Whose Frankenstein?

Omar al-Qattan
10 September 2002

Since September 2001, hundreds of articles have been published about ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’, ‘terrorism’ and the ‘free world’. Some of these outbursts were written with such an extraordinary degree of assurance as to give the impression that these fixed entities really do exist out there, entities to which one must inevitably belong. This polarisation was crudely expressed by George W. Bush in his now infamous ‘axis of evil’ speech to Congress, in which the world was divided up into those ‘who are with us’ and those ‘against us’. Yet this is not perhaps the most alarming consequence of the 11 September catastrophe, since it was probably the inevitable result of a state of war, any state of war.

One year on, though, ‘we’ – our co-citizens and co-taxpayers with British nationalities – are, it seems, on the brink of a new war, this time against Iraq. And what I have recently found most disconcerting has not been the willingness among some intellectuals in Britain and America to defend the Bush–Blair decision to wage war unquestioningly (long before the publication of any evidence of military or nuclear stockpiling by the Iraqi regime), although this is contemptible enough.

Worse than this intellectual aggressiveness, I have noticed that, even among Left-leaning writers and journalists who write to oppose the forthcoming war, or who have been critical of US policy, the distance, the necessary separation between intellectuals and the State, and between them and an imagined collective (Britain, Europe, the West, ‘Christendom’, ‘Democracy’) so often disappears.

I was struck by this conflation in Anthony Barnett’s recent contribution to openDemocracy, an otherwise dark and perceptive reflection on the year following 9/11 – the lessons learnt and not learnt from the events of that day. For example, Anthony Barnett has no hesitation in speaking ‘of our own Frankenstein’ when referring to the ‘fundamentalism holed up in the Tora Bora [which] was at least as much the by-product of CIA cynicism as it was of Islamic purity.’ But whose Frankenstein is he talking about – his own, this government’s, that of the previous Conservative administration?

The challenge for Israelis

This is a confusion that I find all the more striking because I have just returned from Israel. This is a society that continues to support a democratically elected government and prime minister engaged in nothing less than social genocide against its Palestinian neighbours. It is rare to be able to witness such an almost total lack of critical distance between citizen and government as that in Israel. Even in totalitarian countries, a keen observer may encounter uncritical praise of the regime among ordinary people in the street. But he or she will soon learn how to discern the nervous, desperate fear in the too-sanguine smiles of their interlocutors. But in Israel, with the exception of a few brave voices, the line between individual, state, army, tribe, religion and public policy seems to me totally blurred.

I left feeling more strongly than ever that one of the most important things anyone interested in peace and justice in the Middle East must now do is to try to break down this assured and deadly alliance between citizen and state in the Middle East’s ‘only democracy’ (and only nuclear power). This is most true for Palestinians, who for decades have failed to understand the urgency of this task. They/we/I must build our approach to Israeli society – and this applies to political strategy as well as intellectual discourse – on the need to create rifts between the ordinary citizen and the state, between him/her and the army, the military industry on which the country so heavily depends, and by extension, between him/her and the ideology of racial segregation which is at the heart of Zionism and which also informs the Occupation, the building of illegal settlements, land confiscation, ‘administrative’ detention, house demolitions, and so on.

We must do so by constantly pointing out that the official discourse simply does not correlate to reality; that official action, even if supported by a majority of citizens, is not working; and that, on the contrary, it is perpetuating suffering and injustice. And that it is possible to do something about it. Needless to say, this must be done by peaceful means. For any violence against the Israeli war machine will only further entrench the unholy alliance between Israel’s citizens and its ruling military machine.

Some Israelis understand this. The phrase ‘social genocide’, for example, is one I borrow from a friend who calls himself an Israeli dissident. There are many others, though it is clear that they remain in the minority. But their importance lies not in their number, however small, but in their understanding of democratic citizenship as a condition that must by nature be in opposition to power, not in tandem with it – a principle that Palestinians also need to practise about their own society.

Fighting that collective ‘we’

What I am finding most alarming in the collective ‘we’ some intellectuals have been using about 11 September and its resulting conflicts, as well as the putative war on Iraq, is the ease with which they slip into the collective at a time when their individual critical faculties are most needed.

It is not enough to criticise a government’s policy. One must also, constantly, question the assumptions – ‘the reality’ – upon which it is basing its actions and the principles, whether ethical or legal, which it is following.

I do not only mean whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Anthony Barnett regrets, for example, that 9/11 was not followed by a campaign for ‘democracy everywhere’ rather than the bellicosity of the Bush administration. But this assumes that the US administration has a right to launch such a campaign in the first place; which it doesn’t, unless we accept that imperial power has these natural rights anyway.

And furthermore, it assumes, naively, the possibility of innocent crusading by any power, however benevolent. It also, unwittingly no doubt, forgets to remind the reader that there is a US – and by alliance a British – war machine in need of greasing; a huge military budget in need of justification; a capitalist economy in crisis and in need of countries to destroy in order for them to be rebuilt by those same economies/countries which destroyed them in the first place.

Not to speak of the baffling alliance with Israel, for which I cannot find any other explanation than the fact that it is a military/industrial outpost of Empire which needs to be subsidised in order to perpetuate the need for more wars, which in turn will mean further profits for the military industries in the US and Britain (with which the Bush family’s close links are no secret).

And all the while, we continue to live in these war-mongering democracies.

It is a sobering reality for someone like me. I am sure that in the past I too have slipped into the ‘collective first person’. But I have done so in so many disguises that I now realise the need for a fundamental concept of citizenship. I have spoken as, indeed felt – Palestinian (my origins), Lebanese (my place of birth), Kuwaiti (my nationality) and British (my adoptive country and other nationality). And when I try to place myself in the chaos of ideological claims made upon every one of us since 11 September, I am more than ever convinced that it is simply not enough to be a member of a democracy – that’s rather like being a member of a private club. Instead, it is necessary to become a citizen in opposition.

This is the only coherent way to remain lucid, vigilant and free.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData