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The Challenge of Decolonization

Palestine, Blackness and the Complexity of Racism

John Steven Fernandez/Flikr [1]

John Steven Fernandez/Flikr

In January 2014, I traveled to Palestine as part of a delegation of academics and activists. The idea for the trip began over a year earlier by a close friend and academic colleague, Rabab Abdulhadi, who insisted we take part — practically a family invitation to her homeland under colonial occupation. “It’s time for you to see Palestine again,” she told me as we sat in San Francisco. I last visited Palestine as a tourist in 1996 while living in Cairo. After that trip, I vowed never to go again in that manner. As we talked about our various academic projects and the urgency of a number of interventions, in the back of my mind, I could think of no reason more relevant. Given the sudden rise and momentum of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in academic circles, I was excited to extend my contribution. Initially, we planned to go in the summer of 2013, but because of scheduling conflicts, we took our trip in the winter.

Palestine was stunning. Palestine was devastating. In the Palestinian condition, we saw what others such as Robin Kelley, Bill Mullen and Dream Hampton have recently commented on the contradictions of the nation-state, racism and the overwhelming power of white supremacy. These are important points that one doesn’t necessarily draw from how Israel is depicted in the United States. And while scholars for some time have been arguing that the concept of race is at the center of a number of systems such as the nation-state, capitalism and modernity, racism is more often seen to be epiphenomenal, a tangent, a hindrance to be overcome, rather than an integral part of the design. And although this is an abstraction to many, it became glaringly apparent in the Israeli colonial occupation of Palestine. Racial hierarchies and forms of domination are everywhere, from the people to the land, even the ideas, and certainly the future.

While on our delegation, I couldn’t help but constantly reference Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in my mind. This classic of African decolonization and inspiration to many global liberation struggles is central to my intellectual journey. I began the trip wanting to learn and absorb as much as possible with open eyes and a clear mind. That was abruptly halted by our 10-hour delay at an Israeli checkpoint as we travelled to Palestine from Jordan. The delay was a grueling test of the anxiety and banality of the state and its intelligence apparatus. And it operationalized numerous forms of racial knowledge in what Edward Said famously called orientalism or the colonial forms of knowing the other. In my own case, it included questions about my scholarship, political commitments, family ties, friends (especially in the “occupied territories” as my interrogator put it), and my social media presence. Here it was not enough to say that I was a U.S. citizen, because then came the next question, “Where is your father from? Where is your father’s father from?” And then the ridiculous: “Do you have a phone number for your relatives in Pakistan to confirm your responses?” It was clear that I was being interpellated as a potential Palestinian and that this was the way of regulating the Palestinian diaspora and the right to return. Although I am not of Palestinian descent, the possibility was apparently in my name, appearance and even background. While this first encounter exhausted us in as much as it was a lesson in the security state of Israel, imagine this everyday. The layers and forms of securitization reveal what the faulty notions of Israeli freedom look like as much as they are about the containment of the supposed Palestinian demographic threat.

Fanon is apt here and even obvious to a certain extent. Much of his work deals with the psychological dimensions of colonial social organization through the logics of divide and rule and the racial hierarchizing of social life. Taken from Fanon’s experiences with Algerian independence, his insights into political struggles against colonialism and the ensuing racial order have influenced generations of activists and thinkers. Central to this thematic of decolonization in Fanon’s work is the notion of blackness, diaspora and racialization. In the context of global white supremacy, Fanon argues that the positive affirmation of a notion of “black” has the power to negate the degradation of racial oppression. While this simple anti-essentialism has been used to powerful effect in black liberation movements, the role of Arabness has been less commented on, particularly in terms of thinking through Arab Africa. Fanon was thinking through his own experiences as part of an African diaspora while he was committed to the anti-colonial revolution of Algeria. That he was aligned with Arabs while claiming blackness as liberatory is rich in meaning and the politics of decolonization. The emergent work on Afro-Arab solidarity recently by Sohail Daulatzai, Vijay Prashad and others presents an important and vast history that is slowly being uncovered.

As we travelled throughout Palestine, we had the fortune of meeting people committed to the struggle from a broad range of positions. The analysis and tradition of the Palestinian movement was an eye-opening experience in the beauty and complex history of struggle. In Jerusalem, we met Ali Jiddah of the African Community House. As Ali spoke to our delegation, he described himself as an Afro-Palestinian or Black Palestinian. When I asked him if he used these same words in Arabic, he responded: “No, we are just Palestinian.” His point was simple: To understand the liberation of Palestine and Palestinians meant liberation for all humankind. This was not a liberal humanism that called for individual freedoms the way democratic states often tout them; rather, this is a far more radical sensibility that is abolitionist in its critique.

Ali’s father arrived in Palestine from Chad in 1936 under the British Mandate. Like many others who travelled from Africa to Jerusalem at that time, they came either as pilgrims or workers principally from Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. After performing the obligatory Hajj pilgrimage, these African Muslims travelled to Palestine and many chose to stay as guardians of the Islamic holy sites. Many of their descendants live in Jenin, Jericho, Rafah and Jerusalem. Ali’s maternal grandfather arrived from Nigeria in 1917 as part of the British Army and later was a prison guard in Nur Shams, the village where he would meet and marry a Palestinian Christian. While Ali’s father is from Chad, their family traces their genealogy to Jeddah in contemporary Saudi Arabia. His family story complicates the meanings of Palestinian, blackness and Arabness. Indeed, in his family lineage we see a conjoining of all three. A central aspect of the complex connections and commitments of African-descended Palestinians to the politics of liberation are the ways that identity is mobilized and connected to land-based arguments. While a number of these descendants are understood as African or black, similarly the Bedouin of the Naqab desert — of whom some also migrated from Africa and intermarried locally — are recognized as an indigenous population, adding a fourth element of aboriginality. To be Palestinian is also a political claim. It is a claim that demands the exposure of colonial occupation and white supremacy that is part of the nation-state form. In other words, Palestinian liberation is ultimately about understanding a praxis of decolonization that demands of us a new imagining of how best to organize ourselves beyond the problems of the nation-state.

When Ali was 17, he became involved in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), largely in response to the Six-Day War and Israeli racism. As he describes it, Ali felt in his youth that he was made to feel as if he no longer belonged to the place he was born. Groups of Israelis would enter the Arab and African quarters of Jerusalem as an act of conquest. Ali was attracted to the PFLP as a political critique of this changing status quo. In retaliation to an Israeli attack on Palestinian civilians in Jordan, Ali planted a bomb in new Jerusalem, injuring nine Israeli civilians. For this, he received a sentence of 20 years in 1968. After serving 17 years, he was released in 1985 in a prisoner exchange. After stints as a journalist, Ali now works as an alternative tour guide and argues that militant violence is not a viable strategy in the current political context. As Ali argues, the current configuration of militarized violence and resistance disproportionately harms Palestinians, resulting in their mass incarceration and death.

Bethlehem, occupied Palestinian territories.  rrodriekbeiler/istockphoto [2]

Bethlehem, occupied Palestinian territories. rrodriekbeiler/istockphoto

While Ali Jiddah’s complex story provides some important lessons regarding social movement struggles and decolonization, I want to underscore the dimensions of how racism works through the foundational logic of white supremacy. To begin with, the struggle toward decolonization is not only one that moves toward the rightful association of land and the possibility of nationhood and a Palestinian state, decolonization is also a struggle of liberation from the nation-state. Here I do not proffer a romantic notion of simply abolishing the nation-state without acknowledging that it has provided models of distribution, rights and resources. The nation-state form has also worked as what some scholars describe a propensity toward an empire-state enabled through war, domination, violence, colonialism and ultimately the specter of white supremacy. As Ali Abunimah argued in his excellent The Battle for Justice in Palestine, the white supremacy that organizes the United States is parallel to the racism that the nation-state of Israel uses to colonize and subjugate Palestinians. With the expansion of the security state, technologies of policing and domination are being exported from Israel to the U.S. and elsewhere. These forms of securitization in the context of the U.S. war on terror are used in domestic surveillance and local policing that specifically target Muslims as a threat population. And while the figure of the Muslim speaks to the notion of the purported dangers of Islam, this racialization is a broadening of the terms of social hierarchy in that “Muslim” is a multiracial category. In many ways, the racialization of Muslims is exemplary of a 21st-century racism that has expanded its categories so it can police a number of populations simultaneously and with renewed force. In other words, the U.S. war on terror is used to racialize Muslims, as the war on drugs and crime are a contiguous policing of black and brown bodies. Here I do not imply a flattening of the powers of policing, rather this is a reinvigoration and expansion of state violence.

Yet, we often think of racism as something that is solely connected to anti-black prejudice, while anti-Muslim racism is viewed as an impossible contradiction. Racism is fundamentally about the rationales of genocide, colonialism, war and extermination. When we expand the understanding of racism and white supremacy in these ways, we begin to answer how a religion can be racialized, and more specifically, the relationship of anti-Muslim racism to white Christian supremacy. History shows that Islam’s imperial encounter with Christianity in the Iberian peninsula resulted in the racialization of Muslims as an internal and external enemy. How we’ve come to think of racism as separate from anti-Muslim has much to do with how the logic of white supremacy morphed to hide this process of race-making.

Blackness, Arabness, indigenity, Muslimness, Palestinian-ness — these are the tools of liberation that have imagined a decolonized future. To decolonize the nation-state, we must also denaturalize racism and white supremacy. That is, we must confront racism as a central component of the organizing structures of the nation-state. Simultaneously, the components of decolonization that might lead to solving present problems must be fought for and struggled over. In no way are these ideas a given. Decolonization and liberation don’t have one blueprint, but they can have similar goals, principles and objectives. The racism of the Israeli state is not exceptional, in fact the colonial occupation of Palestine is a far vaster problem that speaks to the tendencies of nation-states and the relationship to colonialism and empire. To undo these logics will require the imagination of those who strive for a future different from one that is already in the making.


Published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of The Islamic Monthly CoverV17_Racism-764x1024 [3]