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 In this short price, I want to list the myths that are no longer valid and posit that wiping out these false representations may prove to be the most positive and lasting impact of the months of revolt that have swept across North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

The Pervasiveness of Race

July 22, 2009

Whilst the following news story ( is not directly related to the Middle East I have decided to post it anyway because of a recent debate about racism and as it provides a convenient excuse to revisit the topic on this site. What this short news story suggests is that even though institutional and legally enforced racism is less pervasive today than in previous eras where the slave trade and European colonialism produced racist doctrines premised on the superiority of the white race, there is still a resilience to racial stereotyping and more subtle forms of racism in the US, at least. I would argue that subtle and insidious forms of racism remain pervasive in the modern world more widely than just in the US . The harsh reality is that racism is as pervasive internationally as it was a century or so ago when W.E.B. Du Bois suggested that the issue of race relations would be a defining motif of the twentieth century. The events of the twentieth century have shown us how prescient Du Bois was and how relevant his comments remain as we enter into a new millennium. Today, racial differences (ethnic and religious differences as well) continue to shape the world we live in.

Read the rest of this entry »

A silence that speaks volumes about the injustice

February 2, 2009

Even Israeli jurists have nothing to say:

The 41,000 attorneys in the State of Israel are entrusted with protecting its image as a lawful state, and this large and grand army has once again strayed from its function. There is a deep suspicion throughout the world that Israel carried out a series of war crimes, and the jurists of our country are holding their peace.
Do they not know that disproportionately harming a civilian population, supply convoys and medical crews, the use of white phosphorus in the midst of population centers and indiscriminate bombings are considered war crimes? What is their response to their enraged colleagues around the world? Are they convinced that Israel carried out these crimes or not? In both instances, their voice is vital and their silence is abominable.

Panties from the Axis of Evil and other holiday gift ideas

December 22, 2008

It’s been a busy time of year, with the holidays upon us, so we haven’t been as lively as usual here at Khaldoun.  I thought I’d provide a few links to some interesting little tidbits:

– Review of a book that showcases playful Syrian lingerie: “Panties from the ‘Axis of Evil’

– In Haaretz, Akiva Eldar interviews Rashid Khalidi on a number of important political issues, including the Palestinian leadership, US foreign policy towards Israel/Palestine over the last 8 years of Bush, Israeli intellectuals, the two-state solution, and the next US administration

– Since Eid has just passed, Hanukkah started last night, and Christmas is coming in just a few days, it is a season of family, food, spiritual reflection, and shopping.  Here are a few places where you can find gifts:

  • The Sydney Jewish Museum has beautiful gifts, but you have to go into the museum to buy, they don’t have them on mail order.
  • If it’s online Judaica-themed shopping you want, or just a really flash challah cover, try Odem.
  • The Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign offers some fabulous gifts by mail order, from football/soccer jerseys in the colors of the Palestinian flag to beaded flag wristbands.
  • For stocking stuffers, I’ve been shopping at Oxfam’s fair trade shops, but if you’re looking for their delicious chocolate covered Brazil nuts, I’m afraid I’ve bought (and eaten — so much for stocking stuffers) all of the stock at the Macquarie Centre store!
  • And finally, since we started this post with Syrian lingerie, here you can buy Fitnah lingerie online (but it looks like they are catering to wholesale buyers).

Happy Eid, happy Hannukah, and merry/happy (depending on whether you speak Commonwealth or American) Christmas everyone.  Peace on Earth!
— L.L. Wynn

Racism: Arab-Black African Relations in North Africa

December 14, 2008

Dear Readers,

By now I am sure you are aware of my position on racism. In previous posts I have rallied against the Israeli state and certain segments of Israeli civil society for institutionalizing racism as a form of power over Palestinians and as a political mechanism to control national political discourse. I also have written and spoken about the scourge and legacy of colonial racism. My last post highlighted the twin forms of discrimination faced by Australian man Hussein Mumin who was both homeless and Black. I remember only too vividly how Andrew Fraser was able to gain momentary notoriety and fame (amongst a small but vocal segment of the population) for his obscene references to Black Africans- especially the Sudanese- as inferior humans, an argument he based on long discredited scientific evidence popular with Hitler and a central part of Nazi and Neo-Nazi propaganda. Before the Nazi’s, Fraser’s “science” was used by pro-slavery groups in the United States in the nineteenth century. Government silence on the issue was disquieting but even more troubling was the defence of Fraser’s right to free speech, by none other than the Minister for Education at the time, Dr Brendan Nelson. His colleague, former Federal Minister for Immigration in the last Howard government, Kevin Andrews, did not go quite as far as Fraser in his demonization of the Sudanese communities in Australia in 2007,  but skirted the edge of overt racism with his comments. The 2005 Cronulla riots, the recent bombings of Asian properties in WA and this weeks news on the anti-Semitic facebook scandal demonstrate the existence of racist attitudes in contemporary Australia. Racism remains a major issue for contemporary societies and the election of Barak Obama, while promising , should not deflect us from the reality of the continuing problems associated with racism throughout the world.

But in this post I want to focus not on Australia but on the recent racist trends in the North African context. Read the rest of this entry »

The UAE: Paris of the East?

September 17, 2008

It seems from this short piece in the SMH/Guardian that the Emirates is remaking itself in the image of the “West”. But this attachment to western-centricism is at the cost of emphasising the rich historical culture of Arabia and its surrounds. The Gulf has also had a longer historical connection with both the east, India, Persia and China, and with the East African coastline, than with Western Europe. The effort shown by the rulers of the Emirates to replicate the “west” in Arabia is most unfortunate, not because the best of western culture is not impressive, but that it ignores the richness of the eastern and African culture achievements and also those of the Americas and the Pacific. Most of all it belies the claim made in the article by Sheikh Mohammed that the planned projects will help “interconencted global understanding” as a project of truly global projections would provide space for attractions that represent the cultural achievements from all around the world. I can’t help but see the project of westernising the Emirates as part of the reaction of some Islamic elites to the “clash of civilizations” discourse and the aggressive assault on non-western culture by neo-conservatives in the US and elsewhere. Looking forward to some debate regarding this, even if this is not an entry about Israel.

Noah Bassil

Australian “Sorry”and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict revisited

March 24, 2008

News of Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to the Stolen Generation has reached the Middle East. In Al-Ahram, a Cairo based Arabic daily newspaper author Shahira Samy praises the Labour government for its apology to indigenous Australians. This piece, written with the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict made me wonder what might be achieved if Israel was to take a momentous first step and admit liability for the refugee problem just as Kevin Rudd has in regards of the Stolen Generation. Reading the article authored by Samy, “When Australia said Sorry” made me realise that peace in the Middle East hinges on symbolic gestures as much as it does on land allocation. Recognition of the right of Israel to exist, which has been extended by the Palestinians and some Middle East Governments, is just such a gesture. In return, the Israeli’s have not offered any similar gesture failing to even recognise the dispossession of the Palestinians or suffering it has caused in the sixty years of its existence. This is not surprising as Israel was founded on a myth that “Palestine was a land without a people, for a people without a land”. The millions of Palestinian refugees and years of bloodshed have proven the fallacy of this peice of Zionist propaganda. (Let it be said also that the same Rudd government that has been widely commended for extending an apology to indigenous Australians failed to recognise the plight of the Palestinians when on Wednesday 12 March, 2008 it congratulated Israel for reaching its sixty year anniversary. The unfortunate irony of this has been pointed out by Jumana in an earlier posting and by Alan Ramsay in, “Don’t Mention the War” 8 March, 2008.)

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is but one example of how much progress is possible when people are willing to make symbolic gestures that express their contrition and seek forgiveness. All Australians fortunate enough to feel the positive force of the Rudd Government’s apology (on behalf of the Australian people), and the acceptance of the apology by indigneous Australians, understand very clearly that symbolic gestures have the power to heal. Conversely without such symbolism very little progress is possible. In both examples mentioned here, much is still left to resolve. South Africa’s people have many bridges to still cross before the legacies of Apartheid are erased. Australia, in a similar way, must make a huge effort to tackle the structural poverty and the concomitant social problems experienced throughout many of Australia’s indigenous communities. But, in both cases the essential first step of admitting the policies of the past were racist, oppressive and unjust was made and the struggle to acheive a more tolerant and harmonious future is being undertaken. The Israelis and Palestinians would both acheive much just by just saying sorry.  

It seems to me then that the first crucial step in promoting peace in the region depends on genuine statements of the recognition of the humanity of the other side. I believe that the initial gesture must come from the Israeli’s who must accept that the act of dispossessing the Palestinians has created the problem of “two people for one land”. What is possible from that point on is conjecture, but just as in the case of South Africa and in Australia the recognition that past wrongs were committed and that land was taken from its original owners has led to accommodation and cooperation and efforts aimed at constructing a more tolerant and mutually beneficial future. Such statements do not necessarily lead to the repossession of lands taken from the original owners. In both South Africa and Australia the redistribution of wealth or property has not eventuated. A statement of contrition, and acceptance of blame, has no bearing on land but is a moral issue of the highest order and a crucial initial step towards building a lasting peace in the region.

The Middle East has accommodated difference for hundreds of years and there is nothing that pre-determines that this should not occur again. I await a historic gesture from the Israeli’s that recognises the tragic past and accepting blame for the wrongs committed as the crucial moment that divides a past marked by conflict between Israeli’s and Arabs with a future of dialogue leading to peace. Without this gesture, I fear that the future will remain unchanged and both Israeli’s and Palestinians will continue to live in fear and hatred of each of other.

Noah Bassil