The Power of Discourse

A few weeks ago,  I woke up to the news that Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old Iraqi refugee in America, died after being beaten by a group who entered her home. The mother of five was found with a note that read: “Go back to your country. You are a terrorist.” Read more here. (The story seems to have changed now; it is no longer clear who killed her. I’ll keep the example however since it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.)

My first reaction was to think of Trayvon Martin, a similarly racialized crime that happened very recently. I then began to think of the many discourses (or not so many, actually) that are present in the west about Muslims, Arabs, the Middle East, and Iraq. These discourses inevitably lead to some sort of violence against these groups, whether symbolic or actual. When entire groups are dehumanized or painted in a negative way, the risk of them being attacked/marginalized is huge. Someone tweeted that they hold everyone who is Islamophobic and spread these discourses in society personally accountable for what happened to Shaima, and I completely agree. Discourses & ideas are not just abstract things that float above us – they form us and impact our behaviour. They are very, very real.

Then I began to think of the Middle East, and the way the Salafis have spread their ideology during the past 30 years to the point of it constituting several major discourses in society. If we argue that Islamophobia lead to Shaima’s death, then shouldn’t we also be self-critical and question how certain Salafi ideas are leading to the dehumanization & marginalization of specific groups in Egypt, including the Copts, women, and liberals? It is clear tat Egypt has become increasingly conservative, largely due to the funding coming from Saudi/Qatar as well as the millions of Egyptians that went there to work during the oil boom. What kinds of discourses did they bring back? How did these discourses spread through society? How do they impact people in a very real way?

A final example is in the Netherlands, where discourses about Muslims/Moroccans/Turks/Surinamese etc are overwhelmingly negative. Some of my Dutch liberal friends *somehow* think these discourses are just “annoying little things that don’t really mean anything.” I beg to differ. These discourses are what led to what happened to Shaima, are what justified the invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq, are what cause many Dutch people to make extremely racist remarks and think it’s okay since they’re just saying what they think. These discourses hurt people, they marginalize people, they put people into boxes that are difficult to get out of.

As Foucalt said, discourses do not constitute themselves. They are produced by us & at the same time produce us. This makes them much more powerful than we think.

Ted X Rotterdam

So last week I attended Ted X Rotterdam, an event meant for the “top students in the Netherlands.” There were over 1,200 top students there, and I am mentioning this because it will make this story even more shocking.

I’ve always loved TED because it is more critical and less mainstream than other media. The lectures are often inspiring, thought-provoking and original. So I had high hopes for the locally organized TED event in Rotterdam.

Basically, after 10+ hours of lectures and performances, I was left disgusted, angry, and repulsed by the narratives I was hearing. Other than the musical performances, it was an absolute disgrace. Almost every lecture had an undertone of white European superiority. The non-European/Western world was only brought up as “the third world” – rarely a specific country – and only as a helpless, victim that the superior west had to help, out of its infinite kindness.

So what has changed since colonialism? This is EXACTLY what the colonial mindset was. Superior-inferior; first world-third world.

And what was discussed when the third world came up? Famine. War. Disease. AIDS.

Bad bad bad.

Not a single positive thing. Even after revolutions, social movements, and major shifts across the so-called “third world” this year. Even though the third world comprises the majority of the world’s population. Even though the “third world” is beautiful, complex, diverse, lovable, traumatized, and millions of other things.

So why do we only see it as a victim? As a picture of a starving child? We don’t even need to know where the child is from – we just know it is African because that is all the media shows us.

We don’t need to understand HOW the “third world” became “under-developed.” How the west did most of this, and continues to do most of this. No. We just need to know this is how it is and that we should donate a few euros and forget about it.

Dutch people probably left the event feeling superior, safe; all their stereotypes confirmed. Nothing about what they can do POLITICALLY to help. Nothing about how the Netherlands is responsible for many of the problems in these countries. Nothing dangerous; nothing critical.

Its disgusting. It made me want to be back in the “third world” because there is no denial; no sense of cultural superiority that I have seen in too many Dutch people. Read a history book, and then tell me you are proud of what your country has done and CONTINUES to do.

I looked around the hall at people applauding yet another lecture about death in the third world and how Dutch people need to donate more money, and I thought: wow. I don’t care how hard life is in countries less well-off economically. I would rather live there and not be brainwashed, than live here and think that this is how the world is.

Zizek on the Revolution

I’ve been watching and reading a lot of Slavoj Zizek in the past month, and I really believe he is one of the most influential philosophers of our time.  I just finished an article he wrote about the London riots, in which he mentioned Egypt:

Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony. The losers will be the pro-Western liberals, too weak – in spite of the CIA funding they are getting – to ‘promote democracy’, as well as the true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from trade unions to feminists.

The rapidly worsening economic situation will sooner or later bring the poor, who were largely absent from the spring protests, onto the streets. There is likely to be a new explosion, and the difficult question for Egypt’s political subjects is who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor? Who will translate it into a political programme: the new secular left or the Islamists?

These are very interesting statements.  I definitely agree that the revolution died this summer, mostly because the military managed to mane sure Tahrir lost public support, while it reaffirmed its status as the ultimate Egyptian institution.  This is not to say the revolution can’t be reignited. But for now, I agree that it appears to be dead.

The recent events in Israel seem to benefit both the Israeli government (who have been mercilessly attacking Gaza ever since) and the Egyptian army (who have diverted Egyptian attention away from internal issues to the “Israeli threat” – a tactic often used by Mubarak, who knew how Palestine could always gain the attention of the Egyptian people. However, what is new is the Egyptian decision to withdraw its ambassador from Israeli over accusations of 5 Egyptian soldiers being killed by Israeli forces. This is big. But the announcement was withdrawn from the Egyptian military’s website, so it is unclear what will happen.

I also agree with Zizek that an economic revolution will come soon. People are still hungry (literally and metaphorically) and will not settle for the status quo for much longer. This revolution will be global. We have seen it in London, Spain, and Greece recently. In the Netherlands, as the government cuts more and more, we will also probably (at some point in the far future) see big demonstrations. However, countries like the Netherlands are further away because they have absolute trust in the government and governing institutions (including capitalism) and thus it will take longer for them to question these. This is the impression I get from Dutch people I have spoken to about the issue: they still do not see capitalism and neo-liberalism as the core structural problems. Rather they tend to blame Greece, immigrants, America, or whoever else is currently “causing problems.”

I like the fact that Zizek mentions the “secular left” in Egypt, as opposed to only focusing on the Islamists as the only alternative to the military. This is something I do not see in the majority of European/American articles about the revolution. The secular left can be a very strong force in Egyptian politics, given the chance and time to organize. The Muslim Brotherhood have been around since the 1920s: they are well-organized, well-funded, and know how to deal with the Egyptian state/military. This is not the case for the secular left, or other political groupings in Egypt.

My next post will be on what Zizek said about the London riots – definitely the most insightful comments I’ve read so far.

Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, was recently taken to court for hate speech against Muslims. Today he was acquitted. Wilders is head of the PVV, the Dutch Freedom Party, which is currently the third most popular party in the Netherlands. Wilders is famous for his controversial statements about Islam, such as:

“Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture. I have a problem with Islamic tradition, culture, ideology. Not with Muslim people.”

“Why are we afraid to say that muslims should adapt because our norms and values are of a higher, better, nicer and more humane level of civilisation? Not integration, assimilation! And if the headscarves will protest on the Malieveld, let them come. I’ll have them for breakfast.”

“If it ever may come to racial riots, which I really don’t want, then this doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative result.”

Just to remind you that this guy’s party is the 3rd most popular party in the Netherlands.