Facing West from Arab Country

An Israeli air strike on the southern suburbs of Beirut, 7 August 2006. (Christian Henderson/IRIN)

US leaders often assert that their policies and actions in the Middle East are intended to influence the perceptions and actions of Arabs. Do they have any idea how things look from here? Daniel Richter’s book, Facing East from Indian Country (2001), attempts to tell the story of early America from the point of view of the Native people who saw their lands invaded from the east. The newcomers, for the most part, did not want to live among the people who were already there: they simply wanted to remove them. It is a revealing thought experiment for most US Americans to imagine their national story from the vantage of those for whom that story was their own doom. Perhaps a similar thought experiment is in order to consider how US attempts to create “a new Middle East” look from the vantage point of the region’s Arab inhabitants.

Gazing westward upon the North American continent, many European colonizers saw a land that seemed essentially empty, a zone for the fulfillment of their dreams and schemes. The North American Natives, if noticed at all, could be seen as part of the emptiness itself: they simply didn’t count as equally human. Richter believes, nonetheless, that a world in which natives and newcomers could live together remained possible until the 1760s when, in the wake of ruthless violence on the frontier, Natives and non-Natives each began to see themselves as essentially different and incompatible. After the revolution against imperial Britain, US Americans appropriated for themselves the appellation “American,” and continued to gaze westward with the colonizers’ vision of a land that was essentially empty. The US became a settler society. The conquest is pretty much over now, if largely unexamined, yet the perspective of facing west remains. We still talk of going “out west” and “back east”.

Gazing eastward toward Jerusalem, Westerners invented the term “Middle East,” a designation that defined the region by reference to their own view point. Edward Said used the word “orientalism” to describe how Western “knowledge” about the region was interwoven with attempts to control it. The “knowledge,” for example, that Arabs were backward, lazy, violent, and fanatical, meant that their world needed rearranging, and that Western powers such as France and Britain must take up the challenge. More recently, some have suggested a more complex picture. Not all westerners have reduced Arabs to sub-human status. In the years following World War II, many Arabs appreciated the US for its anti-colonial stance, and African-Americans, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, identified with Arab resistance movements.

For those facing west from Arab country today, however, the US appears as the latest in a long list of Western adversaries and colonizers. Operation Iraqi Freedom was supposed to destroy terrorism at its heart, but it was based on faulty “knowledge,” and has instead created an open wound, a maelstrom of blood. Operation Just Reward, the Israeli-led and US-backed attack on Lebanon, was supposed to create a “New Middle East” by crushing Hezbollah, but faulty “knowledge” again has led to a situation of great danger. The Arab World is not a blank slate awaiting the schemes of Westerners. And it must be said: the creation of the State of Israel was another scheme for remapping the region based on the view that the people already here mattered less than those arriving from the west, and that their lands could be treated as if they were empty. For those facing west from Arab country, this was an injustice, an original sin. All talk of resolution, of Arab hospitality, must begin with this recognition. I hope the time when it is possible for Arabs, Christians and Jews to live together here has not passed. But if Israelis hope to become a settler society like the US that seeks not to live with the region’s native people, but remove them, they will discover that their “knowledge” is faulty because the eastern Mediterranean is not North America. Instead of melting away from European diseases, these native people are increasing.

I spoke today with a Sunni Arab friend about last night’s horrible rocket attack on Haifa. I mentioned that it may have been an Arab neighborhood that was hit. My friend said: “That is not the point: they are human beings.” I mention this to underline that there is a basis for conversation, although some in Lebanon now doubt that there is a serious partner for peace in Israel.

The Bush Administration encourages Israel to crush Hezbollah, perhaps because many in the US think Israel is a settler society facing exactly the situation their own country once faced. But haven’t Israelis been here long enough to recognize that simplistic example of the eastward gaze called the war on terror? Lashing out will not make Israel safe; such a strategy is based on faulty “knowledge”: it is like plowing the sea. If crushing people will make them capitulate, the people of Gaza would long ago have become docile rather than defiant. There is only one way: the Israelis must talk to their adversaries and negotiate a just settlement that addresses Arab concerns on an equal footing with their own.

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Patrick McGreevy heads the American Studies Program at the American University of Beirut