* First published in Mondoweiss: News & Opinion about Palestine, Israel, and the United States at https://mondoweiss.net/2017/07/palestinian-authority-collapse/
The Palestinian Authority, a historically toothless government operating within the confines of Israeli control and authority in the entirety of historic Palestine, may not be long for the world. Created in conjunction with the absurd geographical and political prescriptions that comprise the Oslo Accords in 1993, the PA was meant to embody a political pivot for the PLO, the secular, nationalist movement seeking to liberate Palestinian communities from the yoke of Israeli domination by any means necessary, including through the use of public acts of political violence. From robust, international fighting force to civil and political authority, the PLO cum PA (and the majority party within it, Fatah) slowly came to be internationally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. But over the last 25 years, the PA has grown fat from international donations and become complacent in its position of political dominance within the occupied Palestinian territory. It exists today largely for its own benefit and can be seen to be accomplishing little within its area of political influence other than extending its already unnaturally long life.
But change may well be in the air as regards the stultified and ineffective government. Public confidence in the integrity and efficacy of the Palestinian Authority amongst the Palestinians in the West Bank is at an all-time low and faith in the ability (or even desire) of PA officials to steer Palestine into an improved economic and political future is all but nonexistent. Years of bureaucratic bloat, nepotistic policy, and corruption have turned Palestinians against their elected leadership. Harsh crackdowns on free speech (to include the policing of social media sites), the enrichment of the elites at the expense of the public good, and complicity in Israeli occupation policies are to blame. As a result, references to “Palestinian Democracy” are laughed off by the public at large. The PA is understood to exist for its own benefit and longevity, having long ago abandoned true representation of the will of the Palestinian people either at home, in the highly fraught occupied territory, or on the international stage, as the condition of Palestine quietly slips in the ranking of global political priorities behind the crises in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Today, the PA retains its legitimacy amongst 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians largely on the basis of its ability to fund its own bloated bureaucracy (responsible for employing large numbers of citizens in and around the cultural capital of the West Bank, Ramallah), to provide a bare minimum of health, education, and sanitation services to West Bankers and, perhaps most importantly, based upon its continued claim to represent the Palestinian people. But, 13 years after the suspicious death of the face of the Palestinian national movement, Yasser Arafat, the gloss has long since worn off of his octogenarian successor Mahmoud Abbas, and the tradition of political leadership and civil development in the face of Israeli occupation that Abbas was meant to embrace after Arafat’s passing now seems nearly completely defunct.
Public services continue to deteriorate to deplorable levels in the West Bank while the business portfolios of PA leadership continue to swell. All tobacco and alcohol sales in the West Bank are coordinated and distributed through businesses operated by PA officials including the cigarette monopoly managed by The Falcon Company, an outfit under the control of Mahmoud Abbas’ own sons, Yasser and Tareq. Indeed, the Abbas family is rumored to have a net worth totaling more than $100 million dollars including an unknown sum of misappropriated international donations originally intended for civil and/or social development within Palestinian communities. The Arabic term for this practice, fasaa’id, or “corruption” is on the tip of the tongue of most Palestinians you might speak to, provided of course you are not suspected of being an employee of the Palestinian security services.
As well, public schools in the West Bank now enroll only the poorest children in Palestine; virtually every family who can afford it sends their child to a private or parochial school, paying up to thousands in tuition annually to ensure a comprehensive arts and sciences education through the secondary level. Public hospitals and clinics are likewise openly lampooned by the public at large as dilapidated, outdated, and downright dangerous. Few in the West Bank will struggle to recount an anecdote about a surgery or procedure that went tragically wrong in the public health care system resulting in injury or death from otherwise completely curable maladies. Almost certainly, facilities are to blame. Private hospitals in the West Bank continue to run circles around the public options with many or most doctors and nurses in Palestinian communities spending time in both sectors of the health system. Highly educated and fantastically capable nurses and doctors perform admirably with adequate resources at their disposal. Without them, quite naturally, they do not.
Finally and most visibly, West Bank roads, fields, parks, and open spaces are in a deplorable state. Road construction within Palestine drags on interminably and cars age unnaturally quickly owed to the abuse they take on what might otherwise be serviceable roads and by-ways connecting Palestinian neighborhoods and towns. Rubbish litters the streets of many otherwise attractive and ancient communities. Historic buildings are neither serviced nor maintained. Rumor is that the nicest parks and cleanest streets are all in Ramallah and are maintained in exquisite condition everywhere where PA officials are likely to live or work. As with any number of other issues within the purview of the PA, the illusion of public service seems most important; the provision of actual aid to Palestine is secondary.
More damning still, all of the above seems most directly to benefit Israel itself as the existence of a pliable and compromised Palestinian Authority allows Israeli designs on Judea and Samaria (in their terminology) to proceed unabated. The separation wall (now ubiquitous in and along the western corridor of the West Bank), continued resource and land confiscation, and increasingly fascistic designs for the growing Palestinian community in the West Bank are rarely contested by the Palestinian leadership. Instead so-called “security coordination” between Israeli and Palestinian governments and police forces is the order of the day resulting in Palestinian officials carrying out Israeli geographic and political designs in the occupied territory. An effective strategy to oppose these designs has not been implemented because such a strategy simply does not exist. In this complicity, the PA seems to have abandoned their people’s interest in favor of their own. Fifty years on from the beginning of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, it is apparently better to rule indefinitely in name only than to make an honest, legitimate attempt at representative government.
In an informal discussion with a group of Palestinian Scouts in the Bethlehem District this summer, this author asked the assembled young people, a group of about 30 intelligent and service-oriented students aged 12 to 18, who among them had confidence that the PA had their best interests at heart. Among the spate of laughter and eye rolls, I scanned the crowd for a single raised hand. There were none. When asked whether they thought their future would be better or worse than the present, none replied in the positive. Israel, the continuing pressure of occupation, and the ongoing American support for it were quickly provided as reasons why. In equal measure, the corruption, callousness, and self-interest of their own government were cited as well.
Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” If this is true, and history certainly bears it out to be so, the next Palestinian uprising (in as much as one can be anticipated), might well be directed at PA leadership rather than at the increasingly secure and robust Israeli military and administrative machine that controls the Palestinian territory. A new government in Palestine might well bring about the change within West Bank communities required to alter the bleak political trajectory of this national group. At the least, it might bring a wave of hope and confidence so badly needed amongst this youngest generation of Palestinians. Such a change might actually result in the raising of a few hands when next a group of young people are asked to evaluate the performance of their own leadership.
* FIrst published in Mondoweiss: News & Opinion about Palestine, Israel, and the United States. 17 February 2017. http://mondoweiss.net/2017/02/trumps-palestine-israel/
When President Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday afternoon at the White House it was unclear what, if any, official administration policy might develop in Washington on the back of the highly anticipated conversation. Trump’s administration has been nothing if not hostile toward the Muslim World: his ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries (none of which feature in Trump’s global business empire, of course) would seem to place him firmly in Israel’s Likud camp. Their pro-war, pro-occupation policies see military dominance of the more than 4 million Palestinians under their control in the occupied Palestinian territory as the only acceptable way forward in the ongoing regional conflict. Trump’s ban, plus his oft-repeated campaign-trail declaration that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, would surely have to make for cozy bedfellows in Washington this week.
But only a week ago, Trump seemed to distance himself from his overtly pro-Israeli stance stating, albeit meekly, that he did not believe that “advancing [Israeli] settlements is good for peace.” A subtle shift to be sure, but a shift away from Likud and their bombastic leader Netanyahu, nonetheless. A much more substantial—and arguably, a much more confusing—shift came on the eve of the meeting in Washington when a Trump administration officials broke from long-standing U.S. policy in the Middle East by stating flatly that although they were intent on bringing about peace in the Middle East, a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict need not result in the creation of two states in the region.
Trump’s seismic departure from decades of stated U.S. intentions in Palestine and Israel naturally begs the question: if not a two-state solution, then what kind of solution does Donald Trump envision?
The reality is that Trump’s ploy might contain within it a glimmer of hope for Palestine. In fact, for many in the academic and activist communities, a one-state solution in Palestine-Israel has long been considered both the most practicable and the most just plan for peace between the two national communities. That plan would include the full enfranchisement of Palestinians currently living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and would ultimately lead to the establishment of a single, representative government managing a binational state entity: a fully-fledged, fully-shared, integrated, and inclusive democracy for all. One man, one woman, one vote.
But the prospect of a single binational state is anathema for Zionists who see within it the abrogation of the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. This solution—the embrace of representative democracy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—then becomes a demographic contest, one in which current populations, as well as rates of natural increase, favor the Palestinians, not the Israelis.
If this week has, in fact, seen the Trump administration advocate the former, enlightened, and democratic version of the one state solution, then perhaps the “special relationship” between Washington and Tel Aviv is changing before our very eyes. In that event, it is possible that we have completely misapprehended Trump, who publicly and plainly asked Benjamin Netanyahu publicly to stop settlement construction in the West Bank, and his Foreign Policy priorities.
But another possibility remains.
Perhaps the “state” Trump envisions is taken directly from Israel’s far-right playbook, cast unapologetically in the mold of the South African, apartheid model of statehood: permanently separate and decidedly unequal citizenship between different ethnic groups within a shared political space. This nightmarish, authoritarian ideal would force the Palestinians to accept second-class status, to be inferior beings within their national community, and to subvert their national, political goals in favor of the presumably loftier, nobler, and more recognizably European version of nationhood expressed by the Israelis.
This latter version of one state is, in essence, what exists now for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. As a community, they remain in political liminality, continually and consistently prevented from establishing an autonomous government by the deliberate wheels of the Likudnik approach to the peace process. This approach, championed by Netanyahu himself, has long ago abandoned the idea of enfranchisement for the Palestinians altogether, either within their own state or within a shared political entity with the Israelis. It is possible, then, that the Trump Administration simply plans to remove the “interim” designation for this infrastructure of dominance and allow Netanyahu and his far-right coalition to permanently annex what remains of Historic Palestine over and above international objection, but also, crucially, with the full support of the United States into perpetuity.
Much hangs, then, upon the designation “one state” in the mind of a man who has proven to be anything but of sound mind in these Orwellian days of the new American presidency.
Knowledge—within schools, within intellectual movements, within academia, and within society—knowledge exists predominantly—some scholars would say “exclusively”—within hierarchical environments. As much as those of us whose remit it is to impart knowledge for a living would wish to avoid this existential paradox, the act of disseminating knowledge retains within it a powerful and indeed an unavoidable dilemma that includes the inhabitation and manipulation of power even within dialectic processes that retain as their end, the overthrow, or the mitigation of rigid, traditional hierarchies whether social, cultural, political, or intellectual. As such, the potential for the dynamic, egalitarian momentum of knowledge, its acquisition, and/or its diffusion stands, in many ways, in direct opposition to the feats performed by traditional structures of the American, European, and the preponderance of the global institutional academy. Nor can the solution to this dilemma be obtained through the complete destruction of the educational infrastructure promoting the student-citizen to operate independently on the road to the discovery of new paths of access to structures of knowledge unburdened by the fetters of hierarchy. We know this to be an illusory hope because it was this precise promise that echoed off of the halls of the academy throughout the decade of the 1990s during the dawn of the digital age of university education. Years later, we see that microprocessors have not, as was promised, utterly and completely leveled the playing fields of knowledge acquisition and dissemination remaking the world into an egalitarian haven free of dispute, rancor, or evidentiary disagreement. What has come to the fore instead of this knowledge-rich, conflict-free paradise is a cacophony of ill-informed acrimony, a society rent messily into two halves each braying nosily and meaninglessly at the othe. What has come to the fore instead is the unabashed certainty of declarations based upon “alternative facts” which have no relationship whatsoever to quantifiable, observable phenomena occurring the world over.
And so an educational and intellectual infrastructure remains in place, such as it is, replete with the imposition of hierarchy at all, or at the very least, at virtually all levels of instruction. In my field, that of Middle Eastern Studies, the nature of that hierarchy—both in relations between master and pupil, and, perhaps more important for our purposes here today, in the transmission of information from location of inquiry to location of punditry—progressed in a substantially unexamined manner for the majority of the history of the discipline. It was not until the publication of the by-now legendary work of intellectual criticism from a Palestinian-American scholar that our entire tradition of scholarly investigation came under intensive scrutiny. And it was through that magnum opus—Edward Said’s Orientalism--that our own reliance upon tradition, hierarchy, and power in study of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian Sub-Continent was laid bare.
From this uncritical past there arose a compromised and problematic intellectual future, one in which the pronouncements of established, sage experts were received with a dangerous lack of investigative scrutiny. In speech, in act, but particularly via text according to Said, conventional, expert knowledge was disseminated by means of direct, practically hereditary transmission: an unbroken line of inheritance funneling subjective, orientalist tropes from source material to new generations of enthusiastic scholars searching for firm footing in unsteady academic environs. In many cases, the texts in question, and the problematic assumptions that rested at the core of their analyses retained an unnaturally long life because of a lack of willingness or ability on the part of recipient parties to redress the established canon (they too, perhaps, compelled into quietude via various institutional and relational power structures). Through this process, text itself—ostensibly ideologically neutral historical, sociological, and cultural study—was remade into an agent of power, transmitting ostensibly value-free information about the East, the Orient, the dialectical Other but made all the more insidious according to Said’s critical approach precisely because of the attribution of the aforementioned ideological neutrality to these scholarly works, and to their oft-lauded creators.
And as Foucault, Anderson, Herman, Chomsky, Jensen, and others would inform, the linkages between text and knowledge, between print and understanding could not be more profound, nor more influential upon the intellectual environment. Indeed, in Said’s own view, texts and their authors retain such import within approaches to criticism precisely because of their ability to mold reality, to create knowledge, and to structure the boundaries of the rational, and the real:
“A text purporting to contain knowledge about something actual … is not easily dismissed. Expertise is attributed to it. The authority of academics, institutions, and governments can accrue to it, surrounding it with still greater prestige than its practical successes warrant. Most important, such texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe. In time such knowledge and reality produce a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is really responsible for the texts produced out of it.” –Edward Said, Orientalism (emphasis in original)
Nearly forty years on from Said’s articulation of the profoundly deleterious consequences resulting from the rote acceptance of hierarchy and tradition within academia, the subtleties of knowledge creation, discourse construction, and the assumptions inherent to the manipulation and distribution of texts as fact remain at the forefront of political debate. Plainly, though, the form of that debate has been aggressively cast down from the Ivory Tower and is as likely today to be the subject of a “Click Bait” link advertised on the margins of our social media profiles as it is to be the subject of a scholarly article grappling with the integrity of a particular academic approach, or the validity of a given scholarly argument. The widespread and irretrievably diffuse nature of this ongoing debate has to be seen, then, as existing in the service of the egalitarian mission inherent in the examination of the linkages between Power and Knowledge. That is to say, if anyone with access to an internet connection and a functional computer can open up their laptop this morning and begin questioning the hierarchical nature, traditionalist structure, and ideological orientation of the news, or a television script, or popular song lyrics, then surely, on some level, Said and the whole of the field of Criticism has won some terrific victory at some point along the way. But—and perhaps this contradiction arises as a reflex embedded within my academic training, or simply demonstrates my own idiosyncratic reliance upon the very hierarchical structures and power relations that I mean to attack—but I, for one, do not view the ongoing populist chaos and fact-less ideological fury as any type of vindication for revolutionary academic critics or their supporters. More often than not, in fact, on those occasions when I do find myself absently clicking through social media posts or reader commentary on online news articles, I silently rail against the tenets of academic criticism wondering quietly at what point the anarchy of populist critique will be forced to surrender its lawlessness to arguments based upon demonstrable evidence and fact-based assertion. Because, after all—“[Textual Criticism] can also prove that an elephant can hang off a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy! But use your eyes, your ears, your common sense.”
Shifting the focus away from text and onto curated display and the role of the museum in discourse creation and knowledge construction, all of the above considerations beg several fundamental questions about the curated diorama that we have all come to examine or re-examine today, Jules Verreaux’s The Arab Courier. In the first instance, is the piece in question appropriately titled? Does this construction truly depict an everyday, ordinary Arab Courier from the mid-nineteenth century in the regular course of his duties? Or would it be more appropriate to reinvent the piece as a taxidermy display of a Richard Attenborough-styled Lion Attacking a Dromedary? Clearly the first appellation carries with it tremendous oriental baggage suggesting the portrayal of a classic, common, or even a banal pose of the nomadic Arab messenger. In so doing, audiences to the display in the era of its creation, and possibly even audiences coming upon the construction now, would be encouraged to ingest a wide-ranging set up assumptions about Arab dress, Middle Eastern infrastructure, North African economy and a great deal more encapsulated in one fixed and essentially unchanging display.
But if we prefer the name Lion Attacking a Dromedary, do we not instantaneously remove the centrality of the only human being in the artistic rendering? In that event, we have given agency to the two species of animal in the display and have reinvented the human figure as part of the natural background, staging and scenery to an unfolding nature-scape of conflict between lions and camel. Such a title is a deterministic gloss suggesting an intellectual process by which the vitality, the capacity, indeed, even the humanity of the figure depicted is all but totally erased, or perhaps more problematic still, is devolved, cast down, and rendered of no more intellectual or cultural important than the instincts of a desert predator and its hapless prey. Returning to the question of location of inquiry versus location of punditry, it would be very difficult to imagine a similarly static, essentialized display of figures representing human members of communities of the Global North posed in some form of engagement with the animal kingdom and on display in a museum setting in a Middle Eastern, African, or Asian capital. But if such a piece were to exist, is there any possibility that it would be titled “American Cat,” or “English Dog” with human ownership and agency removed from a scene of human activity altogether?
“My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptation of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others.” –Edward Said, Orientalism
And so at the end of the day, does Verreaux not explicitly engage in a process of structural, cultural domination as described here by Said? And if so, as observers or commentators, what can be said about our role in this process? Even here and even today?
Said described power relations in orientalism as dependent upon the kind of cultural, economic, and geographic advantages inherent in the ability to access, measure, investigate, determine, and judge: one society, one culture, one polity to another:
“In quite a constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.” –Edward Said, Orientalism (emphasis in original)
Positional superiority. Hierarchy. Power. Privilege.
We see, then, through Said’s institutional criticism that processes creating the possibility of access and advantage determine the true nature of a power relationship between investigator and subject. If so, perhaps what remains to be levied within this uneven operational dynamic is no more than the simple intention—openly declared or otherwise—of those traveling, studying, collecting, measuring, and most importantly, evaluating, given that:
"There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of coexistence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external dominion." –Edward Said, Orientalism
And so, in sum, as we in the academic communities of North America, Europe, and throughout the politically, economically, and historically privileged communities of the Global North continue to press into the distant and disparate global communities in a ceaseless quest for innovative research in the humanities, there remains a need for vigilance in our manner, in our action, and in our intention as we gather, evaluate, and even as we name the volumes of our research conducted in recipient, subject, and formerly colonized spaces. Because although we have overcome the overt racism of the British Imperial Administration who was quick to point out that:
“The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician [while] Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind.” –Evelyn Baring, First Lord of Cranmer, 1908
We have nevertheless not come so far so as to be free from the imposition of power in the construction and dissemination of knowledge; we have not come so far so as to be free from the imposition of hierarchy upon the student-citizen, upon the museum-goer, or upon the broader discipline of Middle Eastern Studies as a whole; we have not come so far so as to render earnest considerations of culture, knowledge, history and society, of the kind taking place here today, unimportant or even unnecessary.
So in the end, it is the art of criticism, done carefully, done formally, and done with as much honest intention and fact-based support as possible that must win out over the available intellectual alternative: passive, uncritical acceptance of traditional canon, even if this process means unwittingly giving fuel to ever more Click Bait options on the margins of all of our social media platforms.
In an article published widely on various news and activist websites a few days ago, award winning journalist, author, and social critic John Pilger compared the method, the strategy, and above all, the origins of the Islamic State to the rise to power of the unrepentantly gruesome and nihilistic Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975. Drawing attention to then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Pilger noted the unabashedly genocidal policies of the American war machine in Southeast Asia referring to Kissinger’s quip about US Air Force bombing in Cambodia that should employ “Anything that flies on everything that moves.”
In the subsequent campaign (glibly codenamed “Operation Menu”) that targeted any and all possible communist sympathizers across the Indochinese peninsula, the US Air Force obliterated the Cambodian countryside, dropping “the equivalent of five Hiroshimas” on Cambodian towns and villages from 1969 to 1973. Those civilians who did not flee during the near ceaseless bombing of the region were left behind to gather the corpses of dead family members and to try to reorganize shattered homes and shattered lives. The vast majority of the victims of “Operation Menu” were, in fact, guilty of nothing more than unfortunate proximity to a US military objective. Nonetheless they were considered, tried, and sentenced extra-judicially, to indiscriminate death and thorough and indefinite depredation.
The Khmer Rouge was born here, out of the physical rubble, rife annihilation, and pervasive social disarray caused by the US military in southeast Asia in the early 1970s. For the leadership of the heretofore rag-tag group of poorly outfitted and scantily trained guerilla fighters, Operation Menu was a godsend. Scores of previously apolitical or otherwise uninvolved young Cambodians paused to consider the profundity of their loss of home, family, livelihood, and identity before falling under the influence of the charismatic Saloth Sar, the given name of the genocidal Cambodian warlord the world now knows by his self-appointed nom de guerre, Pol Pot. In fact, according to some testimonies, there is an even more direct and immediate connection between US military action in Cambodia and the growth of the Khmer regime than is suggested here. Returning to Pilger:
A former Khmer Rouge official described how the survivors “froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told… That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over.”
The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia killed between 600,000 and one million people. Ethnic minorities, unfaithful communists, artists, academics, any and all who were hesitant to comply with the Khmer’s version of ideological purity throughout the length and breadth of the country were slaughtered, often in the most horrific of manners. Toddlers’ heads were dashed on rocks or on tree trunks in full view of their parents. Brothers were forced to watch their brothers beaten to death before they were dismembered and then displayed with body parts stacked in morbid totems as a warning to other undesirables. Teenagers were opened from chin to pubis, were disemboweled, and then had their guts pedaled away, tied to the bicycle handlebars of their morose regime executioners (Tyner, 2010).
Thirty years later another US military action would draw strong and widespread public criticism as indiscriminate US tactics in Vietnam and Cambodia did decades earlier. That venture—the US invasion and occupation of Iraq—was packaged and sold to the American public as a necessary police action set in motion to remove a dangerous and volatile dictator much akin to the despicable and bloodthirsty Pol Pot. Promised as a swift and inexpensive military exercise, the American people were told that the region and its peoples—a myriad of established and diverse confessional and ethnic communities that top officials within the George W. Bush Administration clearly neither valued nor understood—would welcome US and allied forces as “liberators.”
Almost a full decade after US military entry into Iraq, however, and with a US intelligence, advisory, and force commitment still present in what is left of the country, it is evident that the wildly optimistic political and military predictions foisted upon the US public were, in fact, a series of falsehoods. Shortly after the American overthrow of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, an organized insurgency began to articulate itself as anything other than a welcome wagon for the US presence in the country. After a series of calculated sectarian attacks by politically savvy and self-interested ethno-military forces, Iraq was riven into three: the Sunni Kurdish north, the Sunni Arab west, and the majority Shi’a Arab south and southeast, under whose leadership the new Iraq was meant to be reconstituted, and reintegrated into the regional and international community.
That reconstitution and reintegration has not yet come. Instead a political, civil, and social void has proliferated inside post-invasion Iraq in which individual and communal identity has shifted dramatically inward. The former bastion of confessional co-existence and sectarian cooperation where the distinction between Sunni and Shi’a was difficult to mark as a result of generations of comingling and cohabitation has begun to look more like an internecine nightmare-scape: a land of political obliteration and of seemingly interminable civil despair more than a decade after the heinous protestation of a “Mission Accomplished.”
Enter the Islamic State.
Between 2003 and 2012, as part and parcel of American occupation operations in post-Saddam Iraq, massive military sweeps were conducted in mostly civilian zones whereby men of fighting age (roughly 16 to 50) were arrested and detained for indefinite periods in large holding centers, many of which had been employed under Saddam for the imprisonment and torture of political opponents. By the summer of 2004, one such facility—Camp Bucca located in southern Iraq—housed a number of high-profile Iraqi suspects including former officers and soldiers, suspected insurgent leaders, militia members, and former Baath party operatives within Saddam’s political and military machine. In an interview last year with an operative calling himself only “Abu Ahmed,” The Guardian’s Martin Chulov discovered the dark consequences which emanated from these impromptu gatherings:
They [the prisoners] had … been terrified of Bucca, but quickly realised that far from their worst fears, the US-run prison provided an extraordinary opportunity. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else,” he told me. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”
The US prison facilities inside occupied Iraq thereby facilitated (indeed, secured) an indiscriminate mixing and mingling of otherwise disparate or oppositional actors within a politically void and structurally denuded country. From this secure position, these individuals devised strategy, discussed ideology, and forged personal connections that took macabre and destructive shape over the course of the subsequent decade. After being released from US custody and under the blanket of Al-Qaeda’s command structure, these operatives built a militant Iraqi cadre and connected with like-minded operatives all focused upon destabilizing the US position in the fractious state.
The group, known in its nascent phase as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (or AQI) began to swell its ranks with resentful former soldiers and dedicated sectarian militants. From these ranks, one especially visionary and charismatic demagogue came to the fore. Supplanting killed or otherwise marginalized Al-Qaeda leaders, this soft-spoken captain, a veteran of the meetings at Camp Bucca and a known target of US occupation forces in Iraq, assumed leadership of the juvenile insurgent group and declared its political and ideological intentions to be separate from the stated aims and overarching policies of the former parent organization, Al-Qaeda. The name of this would-be revolutionary is by now, common knowledge: Ibrahim Awwadty Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al Badri as-Samarrai, better known to the world by his nom de guerre: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In the late summer of 2010 the last US combat brigade departed Iraq in partial fulfillment of the campaign promise of a still fresh-faced and promising young liberal American president. Seizing the advantage of the effective end of US martial law in the Iraqi hinterland, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ratcheted up sectarian assassinations in the country targeting the now highly visible Shi’a communities who had begun to reap the benefits of the vengeful and discriminatory policies of the US-anointed Shi’a president of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki.
Shell shocked and frightened, jobless, and hopeless and with the lion’s share of the jobs, services, and federal reconstruction monies being funneled to Iraq’s were going to Shi’a communities during Maliki’s administration, young Sunni Iraqis became further alienated within their own homeland. Slowly but surely, they began to drift, at first by the handful, and then by the score into the waiting arms of al-Baghdadi and his militant group. Susceptible and tormented and yearning for a way out of the devastation around them, these young men became al-Baghdadi’s frontline soldiers. Far from religious zealots, testimony from captured IS fighters indicates that employment, belonging, and opportunity motivated their participation in the group as much as, if not more than, millenarian religious conviction (Wilson, 2015). The social void had been filled; the task at hand was now clear.
By 2012, war was raging in both Iraq and in Syria where the minority Shiite, Alouwite Assad government had been begun to slip loose from its moorings in a bloody, no-holds-barred war of retribution against civilian protesters demanding a democratic voice within the dictatorial regime. Seizing full political advantage of both crumbling societies, al-Baghdadi decided that the time was right for a shift in his group’s political trajectory. Privately at first, and then via public declaration, Abu Bakr announced that his group was no longer merely an especially bloodthirsty, sectarian organization, but rather, in fulfillment of the ideological outlines first sketched at Camp Bucca in 2004 under the watchful eyes of the American security apparatus, al-Baghdadi reestablished the Caliphate of the Prophet and his Companions (PBUT). Proclaiming the birth of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS absorbed a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, gaining a key territorial and social foothold in Syria’s rapidly devolving state structure.
Al-Baghdadi, now regally ensconced as Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi (the final in the list of carefully chosen surnames a clearly indicated yet dubiously established link to the clan of the Prophet himself), saw himself as an unrestrained operator, the head of a new and expansive regional state and ideological movement. Conceived in the void created by foreign invasion, and military occupation, nurtured by sectarianism and party politics as much in Washington as in Baghdad or Damascus, and born unto the world out of blood, fire, and indiscriminate slaughter, the Islamic State was thrust upon the citizens of Iraq and Syria. The current refugee crisis was shifted into pole position within regional and international political concern.
In June of 2014, ISIS fighters (now on an official state payroll) captured Mosul in Iraq, Tal Afar near the Syrian border, and Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraq dictator now strangely lamented folkloric leader, Saddam Hussein. The first videos of IS brutality began to emerge, depicting the mass execution of thousands of captured soldiers. Bullet after bullet to the back of the heads of men laid face down, prostrate with their hands tied behind their backs. Subsequent videos depicted the intimate and brutal beheadings of captured journalists and western aid workers. In January of 2015 a captured Jordanian pilot was caged, doused with gasoline and set ablaze with the entire macabre event captured on film.
To date IS brutality has killed more than 170,000 in the region, mostly Iraqi Shi’a, almost entirely civilian. IS attacks outside of the Levant have killed as many as 1,000 people, mostly North African Muslims in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. And in Syria, Civil War has killed more than 300,000 people including more than 15,000 children, and 8,000 women. The refugee crisis is the natural and inevitable result of this crushing depredation, this devastating violence, and this unimaginable loss.
Survivors of the Cambodian genocide are visited by ghosts of their fallen kin. Dark apparitions approach their bedside nightly, and in waking nightmares they see the faces of their long dead relatives, broken and bleeding, armless and legless, entails dragging behind them. Paralyzed with guilt and fear, they try in vain to shut out the visions of the slaughter they see daily, crippling memories of trauma as yet unresolved, four decades after the horrific events whence they derive.
Years from now when we in this room are all long abed, shuffling our last steps through this mortal corridor, with memories of family, of home, of friends, of the love we were fortunate enough to receive and gracious enough to return – what ghosts will come to Syria’s children then? What visions will torment the waking lives of Iraqi survivors of the IS holocaust? Whose blood will flow when they lay down to close their eyes? What ghostly terrors will lie in wait for them?
Hollywood contributions to contemporary American culture have a profound influence upon the moral and ethical value systems of both individuals and groups within the contemporary United States. Movies are an incredibly important and influential component of popular cultural reaching audiences of all demographic characteristics numbering in the tens of millions. Through the structure and form of the films it creates, Hollywood therefore has the ability to impart, reify, design, or otherwise construct the acceptable boundaries of social normativity, moral values, ethical practice, and crucially, military and political aims and the acceptable means through which to achieve them.
The last twenty to thirty years have seen a proliferation of Hollywood films, among other national, cultural products, whose net effect, if not their express and ultimate purpose, is to compel the viewing audience to accept, to agree with, and ultimately to publicly and overtly support the political and military agenda of the United States as a hegemonic and ideological actor in the international political arena. In recent years, several specific movies—including The Hurt Locker, The Kite Runner, The Green Zone, Lone Survivor, Restrepo, The Messenger, American Sniper—have effectively and expertly served US military and political interests by performing as vehicles of state propaganda inducing large segments of the American populace to endorse and support US wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Zero Dark Thirty falls firmly within this modern tradition of pro-corporate, pro-state, pro-war, ahistorical, essentializing and propagandising film-making. Specifically, this film has provided depth, context, narrative focus, a highly emotive musical score, punchy dialogue, impressive cinematography and true-to-life (ish) portrayals of individuals involved in the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in order to dramatize one important aspect of the decade-and-a-half long US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The effort involved in dramatizing the extra-judicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden has the effect of obfuscating the express illegality of the mission while at the same time casting the intelligence community—key actors in the costly and destructive US wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria)—as uber-cool action-adventure heroes involved in gripping international, dramatic sagas. These sagas are beautifully, compellingly, and expertly packaged for the viewing audience. They come replete with car chases, gun fights, near-miss explosions, love affairs, passionate romance, and thrilling, high-tech espionage. The audience is drawn into an ahistorical and de-contextualized world in which the mission at hand is immediate, critical, and most important of all, righteous. This myopic value system unfolds for viewing audiences using a subject and minimized indigenous society (in this case a beleaguered society that has been subjected to persistent foreign control and occupation for the last two-hundred years) as set-props and backdrops only. The culture, society, and the indigenous population are no more than staging material set in place to tell a one-sided story: the story of American do-goodery, of ethnic and religious supremacy, of American moral and political rectitude everywhere and all of the time.
In this genre of film—the based on real events, action-adventure, military-politico-dramas—the audience knows at best, one half of a narrative. Only the white, Christian protagonist and his/her allies are provided with more than two-dimensional character depth. The white hero is reflective and thoughtful, intelligent and responsible. The protagonist has a family, a personal history, and is presented as a complete person with all hopes and dreams equivalent to those of the viewing audience. The protagonist makes difficult but ultimately righteous decisions involving life and death. In every situation, the life of the white protagonist or the white comrade is infused with moral and religious rectitude; the lives of the non-white, non-Christian antagonists are expendable and dispensable. In fact, a particular characteristic of this genre of film fictionalizes the manner in which the antagonists themselves callously disregard their own lives and the lives of their families and/or political allies. Choosing death and destruction over life and lawfulness, non-white antagonists embrace the cult of the martyr and prefer death and destruction to life and liberty.
This obvious distinction of action and intent dramatizing the villain’s sociopathic embrace of death and active pursuit of violent martyrdom provides verification for American viewing audiences that the non-white, antagonist, Other has less objective human value than the white protagonist and his/her comrades. This differentiation in form, function, and crucially, in motivation between the American hero and the Arab villain provides the audience with a video record of racial and cultural stratification. This stratification is reified and sustained based upon an active, conceptual vocabulary which contributes to the construction of subjective and largely inflexible frames of collective association and deflective dissociation comprising the Us and Them of contemporary political parlance:
We love our families. They love their cause. We love our God and Saviour. They worship a False Prophet. We create. They destroy. We protect. They defile. We are righteous; they are corrupt. We love life. They love death.
This dichotomous conceptual framing further allows for the construction of deterministic knowledge identifying non-white, non-Christian, non-European groups as the Other, the Alien, the Sub or the Inhuman, the lowest rungs of the racial and cultural ladder. These simplistic, often binary constructions derive from our constructed, deterministic knowledge the Other as decidedly unlike Us, motivated by extremes of action, and a profound disregard for humanity the likes of which We simply cannot fathom. As such, their death and their communal destruction, their social and civil obliteration, their rape and their prolonged and inhumane torture at our hands can be white-washed, contextualized, conditioned, justified, even lauded in our own defence of our political, civil, and military legitimacy. That is to say, the death and destruction of the Other causes us no pause in our construction of Our own vision of Ourselves. We remain righteous and virtuous. We embrace life. Our way of life remains, in our own mind, ultimately moral.
Our wars are righteous. Our murders are justifiable. Our fight is right.
But what do we reveal of ourselves in this process? What does our endless sustenance for war, violence, and death cost us within our individual and collective psyches? Who are we really: Americans, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, citizens of the unipolar, hyper-powerful American Empire in the infancy phase of the twenty-first century?
To quote seminarian, Journalist, Author, Scholar, and Activist, Chris Hedges:
"The culture of war banishes the capacity for pity. It glorifies self-sacrifice and death. It sees pain, ritual humiliation and violence as part of an initiation into manhood …. The culture of war idealizes only the warrior. It belittles those who do not exhibit the warrior’s “manly” virtues. It places a premium on obedience and loyalty. It punishes those who engage in independent thought and demands total conformity. It elevates cruelty and killing to a virtue. This culture, once it infects wider society, destroys all that makes the heights of human civilization and democracy possible. The capacity for empathy, the cultivation of wisdom and understanding, the tolerance and respect for difference and even love are ruthlessly crushed. The innate barbarity that war and violence breed is justified by a saccharine sentimentality about the nation, the flag and a perverted Christianity that blesses its armed crusaders. This sentimentality … masks a terrifying numbness. It fosters an unchecked narcissism. Facts and historical truths, when they do not fit into the mythic vision of the nation and the tribe, are discarded. Dissent becomes treason. All opponents are godless and subhuman. [Hollywood] caters to a deep sickness rippling through our society. It holds up the dangerous belief that we can recover our equilibrium and our lost glory by embracing [the tenets of a new,] American fascism."
On Friday May 28, 2015, six hundred motorcycle enthusiasts gathered in front of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Their stated purpose is to stage a “peaceful protest” in front of the mosque in “response” to a gun attack in Garland, Texas which saw two individuals claiming inspiration from the Sunni, fundamentalist insurgency known as the Islamic State shoot at members of the so-called American Freedom Defence Initiative (AFDI) earlier this month. The shooting carried out by these two individuals was itself a response to direct and deliberate provocation on the part of AFDI and its bombastic leader, Pamela Geller. The Garland event on May 4th was one part hate-rally, one part carnival chaos at which a $10,000 prize was awarded for the “best” cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Just as Geller had hoped, the AFDI elicited a violent response from the already beleaguered and marginalized Muslim-American community of Texas. In celebration of her short-sighted bigotry, the Arizona bikers are to stage a deliberately loud, intimidating, and offensive event as well armed to the teeth in full anticipation of violent confrontation while donning t-shirts boldly displaying the slogan “F*ck Islam.”
What unites the Garland event with the planned biker rally in Phoenix is not simply their overtly racist, puerile, and openly hostile message of hate speech directed toward the American Muslim community. What unites these two events, and what should resonate as a fundamentally dangerous development on the political and civil landscape in the twenty-first century in the United States, is that these events were conceived, organized, and instituted as ostensible defences of the First Amendment right to free speech enshrined in the US Constitution.
The claim that the taunting, degradation, and humiliation of a minority ethnic, religious, or cultural group is permitted, even suggested, as a demonstration of the robust applicability of the First Amendment is as dishonest as it is dangerous. In the first place, the spirit of this crucially important civil liberty is obviously violated when it is used to defend the defamation of another, dissimilar individual or group. No civil-minded, progressive, or tolerant citizen who truly embraces the multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy that is the United States would seriously argue that the First Amendment countenances the kind of hate speech on display in Garland or Phoenix. In the second place, and more practically, legal statues prohibit the applicability of the First Amendment when it is intended as incitement, as when yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or “Bomb!” at the airport. If we can agree that the anti-Islamic demonstrations this month are intended precisely as that type of incitement—that is, are intended to provoke a chaotic, violent response from like-minded (though ideologically opposed) extremists—then we can agree that the First Amendment is no longer an applicable legal statute in these two cases. In sum, anyone who suggests that any member of the AFDI or the Phoenix biker gangs is happily demonstrating their hate and bigotry in order to flex the somehow atrophied muscle of liberty thereby championing an imperilled First Amendment is lying, pure and simple.
Their primary object is hate. Their secondary object is incitement violence. Freedom, liberty, and justice do not enter in to the equation for these deluded hate mongers except as a rhetorical justification for their antagonistic hate speech.
That the AFDI (a designated hate-group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center), the Arizona bikers, and their allies have such a strong voice in the current political and social climate clearly indicates that the United States is a very long way from achieving the kind of ethnic and racial equality we tout as one of our greatest social values domestically, and one of our strongest political assets internationally. Instead, what these events teach us is that a substantial component (not simply a vocal minority) of our current social structure remains opposed to tolerance, acceptance, or any significant efforts toward understanding of minority cultures, races, or ethnicities.
With regard to the Muslim community, there are broad elements within the contemporary United States (AFDI and Arizona Bikers included, of course) that would have Muslim-Americans be treated substantially as second-class citizens, recreating a Jim Crow-like stratification of society that demands abject fealty and acts of contrition on the part of all Muslim-Americans. According to this disturbingly anachronistic and patently racist ideology, all Muslims everywhere are responsible for any and all violent acts couched in Islamic vocabulary. The targeted group is held to account for acts, thoughts, and deeds that they had nothing to do with and that they very frequently publicly and vociferously condemn. Further, this nebulously conceived, knee-jerk hatred of the Muslim “other” in modern society lumps all Muslims everywhere together as one monolithic group, and suggests that the violence of the Muslim community in Palestine, Iraq, Texas, or Australia occurs on the basis of a primordial hatred with which that group is afflicted. Their violence is considered inherent, organic, and inevitable. Their legitimate political or social grievances are cast aside as irrelevant and/or inconsequential to their religious and ethnic make-up.
They hate for no reason. They kill without cause.
Through these exclusionary processes, we effectively hold Muslim-Americans to different standards of admission into contemporary, western society. We construct, or aim to construct, difficult standards of practice and punitive codes of conduct for them, passwords and duties that they must enact at the snap of a finger in order to prove to us their worthiness to exist in, and amongst, our self-declared openness, tolerance, and righteousness. We only fully accept only recalcitrant and apologetic Muslims, and even then, only reluctantly keeping a wary eye on their religious attire and a ready hand on our mass-casualty-causing handgun, displayed proudly on our hip. Those who we allow in are thereby considered “good Muslims” because they concede to our demands of them to perform acts of contrition often, and on demand. As such, our insistence upon these differentiated standards of admission and performances of contrition call to mind our nation’s segregated history wherein the most bigoted proclamations of the backward-looking, white, ruling elites were allowed, accepted, and even encouraged: “I don’t have a problem with blacks, as long as they know their place.” Like the “good negroes” of our wretched, violent and racist past, today’s Muslim-Americans allow us to hold onto self-aggrandizing claims of inclusion, tolerance, and broad-mindedness.
But they must know their place.
Islamophobia in twenty-first century America has become the public and institutional racism of the 1960s, and the proudly declared homophobia of the 1980s and 1990s. Muslim-Americans are broadly regarded as a contemporary, American Fifth Column to be held to different standards of admission into our society, if we admit them at all. Hate groups like the Arizona bikers and the AFDI bring this form of grass-roots hated and Klan-style racism into plain view, showing the rest of American society a vision of its own failure to overcome our racist, segregationist roots. It is a damnable site, ugly and malicious, but it says more about our current lot than months worth of sound bites or slogans.
And it has nothing, but nothing, to do with the First Amendment.