Edward Said

Teun A. van Dijk teun at HUM.UVA.NL
Sun Sep 16 22:08:29 UTC 2001


The United States may too often have failed to look outside but it is depressing
how little time is spent trying to understand America

 Edward Said
 Sunday September 16, 2001
 The Observer

 Spectacular horror of the sort that struck New York (and to a lesser degree
Washington) has ushered in a new world of unseen, unknown assailants, terror
missions without political message, senseless destruction.

 For the residents of this wounded city, the consternation, fear, and sustained
sense of outrage and shock will certainly continue for a long time, as will the
genuine sorrow and affliction that so much carnage has so cruelly imposed on so

 New Yorkers have been fortunate that Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a normally
rebarbative and unpleasantly combative, even retrograde figure, has rapidly
attained Churchillian status. Calmly, unsentimentally, and with extraordinary
compassion, he has marshalled the city's heroic police, fire and emergency
services to admirable effect and, alas, with huge loss of life. Giuliani's was
the first voice of caution against panic and jingoistic attacks on the city's
large Arab and Muslim communities, the first to express the commonsense of
anguish, the first to press everyone to try to resume life after the shattering

 Would that that were all. The national television reporting has of course
brought the horror of those dreadful winged juggernauts into every household,
unremittingly, insistently, not always edifyingly. Most commentary has stressed,
indeed magnified, the expected and the predictable in what most Americans feel:
terrible loss, anger, outrage, a sense of violated vulnerability, a desire for
vengeance and un-restrained retribution. Beyond formulaic expressions of grief
and patriotism, every politician and accredited pundit or expert has dutifully
repeated how we shall not be defeated, not be deterred, not stop until terrorism
is exterminated. This is a war against terrorism, everyone says, but where, on
what fronts, for what concrete ends? No answers are provided, except the vague
suggestion that the Middle East and Islam are what 'we' are up against, and that
terrorism must be destroyed.

 What is most depressing, however, is how little time is spent trying to
understand America's role in the world, and its direct involvement in the
complex reality beyond the two coasts that have for so long kept the rest of the
world extremely distant and virtually out of the average American's mind. You'd
think that 'America' was a sleeping giant rather than a superpower almost
constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all over the Islamic domains.
Osama bin Laden's name and face have become so numbingly familiar to Americans
as in effect to obliterate any his tory he and his shadowy followers might have
had before they became stock symbols of everything loathsome and hateful to the
collective imagination. Inevitably, then, collective passions are being
funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit
of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home
for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a
suddenly reconfigured geography of conflict, without clear borders, or visible
actors. Manichaean symbols and apocalyptic scenarios are bandied about with
future consequences and rhetorical restraint thrown to the winds.

 Rational understanding of the situation is what is needed now, not more
drum-beating. George Bush and his team clearly want the latter, not the former.
Yet to most people in the Islamic and Arab worlds the official US is synonymous
with arrogant power, known for its sanctimoniously munificent support not only
of Israel but of numerous repressive Arab regimes, and its inattentiveness even
to the possibility of dialogue with secular movements and people who have real
grievances. Anti-Americanism in this context is not based on a hatred of
modernity or technology-envy: it is based on a narrative of concrete
interventions, specific depredations and, in the cases of the Iraqi people's
suffering under US-imposed sanctions and US support for the 34-year-old Israeli
occupation of Palestinian territories. Israel is now cynically exploiting the
American catastrophe by intensifying its military occupation and oppression of
the Palestinians. Political rhetoric in the US has overridden these things by
flinging about words like 'terrorism' and 'freedom' whereas, of course, such
large abstractions have mostly hidden sordid material interests, the influence
of the oil, defence and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their hold on the
entire Middle East, and an age-old religious hostility to (and ignorance of)
'Islam' that takes new forms every day.

 Intellectual responsibility, however, requires a still more critical sense of
the actuality. There has been terror of course, and nearly every struggling
modern movement at some stage has relied on terror. This was as true of
Mandela's ANC as it was of all the others, Zionism included. And yet bombing
defenceless civilians with F-16s and helicopter gunships has the same structure
and effect as more conventional nationalist terror.

 What is bad about all terror is when it is attached to religious and political
abstractions and reductive myths that keep veering away from history and sense.
This is where the secular consciousness has to try to make itself felt, whether
in the US or in the Middle East. No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify
the mass slaughter of innocents, most particularly when only a small group of
people are in charge of such actions and feel themselves to represent the cause
without having a real mandate to do so.

 Besides, much as it has been quarrelled over by Muslims, there isn't a single
Islam: there are Islams, just as there are Americas. This diversity is true of
all traditions, religions or nations even though some of their adherents have
futiley tried to draw boundaries around themselves and pin their creeds down
neatly. Yet history is far more complex and contradictory than to be represented
by demagogues who are much less representative than either their followers or
opponents claim. The trouble with religious or moral fundamentalists is that
today their primitive ideas of revolution and resistance, including a
willingness to kill and be killed, seem all too easily attached to technological
sophistication and what appear to be gratifying acts of horrifying retaliation.
The New York and Washington suicide bombers seem to have been middle-class,
educated men, not poor refugees. Instead of getting a wise leadership that
stresses education, mass mobilisation and patient organisation in the service of
a cause, the poor and the desperate are often conned into the magical thinking
and quick bloody solutions that such appalling models pro vide, wrapped in lying
religious claptrap.

 On the other hand, immense military and economic power are no guarantee of
wisdom or moral vision. Sceptical and humane voices have been largely unheard in
the present crisis, as 'America' girds itself for a long war to be fought
somewhere out there, along with allies who have been pressed into service on
very uncertain grounds and for imprecise ends. We need to step back from the
imaginary thresholds that separate people from each other and re-examine the
labels, reconsider the limited resources available, decide to share our fates
with each other as cultures mostly have done, despite the bellicose cries and

 'Islam' and 'the West' are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly. Some
will run behind them, but for future generations to condemn themselves to
prolonged war and suffering without so much as a critical pause, without looking
at interdependent histories of injustice and oppression, without trying for
common emancipation and mutual enlightenment seems far more wilful than
necessary. Demonisation of the Other is not a sufficient basis for any kind of
decent politics, certainly not now when the roots of terror in injustice can be
addressed, and the terrorists isolated, deterred or put out of business. It
takes patience and education, but is more worth the investment than still
greater levels of large-scale violence and suffering.

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