Friday, September 28, 2012

Other voices

One of the problems with the left's monomania about Israel and the grim determination of 'anti-imperialists' to see everything through the prism of a malign US foreign policy is that it gives us a distorted picture of the aspirations and opinions of ordinary people in the Middle East and beyond. This is mirrored by some apologists for the Israeli right and especially those other rightists who indulge in clash of civilisation fantasies that picture all Muslims as an undifferentiated, savage horde, even if it is a stereotype that islamists and some of the worst regimes in the region seem keen to live up to. Yet in the midst of all this are real people who are utterly disenchanted with the totalitarian fantasies of their oppressors and the cowardice of their apologists in the west.

This book review highlights a collection of essays that allows them to speak. I particularly liked this comment:
Indeed, while Iran, being mainly Persian, is not part of the Arab world, some of the book's most vivid writing comes from there, courtesy of a young Iranian who, after reading George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, realises he is living in his very own religious dystopia. It is, he says, a "perennially self-righteous society", allowing its rulers to justify extraordinary acts of brutality. "While you (in the West) are fighting for the rights of pandas over there, people are still being stoned to death in my country."  He writes that many Iranians are now so fed up of religious rule that if the regime ever falls, “Iran will form the biggest community of atheists on the planet."
We shouldn't be surprised at the existence of these views, after all they have made a whole series of revolutions, even if the consequences remain unknown.

This is symptomatic of the way blinkered and averted eyes fail to spot the obvious. Here Lauryn Oates discusses the latest bout of murderous, manufactured rage and once again tries to make it plain that it is a result of "an obsession over the desecration of symbols, rather than the desecration of people." As she also points out, "no one commits more violence against Muslims than other Muslims, crimes met with a deafening silence. Often this violence is blatantly defamatory of Islam, as when the Taliban sent suicide bombers into crowded Muslim religious ceremonies."

All those muddled accusations of western-centric orientalism are betrayals of the voices of ordinary people in despair at being the victims of the political ambitions of ideologues and kleptocratic elites alike. This myopia is itself the ultimate in western-centrism, seeing America and Israel as the source of all evil, and in orientalism, asserting that the peoples of the Middle East acquiesce in their own oppression because it is somehow authentic. Instead of judging the acts themselves, they define them on the basis of who carried them out. And in doing so they knit together a blanket of verbiage that muffles the cries of those who want a better life; one that is freer, not subject to arbitrary cruelty, and one that is as ordinary and commonplace as those lived by the apologists who condemn them to a live as the perpetual exotic victim, whilst elevating their worst oppressors to the iconic status of heroic liberators.


John A said...

I play host to a stream of these Iranian young atheists on CouchSurfing as they come to Ankara to get their visas to visit the United States. They may live in a place with many fewer freedoms (and many more hardships) than we do, but that does not mean that they want our help (or particularly American help) to overthrow their government. In fact, many don't even want to overthrow their government, seeing the way out of their theocratic dystopia through gradual change. If one typical oriental conception is to see others as barbarians happy with their lot, another form of orientalism is seeing them as an oppressed mass incapable of liberating themselves without "our" help.

The Plump said...

Just catching up John. This again comes down to whether we hear voices or not. The distinction that I would make is whether they ASK for help and intervention as they quite clearly did in Libya. And if they are operating against determined tyrants with massive firepower, they absolutely do need assistance, because they cannot win against overwhelming force. This isn't orientalism, this is a simple reality. Where the orientalism comes in is in the attitudes embodied in, for example, the mandates system after WWI, which saw the need to tutor people towards independence - a genuine assumption of inherent incapability.

Thus there is a distinction to be made between the act of overthrowing a regime and building what will replace it. If there is a revolution and the army stays mainly loyal to the regime, the revolution will be crushed. If part of the army stays loyal and part goes over then there will be civil war. An unarmed or lightly armed people can never win against a loyal army, they cannot liberate themselves. They can only do so without external help if the army changes sides.

But, the post was not about intervention, but attitudes. I first saw that something was seriously wrong with parts of the left more than 30 years ago. I had just returned from Palestine and went to a meeting. It was bad enough that the Palestinian man on the platform was totally marginalised by someone ranting on about a Thatcher/Reagan axis, but then he called everyone to support the Khomeni regime. This did not go down well as the audience was full of Iranian Marxists who had escaped the suppression of Tudeh. They complained and were sharply told that the reason was that because the regime was anti-American it was "objectively progressive". The Iranians protested and were then subjected to a tirade of abuse until they stormed out. So the victims of a far-right theocracy were told to support their persecutors because it would be left-wing to do so. Work that one out.