No Heroes In Iraq

Tilak Raj, Sukhdev Singh, and Antaryami are hardly agents of Neo-Empire. These are desperately poor men who went to Iraq to work for a Kuwaiti company, but ended up as hostages – pawns in the power struggle between the occupation and the insurgency.

Over the past months, the insurgency has lost its ability to claim higher ground, just as the US occupation force has also lost its own legitimacy. The fate of the seven hostages – three Indian, three Kenyan and one Egyptian truck driver – being held by Holders Of The Black Banner in Iraq illustrates a dark truth about the insurgents: These are not heroic rebels fighting the good fight, but ruthless killers willing to target civilians, including poor migrant workers.

Sher Singh, the father of one of the Indian hostages, recently told reporters, “With great hopes we had sent our son abroad in April this year by selling a piece of land. Little did we know that we [would] have to face this." His wife Jaspal Kaur added, "What can we do? We are very poor people."

Poverty forces millions of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis to work in sub-human conditions in the Middle East and Gulf region, and which has now trapped seven men in a terrifying ordeal.

The Indian hostages remind me of my old Hindu barber in Bangladesh, Himangshu Datta. One day, in the middle of cutting my hair, he calmly informed me that he planned to convert to Islam, at least on paper. It seems being Muslim is sometimes an advantage in unspoken quotas that are part of the tremendous outflow of Bangladeshi migrant workers to Dubai. It is why my barber – who hoped to get a job as a driver for a Dubai government office – was trying to get a birth certificate with a Muslim name.

When I asked him what he would do about the sensitive issue of circumcision – a must for Muslims – he sadly answered, "Listen, I need to make money to send it back to my family in the village. I will do anything." His willingness to abandon his religion to toil in the Middle East – under working conditions that a recent Human Rights Watch report described as "near slavery" – spoke volumes about the desperation of migrant workers.

And yet, the flow of migration continues unabated.

TV pundits often talk about fanatical hordes in the Third World, willing to die for religion. But the experience of migrant workers shows that poverty trumps ideology or religion as a driving force for the vast working class of these nations. In this aspect, they have much in common with the American GI's – many of whom come from poor families and who join the army for economic opportunities.

The anti-war movement opposed the U.S. invasion, and true to our predictions, the occupation has turned into a bloody mess and a recruiting ground for fanatics and terrorists. But in opposing the occupation, we also cannot find anything to support among the insurgents. Especially for those of us from majority-Muslim nations, Muqtada Al Sadr or Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi are not heroic guerilla figures. In kidnapping poor migrants and using them to punish the U.S. occupation, they reveal their true inhumanity.

The truth is that in the present crisis in Iraq, there is no "right" side, a condition reflective of our tangled global politics. The only resort in this bloody impasse is the UN. Defanged by the U.S. and hemorrhaging credibility, this rickety institution still offers the best hope for peace in Iraq.

Until then, it is poor people everywhere – in dusty Iraqi towns, desperate Indian villages, and army recruiting centers like Flint, Michigan – who will continue to pay with their lives for this war.

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