Slumming with NPRMay 20th, 2008

References to Sadr City on National Public Radio seldom fail to mention that it is a “Shia slum.” They don’t call it an impoverished neighborhood or its residents a disadvantaged minority. Rather, they employ a slur, as they did again today, and a particularly disparaging one at that.To call it a slum is to imply that the people who live there are inferior to those of us who don’t live in such places. In our country, we have low-rent districts to house the unemployed and underemployed. The housing tends to be run-down and poorly maintained and, when conditions in a neighborhood are bad enough, we call it a slum. Twenty-first century conventional wisdom holds that people who are down-and-out are responsible for their own misfortunes. Accordingly, we don’t grieve much for residents of our slums, many of whom escape in due course.

Sadr City is another thing altogether. The residents have been systematically relegated to squalid neighborhoods–typically without sanitation and without public facilities–because they belong to a religious sect that is linked in many Arab minds to Persian culture. Iraqis who belong to their branch of Islam, which tends to be stricter and less secular, are deemed inferior by Sunni Muslims, who consider themselves more modern, more enlightened, more Arabic worshippers.

Things were tough when it was the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein that kept the Shia masses confined within the invisible barriers of what was known then as Saddam City. Things are even worse now, as our heavily armed occupation forces literally wall the people in with concrete and barbed wire.

Why do the writers at NPR News insist on referring to this section of Baghdad as a slum? Are they trying to tell us something about the residents? Do they want us to believe that the people who live in Sadr City–and there are over two million of them–are unworthy in some way? That they’re so far inferior to us that we needn’t worry about them any more than we would about rats in a sewer? Does NPR remind us that their neighborhood is a slum so that we can kill them without remorse? If so, it’s not working.