On Nationalism and the Middle East

After writing my last piece on the Mohammed Cartoon issue, I did promise myself I’d stay off the issue of Middle Eastern regional politics until I’d more clearly formulated my thoughts into an essay on anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and the realpolitik of the region but – and isn’t there inevitably a but – that was before I spotted this post from Adloyada, which quite neatly encapsulates some of the issues I’m trying to get my head around.

As i see it, one of main barriers not just to unpicking the complex political situation in the Middle East but even just to start to understand its complexities is the near persistant demands on all sides that one has to take sides; that one can only come at this issue from either a pro-Western and certainly pro-Israeli perspective or from a pro-Islam point of view – not only is there no middle ground for fence sitters but no acceptance that one can take of view of Middle-Eatern politics as a disinterested observer, nor attempt to find a rational understanding of this issues which sees there to be rights and wrongs on both sides.

In short, the parameters of the general debate follow a pattern of ‘nationalism’ in the broad sense of the term outlined by Orwell in his 1945 essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ and takes place in context where one can clearly see the characteristic of Nationalism that Orwell identified clearly at work.

To illustrate what I mean here for those who’re unfamiliar with this essay, Orwell identifies three principle characteristics of nationalism which he views as ‘mental habits which are common to all forms of nationalism’ of which two are particularly pertinent to the politics of the region; these being:

Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything other than the superiority of their own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organisation, fills him with uneasiness which he can only relieve by making some sharp retort

And…

Indifference to reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.

I note this because what ‘attracted’ my attention to Adloyada’s post is the manner in which she takes a fairly straightforward leader from today’s Guardian and introduces her own bias into the interpretation of its meaning as she presents it on her blog; that in it she sees what she expects to see and not what is really there.

I note this as an observation and not a criticism of Adloyada’s views; this is not about trying to prove that she’s wrong or misguided in her comments, it merely serve to demonstrate that as a Jewish blogger addressing a matter in which she has some degree of personal investment she is naturally and quite understandably biased in her opinions in much the same way that a Muslim blogger will naturally exhibit a degree of bias in their assessment of the recent controversy regarding the ‘Mohammed cartoons’. Bias of this kind, is after all, only natural – it’s part of human nature to biased and rarely, if ever, can one approach any political issue in a way that is entirely value-free – what is important is not that one of necessarily free of bias but rather that one is conscious of one’s own biases.

The point of contention on which Adloyada alights in this leader lies in this passage:

At a time of high tension between the western and Muslim worlds over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad – one inflammatory response has been a call for jihad against Israel – cool heads and an attempt to de-escalate would be helpful. Of the many issues where these worlds come into conflict, the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians would be a good place – though not the easiest – to make a start.

…which forms part of a fairly general overview of the current ‘state of play’ in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’, the main intention of which is to applaude the decision of interim Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmet, to approve the transfer of monies due to the Palestinian Authority, seeing this a small but important concession to the need to keep some sort of ‘peace process’ on track even in the face of a newly Hamas-controlled Palestinian ‘government’.

And as disinterested observer, this seems an innocuous enough observation.

With tensions running high as a result of the articificially induced furore over the ‘Mohammed Cartoons’, the Guardian puts forward the view that a little of self-restraint on the part of Israel would be welcome in the face of obvious and rather stupid provocation ranging from the near obligatory call for a jihad against Israel which crops any time the West succeeds in pissing off Islamic fundamentalists – whether it has anything to do with Israel or not – to the rather childish response, which the Guardian does not reference in this piece, of Iranian newspapers running a competition for cartoons ‘satirising’ the holocaust and, of course, that other favorite of the idiot tendancy, the old ‘Jews are controlling the media’ line.

And to this the Graun adds the time-honoured observation that, in the wider context of Middle-Eastern politics and the multiplicity of tensions that exist between the West and the Islamic world, some small measure of progress and a conscious effort to de-escalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians would make for staring point for improving the overall situation.

What the Guardian certainly isn’t doing here, to my mind, is ‘[urging the] Jewish state to make amends for Muslim-Christian cartoon furore’, which, with a slight paraphrase there, is the title of Adloyada’s own piece – and on a semantic point, nor does the Guardian makes use of the word ‘Jew’ or any of its derivations or refer to Israel as ‘the Jewish state’.

In fact, other that in its reference to ‘a time of high tension between the western and Muslim worlds’ and its reference to Hamas as ‘the Islamic Resistance Movement’ which it capitalises to show that this a title adopted by Hamas and not a characterisation of that organisation applied by the newspaper, the Guardian studiously avoids any references to religion, sticking strictly to political nomenclature; i.e. ‘Israel’, ‘Palestinian’, etc.

Straight away, what Adloyada is doing is shifting emphasis and context in order to connect herself – and her views that follow – clearly and uneqivocally with her own ‘power unit’, to use Orwell’s terms.

She is also, by redefining the issue in religious rather than purely geo-political terms, including the vast majority of Jews – nearly two thirds of the global Jewish population – who don’t live in Israel in this discussion. The call she sends out here is not just to that portion of her own power unit that actually lives in Israel and which is, therefore, most intimately connected to the issues that the Guardian raises, but the totality of that power unit as it exists across the globe – quite literally what we have here is ‘one for all and all for one’.

Moving on to her actual comments, she begins by very effectively demonising the point on which she takes issue with the Guardian’s comments:

It was Saddam Hussein who initially, and very successfully, used the strategy of linkage to counter universal hostility to his invasion of Kuwait by gratuitously insisting that any question of withdrawal on Iraq’s part had to be linked to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Today we have a leader in The Guardian calling for Israel to take responsibility for settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in order to defuse what it calls “high tension between the western and Muslim worlds over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed”.

Now what did the Guardian actually say?

At a time of high tension between the western and Muslim worlds over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad… cool heads and an attempt to de-escalate would be helpful.

In short, things are a bit sticky at the moment so right about now we could do with Israel making an effort not to make things any worse, and…

Of the many issues where these worlds come into conflict, the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians would be a good place – though not the easiest – to make a start.

or… ‘We really quite like Israel to be the good guys here and maybe wave a bit of an olive branch in the general direction of the Palestinians’.

If there is a link here between the two issues – the Mohammed cartoons and the general state of play between Israel and the Palestinians – that link is by no means of a similar character to the kind used by Saddam Hussein to counter hostility towards his invasion of Kuwait.

For one thing, there is a clear inference in the Guardian’s comments that in its estimation of what constitutes ‘them and us’, Israel firmly belongs with ‘us’ as part of the ‘western world’ in this conflict.

Moreover, a call for self-restraint in the face of provocation coupled with the view that some small effort to make progress in finding a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict falls a hell of long way short of ‘calling for Israel to take responsibility for settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute’ and the juxtaposition of such a comment with a reference to current tensions with the Islamic world arising out of the cartoon issue in no way suggests that Israel should settle its difference specifically “to defuse what it calls “high tension between the western and Muslim worlds over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed”.

Quite why Adloyada should overdramatise the nature of the Guardian’s comments is made clear a little later on in her article, on commenting that:

Whilst helpfully pointing out that “one inflammatory response has been a call for jihad against Israel”, the Guardian doesn’t feel the need to present this as not just inflammatory, but completely gratuitous and irrational. It doesn’t feel the need to point out that the “high tension” is actually a highly organized series of increasingly threatening, vandalistic and even lethal demonstrations and state actions by what are arguably unrepresentative groups of Muslims.

The core of the ‘problem’ here, such as it is, is not that the Guardian is making an unwarranted link between the issue of the ‘Mohammed cartoons’ and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rather that been neither clear enough nor unequivocal enough in its condemnation of Muslim ‘threats’ against, and insults towards, Israel in the aftermath of the cartoon issue. Within the nationalist mindset there is no such thing as an ‘unbiased’ opinion nor indeed is one permitted to see both sides of the dispute. Neutrality and impartiality are not an option – you are either for them or you are against them and any sign of equivocation, in the worst cases, is taken as siding with ‘the enemy’.

This monochromatic view of the world is most clearly on display in Adloyada’s penultimate comments:

There is no shortage of Muslim bloggers who, while finding the cartoons offensive, have exposed and condemned what they see as opportunist and manufactured rage by unrepresentative groups of extremist Islamists and allied states with agendas.

So if they don’t see any need to link this to any issue about Israel, and only Iran and the most extremist Islamist groups do, why does the Guardian feel it needs to do so?

One can almost feel the cognitive disjunction at work here – ‘even Muslims are siding with us on this one, so why are you siding with the enemy? You should be on our side!’.

I really don’t mean any of this to seem disparaging of Adloyada’s views. I don’t accept her interpretation of the Guardian’s leader, clearly, but neither do I condemn her interpretation, wrong though I think it is – she writes from a particular and very specific perspective, one that I can understand even though it is not one that that I share.

Nor indeed am I in any way suggesting that this is somehow a Jewish ‘thing’ – it most certainly isn’t, although I think it fair to say that I pretty much expect to take some flak over this article somewhere along the line on basis that having made use of Adloyada’s comments to illustrate the general point I wanted to make about the nature of ‘nationalistic’ bias, no doubt there will be some ardent supporters of Israel who see that as ‘siding with the ememy. One find these same nationalistic biases wherever one looks – in the Islamic world, in politics – the main thread of the pro-war/anti-war left slanging match that’s been going on for at least the last couple of years is almost entirely nationalistic in tone and execution on both sides of the argument.

Orwell defined a problem, sixty years ago, which remains firmly at the heart of the majority of contemporary disputes and which, in turn, remains as unhelpful as it was in his day and for the same basic reason, because nationalism is and always was the enemy of reason and rationality – and without reason and rationality, solutions to conflicts such as that which continues between Israel and the Palestinian and that which is growing between the West and the Islamic world will remain as elusive as ever.

And that, is really the point that I wanted to make.

  • An excellent post. You are at pains to be even-handed in the construction of your argument and it’s very well done.

    I was particularly interested in your parallel with the tunnel vision and blind allegiance issue in the pro/anti war divide.

    I was against the invasion of Iraq, and have therefore been described (by Nick Cohen, amongst others – not directly obviously!) as a Trotskyite pro-islamofascist. This is, to put it mildly, somewhat distant from my real position. It also allows Cohen and other commentators to avoid dealing with the various (I would say more reasoned, but then I would!) arguments against the war.

    Conversely, anti war types who don’t recognise the useful stuff some pro-war leftists are saying about nation building in the wake of the war is infuriating.

    There is a thin line between the blind “power unit” nationalism of ideas and defending your beliefs and this post goes some of the way in defining where it is.

  • Are the jihadists really upset because it was just a little old timey bomb depicted in Mohammeds turbin instead of a real nuke like the “Christian” nations have?

    As an American artist, should I depict Jesus with a nuke protruding out of his cloak?

  • Admas

    I think the key issue is the subtle, omnipresent refusal to completely categorise the discussed brand of Islamist ideology as unjustifiable; the constant need (particularly amongst Western liberals) to point to some legitimacy in the ideology’s structure; and the importance of Palestine/Israel with regard to this. Clinical as the analysis of Adloyada’s view is, this key issue is not grappled with, and as a result the critique seems a tad academic. In case you haven’t noticed, the Israeli’s concessions are never recognised or reciprocated in the world of the Islamists. Islamist ideology is underpinned by strong anti-semitism, and the innocuous parallels to Palestine essentially lend a justifying sheen to this racism. I think this was Adloyada’s point regarding the Muslim bloggers.