“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

Back to the Future: Tunisians and Egyptians and Pan Arabism

February 13, 2011

Much of the “western” media hype over the last month has been focused on the threat of radical Islamism in the Middle East. Almost ad naseum, media commentators have continually returned to the topic of the threat of Islamist parties when reporting on the protests in Tunisia and Algeria and have shown almost total disbelief when they have been confronted with evidence, whether images and reports from the scenes or expert commentary, proving the secular credentials of the uprisings.

What events in Tunisia and Egypt is clearly showing is that this threat holds a significant place in the western imaginary of the Middle East, as much as camels, flying carpets and harems. This despite the reality that it has not been Islamists who have dominated the scenes in Tunis and Cairo.One journalist who has picked up on the weakness of radical Islam in the Middle East is Paul McGeough (http://www.smh.com.au/world/alqaeda-lost-on-the-arab-street-20110204-1aguj.html).  And despite my general agreement  with Paul MacGeough’s overall argument that current Middle East protests show how much ground Islamists have lost amongst the youth in the Middle East, I think that his assertion that youth have chosen Ipods, Starbucks and McDonald’s over Islamic terrorism may technically be correct but still far short of the reality. Sure, young people in Tahrir Square prefer surfing the net to strapping themselves with explosives and bringing down a airliner, or a Big Mac to beheading  unbelievers, but this doesn’t tell us much at all. Rather, what we should be examining is the slogans of the protesters, and in the void that is often called journalism not much of this has been done in the reporting over Tunisia and more recently, Egypt.

So fascinated is the western media with the Islamist angle that they have all but missed the undercurrent of the pan-Arab nationalism which has been at the forefront of the protesters banners and chants. They have missed that what people in the Middle East are protesting for is not for their states to vanish, as wishful conservative and neo-liberal advocates would want, but that they want their states to protect them from the inequality and alienation that the market creates.  Tunisia and Egypt are certainly not Islamist revolutions, but they maybe somewhat red in colour, at least “red”  in the sense of the social democratic principles of the 1960s and of the era of Nasserism.

While the west focuses on the illusion of Islamism, something potentially more dangerous to the post Cold War Pax Americana is emerging from Tunis and Cairo.  This Pax American which has been based on free market fundamentalism and on the ideal that social welfare and distributing wealth should be the responsibility of markets and not of governments is under siege from a number of directions and the Arab uprisings add another volatile front in the struggle against US imperialism in the form of neo-liberalism.

These are very exciting times, not only because of the monumental changes that have resulted from the forced resignations of two of the world’s longest serving dictators, both very close allies of the supposedly pro-democracy “west”, but because the Arab revolutions are symbolic of the mounting global resistance to a system that promotes inequality, alienation, and marginalisation. Freedom is the only promise that neo-liberalism has delivered to most people around the world, that is a freedom to be unemployed, hungry and homeless. For the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square the revolution begins not with overthrowing Mubarak but with unravelling the “economic miracle” (IMF actually awarded Egypt with the title of the best reforming economy in the world) that has left 40% of Egyptians earning less than $2 a day. Time will tell how much reform of the neo-liberal economy Mubarak’s successors will allow but irrespective of what happens in the coming days, weeks and months in Egypt, the winds of change are blowing, and the struggle for social democracy has begun.

Noah Bassil

The Pervasiveness of Race

July 22, 2009

Whilst the following news story (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/21/henry-louis-gates-jr-arrest-harvard) 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.

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The intentional humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

January 21, 2009

There has been a lot of discussion in the press, not to mention on this board, about the Israel’s motivations in Operation Cast Lead. Many will claim that Olmert, Barak and Livini’s main aim was to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel and threatening its population. “Security for Israel” and “Israel has a right to defend itself” are the most often repeated mantras from Israeli officials, their sympathisers and allies. Others on this blog, including myself, have made a case that this war was not about the rockets given that the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas had worked effectively and put an end to hostile fire across the border. Other secondary Israeli motivations include its upcoming elections in February, the outgoing US President Bush and the need for the IDF to restore its reputation after it failed to defeat Hezbollah in 2006.

This 22 day war produced a staggering number of dead civilians – over 1300 – and scores more wounded (estimates range between 4000-5000). Just like the thousand-plus Lebanese civilians who died in 2006, Gaza’s dead have also been reduced to a sad consequence of the war. Casualties are to be expected during such periods of hostility and if they are not intentional then it is somewhat excusable. Following this logic means Israel is, yet again, immune from condemnation and, worse still, from being held to account for its war crimes. Again I have elsewhere argued, following Mirko Bagaric, that the only thing that matters in war are the consequences. This includes the dead civilians even if they are accidently caught in the cross-fire.

Israel and its supporters would like the world to believe that the 1300 dead Gazans are the unavoidable costs of the war. This, however, is not the case. It seems, as Ben White writes in The Guardian, that Israel did deliberately target civilians as part of its war strategy. He writes:

There is . . . no shortage of evidence available that points to rather different Israeli aims [for the war other than Palestinian rockets, Israeli elections, and deterrence] . . . Politicians, diplomats and journalists are by and large shying away from the obvious, namely that Israel has been deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians and the very infrastructure of normal life, in order to – in the best colonial style – teach the natives a lesson.

White goes on list “three alternative purposes” behind the operation in Gaza which move beyond the generic explanations. His three findings are summarised below:

1. The first aim is to humiliate and weaken Hamas. On the one hand, this seems obvious, but contrary to how the goal is often understood, this is not primarily to protect the Israeli public – as pointed out previously, ceasefires and negotiations are far more likely to deliver security for Israeli citizens – but rather it is a political goal. Hamas had withstood isolation, a siege, mass arrests, and an attempted western-backed coup. Moreover, cracks were appearing in the international community’s resolve to parrot Israel’s line on Hamas. The group, with its resilience and ability to deliver on negotiated ceasefires, was threatening the chance to make a deal with the Ramallah “moderates” [i.e. Abbas and the PA].

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Israel: When is a Rogue State not a Rogue State.

January 12, 2009

In an earlier post JBayeh quoting from Saree Makdisi revealed that the language and philosophy that the Israeli state projects outwards is very different from the language and philosophy of state employed internally. The spokespeople for the Israeli government and military knowingly spin the realities of their policies in a way that promotes Israel as an internationally responsible member of the “community of states” while engaging in a litany of abuses and crimes against the Palestinians that flagrantly contravene international norms and international laws.

However, somehow the Israeli state is still able to effectively promote itself as a “responsible” and upright member of the international system. For example, last week Mark Regev (spokesman for the Prime Minister of Israel and an advisor on foreign press and public affairs) appeared on the 7:30 Report where he said all the right things about human rights and minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza which was only middy challenged by the interviewer Scott Bevan. When Regev  uttered a most incredible statement that “we want to cooperate with the United Nations, as I just said we have a good relationship with the United Nations”  Bevan  launched no objections despite a long history of Israeli transgressions against the UN, international law and international public opinion. Interestingly, just to add insult to injury in regards to the acceptance of the Israeli projection of itself as having a “good international standing”, only yesterday, the 10 January, the UN decided to return to Gaza because it had received assurances, not from Hamas, but from Israel that UN humanitarian workers would not be fired on. And yet in this context, it is Hamas which is still demonized by the “western” media and politicians who still portray Israel as the moral victim. The following is a brief and incomplete list of Israel’s violations of international law, their failure to comply with UN resolutions and the consistent Israeli disregard for international conventions that characterises Israel’s relationship with the international system.

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More Gaza analysis and links to petitions

January 2, 2009

Below are some links to analysis on the latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza and its representation in the media. Following that is a section with links to petitions being circulated by a variety of groups and info to help you draft your own letter to your local media and elected representatives. And finally, a poem for the New Year.


First, Dr Mustafa Barghouthi analyzes the Israeli public relations myths that are being used to justify this and other acts of oppression in Palestine. Note Barghouthi’s sixth point (Israel claims to be attacking Hamas, not Gaza or the Palestinian people) and notice that the American media now uniformly describes these Israeli atrocities as an action in self-defense being taken against Hamas. Another common trope, notable for its sheer racism, is that the events are part of a pattern of brutal violence that is routine in the Middle East and that Palestinians (and Arabs more generally) only understand violence.

Second, the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis argues that “Israel’s illegal airstrikes against the population of Gaza have little to do with protecting Israeli civilians…. They are used for internal Israeli politics and are also meant to push back any chance of serious negotiations between the parties that might have been part of the Obama administration’s plans.”

Petitions and letters to elected representatives

The Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP)-International is circulating a petition condemning the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza. To sign the petition and see a letter from Dr. Kamalain Shaath, the President of The Islamic University, go to: http://office.ffipp.org/sites/all/modules/civicrm/extern/url.php?u=23869&qid=16080.

To view and sign the Avaaz petition protesting Israeli action, go to http://www.avaaz.org/en/gaza_time_for_peace/?cl=162597052&v=2609. If you’re on Facebook (i.e. those of you not in Syria!), you may also consider joining the Avaaz Facebook group.

J-Street, a Jewish-led progressive Israel lobby calling for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire, has a petition you can sign at http://action.jstreet.org/t/3251/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=508&tag=gaza-fwd.

At the website of Princeton Committee on Palestine, a student group I used to belong to, you can find a sample letter that you can personalize, sign, print and send (or fax) to your local elected representatives to ask them to protest Israel’s attack on Gaza: http://www.princeton.edu/~pcp

Also, the ADC has drafted a set of talking points to help people write about and discuss the issues.

Fri Jan 2, 12:55pm UPDATE:  March in Sydney

If you’re based in Sydney, like most of the contributors to this blog, you might be interested in participating in the  Protest for Gaza, Sunday 4th January at 2:00pm.  Meet at Town Hall, march to the Egyptian consulate and then to Belmore Park.

…and a poem for the New year

Finally, in honour of the New Year and all of our wishes for peace, and because I thought all of our souls could use a bit of poetry to give us strength in the face of the depressing barrage of news about war, I thought I would reproduce this poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which is a favorite of mine. I had always sung it as a hymn at church, but recently found the full text of the poem which includes several stanzas not included in the hymn version.

Ring out, wild bells

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Iraqi resistance literature

September 12, 2008

Dr Ziad Mouna of Cadmus Press just sent me some information in Arabic about a new book of short stories that Cadmus is publishing by an Iraqi writer, Kulshan al-Bayati.   The book’s title translates as “Ravings Under Occupation.”

Here’s a translation of the book’s back cover into English:

Occupation is an ugly crime that pushes a person to madness, ravings, and chatter; one is transformed by it into otherness, into a different being.

Under occupation, people rave in an unnatural way, chatter unnaturally, and behave differently, expressing their rejection of the invasion and its inhuman, immoral outcomes.

When Baghdad fell under invasion, Baghdad itself raved, its people raved as had never before been seen in the history of mental illnesses that have afflicted them…

Ravings Under Occupation is a literary work that brings together a collection of the ravings of people both aware and unaware. They rave under the effect of the occupation: ravings of the Iraqi resistance fighter who fights the occupation to the teeth; ravings of the lowliest agent who despises himself; ravings of those who were murdered mistakenly; ravings of women mourning the loss of their children and husbands; ravings of a poet who lost his verse; ravings of the lovers whose right to love in their homeland was crucified; ravings of the chief coroner in Baghdad who cannot halt the dead piling up in morgue refrigerators; ravings of the killed and the killers; ravings of the martyrs before their lord; ravings of the Caliphs of Baghdad and their women, one after the other; ravings of her [Baghdad’s] scholars and intellectuals; ravings of her idiots and simpletons. Read the rest of this entry »