Saturday, February 04, 2006

Selections from Arab news

Well, if you’re sick what better thing do I have to do than post a few more times on a Saturday night. It’s better than trying to sleep.

One thing I always try to do is to read and understand the perspectives of those who disagree with me—that’s why the National Review is one of my most read sources. It is also the reason I read the Arabic dailies Dar al-Hayat and Al Jazeera. As I have no understanding of Arabic, I am forced to read the English versions. Based on this, Al Jazeera is the more moderate—though my guess is that the site is merely more professional and caters more to an English reading audience. A number of the pieces are written explicitly for non-Arabs, and it is remarkable at how similar the site’s headlines are to CNN’s. Dar al-Hayat on the other hand, is a site in which every piece feels translated. It makes for a more unpleasant reading experience. (“The Israeli and US campaign waged on Hamas, along with its European upshots, abounds with hypocrisy,” begins an opinion piece.) But I believe it gives a more honest view of Arab views.

side note: I am thinking of making this the first in a weekly series of pieces that go over opinion pieces in Arab newspapers. I am still experimenting here with what is the best method, and what is the end purpose of going over this. It is often frustrating, but I think when done properly, it is worth it. I will try to explain and make sense of these pieces without indignation (all my energy would end up being wasted in indignation otherwise), but with a critical eye aimed towards understanding these works in context. I do not assume that any author represents all Muslims or Arabs, but merely that their views represent some portion of them--that their views are common and strong enough that a newspaper editor saw fit to publish them.

The racist agenda of Europe

Recently, I have come across a few articles that struck me as especially revealing in one way or another. The first is from Al Jazeera and is by a researcher for the University of London. She makes a number of very strong statements and a number of compelling points about Western hypocrisy, but overall her argument is held together by a strong feeling rather than a coherent point. The article is titled: “Europe should accept its Muslims.” The main point of the piece is to equate the right-wing politics of Europe and America with the West as a whole while accusing Westerners of hypocrisy and blaming Europeans for not integrating Muslims into their society. She is especially incensed at the West’s reaction to 9/11:
Instead of driving European governments to forge more open relations with their socially deprived and institutionally marginalised religious and ethnic minorities and to review their policies of illegitimate military expansionism, September 11 has turned into a pretext for clinging to a right wing aggressive agenda at home and an arrogant foreign interventionism.
She blames Europe for not integrating Muslims economically into their society, suggesting that Muslims would “acquire the necessary linguistic tools” and have a “greater openness” if more native Europeans reached out to them; but unfortunately, Europeans are too caught up in racism, ignorance, prejudice, and stereotypes to do this. She believes the current struggles over multiculturalism and what she calls “essentialism” embody this antagonism towards Islam. She is furious at those who try to state that Europe’s society is based on certain values, claiming that any attempt to do so reeks of a revival of the “white man’s burden.” She portrays the Muslims of Europe as people who just want to integrate, but are faced with prejudice and hate:
Europe’s minorities are in other words the cause of all its social, political and economic deficiencies. The remedy lies in suffocating them through stringent legislations and ruthless practices, from stop- and- search and surveillance, to control orders and shoot- and- kill police tactics.

They and their faith have been reduced to a security problem to be dealt with exclusively by the intelligence services. However much Europe’s Muslims attempt to prove their allegiance to the nation-state, they remain in the eyes of its strategists a fifth column and a threat to homeland security.
Her penultimate statement is a puzzling one, and I am not sure if I understand what it might mean—though I can sense the strong sense of indignation behind it, I cannot fathom what she is trying to say.
Some liberals are particularly fond of the following question: How, they ask, is it possible to be tolerant with the intolerant? But with the recent assaults on civil liberties and the drive to police the public sphere and encroach into the private realm of the citizen in Europe and the US, this inherently flawed question has been reversed.
How does one reverse the question: "Is it possible to be tolerant with the intolerant?" The only possibility I find for the reverse is: "Is is possible to be intolerant with the tolerant?" In which case the answer is a resounding, "Yes", but I find no greater point made.

Reading this, I do begin to wonder if she might be right—that the biggest problem in Europe is not that Muslims are intolerant, but that Europeans are. But how then does one explain the vehement response to all the cartoons? How does one explain the deaths of Pim Fortyun and Theo van Gogh? The terrorist incidents in Madrid and London? The chaos in France? She cannot ignore all this in making her case and expect to be taken seriously.

Whatever the case, I would bet that Soumaya Ghannoushi’s feelings are representative of many Muslims—somewhat confused, indignant, angry, perceiving hypocrisy in the squishy concepts of multiculturalism, tolerance and freedom. What some in the West seem to have forgotten is that these are only public values within a broader framework of other values. There are many who speak as if these values were good unto themselves, but how easily can tolerance of difference turn into tolerance of evil, and how quickly can freedom balanced with responsibility turn into mere anarchy. Multiculturalism values other cultures, but if we are to have any values at all, we cannot treat all cultures as equals.

Poor Palestine

Next are two pieces from Dar al-Hayat. The first piece again accuses the West of hypocrisy for its dealings with the Palestinians. Abdallah Iskandar explains:
This hypocrisy was manifested in two main issues. The first pertains to twisting the meaning of territory in exchange for peace, so that Israel can enjoy peace while the Palestinians are left with nothing. The second is related to the free choice and democracy entitled to the Palestinians in conformity with the meaning of this twisted peace.
The author believes that Hamas is a reasonable and pragmatic organization and “part of the peace process”. The only people who are unreasonable are the Israelis and the West for trying to force the Palestinians to leave Israel in peace while Israel has a “policy of invasion and killing.” Iskandar makes a more interesting (that is, unusual) point towards the end of his piece: that if the West stops funding Hamas, then it may become more radical:
It is obvious that the best way to fend off "Hamas" from the promised pragmatism is to let it handle single-handedly its affairs during the expected crisis, and leave it under the mercy of the new financing sources and their policies, which are not necessarily pragmatic.
Of course, it is difficult to see how Hamas could become more radical, but I am sure it is possible. The author in making his point though starts from an assumption that I would wager most Arabs agree with: Israel is, and always has been the aggressor in this conflict, and the Palestinians are only victims. With that assumption unassaibly in place, the rest of the piece makes more sense.

Conspiracy Theories

The second piece by Abdel Wahab Badrakhan verges into the territory of conspiracy theory. The piece is interesting to me less for its argument (if there is a thread connecting these disconnected thoughts) than for its possible insight into how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is viewed. The common theme in every one of these works has been the accusation of the hypocrisy of the West, and it is repeated several times in this piece as well. Here is a selection of interesting passages:
It is weird that elections marked by violations and forgery, are considered with understanding and disregard, while elections, deemed to be free and acceptable by everybody, are met with threats.
Europe seems to be more concern and remote from the humane "principles" attributed to it. If not, what does this insistence on cutting off aid means? According to many observers, it is part of premeditated agendas to carry out a starvation plan. They wanted to announce to the Palestinian people that it will pay the price for voting for "Hamas" by inflicting to them starvation, upsetting their living, and restricting the fare, education, and future of their children. In other words, the West is not only striving to be on a par with the Israeli war criminals but to outperform them.
It is irrefutable that the Western, European and American, stances are free to call on "Hamas" to "recognize Israel" but they never called on Israel, openly, to recognize the Palestinian people and their rights.
Notice—by cutting off international aid, the Europeans are trying to outperform the “Israeli war criminals”. The author also denies that Hamas wants to destroy Israel and suggests that this is merely an Israeli ploy to discredit them. The most interesting part of the piece is the ending where Badrakhan suggests that as the West rejects as a partner each extremist group, a more extremist one comes into its place:
Of course, they will reject "Jihad" tomorrow, just as they rejected "Fateh" and "Hamas," to probably open the way for "al-Qaeda". The latter cares less to be accepted or rejected, its only concern is to resume war, just Israel and the US wish to do.
Somehow, within all this web of conspiracy, there seems to lie a desire for peace, or at least an acknowledgement that peace is better than war. But it is well-hidden, and covered by anger, resentment, and fatalism.

Reading these is a bit like looking at an alternate universe; it is confusing to see so many things that seem familiar turned upside down. I hope to find some more coherent pieces in the future, but as with most newspapers, the opinions end up being fluff rather than substantial. Most non-columnists who write op-ed pieces—both in Arab publications and Western ones—seem to hold their pieces together with emotion rather than reason. This makes true analysis difficult, but I think such pieces provide a more true insight into the minds of the author. I feel I barely scratched the surface with these musings, but I will do better next time.


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