A recent trip to the West changed my hopeful and naéve appreciation for liberalism. The term liberal-I mean the moral value, not the political designations and party politics-is not a monolithic value that can define conclusive actions, emotions or intent for one and all. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have thought that the term “liberal” was open to everyone and everything, but it’s like many other noble terms that have been abused until they lose their true meanings.
One white, American college student-self-defined as a liberal-initiated a conversation with me because she supposed that I, a dark woman with her head covered, might be Iraqi. She had been troubled by a class in which an Iraqi-American professor had presented a film about the effects of America’s economic sanctions on the Iraqi people. Her immediate response, she said, was to want to go out and do what she could to influence change in America’s foreign policy. “But, then,” she said, realizing that I was not Iraqi after all, “I thought about it. I felt that we have many problems here and why should foreign people bring their problems with them to this country?” She went on: “I thought the professor was trying to radicalize the class and to gain from us inappropriate sympathy. He did a pretty good job on me, until I thought about it. Then, I went to the Dean, bypassing the professor, and complained about the lecture and the film. It wasn’t right,” she added. “I wanted him stopped.”
I responded that most colleges I know about would not encourage political discussion unless such a dialogue fit into a course’s description. “What class was it?” I asked.
“Middle Eastern Affairs,” she responded.
Another “liberal” American complained, “When will this problem between Palestinians and the Israelis end so we can get some ordinary news in our papers once again?”
I didn’t bother to ask what he meant, but I reflected on a visit to Iowa several years ago where I found the local paper crowded with stories about missing pets, diet formulas, a front-page “feature” story about a homeless man and how he annoyed people who took him into their homes. There were the usual stories of teenagers who had won academic awards, people who were arrested “under the influence” and how politicians were fixing up the city’s parks. I was amazed, though, that among the largest photos I saw in the local paper was of the winner of a “pizza-eating contest.” Foreign affairs stories and pictures were usually buried in pages 5 or 6 amid half-page ads offering pleasant diversions to balance the shocking pictures of shelled homes and bloody street fighting.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a chat I had with an older American intellectual, “a liberal Jew,” my friends tell me (it seems to me that anyone who expresses negative feelings towards Sharon or Bush earns the title of being a liberal these days). It was not long into our “progressive discourse” that I discovered how liberal he really was while telling me about his “peace vision.” He said, “Neither Sharon nor Arafat can do it. The Israelis need a new election and America has to find another leadership for the Palestinians.” Rest assured, that man did not get away with his assumption.
Talking to people in the New York area, I was amazed to see the surprise among those who listened. My lecture entitled, “Life Under Occupation” was usually politely received, but very few seemed to know enough about our experience to really absorb the magnitude of our struggle. Few understood the problems of getting food, medical care and an education that a siege in Palestine means. Others, seeming not to want to know, hid from the realities I tried to tell about under the guise of resisting tales that “only told one side of the story.”
Like those who heard what I had to say in terms of their own backgrounds, my experience was ambiguous. I also sensed goodness among those who expressed less than a clear understanding of what I had to say. While I felt adverseness from a few who never really looked me in the eyes, many people in my audiences were interested, curious and stayed after my talk to greet me or to ask questions. Some asked about books or articles that might give them insight into the wider implications of my personal story. I kept wondering, though, if they would be like the student who had changed her mind, becoming resentful of a suggestion that maybe, just maybe, everything America does is not so great and good. That disappointing conversation and indictment played on me and skewed my reactions even to the friendliest respondent.
In our discussions, some people told me, “Israel is the only democracy in your world, and the early precursor of a new and modern Middle East.” I can’t help but marvel at the unconscious arrogance that has shaped the psychology of many people of today’s “new” world. Isn’t it ironic that the Western lords of ‘liberty and secularization’ praise the exclusiveness of a Jewish State, not to forget that this State was built on an occupation that became a reality on the dead bodies of another nation? There is, still, a deliberate effort in many parts of the world to conquer, to control and to master others by the edge of the sword. There is so much wrong that is being committed in the name of right. Think of bombing Afghanistan to “liberate their women;” the sanctions that strangle the people of Iraq “to dismantle the Iraqi dictatorship;” the occupation of Palestine “to compensate the Jews for the horrors of the Holocaust;”…the examples are endless and so is the human pain.
Globalization, which is meant to be an economic interdependence at a global level, is another modern term coming from “the civilized world.” Globalization is augmenting many social and humanitarian problems, creating a vast socio-economic and developmental inequality between individuals as well as civilizations, making the rich richer and the poor poorer, the mighty mightier and the weak weaker. Like the veto law, globalization is a “legal” tool used to serve the interests of the powerful and one that could care less about the powerless. Globalization is a long and continuously expanding devastating process that unless we cope with it by globalizing the morality of universal justice and human rights, we will all lie as victims of this oppressive tool of civilization, and the majority of people will be marginalized in a world with a greedy global economy. In globalizing our morality and concerns for humanity, there will be no “foreigners” who should not “bring their problems with them to another country.” And there will be enough space for the world’s conflicts in American newspapers.
Finally, the inevitable comparison between American colonizers’ treatment of Native Americans and Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians came up. “The occupation you’re experiencing allows me to revisit my own history here in the States,” one African-American told me.
“I’m horrified when I hear your story,” another man said, “and I can only feel guilt and horror when I listen to you and think that my ancestors did such similar things to Native Americans and then to the Irish-Americans and the Italian-Americans and the African-Americans.”
“I’m white, and no matter how I try to scrub my skin I’ll continue to be white. I’m ashamed of what my people have done to Native Americans, to Blacks, but it happened. It makes me sick, but all I can do is live with the guilt.”
For this, I had a response. “Don’t be ashamed of something you did not do. It does nothing to apologize for something our ancestors did in another context at another time. Just don’t copy traditions or behaviours of oppressive ancestors to the extent that violence continues to happen all over the world, again and again and again. Don’t let it happen because you’re afraid to listen and find out about today’s imperialism, “civilized war” or injustice. The “Indians” are still there, and so is the “Englishman,” only the “dream land” is different today. Listen. Speak out. Wear your liberalism on your sleeve and be an example to others so that they, too, at the very least, become aware. Let silence be a guilt that propels you to responsiveness. I come from a world where politicat caeligious and economic powers justify imperialistic wars, subjugation and murder. How often I’ve heard words that point out another group as being better than my group or my people, a system better than ours, a God who wills us away in favour of “the blessed ones.”
Recently, I had a very interesting exchange with a white Australian theologian about the Aboriginal people of Australia. I learned from her some of the horrors that nation has faced at the hands of colonizers and about the deteriorated living conditions that they are still experiencing within the land that once was theirs. She also educated me about some of the critical moral issues under the current conservative government-the treatment of asylum-seekers and the prejudice against certain ethnic or religious groups. One of the most incredible things she told me was about a demonstration in which around a 1,000 women wore the veil in solidarity with the Muslim women who faced harassment after 11 September.
One of the most wonderful plays I’ve seen was “The Syringa Tree,” a one-woman show about Apartheid in South Africa. The play showed the other side of the tragedy; the moral predicament of a white woman of conscience who was part of the oppressing regime, but yet acted against it, to the point that she left her country of birth-South Africa-and came back only after Apartheid was over.
These two women-the theologian and the actress-are members of the dynasty of colonizers. They live in societies that are multinational and cosmopolitan, where some people have power and privileges that rest on the exploitation of others. But nevertheless, they refuse to inherit the immoral legacy of their conquering and invading ancestors; they sincerely and genuinely act within the available means to minimize the exploitative features of their “modern world.”
Once, a European journalist interviewed me and concluded in her report: “Samah Jabr is full of contradictions. She is a liberal, but yet an observant Muslim and a passionate nationalist. Jabr is the hope and despair.” Well, I don’t see the contradictions. I am a voyager seeking the truth, a human searching for the meaning of humanity, and a citizen of the world who happened to be a Palestinian, seeking dignity, freedom and peace with justice. To me, spirituality is like love, for which I owe no one any explanation. I choose to be an observant Muslim; I live it privately; I never try to impose my values even on those closest to me, and I find it “a conservative thought” that some people find it necessary to dismiss religion and declare that “God is a myth” to earn the title “liberal.” I am a free woman who is aware of the purpose of her existence and her calls; I live under occupation, but I’m freer inside than many people living in freedom. Within my ribs, there is an enormous life force that motivates me to work hard in order to live and let live, too. To me, the liberals are those who feel that their privileges are keys to greater responsibilities; they are those who are pro-active, not re-active in their advocacy of freedom for all. It is only those who advocate universal justice with peace who are the ones who can make a significant change; even if their efforts are perceived to be futile, they, at least, don’t allow a materialistic world of the mighty and the powerful change them. It is no one’s responsibility to stop a human tragedy, but no one is exempt from contributing to the process of change.
(Samah Jabr is a Palestinian physician and a writer living in East Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)