|Placing the onus
Of victims and perpetrators
By Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar
March 15, 2002
One has to be careful in responding to Lee Howard Hodges' article "Victimology"
because one does not want to fall into the trap he lays so carefully. The aim of
an "agent provocateur" is just that, to provoke, and God knows there is
enough pent up anger in us little brown ones from that side of the world to be easily
provoked. Hodges' argument is the old colonial argument wrapped in a nice compliment.
It is racist to the core, but nicely put with soothing references to our history.
Thank you, Sahib Hodges, for reminding us that we "must look inward" to
be great again. How familiar, and yet how strange! Some would have thought this kind
of discourse to have been outmoded in the nineteenth century, when the great white
man took his burden and unloaded it on us hapless souls to save us from our own misery.
Curzon was a master at this kind of subtle poison; so were many of his contemporaries.
That this still is respectable discourse today, however, is more than troublesome,
but it is not surprising. About a month ago, Asghar Massombagi in his article "What
happened? ", referred to an interview Charlie Rose did with Bernard
Lewis on the occasion of the publication of Lewis' new book What Went Wrong? Western
Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press, 2002).
In his reference, Massombagi mentions a segment of the
interview where Lewis and Rose have a chuckle over a bon mot on Lewis' part. In answer
to a question by Rose as to what was on the oriental man's mind, Lewis chimed in
quoting a British diplomat "It is not important what is on the oriental's mind;
what is important is to let him know what is on your mind!"
Whether Lewis did or did not say this, is besides the point. What is relevant is
that this was indeed the attitude of the West towards the East, and it still is the
attitude in the minds of people like Hodges and the ilk he speaks for. No more eloquent
answer has been given to this crowd than Edward Said's great book Orientalism
(Pantheon Books, 1978).
It cannot be gainsaid. The discourse of the victimizer about the victim is always
a discourse of violence (literally and figuratively) and superiority, and always
one of denial of legitimacy and dismissal of the point of the victim. Also and always,
whatever the victim might do to regain their dignity, sanity, strength and self-respect,
so long as the victimizer has not been brought to acknowledge the depth of his abuse,
the victimizer will always dismiss any attempt at redress by the victim as puerile,
inadequate, incomplete, etc.
Even more insidious than this is the kind of relationship that is established over
time between victimizer and victim. This is a phenomenon studied by Victor Frankel
and other psychologists, who had either experienced the horrors of concentration
camps or heard of them from survivors.
It is when the victim starts adopting the language of the victimizer, buys into his
tormentor's reality and starts seeing his own situation through the logic and language
of the victimizer. This is even greater violence done to the victim by the victimizer
than outright physical violence, for in this case the victim has not only been robbed
of his freedom and dignity in the first place, but also of his ability to voice the
reality of his condition in the end.
This is what many Easterners have succumbed to when they adopt the colonial and imperialist
paradigms of the West to describe their own condition and attempt to explain the
blatant inadequacies they observe around them with a language and construct that
is designed to put the blame on them in the first place. Instead of placing the onus
where it belongs, and then proceed to do something about it within his own ranks,
the thus handicapped Easterner is invited to put the onus on himself and to seek
redress by lifting himself up by his own bootstraps.
Hodges is not a fool, though. His argument is quite clever. First the description
of the predicament the "Muslim" finds himself in is defined as "whiny,
self-pitying and narcissistic victimology," then the attempted answer by the
"Muslim" to his self-described (i.e. imagined) dilemma is equated with
embracing and excusing terrorism of the worst kind, against "women and children".
Assuming that the category "Muslim" adopted by Hodges is a descriptively
valid one, here then is the situation that pertains: The "Muslim" is faced
with a terrible dilemma: If he embraces the attempt to place the onus where he feels
it belongs, he is a whiner. If he persists in his argument against the West, he is
blamed for ignoring the excesses from among his own ranks; he is accused of siding
with terrorists and loses all moral right to speak up in anger and frustration against
that West. This is an interesting bind but a false one.
Hodges decries the "Muslim" for pointing to
the mote in America's eye while not seeing the beam in his own. Well, all right.
Let us deny the "Muslim" the right of such finger pointing. Does this alter
in any way the fact that America has played a major role in shaping the Middle East
into its present twisted self? Who, then, should be allowed to point this out? Only
those designated by Hodges and those who think like him? Or should we drop this altogether,
because this constitutes whining and self-pitying?
Who will be allowed, and under what circumstances will they be allowed, to say that
the Middle East today is reeling from the effects of American foreign policy of the
last fifty years? The "Muslim" is not allowed to point to the fact that
Israel would have never gotten away with the vehemence with which it pressed its
case for Eretz Israel had it not been for the unquestioning support of the World's
The "Muslim" is not allowed to point out that the geopolitics and economics
of oil has driven American foreign policy to muck around royally in the Middle East
so that energy can flow where it must flow. Who, then, will be allowed to point that
out? By what criterion do we decide who gets to speak on these issues and who does
not, and by what criterion do we decide that the one kind of speaking is acceptable
and that the other constitutes whining and self-pitying?
When looking at the Middle East, we find ourselves looking at a cauldron that is
boiling over in anger and bewilderment at its own situation. This anger and frustration
is aggravated by the fact that many remedies have been tried with very little effect.
The people of the Middle East in general are today not much better off than they
were fifty years ago. Baathism has failed them, pan-Arabism has failed them, resistance
to Israel has failed them, Islamism has failed them, and revolution has failed them.
While the majority of the people of the Middle East would like nothing more than
peace, stability and a modicum of assurance of the possibility of prosperity, they
have been silenced themselves by the most radical elements within their societies,
who have emerged as a result of these impasses and now thrive on their continuation.
Surely Middle Easterners have themselves been willing players in some of these scenarios,
but just as surely they have not been the only players.
Who would deny that the paramountcy of the logic of oil and of geopolitics has not
also been a decisive factor in the political shape of the Middle East today? In one
of the rare moments of true glory allowed that ill fated king, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi,
he rose to the occasion and said to the West, "Do not point your finger at us,
or we will point our finger at you!"
Shortly thereafter that same West thought him to expensive, and undermined its most
faithful ally in favor of a radical cleric, who, in turn, in a moment of brilliant
rhetoric -- as it spoke to the long pent-up frustration of a people -- said: "Amrikaa
hitch ghalati nemitavaanad bekonad" ("America cannot do a damned thing").
Strong words indeed, but the reality is quite different.
If we little brown ones had not quite gotten the message
that America can indeed do any damned thing it wishes to in the Middle East -- or
for that matter anywhere else, the Gulf War, the "advisors" in Saudi Arabia,
the war on the Taliban, and in general the "war on Terrorism" have given
us the message quite clearly: "This is a new age of colonialism. You do as you
are told. We do as we see fit. Resistance is futile. And now, let the oil flow and
the show begin anew!"
In the Summer of 1998, Kishore Mahbubani published an article in The National
Interest, entitled "Can Asians Think?" In it he posits three scenarios.
"No", "Yes", and "Maybe". In answering "No",
he argues that Asians must answer why only one society in Asia, Japan, has been able
to match the West's performance and not others. In answering "Yes", he
argues that Asians have been quite capable of defining the problems they have been
facing and have been able to come up with ingenious and indigenous solutions of their
own to the problems they have thus identified.
He ends his article with a more tentative sounding "Maybe", though. In
answering "Maybe", he points to the fact that despite having arrived at
solutions that allowed Asians to be noticed on a global scale in a positive manner,
they are still faced with major challenges that go beyond their immediate boundaries
The force of Globalization was one of the forces, all the effects of which Asians
could not quite anticipate. "Maybe" also because on the political front,
many Asian societies have a long way to go before they can reach levels of stability
Western political systems have achieved to date. "Maybe" because war is
not a thing of the past in Asia, but it is so in the West among Western powers.
"Maybe," again, because old obsolete social structures die hard, and in
remaining tenaciously, drain badly needed energy that could be used in other arenas.
And, finally, "Maybe" because it is a question whether Asians can develop
the right blend of tradition and modernity to allow them to get the best of both
These are indeed big challenges, and Mahbubani has put his finger on the most crucial
dilemmas that define the world of the East. That world is not as far as we think
from the world of the Middle East. Many of the points Mahbubani makes about Asians
can also be made about Middle Easterners, but there are substantial differences also.
The main one being the locus in the Middle East of raw materials essential to Asia
and the West and the attitude of that West to the Middle East that harbors those
Yes, we have not managed yet to be as dispassionate about our predicament as Kishore
Mahbubani says his Asian brothers and sisters have. We are still reeling, they are
getting ahead and even! Well, time will tell, but it is my guess that we too will
find our way out of the wilderness.
World events have strange and unintended consequences. One of the unintended consequences
of the disruptions in the Middle East has been that its swans have had to migrate
to the West to survive. They have landed in lakes and near other bodies of water
and made their homes in these new and strange places, and have survived and even,
at times, have thrived. They are older now, wiser perhaps, but have gained one crucial
dimension that was not allowed them while in their native lands, perspective.
The day will come when one among them will be able to
write an article titled "Can Middle Easterners Think?" and the answer will
be a resounding "Yes". That day will come, but it will not come on Hodges'
terms. He and his ilk would always deny us, as they themselves are in a state of
denial about the actions of the West they belong to.
That day surely will come, but in the meantime, unfortunately, our fellow brown brothers
and sisters will have to endure much more pain before a new dawn can break. In the
end, it is always from the East that daylight breaks, and to the Orient that we turn
to "orient" ourselves. So it was, and so it shall be again. It is only
heartbreaking to see us now in such a terrible and downcast state. But this too shall
Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar is chair of the department of Political Science
and Economics at Santa Barbara City College, where he teaches American, Comparative
and International Politics as well as Middle Eastern History and Politics.
By Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar
There's good reason for part of our anti-British 'paranoia'
Prognosis for a return of kings
... for Iran?
It is not America's moral responsibility to create or foster "free societies"
in the Muslim world. This is the responsibility of Muslims themselves
By Lee Howard Hodges
Why did the Googoosh generation turn fundamentalist?
Gandhi's nonviolent strategy
By Lawrence Reza Ershaghi
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