“It is well”, I said carelessly “…beware! Play us no tricks, make us no snares, for before your brains of mud have thought of them, we shall know them and avenge them. The light from the transparent eye of him with the bare legs and half haired face [the white man with his magnifying glass] shall destroy you and go through your land: his vanishing teeth shall fix themselves fast on to you and eat you up, you and your wives and children; the magic tubes shall talk with you loudly, and make you as sieves. Beware!”
Qautermain confronts the African Kukuana tribe, from the book King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
…differentiates two main stances in colonial self-stylizations, an imperial ‘rhetoric of conquest’ suffusing the absolutist era and an ensuing rhetoric of ‘anti-conquest’ demarcating the split consciousness of Western travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries, their paradoxical desire ‘to secure their innocence’ in the same moment as they assert European hegemony
she further points out that:
To contain an imperialist system within a rhetoric of anti-conquest calls for confusion … and indeed a highly contradictory symbolic system resulted from the efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable. What I call ‘trick translation’ is perhaps one of the most persistent troupes for casting colonial contact in terms of mutual understanding without abandoning the idea of a clear-cut hierarchy of communication and an European [today American] monopoly of meaning production.
It was an act of ‘trick translation’ that Barack Obama had actually come to perform on June 4th 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. To offer a language of ‘anti-conquest’, and should we add ‘anti-involvement’, in a region with the most deeply entrenched American political, economic, and military involvement since WW II.
On June 4th 2009, President Barack Obama (a man I voted for!) took the stage on the soil of one of the region’s most despotic and repressive regimes. But more than that, he was standing in the center of the geography of American imperial projections that has been the Middle East since the British, Germans, French and other smaller European nations were forced to leave it in the 1940s.
The Middle East is home to some of America’s most important client states – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates and of course, the unbreakable, Israel. It is also the site of some of her largest military bases and home to tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of American military and undercover operations personnel. It is the site of her most extensive energy resources and investments. It is the site where she has repeatedly engaged in covert and overt political and military operations to ensure access and control to these energy resources. It is the region where her operatives, military, covert and political, keep a close hand on political and economic developments and work to ensure that the nations of the region remain in the realm of American influence.
But, we are here to weave a rhetoric of ‘anti-conquest’, and I focus on those specific areas of his speech that I felt were particularly obfuscatory and Huxlian (Aldous Huxley being one of the original genius’ to describe a modernity where language becomes the most powerful weapon of war and conquest).
Like a great white hunter confronting a group of cannibals about the eat his friend alive, President Obama arrived with a few rhetorical tricks up his sleeves meant to appease the torridly infantile minds of his audience and hosts by offering them trinkets and hoping to dazzle them with his erudition and ‘respect’ for their histories.
We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate
The determination to see something called ‘the Muslim world’ as one large homogeneous entity is the hallmark of a classic Orientalist mind who fails or refuses to recognize that the polity of ‘Islam’ covers a remarkable diversity of people, cultures, ethnicity’s, and most importantly histories and heritages. To say nothing about the horribly embarrassing fact that the largest number of Muslims in fact live outside of the Middle East (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India contain the largest number of officially defined Muslims), and where many practice regional varieties of Islam that many in the Middle East consider blasphemous!
More importantly, it is an act of the most egregious arrogance and even ignorance to suggest that if there are ‘tensions’ between a people who may be Muslim, and a nation that is in fact imperialistic and colonizing in the lands inhabited by Muslims than it is because of ‘historical forces’ and not because of immediate military, political and economic realities.
Perhaps I am being naive in believing that it is less the crusades that concern the Palestinians, or their slaughter by Richard the Lionheart, and more the ongoing and brutal military occupation of their lands being carried out by one of America’s favorite client states, Israel!
The hubris of a statement the attempts to erase the entire post-WWII history and engagement of the United States of America in the region of the Middle East, and replaces it with imagined ‘historical forces’ that point to events and imagined acts from hundreds if not thousands of years in the past is staggering! Perhaps President Obama, this self-claimed student of history, needs to return to his college library and pick up a few books on the American entanglements in the region. He could not do badly by starting with Robert Fisk’s The Great War For Civilization, or Michael B Oren’s Power, Faith & Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 – Present . I could suggest many others.
And to say nothing about the fact that the issues that cripple the Middle East are the least likely to be understood if seen as emerging from the region’s ‘Islamic’ character. They would in fact be better acknowledged if seen, as we see most every other region of the globe, with a careful and rigorous examination of the local and regional political, economic, social and strategic issues that infect the region. The crisis in Lebanon and the crisis in Kuwait have separate, if only tangentially related if that, issues and require a local focus.
It is this refusal to engage the region in its specificity that allows a number of American intellectual, commentators, politicians, journalists and other opinion makers to repeatedly conflate entities like Hamas with others like Hezbollah, the Islamic Brotherhood with Al -Qaeda. In a tribute to the most obscurantist and simplistic ideas perpetuated by classical Orientalists, the American administration and her providers of thought (think tanks, hired intellectuals, lobby and media organizations) continue to aggregate largely diverse and political complex matters that should in fact be examined within their local and regional social, political and regional contexts.
Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.
Perhaps the only thing more embarrassing than this statement – a classic Orientalist construction that cleverly claims modernity for ‘the white man’ while falsely praising the natives for their ‘traditions’ (read: backward, anti-modern, unchanging, out-dated, medieval), was that probably none of the luminaries in the audience, representing the worst and most illiterate of their nations, understood what had just been said to them!
And ironically, it was a statement that would have appealed to the most obscurantist and fundamentalists of reactionaries in the audience; the people who in fact work day and night through state control of media, culture, society and speech to ensure that their people remain in the shackles of ‘traditions’ and avoid such modern day comforts such as full and enforceable rights as citizens of a functioning democracy with the rule of law and equality for all. In that room full of hereditary leaders or despots, there could not have been a mind not nodding in quiet agreement at the American presidents endorsement of Islam’s ‘traditional’ values and the threat it faces from the ‘foreigner’s’ modernity, for after all, these same people use this very argument, with the help of their obscurantist mullahs and TV celebrity preachers, to demand that their citizens not ask for such modern innovations such as equal justice under the law, juridical accountability for elected representatives, legal and social ad human rights, and a representative polity.
But the presence of this orientalist canard was certainly a surprise. Recent works by the historian Jack Good (The Theft of History) and Marcel Detienne (The Greeks And Us) have challenged Europe’s belief in her modernity and certainly her assumptions that she was uniquely equipped to facilitate it. As John B Hobson states in his work Eastern Origins of Western Civilization:
“Eurocentrism errs by asking wrong questions at the outset. All Eurocentric scholars (either explicitly or implicitly) begin by asking two interrelated questions: ‘What was it about the West that enabled its breakthrough to capitalist modernity?’ and ‘What was it about the East that prevented it from making the breakthrough?’” But these questions assume that western dominance was inevitable, and lead historians to scour the past for the factors that explain it. “The rise of the West is understood through a logic of immanence: that it can only be accounted for by factors that are strictly endogenous to Europe.”
His words were frequently met with applause. President Obama threw them some crumbs, and they gobbled them up like hungry natives. Condescension were accepted as genuine respect and appreciation by people so devoid of dignity and honor that they will accept false pearls to disguise their being real swine. (I hope people get the colonial reference here!)
They applauded when he spoke to them in the only Arabic phrase he could be bothered to remember; the greeting of Assalaamu alaykum. How touching. Taking a note right out of an off-the-shelf travel guide to sites remote and exotic, Mr Obama did not forget that even ‘attempting’ the local lingo will result in smiles and graciousness!
They applauded when he appeared to respect something called ‘Islam’s’ contributions to European civilization.
Perhaps most had failed to realize that he was referring to contributions that were some 500 years or more old while retaining, subtly of course, the right to all other innovations since then for the more civilized and ‘modern’ Europe. Or the fact that, once again, it was not ‘Islam’ that made these contributions but individuals of questionable Muslim, Jewish, and other uncertain origins who were given deeply to issues of intellectual inquiry and study and open to influences all the way from China and India, who just happened to be living under a Muslim dynasty made these contributions.
Algebra is not a religious achievement – it is a human achievement, produced by men for man and with the effort of man. Religion has had no influence on the creation of this, or the arch or the compass or the other items Mr. Obama seemed to think ‘Islam’ contributed to. To attribute the discover of vaccine to a spiritual, religious, and some would argue, mythical philosphy is ignorant and anti-intellectual. It would be the equivalent of suggesting that Penicillin was a Christian discover, or the splitting of the atom a Jewish one! But apparently such inanities go down well in the Middle East!
(Rather than applaud, they should have hung their heads in shame; there is not a library of note, nor a university of even mediocre repute in all the lands across all the sands in all of the oil drenched nations in this region! That Arabs (and Obama was speaking to Arabs, not Muslims or even a nebulous ‘Islam’) continue to contribute to modernity, science, culture, arts, literature and the future, but must often flee their homelands and do so elsewhere!)
They applauded again when he spoke about Islam’s traditions of tolerance and racial equality. It was bizarre to say the least to offer this conventional sop to a room filled with representatives of intolerant and at times rascist regimes, applauding a philosophical concept alien to the very societies they have created and rule. They applauded when told that Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Koran in his personal library – did they imagine that he consulted it for his political and personal affairs, or was influenced by it?
They applauded when Mr. Obama claimed that the 7 million American Muslims enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average. What that says about the deprivations of the average American, particularly the African-American community I am not so sure about. Who are these extremely successful and wealthy Muslims we do not quite know. But to make a claim to suggest that in fact in America the Muslims even do better than the Americans is sheer nonsense!
Their success or failure, as that of any immigrant in the USA is independent of their status as ‘Muslims. The Asian American, the West Indian and most recently the South Asian Indian community are highly successful immigrant communities and there is no way to claim that their religious choices are a determinant or a measure of their success. Furthermore, given that America allows only the ‘best and the brightest’ or the very wealthy from ‘other’ nations to come to the country, particularly when they are from Asia and/or the Middle East, it should not surprise us that these immigrant communities in fact do rather well.
But this obfuscation was essential to hide America’s ridiculous and immoral detainment, harassment, incarceration, deportation, and torture of hundreds of ‘Muslims’ either living in America or abroad. It was necessary to say to hide the rendition programs targeting of Muslims, the ‘black’ sites and their exclusively Muslim inhabitants, and the air and environment of overtly racist anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades American print, radio and television, particularly if you are of the conservative kind. And I will not even mention what the Evangelical fanatics and retards have been saying and encouraging amongst their congregations! By the way, I doubt that the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis festering in hovels in Jamaica Plains, scrambling from apartment to apartment to avoid the prying and ‘black’ eyes of the Homeland Security Department, quite fit into this fabulous President Obama statistic.
They applauded when Mr. Obama claimed that the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. Which left me perplexed because I was sure that I was told that we had invaded Afghanistan to liberate that nation’s women from ‘oppression’ symbolized by the burqa! And yet as devastation and horror now marks that country, with the arguments for the liberation of their women center stage, I wonder if it is not time to bring the daisy-cutters and pilot-less drones back to the USA where apparently women are being given constitution protection for a practice that elsewhere is considered by the Americans to be a sign of their backwardness and oppression!
And is this the same government that did not go to court to protect the rights of men and women being held at Guantanamo? As men continue to die in American ‘black’ site custody, I find it shocking that legal and judicial resources are available for women’s right to cover themselves where as they have been argued away for men we are torturing, murdering and discarding at unknown locations around the world!
And the inanities continued.
President Obama called the war in Iraq – this most brutal, hideous, illegal and greed based invasion of a nation in recent memory, as a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Quite the soft way to describe an event that was and is in fact nothing less than an illegal, unprovoked, premeditated invasion of a sovereign nation (to say nothing about the genocidal 12 year sanctions regime instituted against the civilian population of a de-armed state!) led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands, the deaths of nearly a million, the torturing of thousands (pictures of which President Obama recently decided to censor to protect our delicate sensibilities – we are so civilized) and frankly remains a hell hole for those outside the centrally air-conditioned ‘green zone’ and should in fact be a crime prosecutable in the International Court of Justice.
Oh but wait, as President quickly added, he believes that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
Ah, then its ok. For now at least we have a ‘democracy’ that requires private/corporate armed militia to protect politicians, businessmen, journalists and anyone not sanctioned by the many crooks and criminal organizations that now actually control the country while masquerading behind banners of religions and sects. And for added measure the under cover assassination teams/death squads, massive torture centers, prisons, 24×7 hour private security, walls/dividers, daily 24×7 military patrols, towns like Falujah that remain under marshal law, kidnappings, criminality, a dysfunctional social and civil service, and the entire government under the guidance of our American generals and politicians necessary just to keep this duct-tape kleptocracy together for a little while longer.
Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.
What then are the consequences, Mr. Obama, of the fear and trauma of the Iraqis and the Afghanis who are in fact at this very moment confronted as they are by American tanks and pilot-less drones trying to understand how they will act contrary to their traditions and ideals? Or perhaps we will just blame their actions on ‘Islam’.
Speaking of America’s intolerance of extremism and violence, Mr Obama went out of his way to celebrate Israel. Walking in the footsteps of his predecessor, he proclaimed with great stress America’s ‘unbreakable’ relationship with the country. He even manufactured completely fictitious ‘cultural and historical’ ties. I can’t imagine what ties a group of European religious fanatics determined to create an ethnically exclusive state by intentionally and violently colonizing and driving out its original inhabitants would have with the United States of America? Oh yes, I forgot, it would be the penchant for violent European colonization of native lands, institutionalized and military cleansing of them from these lands, and the celebration of the now completed fact as liberty, modernity, progress and civility, with a neat set of ‘reservations’ for the unfortunately who survived. How silly of me!
It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.
No Mr President, they have not suffered in the pursuit of a homeland. They have suffered in the dispossession of it.
They are waiting not for gifts from America, but for their rights, rights for which we have gone to war for other nations (Bosnia, Kuwait and now would love to for Chad) but remain silent on their behalf.
And in what can only be described as the most contorted reading of history, Mr Obama laid claim to the entire process of decolonization as one of a long heritage of non-violent resistance
Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed…from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.
I wonder if Mr Obama is reading the same books of history.. I also wonder as President Obama escalates the now senselessly immoral and unjust conflict in Afghanistan if he listening to himself!
The history of colonial Africa, Middle East, South and South East Asia is marked by repeated and consistent armed insurrections and resistance to the colonial enterprise. The colonialists often painted this resistance as ‘minor’ or ‘marginal’ but none of the occupied people, even the Africans who were so savagely raped and enslaved, did not ‘go quietly into the night’. To say nothing about the intellectual, artistic, cultural and political resistance to occupying and colonizing regimes across the globe. Edward Said’s Culture And Imperialism would be a decent place for him to begin to start to understand regimes of resistance to colonial oppression that existed from the very moment the colonialists arrived on the shores of Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Or if Said is too politically sensitive for him, then perhaps he would like to read a fellow African; C.L.R. James’ masterful The Black Jacobins will remind our President of the power of violent resistance in breaking the back of a rapacious and brutal colonizer and usurper.
And if these nations and peoples of the far South and Africa are too complex for him to understand, then perhaps he would do well to remember if nothing else then the American Revolution and the great American war of independence, celebrated every year with great fanfare on July 4th. I believe that General George Washington would take umbrage to the suggestion that violence is a dead end. Or perhaps he would remember the American Civil War, a war that liberated the ancestors of his black citizens and moved America towards the path of modernity. Perhaps if they had followed a non-violent approach…… But then again, the oppressors and users of violence always love to lecture the oppressed about their ‘barbaric’ violent resistance and their need to demonstrate ‘civility’ by adopting a softer and more nuanced tone to the occupiers continued and increasingly military and violent responses!
Notice how the occupier is never told to adopt a non-violent occupation!
And the sheer arrogance to lecture to an unarmed and hopelessly repressed and dehumanized people, while their lands are under brutal military occupation from the only nation in the region that has in fact repeatedly attacked, occupied, summarily killed and displaced lands and peoples across the entire region is sheer mind boggling. The Palestinians are being asked to renounce violence, while the Israelis are being funded with more arms, more jets, more tanks, more training, more excuses for their illegal nuclear weapons program, and more aid packages – all of which continue to go towards and fund the creation of more settlements and more dispossessions and more brutality and more killings and more strangulations.
Continuing what has now become an almost too-boring-to-repeat cliche’s, President Obama placed all the blame for the violence, the intransigence of the conflict in Palestine on the Palestinians. There, in the world he was weaving on that stage in Cairo, where there is no Iraq and no Afghanistan, and no oil and interests, and business connections and shady deals and under handed greed, there was also no nuclear-armed, American funded, religiously fundamentalist, military controlled, ethnically discriminatory pseudo-democracy only for Jews with its American funded M16s and jackboots across the throats of a helpless and desperate people.
Yes, we are told that it is not the military bases, the settlements, the Wall, the check points, the gates, the farm lands, the murdering settlers, the curfews, the summary arrests, the targeted assassinations, the random detentions, the expropriations, the home demolitions, the expulsions, the incarcerations, the discrimination, the humiliations, the bombings, the phosphorous, the slow and daily grinding away at human dignity that are all part and parcel of a highly sophisticated military, architectural, social, political and economic settlement regime. Its the Palestinians with their handful of AK-47s and their donkey carts!
Calling the democratically elected Hamas Government as having ‘some support’ amongst the Palestinians, while calling upon the corrupt and discredited Palestinian Authority to develop a capacity to govern President Obama continued the insistent, anti-democratic approach of supporting the very people the citizenry rejected, while rejecting the very people the citizenry selected.
The only democratically elected official government in the very Middle East Mr. Obama claims to be talking to, and it is just not the one that we want.
Israel is in illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It has permanently constructed roads, settlements, military camps and emplacements, check points and gates, a massive Wall, security fences and cameras, farms and industrial estates all across the West Bank and done so with the absolute and complete support of the United States of America who funds these activities through a myriad and complex set of private, corporate and governmental institutions.
It is not there because the Palestinians are ‘violent’ or have ‘rockets’. It has been there because it wants these lands. It has done everything in its power to destroy the prospects of an independent Palestinian state, and only the beltway in Washington D.C. are a handful of people who think otherwise.
Israel’s obligations are not just what President Obama claimed: to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society but in fact to withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza to the 1967 green lines, to compensate financially the victims of the 1948 displacements, and to offer restitution both verbal, financial, legal and other to the millions who now suffer thanks to its intransigence, occupations, wars and religiously sanctioned hysteria and radicalism. The settlements don’t just need to be stopped, they need to be destroyed, dismantled, reversed, erased, and along with it the entire occupation machinery of men, tanks, gates, check points, walls, soldiers, settlers, goons, fanatics, businessmen and of course Palestinian collaborators.
And far from distancing himself from the pathologies of religious mysticism and mumbo-jumbo, President Obama sadly chose to pander to it further. Continuing yet another grand orientalist tradition of speaking to ‘the natives’ through the use of what the orientalist imagines is their particular world formulations – they are too stupid to understand our modernity, so we must use our ‘trick translation’ and speak to them about reality in their barbaric tongue – Mr. Obama like a modern day Quatermain decided to end his speech in a ‘one for the road’ chorus of quotations from the 3 religious texts and this shocking and rather insulting statement:
The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.
President Obama may have pulled off the greatest Evangelical mind tricks in history when he may have convinced a room full of ‘Muslim’ despots and criminal national leaders to join him in the support of a vision fantastically and naively created on the basis of a religious text that has been variously used to different degrees to also justified the inquisition, the crusades, the holocaust and possibly even the recent slaughter of the people of Iraq by an Evangelical, fanatic and religiously drunk American administration.
America engages the Middle East through conquest, investments, manipulations, espionage, education, extraction of resources, training of the military, politics and geo-political entanglements. For some odd reason President Obama can’t see that it can also be communicated with in simple, worldly, adult language without resorting to false and frankly cynical and hypocritical exploitation of religious texts and quotes, like a high school kid desperate to decorate a poor term paper that lacks content but may sound interesting if a few ‘notable’ quotes are thrown in!
As President Obama walked off that Cairo stage to go and bask in the glow of the glory that was being orchestrated for him by his obsequious hosts and minders, a General McChrystal was being appointed to head the operations in Obama’s favorite war in Afghanistan. As Tom Engelhart explained in a recent post on the fabulous Tom’s Dispatch blog site:
General McChrystal comes from a world where killing by any means is the norm and a blanket of secrecy provides the necessary protection. For five years he commanded the Pentagon’s super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)…McChrystal gained a certain renown when President Bush outed him as the man responsible for tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The secret force of “manhunters” he commanded had its own secret detention and interrogation center near Baghdad, Camp Nama, where bad things happened regularly, and the unit there, Task Force 6-26, had its own slogan: “If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.” Since some of the task force’s men were, in the end, prosecuted, the bleeding evidently wasn’t avoided.
Tomorrow we will explain the war in Afghanistan as that between the liberal values of the United States of America and obscurantist, mysoginist and barbaric values of ‘radical Islam’. General McChrystal, with his legacy of broken souls and bodies, his torture centers and assassination teams, his professionally executed operations of terror and mayhem, will be left to the sidelines and forgotten. Some old orientalists, or obfuscators (perhaps a newer version of a Ahmed Rashid!) will be trotted out to explain why ‘they hate us’.
President Obama stood in Cairo and wove a fantasy. A fantasy that claimed that there is something called ‘Islam’ that he could speak to as if he was speaking to a homogeneous entity. A fantasy that claimed that America does not in fact have interests and protects interests with military and other means in the Middle East. A fantasy that denies the roots of the violence that does in fact plague that region and emanates from within regimes whose despotic and irrational leaders are amongst America’s closest allies. A fantasy where the tiresome, outdated, discredited and artificial construct of ‘the clash of civilizations’ is trotted out to obfuscate the hard political and economic factors that in fact create alliances and foster the conflicts.
The speech on June 4th 2009 will sadly not go down in history as a great moment in diplomacy. There is an air of desperation about the writings that are trying to claim it so. Much like the photo-op in the White House Lawn the day the Oslo Accords were signed, we will drown our fears under misguided hopes and self-imposed delusions while the relentless machinery of imperial power and politics will continue to cut its merciless path through a region cursed with oil and men of supreme venality.
A few hours after this speech President Obama headed to Buchenwald where he said:
I have no patience for people who would deny history
Indeed Mr. President.
ADDENDUM: I was reminded by a friend that in fact there could be religious motivations for the explorations of algebra e.g. man’s need to measure time more precisely, or to work out the geometries and structures of complex domes, mosques or even the decorative patterns that decorated it. A similar argument has in fact been made by Kim Plofker in his new book Mathematics in India – that Indian innovations in mathematics may have been driven by a need for temple designs or astrology. Regardless, as has already been argued, these remain worldly requirements to serve worldly needs and for universal relevance and application must apply consistently across man’s known world. Their measure of innovation comes from their universality, their non-specificity to any one set of beliefs of religious values.