TOP: A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl rocks Israeli security forces as others burn tyres, following a demonstration against settlements in the village of Beita in the occupied West Bank, on February 18, 2022. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP); BOTTOM: A civilian trains to throw Molotov cocktails to defend the city, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 1, 2022. (Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)

Opinion The world of inconsistencies between Ukraine, the Middle East and beyond

5 min

Khaled A. Beydoun is a professor at Wayne State School of Law and scholar-in-residence at the Initiative for a Representative First Amendment at Harvard University. He is the author of “American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.”

The news out of Ukraine has been harrowing. Crowds piled into makeshift bomb shelters, cities pummeled by relentless Russian bombing, the number of civilian deaths climbing, refugees crowding train stations and border crossings — and most profound among the stories, everyday Ukrainians taking arms against one of the world’s most formidable militaries to defend their land.

Instantly, and rightfully, the world lauded Ukrainians making molotov cocktails and forming citizen territorial defense brigades to resist Russia’s invasion. The images of middle-aged women brandishing rifles, former heavyweight boxing champions sacrificing luxury for love of land, and a president rebuffing offers of evacuation have powered a global narrative of good against evil, imperialism against sovereignty, of David vs. Goliath.

There’s no doubt the governments and commentators rooting for Ukrainians and campaigning for the isolation of Vladimir Putin have been on the right side of history — this time.

Similar struggles have been unfolding for decades in Palestine, Yemen, Kashmir and other regions. Different theaters, indeed, with distinct dynamics. Yet, the resistance and brutal toll of external military intervention have rendered dramatically different treatments from Western governments — and radically contrary coverage from media outlets.

Regular Palestinians resisting state seizure of their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and other occupied territories are conflated with armed militants, rendering them “terrorists.” The reoccurring killing of civilians in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes is defended with the same excuses Putin’s propaganda has adapted for Ukraine’s invasion — that women and children are being used as “human shields,” and that justifies striking civilian targets.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, offers another lurid illustration of the world’s double standard. For nearly seven years, Yemen has been relentlessly pummeled by a Saudi regime seeking to expand its regional influence against Iran. The grossly asymmetrical “war” against the Houthi rebels — who are linked to the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, which dominated Yemen for centuries but was repressed by the Yemeni government — has sunk Yemen into widespread famine and on the cusp of collapse. Instead of global condemnation, Yemenis struggling for their very survival have been met with silence, American-supplied weapons and the incessant indictment of terrorism. The war has caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure due to a Saudi-led blockade.

The contradictions are not exclusive to the Arab world. In 2019, Indian forces marched into Kashmir and annexed the disputed territory. Driven by an imperial mandate fueled by Hindu supremacy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stewarded the legal revocation of Kashmir’s long-standing autonomy, then proceeded to claim it by force. Kashmiri state leaders were jailed en masse, journalists and dissidents arrested, and men, women and children trying to defend their already precarious aspirations of self-determination have been wholly branded “terrorists.”

Palestinians, Yemenis and Kashmiris have long embodied the very struggle put forward by the Ukrainian people. They, too, put their very lives on the line against global (and regional) superpowers, some wielding rocks and other makeshift weapons to protect their land, loved ones and way of life — a trilogy of motivations that world leaders have invoked as part of their solidarity to Ukrainian resistance.

But what explains the world of difference between the Ukrainian struggle and the ongoing quests for self-determination in Muslim-majority lands? Within the realm of geopolitics, race, religion, and interests still matter. The three are deeply entwined, particularly in relation to the Middle East and the Muslim world, where a protracted war on terrorism renders anybody Arab, Brown or Muslim as a putative terrorist, notwithstanding the righteousness of their struggle or the unhinged imperialism of their opponents. To put the weight of American interests in ever starker view, the Biden administration is reportedly looking to restore its relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia, as part of an effort to get the kingdom to increase oil production.

The public’s ideal of freedom fighter and terrorist is intensely racial, which enables the seeing of lay Ukrainians taking arms and throwing molotov cocktails as heroes and Muslims engaged in the very same acts, in pursuit of the same self-determination, as extremists.

The racialization of Islam as the enemy of Western civilization has defined Western geopolitical interests over the past several decades. Spain’s far-right leader, Santiago Abascal, made that clear when he declared recently in parliament that anyone could see the “difference” between Ukrainian refugees “and the young men of Muslim origin and military age” trying to “colonize” Europe. The world has rushed to welcome White Ukrainian refugees, yet has brutally tried to stop the waves of refugees coming from Africa, Central America, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar.

While global leaders rush to stand alongside a besieged Ukrainian people fighting for their very existence — Yemenis, Kashmiris, Palestinians and others are waiting, on the wrong side of the geopolitical divide, for a world of support that may never come.