[Reader-list] Edward Said in Al-Ahram Weekly (cairo)

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Fri Oct 5 19:07:05 IST 2001

Backlash and backtrack

Edward Said

Al-Ahram Weekly Online
27 Sep. - 3 Oct. 2001
Issue No.553

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

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

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.

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