Backlash and Backtrack


For the seven million Americans who are Muslims (only two million of them Arab) and have lived through the catastrophe and backlash of 11 September, it’s been a harrowing, especially unpleasant time. In addition to the fact that there have been several Arab and Muslim innocent casualties of the atrocities, there is an almost palpable air of hatred directed at the group as a whole that has taken many forms. George W Bush immediately seemed to align America and God with each other, declaring war on the “folks” — who are now, as he says, wanted dead or alive — who perpetrated the horrible deeds. And this means, as no one needs any further reminding, that Osama Bin Laden, the elusive Muslim fanatic who represents Islam to the vast majority of Americans, has taken centre stage. TV and radio have run file pictures and potted accounts of the shadowy (former playboy, they say) extremist almost incessantly, as they have of the Palestinian women and children caught “celebrating” America’s tragedy.

Pundits and hosts refer non-stop to “our” war with Islam, and words like “jihad” and “terror” have aggravated the understandable fear and anger that seem widespread all over the country. Two people (one a Sikh) have already been killed by enraged citizens who seem to have been encouraged by remarks like Defence Department official Paul Wolfowitz’s to literally think in terms of “ending countries” and nuking our enemies. Hundreds of Muslim and Arab shopkeepers, students, hijab-ed women and ordinary citizens have had insults hurled at them, while posters and graffiti announcing their imminent death spring up all over the place. The director of the leading Arab-American organisation told me this morning that he averages 10 messages an hour of insult, threat, bloodcurdling verbal attack. A Gallup poll released yesterday states that 49 per cent of the American people said yes (49 per cent no) to the idea that Arabs, including those who are American citizens, should carry special identification; 58 per cent demand (41 per cent don’t) that Arabs, including those who are Americans, should undergo special, more intense security checks in general.

Then, the official bellicosity slowly diminishes as George W discovers that his allies are not quite as unrestrained as he is, as (undoubtedly) some of his advisers, chief among them the altogether more sensible-seeming Colin Powell, suggest that invading Afghanistan is not quite as simple as sending in the Texas militias might have been, even as the enormously confused reality forced on him and his staff dissipates the simple Manichean imagery of good versus evil that he has been maintaining on behalf of his people. A noticeable de-escalation sets in, even though reports of police and FBI harassment of Arabs and Muslim continue to flood in. Bush visits a Washington mosque; he calls on community leaders and the Congress to damp down hate speech; he starts trying to make at least rhetorical distinctions between “our” Arab and Muslim friends (the usual ones — Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) and the still undisclosed terrorists. In his speech to the joint session of Congress, Bush did say that the US is not at war with Islam, but said regrettably nothing about the rising wave of both incidents and rhetoric that has assailed Muslims, Arabs and people resembling Middle Easterners all across the country. Powell here and there expresses displeasure with Israel and Sharon for exploiting the crisis by oppressing Palestinians still more, but the general impression is that US policy is still on the same course it has always been on — only now a huge war seems to be in the making.

But there is little positive knowledge of the Arabs and Islam in the public sphere to fall back on and balance the extremely negative images that float around: the stereotypes of lustful, vengeful, violent, irrational, fanatical people persist anyway. Palestine as a cause has not yet gripped the imagination here, especially not after the Durban conference. Even my own university, justly famous for its intellectual diversity and the heterogeneity of its students and staff, rarely offers a course on the Qur’an. Philip Hitti’s History of the Arabs, by far the best modern, one-volume book in English on the subject, is out of print. Most of what is available is polemical and adversarial: the Arabs and Islam are occasions for controversy, not cultural and religious subjects like others. Film and TV are packed with horrendously unattractive, bloody- minded Arab terrorists; they were there, alas, before the terrorists of the World Trade Center and Pentagon hijacked the planes and turned them into instruments of a mass slaughter that reeks of criminal pathology much more than of any religion.

There seems to be a minor campaign in the print media to hammer home the thesis that “we are all Israelis now,” and that what has occasionally occurred in the way of Palestinian suicide bombs is more or less exactly the same as the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. In the process, of course, Palestinian dispossession and oppression are simply erased from memory; also erased are the many Palestinian condemnations of suicide bombing, including my own. The overall result is that any attempt to place the horrors of what occurred on 11 September in a context that includes US actions and rhetoric is either attacked or dismissed as somehow condoning the terrorist bombardment.

Intellectually, morally, politically such an attitude is disastrous since the equation between understanding and condoning is profoundly wrong, and very far from being true. What most Americans find difficult to believe is that in the Middle East and Arab world US actions as a state — unconditional support for Israel, the sanctions against Iraq that have spared Saddam Hussein and condemned hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis to death, disease, malnutrition, the bombing of Sudan, the US “green light” for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon (during which almost 20,000 civilians lost their lives, in addition to the massacres of Sabra and Shatila), the use of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf generally as a private US fiefdom, the support of repressive Arab and Islamic regimes — are deeply resented and, not incorrectly, are seen as being done in the name of the American people. There is an enormous gap between what the average American citizen is aware of and the often unjust and heartless policies that, whether or not he/she is conscious of them, are undertaken abroad. Every US veto of a UN Security resolution condemning Israel for settlements, the bombing of civilians, and so forth, may be brushed aside by, say, the residents of Iowa or Nebraska as unimportant events and probably correct, whereas to an Egyptian, Palestinian or Lebanese citizen these things are wounding in the extreme, and remembered very precisely.

In other words, there is a dialectic between specific US actions on the one hand and consequent attitudes towards America on the other hand that has literally very little to do with jealousy or hatred of America’s prosperity, freedom, and all-round success in the world. On the contrary, every Arab or Muslim that I have ever spoken to expressed mystification as to why so extraordinarily rich and admirable a place as America (and so likeable a group of individuals as Americans) has behaved internationally with such callous obliviousness of lesser peoples. Surely also, many Arabs and Muslims are aware of the hold on US policy of the pro-Israeli lobby and the dreadful racism and fulminations of pro-Israeli publications like The New Republic or Commentary, to say nothing of bloodthirsty columnists like Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, George Will, Norman Podhoretz, and A M Rosenthal, whose columns regularly express hatred and hostility towards Arabs and Muslims. These are usually to be found in the mainstream media (e.g., the editorial pages of The Washington Post) where everyone can read them as such, rather than being buried in the back pages of marginal publications.

So we are living through a period of turbulent, volatile emotion and deep apprehension, with the promise of more violence and terrorism dominating consciousness, especially in New York and Washington, where the terrible atrocities of 11 September are still very much alive in the public awareness. I certainly feel it, as does everyone around me.

But what is nevertheless encouraging, despite the appalling general media performance, is the slow emergence of dissent, petitions for peaceful resolution and action, a gradually spreading, if still very spotty, relatively small demand for alternatives to more bombing and destruction. This kind of thoughtfulness has been very remarkable, in my opinion. First of all, there have been very widely expressed concerns about what may be the erosion of civil liberties and individual privacy as the government demands, and seems to be getting, the powers to wire-tap telephones, to arrest and detain Middle Eastern people on suspicion of terrorism, and generally to induce a state of alarm, suspicion, and mobilisation that could amount to paranoia resembling McCarthyism. Depending on how one reads it, the American habit of flying the flag everywhere can seem patriotic of course, but patriotism can also lead to intolerance, hate crimes, and all sorts of unpleasant collective passion. Numerous commentators have warned about this and, as I said earlier, even the president in his speech said that “we” are not at war with Islam or Muslim people. But the danger is there, and has been duly noted by other commentators, I am happy to say.

Second, there have been many calls and meetings to address the whole matter of military action, which according to a recent poll, 92 per cent of the American people seem to want. Because, however, the administration hasn’t exactly specified what the aims of this war are (“eradicating terrorism” is more metaphysical than it is actual), nor the means, nor the plan, there is considerable uncertainty as to where we may be going militarily. But generally speaking the rhetoric has become less apocalyptic and religious — the idea of a crusade has disappeared almost completely — and more focused on what might be necessary beyond general words like “sacrifice” and “a long war, unlike any others.” In universities, colleges, churches and meeting-houses there are a great many debates on what the country should be doing in response; I have even heard that families of the innocent victims have said in public that they do not believe military revenge is an appropriate response. The point is that there is considerable reflection at large as to what the US should be doing, but I am sorry to report that the time for a critical examination of US policies in the Middle East and Islamic worlds has not yet arrived. I hope that it will.

If only more Americans and others can grasp that the main long-range hope for the world is this community of conscience and understanding, that whether in the protection of constitutional rights, or in reaching out to the innocent victims of American power (as in Iraq), or in relying on understanding and rational analysis “we” can do a great deal better than we have so far done. Of course this won’t lead directly to changed policies on Palestine, or a less skewed defence budget, or more enlightened environmental and energy attitudes: but where else but in this sort of decent back-tracking is there room for hope? Perhaps this constituency may grow in the United States, but speaking as a Palestinian, I must also hope that a similar constituency should be emerging in the Arab and Muslim world. We must start thinking about ourselves as responsible for the poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, and repression that have come to dominate our societies, evils that we have allowed to grow despite our complaints about Zionism and imperialism. How many of us, for example, have openly and honestly stood up for secular politics and have condemned the use of religion in the Islamic world as roundly and as earnestly as we have denounced the manipulation of Judaism and Christianity in Israel and the West? How many of us have denounced all suicidal missions as immoral and wrong, even though we have suffered the ravages of colonial settlers and inhuman collective punishment? We can no longer hide behind the injustices done to us, anymore than we can passively bewail the American support for our unpopular leaders. A new secular Arab politics must now make itself known, without for a moment condoning or supporting the militancy (it is madness) of people willing to kill indiscriminately. There can be no more ambiguity on that score.

I have been arguing for years that our main weapons as Arabs today are not military but moral, and that one reason why, unlike the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Palestinian struggle for self- determination against Israeli oppression has not caught the world’s imagination is that we cannot seem to be clear about our goals and our methods, and we have not stated unambiguously enough that our purpose is coexistence and inclusion, not exclusivism and a return to some idyllic and mythical past. The time has come for us to be forthright and to start immediately to examine, re-examine and reflect on our own policies as so many Americans and Europeans are now doing. We should expect no less of ourselves than we should of others. Would that all people took the time to try to see where our leaders seem to be taking us, and for what reason. Scepticism and re- evaluation are necessities, not luxuries.