“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


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


After Ben-Ali: Is Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir next?

January 31, 2011

International focus over the last few weeks, quite rightly, has been on the momentuous events that led to the downfall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia and more recently the massive upsurge in popular protests in Egypt, principally centred on Cairo.   However, while Egypt and Tunisia (to a lesser extent Yemen) have been in the news and discussed by international leaders and in international forums, other states in the region have also experienced major political crises.  One such state is Sudan which had been the focus of media attention as the southern part of the country went to the polls to decide on whether there would be unity between north and south or separation. The result surprised no-one with almost 99% of southern Sudanese voting for seccession.

In more recent days, though, the Sudan has been experiencing the same level of popular discontent with the ruling party that we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt. Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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


Humanitarian aid for Gaza.

February 6, 2009

As if the blockade against Gaza and the war against Gaza were not bad enough ……

Israeli Navy intercepts aid boat bound for desperate Gaza

BEIRUT: A Lebanese aid ship bound for Gaza was fired upon and boarded by the Israeli Navy on Thursday, the trip’s organizers and journalists onboard have said. Israeli officials initially refused to verify the reports, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak then confirmed that the ship had been boarded and was being escorted to the Israeli coastal town of Ashdod.
….
The Togolese-flagged Tali was trying to deliver about 60 tons of aid, including medical supplies, food and children’s toys, to the besieged Gaza Strip, still in the midst of a humanitarian crisis after Israel’s three week bombardment on the impoverished territory in December and January that left over 1,300 dead and thousands homeless.
….
Al-Jazeera journalist Salam Khoder, who was aboard, said the ship had been boarded and that crewmembers were being assaulted. “There are Israeli soldiers who actually have boarded the vessel … They are … beating and kicking us,” he said before, according to Al-Jazeera, the line went dead.