*Frightfulness in Late Colonial India: Dyerism & the Aftermath of an Atrocity

Part III (Final Part) of The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

Gandhi would go on to describe “the crawling lane” as the site of a national humiliation.  Once the firing at the Jallianwala Bagh had stopped, Dyer did not stop to render aid to the wounded. He would later state that no one asked for his help and thus he moved on.  The city was under martial law, and what the British described as “disturbances” had rocked other parts of the Punjab. Demonstrators were strafed from the air: this initiated a new phase in colonial warfare, and George Orwell in a scintillating essay noted the corruption of the English language entailed in describing such brutal suppression as “pacification.”  O’Dwyer, who signaled his approval of the actions taken by Dyer in Amritsar, was quite certain that the Punjab had been saved from a dire situation which recalled the Rebellion of 1857-58.  Indeed, in the months ahead, the spectre of the Mutiny loomed over the prolific debates about the measures taken by the British to contain the disorders.

1919 was, however, not even remotely akin to 1857, if only because the Indian National Congress was now a formidable organization and, moreover, the British had failed to fully comprehend that politics had entered the phase of plebian protest.  Hundreds of people had been killed in cold blood, all because Dyer, by his own admission, had sought to “teach a lesson” to “wicked” Indians” and create a “wide impression” of the costs of defying lawful authority.  The idea of “fairness” and the notion that the British had instituted a regime of “law and order” that offered Indians deliverance from “despotism” had long been the principal pillars of colonial rule, and an inquiry into a massacre that threatened to stain the good name of the British was all but inevitable. It came in the form of the Disorders Inquiry Commission, presided over by Lord William Hunter of Scotland.  The Commission held hearings over several months, in Lahore, Amritsar, Gujranwala, and various other cities. Both O’Dwyer and Dyer chafed at this inquiry, and many Britishers in India resented the intrusion into Indian affairs from London.  The theory of “the man on the spot” was one of the cornerstones of colonial governmentality.  Dyer had been confronted with what he perceived to be a mutiny-like situation, and as the “man on the spot” he alone knew what was required to create a suitable effect.  Armchair politicians in Britain had no business to impugn the judgment of experienced officers.

HunterCommissionAmrtisarEvidence

Amritsar was one of the many cities in the Punjab, and elsewhere in India, where the Hunter Commission collected testimony. The Evidence ran into five volumes, published by the Government of India in 1920.

The “Punjab Disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history.  The Congress appointed its own committee of inquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Much as Indians such as Tilak, Nehru, and Gandhi had demonstrated their mastery of the courtroom, so the Congress showed that they had a command over the inquiry commission both as a form of governance and as a form of knowledge. Indian affairs had never drawn much interest in Parliament, but, quite unusually, the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and its aftermath were debated vigorously both in the Commons and among the Lords. Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu opened the proceedings in the Commons with the observation that Dyer had a reputation as an officer whose conduct was “gallant”.  Montagu was grateful for the service that Dyer had rendered to the Empire.  Nevertheless, an officer who justified his actions with the submission that he was prepared to inflict greater casualties if he had the means to do so from none other than a motive “to teach a moral lesson to the whole of the Punjab,” was guilty of engaging in “a doctrine of terrorism.”  Montagu went on to charge Dyer for “indulging in frightfulness.”  The grave import of this accusation would not have been lost on his fellow Parliamentarians:  “frightfulness” was the English rendering of schrecklichkeit, the word first used to describe the terrorism inflicted upon Belgian civilians by the German army in World War I.  That an English army officer should stand accused of pursuing the policies of militaristic Germans was an intolerable idea.

The rampant anti-Semitism of the English elite already made Montagu, a practicing Jew, a suspect figure, and his criticisms of Dyer did nothing to endear him to the General’s supporters and the defenders of the political authoritarianism associated with the Punjab tradition.  Conservatives charged the government with throwing Dyer to the wolves.  For every person prepared to critique Dyer, two stood forward to defend him.  The Hunter Commission had found him guilty only of an error in judgment, exercising excessive force, and having a somewhat mistaken conception of his duties.  Dyer nevertheless could not be permitted to continue in his position, and he was dismissed from the army, even if many senior officers in the Army Council demurred, at half-pay. All this was enough to outrage the English public, for whom, the same Orwell had once remarked, liberty was like the very air they breathed.  A hero had been unfairly maligned, and the Morning Post raised funds in support of “The Man Who Saved India.”  At its closing, the Fund amounted to over 26,000 Pounds, or a little over 1.1 million Pounds in today’s currency.  The “Butcher of Amritsar” went into luxurious retirement, though arteriosclerosis cut his life short.

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Tagore described the incident in a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood as “without parallel in the history of civilized governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.”  More than twenty years later, Udham Singh, who was 20 years old at the massacre, sneaked into Caxton Hall in London where O’Dwyer was attending a lecture and shot him dead with a revolver.  The day of reckoning that O’Dwyer had spoken of had come, if unexpectedly.  What most accounts occlude is a stunning little detail: when captured, and in subsequent police documents, Udham Singh gave his name as Mohamed Singh Azad, so to taunt the British whose entire Indian adventure had been tainted by their willful determination to characterize India as a land of eternal communal tensions.  And then there was Gandhi, who with his gift for neologisms coined the word “Dyerism” to signify the repressive apparatus of a state that bears no responsibility to its subjects. It was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the atrocities in the Punjab that, as Gandhi would describe at his trial in 1922, turned him from a “staunch loyalist” and “co-operator” to an “uncompromising disaffectionist” who was convinced that British rule had made “India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically.”

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Much has been made of the fact that during the debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill condemned the “slaughter” at the Jallianwala Bagh as an episode “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.”  Churchill of course had a way with words, and so he continued:  “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”  But by what measure do we describe the incident as “singular”?  As wartime Prime Minister two decades later, Churchill was not merely indifferent to the plight of millions in Bengal facing acute food shortages, but almost certainly precipitated with his callous policies a holocaust that led to the death of three million people. It barely suffices to say that if ever there was an incident of the pot calling the kettle black, this would be it:  the monstrosity of it is that Churchill, a dedicated racist his entire life, appears as the guardian of English virtues in this debate.  Dyer, on all accounts, remained unrepentant to the end of his life, but was Churchill ever afflicted by remorse?  It cannot be said that remorse is part of the story of the Jallianwala Bagh.  Remorse, it should be clear, is not part of the lexicon of any colonial state.

(concluded)

Parts I and III together appeared, in a slightly different version, as “100 Years Later:  The Many Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh” in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 April 1913), with some original artwork commissioned by the newspaper.  Access the article here.

For Part I of this blog essay, click here; for Part II on “The Crawling Lane”, which is not included in the Hindu version, click here.

*The “Crawling Lane”:  A Colonial Atrocity and Extreme Humiliation

Part II of “The Many Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh”

The incident of the Crawling Lane is usually noted in passing, often as a footnote to the ‘greater’ atrocity of the Jallianwala Bagh.  Some accounts of the massacre at the Bagh altogether omit any mention of what transpired on the Kucha Kaurianwala, a street that enters the historical record as the “Crawling Lane”. But it forms more than an unusual and especially revolting chapter in the annals of colonial atrocities, offering vivid insight into how humiliation features as a motive force in history.

CrawlingLane

Soldiers of the 25th Country of London Cyclist Batallion enforcing the ‘Crawling Order’: a contemporary photograph by an unidentified photographer.

Consequent to the arrest of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew on April 11, the crowds that had gathered together to voice their opposition to their arrest took matters into their own hands. That same day, Miss Marcella Sherwood, a Church of England missionary and a resident of Amritsar for over fifteen years, was unable to escape the wrath of the crowd.  As she was bicycling down the Kucha Kaurianwala, she was set upon by a crowd that knocked her down from her bicycle, and then delivered blows to her head with sticks.  Miss Sherwood rose to her feet, and had just started to run when she was again brought down by the force of the blows that struck her. On the subsequent attempt she reached a house but the door was slammed shut in her face.  She was again beaten and left on the street in a critical condition. The crowd then dispersed. Miss Sherwood was soon thereafter rescued:  an Indian doctor attended to her at Govindgarh fort, where European women and children were gathered together, and eventually Miss Sherwood was put on board a ship sailing for England.

For the next two days the city of Amritsar was quiet, but to the British it appeared that cry of revolution was resounding in other parts of the Punjab.  The massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh took place on April 13:  General Dyer had sought to create a ‘wide moral impression’ and cower the entire city into abject submission. Nevertheless, keeping in mind the staggering loss of lives, it is germane that many Indian nationalists such as Gandhi saw in the events following in the wake of the massacre yet a greater national humiliation.  On April 19, Dyer promulgated the so-called ‘crawling order’, which remained in effect until its revocation a week later.  A flogging booth was placed in the middle of the lane where Miss Sherwood fell, and both ends of the street—some 200 yards long—were manned by soldiers, who were entrusted with the task of enforcing the order that any Indian, the streets’ residents not excepted, who traversed it did so, to use the language employed by Dyer, ‘on all fours’.  Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to set straight the record, in a letter to the editor of The Bombay Chronicle that appeared on 6 October 1919, and after Gandhi had written on the “hands and knees” order, on what exactly constituted the ‘crawling order’: “The evidence of respectable citizens of Amritsar shows that people were made to crawl not on their hands and knees but on their bellies after the manner of snakes and worms.” Any infraction of the order was punished immediately with a number of lashes administered at the flogging post.  It is thought that around fifty people were compelled to undergo the indignity of crawling on their bellies.

PublicFloggingInAmrtisar

A public flogging in Amritsar, 1919.

“It seemed intolerable to me”, Dyer was later to write, “that some suitable punishment could not be meted out.  Civil law was at an end and I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case.” Testifying later before the official committee that began its deliberations on the Punjab disturbances more than six months after the incidents in question, Dyer stated that he “also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred.”  His primary motivation was to punish “the wicked”, and though he could have chosen any number of ways to implement his resolve, he “also” wanted to render the street “sacred”. But what could Dyer have meant in declaring his resolve to keep the street sacred?  And by what reasoning did he seek to uphold the idea of the sacred through the infliction of the gravest form of humiliation upon others?  Dyer claimed that he had fired at the Jallianwala Bagh to save lives: if the way to save lives is to kill people, then surely it is not inconceivable that the way to the sacred is through the treacherous path of the profane. Dyer’s action in keeping the street where Miss Sherwood was assaulted “sacred” cannot be reduced to an inversion characteristic of colonial discourse.

The Government of the Punjab, in its own report, depicts the assault on Miss Sherwood as the most dastardly act imaginable.  The crowd that pursued Miss Sherwood is said in the report to have raised cries of “Kill her, she is English.”  “The witnesses who are particularly good and have been entirely unshaken in cross-examination”, states the report, “prove that towards the end of the chase she was seized by Ahmad Din, who seized her dress and threw her down.  His brother, Jilla, pulled off her hat.”  Her assailants, let it be noted, are named as Muslims; her rescuers would be descried as “Hindus”:  perhaps another attempt, I am tempted to think, to sow division among Indians. Another man “caught her by her hair” and then struck her on the head with one of his shoes.  Here, quite unmistakably, one detects the spectre of the Rebellion of 1857-58: nothing had outraged English sentiments more than the assault on Englishwomen, though an inquiry initiated at the behest of the Viceroy, Lord Canning, in the aftermath of the Rebellion had established that no Englishwoman was subjected to sexual assault. Miss Sherwood was certainly at the mercy of her assaulters, and if nothing was more inaccessible to the Indian male than a white woman, here was a rare opportunity to make good that deficiency.  In the event, the “savage mob which had been shouting ‘Victory to Gandhi’ [and] ‘Victory to Kitchlew’ raised the cry ‘she is dead” and moved on. Then, several days later, Dyer inspected the spot where she “ultimately fell”, and ordered a “triangle”, or whipping post, to be set up at that spot.  Two British pickets were also posted, one at either end of the street, “with orders to allow no Indians to pass, [and] that if they had to pass they must go through on all fours.” In the more graphic language of the Congress Committee, “the process consisted in the persons laying flat on their bellies and crawling exactly like reptiles.”

To see what may have been running through his mind, and to surmise at the moral and political framework upon which Dyer was undoubtedly relying, we must turn to his letter of 25th August 1919 to his superiors, his letter of 3rd July 1920 to the War Office, his testimony before the Hunter Committee, and the findings of both the Hunter and Congress committees.  “A helpless woman had been mercilessly beaten,” wrote Dyer,  “in a most cruel manner, by a lot of dastardly cowards.”  She was beaten with “sticks and shoes” and knocked down several times.  “To be beaten with shoes”, Dyer wrote in his report of August 25th, “is considered by Indians to be the greatest insult”, and he admitted that it seemed “intolerable to [him] that some suitable punishment could not be meted out.” Dyer says, “I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case”, and suddenly he had this ‘brain-wave’. What could be more “suitable” than to make them crawl?  What could be more ‘natural’ than that for a human being, or at least a human being born and bred in an Oriental country?  Let us hear Dyer in his own words, and allow him that hearing that he, who fired upon a crowd without so much as issuing a warning, constantly complained of not receiving:

The order meant that the street should be regarded as holy ground,

and that, to mark this fact, no one was to traverse it except in a

manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the

East be traversed.  My object was not merely to impress the

inhabitants, but to appeal to their moral sense in a way which I

knew they would understand.  It is a small point, but in fact

‘crawling order’ is a misnomer; the order was to go down on all

fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation

to holy places.

To add to Dyer’s formal explanation of his order, we must consider also his evidence before the Hunter Committee.  “We look upon women as sacred or ought to”, he explained, and since the sacred had been rendered profane, the act of desecration would have to be undone.  Some readers of E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India (1924), may recall Mrs. Turton’s initial resolve to rally Englishwomen to the support of Miss Adela Quested, a younger English lady just arrived in India who imagines that she has been the victim of an Indian male’s irrepressible sexual lust:  Indian men, she states, “ought to crawl from here to the caves on their hands and knees whenever an Englishwoman’s in sight, they oughtn’t to be spoken to, they ought to be spat at, they ought to be ground into the dust . . .”  But let us return to our narrative: The profane, Dyer gives it has opinion, would have to be retransformed into the sacred:  “I also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred.  Therefore I did not want anybody to pass through it.” Woman, because she is sacred, evokes reverence and requires worship; reverence demands obeisance, the forms of which may vary from culture to culture; and since in the East “a place of special sanctity” is “naturally” traversed by going on all fours, on bended knees, or by crawling like a reptile, why not have the natives enact this transaction on ground recently consecrated as “sacred”, ground ‘holy’ by virtue of its association with a ‘holy’ person?

Miss Sherwood, an unmarried English woman, serving as a missionary and nurse, certainly did not represent motherhood, the citadel of sanctity, and to this extent she was no beacon of light showing women the way to a good, productive, and bountiful life; but she did stand for chastity, that other great ideal cherished by the Britisher as an ornament to womanhood, an ideal which particularly in a hot country of dangerous female sexuality stood to glorify the virtues of the European woman.   Here was a woman who, motivated only by the purest intentions, a servant to the ethic of tender caring, had devoted herself to the care and uplift of Indians.  And how did these ungrateful wretches reward her, except to shower her with beatings from shoes and sticks?  Imagining Miss Sherwood as a Virgin Mary or a Florence Nightingale, Dyer erected a monument to her chastity, and did so at the spot where she “ultimately fell”. Miss Sherwood survived her attack, but Dyer had already imagined her dead—thus we hear of the spot where she “ultimately fell” not just “fell”—and indeed her ‘martyrdom’ would have served him even better.

If we may speak of the architecture of holy spaces, then it is possible to speak of the “sacred street” as a Hindu temple, the whipping post as the sanctum sanctorum.  Before the deity the worshipper must grovel, reduce himself to zero, punish himself for his sins and excesses, make himself feel contemptible.  This is not the Hindu temple we know, but that is altogether beside the point, for we have only to think of the temple which Dyer had constructed in his “brain”, which as he says “at that time had a lot to do.” Dyer stated that “in fact ‘crawling order’ is a misnomer; the order was to go on all fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation to holy places.”  Here is not one claim, but several:  what Dyer is enumerating in respect of the terms of the order is really a fact, as contrasted to opinion, and therefore beyond dispute; secondly, whatever his critics may say, the natives understand him; thirdly, the natives at least would recognize the space he had consecrated as “holy ground; and, finally, the natives were only being asked to assume an “attitude” with which they were familiar, the familiar here being construed moreover as inoffensive.

The contention that both by nature and by custom the natives are used to such an attitude is particularly worth exploring.  Dyer argued that the street was not to be traversed “except in a manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the East be traversed.”  But why “naturally”—because by nature the Orientals assume an attitude of reverence and obsequiousness in a place of “special sanctity”, or because custom and habit have made the assumption of such an attitude natural?  It is quite likely that Dyer intended both the readings, but what is equally remarkable about both is Dyer assumption’s that he can penetrate the native mind, and even tell the native that he must live up to his nature and customs.  Habituated since time immemorial to despotic rule, the native accepts as “natural” a great many patterns of conduct entailing obsequiousness, loss of dignity, humiliation, indeed the effacement of self—conduct that no Englishman would tolerate.  ‘Civilized’ conduct was thus an affront to the native:  it contradicted his modes of thought and behavior, reversed the ‘natural’ order to which he was accustomed, and held out the threat of creating within him a turmoil from which he could seek no escape.

(to be concluded)

For Part I, click here.

For Part III, click here.

This essay is extracted, with minor modifications, from the author’s long article, “The Incident of the Crawling Lane:  Women in the Punjab Disturbances of 1919”, Genders 16 (Spring 1993), 35-60, which can be accessed from the author’s MANAS site.  Click here for the article (not a PDF version, however).

 

 

 

*The End of Empire: The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

I:  The “Event” and its Political Backdrop

(in multiple parts)

It has often been said that Britain lost its empire the day when, one hundred years ago, 55-year old Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, ordered firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of over 15,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.  The entrance to the Bagh was too narrow to admit two armoured cars with mounted machine guns that Dyer had brought with him; perhaps, to compensate for that shortcoming, Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest.  Dyer was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”:  women, men, and children were all legitimate targets, and at Dyer’s directions the troops deliberately aimed at those desperately seeking to clamber over the walls to safety.  Some people doubtless jumped into a deep well, and thus to their death, located at the northern end of the Bagh, on the other side of the Bazar Lakar Mandi. The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded.  As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men:  “Good shooting.”  The Sunday picnic was over, and the men could take pride in their training:  “We have done a jolly good thing.”

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Colonel Reginald Dyer (acting Brigadier-General), a veteran of Frontier warfare.

 

Spring was in the air:  April 13 was Baisakhi, and crowds from the city and adjoining countryside were milling around the Golden Temple and the vicinity.  But the days immediately preceding had been taxing, ridden with uncertainty and violence.  The end of World War I, to which ironically subjugated Indians had contributed with their own blood, brought forth not intimations of greater freedom but repression.  A Declaration by Secretary of State Edwin Montagu in August 1917 had provided more than a ray of hope to those Indians were still inclined to believe in the goodwill of the British.  It promised, in its most famous line, “Increasing association of Indians in every branch of administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.”  Montagu had just assumed office, and the British were still in need of India’s men and material wealth in support of the war.  Some might thus attribute the seemingly generous statement of intent on the part of the British to make Indians capable of self-government as resulting in equal parts from the naivety of a British politician who did not sufficiently appreciate the British resolve to hold India and from a stratagem to keep India involved in a war not at all of its making and in which it had no stakes as such.  The Montagu Declaration would be followed, in mid-1918, by the “Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms” which led to a minimal increase in Indian franchise and similarly a limited devolution of power to the central and provincial legislative councils.  Though British conservatives predictably railed against these concessions, the so-called liberal element in Indian politics grumbled that the reforms amounted to very little.  One might say that, as soon as the war was over, the British lion bared its fangs.  A committee appointed to inquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies headed by Justice Rowlatt recommended the suspension of civil liberties, and repressive legislation followed in quick succession.  The British resort to preventive detention in an attempt to squelch nationalist agitation was captured in the headlines of one Lahore newspaper with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.”

JalllianawalaBaghSimplicissimus

A rendering of the massacre by the German artist Eduard Thony from the German magazine Simplicissimus, January 21, 1920 issue (p. 615). From the Heidelberg Digital Library.

Mohandas Gandhi, who had returned to India from his twenty-year sojourn in South Africa four years ago, responded to the Rowlatt Acts with a call to the nation to observe a general hartal and so launched himself into national politics.  “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography, “observed a hartal on that day.  It was a most wonderful spectacle.”  In the Punjab, however, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer did not take kindly to the slightest expression of defiance of colonial authority and saw the “spectacle” as anything but “wonderful”.  He fancied himself a great upholder of the ‘Punjab tradition’, or the idea that ordinary Punjabis were simple folk without any interest in politics who had reposed their trust in the government and therefore deserved protection from corrupt urban-based nationalist Indians.  The iron hand of the colonial state had saved the Punjab from the “mutiny” of 1857-58 and its corrosive effects and the peasantry of this state, according the adherents of the ‘Punjab tradition’, expected the government to preserve “law and order.”  At a meeting of the Legislative Council in Lahore, O’Dwyer ridiculed the “recent puerile demonstrations against the Rowlatt Acts”, describing them as indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he ominously warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”

AmritsarStreetsApril1913

Amritsar, April 1913.

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length.  Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving betrayed the fact that truly stoked the anxiety of the British when, in a telegram to O’Dwyer on April 9, he described the Muslims and Hindus of Amritsar as having “united.”  The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity with the arrest and expulsion of two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, precipitating large demonstrations.  Twenty Indians died in police firings; British-owned banks were attacked by crowds.  Nothing infuriated the British more, however, than the assault on an Englishwoman, Marcia Sherwood:  she was badly beaten but saved by other Indians.  The white woman was nothing short of sacred, inviolable, ‘untouchable’ to the Indian.  The men of the ruling colonial elite perceived the loss of her dignity as an affront to them.  Their humiliation had to be avenged, and so it was:  the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted was sealed off and Indians had to crawl if they wished to make their way in or out of the lane.  A flogging post was set up to whip sense and discipline into those Indians who might think otherwise.

AmritsarIncidentsUnknownPhotographer

“The spot where Miss Sherwood was assaulted”, reads the caption on a photograph from that time. The photographer remains unidentified.

(to be continued)

*The Abrahamic Revelation and the Walls of Separation: A Few Thoughts on the  “Resolution” of the Palestinian-Israel Conflict

Fourth and Concluding Part of “Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine” 

As I argued in the last part of this essay, there is no gainsaying the fact that anti-Semitism remains rife among most Arab communities—and indeed among Christians in many parts of the world, as the attacks on synagogues, which have increased since the time that Mr. Trump assumed high office, amply demonstrate.  Nevertheless, it is equally the case that the charge of anti-Semitism has itself become a totalitarian form of stifling dissent and an attempt to enforce complete submissiveness to the ideology of Zionism.  On the geopolitical plane, the leadership (as it is called) of the United States, has done nothing to bring about an amicable resolution, even as the United States is construed as the peace-broker between Israel and the Palestinians.  Indeed, one might well ask if the United States is even remotely the right party to position itself as an arbiter, and not only for the all too obvious reason that its staunch and nakedly partisan support for Israel, punctuated only by a few homilies on the necessity of exercising restraint and Israel’s right to protect itself in the face of the gravest provocations, makes it unfit to insert itself into the conflict as a peacemaker. We have seen this all too often, most recently of course in the carnage let loose on the border last week as Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding and the Palestinians marked seventy years of the catastrophe that has befallen them: even as Israel was mowing down Palestinian youth and young men, most of them unarmed and some evidently shot in the back, the United States was applauding Israel for acting “with restraint”.

13 Falk cover

In an essay that Richard Falk wrote a few years ago at my invitation, entitled The Endless Search for a Just and Sustainable Peace: Palestine-Israel (2014), he advanced briefly an argument the implications of which, with respect to the conflict and its possible resolution, have never really been worked out.  Falk observed that the Abrahamic revelation, from which the two political theologies that inform this conflict have taken their birth, is predisposed towards violence and even an annihilationist outlook towards the other.   There is, in Regina M. Schwartz’s eloquently argued if little-known book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), an extended treatment of this subject, though I suspect that her view that monotheistic religions have an intrinsic predisposition towards exterminationist violence will all too easily and with little thought be countered by those eager to demonstrate that religions guided by the Abrahamic revelation scarcely have a monopoly on violence.  It has, for example, become a commonplace in certain strands of thinking in India to declare that nothing in the world equals the violence perpetrated in various idioms by upper-caste Hindus against lower-caste Hindus over the course of two millennia or more.  One could, quite plausibly, also argue that there is a long-strand of nonviolent thinking available within the Christian dispensation, commencing with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s injunctions towards nonviolent conduct in Romans and exemplified in our times by such dedicated practitioners of Christian nonviolence as A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, and the stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement, among them the Reverends M. L. King, James M. Lawson, and Fred Shuttleworth.

SchwartzCurseOfCain

Whatever one makes of the view that the political theologies that inform the Abrahamic revelation make a peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict an immense challenge to the ethical imagination, what is perhaps being tacitly expressed here is a serious reservation about the fitness of the United States, which evangelicals would like to have openly recognized as a land of Abrahamic revelation, to intervene in this debate. I would put it rather more strongly. The supposition that the United States, which has all too often harbored genocidal feelings towards others, and has been consistently committed, through the change of administrations over the last few decades, to the idea that it must remain the paramount global power, can now act equitably and wisely in bringing a just peace to the region must be challenged at every turn.  There is, as well, the equally profound question of whether there is anything within the national experience of the United States that allows it to consider such conflicts on a civilizational plane, not readily amenable to the nation-state framework and the rules that constitute normalized politics.Pa

Richard Falk sees, in the willingness of British government after decades of violence, arson, terrorist attacks, and a bitterness that surprised even those hardened by politics, to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a political entity some precedent for discussions that might lead to a framework for an equitable peace.  Assuming this to be the case, one must nevertheless be aware that all proposed solutions to the conflict are fraught with acute hazards.  Those who are inclined to see the conflict entirely or largely through the prism of religion have displayed little sensitivity to the idea that if religion repels frequently because of its exclusiveness it just as often attracts because of its potential inclusiveness. Those who look at the conflict entirely as a political matter will not concede what is palpably true, namely that the present practice of politics precludes possibilities of a just peace.  The advocates of the two-state solution, clearly in an overwhelming majority today, must know that if such a solution becomes reality, Palestine will be little more than a Bantustan.  Some may claim that even an impoverished, debilitated, and besieged but independent Palestine would be a better option for its subjects than the apartheid which circumscribes and demeans their lives today, but any such solution cannot be viewed as anything other than a surrender to the most debased notion of politics.

Israel should not be permitted to use the rantings of the Holocaust deniers, or the more severe anti-Semitic pronouncements of its detractors, as a foil for the equally implausible argument that the Palestinians are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  The greater majority of the Palestinian leaders and intellectuals, as many commentators have points out, have signaled their acceptance of the pre-1967 borders of Israel provided that Israel withdraws from the territory it has occupied since the 1967 war and displays a serious willingness to address the refugee problem.  In a more ideological vein, most Palestinians are reconciled to the idea that the Zionist project, originating in a desire to establish a Jewish state on Arab lands, is a fait accompli.  However equitable a political solution—and that, too, seems to be a remote possibility—the more fundamental questions to which the conflict gives rise are those which touch upon our ability to live with others who are presented to us as radically different, even if the notion of the ‘radical’ that is at stake here is only grounded in historical contingencies.  Living with others is never easy, and is not infrequently an unhappy, even traumatic, affair; but it is certainly the most challenging and humane way to check the impulse to gravitate towards outright discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and extermination.  “We cannot choose”, Hannah Arendt has written, “with whom we cohabit the world”, but Israel appears to have signified its choice, terrifyingly so, not only by the erection of the Separation Wall, but also by imposing a draconian regime of segregationist measures that reek of apartheid.  In so doing, it behooves Israel to recognize that victory is catastrophic for the vanquisher as much as defeat is catastrophic for the vanquished.

(concluded)

See also Part III, “Settlements, Judaization, and Anti-Semitism”

Part II, “A Vastly Unequal Struggle:  Palestine, Israel, and the Disequilibrium of Power”

Part I, “Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict”

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see: http://prosciencescope.com/fjerde-og-avsluttende-delen-av-bortvising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

*School Shootings, the Lockdown, and an Aside on Masculinity

Part II of The Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

Mass shootings have taken place at schools, university campuses, entertainment venues, nightclubs, churches, shopping complexes, and even army camps.  No venue is entirely safe; the gunman can strike anywhere and at any time of his choosing.  It is important to underscore the fact that the mass killer is overwhelmingly male.  Homicidal killings by women account for about 10-13% of the total in the United States, but mass shootings by women are even rarer.  Indeed, women account for less than 8% of homicides by firearms; when they do wield firearms, they seldom if ever carry assault or automatic rifles.  What passes for “research” these days will doubtless establish the fact that a majority of mass killers have been known to harbor considerable resentment towards women; among serial killers, who may be distinguished from mass killers, a considerable number in the United States have been known to target prostitutes.  One might argue that sex workers make for easier targets:  they are generally single, placed by the very nature of their work in compromising situations, and they may not be missed by family members or friends.  Their murder goes undetected for days, weeks, even months on some occasion.  We do not know what kind of funerals they receive, if any, and if mourners are present.  But this would be a benign reading of the serial killer’s fondness for sex workers as targets, since the serial killer is just as likely, and of course without any trace of irony, to see himself as an emissary of God sent to rid the world of sin and wickedness.  The sexual promiscuity of women is particularly bothersome to them.  Mass killers, for their part, are commonly described as sexually frustrated: a few, in recent killings, have even been found to hold to the view that they ought to have sexual rights to any number of women of their choosing.  Women, that is, owe them sex; or, to put it differently, the right to women is construed as their entitlement.

Though this aspect of mass shootings is infrequently mentioned in press reports, the profiles of mass killers point to the problem, which perhaps has not been adequately addressed by any civilization and remains the most potent locus of violence in the US, of masculinity.  It is not necessary, in ruminating about this matter, to entertain clichés about rifles as phallic objects, or, more persuasively, speak at length of the fondness of mass killers for heroic, military-style undertakings with assault rifles.  We are, and are not, in Dr. Strangelove universe:  our last scene need not be the cowboy astride the nuclear rocket, riding it to its climatic explosion in the enemy’s womb, but there is a ‘strange love’ that informs the mass killer’s worldview.  One of the more recent words to have insinuated its way into the English dictionary is incel, short for involuntary celibate.  The word describes the man who is celibate, but not by choice; his celibacy arises from the humiliating rejection to which he has been subjected by one or more women. It is these women who deny him the sex which he views as his unquestionable entitlement.  Incel is now more than a word, and is more akin to a movement—everything becomes a movement in the United States, for those who care to observe—with an arch priest, or a reigning philosopher.  It is not certain whether Nikolas Cruz was an incel, but the Santa Fe killer, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, appears to fall in that category.  One of his ten victims was a young 17-year old woman who, to cite media reports, “spurned” him repeatedly; according to her mother, the young woman “had four months of problems from this boy”, and “he kept making advances on her, and she repeatedly told him no.”

Survivors of shootings are always inclined to ask, ‘why me?’ The killer may strike anywhere and anyone at will:  there may be ‘signs’ that, in retrospect, that should have been noticed by parents, siblings, friends, school authorities, and others, but neither an uncanny ability to read signs nor sheer mindfulness can do anything to bring predictability to acts of terrorism.  That is one kind of arbitrariness; let me return, however, to the question of the school as a venue of mass shootings, even as the reader is urged to keep in mind that many other venues besides schools have been targeted by mass killers.  A shooting at a school has a poignancy that is all its own:  whatever the conceptions of childhood in a given culture, and howsoever traumatic childhood may have been rendered for some by warfare, street violence, or sexual abuse, some notion of the innocence of children persists across cultures.  A school, moreover, is a place of learning, and thus of growth and development; it carries with it the insignia of a sanctuary and a refuge from the storms of life.  The vulnerability of children is greater as they place their security and well-being in the hands of those who are empowered to act on their behalf.  It is for these reasons that school shootings seem particularly horrifying, even to those who have no children of their own, or who harbor no special affection for children.

SantaFeHighSchoolShooting

Santa Fe High School shooting, 18 May 2018. Source: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/santa-fe-high-school-shooting

A recent Washington Post study has established that since the school shooting on 20 April 1999 at Columbine, Ohio, where teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide, over 187,000 children have been caught in the hail of fire, or exposed to gun violence, across schools in the United States.  The study notes that shootings where there were no casualties, except to the perpetrators of violence, are excluded from the count; suicides are similarly excluded, as are shootings at schools and colleges.  According to the Post study, the shootings led to at least 130 deaths, and twice that number were injured; however, the study does not include, in its tally of those who were “exposed” to violence, a much greater number of school children who were informed by teachers that the school was going into “lockdown” since a threat had been received.  Reports of such lockdowns, when the anonymous tip of a threat turns out to be a hoax, make it to the local community newspaper, but no reasonable calculation of how students’ lives are upended can be made.

SchoolLockdown

An unannounced school lockdown drill conducted by Homeland Security, 2014.  Source: http://www.freedomsphoenix.com/News/152045-2014-03-15-homeland-security-conducts-unannounced-school-lockdown-drill.htm

On April 4th, to take one illustration, Menlo-Atherton High School, which is located in one of the country’s wealthiest districts, home to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and tycoons, went into lockdown in the late morning after Atherton police received a possible unspecified threat against the school.  A photograph of a 15-year old boy at the school brandishing a firearm was found on social media.  Students were sequestered in locked rooms and the lockdown was lifted two hours later.  This lockdown would not have come to my attention but for the fact that the daughter of someone who is very close to my family is a student at this school.  The incident did get reported in the local newspaper, though the day when such an incident does not get reported at all may not be very far into the future; indeed, had the school been located in a poor district, there is every likelihood that the school lockdown would not at all have been “news”.

 

(to be continued)

*The Passions of a March—and of Gun Culture

Note:  This essay was first written in the aftermath of a shooting at a Florida high school in February 2018 and what came to be known in its wake as “the gun control marches”, and was published in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) on May 5th.  The present, slightly revised, version has been precipitated by yet another shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18, which left two teachers and eight students dead, and another seventeen students wounded. The dead will be eulogized, and their pictures will be published; promises will be made about making American schools safe for children.  The premise of my article is that ‘gun control’ is a chimera in a culture where the gun holds an exalted place and has totemic significance.  While the gun control marches should not be trivialized as the gestures of naïve if idealistic young women and men, I also cautioned in my essay that it would be far too easy to overestimate their political salience in the political culture of the United States.   The notion of Texas as one of many trigger-happy places may be horribly cliched, but the studied and deliberate refusal to even call for gun control in Santa Fe, where the young and the old alike have turned to “prayer” in an effort to seek God’s guidance at a time of grave misfortune, shows far the United States has gone in embracing gun culture as the most characteristic expression of American identity.  In the last of the four or five parts of this essay, I shall argue briefly that the weaponization of prayer is itself a manifestation of an unbridled gun culture.

 (in four or five parts)

Part I:  A High School Shooting:  Fragments of Americana

On February 14, 19-year old Nikolas Cruz walked into his former high school in Parkland, Florida just before students were about to disperse for the day.  Cruz, a school dropout, proceeded to Building 12, a three-story structure that, on a typical day, would have held 900 students and some 20-30 teachers.  Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, Cruz commenced firing and choosing targets at random; he said not a word, nor is there anything to suggest that some provocation instigated him to act.  Six minutes later, he dropped his rifle and made good his escape by merging into the body of panic-stricken students fleeing for their lives.  Having done his work for the day, Cruz descended upon two iconic American fast food restaurants to satiate his thirst and hunger.  He apparently stopped at a Subway for soda, then wound up at McDonald’s, before being spotted by a police offer who took him into custody.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at Parkland is a story dripping in Americana.  Other societies have had an occasional mass killer, but the high-school dropout lends a particularly American touch to the story.  The college dropout may, on that comparatively rare occasion, turn out to be the proverbial genius; but the boy who fails to complete high school almost invariably signifies trouble.  Social workers like to point out that boys, in the US, are less likely to finish school than girls, and are far more likely to engage in what is termed “risky behavior”:  such behavior—the turn to crime, petty vandalism, over-indulgence in drugs, exceedingly fraught relationships with family members—is more often than not risky to one’s own life and well-being, but may also be risky, sometimes fatally so, to others.  Cruz, like others of his ilk, seems to have had few friends but a morbid fascination for guns.  In the characteristic language of the day used to describe people in his mold, he was apparently a “depressed loner” and was increasingly drawn to extremist views.

Though African Americans are, proportionately, implicated in more crimes than white people, mass killers in American society are almost always white.  The commentators who uniformly dwell on the “loner” generally fail to probe whether white people are far more prone to loneliness than black people, or why the white male American is more likely to wind up without a “community” that might succor and sustain him.  It is no over-statement to suggest that nearly every aspect of a uniquely American narrative around “the gun”—among others, the fanatical obsessiveness with a presumed constitutional right to ownership of firearms; the lure of the hunt; the gun shows at large convention centers; the recreational shooting ranges, where American pass their time much as one might at a picnic or a basketball game; the gun retailers spread throughout the country; and the place of the gun in the winning of the West—started with white people and remains overwhelmingly part of their universe, even if the gun has now passed down into other hands to sow terror in other communities.

GunShowSaratagaSprings2012

Gun Show in Saratoga Springs, New York, 2012.  Photography:  Ed Burke/Courtesy of The Saratogian.  Source:  National Public Radio.

Cruz’s weapon of choice in committing mass murder was the AR-15 rifle, sometimes known as the Colt AR-15 after the name of the famous gun manufacturer that took out a patent on it in the early 1960s before it lapsed in 1977.  Colt acquired the firearm from “ArmaLite Rifle”, the company which first developed the model:  thus the “AR”, which, contrary to common understanding, does not stand for “Assault Rifle” or “Automatic Rifle”.  The New York Times has described the rifle, a slightly modified form of which was used by Omar Mateen less than two years ago to mow down dozens of people at a gay nightclub in Orlando in what was then the largest mass shooting in the US, as “simultaneously, one of [the] most beloved and most vilified rifles in the country”. Its versatility is demonstrated by the fact that, with slight alterations, the US military turned it into a fully automatic assault weapon, and civilians can likewise personalize the rifle.  The National Rifle Association has noted that the “AR” is often mistaken for “assault rifle”, and it records with pride that the only true characterization of the acronym is “America’s Rifle”.  An estimated 10-12 million of such rifles are in private circulation in the US.

AR-15

Where else, then, but in America could Cruz have walked into a school building without being accosted by any guard, calmly taken out what is practically a military-grade assault rifle from a duffel bag, cut down many lives before casually casting aside his rifle, and then put a finish to a most satisfying afternoon with a visit to a fast-food restaurant?  In some countries, the state comes after innocent people:  in the Philippines, thousands of alleged drug dealers, and often just those who have dabbled with taking drugs, have been gunned down; the country’s President has himself presided over military-style executions, and has had himself photographed on more than one occasion with an assault weapon.  In Yemen and Syria, those charged with defending the nation have strafed their own populations from the air.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, suicide bombings, one fall-out of the American war on terror, have turned every street corner and every building into a possible booby-trap.  America does not need any of this:  it has its own form of terrorism, one which sends school children hunkering behind desks and closed doors for safety and compels institutions to go into “lockdown”.  A new debased vocabulary to match this terror has come into being:  in most large offices, university campuses, and government installations, “the active shooter drill” is now mandated for employees.  America has taken out the patent on every day gun violence.  Will it own up to this patent?

GunShowFlorida2016

Gun Show in Florida, at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium, June 2016.  Photo:  Sun Sentinel; source: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/fort-lauderdale/fl-gun-show-potential-assault-rifle-ban-lauderdale-20160625-story.html

(to be continued)

*Settlements, Judaization, and Anti-Semitism

Part III of Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine

IsraelMap

Map of Israel, West Bank, and Gaza.  Source;  londonbds.org

All occupations are brutal. The greater number of the Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 were shepherded into the narrow strip called Gaza. Israel’s first occupation of Gaza, in 1956, lasted about a year before Gaza was returned to the jurisdiction of Egypt.  The 1967 war was calamitous for Arabs:  among its other consequences, Gaza was reoccupied, and Israel only disengaged with Gaza in 2005. That would pave the way, the following year, for elections and the triumph, which took Israel and the West by surprise, of Hamas. For all of the American celebration of electoral sovereignty as the greatest possible outcome for any nation, the United States could not allow that Hamas had achieved an outcome that none had countenanced and few thought possible. Gaza has since been blockaded by Israel, Egypt—which borders Gaza to the south—and the United States, and the movement of people into and out of Gaza has been severely restricted over the course of the last decade.  There are graphic accounts of the implications of the blockade, in myriad respects: unemployment among young men runs exceedingly high, and Gaza may well be described as the largest open-air prison in the world.

Mideast Israel Palestinians

A Palestinian boy ferrying animals in a cage, Gaza City, January 2009.  Photo:  Ben Curtis/AP.

I said that all occupations are brutal, but Gaza and the West Bank, divided from each other by Israeli territory, have been subjected to a regime of political regimentation and surveillance that have immensely diminished the prospects for any genuine peace.  As those involved in progressive movements around the world have often witnessed, most ‘gains’ made by progressives and activists are more frequently than not just recovery of ground lost to the state; in such circumstances, even minor concessions gained after numerous rounds of negotiations seem noteworthy.  The settlements are a case in point:  every negotiation used to end with an assurance from Israel that settlements would be curbed, but some alleged act of commissions or omission on the part of the Palestinians, or more precisely Hamas—rocket attacks on Israel, the killing of an Israeli soldier, the attempted assassination of Israeli diplomats or consular officers—led to the abrogation of the agreement; by the time another agreement was negotiated a few years later, the settlements had further encroached on Palestinian land.  Lately, with the advent of the Trump administration in the US and its avowed defense of Israel, even the pretense of curbing settlements has all but been done away with.

The West Bank has a settler-only road network: here, if one were searching for it, is clear evidence of the apartheid structure of the Jewish state.  Prime Minister Netanyahu made no effort, when he inaugurated yet another settler-only road in January 2018 that is part of a system of by-pass roads that connect Judaea and Samaria in the occupied West Bank to the rest of Israel, to disguise this blatant violation of international law.  Of criminals it can be said that they generally act in the defiance of law, and almost always under cover; but of Netanyahu it can be said that he belongs to that smaller cohort of international outlaws who are brazen in the execution of their designs in open daylight. The settlers have, then, become a veritable state unto themselves, positioning themselves as the most formidable vanguard of Zionism.  Many commentators have spoken, as well, of the Judaization of Jerusalem, and of Israel’s designation of all of Jerusalem as part of sovereign Israeli territory in defiance of international law and opinion. Now, with the recent relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which did not initiate the latest round of resistance from Palestinians who have sought unsuccessfully to breach the border even as it greatly aggravated the situation, Israel is undoubtedly feeling even more emboldened to claim all of Jerusalem as its own rightful and ancestral territory.

To speak of Israel’s appropriation of Jerusalem in its entirety, in defiance of agreements that award the Palestinians joint sovereignty over the holy city, means less than we might imagine, if only because, as a rule, the insolent abrogation of international norms has characterized Israel’s conduct for decades.  Israel acts with the assurance that it has the patronage of Western powers; and the United States, in particular, can reliably be counted upon, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to veto UN resolutions critical of Israel.  Israel tirelessly projects itself, not without success considering the unstinting support it has received from the US and its other allies since its foundation, as an oasis of democracy in a desert of dictatorships and authoritarian states.  In the more colorful language of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel is “a villa in the jungle.”

ProtocolsOfZion

The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion.  The text was widely distributed across Europe and, of course, in the United States.

Such idolization of Israel, however, is scarcely the most egregious aspect of the problem:  not only does the US purport to be acting out of fairness, intent to demonstrate that it will not permit censure of Israel when other nations are similarly guilty, but the message is that criticisms of Israel are perforce animated by sentiments of anti-Semitism and therefore cannot be tolerated.  There is no question, of course, that anti-Semitism remains pervasive among various communities, not least Arabs and Palestinians, and Mahmoud Abbas has done his kinsmen no favors with his recent rants against Jews as the consistent targets of attack owing to their “social role related to usury and banks”. Abbas, in fact, has a long, troublesome, and inflammatory history of Holocaust denial dating back to at least his 1982 thesis where he purposed to address the secret links between Nazism and Zionism. As Gilbert Achcar, whose own critical investigations of Zionism are judicious and grounded in thoughtful scholarly work, has demonstrated, a wholly spurious and deeply offensive text such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has long animated many people in the Arab world.  Gamer Abdel-Nasser, who led Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970, recommended the Protocols enthusiastically in an interview given to an Indian journalist on 28 September 1958 with the observation that it proved “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that “three hundred Zionists”, all known to each other, governed “the fate of the European continent.” [See Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the HolocaustThe Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (New York:  Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2009), p. 206.] The Protocols make its appearance in Article 32 of Hamas’s charter, though numerous other articles—7, 15, 22, 31—are equally virulent in their expression of anti-Semitic sentiments.

(to be continued)

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see http://prosciencescope.com/del-iii-av-vising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

*A Vastly Unequal Struggle: Palestine, Israel, & the Disequilibrium of Power

Part II of Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  70 Years of the Palestinian Naqba  

The village in western Galilee where Mahmud Darwish was born was razed by Israel’s armed forces after the Jewish state came into existence and he lived, as many Palestinians have, in exile for the greater part of his life.  That displacement, occupation, and exodus is now seared into the memory of Palestinians as the nakba, ‘catastrophe’.  The Palestinians have today become the diasporic people that the Jews once were—that may be one of the more ironic elements of this convoluted narrative of displacement after displacement.  Jews in the twentieth century, facing not just another around of pogroms and anti-Semitism, but the prospect of their absolute elimination from lands where they had been often lodged in ghettoes and yet also integrated to varying degrees, resolved to ameliorate the historical conditions of their distress by dislodging the Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.  “My roots”, says Darwish, “were entrenched before the birth of time”.  But, of course, all three Abrahamic faiths claim Palestine as their ‘holy land’:  that, too, has perhaps brought the conflict into a wider public domain.  Thus, even as the conflict revolves centrally around the dialectic of displacement and home, one is compelled to probe further the meaning of home and equally of homelessness.  Now that the Jews claim to have been restored to their ancestral homeland, and have as a consequence defied the design of history which for centuries seemed to have bound their very identity to the condition of diasporic rootlessness, can we say that they are properly ‘at home’?  What is a home that is gained, some would say, at the expense of another’s home?  One may be at home and yet find that the home that one craved for repels as much as it attracts.

Mahmud Darwish

Mahmud Darwish.  Source:  https://arablit.org/2013/08/09/selected-works-on-the-5th-anniversary-of-mahmoud-darwishs-death/

Beyond all this, the conflict over Palestine disturbs even those who may be indisposed towards Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims because it presents harrowing images of the enormous disequilibrium of power between Israel and the Palestinians.  That disequilibrium of power has sharpened over the years, widening to an enormous gulf in the last two decades; but it was present at the outset, since the migration of Jews into Palestine in the 1930s, which began to alter the demographic composition of Palestine, and subsequently the very foundation of the Jewish state of Israel, were both facilitated by British arms.  Then, as now, the Palestinians were left to fend for themselves.  In the most recent round of protests, in anticipation of the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel as well as the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, this immense chasm between Israel and Palestinian protestors has yet again been glaringly evident.  While Israeli soldiers snuff out Palestinian lives at will, deploying the arsenal that a well-armed nation-state can draw upon, Palestinians can only respond with burning tires, sling shots, and other contrivances that suggest extraordinary ingenuity on their part as much an awareness that the odds are stacked against them.

Palestinian protesters throw stones towards Israeli policemen during clashes in the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud

Photo Credits:  Reuters/Ammar Awad.

Naturally, Israel contests any such representation of the conflict, pointing to the frequent rocket attacks against the Jewish state launched by Hamas, or even to the stalemate forced by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, to suggest that it is not the invincible military machine that it is made out to be by its detractors around the world.  Lately, under Netanyahu, the swagger with which Israel acts has intensified, but even now, after repulsing one contingent of Palestinian demonstrators after another determined to breach the fenced border between Gaza and Israel, the claim that Israel remains forever vulnerable to attacks by Hamas or young men who have been initiated into violence not simply persists but has become the linchpin of Israeli self-aggrandizement.  After the humiliating defeat of the Americans by the rice-eating Vietnamese, a possibility that would have shocked Montesquieu and many other proponents of the idea that the world might reasonably be divided into consumers of wheat, potatoes, and rice, each set of people marked by indelible signs of manliness or effeminacy, there is certainly reason to believe that sheer technological prowess does not necessarily confer victory.  Nevertheless, as I have already argued, there is no gainsaying the fact that the conflict presents a hugely disproportionate allocation of technological resources, pitting Israel’s advanced fighter jets against the stone-throwing boys who perhaps gave the intifada its most enduring image.

If all this were not enough to lend the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians a particular poignancy, the occupation of the Palestinian territories, now having crossed the five decade mark, is nearly singular in its length, intensity, and normalization of the experience of humiliation.  Numerous political manifestos, not only those issued by the leaders of al-Qaeda, have called for the liberation of various Muslim lands now under the ‘occupation’ of the infidel, and Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Chechnya have been mentioned in the same breath by those who argue that there is a global ‘war on Islam’, but there is little question that these struggles for self-determination are far from being similar.  Portions of India, not just Kashmir, are in fact among the most militarized zones in the world, and the inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley have not infrequently had to live under curfew.  The Kashmir Valley has certainly seen its share of strikes, lockdowns, ‘disappearances’, house-to-house searches, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation of common people by the state and non-state actors alike, but it is doubtful that daily life at all presents the humiliations and dangers that are now terrifyingly common in the Palestinian territories.  The distinguished scholar of Indian languages, literatures, and religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, David Shulman, who is also an activist in the ranks of Ta‘ayush, an Arab-Jewish Partnership, states candidly in the introduction to his chronicle of peace activism that “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is unacceptable, illegal, and ultimately self-destructive.  Yet I am not one of those who think that what has happened here is entirely our fault.  The ‘other side’, as it is called, is also staggering under a burden of folly and crime.  Neither side has a monopoly on right or, for that matter, wrong. There is much harshness and suffering everywhere” [Dark HopeWorking for Peace in Israel and Palestine (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2007)].

But Shulman, shaped perhaps by his reading of the Hebrew scriptures, the Koran, and myriad Indian religious texts, and recognizing that the onus lies on the stronger side to take the bolder initiatives and show the generosity without which strength is revealed to be merely brute force, is constrained to admit that over the last four decades, “destructive elements [in Israeli society] have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise.” These individuals “have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.”  The book itself catalogues, sometimes in chilling detail, the crimes of the settlers and their state sponsors: one is not likely to forget soon the account of the rat poison scattered over Palestinian fields, with an aim all too clear:  “to kill the herds of goat and sheep, the backbone of the cave dwellers’ subsistence economy in this harsh terrain, and thus to force them off the land.”

(to be continued)

For a translation of this article into Norwegian by Lars Olden, see:  http://prosciencescope.com/del-ii-av-vising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-70-ar-av-palestinske-naqba/

*South Asians, Muslim Americans, and the Politics of Identity

Fourth of four parts of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

 In the week following the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the non-profit advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which aims for a “more just and inclusive society in the United States”, recorded 645 hate crimes against South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  The FBI in its annual survey of hate crimes recorded a lower number of “hate crimes” targeting “people of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, and South Asians”, while conceding that the attacks had spiraled from “just 28” in 2000 to 481 in 2001.  In all likelihood, many more such crimes went unreported.  Not one of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks was of South Asian origin; indeed, fifteen of the hijackers were citizens of just one country, Saudi Arabia.  On the morning of September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man from Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead in front of his gas station.  His killer, Frank Roque, had reportedly told his friends the previous day that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”  As he was being arrested the day following the shooting, Roque shouted, “I am a patriot!  I stand for America all the way!” Roque saw only a bearded and turbaned man in front of him; he “mistook” him for a Middle Easterner, an Osama-look alike.  In a lighter moment, had the outcome not been so tragic, I would have said that Roque reminded me of the man, made famous by the late Oliver Sacks, who mistook his wife for a hat. Sodhi would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim in the United States of a retaliatory hate crime after the September 11th bombings, but he would not be the last Sikh who would be at the receiving end of a hate-filled rampage.  In August 2012, the white supremacist and former US army soldier Wade Michael Page would kill six Sikhs before turning the gun upon himself at the Sikh Gurdwara, or house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Just weeks into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, and shortly after an Executive Order popularly dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ was issued, the Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who worked for a GPS navigation and communications device company, was shot dead at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by a Navy veteran, Adam W. Purinton.  His companion and fellow Indian, Alok Madasani, escaped with a slight bullet injury.  Kuchibhotla would become the first victim in the country whose death might justly be described as having been precipitated by Trump’s Executive Order, which, among other things, barred the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.  The killer, the New York Times reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States”; more pointedly, according to Madasani, Purinton inquired, most unusually, into their visa status before returning a short time later to shoot at them directly.  Witnesses stated that they heard Purinton shout, “Get out of my country”, before he opened fire on the two Indians.  At an Applebee’s restaurant in nearby Clinton, Missouri, where Purinton would be apprehended some hours after the shooting, he told the bartender, according to a Washington Post article, that he had shot dead two “Middle Eastern” men. At the other end of the world, in India, the Hindustan Times did not hesitate to venture forth with the opinion that “Kuchibhotla is possibly the first casualty of the religious, racial and ethnic divisiveness that has swept the US following the election of President Donald Trump, with minorities such as Jews and Muslims reporting a surge in attacks on them and their institutions.”

Iran, India, Iraq:  they’re all the same anyhow.  Their names sound alike.  The assassin sees no difference.  Three countries that lie east of the Suez Canal, some would be so bold to say east of civilization, and they just seem to elide into each other.  Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Jain, Vaishnava, Shaivite, Buddhist, Nichiren, Parsi, Sufi, Alawite, Sikh:  in the vast archipelago of ignorance, differences are easily smothered.   Some South Asian Americans, in the wake of both the September 11th attacks and the short-lived inception of the “Muslim Ban”, might have been tempted into taking comfort from their identity and assumed that they would not be the targets of white rage. Perhaps many thought that they could be mere bystanders, if unwilling ones, to the slug-fest between Islam and the West.  But they have, time and again, been rudely awoken to the fact that their identity will not be their salvation.  Every brown-skinned person is perforce a Muslim—at least for now. It is not only American Muslims, of course, who have historically had to confront racial discrimination and xenophobic outrage, but Islam perhaps generates anxieties in the Christian West, and in Anglo-Saxon America, that are distinct.  Christianity and Islam are uniquely the two proselytizing religions; they are in competition with each other from the eschatological standpoint, trying to save souls and winning converts.

The Christian West’s anxieties over Islam have now become everyone’s anxieties.  South Asian Americans and Arab Americans; Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs:  they are all subjects of a surveillance regime.  That may be one reason why Muslim Americans should perhaps be welcomed under the ambit of ‘Asian Americans’.  “Within National Security Studies,” Moustafa Bayoumi explains, “we can see the U.S. government is already establishing an infrastructure to study Muslims and Muslim Americans, and I don’t want to be studied solely by the government.  The study of Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans must be critical work that is decoupled from an exclusive National Security lens, and which ought to be performed primarily by people who have connections to the grassroots and with also a social justice agenda attached.”[vi] I understand the spirit in which Bayoumi asserts that he “doesn’t want to be studied solely by the government”:  he knows for a fact that the likes of him and me will be studied, and if that is to happen, the state and its functionaries should not monopolize the narrative by which both of us are defined.  Of course, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, Bayoumi cannot but know that the parties that have been complicit in Orientalism—and now there is “National Security Studies”—extend well beyond the state to the academy, experts, policy institutes, the corporatized media, and a great many more people who represent the sinews of power.  Does one want to be studied at all?

Whatever the bizarrely-worded “War on Terror” means, it has necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the assumptions about identity, security, and the state. Bayoumi’s plea that the imperatives of the National Security State should not be permitted to influence the study of Muslim Americans can be justifiably extended to other areas of scholarly inquiry and academic research. That, however, is the subject for a much longer deliberation; but perhaps what can be said is that the implications of his plea and critique need to be pursued in at least one further respect.  Much has been written by scholars about the origins of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It would not be untrue to say that, fifty years after these initiatives were launched, most students and even many mature scholars still derive their politics from their identity. The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has shown that is unequivocally the case for most white Americans as well, not only for hyphenated-Americans. The American university, unfortunately, has done very little if anything that would enable us to look forward to the day when most students and scholars will derive their identity from their politics.

(concluded)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

*Indian Muslims:  What Place for Them in Political Discourse and Asian American Studies?

Part Three of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

The Hindu nationalists whose writ runs large in much of India today have amply demonstrated that Islamic extremists are scarcely alone in their vicious instrumentalization of religion to political ends.  And India is by far from being the only example of a country where the virulent disease of nationalism has brought what are called “strong” men into power and emboldened their followers, who more often than not exhibit extreme forms of xenophobic conduct, to terrorize and intimidate political opponents as well as those who are, on one account or another, deemed alien to the nation.  In the United States, at least, evangelical Christianity has played a considerable if understated role in stoking the fires of xenophobic nationalism.

 

It is, however, the subject of Islam and American Muslims with which I would like to stay as I turn my attention from Pakistani Muslims to Indian Muslims.  What these days is termed the “radicalization” of Muslims is increasingly on display in India as well, and both the indifference of the state to the marginalization of Muslims, as well as the provocations to which they are subjected by belligerent Hindus, are likely to accentuate the trend toward such “radicalization”.  Kashmir is often pointed to as the most blatant example of the marginalization of the Indian Muslim, and Kashmir has long appeared in the manifestos of radical jihadi groups as among those Muslim-predominant places that need to be liberated from the rule of the infidel.

 

Nevertheless, as many commentators in and outside India have noted, Indian Muslims themselves have remained strikingly unreceptive to calls to global jihad.  More Muslims have been enlisted in various Islamic terrorist organizations from Britain, where they number in the vicinity of 3 million, than from all of India.  “India, with 180 million Muslims, has produced almost no jihadis.”  So ran a recent headline in the Indian Express, a major English-language daily, which continues in this vein:  “Muslims here see stake in political system.”  If one is perhaps inclined to dismiss such a view as propaganda from an Indian publication, we may consider that the stodgy and highly respected The Economist, which cannot be accused of being partial to India, ran an article in 2014 entitled, “Why India’s Muslims are so Moderate.”  While noting that “India’s Muslims generally have reasons for some gloom”, enduring, for example, lower levels of education, poorer employment prospects, and diminished representation in government jobs in comparison with Hindus, the article also highlights the repudiation of violence across a broad swathe of Indian Muslim communities and their engagement with members of other religions.  “The contrast with the sectarian bloodletting, growing radicalism and deepening conservatism in Pakistan next door”, states the author, “is striking.”  This is much the same conclusion reached by the New York Times correspondent who shortly thereafter wrote on “Why India’s Muslims Haven’t Radicalized.”

 

I am aware, I think, as much as anyone else of how much of the present political discourse has pivoted around the ‘Good Muslim’ vs. ‘Bad Muslim’, or around the ‘extremist Muslim’ vs. the ‘moderate Muslim’.  So, I am cognizant of the perils of such discourse, and likewise of how the ‘Good Muslim’ is really a cloak for anti-Muslim sentiment that cares not to reveal itself as such.  There is, for those who decry or lament the very presence of Islam in their midst, some capital to be derived from speaking of the ‘Good Muslim’ with approbation.  The discourse of the ‘Bad Muslim’ is, in the present political climate, here to stay: the question is whether we might derive a different kind of politics from the figure of the Muslim who is not merely an object to be appropriated into the framework of a conservative or liberal politics.

 

The anomalous figure of the Indian Muslim in contemporary politics to which I have adverted thus deserves much greater attention than anyone has been lavished on him thus far.  One would not know any of this from a reading of contemporary Western ‘authorities’ on the politics of Muslim societies.  Gilles Keppel’s The War for Muslim Minds:  Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004), makes absolutely no reference to India:  apparently, on this, rather not uncommon reading, India partakes neither of the West nor of Islam and thus has no say or investment in this matter. I fear similarly that when “Muslim Americans” are invoked, it is a certain kind of Muslim, the supposedly “authentic” Muslim who is of ‘Middle Eastern’ provenance, who is generally being brought to mind.  There is little if any cognizance of just who these Muslim Americans are and very little acknowledgement that they are the inheritors of a great many different, and often conflicting, traditions and histories.

Early_American_Ahmadis

Early converts to the Ahmadiyya movement. Two missionaries, Sufi Bengalee and Khalil Nasir, are sitting at the center.  Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmadiyya_in_the_United_States

 

Ten percent of the Asian Indian population of around four million in the US is comprised of Muslims, though there is virtually no mention of them in the voluminous commentary on Muslims that appears in the press every day.  If they are to any degree representative of the strands of Indian Islam to which I have very briefly alluded, should we say that they are perhaps uniquely positioned to mediate between Asian Americans and Muslim Americans, as well as between Muslim Americans and American society at large?  While Moustafa Bayoumi’s attempt to briefly complicate the history of Muslim Americans is commendable, and he is entirely right that “Muslim Americans” are not just a “post-2001 population”, South Asian Muslims appear nowhere in his commentary.  Consider this:  if we are to speak of the beginnings of organized Islam in the United States, and the possibilities of multiracial coalitions between South Asians, Arabs, and American Muslims, how can we possibly overlook—as he does—the role of Ahmadiyya preachers, who had arrived in the US in the 1920s from what was then undivided India, in giving Islam in the US a new lease of life and in overcoming, as Junaid Rana has put it trenchantly, “racial and ethnic separation that existed not only in the Muslim community, but the U.S. and globally”? (See “Islam and Black America:  The Story of Islamophobia”, Souls 9, no. 2 (April-June 2007), 156.)

(To be continued)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV,  see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/