Steven Vincent Case
I am reposting here with commentary my comments of 8 August about Colin Freeman’s story in the Telegraph concerning the murder of art journalist Stephen Vincent in Basra. Below, I also reprint part of the Freeman article. I am clarifying my remarks because Vincent’s widow is circulating a misleading characterization of them. I understand the grief of a bereaved widow, and I am not interested in arguing with her. But Vincent does not get a pass on being criticized simply because he is dead (the entire historical profession would collapse in this case). Most of her beefs seem to me to have to do with Mr. Freeman’s article, which I referred to as part of the “news consolidation” aspect of this blog.
A recent, informed discussion of the case by David Enders, who is in Basra, makes many of the same points as I did.
The wingnuts are going crazy over this contretemps, which is what is really interesting. I think it is because Vincent is a symbol for the pro-War American Right. He was inspired to his journalism in Iraq by September 11. That was his first mistake. The poor Iraqis had nothing to do with September 11. He was a defender of the Bush administration policies in Iraq, and he was killed in the course of reporting on Shiite religious parties’ and militias’ influence in Basra. But that influence was a direct result of Coalition policies! The Bush administration appointed the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, a pro-Iranian Shiite party) to the Interim Governing Council, in July of 2003. The Bush administration decided to allow the Badr Corps militia (SCIRI’s paramilitary) to operate as long as its members did not carry heavy weapons in public. How can the US Right then complain that SCIRI is taking over Basra? They already certified the legitimacy of SCIRI and the Badr Corps (both of which fielded candidates in the Jan. 30 elections, winning 9 of 11 provinces with substantial Shiite populations)! I think Vincent is such a controversial figure because he and his death can be read on the left as symbols for the failures of Bush administration policies in Iraq. For the Right, he is a sort of martyr, now beatified and beyond criticism.
So here is the commentary:
Was American journalist Steve Vincent killed in Basra as part of an honor killing? He was romantically involved with his Iraqi interpreter, who was shot 4 times.
Note that I did not say, as Mrs. Vincent assumes, that he was sleeping with his interpreter, Nur al-Khal. That he was romantically involved with her is obvious from his blog, where he calls her “Leyla”. I don’t have any interest in their personal lives per se, but this relationship may have had something to do with his death and so is fair game for mention.
‘If her clan thought she was shaming them by appearing to be having an affair outside wedlock with an American male, they might well have decided to end it. In Mediterranean culture, a man’s honor tends to be wrought up with his ability to protect his womenfolk from seduction by strange men. Where a woman of the family sleeps around, it brings enormous shame on her father, brothers and cousins, and it is not unknown for them to kill her. These sentiments and this sort of behavior tend to be rural and to hold among the uneducated, but are not unknown in urban areas.
Everything I have said here is true. Clueless Americans don’t understand the principle of gender segregation for the most part, and if they do understand it they are horrified by it. But in large swathes of the world, it just is not considered right for a male to be in the company of an unrelated female. It isn’t just a matter of sleeping around, as my wingnut correspondents assume. It is being alone in the company of an unrelated man or woman, and having that be known publicly. Male honor is invested in the protection of the virginity of female relatives, and a conviction that something improper may have occurred would be enough in some instances to cause a vendetta. It is not just a Muslim thing. Many Orthodox Jews and Middle Eastern and Balkan Christians feel the same way.
Clueless Americans don’t understand gender segregation, and they don’t understand clan honor as practiced in most Arab societies. We American men aren’t dishonored in particular if our sisters sleep around, though I suppose in high school it can’t be pleasant for a guy to have everyone taunt him that his sister is a slut. But in Arab culture, a brother can’t show his face in public if his sister is known to be a slut. He is enraged by this loss of honor, and sometimes he will kill her to wipe out the shame. And, by the way, her father and male first cousins are also shamed, and might conspire in taking action to restore their honor.
It is in fact an extension of a general Greater Mediterranean (please read Fernand Braudel) ethos of honor and honor killings. Mostly we in the West know about the issue of furious husbands killing their wives for sleeping around. In many Mediterranean and Mediterranean-influenced societies (e.g. Latin America), such a “crime of honor” was not even typically punished by the courts in the past. The reason the husband behaves this way is not just, as many Americans imagine, insane jealousy. It is because he believes his honor has been irretrievably damaged.
There is a large literature on honor killings. Look up the phrase at amazon.com if you want to dip into it. The whole system of clans, clan honor, and the investment of male honor in the protection of the chastity of females may be horrific. But it is the norm in much of the world (it operates to some extent in parts of Africa, in South Asia and in Central Asia, as well). Not understanding and respecting it can get you killed when you are out there.
By the way, the US military in Iraq understands all this perfectly well, and has forbidden troops from fraternizing with Iraqi women, and has punished some who did. That is, if you asked a US officer in Iraq about this issue, he will tell you the same thing I have. So how can I be criticized for articulating it?
Finally, the politics of honor and the body of the woman has been inscribed on nationalist politics in the Middle East for decades. Colonialism and foreign conquest has been spoken of as a kind of rape. Having foreign troops in one’s country fooling around with its women is seen as symbolic of the humiliation of imperial subjection. This theme is central to the novel Midaq Alley, by Nobel prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz. In the novel, a young Egyptian man kills his girlfriend for consorting with Western troops in Cairo during World War II. The incident is a symbol of Egyptian resentment at having been recolonized by Churchill during the war.
Vincent, as an American male going about in public and private with an unrelated Iraqi woman, put himself in the position of being seen as symbolizing this joint sexual and colonial humiliation. It may well have been part of the reason he was killed.
Some correspondents have said it was odd that Vincent was killed but Ms. al-Khal survived. Uh, you can’t shoot someone 4 times without intending to kill the person. Her survival is welcome and piece of good fortune, but the intent of the shooters is obvious.
Vincent did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture
There are kinds of knowing. Vincent could not read a book about the Middle East written by a Middle Easterner in Arabic. He did not understand Shiite religious law. He saw the surface of things because he was there. He did not know their depths. How many of us would accept an art critic’s claim to be an expert on French politics and culture when he could not read French literature and had only been in France off and on for 18 months? When the person could not read President Chirac’s speeches in the original when reprinted in the press, could not read French literature or legal writings, and the extent of his knowledge of Catholicism was that he had attended some masses at the Notre Dame? Of course if he was in Paris when a riot occurred, he could describe what he saw, and could interview English-speaking French or use an interpreter to interview some rioters and politicians. He could write knowledgeably about the riot, and could add to our knowledge. But he wouldn’t be a France expert.
and was aggressive about criticizing what he could see of it on the surface,
Read his blog.
‘ and if he was behaving in the way the Telegraph article describes, he was acting in an extremely dangerous manner. ‘
I.e. he was egregiously breaking the rules of gender segregation and female honor. He should have had a male interpreter.
His death was most unfortunate, and I felt it. He was a colleague of sorts. But he behaved foolishly and frankly ignorantly.
* Murder of US reporter in Iraq may be linked to marriage pledge
By Colin Freeman
British officials hunting the killers of an American journalist in Basra are investigating the possibility that he may have been targeted over his relationship with his Iraqi translator, whom he had pledged to marry.
Investigators believe that Steven Vincent, a freelance reporter who was abducted and shot last Tuesday, may have angered local religious hardliners with his conduct.
The interpreter, Nour Weidi, who was shot four times in the attack, has told investigators from her hospital bed that Mr Vincent planned to marry her so she could settle in the United States.
The investigation is being led by Iraqi police, with British and US officials playing a strong supervisory role.
Speculation over the murder initially focused on the possibility that Mr Vincent was killed after writing articles alleging that Basra’s police had been infiltrated by Shia death squads.
The pair were abducted soon after midnight in central Basra. Mr Vincent’s body was later found nearby with multiple bullet wounds.
The murder was unusual in that was no attempt was made by his attackers to hold him hostage or make political capital out of his nationality. No group has claimed responsibility, suggesting that terrorist involvement is unlikely, say investigators.
Staff at the Basra hotel where Mr Vincent had lived for three months say the couple’s relationship had drawn disapproval and warnings of retribution. But investigators have not commented publicly on whether they think the relationship was sexual, and believe that the case has hidden complexities.
“There is a straight-line connection that people have drawn between Steven Vincent criticising the Iraq police and therefore being murdered,” said one investigator.
“But from the evidence so far, including accounts we have had from the Iraqi interpreter, that is not the immediate conclusion we are drawing. It appears to be quite a complex case.
“There is the possibility that this was an attempted ‘honour killing’, related in some way to the relationship he had with his interpreter. But it does not fit the pattern of honour killings as it is usually the woman who dies.”
Mr Vincent, 49, a former art critic who turned to journalism after witnessing the September 11 attacks, had been married to his American wife for 13 years. She is understood to have been aware of his plans to marry Ms Weidi for visa purposes.
Police are now examining Mr Vincent’s articles and weblog to trace people he interviewed and wrote about.
He was not afraid to voice pro-US views or get into rows with locals. In one weblog entry, he describes a heated exchange with an Iraqi who looked disapprovingly at his translator because she was not wearing a headscarf.
He seemed relaxed about his personal security. He had no bodyguards, travelled in taxis and made no secret of his disapproval of local Iran-backed Shia militias.
In an opinion piece published in the New York Times the day before his murder, he alleged the existence of a “death car”, a white Toyota full of off-duty police who killed political opponents. He also claimed to have received death threats and to have unearthed political scandals.’