By Khaled Diab
Only self-hating Arabs and Jews can save the Middle East from itself.
22 August 2011
I have a confession to make: I’m a ‘self-hating Arab’. In fact, some readers of my articles believe that I suffer from a rare form of political Tourette’s in which I cannot help but blurt out irrationally hateful criticism. I write regularly about all the ills I perceive in Egyptian and Arab society, including authoritarianism, corruption, gaping inequalities, human rights abuses, gender issues, insufficient intellectual freedom, etc.
As I’m in a confessional mood, and a good confession requires full disclosure, let me also admit that my self-hating does not end at the borders of the Middle East. Despite having spent the greater part of my life in Europe – namely in the UK and Belgium – it seems that I cannot help but criticise the West, particularly its colonial past, neo-colonial present and the attitudes of some towards minorities.
Almost a year to the day before Anders Behring Breivik mounted his deadly attacks in Oslo, I warned that far-right groups in Europe were probably a more dangerous threat than Islamist extremists and that we should not close our eyes to the violent fringe and its ambitions to execute major attacks. This predictably led to some accusations that I was an ‘Islamofascist’ who entertains sympathies for Islamists, jihadis and other breeds of baddies.
On the other side of the spectrum, I have been dismissed by some as a ‘closet orientalist’, an ‘Islamophobe’, a ‘neocon’, a ‘house negro’, an ‘Uncle Tom’ and even a ‘Zionist’. But the memo about my alleged Zionist sympathises has not reached the powers that be in Israel who, despite my European passport and based on my name and ethnicity, give me a special kind of ‘VIP treatment’.
At Ben Gurion airport last week, for example, I was stopped before I’d even entered the terminal and interrogated at the gate while hundreds of other passengers passed unharassed.
When I asked out of curiosity why I’d been singled out, the security guard answered unhelpfully and rather cryptically from behind the impenetrable barrier of his mirror sunglasses that it was “his job” – and it seemed to be the job of his colleagues to accompany me every step of the way.
While I can understand that the safety and security of flights needs to be ensured, surely the thorough searching of my luggage, including combing them for traces of explosives, and the massage-like frisking are enough on that count. But what exactly do the repeated questionings, the insulting infringement on my privacy and the long unexplained waits outside offices achieve except to send out the message that people of Arab origin are unwelcome guests here?
Naturally, some Arab critics will view my living in Jerusalem as another sign of my self-loathing and will regard the above treatment as nothing more than my just deserts for trying to connect with Israelis with both empathy and sympathy.
Likewise, Israelis and Jews who try to reach out across the chasm of animosity, distrust and hatred to express understanding and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians are similarly labelled.
“The self-hating thing is a weird one. It is supposed to refer to people who have so little pride in their history and culture that they are willing to sell themselves and their fellow Jews out to ‘the man’,” one alleged Jewish self-hater confessed. “It is a pejorative which tries to get you in a really rather personal and painful way.”
Naturally, it goes without saying that, like any self-respecting ‘self-hater’, I don’t regard myself as such. Rather, I believe that many of the people who fire off accusations of self-loathing are usually self-righteous and cannot admit their side commits any wrongs. They tend to abide by the precept that it is ‘my side, right or wrong’ and that we shouldn’t ‘hang our dirty laundry’ out in public.
So, why do some people adopt such harsh tones against members of their group who express dissenting views, no matter how rationally or honestly expressed?
In general terms, not conforming to the mainstream view of your community carries with it the risk of ostracisation. More specifically, the concept of ‘self-hate’ seems to enjoy the most currency among groups, minorities and peoples who feel under attack, threatened marginalised or demonised and so feel that it is important for all members to pull rank.
In the Jewish context, the long and painful history of anti-Semitism and discrimination, not to mention pogroms and the Holocaust, as well as popular Arab hostility towards Israel, has bred a level of hyper-defensiveness in the minds of many.
This explains why the ‘self-hate’ label – which gained popular currency following Theodor Lessing’s 1930 book Der Jüdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-hatred) – probably has a longer history among Jews than among other groups. It can also be particularly virulent, as illustrated by the toxic Jewish SHIT list of over 7,000 allegedly “Self-Hating and Israel-Threatening” Jews.
This sense of embattlement engenders the misguided belief in the mainstream of the Jewish psyche that Israel should be defended at any cost and regardless of its actions.
Similarly, though Arabs have not experienced anything as apocalyptic as the Holocaust, most of the Middle East lived through centuries of foreign domination (Greek and Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine, Persian, Arabian, Turkic and Ottoman, British and French, etc.) in which the locals more often than not lived as effective second-class citizens in their own countries, over-taxed, oppressed and largely excluded from the corridors of power.
So, when the promise of independence came around after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the fact that the Palestinians were the first Arabs to be denied their freedom has transformed the Palestinian question into one of the most emotive issues in the collective Arab conscience, leading many to view it with greater irrationality than most other issues.
So, does that mean that ‘self-hatred’ doesn’t exist and no one deserves the label? Of course it does, especially among people whose history or contemporary reality makes them feel inferior to or persecuted by other groups.
For instance, what is termed ‘uqdet el-khawaga’ (‘the foreigner complex’) is fairly prevalent among Arabs, who have internalised orientalist stereotypes about themselves, and exhibits itself in aloofness towards all things local, good or bad, and praise of all things Western, also good or bad. More damagingly, there are and have been certain opportunist Arabs who are willing to collaborate, intellectually or practically, with foreign powers out to hurt their home countries, usually in return for material rewards.
Likewise, some of history’s most virile anti-Semites have been Jewish. In addition, the condescension exhibited by some assimilated German Jews – who also internalised negative orientalist stereotypes – towards their Eastern European co-religionists, while not exactly ‘self-hatred’, did betray a certain discomfort with their background and heritage.
The trouble is that self-hatred and self-loathing is not used as an honest intellectual tool to examine the motives of a tiny minority who fit the bill. Rather, it is used as a powerful weapon to silence criticism and dissent from within one’s own supposed camp. But the only thing these alleged self-loathers hate is injustice, no matter who commits it, and so they should, instead, be called justice-lovers.
In a context where ‘us’ and ‘them’ threatens to submerge us before them, we are in desperate need of those who not only love their own side but are willing to show compassion and even love for the other side. And if that is self-hatred, then I’m proud to say that I hate myself.
This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 21 August 2011.