Orientalism at No.10

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So the Prime Minister thinks that Muslims have a “completely false sense of grievance against the west” (The Guardian, 4 July 2006). What do these words mean? Is that an objective statement or an act of political theatre, a sleight of hand?

…It brings to mind Harold Pinter‘s Nobel Prize acceptance speech last December: ‘the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed’.

OK we know that Mr Blair needs to shift the public gaze away from his complicity in the Iraq fiasco and the security vulnerabilities it created for the country. Instead of some introspection, the response has been to incriminate others.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Mr Blair’s world view is an orientalist cliche. On the one hand there is ‘us’ – sporty, life-affirming, egalitarian, adventurous. Speaking to an Australian audience in March this year he observed, “I like to think we share a lot more than history and endeavour on the playing fields. We share an outlook to life. We are both confident, outward bound, and ‘up for it’ type of nations We know the values we believe in: democracy and the rule of law; also justice, the simple conviction that, given a fair go, human beings can better themselves and the world around them”(reported in The Guardian, 21 March 2006).

And then there are the rest –  the melancholic, depressed, tradition-bound basket-cases who do not even understand their religion properly: “the most remarkable thing about reading the Qur’an –  in so far as it can be truly translated from the original Arabic –  is to understand how progressive it is. The Qur’an strikes me as a reforming book – but by the early 20th Century, after renaissance, reformation and enlightenment had swept over the western world, the Muslim and Arab world was uncertain, insecure and defensive”(speech to the Foreign Policy Centre, 21 March 2006).

First Mr Blair was happy to offer a Western pedigree to a reformation of the Muslim world; it seems the Second Modern Colonial Period is expropriating the right of the colonised to decide what, or what not, to be angry about.

So the Prime Minister believes Muslims have a “completely false sense of grievance against the west” – their anger is irrational. Let us look at Palestine. Britain took over Palestine after the World War I after the Ottoman Arab provinces were partitioned up by the victors. The League of Nations determined that Palestine should be under an ‘A’ mandate –  it was the mandatory’s duty to advise and prepare it for self-administration. Instead Britain committed itself to the Balfour Declaration and appointed the Liberal politician and Zionist, Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner. The gates were opened for the eventual dispossession of the original population and the creation of Palestinian refugee populations. Israel then emerged as a strategic partner, with Britain supporting it’s A-bomb and H-bomb programme, supplying heavy water in the 1950s and uranium in the 1960s. Both the US and British handle Israel with kid gloves, leaving it free to ignore UN and Security Council resolutions when it breaks international law. So is the grievance over the injustice in Palestine “completely false”?

And what about Iraq? First there was the disregard for the human cost of the sanctions regime imposed in the 1990s. It caused the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Dennis Halliday, to resign in protest. UNICEF estimated that 500,000 children under five years old had died in ‘excess’  numbers in Iraq between 1991 and 1998. John Pilger once interviewed the US Secretary of State in March 2000, Katherine Albright and asked her if she thought that the death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying. Albright replied: “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it” (The Guardian, 4 March 2000).

Let us return to Pinter, as every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Qaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

Or look at Guantanamo Bay, where all the prisoners are Muslim. Where is Mr Blair’s moral voice to speak out against a prison outside the due process of law and where torture is practised?

Mr Blair, it seems that you are avoiding any consciousness of wrong-doing. Instead of being ashamed yourself ñ or of the British nation taking the blame – your psychological response is to transfer this emotion to others. It seems to me that a nation cannot discover its identity and sense of pride unless it comes to terms with its past.

You have succumbed to a stupid orientalism, in which the Muslim is considered to possess a nature that is fundamentally alien to the European/North American mindset. One is composed and self-possessed, even in adversity, while the other is given to suicidal self-pity. What pathological nonsense.

“Of all the griefs that harass the distrest,
Sure the most bitter is a scornful jest” – Dr Johnson