My take on 2004, "The Year of the Beast"
Al-Ahram Weekly, 30 December, 2004
Hani Shukrallah reflects on a year when the clash of civilisations seemed a self-fulfilling prophecy
It was little more than 19th century racist drivel dressed up in late 20th century identity politics garb, and this by an erstwhile British spy in his dotage. Having received his schooling at London's School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1930s of the last century -- at a time when the famed SOAS was specifically designed as a training ground for future servants of empire in the "Orient" -- Bernard Lewis, arch-Zionist, old school Orientalist and quack-scholar, came to the US in the 1970s, where he was eventually, and perhaps predictably, received as a prophet. Having switched allegiance to the Pentagon -- hardly a difficult transition -- the old man hailed by the American corporate media as "the doyen of Middle East Studies" gave the military-industrial complex the one thing it desperately needed in a post-Soviet world -- an enemy.
"This is no less than a clash of civilisations -- the perhaps irrational but surely historical reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both," Lewis wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1990. Samuel Huntington, a more mediocre scholar but no less fervent believer in the role of the intellectual as apologist for empire, took up the obnoxious thesis and, with the help of an ecstatic media, began its integration into American pop culture. Respected scholars -- that is, people who have respect for their various disciplines, and see their role as something other than providing ideological cover for the pernicious designs of a corporate-led power structure -- soon made short work of the thesis. It was not that difficult.
Yet, in 2004, year three of the "war against terror", the clash thesis, now firmly established as the official "party-line" of the neo-con administration of George W Bush, and the ideological foundation of its hold on power at home and abroad, appeared to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
"Why do they hate us?" Bush had asked rhetorically in his address to a joint session of Congress, held in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity on 20 September 2001. "They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms; our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other," he went on, in answer to his own question. Clearly, "they" in this kind of context could not mean just a few hundred wild-eyed, CIA-trained fanatics grouped together as Al-Qaeda. Bush had declared a global and perpetual war, the enemy clearly being identified as Western civilisation's "ancient rival", supposed to be brimming over with an irrational hatred of "our Judeo-Christian heritage, and secular present".
Significantly, however, Bush's WWIII in defence of Western Civilisation, along with its allegedly inherent rationalism, humanism and liberalism (notwithstanding three centuries of colonial plunder, slavery, genocide, the Fascist and Nazi scourges, two devastating world wars and two nuclear bombings), was predicated upon the American president's personal rapport with none other than God Himself. And its most solid base of support was the Fundamentalist Christian Right, in alliance with Likudnik Zionism.
This was just the tip of the iceberg. Sharon, "the butcher", whose own people had two decades before declared him a war criminal, was confirmed as a role model, a shining representative of Western civilisation, and a hero of the war against the ancient enemy. (Ironically, right up until the moment they took on the mantle of colonial domination themselves, the Jews were as much an "ancient enemy" of Western Civilisation as the Muslims, if not more so. But, then, it was Arafat who looked like a Jew; Sharon, on the other hand, looks like a Serb).
Which mementos of brutality and heartlessness should we clutch to our hearts as we go forward into 2005? The revelation, by Britain's foremost medical journal, that over 100,000 faceless Iraqis have been killed in the process of their "modernisation"? Or the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay (ideologically grounded, as we were to find out, in an Orientalist tract suggesting that sexual molestation was the gravest insult an Arab or Muslim could suffer)? Or should we rather privilege the video-taped butchery of Nepalese workers to shouts of Allahu Akbar? The massacre of children in Beslan? The slaughter of Spanish commuters in the Madrid underground? What kind of images of bloodshed and destruction, of sheer horror, stand out in our minds as we look back on the past year? The torn bodies of children in Rafah and Falluja? The hooded and cuffed father in Abu Ghraib, his frightened little boy lying prone and hapless in his lap? Or the weeping face of Margaret Hassan, before she was put to the knife?
And what of our supposedly inherent capacity for empathy? When we see a Palestinian family standing desolate and numbed before their bulldozed home, do we think of our own homes, of the memories and cherished possessions -- a picture album, a sweater, a book -- which, at only a moment's notice, could be buried under a pile of rubble? Do we think of what it might mean to be rendered homeless, often for the second or third time?
Or do we think of the greater picture of a world that has seemingly gone mad? A world that had to pass through the countless horrors of colonialism, world war and genocide to be able to encode into law, in the aftermath of WWII, a relatively decent sense of our common humanity. Yet it only took George W Bush and his neo-con cabal three years to bring the whole edifice down, and confer instead the legitimacy of unmitigated power on invasion and occupation, illegal and "preventive" war, torture, and the interminable detention of persons without charge, trial or the merest semblance of due process.
In 2004, the clash of civilisations thesis -- inhuman, racist drivel that it is -- looked to have become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Yet within this bleak picture, there was hidden a significant twist. For this is not the war of a civilised West against a barbaric East. Rather, this conflict pits a barbaric and immensely powerful West against an equally barbaric, eminently powerless and ultimately suicidal East.
That is why at Al-Ahram Weekly, we voted 2004 "the year of the beast" -- a year in which our very humanity was under fierce attack from both sides of the barricades. We cannot privilege one side or the other, for our struggle is against them both. If a humanity worthy of the name is to survive at all, this struggle must continue.