Looting as a Language

Today, American news agencies are reporting on the fall of Baghdad. The image of the Iraqi people shouting and waving their arms in the air as they cursed Saddam Hussein and threw shoes at his falling and crumbling statue are poignant images of liberation by anyone’s standard. Yet, these images may not be as meaningful as those coming from Southern Iraq, where people are literally looting the stores and offices and retrieving anything they can for either their personal, or family usage. One Western reporter, speaking to an Iraqi opposition figure asks via telephone interview, “Is there a difference between Liberation and looting that should be observed?” The official answers, “yes, of course the people should not steal, and should not loot.” I wondered, as I listened to the interview, if indeed looting and liberation are different, and thought that perhaps they are as united as is liberation and freedom, since looting may be a language through which people a! re transmitting their feeling of ownership, and entitlement, and a type of justice that says “now that we are free, we will have what is and was always, rightfully ours.”

In almost every instance where there are questions of social and economic justice, or freedom, etc. answered through liberating wars and uprisings, it seems that there is always looting that is carried out either gratuitously or symbolically. During the race riots of the sixties in the United States, the most moving media images were those of young African American men running through the streets where tires burned, carrying televisions or whatever else they could carry, away from the scene of the riots to their homes. There were even pictures of elderly African American women, and teenagers rummaging through burnt out stores, looking for anything that may have survived the days of violence and burning that had ended American complacence about issues related to racial injustices, as a people sought to express their sense of liberation and its corresponding sense of entitlement and perhaps justice through repossession.

Throughout time, and in almost every place in the world, it seems that when given an opportunity, people who have been oppressed, act out their liberation, or sense of newly gained freedom by claiming the streets, where they sing and dance, burn and pillage. In so doing, they may be reclaiming their inalienable rights to ownership, while also performing a sort of “in your face” victory dance celebration. In instances where severe poverty has attended oppression, this new ownership might be a language of revolution, symbolizing change. Of course it must be kept to a minimum, but perhaps it should also be respected, since it seems to be a type of language, that is transmitting a message that says: “the people knew all along that they had a right to own.” They know that they have a right to be prosperous, and to be free, and now that intuition is being validated, and reality is saying, “yes” you were right, it is yours.

The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women and host a weekly internet radio program at IBN.Net, named “A Civilizational Dialogue.” (1-2 PM each Wednesday). The author is also head of the International Assoc. for Muslim Women and Children, an accredited NGO with the UN Division on the Rights of the Palestinians.