Saddam, the U.S. Media, and the Palestinians

Organizing against racist stereotypes

By Jaleh Hajibashi
November 1990; pages 10-11; Volume 2, No. 2

This article is a reprint of a speech given at the Comparative Literature Cultural Studies Conference, Oct. 4 - 6, here at UT. The panel focused on problems and strategies of organizing in the UT community. The struggles of the PSC are of particular relevance to the current militarism.

Anti-Arab racism, the marginalization of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) as a "radical" group, and widespread ignorance about Middle Eastern cultures and histories make any productive dialogue about the current military intervention and its relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a challenge.

The aims of this article are as follows: (1) To particularize today's anti-Arab racism in the Unites States by describing in some detail anti-Arab racism as it is manifest in Austin. (2) To question the portrayal of the PSC as a so-called "radical" group in light of our actual objectives, clearly articulated by the national PSC. The calculated labelling of our solidarity organization as "radical" discourages serious consideration of the PSC's positions. (3) To highlight American ignorance of Middle Eastern cultures, suggesting the extent to which this ignorance is politically efficacious and therefore quite actively perpetuated in most American institutions of learning.

The situation in the gulf has exposed anti-Arab feelings in rather obvious ways as of late. Those of us who are of Middle Eastern extraction or who work on the Middle East professionally or politically know that the eruptions of anti-Arab racism which accompany political turmoil in the Arab world are symptomatic of a problem which is present even when it isn't blatant. The T-shirt slogans and political cartoons that we see every day demonstrate by the very force of their condensed hatred that anti-Arab racism (or more accurately, anti-Middle Eastern racism) in this country is deep-rooted and extensive.

Keeping that in mind, let's look at a couple of the blatantly racist T-shirts which are, judging from the presence of ads in The Daily Texan, and the presence of the actual T-shirts on the drag, finding a market on this campus.

Racist T-shirt
Figure 1: Racist T-shirt sold on the drag

The first shirt (see Figure 1) depicts a map that symbolically advocates the wholesale nuclear destruction of Iraq, Kuwait, Iran and the upper part of Saudi Arabia. What is perhaps most culturally telling about the shirt is that bonus megatons draw special attention to the added attraction of an excuse to obliterate Iran, and that the nuclear fallout extends well in to Saudi Arabia. Never mind that Iran is not on Saddam' s side; never mind that officially the Saudis are U.S. allies; never mind that millions of people would burn: Middle Eastern people would be fun to kill. Like a video war game, the more people who die, the more bonus points.

Another racist T-shirt
Figure 2: Another racist T-shirt

The shirt which reads "I'd fly 10,000 miles to smoke a camel" (see Figure 2) also reveals the American propensity to either not recognize, or simply disregard, cultural and national specificities in the Middle East. The representation of the Arab in the gunsight fails to draw any distinction between our enemy and the Arabs we are supposedly there to protect. The jalabeyya, or long garment which the targeted Arab is wearing is not at all representative of typical Iraqi dress. Rather, the jalabeyya is prevalent in those countries who are ostensibly our allies, most notably, Saudi Arabia , Kuwait, and Egypt. Same goes for the camel.

Statesman stereotypes
Figure 3: Cartoon from the Austin American-Statesman

Take a look at the cartoon from the Austin American-Statesman. (Figure 3) For those who don't know the significance of the dates on the oil rigs, 1956 marks the war which took place when Nasser (Egypt's president at the time), tried to nationalize the Suez canal. England, France and Israel didn't think it was Egypt's to nationalize. 1967 was the year when Israel defeated Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian forces, taking the Gaza strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. The logic of using these dates to prove that Arabs and Iranians have a long history of being blood-thirsty "crusaders" escapes me. Linking Hussein's present actions with what happened in '56 and '67 in this uncritical fashion exemplifies the gross distortion of historical fact that pervades the U.S. media.

The cartoon also presents a telling example of Arab stereotyping. The unidentifiable figure on the far left shifts this cartoon from a jab at particular leaders in the region to a racist slur. Three of the caricatures are of course readily identifiable as Saddam Hussein, Ghadafi, and Khomeini. The fourth character, a sort of generic oil-rich sheik type, very heavy into Islam (judging from the symbolic sword), effects yet another blurring of our supposed allies with our enemies and reinforces the fact that the racism we confront here is of a particularly expansive sort.

As it was in the case of the other anti-Semitic racism this century has witnessed - that which targeted Jews for genocide - so it is with the Muslims as well; religious difference is added to ethnic difference in order to make the hatred stronger. All too often, such racist images, combined with decontextualized attempts at representing history, pass for political humor among U.S. pundits and cartoonists.

Last spring a card which depicts Yasir Arafat on his knees, hands outstretched, his racial features exaggerated, was on the trendy racks of cards by the registers at Whole Foods Market. The joke of the card hinges on a rather weak pun. "Yas Sir" is spelled in black dialect on the front, "that's my baby" sung by the kneeling Arab inside. The Arab as "nigger" is apparently amusing even at a progressive grocery store. Could a leader of any other struggle be insulted so overtly? What, for example, would happen if Nelson Mandela were subjected to the same race-based insult?

The problem of anti-Arab racism is of course very much a problem of the Palestine Solidarity Committee: We have a much harder time educating people about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issues which surround it when the media preconditions the public to hate the ethnic group we stand in solidarity with.

As mentioned earlier, the PSC has had problems working effectively both on the national level and in Austin because of the fact that our organization is referred to as "radical." Where does this label come from? The PSC does recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Because the PLO is portrayed in American media as "radical," and because Yasir Arafat is identified as a "terrorist," by extension the PSC gets labelled a "radical" group. Any connection with the PLO is still very much exploited by groups who oppose the PSC to discredit the speakers we bring and any information we make available.

When Edward Said, a member of the Palestinian National Council and a professor at Columbia, spoke at UT last month about the gulf crisis, people attending were leafletted as they entered the auditorium. The propaganda urged them to "ask Edward Said about his ties to the PLO." A picture of Arafat with Saddam Hussein illustrated the leaflet.

As PSC members, we have to deal with this, in spite of the fact that the PSC is not involved in internal Palestinian affairs or policy decisions. By its very definition - as a group in solidarity with the Palestinian people - the PSC must allow that the Palestinians have the right to designate their own leadership. Is it really "radical" to recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians when all UN member nations except Israel and the US have done so?

The portrayal of the PSC as "radical" has not been limited to the conservative right in this country. There has been considerable hesitation on the part of left or progressive groups to involve themselves with the PSC as well, because of what was until recently a very widespread perception of Israel as a haven of liberal democratic values in the midst of a large grouping of hostile Arab Islamic nation-states. The Austin chapter of PSC was initially not welcomed by local progressive groups. Fortunately, times have changed and now many campus and community organizations recognize the blatant violations of human rights and international law occurring under Israeli occupation (among them the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition, the New Jewish Agenda, the Steve Biko Committee, and the Black Student Alliance).

The human-rights violations with which we concern ourselves include: deportations of Palestinians from their native land, administrative detentions (no explanation or trial required for imprisonment of up to six months), communal punishment (house demolitions, extended curfews), expropriation and active settlement of occupied territory, closings of universities and secondary schools, and beatings and tear gassing of school age children. From within the PSC, we wonder why it is "radical" to ask that such things be stopped, or at the very least that our government stop subsidizing such abuses through the some $4 billion we give Israel in foreign aid every year.

More difficult to understand, perhaps, is why it's "radical" to question the isolation of human rights struggles from one another. The national PSC has worked hard to provide a network for the productive explorations of connections between the issues of: the people in struggle in South Africa and Latin America, those of racial minorities in this country, and those of the Palestinians. Here in Austin, we have tried to bring the national organization's concerns to bear on our local chapter. ANC members, eye witness delegations which have included Black and Hispanic delegates, and both Palestinian and Israeli women activists have been provided a forum to speak in the Austin community by the PSC.

Further, PSC explicitly combats discrimination in all its forms: religious, racial, sexual. The Palestinian Declaration of Independence issued in November of 1988 states that the PLO has officially recognized Israel's right to exist and makes explicit the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender. In contrast, the exclusionary nature of a religious state should be as apparent in Israel as it is in Iran. Yet think about how often you have heard the term "radical" Zionist, or fundamentalist Jew in the media in juxtaposition to how natural it feels to say "radical Palestinian" or "fundamentalist Muslim."

The PSC may be radical in the sense that it does seek to make extreme changes in existing views and institutions - but it is most assuredly not an essentialist, isolationist or anti-Jewish organization, a fact which is attested to by the diverse membership of the group and the work that has been done toward building coalitions with other progressive organizations in the university and Austin communities. We are a group of people concerned with the mechanisms of marginalization and oppression as they are deployed not just in the case of Palestinians, but in general.

Following Edward Said's lead in thinking about the relations of language to reality, of knowledge to power, we ask: How it is possible for the word "Arab" to condense a number of countries, religious identifications, languages and cultures into a single stereotyped image in the minds of a large number of Americans? Why do words like "Arab," ''Palestinian," "Iranian," and "Muslim" all begin to run together? And how is it that the words "terrorist," "radical" and "fundamentalist," appended to any of the four identities just mentioned, become redundancies?

We wonder why it is that only specialists know that there is more to the centuries-old traditions of Middle Eastern literatures than the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (that is, Edward Fitzgerald's rewriting of Khayyam), 1001 Nights, and Naguib Mahfouz; or why most people don't know that Persian is not a dialect of Arabic. We wonder why books about Islam as a religion, and books which are ostensibly "fiction" are placed in generic Middle Eastern studies sections or even Middle Eastern political science sections, instead of the more generally accessed fiction or religion sections in large Austin bookstores. (For examples, check the UT Co-Op and Half Price Books.)

With all these questions running around in our heads, as PSC members we set out to organize events or to sit at a table on the West Mall and meet the immediate consequences of such culturally and institutionally encouraged ignorance of our fellow students.

Once one has worked with the PSC, it's easier to see the historically specific, politically-based factors which have determined that "Palestine" is not a word which shall appear in a dictionary of the English language as an independent entry; rather, it will be relegated to the ancient past where it can be used to locate Jewish identity. Webster's defines a Jew as a member of a nation existing in Palestine from the 6th c. B.C. to the 1st c. A.D. It is also less of a mystery why an Israeli is defined as "a native or inhabitant of the republic of Israel" yet there is no entry for ''Palestinian." It has been possible through a systematic distortion of historical facts to ensure that a Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem, to a family that had lived in the city for generations is neither a native nor an inhabitant of either the historical land of Palestine or the modern state of Israel.

Austin PSC works to overcome the barriers posed by racism and ignorance to provide a place for Palestinian culture to be experienced and appreciated, and to provide information which affirms, despite what the dictionary and the American media would have us believe, that Palestine is a place, and the Palestinian people have a right to self-determination.