The subversion of liberation
When leaders in struggle confuse themselves with recognition of the rights of the people they claim to defend, everyone suffers, including the national cause, writes Azmi Bishara
The Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment, from Ferguson through Adam Smith, taught us that such emotions as the yearning for recognition and affection from others, as well as envy and cupidity, are natural human desires and play a critical role in the construction of societies and social relations. As proud and high-spirited philosophy students, we scoffed at such simplistic explanations for the roots of ideologies and class struggle. However, experience has taught us that such motives, however mundane and petty, are prime movers in the worlds of politics, culture and science, let alone economics, especially with the passage of human evolution into the age of individualism. The power of the ordinary is unrivalled by any other social force. Society and history cannot be explained solely in terms of the major classes, competing ideologies, modes of production and the like. As important as these are, many other factors must be taken into account: the question of recognition is one example; the production of social identity is another.
But even the greenest psychologist would agree that such emotions as the desire for recognition, the desire to impress, and the yearning for affection, when taken beyond the "normal" and developed into obsessions are strongly indicative of an inferiority complex. They would further acknowledge that such obsessions could express themselves in excessive sycophancy or, if repressed, give rise to behavioural abnormalities that might vent themselves in violence.
But whereas the foregoing may be correct as pertains to individuals, implanting the same motivations -- the yearning for recognition and the desire to impress others -- in human groups is unnatural from the word go. The endeavour is based on the presumption that the group is an individual with a mind, feelings and motivations, and that it desires to impress and acquire recognition from other groups. But to treat an entire people or civilisation as though it were some sort of super-being permits a gross distortion of the self and others and generates total confusion. The relationship between cultures is either a relationship between prevailing perceptions and images of these cultures (the production of images is an industry like any other with its own motivating factors and tools of production) or a relationship between diverse individuals from within those cultures. An individual from a culture that is regarded as being "backward" may, in fact, be intellectually or otherwise superior to an individual from a culture commonly perceived as "advanced".
Unfortunately, however, this fact is easily forgotten or obscured. The tendency is for persons from a "superior" culture to look down on representatives of an "inferior" culture aspiring for recognition and to regard themselves as inherently gifted by virtue of their ethnicity, in spite of the fact that others they are dealing with may be more gifted than themselves. Conversely, the artificial implantation of an inferiority complex among a people by brainwashing them into thinking that they are somehow crippled when compared to other "sound" and "healthy" peoples is calculated to generate obsequious behaviour towards those others. Consequently, every banality performed by, and every platitude uttered by, members of that supposedly superior culture is a stroke of genius until proven otherwise, whereas every member of the supposedly inferior culture is presumed an idiot until proven otherwise.
In politics, this dynamic can give rise to some ridiculous situations. For example, it is not uncommon for Westerners, regardless of their degree or level of political involvement, to be taken as an embodiment of global public opinion (in itself an artificial construct) whose approval needs to be won. Consequently, the unsuspecting Westerner finds him or her self the object of some artless fawning or, perhaps, artful verbal gymnastics intended to curry his or her favour. These may take the form of emulation or flattery or of self-deprecation, shows of submissiveness or pleas of helplessness. Whatever the means brought to bear, the ultimate result is blind imitation of the object of the ingratiation, inflation of their egos, and the reinforcement of their imaginary status as superior beings. Meanwhile, the sense of inferiority among those doing the ingratiating becomes an impediment to the evolution of their own culture and an obstacle to the course of its own creative development.
Such are the types of situations that are bred from an inverse Orientalism in which the "West" in its entirety is perceived as a single monolithic entity that has locked horns with such presumably closed, homogeneous and similarly monolithic entities as Arab, or Oriental, or Islamic culture. In the context of this "conflict", Arab behaviour has demonstrated several phenomena related to the desire to win the favour of the West. I have chosen to elaborate three.
The first is an Arab order that in courting the approval of US and European decision-makers almost invariably accomplishes the reverse. The very styles of approach stir contempt and derision. For example, we find Arab officials affecting the airs of the British aristocracy. In an era when the dialect, affectations and rituals of the British upper crust have become fodder for parody among the British themselves, the sons of Arab tribal chiefs and generals seem, at best, like those who arrive at the party as all the guests are leaving. Then there are those who deride their own peoples in front of European or American interlocutors, contemptuously dismissing them as backwards, only capable of understanding the language of force, and the like. In dramatic counterpoint, we also find the occasional official who strives to impress by donning ostensibly authentic Arab garb. This entails dozens of yards of colourful fabric assembled into billowing costumes taken straight from the imagination of a 19th century Orientalist painter. Of course the same methods have also been used as a gesture of "challenge". I have often wondered why every Arab leader that comes beneath the Western crosshairs needs to break into a version of the dabka, or shoot a gun into the air in front of the masses, or change costumes with every region he visits, or other such buffoonery.
The second phenomenon is Arab officialdom's fondness for making the Arab people believe that the West is hostile to them because they have a bad image in the West. They make it seem as though this bad image somehow manifested itself out of thin air rather than being shaped out of the interplay of interests and political positions. As a result, the Arabs' problem is their media image. Look at how Israel's favourable image helps it, they say, adding that this is why we must do our utmost to improve our own image. It is true that the mass media and culture in the West does perpetuate an image of the Arab enemy that has quite an impact on public opinion in those countries. However, the correct response is not to improve the image of the Arabs through efforts to win approval such as those mentioned above, but to expose the underlying racism in that culture and the mechanisms of distortion and misinformation that are used to disseminate that negative image of the Arab and Muslim. Ultimately, the only way to make others produce a more favourable image of us is to change their attitudes, which does not mean kowtowing or bending backwards to prove that "we're just like them." No amount of pretending to be like them will make the Arabs just like them; on the contrary, it only serves to aggravate the inferiority complex and its attendant behaviour while conceding to the other side of the power to judge us according to their terms. If there is anything to this business of image improvement, then the party that should be improving its image is the one that colonised, persecuted and fragmented the lands of others.
The third phenomenon is a tendency to confuse the demand for the recognition of rights with the demand for the recognition of identity, or the demand for justice with the demand for the recognition of "us" or "our representatives". I will devote the remainder of this article to this last point.
In any fight for justice and rights involving freedoms and equality there is the potential for confusing the recognition of rights with the recognition of identity and, at a later stage, the recognition of the identity group with the recognition of the representatives of this group. This is because an organised struggle is led by an educated and politicised leadership capable of advocating the demands of its people, organising and engaging in the fight to fulfil these demands, the members of which may or may not originate from the downtrodden groups they represent. What matters is that they are vulnerable to confusing the recognition of the rights that they have been charged to defend with the recognition of themselves as leaders and as a legitimate party in the domestic political arena, or as a legitimate party in a negotiating process involving, say, liberation movements.
Naturally, the leadership needs to be recognised in the event of negotiations. However, the recognition of the leadership must proceed from the recognition of the rights it represents rather than the reverse. In the event a liberation movement emerges victorious from battle, the recognition of the leadership must proceed from the need to put into effect the rights acquired by means of this accomplishment. However, if the battle drags on without achieving the desired result, or if the leadership weakens, that leadership may be vulnerable to a peculiar bartering process whereby recognition of the leadership supersedes the rights the leadership is meant to defend. Recognition of the leadership thus comes at the expense of the very cause that is that leadership's raison d'être.
How can we tell that we are faced with such a leadership? Quite easily. Such a leadership does things as the following:
- It wages armed resistance operations not with the aim of bringing victory into sight but in order to remain enough of a pest that the opposing side is forced to recognise that the source of the trouble is also the party capable of stopping it. In this context, sustaining a long-term grassroots-based underground movement is not important; in fact the very concept is marginalised. What counts is merely the ability to mount attacks, with no eye to strategy or cumulative affect, but with the sole purpose of driving home the message to the enemy: "If you want calm restored, you have to talk to our leadership."
- It is forever trying to persuade the international community that the key to solving the problem resides in the recognition of this leadership, and its stress on this point far exceeds its stress on the need to recognise the national rights of the people, to lift the occupation, to recognise the refugees' right to return, and to acknowledge such values as equality and the rejection of racism and Zionism. In fact, it becomes palpably clear that to this leadership the rights in question are not aims but rather bargaining chips to be played with the purpose of securing recognition.
- It constantly strives to prove that it can maintain order. But its actions in this regard are such that the people under its authority soon discover that the leadership which their sons had defended with their lives in the hope that it would eventually procure them their rights is now imposing security measures that are stricter and more violent than those meted out by the occupying power.
- The very leadership that attacks the enemy (in ways that sometimes incite racist hatreds against the enemy) bows and scrapes in order to win the admiration and approval of any foreign delegation, even when that delegation is not there to negotiate but to fire questions at the said leaders as though they were on trial.
It is not my purpose here to point a finger at any particular Palestinian or Arab leadership. All leaderships are prone to such lapses if they do not keep themselves in check or if the people whose interests they are meant to promote do not do so. It is dumfounding and dismaying to one who has experienced first hand life under a culture of persecution, and who has condemned and rejected that culture in solidarity with the targets of that persecution, to watch many of the representatives of the persecuted people scramble for the approval of the persecutors.