Terra Incognita: Holding the 'other' to account

Terra Incognita Holding

By SETH FRANTZMAN
December 9, 2009 10:45
4 minute read.

The concept of the "other" has come to dominate Western philosophy, popular writings and knowledge. It is one of the foremost things people speak about when they describe the situation of minorities, racism, discrimination or conflict. Although it was initially developed to describe the situation of Jews in Europe, it has come increasingly to be used against Jews, especially in Israel, where the Jewish religion is perceived by critics as especially discriminatory toward others and where Zionism is seen as uniquely hateful toward the other, whether it be Arabs or Muslims. But one thing that has escaped all those who deal in the "other" is the question of the way in which the West, Jews, Christians or Zionists, are viewed by the other. Doesn't the other also have to answer for his portrayal of the us? The concept of the other was initially developed by Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian-born Jewish philosopher whose life spanned the 20th century. Other Jewish philosophers, such as the North African-born Jacques Derrida, were instrumental in transforming the other into a common element of Western philosophy and thought. The acceptability of the idea to European intellectuals was itself evidence that they had long ago abandoned their supposed hatred of the other. The idea became central to the writings of Edward Said, the Western-educated Christian Palestinian and author of Orientalism. In one of his famous statements, Said wrote that "between Zionism and the West there was and still is a community of language and of ideology, from which the Arabs are excluded. This community depends heavily on a remarkable tradition of enmity towards Islam in particular and the orient in general." Thus the concept of the other, which initially was developed by Jews at least in part because they felt themselves to be the ultimate "other" in Europe, has come to describe Jews and the West as having a long-standing hatred of the other, in this case Islam. As an example of this, one Palestinian acquaintance of mine wrote to me in a recent exchange: "Orientalism and its terminology emphasize the division of nations and civilizations into East and West, superiority and inferiority, development and backwardness, civilization and retardation... Zionists fuse together with westerners to carry the seeds of construction and civilization against the Orientals... I have deduced the Zionist definition of the other from Torah, which is the cornerstone of the Zionists' beliefs." THIS TWISTING on its head of history is common to the debate about Israel. The Jews who are victims of Nazism become "Nazis." The Jews who were considered "eastern" and "Semites" throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century become the "white European colonizers" in the Middle East. The Jews who were victims of Aryan supremacism are accused of calling themselves a "chosen race" and believing themselves "superior" to other groups. But while this twisting of history is interesting, it may also aid in challenging the concept of the other and those who have made it into a tool to bash the West and Israel. The concept of the "other" was not only present in the West's "traditional enmity towards Islam." What of the traditional enmity of Islam to the West and its portrayal of the kaffir and the other in the Koran? No major philosopher has asked this question. Throughout all of the Middle Eastern studies departments and among all the intellectuals who specialize in Islamic studies, one will be hard-pressed to find research that examines the Orient's traditional hatred for the West. Whatever stereotypes are found in the West of the "savage" East are mirrored in Eastern traditions that have equally distasteful stereotypes of the West. Usually these stereotypes of the West are portrayed in a positive manner, as if they were part of some sort of liberation theology. Thus depictions of Westerners as fat and opulent, as drunks, prostitutes or as racist and fascist is part and partial of the anti-colonial literature, some of which was actually written by Westerners or those influenced by the Western intellectual tradition (see Albert Memmi's Colonizer and Colonized or Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth). Edward Said, who was obsessed with "Orientalism" and claimed the West depicted Arabs as savage and brutal and backward, should have known better. He had access to literature wherein the Muslim writers of the 12th century wrote about the brutality and savagery of the Crusaders. He also had knowledge of the way the Ottomans thought about and treated their colonial subjects in Eastern Europe. The enslavement of Eastern Europeans and the description of them as kaffir and the forcing of them to pay a tax (called devirsme) in the form of young boys and girls to the sultan was not part of an Ottoman system of equality; it was part of a system of dominance, hegemony, superiority and power. The situation today in Saudi Arabia (who can forget the famous highway leading to Mecca that is segregated for Muslims and non-Muslims) and the Persian Gulf, where foreigners are abused, denied rights to worship and looked down upon as virtual chattel is one that represents the hatred of the other in its highest form. The ownership of black slaves was a status symbol for rural nobility in 19th century Palestine. Any discussion of the "other" and the supposed historical enmity toward him can only begin with the realization that all cultures and religions contain this concept. If the Zionists portrayed the Arab other one way, one should examine at the same time how the Arab intellectuals viewed the Jews. One will not find the answer pleasing. The writer is a researcher at Hebrew University


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