Islam and the West are inadequate banners
The United States may too often have failed to look outside but it is
depressing how little time is spent trying to understand America
by Edward Said
Observer (London) - September 16, 2001
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
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, defence 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.