Moving Beyond the Middle East

“Israel can suck my dick, Arab leaders can lick my balls,” bellowed the Palestinian MC, with a wild look in his eyes. For as partisan an event as this gig was, the statement had a delightfully alienated quality to it. He couldn’t identify with anyone; except, that is, his own people. His words hung heavily in the room, contrasting sharply with those of the British rapper who had introduced his act, someone who, less than an hour before, had urged the largely Palestinian audience to oppose the allied attack on Libya.

The MC in question was from the seminal Palestinian hip-hop act DAM. Often called Israel’s answer to Public Enemy, this trio from the rough and tumble town of Lod epitomize independence in every sense of the word – musically, ideologically, the works. Unless, of course, you regard their nationalism, advocating for Palestinian equality and rights, as a sacrifice of autonomy. The headlining act of A Night of Palestinian Hip Hop at the London School of Economics, their Saturday evening set just happened to coincide with the opening of the US-led air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi.

The contrast between DAM’s words and those of the British MC who introduced them illustrates a fundamental difference that usually emerges when you put Western and Middle Eastern peace activists together. Simply put, there is less specificity to the Western approach, irrespective of how well-intentioned or educated its activists might be. This is to be expected. But if the point is to privilege the local, at least from an anti-imperialist perspective, this approach needs to be supplemented with less abstract perspectives. Both approaches, working together, are required. Especially in a place like the Mideast, where there really is no good leadership to choose from: the continuum runs from Bibi to Gaddafi. International cooperation in such contexts is obviously necessary.

Considering the destructive role that the West has always played in the region, progressives might experiment refocusing their critique of Western interventionism by asking what it hasn’t taken into account historically, by examining what kinds of new domestic political purposes it might serve. European activists are particularly privileged in this regard, because of the impact that Arab immigration has made on Europe over the last generation. Resources for education in this context are far stronger, than, for example, in the States. Military action undertaken abroad may have clear foreign policy objectives. However, everything depends on how we define foreign.

On the second day of the Libyan campaign, one of the continuing emphases of British news media covering the event was the fact that RAF fighters had to fly long distance, from bases in Scotland, in order to attack North African targets. While the BBC repeatedly suggested that this circuitous route reflected a possible failure to secure the rights to operate from airbases in the Mediterranean, it also served to mask the fundamental lack of distance between Europe and the Middle East. Whether that proximity is simply a function of improved military hardware, technology, or geography (i.e. Italy, Spain) is irrelevant.

The simple fact is that the political value of the war to EU governments is matched by the ease with which their armed forces can reach their targets from bases at home. Given the debates raging throughout Europe, about its increasingly multicultural character and the growth of its Muslim immigrant populations, there is a particular irony to this closeness. Its strategic convenience is contradicted by the social burden it imposes. Such discrepancies can only be managed through acts of violence, if not outright war.

In keeping with the relative hostility that present governments in the European Union have expressed towards cultural pluralism – in the last seven months, the leaders of the EU’s largest member states, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel have all attacked multiculturalism – one cannot dismiss the impact that a strike like this, on a nearby Arab country, has on Europe’s domestic Muslim population. Whatever its declared humanitarian objectives, the show of force still sends a disquieting message.

Turning on the radio or TV in the UK, hearing pro-government pundits repeatedly cite the need to carry out this campaign as a means of intimidating extremism, is of immense value in this regard. Though easily demolished by anyone with a superficial knowledge of Middle Eastern politics, such rationales for military activity betray an appreciation of its broader psychological value. Striking out against ‘extremism’ abroad, without having to attack archetypal extremists, doubles as a way of disciplining Muslim communities at home, even if it also risks further radicalizing them.

This said, it is important to avoid allegations of conspiracy or subterfuge when leveling such criticisms. Though security officials and conservatives in the US undertake such calculations in keeping with their cynical Realpolitik, they are lodged in the psyche of their European counterparts at a deeper, less accessible level. The political result is part of a larger package of benefits flowing from initiatives like this, but that does not mean that their proponents consciously decide to discipline immigrant populations in this way. More often than not, the effect of this show of force on the Muslim communities back home is just a bonus that comes with the worldview held by most European leaders.

Populism, focused as it is on agitating the public to indulge its basest instincts, is too obsessed with fear-mongering to focus on much else. Thus, it tends to emphasize cosmetic expressions of difference, if not what it would like to portray as ‘extreme’, such as women wearing burkas, Islamic religious architecture, and prayer in the street. This is why one will never find a right-wing politician such as Marine Le Pen advocating going to war in Tunisia just to teach Parisian banlieues to stay in line. Prosecuting humanitarian objectives, as Sarkozy does, is enough.

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