TERRORISM AND KEBAB
Six months into the so-called ??global war against terror??, the world is still far from being a safe place. What is more, none of us are any wiser, and it would appear that the contradictions in the present global order have become so stark as to defy reason and common sense.
While some Western countries like the United States remain bent on pursuing their agenda at whatever human cost, the rest of the world stands dumbfounded before the absurdities around us. Palestinian civilians are being killed on a daily basis; their homes, businesses, schools and places of worship destroyed with impunity; yet the media continues to depict the Palestinians themselves as ??terrorists??. Israel, on the other hand, has been given a blank cheque to do whatever it wills in the occupied territories- and is portrayed as a state exercising its right to defend itself. Against what, one might ask. And who, indeed, are the so-called ??terrorists?? that we are supposed to guard against?
The absurdity of the situation reminds us of the Egyptian film ??El-Erhab ul-Kebab?? (??Terrorism and Kebab??) by the director Sharif Arafah that was released in 1994. Sharif??s black comedy gets to the heart of the matter by showing just how and why the term ??terrorism?? itself is such a politically-loaded concept, and how even the most innocent of individuals can be re-cast as ??terrorists?? by their enemies.
In the film, the hero played by Adil Imam goes to the government offices in search of an official form so that he can transfer his children from one school to another one closer to their home. Fed up with the mountains of paperwork and obstinate officials who would not give him the time of day, our hero finally loses his temper and a fight breaks out. In the scuffle that follows, he accidentally grabs hold of the security guard??s gun and fires a burst into the air. The crowd around him panics and flies from the scene, yelling ??Terrorist! Terrorist!??. Suddenly the desperate low-paid and overworked father is turned into an accidental terrorist instead.
Left in the deserted building with a number of equally accidental ??hostages??, the hero does not know what to do. Soon after the building is surrounded by hundreds of policemen and soldiers. The Minister of Security arrives and asks the ??terrorist?? what he wants. The crowd inside the building, already tired and hungry as the day grows longer, asks him to demand ““kebab kitir kufta qullayella khaliddihn”“(??Some kebab, a little kufta, free of fat??). The Minister offers them boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken (three-piece set) instead. The adamant ??terrorist?? and his ??hostages?? stick to their demand, threatening ““el-kebab, el-kebab, la nakhalli eyshetkuh (hi)bab”” (a kebab, a kebab, or we will blacken your lives??).
To cut things short, the film ends with a happy ending. In the end the ??hostages?? realize that the ??terrorist?? is just an ordinary human being like them, who was forced to do what he did thanks to circumstances beyond his control. When the captives are allowed to leave the building, they smuggle out their captor as well, to protect him from the authorities. In one of the most crucial scenes of the movie one of the captives is asked by a journalist what the ??terrorist?? looks like. “Like anyone else” was the reply.
That, in a sense, sums up the phenomenon of ??terrorism?? that we see today. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives have been forced to do extraordinary things due to the fact that their lives have been disrupted by forces beyond their control. When schools and hospitals are bombed, towns laid siege to, children shot on their way to school and the young men are rounded up and taken into captivity for no reason ?? apart from the fact that they are Arabs and Muslims ?? what else can the ordinary Palestinians do? What else would drive educated young Arab boys and girls to turn themselves into human bombs as a weapon of last resort against an enemy intent of destroying the very fabric of their existence?
Though billed as a dark comedy, El-Erhab ul-Kebab, was in fact an extremely powerful film that highlights the contradictions of modern society today. It showed just how the use of terms like ??terrorist?? and ??terrorism?? have been politicized from the beginning, and what is more it reminds us of the fact that those who have been labeled as such are in reality ordinary human beings no different from any of us. The director Sharif Arafah had managed to give a human face to ??terrorism??, and by doing so has forced us to recognize that behind the anger and fury of the ??real?? terrorist there is a human story as well.
Today, the reports in the media often speak of terrorists as inhuman or dehumanized entities, devoid of reason, incapable of dialogue and beyond the pale of moral norms. Yet the genius of Sharif Arafah??s film lies in the fact that he demonstrates how terrorism comes into being only when dialogue itself has become impossible. The hero is forced to such extreme measures only when he has been left mute and impotent by arrogant officials who refuse to listen to his appeal.
So when the government of Israel today says that it will only engage in dialogue with the Palestinian authorities when all the ??terrorists?? have been eliminated, we need to ask: What did Israel do to make dialogue impossible in the first place, thus opening the way for the rise of such extremist politics? Surely it has been the policies of Israel, that were aimed at emasculating and breaking down the authority of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian government, that helped to create such a situation of utter desperation and despair that have driven so many to take their own lives along with their enemies?
All in all, the film El-Arhab ul-Kebab remains as relevant today as it was when it was first released in the 1990s. One might even suggest that it should be made compulsory viewing for some of the policy makers and media moguls of the United States and Israel. One only hopes that in the end, common sense will prevail. As the Imam of the mosque says in the film: ““Oh God, do not hold against us what these idiots have done.”“
TEACHING TERROR IN THE LAND OF THE FREE
Consider, if you will, the following statement: “Oh God, strengthen the will of our leaders and lend us your power so that we will be able to crush our enemies.” And the following: “the conflict in the middle-east has nothing to do with politics or economics, but it is all about religion. Religion is the cause of the war between the Arabs and Jews, because it is written in the book of God. And in the end, there will be a mighty apocalypse and God?s law will reign supreme in the world. Oh God, may there be war sooner than later.”
Had these words been uttered by a Mullah or Imam in any part of the Muslim world ? from Morocco to Indonesia ? he would have immediately been labeled a Muslim fundamentalist extremist and fanatic. His name would probably have been recorded, and his image would adorn the TV sets of the world. The man would have been elevated to ?terrorist threat no.1? and a lot would have been done to track him down and arrest (or eliminate) him as a threat to global peace and security.
But these were the words of a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, and they were uttered not in some cave or grotto in Afghanistan, Sudan or Iran - but in the heartland of the United States of America, ?home of the free?. What is more, the blonde and blue-eyed clergyman in question was not speaking from some dimly-lit basement or bunker in the American Bible belt, but live on television and his words were heard by thousands, if not millions of others.
Lest we forget, America remains the home of the world?s biggest fundamentalist industry. In his book ?9-11? the American academic and dissident activist Noam Chomsky noted that contrary to its image as a modern, liberal and secular society, “the US is one of the most extreme fundamentalist cultures in the world, not the state, but certainly its culture.” This is certainly true when one is forced to sit and watch American television these days.
The growth of terrorist and militant networks in the West is nothing new, and 11 September has not taught us anything different. Indeed, as far back as the mid-1990s there has been ample evidence of the growth of extremism and militancy in the Western world, but this was not taken too seriously as a ?global threat? for the simple reason that most of these lunatics were home-grown.
After the 1995 bombing of the Alfred O. Murrah building in Oklahoma city by the ex-Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, there were numerous reports of crackpots and lunatics operating all over middle America. McVeigh?s act of terror (which was originally blamed on Muslims, one should remember) brought to the surface the legions of militants and fundamentalists who were already living and working freely under the protection of the American constitution.
The list of militant organizations was a long one indeed: In Michigan there was the Michigan Militia Corps (MMC) led by the Baptist minister Norman Olson. The MMC claimed to have more than 12,000 members all over the state and in other parts of the country. Their aim was to oppose the US government which they claimed was about to hand over the United States to the UN and to surrender the rights of US citizens.
In Idaho the Aryan Nations White Supremacists (ANWS) movement was led by another clergyman, the Reverend Richard Butler, who called on all whites of pure Aryan stock to unite against the federal government which he accused of betraying the country by allowing the United States to be ?flooded? by non-whites from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The group formed close working links with other white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Christian fundamentalist groups in Western Europe as well.
In Indiana the American Justice Federation (AJF) was led by Linda Thompson, a lawyer by training. The AJF also wanted to declare war on the United States government which it claimed had betrayed the interests of the public. It threatened to stage an armed march on the capital and to execute members of the US congress whom they regarded as traitors.
In North Carolina the extremist leader Albert Esposito leads the Citizens for the Reinstatement of Constitutional Government (CRCG) movement, whose motto was the ?three Bs?: Bibles, Bullets and Beans. A survivalist outfit that prepares for the coming nuclear apocalypse and the end of the world, the CRCG combined both racist rhetoric with a fundamentalist reading of Christian millenarianism.
These groups have operated in the open for decades: Using and abusing the rights entitled to them by the American constitution they have spread their message of religious intolerance, racism and xenophobia openly- via the television, radio, internet, magazines and newspapers. They have also exploited the bounties of globalization to the full, using the latest communications technology to forge coalitions with like-minded groups elsewhere in the country and beyond. Some have resorted to the use of violence and openly transgressed the laws of the country by setting up militia camps and settlements of their own, illegally.
Taking these factors into consideration, one wonders why the American media is so obsessed with countries like Pakistan or Afghanistan which it thinks are the main training grounds for terrorist networks and militant organizations. As far as role models, teaching modules, equipment and training are concerned, one would think that the United States is still the best ?open university? for any terrorist or militant to enrol in. After all, if maverick organizations like the ones named above can operate openly in the US, why should anyone travel all the way to desolate and inhospitable countries like Afghanistan for militia training? (One could at least stop for a burger and coke in the American mid-west, something that is quite difficult to do in the drier climes of Afghanistan these days.)
The tragic events of 11 September have shown the world that extremism and terror can and does strike anywhere and at any time. It is, however, interesting to note that most of the alleged terrorists were themselves middle-class and professional Arabs who were, after all, trained and educated in the West (most notably the United States itself). Perhaps the time has come for us to trace the linkages here, between Arab frustration and anger and the culture of violence and extremism that has been spawned in the West itself. If the United States is one of the world?s biggest producers of violent images (in cinema, television, popular culture) and weapons of war, could it not simply be the case that its own industrialization and promotion of this culture of terror and violence has finally turned against itself? The terrorists who hijacked the planes and crashed them on 11 September were simply following the example that had been set for them by the media of the United States, a nation that is quick to point to the extremism of others while remaining seemingly oblivious to the lurking terror within itself.
TERRORISM AND INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM
There are times when the call of patriotism has to be superseded by the even greater call of universal humanism. One has to have the courage and will to stand up for what is right, even if that means risking the wrath of the misguided majority.
That is precisely the risk that is being taken today by a number of democrats and liberals in Israel, a country that has been taken hostage by the demagogues and war-mongers of the extreme right. While the hawks of war continue to raise the political temperature in the country, a small but vocal minority of dissenters have spoken up time and again to remind the leaders of Israel of their obligation to respect international law and the universal spirit of human rights. They have pointed out the blatant abuses of human rights in the occupied territories, as well as Israel?s own deplorable record in dealing with the Arabs within and without the country. For their efforts, they have been rewarded with alienation, persecution and even threats against their lives and liberty.
The predicament that is being faced today by Professor Ilan Pappe, academic at the University of Haifa, sums up the sad lot of liberal academics all over. Over the years Professor Pappe has been a consistent and vocal critic of his own government and one of the few voices of reason in the country. He has exposed the injustices being meted out on the Palestinians in the occupied territories, condemned the Israeli government for its abuse of human rights and even supported the international campaign for the boycott of Israeli academia.
In the past Professor Pappe has also criticized his university for the apparent lack of transparency and fair play within its walls. When one of the university?s students stumbled upon historical data related to the Tantura massacre of 1948 and was subsequently disqualified, it was Professor Pappe who came to the student?s rescue. He argued that for academic work to be taken seriously it had to be done in the most open and objective manner. The discoveries about Israel?s own bloody and violent past should not be swept under the carpet, and for academics to collaborate with the establishment would be an act of betrayal against the very principles of scholarship itself.
For his part in defending the student concerned, Professor Pappe was branded a ?traitor? and a ?threat? to the status quo. Now Professor Pappe himself has come under attack, and the university authorities have decided to put him on trial.
It is no coincidence that Professor Pappe is being attacked at this point in time. As he himself has pointed out: “The reason the university waited so long is that now the time is ripe in Israel for any act of silencing academic freedom.” The ultimate objective of the whole exercise is plain for all to see: the goal is to expel Professor Pappe himself in order to eliminate voices of dissent within the ivory towers of the country.
The beleaguered professor is under no delusions whatsoever about the motives behind the attack on him and what the final outcome will be: “Judging by past procedures this is not a request, but already a verdict, given the position of the person in question in the university and the way things had been done in the past. The ostensible procedure of a ‘fair trial’ does not exist and hence I do not even intend to participate in a McCarthyist charade.”
The hounding of Professor Pappe comes at a time when academic and intellectual freedom in Israel has plummeted to an all-time low. As with the case of academic life in the rest of the Western world, the growth of the pro-Zionist lobby has meant that those who point to the internal contradictions and faults of Israel are themselves denounced as ?anti-Semites? and apologists for Arab ?terrorism?. But as Professor Pappe has shown, Israel has also had its fair share of extremists and war-mongers, and the country is far from innocent of the charge of aggression against its neighbours.
The trials and tribulations of Professor Pappe should also remind us of one crucial thing: that not every Israeli is a Zionist and not every citizen of Israel supports the horrendous policies of the Israeli state itself. By speaking out the way they do, they remind us (and their fellow citizens) of the fact that Israel remains a divided and plural society, with many other minority groupings and constituencies within its borders. (Israel is still the home of thousands of Arabs, who feel that they no longer belong there and whose historical presence is being erased by the day.)
It is here that the opportunity arises for us to form instrumental coalitions with like-minded individuals and groups who wish to resist and challenge the growing dominance of the religious extremists and political hardliners in Israel. For as Professor Pappe himself has argued, his case is not a personal matter but a concern for the country as a whole. The hounding of Ilan Pappe strikes at the very core of Israeli identity itself. What is at stake here is not simply the career of one man, but the very soul of Israel as a whole. Hanging in the balance is the future of Israel and its relations with the Other within and without.
Though the present atmosphere in Israel has made his work even more difficult, if not dangerous, Professor Pappe has tried to show that the love of truth and fairness has to come before shallow patriotism and sabre-rattling. For those of us who are concerned about the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs between Israel and Palestine and the rest of the Arab world, supporting the struggle of individuals like Ilan Pappe would be a significant step towards breaking down the communitarian boundaries that have made impossible any compromise or peaceful settlement between the warring nations. It would also expose the growing authoritarianism and dictatorship of the majority in Israel, which may one day plunge that country ? and all its neighbors ? into a regional conflict which can only lead to more bloodshed and suffering on all sides.
Standing by those who have shown the courage to challenge the hate-mongers and extremists in Israel would therefore be a significant step towards exposing “the already dismal picture and false pretense of Israel being the ‘only democracy in the Middle East.” For having the temerity to do so, Professor Ilan Pappe is paying a heavy price indeed.
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