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The Politics of Race and Power in Palestine

By Fairouz
With contributions by Dillion

I would like to be writing about nonviolent struggle in Palestine. I want to be shedding light on the many injustices of Occupation. I am irate that astounding daily stories of creative and courageous resistance are trampled under this issue in the news: however, it is important to address the proliferation of anti-Muslim cartoons and the resulting commotion.

Many people in the West are flabbergasted by the intensity of the Arab and Muslim worlds’ reaction and cannot understand how a few drawings caused such an uproar. The reasons and the response are far deeper than Western news corporations care to dig.

The issue is not a question of free speech versus censorship, but moving past band-aid explanations to the root of the problem. The cartoons released a pressure valve for accumulated outrage. Muslim populations have withstood colonization, occupation, and imperialism for centuries, from Napoleon’s occupation and culture theft in Egypt to victims of the war in Iraq. Themes from the months following 9/11 are resurfacing in Western news: a mosque accused of manufacturing terrorists in London; anger in the Middle East once again boiled down to a hatred of American and European liberties. Presenting the story as primarily a free speech debate frames the situation as cultural, not political in nature. It reveals a bias, an initiative, by choosing to ignore the historical context. But it is also disingenuous. Western media outlets are not really defending free speech, but the West’s use of free speech. Arabs and Muslims exercising their freedom to assemble in demonstrations united across national and cultural borders are represented as extremist.

Many international activists groups operating in the Middle East are attempting to patch long-built trusts. In Palestine, solidarity groups recently issued a collective public condemnation of anti-Muslim cartoons, and called for the newspapers responsible to apologize.

Still, we must be careful not to exercise double standards while reproaching the West for doing the same. Concerns have been raised about the threat of kidnappings, for example – an unlikely but not unrealistic possibility. In many ways, international activists can become apologists for the ugly parts of Palestinian society. We want to show the cause in a favorable light, and sometimes fear fueling anti-Palestinian sentiments by critically discussing existing problems. It’s a disservice to this society, these people, however, to paint issues as black and white.

Many Muslim societies otherize darker ethnicities. I am from a culture that prefers fair skinned girls to the darker variety. Bleaching creams and SPF 150 sunblock abound. Globally, racism is the result of hundreds of years of colonization based on racist assumptions – which are now transmitted through popular media and race politics.

My experience is that Palestinians are much more capable of discerning my ethnicity from my features than Americans- I am often greeted by “Hello, India!” or “Pakistan!” Yet, the ever present, irritating question Where are you from? still haunts me. When I say “Ana Amrikiye buss Hindeya” (‘I am American BUT Indian’ – this qualifier drives me insane, as if the two identities are fundamentally incompatible) I am asked which one of my parents are Indian. When I say both, they are surprised. When I am occasionally invited to Islam and I say I had accepted that invitation at birth, they are surprised. “Wallah!” (‘Well! By God!’) Ironically though, having brown skin lately carries its own benefits.

Danish, Scandinavian, European, and any other light-skinned people face the risk of daily harassment and, yes, the vague possibility of abduction. This is a form of collective punishment. Many verbal threats have been made against Danes. A group of French nationals were recently subject to stone throwing in Hebron.

But let’s keep things in perspective. Palestinians are constantly threatened with imprisonment, death, and theft of land and livelihood under Israeli Occupation. The moment race discrimination refocuses on those with the privilege to remove themselves from the situation, they often do just that. The distinction here is between systematic racism and incidental discrimination. Even conservative-militaristic organizations operating in Palestine – ones considered “terrorist” by the West, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – have begun espousing nonviolence. However, institutions such as the World Bank and many governments are pulling funding from the Occupied Territories. Some NGOs with hierarchical decision making structures are removing volunteers.

The primary risk posed toward international activists is from the Israeli Occupation Forces. Yet once a threat from Palestinians is detected, people on the outside become much more concerned for our safety. Our work in Palestine functions on the assumption that whether internationals are exercising skin privilege or passport privilege or both, the Israelis see us as their “own” – as possessing “Western” culture. Soldiers (and sometimes settlers) are less prone to harm us than Palestinians, who are perceived as the “Other.” Internal divisions are united against an external enemy. It is a system of institutionalized racism that roars when an international is killed in Palestine, but looks the other way when thousands of Palestinians are murdered every year.

Israel is hailed as the only “democracy” in the Middle East. Democracy in this sense means capitalistic industrialized nations that share European cultural ideals. “Democratic nations” have and continue to commit some of the world’s greatest atrocities.

Recently two 15 year old boys in the Salfit region were taken in the night by the Israeli Occupation forces. One was returned, but the other, with a reported mental disability, is still being held at Huwara prison. In the past, Israeli soldiers beat the boy’s older brother to deafness and his mother to miscarriage. These news stories are drowned out in the din of the West’s “clash of civilizations” jargon.

Going through Israeli checkpoints, I am often asked whether I speak Arabic. There is no room in the soldiers’ worldview for Muslims who are not Arab. During a recent experience through the checkpoint I decided to see what would happen if I didn’t flash my passport, my blue and gold ticket to unlimited destinations, immediately. The soldier barked loudly, “HAWIYYE! WAYN HAWIYYE?” (Arabic for ‘Where is your ID?’) I produced it. She relaxed immediately and in a surprised and mellow tone said, “Oh. Go ahead.” Entering the country, I was immediately taken aside by an Israeli border police agent, and asked if I had a second passport. The question more accurately stated would be, “Are you Arab?” or, “Why are you brown?” A woman of South Asian ancestry, primarily raised as Muslim, however bred with the innate tendencies (and passport) of Americans, living in Palestine, completely upsets the system with her complexity.

I used to find my fractured identity a great source of teenage angst. While traveling I have seen the privilege I possess, having the cultural material to find common ground with many different people. I do believe that as the world becomes more globalized, survival will come to depend on our ability to work through differences. This occurs every day in Palestine in the form of Palestinian, Israeli, and international nonviolent activists struggling together to end the Occupation.

Despite the injustice, hate, and racism I have witnessed and experienced in the past five months, I have retained a strong faith in humanity to work for social justice. Power works because one harmful action can trump the peaceful, nonviolent lifestyles of a million people. We must become capable of looking past violent actions. We must learn to give the respect that nonviolence demands.