists in the Arab world and for blaming all the ills of the region on the West.

His denunciation is not before time. Anyone involved in reporting the Middle East is only too aware of the paucity of public debate in the Arab world. The Arab press is among the most prolific but also the most intellectually dishonest in the world, and, with rare and honourable exceptions, entirely at the service of political and sectarian paymasters. From the viewpoint of their gilded cages, Arab commentators tend to assume that every writer must be wielding his pen on behalf of someone else. Hence they have no trouble identifying Makiya as an agent of imperialism because he sought to expose the home-grown horrors of the Saddam regime. His offence is to argue that respect for human rights is not subject to qualification.

Makiya set out to write an account of the rebellions that broke out in northern and southern Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the coalition victory against Iraq. This occupies the first half of Cruelty and Silence and contains yet more first-hand evidence of the nightmares Saddam inflicted on his countrymen.

The second half of the book is a rightly indignant expose of the impoverishment of intellectual thought in the Arab world. One of his specific targets is the American- Palestinian academic Edward Said, who yesterday opened his series of Reith lectures with a discourse on the nature of the intellectual. Said is quoted as denouncing Makiya as a 'guinea-pig witness' because of his anti-Iraqi stance in the Kuwait war and of functioning as a 'native informant' serving the interests of American policymakers.

Said is a distinguished academic who does not naturally fall into the traditional Arab category of 'hired pen'. But he is, as far as Makiya is concerned, a 'professional Palestinian' and a purveyor of the great conspiracy theory. It is a theory in which the Palestinian cause is set above all others, not least because it helps the Arabs gloss over the iniquities in their own backyards.

In a week in which Said is being lionised by the British intellectual elite, Makiya might contemplate a further book on the parlous state of Western intellectual debate when it comes to Middle Eastern and Third World issues. A succession of tyrants have found no shortage of apologists in the West - Saddam, for instance, was a long-term favourite of the French left and elements of the American right. Much of Said's popular success appears to rest on a Western appetite for anti-Westernism. Hence his learned assaults on the inherent racism and imperialism of Western culture vis-a-vis the Arab world have found a much readier audience than Makiya's exposes of the evils of Baathist Iraq, arguably one of the most obnoxious and indeed racist regimes of the 20th century. No wonder the Iraqi is angry.