The new civilian terrorists: anti-Arab racism shapes the U.S. discussion of the Middle East.
Media on both the right and left accepted Israel's and the United States' description of Hizbullah as a terrorist organization, but the veracity of that description should have been questioned and discussed. The immorality of Israel's wanton destruction did not present much of a political or ethical debate for those who would distinguish between military targets and civilian ones, between terrorists and ordinary people. But the problem was that U.S. media repeatedly omitted the distinction, transforming Israel's aggression into an act of self-defense. Such omissions were plausible because of a profound anti-Arab racism in the U.S. that inspires the dehumanization of Arabs and reduces complex social and cultural phenomena in the Arab world to the level of irrational barbarism.
Had commentators and audiences spent time exploring those phenomena rather than unthinkingly describing Hizbullah as terroristic, the boundaries of debate might have shifted in productive ways. Hizbullah undoubtedly has engaged in acts of terrorism, the most notorious being the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, but its role in Lebanon has long been more complex than that of an armed militia. It also is a legitimate political organization with a solid base of support and provides necessary social services to the Shi'a of Lebanon, the nation's poorest demographic. The organization, though, is armed, and during its history has undertaken operations that can rightly be described as terrorism. This is merely one dimension of a complex mission, but it is the dimension that has come to define Hizbullah in the American imagination. In fact, according to U.S. media, all Arab violence is terrorism.
The flippancy with which U.S. media apply the word "terrorism" to Arab populations reinforces the notion that violence in the Arab world is ahistorical and therefore senseless. Arabs in turn become a people without narratives who belong to a culture incapable of rationality.
In July, when Israel's destruction of Lebanon had accelerated, a variation of this discourse began to emerge: the notion that one cannot rightly distinguish between terrorists and civilians because most of the civilians in Lebanon were either in cahoots or sympathy with Hizbullah. Zionists have periodically used such a rationale to facilitate Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. American officials also have employed the same rationale to justify mounting civilian deaths in Iraq. But at no time has the rationale become so inscribed in mainstream commentary as during Israel's war on the people of Lebanon.
Perhaps the exemplar of this perspective is Alan Dershowitz, the famed Harvard civil libertarian. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, Dershowitz dismissed Israel's brutality, asking, "But just who is a 'civilian' in the age of terrorism, when militants don't wear uniforms, don't belong to regular armies and easily blend into civilian populations?" The implication of this question is clear: all Lebanese people are potential terrorists and are therefore worthy of slaughter without Israeli or American culpability.
Dershowitz may be the exemplar of this sort of argument, but he certainly is not its only advocate. After Israel's invasion, for example, neoconservative media reactively blamed the imbroglio on Hizbullah (and Syria and Iran, the organization's financial sponsors and the scapegoats of neoconservative ideology). This blame was replete with racist invective which has included calling Middle Easterners "ragheads" and suggesting that the U.S. strike Mecca with nuclear weapons.
The more noteworthy responses to the invasion arose from liberal, and in some cases progressive, analysts, who eschewed overt racism but allowed dogmas about Arab barbarity to influence their analyses. An editorial in the Nation, for example, expressed an anti-war position but did so by assessing strategic implications rather than human traumas, exemplified by the article's synopsis on the front page of the magazine's website: "[T]he spreading violence in Lebanon and Gaza demonstrates that the collective punishment of the Palestinian and Lebanese people will only further radicalize the region."
Only once in the editorial does the Nation offer moral condemnation, in the singular appearance of the word "inhumane." Otherwise, it recycles the canard that the Near East is populated not by civilians but by radicals perpetually on the brink of becoming even more radicalized. Ardent emphasis on strategy in the face of slaughter is only possible through a dehumanization shared by the writer and audience. Monitoring corporate print media in the month following Israel's assault of Lebanon, no commentary can be found that examines Hizbullah's strategy without also condemning or at least noting the immorality of targeting Israeli civilians, a result of the fact that Israeli Jews are securely humanized in the United States.
Another dubious leftist commentary appeared in The Progressive, where Ruth Conniff validated the false but widespread notion that while violence exists among both Arabs and Israelis, terrorism is exclusive to the Arabs. Conniff accomplished this validation by assigning "terrorist violence" to Arabs and "military reprisals" to Israel. She also observes that "Israelis are not all gung-ho for war," an observation that leads readers to infer that all Arabs are. Conniff's piece brings to our attention the important point that some of the anti-Arab racism generated on the right finds its way subtly to writers positioned on the left.
The most conspicuous example of institutionalized anti-Arab racism during the early stages of Israel's destruction was a nonbinding resolution blaming Arabs for the violence, which Congress passed on a vote of 410-8, a rare show of bipartisanship. John McCain announced that if Hizbullah is "going to launch attacks from the Lebanese territory, then tragically the Lebanese government and people pay a price for that." By McCain's reasoning, Palestinians would be justified in killing American civilians, because Israel regularly launches attacks on them with weaponry provided by the United States.
Anti-Arab racism, however, isn't merely intertwined with American and Israeli atrocities. It has had a consistent presence in the United States for over a century, and its modern incarnation can roughly be traced to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Anti-Arab racism, has traditionally existed on the left as well as the right (as have all forms of racism).
Liberals and progressives not only do too little to challenge anti-Arab racism but in some cases reproduce it. In relation to Iraq, Conniff writes: "A neighbor of mine, back on a short leave from an 18-month tour as a National Guardsman in Iraq, expressed disgust with the Iraqis, describing them as a backward people who don't even want our help to build schools. They prefer that their kids remain ignorant, and work on the farm, he said. That alienated feeling is mutual, as Iraqis view the United States with increasing anger. It's not a hopeful atmosphere."
Obviously, the guardsman she quotes is an anti-Arab racist, given that he totalizes Iraqis as backward, petulant, ungrateful and ignorant. Describing his blatant racism with forlorn sympathy as an "alienated feeling" is at best a nonsensical interpretation and at worst an endorsement of it. Conniff further implicates herself by noting that the "alienated feeling is mutual," a claim for which she presents no evidence (surely because there is none to support such an exaggerated generalization). The claim acts as a sleight-of-hand: she absolves the soldier of his bigoted attitude by presuming that Iraqis, the silent party in her article, must likewise harbor bigoted attitudes.
Conniff's formulation is reminiscent of a 2002 piece by Barbara Ehrenreich, who gained some notoriety in 2005 for calling Sudanese Arabs "guys riding around on camels." The piece, supportive of the war on Afghanistan but critical of the approaching invasion of Iraq, argues, as do so many other articles by progressives, for strategic rather than moral or legal probity. If the U.S. invades Iraq, Ehrenreich fears, "a generation of young Muslims in Riyadh or Cairo or Hamburg will seek martyrdom by taking out some of us." Rather than inventing a phantom threat, Ehrenreich might have noted the harsh illegality of taking out some of "them." Strategy, of course, is an important consideration, but exclusive discussion of it at the expense of human concerns ultimately manufactures dehumanization.
More damningly, Ehrenreich employs the words "terror" and "terrorist" with uncritical certainty, writing: "With great reluctance and foreboding, I had to agree with the Bush Administration that America needed to launch a 'war on terror,' or at least a determined effort to apprehend the terrorists." Here Ehrenreich confines terrorism to the Islamic world, assuming, as evidenced by her noun usage, that America engages in legitimate forms of violence, and thus recapitulating the tired formulation that "a whole world, that of Islam," enjoys killing Westerners for reasons external to geopolitics. Take, for instance, her unctuous condemnation of Afghan civilian deaths: "Unknown numbers of civilians--somewhere between 500 and 3000--managed to get in the way of the bombs and the bullets, earning us the lasting enmity of their survivors."
As with other examples of tacit racism on the left, Ehrenreich's is articulated through a curious sentence structure, in this case one implying that Afghans actively tried to get themselves killed by American weaponry; she ignores the demonstrable possibility that the American weaponry managed to find the Afghan civilians by design. Progressive anti-Arab racism is much more subtle than that on the right, which often is blatant and thus readily detectable. On the left, though, it sometimes can be found in what writers assert through omission when they are selectively descriptive and what they say implicitly about the value of Arab peoples when they choose to emphasize the sanctity of American life.
American liberals in particular have put the shibboleth of tolerance to extended use in the United States post-9/11, especially in relation to Arabs and Arab Americans. Arabs generally are to be avoided, despised, incarcerated. In moments of generosity, however, the Arab is transformed in the liberal imagination from alien presence into tolerable object of curiosity. Because Arabs have been subject to the competing (but not necessarily antagonistic) strategies of castigation and toleration, they have been marked as different. And in this conceptualization of Arabs as somehow apart from the rest of Americans, the mythology of race continues to be decisive in the U.S.
This mythology reemerged upon Israel's invasion of Lebanon, as it does when any geopolitical moment renders it expedient. It enables liberals and progressives to be sufficiently critical of the U.S. and Israel while upholding the longstanding assumptions that relegate Arabs to the status of subhuman--and that, more important, safeguard white privilege in the face of what true responsibility would necessitate. The fact that white liberals so infrequently embrace true responsibility is enough to question their ultimate loyalties, which, when not in actual support of American and Israeli imperialism are unknowingly in collusion with it. This support and collusion, masquerading as enlightenment, only exist because of the simultaneous but never accidental presence of anti-Arab racism.
Steven Salaita is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech and the author of Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today.
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|Title Annotation:||TO THE POINT|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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