INDEPENDENT NEWS

The Different Euphemisms For Power

Published: Sun 25 Feb 2007 09:05 PM
The Different Euphemisms For Power
By Sahar Ghumkhor
No one today is simply one thing. Labels like Muslim, woman, New Zealander, are only the beginning of an identity based on varying experiences. This is the reality of hybrid identity formations in the global world we live in today. Since the 'war on terror' became a household phrase, we hear a lot about this particular identity: Muslim. Muslim this, Muslim that. It's like an alien spaceship has landed on earth and introduced new species that has grasped the attention of everyone. But who are Muslims? Is 'Muslim' in fact a static identity?
Historically, Orientalist tradition has carefully constructed a single identity of 'Muslim'. Its purpose was to construct a specific relationship of 'us' and 'them' clearly aligned with power and domination. The 'other', in this case 'Muslim', was created therefore for the West to manipulate and exploit. Conditioned by educational and social institutions that derive from this understanding of the 'other', we can unmistakably recognise in right-wing perceptions the acceptance of this prevailing discourse. What's interesting, though, is that the left-socialist perception has also fallen into the same trap. Both sides assume it is in a position to construct the Muslim identity, all the while drawing upon racist understandings of this 'other'.
The ideological concern over identity is understandably entangled with the interests and agendas of various groups, which want to reflect certain interests. What has occurred, however, is that Eurocentric-based movements that control the prevailing discourse have put themselves in a position to construct identities for the 'other'. This positional superiority allows those caught up in the movement to place themselves in a position where they can have different relationships with Muslims depending on their agenda, but always maintaining the upper hand. What is more, they apply certain characteristics to Muslims - whatever best suits their own political agendas and what's more suitable for the ideological framework in which they're working. Therefore, in the case of the perceptions of the Right, Muslims are represented as terrorists, violent, extremists and irrational. They are anathema to Western way of life.
Conveniently, this perception fuels the ideological war machine of empire and justifies the oppression of Muslims in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere. As a result, it convinces you that they are being treated brutally because they do not fit into the Eurocentric understanding of what is 'human'. How else do we explain Balfour's 1917 arrogant assumption that the British could make decisions to create a Jewish state for European Jewry, without consultation with the indigenous population of Palestine? Therefore, the Palestine-Israel conflict is nothing more than a struggle between an affirmation and denial, and denial has prevailed. The Palestinians did not fit into the Eurocentric understanding of 'human', so their presence is obliterated in consequence. This same series of hermeneutic processes also controls the use of the word 'terrorism' and applies it selectively to this mysterious 'other', which is fanatical, violent and uncivilised. So when Noam Chomsky rightly points out that "when 'they' do it, it's terrorism; when 'we' do it, it's self-defence," it is because the prevailing discourse will not accept any other narrative.
This positional superiority and distorted representation can also be applied to the left-socialist perception that has constructed its own identity of 'Muslim' and assumes it speaks for all Muslims. So in the left case, Muslims are represented as silent, oppressed and victimised. They do not speak for themselves, because they are represented as such; they therefore need to be spoken for. All the left require is the token Muslim who will be mere background for their protest down Queen Street and the like - just in case their argument needs further reinforcement and legitimacy. Importantly, in both cases, 'Muslim' is treated as homogenous.
Additionally, the socialist left denigrate the struggles of the Muslim world to nothing but a class struggle. It sees the disenfranchised and impoverished as means to its own end. Therefore, the interdependency of history, political complexity, cultural dynamics and ongoing human struggle for liberation is reduced by being solely represented through a socialist ideological framework, simplified and made superficial - stripped of any narrative but a workers' struggle against capitalism. The different cultural context is removed, and so is the essence of identity for many of the region. Furthermore, Western ideas like Marxism, Enlightenment principles and so on are portrayed as 'universal' and dictate the narrative. In the end, we have both perceptions depicting the struggles of Muslims in so called 'universal' concepts and norms which are inherently Eurocentric.
Take, for example, the last chapter of " Israel: The Highjack state. America's watchdog in the Middle East" - a Socialist Worker pamphlet by John Rose. We see two common patterns: firstly, solely Western paradigms used to articulate the plight and struggle of the Palestinians. Throughout the chapter, it argues that socialism is more suitable and more just for those of the region. Secondly, what's interesting is it does not even consider another alternative offered by the people of the region. There is no consideration of what these people of a different culture, ideology, religion want. Therefore, Western alternatives are the only acceptable alternatives. In fact, any other is not even fathomable, due to a hegemonic acceptance of this idea of European superiority.
Granted, the left-socialist agenda is not sinister like its counterpart. However, both draw upon an Orientalist precedent that is seeping in racist and imperialist notions that disfigure representations of 'Muslim' in order to possess them. To own them. To direct them. To contain and therefore control them. Thereby both perceptions arrogantly assume they can speak for Muslims.
The Muhammad Cartoon fiasco not only demonstrated the racist understandings of the Muslim world across the political spectrum, but it also showed the dominant discourse working in multiple ways to undermine Muslims. Ostensibly, the argument for the preservation and protection of liberal ideals like 'freedom of speech' dominated. However, when miscellaneous Muslim groups reacted in various ways to the offence of depicting their prophet in a derogatory manner - whether it was through peaceful demonstrations or violence - little consideration was made of the fact that freedom of speech is not premised on definitive Eurocentric understandings, and it is seen, understood, and implemented differently depending on cultural and religious differences. Instead, Muslims were by and large criticised for not upholding the Eurocentric version of 'freedom of speech'. Not only did we witness a fallacious homogenous 'Muslim response' to the cartoons, but we also recognise the manipulation of 'Muslim' to fit into this particular context. Muslims en masse were directed on how to react, what they should consider offensive, and what is appropriate and acceptable behaviour. Furthermore, their reaction was contained and controlled by the media selectively covering the violent reactions of some Muslim crowds while ignoring the majority. Thus the identity of 'Muslim' was represented superficially and moulded to fit the situation.
Therefore, considering the historical imbalance of power, with the significant domination of Europe and America over many parts of what we now call the 'Third World' - and this case the Muslim world - the ideological and theoretical frameworks that 'we' have inherited from it to interpret, explain, and comprehend societies and the issues that arise from it need to be revised, because they originate from a tradition that legitimised the domination and oppression of others. Across the political spectrum, we can evidently see traces of this tradition manifesting in the ideologies of both the left- and right-wing perceptions and its 'solutions' for the social and political issues facing 'us' today. Until we recognise and move away from these paradigmatic traditions that justify and normalise inequalities and power relations - that can construct and deconstruct identities, humanise and dehumanise them whenever it suits them - we cannot possibly understand them to be alternative solutions, but merely a continued preservation of the past.
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Sahar Ghumkhor is a student from the University of Auckland.

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