The War with Images

My article at Opendemocracy on the use of images in war situations.


A Christmas lesson (bis)

Listening to the Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Butros Sfeir giving the noon Christmas mass today in Beirut, confirmed what I was thinking of yesterday. At some point in the unfolding of the celebration, Sfeir tells the story of the birth of Jesus and so mentions his birth in Bethlehem. “In the city of Bethlehem, in Palestine, where he was born”.  He seems unperturbed, and swiftly moves to another subject. Worse, as he shifts his discussion to abstract concepts of love and tolerance (as noted, a classical rhetorical strategy amongst modern privatized Christianity), he manages to extract from it an even shakier concept of ‘love for the nation’. He then manages to mumble something like the birth of Jesus which symbolizes this message of love actually teaches us about how one should ‘love his nation’. Fortunately, he does not elaborate further. Bethlehem is a couple of kilometers away from where he is giving his mass. It is under the control of a political entity (Israel) that causes much injustice and oppression, and has probably no respect for Sfeir’s tradition (i.e. Christianity). To add insult to injury, a significant number of people from Bethlehem and from around it live within the nation that Sfeir wants people to love, although these people are neither loved by those people Sfeir is concerned with nor given any form of ‘love’ or ‘tolerance’. Well maybe if Jesus was the messenger of ‘justice’ it would have been better. Love as such stripped out of social realities is a monster-like fantasy causing more wreckage than healing.

US taxpayers fund Israeli settlers

Emily strikes beautifully with this detailed account of how certain American charities contribute to the building of huge complexes in Palestinian territories for incoming Jewish settlers.

This settler business makes me think that never in the history of mankind has arrogance reached these heights, this despicable misreading and imagining the past as a legitimate device to expropriate belonging by claiming chunks of land where people actually live.

It was quite disturbing to watch these images of settlers moving in imperturbably with their boxes, their personal affairs, their books, cds, their petty life artifacts while Palestinians were screaming outside the house. Kind of a snapshot of how Israel was built: Moving ideas and fantasies on the remains of oppressed reality.

Gaza and the legitimation of killing: Lessons for History

Wars, conquests, collective violence, and all kinds of forms of domination and oppression are justified through specific rhetorical strategies, or ideologies.

Take a very recent epoch, the one that was dubbed the ‘modern age’ that starts roughly with European ‘enlightenment’ and is still unfolding today. This is an epoch that sees the development and consolidation of States with their invented National histories, an epoch where capitalist economic and social changing structures have been nurtured by evermore centralized poles of power and more rigid notions of self.  This epoch has seen the rise of a discourse of human rights, ‘rights’ people had, claims they could make on the past, on territory, and even on other people (teaching democracy for example).

Israel represents one little (but oh so deadly) experiment of applying national theory to practice from scratch. It is the quintessence of modern culture: believing in an idea that fathoms a history for a people, projects it on a territory and then consolidates State structures to the detriment of previous social and economic structures in place. In a way Israel is the Frankenstein of the West. It is the horrible result of an experiment where the idea that some ‘ideational’ link with some representation of the past can materialize in ‘reality’, indeed, should, or has a ‘right to’ materialize in reality.

In this sense another type of colonial practice is born with Israel. We could probably talk of a classical colonialism that Europe and to some extent the US practiced, consisting in occupying and seizing the means of production of a specific area (Latin America, Africa, India, etc.). But the new colonialism is one that exist side by side a perpetual condemnation of colonialism. The new colonialism exists in the age of NGOs, UN, and other international institutions that legitimates the occupation and oppression of the ‘uncivilized’. New colonialism is practiced mainly by the US and Israel today and consist in subverting the average person into believing that there are ‘security’ questions to address in order to protect the ‘rights’ of certain political entities.

Several times Talal Asad’s quote at the right top end of this blog has been criticized. But it still holds so well today. War by the ‘civilized’ is much more couched in a moral rhetoric that legitimates it and makes it more deadly. Trabulsi in Al Safir today argues that one such legitimating tool is the concept of “Security”. In this excellent article, Trabulsi showed how Israel and the US succeeded in imposing the notion of ‘security’ as a ‘reason of State’ in order to clamp down on any insurgency effort fighting their occupier. Trabulsi shows also how Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, caught onto this program and gradually switched from a discourse centralized on Palestinian (or say local population) demands to one of imposing security to the benefit of Israel so as to resolve and neutralize the Palestinian question.

I want to develop a couple of points Trabulsi makes in his article. The ‘security’ rationale is very perverse in several ways. First it ignores the fact that insurgents, fighters, resistance groups etc, have longstanding political demands which makes them do what they do when they do it. By this token it refuses to address these demands. Also, the Security rationale sanctifies (and goes fully in line with) a discourse on liberal values in the sense that it is only fair that Israel is a ‘legitimate’ entity that needs to ‘protect’ itself. Protection defined as such may justify the killing of civilians, in a different way than say ‘terrorist’ practices do. Terrorists have nothing to protect. They are out of a discourse of human rights. They are evil incarnate. Falling outside the hegemonic makes you unrecoverable.

A discourse of human rights sanctifies and makes it possible for this political Frankenstein to exist. The question to ask is when does the Palestinian question fall within a discourse on human right (which would then only make it a legitimate claim ‘respected’ by the West) and when does it fall outside of it? The politically dominant strives to push it outside of the ‘civilized’ discourse in order to legitimizes more killing while the world looks at it oblivious because it becomes ‘logical’ that Israel or someone else acts this way. You can kill much more recklessly when you are on the side of liberalism.

One sad point here is that the Palestinian question will only acquire saliency when it fully complies with this discourse, something most western-educated Palestinians or pro-Palestinians strive to achieve. One will always look at Hamas with ‘reservation’ because at the end of the day Hamas is not inscribed in this discourse, neither through its claims (calling for the destruction of Israel) nor through its practices (hitting ‘civilian’ targets). That is the biggest tragedy. One cannot actually make a case that Israel as a political entity with the history it projects should be destroyed. Or maybe one can, but it will take a lot of other subverting strategies. And weapons, lots of them…

For now Islamic movements are not revolutionary enough at the political level. They have to extirpate themselves from a discourse of human rights. Their use of ‘religion’, and their practice of piety is a good place to start. We need to go back to a discourse of human ‘roles’. Away from morals and into ethics…

Samir Kassir

Has anyone seen the new statue erected right next to the Al Nahar building in downtown representing Samir Kassir philosophizing with one hand in the air? I just want to point out one thing: Apart from the very bad selection of sentences from his work that are inscribed on the large stone that is next to the statue, there is a little biographical note that mentions Kassir as a Lebanese journalist. What? The guy is Palestinian! Or let’s say that he was born as part of those people that came to be called Palestinian and not as part of the population that came to be registered as Lebanese. Well, probably the fact that he was Christian, anti-Syrian, married to a Lebanese Force sympathizer, and living in Ashrafieh would qualify him to become some sort of “Lebanese” you tell me… Maybe they thought they were doing him a favor, lifting him up a step on the ladder of social recognition. Sad ending to the story. Even sadder than his actual assassination.

Another face of hegemony

Check out this excellent article by an Israeli PhD student in Cambridge on the politics of naming and labeling that is prevalent in the Israeli press. For one thing, it shows very well how standards to judge if a press is “free” should be put into question: it has nothing to do with what a ‘political regime’ allows or not, but with what a political system end up imposing as non-questionable, as hegemonic. So stop talking about the freedom of the press. Actually, stop talking about ‘freedom’. It is a word that does not mean much, and if you look at reality, those who use it as a sign of difference are most likely to be those who oppress the most.

More caring and some pedagogy

Manar TV (Hizbullah related) ran today a series of interviews with priests and Christian activists from and in Bethlehem (it was a live show), interpreting the birth of Jesus (that is commonly confused with the capitalist commercialized Christmas) as a communal celebration with the current state of affairs in Palestinian. It seems that this particular Christian celebration in Bethlehem takes a little militant turn and is used as a platform to denounce the racist and apartheid-like policies of the Zionist state.

There was an interesting priest talking from Al Manar’s studio with the host of the show. I could not get his name and whether he was Lebanese or Palestinian but he sure knew how to speak. Ironically, a socially militant Christian should turn to al Manar as a source of inspiration. I mean what can he get out of these wanna-be aristocrat Lebanese Maronite (and other) bishops for example? When did we ever see any of these conservatives talk about Palestine and other oppressive environments on a day like Christmas? Their Church sermons that are all over the Christian related TV channels are all about either some vague interpretation of the birth of Jesus as a source of peace, of God’s message of love. The only political undertones in Church’s sermons revolve around nationalistic self-preservation and elitist discursive articulations.