Saturday, February 04, 2006

Theatre Fire Redux

Having had a little more time to reflect on the international cartoon controversy, I think it may be advisable to add some sober analysis to my earlier visceral reaction to Muslim-baiting in the media and the blogosphere. Not that I take anything back. The gleeful publication of the offensive cartoons, ostensibly in the name of "freedom of speech," or as a blow struck in the so-called "clash of civilizations," was and is nothing more than a privileged assertion of superiority. It was a deliberate slap in the face to millions, most of whom are out of sympathy with the more egregious forms of Islamic extremism. It proved nothing to them--nor to me--about freedom of speech. It reiterated, rather, who has the power and who does not, both in Europe and in the Middle East.

With respect to the publication of the cartoons per se, I find strange bedfellows indeed: the White House and Westminster. But we all know the politics of that. Both the US and the UK are hunkered down in Iraq for the long haul, and this sort of thing can make the natives even more restless. It is a Globe and Mail editorialist, likely Marcus Gee, to whom we must turn for an unintended but masterful account of power relations.

"Their wild overreaction," the title trumpets. Let's take a look at this reaction, then. In Europe, it has consisted of letters, demonstrations, calls for boycotts, demands for apologies--all the usual panoply of dissent that is supposedly accorded a kind of legitimacy in Western nations.

In the US, we have seen fundamentalist Christians organize bonfires for Beatles records, call for a boycott of Disneyworld, harass advertisers, force TV programs off the air (The Book of Daniel being only the most recent example), and in general make a nuisance of themselves. But we have seen few if any thundering editorials, no deliberate fanning of these flames by the media, no chest-beating in the blogosphere. During the years of news stories we have had to endure about pedophile priests, as one astute letter-writer in today’s Globe pointed out, we have seen no cartoon of Jesus Christ committing sodomy with a child. (What reaction does one suppose that would bring?)

Much has been made about a handful of demonstrators in the UK exercising their own freedom of speech. Here they are--with some similar-minded Christian folks for a little balance:

The former, naturally, are held to be speaking for all Muslims. The latter, though, are just a handful of fanatics--right?

In any case, there is clearly more to the current imbroglio than the publication of some cartoons, blasphemous though they might be. Freedom of speech is not the issue. Religion is not the issue. These are just clothing worn by power. What does this publication and seemingly endless re-publication signify in that respect? Why are people insisting on doing this?

First, because the publishers can: because their targets, in the grand scheme of things, are powerless. Publication in this case is a plain exercise of power. The Muslims in Denmark, where the cartoons first appeared, had no comeback other than protest. They are largely an underclass in that country, they don’t own national newspapers, they don’t have any clout in the Danish Parliament. Their religious beliefs can be openly, sacrilegiously mocked with impunity. If they complain, they are piously told to grin and bear it. This is a liberal democracy, and offending people is a right. If you don't like it, get the hell back where you came from.

Secondly, because this is all taking place in a global context, in which a war has been framed since September 11, 2001 between "terrorists" and "the civilized." This binary was best summed up in Bush's "If you aren't with us, you're against us" speech after 9/11.

At this point, a context needs to be set.

The "wild overreaction": a little background

What is a terrorist?

A terrorist is a violent person without access to warplanes, battleships and the very latest in weapons technology. A terrorist is a fighter who is not a member of a regular army. A terrorist is never part of an invading or an occupying force. A terrorist is fundamentally in a losing cause, or at least a cause that is less than promising, which explains the suicide bombings. Terrorists, indeed, are desperate people, and their etiology is well described by Franz Fanon:

The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the
frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it
is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted by
go-betweens, the spokesman of the settler and his rule of oppression. In
capitalist societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical, the
structure of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary
honesty of workers who are given a medal after fifty years of good and
loyal service, and the affection which springs from harmonious relations
and good behaviour -- all these aesthetic expressions of respect for the
established order serve to create around the exploited person an
atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of
policing considerably. [...] In the colonial countries, on the contrary,
the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their
frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him
by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here
that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The
intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the
domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the clear
conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence
into the home and into the mind of the native.

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone
inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the
service of a higher unity. [...] No conciliation is possible, for of the
two terms, one is superfluous. The settlers town is a strongly built
town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town; the streets
are covered with asphalt, and the garbage cans swallow all the leavings,
unseen, unknown and hardly thought about. The settler's feet are never
visible, except perhaps in the sea; but there you're never close enough to
see them. [...] The settlers' town is a town of white people, of

The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town,
the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame,
people by men of evil repute. [...] The native town is a hungry town,
starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town
is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town of wallowing in the
mire. It is a town of niggers and dirty Arabs. The look that the native
turns on the settler's town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it
expresses his dreams of possession -- all manner of possession: to sit at
the settler's table, to sleep in the settler's bed, with his wife if
possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler
knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on
the defensive, 'They want to take our place'. It is true, for there is no
native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the
settler's place.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press [1968] 38-9.

And then:

Each one was thus personally responsible for the death of that victim.
To work means to work for the death of the settler. This assumed
responsibility for violence allows both strayed and outlawed members of
the group to come back again and to find their place once more, to become
integrated. Violence is thus seen as comparable to royal pardon. The
colonized man find his freedom in and through violence. This rule of
conduct enlightens the agent because it indicates to him the means and the
end. [85-6]

And last, but not least:

At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the
native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it
makes him fearless and restores his self-respect. Even if the armed
struggle has been symbolic and the nation is demobilized through a rapid
movement of decolonization, the people have the time to see that the
liberation has been the business of each and all and that the leader has
no special merit. [...] Illuminated by violence, the consciousness of the
people rebels against any pacification. [94]

These long quotations need to be understood as entirely relevant to today. Fanon was writing about Algeria, but in fact much of the "Arab world" was colonized in the last century: Morocco, Syria, Jordan. Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya. Such fictions as "Iraq" and "Kuwait" were colonial inventions. The Arab Peninsula was rife with puppets and puppet states during a century or two of great-power colonial chess. Intervention by the UK and France was the rule, right up to and including the Suez crisis.

In recent history, the United States has become the key interventionist power, with Britain as its junior partner. The casualties of this later phase have been enormous. The reaction of the West could be summed up, perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, in Madeleine Albright’s infamous response to the charge that "UN" (read: US) sanctions against Iraq led to the death of 500,000 Iraqi children.

"I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it," said President Clinton’s Secretary of State.

Put yourself in the place of a Middle East Muslim parent hearing that.

And no setting of context would be complete without mentioning Israel. Israel, as we all know, has been a staunch US ally from the start, and, with the protection of that superpower, has effectively colonized the West Bank. We hear much about the horrific civilian death toll caused by the suicide bombers. We hear less, though, of an even grimmer truth: the casualties suffered by Palestinian civilians far exceeds that of Israeli civilians. But, thanks to a handful of reporters, we do know about the West Bank water grab (80% of the water goes to the 10% of the people who have "settled" the region), the bulldozing of houses, the targeting of peaceful Palestinian olive-harvesters by the colonists, the shelling of a children's zoo in Ramallah, and so on.

The real meaning of the cartoons

Now, from this wider perspective, the publication of a few cartoons in the European press seems somewhat far removed and trivial. But of course the very opposite is true. From the point of view of Muslim Middle Easterners (and the Muslim community in other former colonies like Indonesia and Malaysia), this gesture of contempt is just adding insult to considerable injury, a little more salt for the open wounds of countless Muslim civilians caught at the wrong end of British, American and Israeli firepower. (And at the wrong end of "democracy," whatever that is. We have just seen, in practical terms, a demonstration of it: a squeaky-clean election in Palestine returned a party that the West doesn't like. Bad choice, silly Palestinians. Funds will be cut off, and we won’t recognize your choice. But thanks for playing.)

The cartoons, in other words, are a synecdoche. In Europe, they merely stand for power over the powerless. In the Middle East, they represent the whole of colonial and imperial oppression. All of the countless civilian deaths, the indiscriminate meddling and invasions, the destruction and waste and poverty that have been the godawful history of the Arab Peninsula, are summed up in this cavalier, casual flick of European derision. Those cartoons tell a truth, not about freedom of speech, not about liberal democracy, not about religion: they tell us, quite simply, who’s in charge on the world stage. And who isn't.

Back, then, to our outraged Globe editorialist. He is "disturbed" that Arab governments have had the nerve to protest:

The uproar underlines an alarming tendency in Islamic societies to lash out at the West at the slightest provocation. When a few simple drawings, however controversial, can trigger outrage from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur, it is clear that something is askew in the psyche of a civilization. To put it plainly, the Islamic world has a chip on its shoulder.

Gosh, why would that be? Why the outrage? Congenital lunacy? Is it genetic? What makes this rabble of dusky souls respond in this egregiously irrational fashion? They’re just cartoons fercrissake. Er...r, make that "for crying out loud."

But our editorialist feels compelled to answer the question by trundling out an authority, Bernard Lewis, the "clash of civilizations" guy, who has it all taped. Those people, you see, inhabit "a twilight world of neurotic fantasies, conspiracy theories, scapegoating and so on." Unlike us civilized white folks, they lack the higher powers of reason and analysis. Their problems are, wait for it, their own fault. Here it all is:

In truth, most of the Islamic world's problems -- from economic stagnation to political paralysis, from the oppression of women to the poor level of education -- are homegrown. By and large, these societies have failed to come to grips with the modern world and as a result have fallen far behind much of the rest of the planet. Out of this failure to keep up springs a keen sense of grievance that does nothing to help them progress."

"Failure to keep up." That one, I admit, takes my breath away. Over two centuries we plunder, kill, invade and manipulate until just about all that people have left is their religion. Then we say, Boy, you sure are backward. What a bunch of losers!

As Prof. Lewis has written, "If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression." But "if they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavour, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major centre of civilization."

"Abandon grievance and victimhood." Suck it up, Mustapha. Forgive and forget. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Indulge, please, in collective amnesia. And maybe those loans might start coming your way. Why, you might even end up with a "major centre of civilization." You know, the way it was before the imperial powers moved in.

The choice, says Prof. Lewis, is theirs alone.

Well, sure it is, once other countries get out of the region and stop killing people. Once Israel abandons its West Bank colony. Once the West stops giving the finger to justifiably angry populations and starts behaving in the civilized fashion that it piously holds up as a standard for others. Maybe then--only then--will better choices be made.

In the meantime, keeping company with the various on-going interventions in the Middle East, Muslim-baiting in civilized Europe and North America will continue apace, some Muslims will rise to the bait, and the sanctimonious will say, once again, Look at those savages. Isn't it great we aren't like them? Why don't they at least try to be like us? Can't they take a joke?

Correction: "Clash of Civilizations" (Foreign Affairs Summer 1993) was of course by Samuel Huntington, not Bernard Lewis. It can be found on-line here.

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