Know Thy Palestine

Those who believe that the war of liberation in Algeria was a Marxist socialist revolution have either been duped by the Western educated leadership of that revolution, or they must have closed their ears to the deafening “Allahou Akbar, Allahou Akbar” cries of the mostly illiterate and uneducated Algerian peasantry that did the fighting. The European left played a crucial part on the side of this revolution, but few were those who understood it. For them (as well as for the contemporary liberal left), Islam was just an old archaic structure; a family curse that lived on. Once autonomy is achieved, they thought, it would eventually fade away and disappear. Great was the disappointment of those European leftists who, upon arrival to the newly freed Republic of Algeria, were told they could not have their Cuban rum and their whisky. Their face to face encounter with the religious sensibilities of a peasant third world nation they supposedly cared about did not trigger the curiosity of these enlightened and liberated Europeans; it did not create a desire to know and understand these people, it was simply a tactless nuisance which, they thought, the Algerians had better get rid of.

Four decades and numerous other wars of liberation later, this situation has not changed much. Today an international movement of solidarity similar to the one that supported the Algerians, the Vietnamese and the South Africans in their quests for freedom is taking shape around the Palestinian cause. Genuineness of feelings of solidarity, and the veracity of the desire to help are not in question. These, however, remain incomplete and ineffective if they are not accompanied with an effort to get acquainted with the dynamics and sensibilities of the Palestinian nation, Muslims and Christians, in their specificity.

When I hear people in the pro-Palestinian camp, especially here in the US, talking, with an obviously rudimentary knowledge of the Palestinians and the Arabs, about the “chauvinist, obscurantist, hate-oriented, proto-fascist” Hamas, I feel sad and pessimistic. Anybody who is familiar with Islamist movements (and they are numerous and diverse in ideology) know that Hamas and Hizbullah are ANTI-COLONIAL MOVEMENTS. They are not the Talibans or the Saudis. You might disagree with their methods, but if you want to accuse them of chauvinism and fascism, it would be tactful and respectful to provide some evidence. As Arabs, Muslims and Christians, with an immediate interest in the subject, we welcome any new material about it. But we cannot remain silent when we see intelligent, well educated and well meaning people no doubt, resort to the stereotypical anti-Islamism that is characteristic of the worst mainstream Hollywood and CNN propaganda.

It is interesting to note that once these same people turn to consider Judaism, in any of its aspects, you see a genuine effort to look at it in its own specificity. The post-Enlightenment revisionism of Christianity that erroneously assumes that all religions are the same gets dropped. Last week, some of our Jewish comrades from the Not IN My Name group reported about the right wing Zionist group who disrupted the Rabbis for Human Rights conference in Chicago by noisily calling for the Arabs’ blood. I do not recall that any of these reports called these bigots names. Someone even suggested that we should be compassionate to them, and try to “address their fears.” Why doesn’t such a generosity of thought, I wonder, go far enough to encompass the Muslims? We never hear much outrage about Ovadia Yosef’s characterization of the Arabs as “snakes that should be annihilated,” or Barak’s characterization of the Arabs as “crocodiles.” In spite of the bigotry, zealotry and obvious fascism of settler groups like Gush Emunim (as courageously documented by Israel Shahak), international public opinion is very, very careful how to refer to them and how to talk about them.

Sometimes I wish there was something equivalent to the “anti-semitism” accusation that Jewish people dispose of, in the hands of the Arabs and Muslims. Something we would probably call “anti-Semitism version 2” and which we would throw in the face of those who hate us or patronize us, those who claim to know us and know what is good for us better than ourselves. It would make people think twice before making sweeping generalizations about the Arabs and Muslims with no apparent knowledge. More important, it would also encourage those who have a genuine interest in us and have a genuine desire to engage with our causes, to enquire, ask, research and try to know us. For fear of getting branded “an anti-Semite version 2”, our Western sympathizers would put the effort to get a feel of this culture, know its history and its dynamics, its traditions and its aspirations, before they would allow themselves to speak for its people and tell them what’s good for them.

Unfortunately, there is no “anti-Semitism version 2,” and the coercive aspect of it does not make it desirable either. As a result the Arabs and Muslims continue to be regarded by a substantial number of their sympathizers as an object of discourse and hardly a source of it. Those who are familiar with anthropology know what I mean here. So my last resort is to direct our Western sympathizers to the easily available literature on the subject. There is a large corpus of accessible books on Islam as a religion that are written for a Western audience. Karen Armstrong’s Mohammad: Biography of the Prophet, and John Esposito’s Islam: The Straight Path, are very good introductions to Islam. Accessible scholarly material is also available on political Islam in its different ideological orientations. Francois Burgat’s Islamism in the Machrek and his Islamism in the Maghreb introduce the reader to a variety of Islamist movements in the Arab world. Olivier Roy’s The Failure of Political Islam, is a good demonstration of how the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been funding and helping the emergence of a Taliban/Saudi style of an apolitical, moral and moralistic Islam to counteract the political Islamic movements of the seventies and eighties.

The French intellectual Benjamin Stora hit the nail on the head when he told Le Monde that “French intellectuals who have been working on the Arab and Muslim world for the last twenty years are denied the right of citation. Their works are not known or are at best used as an ideological alibi” (Le Monde, 02/19/97.) Politicians and decision makers, he said, prefer to let the “media-thinker; those who work on nothing and have an opinion on everything,” monopolize this field. It is also part of our struggle not to buy into that.

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