The next US President and the Middle East

By Timothy Seidel
22 Oct 2008

Unfortunately, there is much in this US presidential campaign season that is predictable. From the constant tit-for-tat reactionary posturing by the major-party candidates to the seemingly paralyzed status of the US Congress that prevents our elected officials from doing anything substantive (like deal with real issues such as the plight of the millions of undocumented immigrants who continue to be terrorized in this country), this time every four years feels like one is watching reruns of a really bad sitcom.

And one piece of this spectacle that is sadly predictable is the predominant role of the Middle East in both of the major-party candidates’ rhetoric. The geopolitical dynamics and instability in that region makes it an important element of any US president’s foreign policy. From US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to ongoing hostility toward Iran and Syria, to the protracted conflict in Palestine-Israel, it is no surprise that the Middle East remains at the top of any US foreign policy discussion.

However, what is most disappointing is not only the lack of creativity or originality in either of the candidates’ stated positions on these issues but the persistent forms of chauvinistic nationalism and, yes, racism that dehumanizes Arabs and Muslims and taints any projected US engagement in the Middle East.

The late Palestinian-American scholar Edward spoke well to the function of and underlying pathology behind this task of dehumanization in his classic book Orientalism (Vintage, 1979), when he perceived the political and psychological deficiencies driving this project:

"Europe’s effort therefore was to maintain itself as Valery called “une machine puissante,” absorbing what it could from outside Europe, converting everything to its use, intellectually and materially, keeping the Orient selectively organized (or disorganized). Yet this could be done only through clarity of vision and analysis. Unless the Orient was seen for what it was, its power—military, material, spiritual—would sooner or later overwhelm Europe. The great colonial empires, great systems of systematic repression, existed to fend off this eventuality." (p.251)

Later, Said makes the point again:

"In newsreels or newsphotos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world." (p.287)

These fears, paranoias, and perceived threats from the Arab “other” have been, and continue to be, symptomatic to this task of dehumanization—a task that has played a fundamental role in the imperialist projects of our day:

"Since Islam has never easily been encompassed by the West politically—and certainly since World War II Arab nationalism has been a movement openly declaring its hostility to Western imperialism—the desire to assert intellectually satisfying things about Islam in retaliation increases…The result is an invidiously ideological portrait of 'us' and 'them.'" (p.299)

This subaltern reading of history and society is not dissimilar from the African-American writer Toni Morrison who once noted that throughout American history dilemmas have been worked out by the domestication of the black body—a “foil” for the white psyche.

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Vintage, 1992), Morrison discusses her investigation of what she calls “American Africanism,” and the ways in which “a nonwhite, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabrication served” (p.6). This construction, caricature, distortion reveals what is in essence a scapegoating of the black body, a means to contemplate “chaos and civilization.”

She uses the term “Africanism” for the “denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people” (p.6-7). Thus,

"Through the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom." (p.7)

In this manner, Morrison argues the centrality of “black” to the definition and identity of “white.” The contrast is necessary. And this is what Said was getting at in Orientalism. One cannot be the “free” or the “new” or the “pious” unless one is over and against another; thus the function of black to this burgeoning “New World.” “One can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americaness” (p.6).

Back to the future

And so, here we are again in 2008 with another presidential election. And the question must be posed: has anything changed? Of course, some things have changed. But has it happened to a degree that makes this campaign season any more notable or interesting than the last? Perhaps in some ways, given the diversity displayed in both of the major party tickets.

But the substantive historical and social realities remain the same and both Said’s and Morrison’s analyses remain spot-on. And that is: in order to maintain hegemonic power, a hegemonic discourse—with its accompanying symbols, images, and institutions—must be imposed that cannot allow those voices from the margins to be heard. This necessarily ahistorical rendering cannot include voices from the massacres in Deir Yassin, Jenin, or Fallujah, let alone voices from the genocide of the Americas or the horrors of the Middle Passage.

Yet tragically, it is only in the telling of these historical truths that are inseparable from present-day realities that we do justice to the past and the present that has been shaped and informed by that past.

How we understand and call forth our own histories here in the US will determine how well we engage the rest of the world, especially the Middle East. This is what we need to be hearing from anyone who would be president of the United States. That, in my mind, would not only be interesting but essential if we are truly seeking a peace born of truth and justice in this or any land.

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(c) Timothy Seidel works as Director for Peace and Justice Ministries with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) USA. He worked as a peace development worker with MCC in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 2004-2007 and was a contributing author to Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Cascadia Publishing, 2007).

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