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Reading Fanon in Palestine/Israel

By Nasser Rego

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of revolutionary, writer and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon was commemorated this past December. In late February, the not-so-revolutionary judge Asher Grunis was elected President of the Israeli Supreme Court. 

The fanfare that accompanied Grunis’ inauguration was an opportunity to extol Israeli democracy by playing out the ritualized Supreme Court induction ceremony. Yet, there was a disquieting stink about the celebration. Mum among the lot of Hatikva-singing judges was Justice Salim Jubran, the Arab. His refusal to join the chorus likely stemmed from not identifying with the lyrics, “as long as in the heart, within, a Jewish soul still yearns…” His silence, however, prompted loud condemnation from the public and Israeli Knesset members, leading some to propose legislation that would impeach Jubran and effectively bar Arabs from serving on the bench. 

This article reads Fanon’s death anniversary and Grunis’ appointment and inauguration ceremony against one another, as an opportunity to recycle Fanon’s ideas to better situate the place of Palestinians, as a colonized people, within the imagination of Israeli law today. In particular, the article traces the outlines of Fanon’s historico-racial schema in Israel/Palestine, emphasizing the legal experience of Palestinians from the Beersheba region, or the Naqab. 

Look Mama, an Arab!

Fanon’s historico-racial schema builds on Merleau-Ponty’s (1964) corporeal schema, which is the body’s agency in relating to itself and its historical world (surrounding environment) wherein there is a communication between the two through a perpetual contribution to and reordering of one another. Therefore, as the world contributes to how the body sees itself, the body is an agent that continually transforms and disrupts the historical world, their mutual constructions always being altered and differentiated. For Fanon, the colonial context describes a historico-racial schema rather than a corporeal one. The colonized self does not contribute to this schema as a full sovereign (i.e., citizen) because in an encounter with whiteness, the black body constructs a self-image that is deficient, owing to signifiers by a white mythos that weaves the black body from “a thousand details, anecdotes and stories” (Weate 2001, Fanon 1967: 89-119).  This article shows how Israeli law functions as a powerful element of a similar white mythos, weaving the ”Bedouin, Palestinian” subject out of anecdotes of comparable mythical proportion.  As a result, the possibilities are similarly thin for Naqab Palestinians to effect free agency and participate fully in the schematization of the historical world they inhabit.

The legal status of Palestinians in other locales in Israel/Palestine also reveals how Israeli law is in fact, vis-à-vis Palestinians, not only illiberal and undemocratic, contrary to the claims of certain enthusiasts, but even more harmful. After the Arab Supreme Court Justice stood out like the reluctant elephant in a room full of Hatikva-singing comrades, the liberal and democratic court could be forced to ask very existential questions. Why were the Court’s most touted values denied to one of its own members by the larger society, including the legal community? Why was a Supreme Court judge, who happened to be Arab, not allowed the liberal privilege of being “tolerated” for his silence? And why was he condemned for exercising his democratic right to non-participation and silent expression?

The heterogeneous strands of Fanon’s works can be applied in the Israeli/Palestinian context to speak about the need for an episteme of colonialism to inform the power-knowledge system of Palestinians’ habitation, to highlight the shortcomings of national consciousness, and to probe the psychiatric treatment of political prisoners in a colonial context. Edward Sa’id (1989) also mobilized Fanon to criticize fixed ideas of identity as a mark of colonial thought.

To discover how the Fanonian white mythos is propagated by Israeli courts, we look at  the discursive effects of a few cases over the past two decades. Law is a major propagator of the white mythos, though the media (see Kabha), education and the medical establishment are also contributing factors (Fanon 1963: 249-310).

Legal rules, decisions, settings, negotiations, confrontations, affidavits, minutes, appeals, orders nisi and other temporary remedies, press releases, news reports and analyses recycle the facts of the case and the ways in which Palestinians are mythified. As each textual form peters down to the lived conditions of those who are immersed in but unequal before the law, or all Palestinians, it leaves an imprint on how the senses see the self and the historical world they inhabit. 

The dominant legal framing of Palestinians from the Naqab is within the strictures of criminality by a homogenous mass, even in cases that achieve legal victories for the community. Other characteristics that the courts contrive are those of violent, irresponsible Palestinians, and those who deserve “a minimal right to life in dignity,” or in layman’s terms, the right to be ”the living dead.” 

"The native…a sort of quintessence of evil… invisible to ethics… the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him" (Fanon 1963: 41).

The first case we will examine is the 1984 “landmark” el-Hawasheleh decision (CA 218/74). This decision set the precedent for future courts to undermine Bedouin settlement and pastoral lifestyle, thereby classifying their lands as mawat (dead), thus providing the basis to conclude that Bedouin had no historical rights to the land. In reaching this conclusion, the court cited the work of the nineteenth-century British explorer E.H.Palmer, who “found a wasteland, ruins of antiquities, Bedouin vagabonds, who did not work the land in any particular manner.” Later in the same text Palmer wrote that “the Bedawí… wherever he goes… brings with him ruin, violence and neglect.”

"The fellaghas are ambitious peasants, criminals… (1963: 287)… The Algerian people: they were born slackers, born liars, born robbers, and born criminals" (1963: 296).

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Filed under Feature Frantz Fanon revolutionary Israel Palestine

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Neoliberals, not Islamists, are the real threat to Tunisia

With Tunisia’s economy in crisis, the Islamist party Ennahda should look beyond US and Bretton Woods principles to save it

by Matt Kennard

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement celebrate outside Ennahda's headquarters in Tunis

I meet Mustafa and Kamal on Avenue Bourguiba, where they protested in January 2011 to get rid of the dictator who ruled their country with an iron-fist for 23 years. Tunisia has changed a lot since then – and celebrated its 56th independence day last week as a free nation. Both men said they will be out again to consolidate the gains of the revolution. “We couldn’t have [talked like this] before, no way,” says Mustafa, a 25-year-old originally from Tabarka in the north of Tunisia. “The only thing I could have told you is how great Ben Ali is, what a good man he is.”

But how independent is free Tunisia from the grips of its former colonial master and its allies? A demonstration last week by a group of fringe fundamentalists calling for sharia law has got some secular Tunisians in a funk again, as well as worrying the French, who are opposed to Ennahda. An opposition politician told me there are even rumours of a French-supported coup. It is clear that the next stage of western connivance in the subjugation of the Tunisian people is the widespread media and political fear over the democratically elected Ennahda party, which is Islamist. But despite constant derision by the western media, Ennahda revealed on Monday that they would not make sharia, or Islamic law, the main source of legislation for the new constitution. Wouldn’t it be better to judge them on their actions rather than conspiracies about their intentions? “We realise we have a historic responsibility to get this right, we are genuinely inclusive,” Said Ferjani, who sits on the Ennahda politburo, told me.

The course from actively arming a kleptocratic dictator to pushing for the Tunisians to support “western values” is familiar. As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “As soon as the native begins to pull on his moorings, and to cause anxiety to the settler, he is handed over to well-meaning souls who … point out to him the specificity and wealth of western values.”

Initially, when people were getting shot by snipers on the streets of Tunis, Hillary Clinton, said the US “didn’t want to take sides” and was worried about the “unrest and instability”. Sarkozy’s administration even offered to send police advisers to Ben Ali to quell the uprising. In the end, over 200 perished. Since the revolution has won out, Clinton and Sarkozy have moved on to praising “progress” in the country while also expressing apparent concern that Ennahda don’t impose Iranian-style dictatorship on the Tunisian people (the US or French didn’t care when it was Pinochet-style dictatorship).

But the fear of Ennahda is misplaced, and based on western desires to remain in firm control. There are plenty of clear differences in Tunisia to 1979 when the Iranian revolution overthrew another western-backed torturing tyrant, the Shah. First, Ennahda have assembled a coalition including secular socialists and social democrats to form their government. The president Moncef Marzouki is a secular human-rights activist who spent decades in the wilderness fighting the US-backed atrocities being committed against dissidents in Tunisia.

The second point is that Tunisian civil society is engaged with the process and will only grow. One of the retrograde patterns you see in a Middle East speckled with US-backed dictatorships is that Islamism is often the only avenue to express dislike of the current state of affairs. The space for secular left movements has been completely crushed since the pan-Arabism of Nasser in Egypt worried the US enough to extinguish the left across the region. Clearly what scares the west more than any Islamist, then, is a secular revolutionary left opposed to the neoliberal order we set up over the past 40 years. That would really hurt the bottom line.

Islamists themselves have often been quite welcoming to the model of the Bretton Woods institutions and with the neoliberal order trying to impose itself on Tunisia, it will be near-impossible for the ruling parties to try something else (even if they want to). Ennahda at the moment has no discernible economic programme, and talked to me mainly about how much it wanted to attract foreign investment, rather than launching on the massive public works initiative that the country really needs. So far, Tunisia has followed US and Bretton Woods dictates to the book, privatising many of its state-owned assets and eviscerating public institutions and subsidies for fuel and food. Many actually compare Ennahda to the Justice and Development party (AKP) in Turkey, and it is no secret that the AKP has been a dream for business and international capital.

In its time in power, the AKP privatised a raft of public assets including Tekel, the state-owned tobacco and alcohol company, which it agreed to sell off as part of the “structural adjustments” attached to a $16bn loan agreement with the IMF. Before Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, started acting like the new sultan, the business press was in raptures about the AKP. This is why I worry for Tunisia – not because of Islamists, but because of neoliberals. With the period of dictatorship over, the economy in Tunisia is now the big issue – with high unemployment everyone here talks jobs. Bretton Woods dictates have proven a disaster around the world as a development model. Ennahda should look elsewhere, for its own survival.

Filed under commentary islam neoliberal tunisia geopolitics Frantz Fanon turkey

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