“Continuing the Orientalism of the Past in the Face of Reality of the Present”

March 22, 2011

It’s interesting to see how conservative commentators like Gerard Henderson (http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/bush-and-his-allies-deserve-respect-after-earlier-push-for-arab-democracies-20110321-1c3pw.html) turn the popular Arab struggle for dignity and social justice into vindication for the US invasion of Iraq. There’s little point picking apart Henderson’s argument here, as his logic is as faulty as that of Bush et al in 2003. But let me remind Henderson and others who continue to put forward such points of view, that the stated war aim prior to the invasion of Iraq by Bush, Blair and Howard was to destroy Iraq’s supposed arsenal of WMDs not regime-change. The promotion of democracy was a post-hoc (and ad-hoc) justification when it became crystal clear to everyone including the US and UK governments that Saddam’s WMD arsenal posed very little threat to either regional or world security.  For, Henderson to claim that “…it was the administration of George W. Bush which first raised, in  a serious manner, the issue of democracy in the Middle East” is a huge insult to the countless Middle East voices that have struggled for democratic rights for decades prior to the platitudes towards democracy mouthed by Republican hawks like Bush.

It is equally interesting to see how someone like Henderson can continue to maintain the narrow Orientalist lens that events over the last few months should have dispelled. Henderson continues to claim that the main fault lines that exist in the Middle East are between Sunni and Shia, moderate Muslim and extremist, Jew and Arab, etc,. Henderson nowhere mentions workers, women, youth, professionals, or socialists and liberals in his one-dimensional and by now woefully inadequate representation of the people of the Middle East. In doing so, Henderson not only misunderstands the Middle East (which any second year ME studies student would appreciate) but be fails to grasp the meaning of the popular struggle that has sent shock waves through the last bastion of Cold War authoritarianism.

Not only is Henderson unable to perceive the complexity and secularity of the Middle East he is unable to see the contradiction in his argument. While I think Pilger’s position vis-à-vis the condition of the Middle East can be one-dimensional, Henderson’s criticism of Pilger’s position is hugely problematic. On the one hand, Henderson says that Pilger’s assessment of the “western” interference Middle East politics is a leftist conspiracy but then quotes Condoleezza Rice’s own self-reflections of the US support for Middle East dictators which she acknowledges has been to the detriment of democratic movements.  Henderson’s article has other glaring errors. His assessment of democracy in Iraq is simplistic to say the least. The notion that somehow Israel is on the sidelines is a throw-away comment from this conservative commentator that serves no purpose other than to deflect attention from the central part that Israel plays in Middle East politics. But then, this was the point of the article after all. The ultimate game for Henderson and other conservatives is to make the facile point again and again that somehow Israel is not a part of the greater Middle East. News for you Gerard, Israel is as much a part of the Middle East as Iran and Turkey, and it’s only when the Israeli government and their supporters, and  more Arabs come to this realisation that genuine progress towards peace will be possible.

Noah Bassil

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Bringing the Middle East Back In: A New Era of Global Politics

March 6, 2011

Since 9/11, if not earlier, at least five generalizations have permeated practically all representations of the Middle East allowing for spurious claims to justify unjust, cruel and illegal acts against the people, politics, culture and history of the region. These generalizations have been exposed as myths by the nature of the popular protests that erupted in North Africa and Middle East in late 2010 and have made the first quarter of 2011 a period of significant changes. In this short price, I want to list the myths that are no longer valid and posit that wiping out these false representations may prove to be the most positive and lasting impact of the months of revolt that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

The first of these myths to be exposed as bogus, is the widespread belief in the inertia of the Arab masses. If the images of the Tunisian people’s challenges to the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali were not enough evidence of the political power of Arab societies then the scenes of millions of Egyptians, women and men, challenging Hosni Mubarak’s right to rule should dispel any misconceptions that Arabs are bound by a tradition of fatalism and despotism. Libyan, Bahraini, Moroccan and Yemeni protestors only serve to further wipe away the idea that the Middle East is unchanging and historically static.

Secondly, the idea that Islamists monopolise political opposition in the Middle East is impossible to sustain in the face of the secularism on display in Cairo, Tangiers and Benghazi. However, many reporters and Middle East “experts” seem to remain wedded to the notion that behind every event in the Arab world lurks the evil hand of radical Islamists. This notion should now be put to rest as Arab secular voices have not only drowned out the Islamists but shown the lack of relevance of Muslim politics in the shaping of the protesters demands. These secular voices have called for social justice, employment, food, and an end to the regimes corrupt activities, including privatization, austerity programs and the dismantling of the welfare states. It was jobs and dignity that drove people to the streets definitely not shar’ia or holy war.

Thirdly, the belief that “western” approval for the policies of Arab leaders automatically translates into popular appeal can no longer be taken for granted. While Arab dictators such as Ben Ali and Mubarak were popular in the White House, London, Paris and the IMF, events of the last two months have shown how despised they were in their own countries. The fate of Colonel Gaddafi now rests with his own people and not with allies in London, Rome or Washington. It should now be clear that supporting policies that promote the interests of western powers and international investors might bring Arab leaders international approval, but that such policies are highly unpopular at home and be the cause of mass uprisings such as those we have witnessed over the last month. International stability comes at a price and the Arab masses are demanding payment.

Fourth, there must no longer be serious doubts about claims of the “trickle down” associated with economic liberalisation in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon and Jordan. The countries that have experienced the largest, and angriest, mass protests have been exactly those countries that have followed the advice of the IMF most closely and received the highest acclaim from international financial institutions and the leading proponents of market fundamentalism in the developing world, namely the U.S. and the EU. Tunisian and Egyptian unemployment and poverty rates are startling when held up against the praise that these two countries have received for their economic management.  Clearly, its time to move beyond the idea that economic growth alone can address issues of poverty and underdevelopment.

Holding these myths, and others I haven’t had time to explore, up to scrutiny at this critical time, will not only show that the Arab people only seek to share the same democratic and human rights that we dearly protect, but also provide political space for “us” to rethink our own conceptualizations of the region and its people, and in doing so, dismantle the artificial barriers that so often it is believed have come to exist between Arabs and the “west”.  Tearing down this barrier will allow Arab voices into global discourses on human rights, democracy, social justice and gender rights enriching the lives of Arab people and also will enrich those discourses as well. It is this aspect of the recent events that have rocked the Middle East that will have greatest impact.

Noah Bassil