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Backlash and Backtrack
- 10/12/01 - by Edward Said
Time for Intellectual Honesty:
There Are Many Islams

- 9/16/01 - by Edward Said

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 center 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 Defense 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 organization 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 fulmination's 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 mobilization 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 defense 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, th 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. Skepticism and re-evaluation are necessities, not luxuries.


Time for Intellectual Honesty:

There Are Many Islams
- 9/16/01 - by Edward Said

Spectacular horror of the sort that struck New York (and to a lesser degree Washington) has ushered in a new world of unseen, unknown assailants, terror missions without political message, senseless destruction.
            For the residents of this wounded city, the consternation, fear, and sustained sense of outrage and shock will certainly continue for a long time, as will the genuine sorrow and affliction that so much carnage has so cruelly imposed on so many.
            New Yorkers have been fortunate that Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a normally rebarbative and unpleasantly combative, even retrograde figure, has rapidly attained Churchillian status. Calmly, unsentimentally, and with extraordinary compassion, he has marshalled the city's heroic police, fire and emergency services to admirable effect and, alas, with huge loss of life. Giuliani's was the first voice of caution against panic and jingoistic attacks on the city's large Arab and Muslim communities, the first to express the commonsense of anguish, the first to press everyone to try to resume life after the shattering blows.
            Would that that were all. The national television reporting has of course brought the horror of those dreadful winged juggernauts into every household, unremittingly, insistently, not always edifyingly. Most commentary has stressed, indeed magnified, the expected and the predictable in what most Americans feel: terrible loss, anger, outrage, a sense of violated vulnerability, a desire for vengeance and un-restrained retribution. Beyond formulaic expressions of grief and patriotism, every politician and accredited pundit or expert has dutifully repeated how we shall not be defeated, not be deterred, not stop until terrorism is exterminated. This is a war against terrorism, everyone says, but where, on what fronts, for what concrete ends? No answers are provided, except the vague suggestion that the Middle East and Islam are what 'we' are up against, and that terrorism must be destroyed.
            What is most depressing, however, is how little time is spent trying to understand America's role in the world, and its direct involvement in the complex reality beyond the two coasts that have for so long kept the rest of the world extremely distant and virtually out of the average American's mind. You'd think that 'America' was a sleeping giant rather than a superpower almost constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all over the Islamic domains. Osama bin Laden's name and face have become so numbingly familiar to Americans as in effect to obliterate any history he and his shadowy followers might have had before they became stock symbols of everything loathsome and hateful to the collective imagination.
            Inevitably, then, collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly reconfigured geography of conflict, without clear borders, or visible actors. Manichaean symbols and apocalyptic scenarios are bandied about with future consequences and rhetorical restraint thrown to the winds.
            Rational understanding of the situation is what is needed now, not more drum-beating. George Bush and his team clearly want the latter, not the former. Yet to most people in the Islamic and Arab worlds the official US is synonymous with arrogant power, known for its sanctimoniously munificent support not only of Israel but of numerous repressive Arab regimes, and its inattentiveness even to the possibility of dialogue with secular movements and people who have real grievances. Anti-Americanism in this context is not based on a hatred of modernity or technology-envy: it is based on a narrative of concrete interventions, specific depredations and, in the cases of the Iraqi people's suffering under US-imposed sanctions and US support for the 34-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Israel is now cynically exploiting the American catastrophe by intensifying its military occupation and oppression of the Palestinians.
            Political rhetoric in the US has overridden these things by flinging about words like 'terrorism' and 'freedom' whereas, of course, such large abstractions have mostly hidden sordid material interests, the influence of the oil, defense and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their hold on the entire Middle East, and an age-old religious hostility to (and ignorance of) 'Islam' that takes new forms every day.
            Intellectual responsibility, however, requires a still more critical sense of the actuality. There has been terror of course, and nearly every struggling modern movement at some stage has relied on terror. This was as true of Mandela's ANC as it was of all the others, Zionism included. And yet bombing defenceless civilians with F-16s and helicopter gunships has the same structure and effect as more conventional nationalist terror.
            What is bad about all terror is when it is attached to religious and political abstractions and reductive myths that keep veering away from history and sense. This is where the secular consciousness has to try to make itself felt, whether in the US or in the Middle East. No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents, most particularly when only a small group of people are in charge of such actions and feel themselves to represent the cause without having a real mandate to do so.
            Besides, much as it has been quarrelled over by Muslims, there isn't a single Islam: there are Islams, just as there are Americas. This diversity is true of all traditions, religions or nations even though some of their adherents have futiley tried to draw boundaries around themselves and pin their creeds down neatly. Yet history is far more complex and contradictory than to be represented by demagogues who are much less representative than either their followers or opponents claim. The trouble with religious or moral fundamentalists is that today their primitive ideas of revolution and resistance, including a willingness to kill and be killed, seem all too easily attached to technological sophistication and what appear to be gratifying acts of horrifying retaliation. The New York and Washington suicide bombers seem to have been middle-class, educated men, not poor refugees. Instead of getting a wise leadership that stresses education, mass mobilisation and patient organisation in the service of a cause, the poor and the desperate are often conned into the magical thinking and quick bloody solutions that such appalling models pro vide, wrapped in lying religious claptrap.
            On the other hand, immense military and economic power are no guarantee of wisdom or moral vision. Sceptical and humane voices have been largely unheard in the present crisis, as 'America' girds itself for a long war to be fought somewhere out there, along with allies who have been pressed into service on very uncertain grounds and for imprecise ends. We need to step back from the imaginary thresholds that separate people from each other and re-examine the labels, reconsider the limited resources available, decide to share our fates with each other as cultures mostly have done, despite the bellicose cries and creeds.
            'Islam' and 'the West' are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly. Some will run behind them, but for future generations to condemn themselves to prolonged war and suffering without so much as a critical pause, without looking at interdependent histories of injustice and oppression, without trying for common emancipation and mutual enlightenment seems far more wilful than necessary. Demonisation of the Other is not a sufficient basis for any kind of decent politics, certainly not now when the roots of terror in injustice can be addressed, and the terrorists isolated, deterred or put out of business. It takes patience and education, but is more worth the investment than still greater levels of large-scale violence and suffering.