By Seraj Assi
The Arab World is suffering and in its suffering it threatens Israel. ‘Israeli citizens are frightened,’ said Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni in a moment of deep confession. In fact, what Livni was saying, to paraphrase Franz Fanon, is this: “Mama America, see the Arab! I’m frightened! Frightened! Frightened!”
This is a typical colonial scene where the “frightening victims” are captured in a game that involves dehumanization and empowering and rendered silent and dangerous subjects at the same time. Never can they escape this colonial capacity to invite and contain contradictions and opposites.
Yet in the Israeli case the irony is far more acute. For not only does Israel see its victim as dangerous and potentially evil, but has itself become the victim. It is within this irony that the ritual of victimization came to dominate the master narrative of Israel’s colonial discourse and foreign policy. Not only has Israel become a country whose entire existence is dependent on the suppression of all Arab and Muslim peoples, but has relentlessly contributed to their suppression.
According to Israel’s imperial logic, it is only reasonable to suppress the lives of three hundred million people for the “security” of a few million Israeli Jews, no matter how fictitious this security claim is. The irony is while Israel continues to bill Egyptian revolution as a threat to its national security, its Palestinian citizens- for decades Israel’s internal “dangerous victims”- are taking to the streets to celebrate the victory of their Egyptian brothers. Motivated by human and national solidarity, they have never felt as secure as they do now.
Israel’s security is fundamentally the security of vision. And since the vision of Arab and Muslim despotism is the only guarantee for Israel’s cultural narcissism and ethnic superiority in the region, it must be preserved by any means, and precisely by brutal force for “Arabs only understand force”, as Zionists believe.
Yet Israel’s fear has a performative colonial function. Its obsessive insistence to remain “the only democracy in the Middle East” is not merely a representational fantasy, but an effective colonial strategy. It is precisely this vision that gives Israel’s colonial policies in the region its moral justification and authentic validity. Its “civilizing mission” in the region is completely dependent on its vision of Arab and Muslim undemocratic spirit.
It is Israel’s cultivated vision on Arab despotism that permits its former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to boast that “Israel is a villa in a jungle” and its President Shimon Perez to contrast democracy with peace: “Mubarak is a great man committed to peace, but Egyptian youth want democracy.” And when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his paternalistic warning to Egypt from “becoming another Iran” he was operating into the same imperial logic.
Here Israel’s ambition to reorder the world by the brutal force of Zionist propaganda reaches its extreme absurdity. Indeed, it is in Israel where suppression is equivalent to stability. It is there where Egypt, its people, history and culture are all reduced to one word: Camp David. And it is in Israel where international sympathy for Egyptian struggle for freedom and dignity is violently placed under what an Israeli journalist has recently called “the betrayal of the West.”
Even when the moment has arrived to contradict these proclamations, Israel continues to see itself as the civilization custodian surrounded by uncivilized enemies and unruly protestors. There is no doubt then that Israel’s fear of any prospective democracy in the Arab world is steeped in racism. For Arab democracy simply threatens Israel’s undisputed vision of Arabs that maintained itself regardless of any historical evidence disputing it. And since the evidence this time is too visible to be denied, it becomes too intimidating for the Israeli observer. As the vision is now defeated by the narrative, as it is yielding to the pressure of history, Israel’s fear turns into collective phobia and racist hysteria. The scene of an Arab getting out of the iron cage fashioned by the Israeli observer to violate the serenity of history is precisely what frightens Israel.
On February 02, 2011, an article published in Haaretz opened with the following: “Edward Said was right. We are all infected with Orientalism, not to mention racism. For the site of an entire people shaking off the yoke of tyranny and bravely demanding free elections – instead of uplifting our spirits, fills us with fear, just because they are Arabs.”
This clearly illustrates how, by a strange change of fortune, Israel came to inherit Western Orientalist racism and produce its own “Orientals”. Indeed, it is in Israel where, to steal a line from Naomi Klein, “Jews made the shift from victims to victimizers with terrifying ease.” This ironic legacy of Western Orientalism now produced by the Zionist racist machinery is precisely what enables Binyamin Fuad Ben-Eliezer, himself an Arab Jew born in Basra in Iraq, to lament Mubarak’s departure by claiming that “Arabs are not ready for democracy.”
Yet Israeli Jews are not alone to inherit the ironic legacy of Western Orientalism in the region. Just a week after the Egyptian revolution broke up Mubarak too introduced his version of Orientalism. Not so different from Livni’s was his message to President Obama on ABC that “you don’t understand Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now”. One might wonder what was left of Egyptian culture under Mubarak regime but a bunch of corrupt muftis and semi-intellectuals. In fact, one does not need a revolution to discover that Mubarak is the last one in Egypt to understand what Egyptian culture is.
Perhaps the most hilarious scene of Mubarak’s Orientalist doctrine was his “camelization” of the demonstrations in Egypt. By unleashing his thugs riding in on camels and horses to crush and terrorize peaceful civilian protestors on the streets Mubarak was sending a clear message to his friends in the West. That is Egyptians, when left to their devices, are nothing but a bunch of unruly savages unsuited to democracy and civilization. His barbaric response to one of the most civilized revolution in the region shows how deeply he believes in what he says and does.
Mubarak’s response is an extraordinary example of how local dictators act as colonial agents towards their people and how they too feed on the irony of “dangerous victims.” Victimization in its Mubarak’s version depends on the same logic of radical inversion. That is by presenting Egyptian protestors as collaborators and foreign agents Mubarak is following the Arab proverb: “He hit me and cried, he raced me to complain.” Yet Mubarak certainly knows, as well as his Israeli and Western interlocutors, that one of the motivations behind the revolution was precisely his scandalous collaborative role in the region.
It is in this context that the revolution against Mubarak regime becomes an anti-colonial struggle. His dehumanization of his people tied with his brutal violence against peaceful civilians is an unmistakably colonial symptom. Here the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt should not make us forget how Western violence was exported to the Arab world from the dawn of colonialism up to the present day, how it was brought home by ruling elites whose links to neocolonial and postcolonial metropolises are maintained through multiple forms of agency, and how authoritarian Arab regimes continue to feed on Western hypocrisy in regard to democracy and liberty, the same slogans that have provided the foothold for Western expansion in the region.
Nor should we forget that Western political stability in comparison to the Arab world should be interpreted against the background of its exploitation of the region which provided it with the wealth to support its relatively decorous life. To make no mistake about it, the obsessive emphasis in Arab and Western media on formal U.S. announcements and responses to events in Egypt and Tunisia can only show how deeply neocolonialism is steeped in the region.
Isn’t then a bitter irony to expect the United State to liberate Egyptians from the very conditions that make it function in the region? Wasn’t this very same discourse on the liberation of Arabs what allowed its imperial venture to take place in the region? Don’t all kinds of critique of Israel’s support for Mubarak’s regime seem absurd given the fact that by supporting Mubarak Israel behaves in accordance with its colonial interests in the region and any critique of it must begin with its colonial foundations instead of its contemporary political hypocrisy?
– Seraj Assi is a PhD student in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.