“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

Paul McGeough on Hamas

February 12, 2009

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Middle East correspondent, Paul McGeough, is interviewed by Katia Bachko in the latest issue of Columbia Journalism Review.  McGeough is working on a book that explores Hamas’ 20-year history, and so in this interview he reflects on what it means to represent key players in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the face of the kinds of gross simplifications that often circulate in the media, but he also looks at what Hamas is, what the organization means to Palestinians, and what it means to Israelis.  Here’s an excerpt:

To simply state that somebody is a moderate or somebody is a militant, and expect the reader to use that as the sole description or descriptor of an individual or an organization, doesn’t deliver all that could be delivered. You’re talking about Hamas? Hamas are militants, yes, they are militants who appealed to Palestinians at an election that was supervised by Western observers and deemed to be fair, and Palestinians chose the militants not necessarily because of their militancy, but because of their belief in them on a whole range of issues. And then you have to ask, “if they’re militants, if they are terrorists, how did they get to be allowed to contest an election? Who let them contest an election?” Israelis allowed them to contest the election, Americans allowed them to contest the election, Fatah allowed them to contest the election.Right up until that first election that Hamas contested in 2006, Hamas had been saying, “We represent about fifty percent of Palestinian public opinion, therefore we should be accorded that level of representation in various Palestinian forums.” And everyone laughed, and said no, that’s not true, that’s not right, and so they allowed them to contest the election. Even though they had refused to renounce violence. There’s not too many militant or nationalist or liberation groups that have been allowed to contest elections without renouncing violence. They were allowed to do so, and they won the election. That has to count for something in your assessment in where Hamas stands in Palestinian affairs, and in the region.

He also asks: what is Fatah, that Hamas could beat them in this election?  He does a good job of showing us the complexities behind easy words like “moderate” and “terrorist,” what makes Hamas as an organization that uses terror different from a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda, and how deeply hated corrupt Fatah had become by the time it was elected out of power.

–L.L. Wynn

And the media cheers on …..

January 9, 2009

The following article by Saree Makdisi deals with the bias against Palestinians in various media outlets in the US and, perhaps more interestingly, discusses the troubling racism that underpins Israel’s actions in Gaza – from the blockade to the siege. Two notable sections include

1. ‘Listen to the words of Professor Arnon Sofer, the government consultant who did so much to help plan the isolation and imprisonment of Gaza, in a interview with the Jerusalem Post in 2004: “When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,” Sofer predicted. “Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure on the border is going to be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” Sofer admitted only one worry with all the killing, which will, he says, be the necessary outcome of a policy that he himself helped to invent. “The only thing that concerns me,” he says, “is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.” ’

2. ‘Starting the attacks on a Saturday was a “stroke of brilliance,” the Guardian’s Seamus Milne quotes the country’s biggest selling paper Yediot Aharonot as saying; “the element of surprise increased the number of people who were killed.” The daily Ma’ariv agreed: “We left them in shock and awe.” ’

The full article can be found in Counterpunch

Paul McGeough on the Gaza siege

January 5, 2009

It is generally difficult to find a comprehensive article on the Middle East, especially with regards to Israel and Palestine, in the Australian press.  It can be argued that for a conflict that has gone on for so many years more detailed articles that engage with the immediate causes along with the historical context of the crisis taking place are impossible.  Journalists are constrained by deadlines, word length and limitations in their own knowledge of the political and historical setting.  However, Paul McGeough’s contribution to the Sydney Morning Hearld illustrates that it is not impossible to write an article that fleshes out the debates and context surrounding the Gaza siege …….   


Israel takes little comfort from Obama

Paul McGeough
January 3, 2009


In July Barack Obama sought to boost his Jewish vote back in America with an emotional stump-speech in Sderot, a community in Israel which is a target for much of the Palestinian rocket-fire from Gaza.


Referring to his children Malia, 9, and Sasha, 7, the then US presidential candidate said: “If somebody is sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that – and I’d expect Israelis to do the same thing.”


This week, however, Obama had no such words of comfort for Anwar Balousha. A 40-year-old father from Gaza who describes himself as a factional agnostic, Balousha had to bury five of his daughters – Tahrir, 17, Ikram, 14, Samar, 13, Dina, 8, and Jawaher, 4 – after they were killed when their home was destroyed in an Israeli missile-strike on a nearby mosque.


Obama was monitoring the situation “along with other global events”, a spokesman said. Monitoring? It sounded like a line from the Bush school of loose linguistics, where “immediate” and “ceasefire” are coupled to be heard by one audience as an instinctive, human appeal to halt a brutal war, while the meaning conveyed to others is approval to press their attack. Read the rest of this entry »

Obama and the Middle East, part II: Emanuel redux

November 14, 2008

In the early 1990s, my best friend Joel and I both moved out the apartment we shared in New York’s West Village.  He was a photographer and artist, and I was a bit lost and trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I moved to Saudi Arabia to live with my parents and teach at a Saudi girls’ school, while Joel moved to Israel and joined the Israeli army, a first step towards gaining Israeli citizenship.  I was politically naive then, though I was vaguely aware of the way the Israeli state treated Palestinians because my father had told me about the time he traveled from Jordan to Israel and, crossing the Allenby Bridge, decided to go through the side of the checkpoint reserved for Arabs, instead of going through the tourist side.  My dad told me about how he saw first hand the way the soldiers verbally and physically abused Palestinians, while on the other side it was all welcoming cheer.  “Welcome to Israel! Have a great visit!  Want to stay on a kibbutz?”

So I didn’t think much of Joel’s decision to move to Israel and join the Israeli army, but I didn’t see it as a young man’s political statement; I saw it as a longing to simultaneously inject some military discipline into his bohemian life, escape the reach of his parents, and find his imagined roots (though none of his relatives were Israeli and as an Ashkenazi Jew he traced his heritage back to Eastern Europe).

Since there were no direct phone lines between Saudi Arabia and Israel, we really had to work hard to be able to talk to each other on the phone, but through some strange procedures that I don’t even remember, we somehow managed.  I remember once I called him and I asked him how his attempt to learn Hebrew was going.  He told me that it was going well, and that he was even learning some Arabic.  I asked him what he had learned.  He said, in Arabic, “Show me your identity card!” and “put your hands up!” and “Drop to the ground!”

“Is that all you’ve learned?” I asked him.  “You haven’t made any Palestinian friends?  You just order them around?”  Yes, he told me.  The only Arabs he knew were some dirty cheating people who ran a hummus shop in Jerusalem. They weren’t the sort that he wanted to hang out with.

I thought of this incident when I read about Rahm Emanuel’s repudiation of the remarks his father made to an Israeli newspaper when it asked the senior Emanuel about his son’s likely influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East.   News outlets are widely reporting that the elder Emanuel said to the Israeli newspaper Ma’Ariv, “Obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Israel & Iran – War or Dialogue @Politics in the Pub

October 16, 2008

17th of October 2008


Antony Lowenstein, Author ‘My Israel Question’.
Noah Bassil, Acting Director, Centre for Middle East and North African Studies,  Macquarie University

All are welcome.

Discussion starts at 6pm and ceases promptly at 7.45pm

The venue for Politics In the Pub is the Gaelic Club, Level 1 (Tel. 9212 1587) 64 Devonshire St., Surry Hills

That’s just across from the Chalmers St exit and Devonshire St tunnel at Central Station.
Parking is usually available in side streets.

For more info, please visit http://www.politicsinthepub.org/

Blogging and Facebook politics on Arab Media & Society

October 2, 2008

Arab Media & Society, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, is a really exciting publication that is a kind of hybrid breed, combining the reader-friendly layout, graphics, and images of a magazine with in-depth academic analysis.  The current Fall 2008 issue has a lot of interest, from an analysis of the rhetoric and media techniques of Beshir Gemayal, featuring video and English translations of his speeches, to three articles on cyberpolitics in the Egyptian world: two analysing the Egyptian blogosphere, and one on Facebook politics.  There’s also an analysis of what the rise in private media outlets means for Indonesia, and a look at the reception of Deutsche Welle in the Arab world.

–L.L. Wynn