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The extraordinary turbulence of the present moment during the US military campaign against Afghanistan, now in the middle of its second month, has crystallised a number of themes and counter themes that deserve some clarification here. I shall list them without too much discussion and qualification, as a way of broaching the current stage of […]

Suicidal Ignorance

by Edward Said

The extraordinary turbulence of the present moment during the US military campaign against Afghanistan, now in the middle of its second month, has crystallised a number of themes and counter themes that deserve some clarification here. I shall list them without too much discussion and qualification, as a way of broaching the current stage of development in the long, and terribly unsatisfactory history of relationships between the US and Palestine.

We should start perhaps by re-stating the obvious, that every American I know (including myself, I must admit) firmly believes that the terrible events of 11 September inaugurate a rather new stage in world history. Even though numerous Americans know rationally that other atrocities and disasters have occurred in history, there is still something unique and unprecedented in the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. A new reality, therefore, seems to proceed from that day, most of it focused on the United States itself, its sorrow, its anger, its psychic stresses, its ideas about itself. I would go so far as saying that today almost the least likely argument to be listened to in the United States in the public domain is one that suggests that there are historical reasons why America, as a major world actor, has drawn such animosity to itself by virtue of what it has done; this is considered simply to be an attempt to justify the existence and actions of Bin Laden, who has become a vast, over-determined symbol of everything America hates and fears: in any case, such talk is and will not be tolerated in mainstream discourse for the time being, especially not on the mainstream media or in what the government says. The assumption seems to be that American virtue or honour in some profoundly inviolate way has been wounded by an absolutely evil terrorism, and that any minimising or explanation of that is an intolerable idea even to contemplate, much less to investigate rationally. That such a state of affairs is exactly what the pathologically crazed world-vision of Bin Laden himself seems to have desired all along — a division of the universe into his forces and those of the Christians and Jews — seems not to matter.

As a result of that, therefore, the political image that the government and the media — which has mostly acted without independence from the government, although certain questions are being asked and criticism articulated about the conduct of the war itself, not its wisdom or efficacy — wish to project is American “unity.” There really is a feeling being manufactured by the media and the government that a collective “we” exists and that “we” all act and feel together, as witnessed by such perhaps unimportant surface phenomena as flag- flying and the use of the collective “we” by journalists in describing events all over the world in which the US is involved. We bombed, we said, we decided, we acted, we feel, we believe, etc., etc. Of course this has only marginally to do with the reality, which is far more complicated and far less reassuring. There is plenty of unrecorded or unregistered scepticism, even outspoken dissent, but it seems hidden by overt patriotism. So, American unity is being projected with such force as to allow very little questioning of US policy, which in many ways is heading towards a series of unexpected events in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the meaning of which many people will not realise until too late. In the meantime, American unity needs to state to the world that what America does and has done cannot brook serious disagreement or discussion. Just like Bin Laden, Bush tells the world, you are either with us, or you are with terrorism, and hence against us. So, on the one hand America is not at war with Islam but only with terrorism, and on the other hand (in complete contradiction with that, since only America decides who or what Islam and terrorism are), “we” are against Muslim terrorism and Islamic rage as “we” define them. That there has been so far an effective Lebanese and Palestinian demurral at the American condemnation of Hizbullah and Hamas as terrorist organisations is no assurance that the campaign to brand Israel’s enemies as “our” enemies will stop.

In the meantime, both George Bush and Tony Blair have realised that indeed something needs to be done about Palestine, even though I believe there is no serious intention of changing US foreign policy to accommodate what is going to be done. In order for that to happen, the US must look at its own history, just as its media flacks like the egregious Thomas Friedman and Fouad Ajami keep preaching at Arab and Muslim societies that that is what they must do, but of course never consider that that is something that everyone, including Americans , also needs to do. No, we are told over and over, American history is about freedom and democracy, and only those: no mistakes can be admitted, or radical reconsiderations announced. Everyone else must change their ways; America remains as it is. Then Bush declares that the US favours a Palestinian state with recognised boundaries next to Israel and adds that this has to be done according to UN resolutions, without specifying which ones, and while refusing to meet Yasser Arafat personally.

This may seem like a contradictory step also, but in fact it isn’t. For the past six weeks there has been an astonishingly unrelenting and minutely organised media campaign in the US more or less pressing the Israeli vision of the world on the American reading and watching public, with practically nothing to counter it. Its main themes are that Islam and the Arabs are the true causes of terrorism, Israel has been facing such terrorism all its life, Arafat and Bin Laden are basically the same thing, most of the US’s Arab allies (especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia) have played a clear negative role in sponsoring anti-Americanism, supporting terrorism, and maintaining corrupt, undemocratic societies. Underlying the campaign has been the (at best) dubious thesis that anti-Semitism is on the rise. All of this adds up to a near-promise that anything to do with Palestinian (or Lebanese) resistance to Israeli practices — never more brutal, never more dehumanising and illegal than today — has to be destroyed after (or perhaps while) the Taliban and Bin Laden have been destroyed. That this also happens to mean, as the Pentagon hawks and their right-wing media machine keep reminding Americans relentlessly, that Iraq must be attacked next, and indeed that all the enemies of Israel in the region along with Iraq must totally be brought low, is lost on no one. So brazenly has the Zionist propaganda apparatus performed in the weeks since 11 September that very little opposition to these views is encountered. Lost in this extraordinary farrago of lies, bloodthirsty hatred, and arrogant triumphalism is the simple reality that America is not Israel, and Bin Laden not the Arabs or Islam.

This concentrated pro-Israeli campaign, over which Bush and his people have little real political control, has kept the US administration from anything like a real re- assessment of US policies towards Israel and the Palestinians. Even during the opening rounds of the American counter-propaganda campaign directed to the Muslim and Arab world, there has been a remarkable unwillingness to treat the Arabs as seriously as all other peoples have been treated. Take as an example an Al- Jazeera discussion programme a week ago, in which Bin Laden’s latest video was played in its entirety. A hodge-podge of accusations and declarations, it accused the US of using Israel to bludgeon the Palestinians without respite; Bin Laden of course crazily ascribed this to a Christian and Jewish Crusade against Islam, but most people in the Arab world are convinced — because it is patently true — that America has simply allowed Israel to kill Palestinians at will with US weapons and unconditional political support in the UN and elsewhere. The Doha-based moderator of the programme then called on a US official, Christopher Ross, who was in Washington to respond, and then Ross, a decent but by no means remarkable or even fluent Arabic speaker, read a long statement whose message was that the US, far from being against Islam and the Arabs, was really their champion (e.g. in Bosnia and Kosovo), plus the US supplied more food to Afghanistan than anyone else, upheld freedom and democracy, etc.

All in all, it was standard US-government issue. Then the moderator asked Ross to explain why, given everything that he said about US support for justice and democracy, the US backed Israeli brutality in its military occupation of Palestine. Instead of taking an honest position that respected his listeners and affirmed that Israel is a US ally and “we” choose to support it for internal political reasons, Ross chose instead to insult their basic intelligence and defended the US as the only power that has brought the two sides to the negotiating table. When the moderator persisted in his questioning about US hostility to Arab aspirations, Ross persisted in his line too, more or less claiming that only the US had the Arabs’ interests at heart. As an exercise in propaganda, Ross’s performance was poor of course; but as an indication of the possibility of any serious change in US policy, Ross (inadvertently) at least did Arabs the service of indicating that they would have to be fools to believe in any such change.

Whatever else it says, Bush’s America remains a unilateralist power, in the world, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, everywhere. It shows no sign of having understood what Palestinian resistance is all about, or why Arabs resent its horrendously unjust policies in turning a blind eye to Israel’s maleficent sadism against the Palestinian people as a whole. It still refuses to sign the Kyoto convention, or the War Crimes court agreement, or the anti-land-mine conventions, or to pay its UN dues. Bush can still stand up and lecture the world as if he were a schoolmaster telling a bunch of unruly little vagrants why they must behave according to American ideas.

In short, there is absolutely no reason at all why Yasser Arafat and his ever-present coterie should grovel at American feet. Our only hope as a people is for Palestinians to show the world that we have our principles, we occupy the moral high ground, and we must continue an intelligent and well-organised resistance to a criminal Israeli occupation, which no one seems to mention any more. My suggestion is that Arafat should stop his world tours and come back to his people (who keep reminding him that they no longer really support him: only 17 per cent say they back what he is doing) and respond to their needs as a real leader must. Israel has been destroying the Palestinian infrastructure, destroying towns and schools, killing innocents, invading at will, without Arafat paying enough serious attention. He must lead the non-violent protest marches on a daily, if not hourly basis, and not let a group of foreign volunteers do our work for us.

It is the absence of a self-sacrificing spirit of human and moral solidarity with his people that Arafat’s leadership so fatally lacks. I am afraid that this terrible absence has now marginalised him and his ill-fated and ineffective PA almost completely. Certainly Sharon’s brutality has played a major role in destroying it too, but we must remember that before the Intifada began, most Palestinians had already lost their faith, and for good reason. What Arafat never seems to have understood is that we are and have always been a movement standing for, symbolising, and getting support as the embodiment of principles of justice and liberation. This alone will enable us to free ourselves from Israeli occupation — not the covert manoeuvring in the halls of Western power, where until today Arafat and his people are treated with contempt. Whenever, as in Jordan, Lebanon and during the Oslo process, he has behaved as if he and his movement were just like another Arab state, he has always been defeated; only when he finally understands that the Palestinian people demand liberation and justice, not a police force and a corrupt bureaucracy, will he begin to lead his people. Otherwise he will flounder disgracefully and will bring disaster and misfortune on us.

On the other hand, and I shall conclude with this now, leaving the subject for my next article to develop in detail, we must not as Palestinians or Arabs fall into an easy rhetorical anti-Americanism. It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies. We have never addressed the currents in Israel and America which it is possible, and indeed vital, for us to address, and in the end to come to an agreement with. In this respect, we need to make our resistance respected and understood, not hated and feared as it is now by virtue of suicidal ignorance and indiscriminate belligerence.

One more thing. It is also far too easy for a small group of unexceptional expatriate Arab academics in America to keep appearing on the media here in order to denounce Islam and the Arabs, without having the courage or the decency to say these things in Arabic to the Arab societies and peoples they so easily rail against in Washington and New York. Nor is it acceptable for Arab and Muslim governments to pretend to be defending their people’s interests at the UN and in the West generally, while doing very little for their people at home. Most Arab countries now wallow in corruption, the terror of undemocratic rule, and a fatally flawed educational system that still has not faced up to the realities of a secular world.

But I shall leave that all until my next article.