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The ‘Arab Street’, Saladin and Palestinian Self-Determination

Very rarely do displays of statesmanship appear in the ubiquity of the reporting and dissemination of events around the world on the screens of our televisions, personal computers and iPhones. Donald Trump’s exaggerated anticipation of his own speech declaring the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem was no exception. True to form, both supporters and detractors warned of the likelihood of explosive violence and rage among Muslims. The familiar narrative of the angry Muslim who would disturb the Pax Americana, the peace of American strategic objectives and its allies in the Arab world and elsewhere, dominated the airwaves. Protesting crowds did indeed take to public spaces in Jakarta, Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur. The question of Palestine is one which both governments and their citizens, when there is a plethora of economic, political and social cleavages stubbornly separating them, can rally around. The right of the self-determination of Palestinians is a burning issue that has set fire to the moral imagination of politicians, musicians, intellectuals and ordinary people on every continent.

None of the fearful images of rampaging mobs materialised in the ‘Arab street’. The 24-hour news cycle sensationalises protests and apparent irrational expressions of anger (burning Trump effigies), especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, for self-serving reasons, higher audience numbers and advertising revenue. Protests are often marked by asymmetries of power. Rage found in collective manifestations of discontent, if understood as a process, are rational and ethical responses to unspeakable violations of moral claims. The intifadat (uprisings) of 1987 and 2000 galvanised periods of organised and concerted popular activism in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Hamas, the Islamist movement, was founded in this era. The Palestine Liberation Organisation shed its resistance strategy and adopted the veneer of statehood with Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Perez sharing the Nobel Peace Prize of 1994 following the signing of the Oslo Accords. Less than a decade later, Arafat was treated as a pariah figure and holed up in Ramallah under an Israeli siege only to leave for a hospital in Paris where he died in 2004. This was yet another ominous sign of the elusiveness of peace in the heart of the Arab world. The term Arab street in the Palestinian context and the broader Arab world reflects not simply the rise of the mob but also the fear of rage, Arab or Muslim, directed toward the USA and its allies if it were to materialise.

Terry Regier and Muhammad Ali Khalidi, in an academic article published in 2009, argue that the pejorative Arab Street became conflated with Arab public opinion coinciding with the first intifada (uprising) of 1987. All things political and public in the Arab world are reduced to being irrational and volatile. In a sharp riposte to the Orientalist construction of the Arab street, Asef Bayat also challenges the contradictory assumptions that are attached to it such as irrational and aggressive, and apathetic and dead. He further notes that the street is a ‘complex entity’ in which ‘collective dissent is expressed’ by both the marginalised and those ‘with some institutional power like students, workers, women, state employees and shopkeepers.’ Here there is no mob rule. The real threat, as Bayat accurately notes, is the subversive effects of street protests in wresting control away of public spaces from the seemingly overwhelming power of the state and its agents on the ground, namely the riot police. What made the Arab uprisings at the beginning of the first second of this century astonishingly successful were their ability to enfeeble the coercive apparatus of the state. Hundreds of thousands and millions of human bodies mobilised at the same time in the same space led to one outcome: regimes had lost control of the streets. The Palestinian intifadat are perhaps the symbolic archetype of popular protest demanding democracy, self-determination and dignity in the Arab world that have somehow failed to upset the asymmetry of power in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Saladin and Palestinian Self-Determination

Flights of the imagination of a modern-day Saladin coming to the rescue to liberate Jerusalem evoke the surrealism of post-colonial realities. Euphoric expectations of independence in the former colonies have ended up in a state of broken dreams. In the annals of Islamic and Arab writings, Saladin undoubtedly occupies the grand stature of the hero who expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem and united Egypt, Palestine, Syria and the Hijaz in the twelfth century. The legend of Saladin is present among Muslims and also in Europe and North America wherein he is a symbol of chivalry and magnanimity. From Hamilton Gibb’s book The Life of Saladin (1973) to the Hollywood blockbuster The Kingdom of Heaven (2005) by Ridley Scott, the heroism of Saladin is ubiquitous in our times. Nonetheless, the failure of the post-colonial imagination in the Arab world and its inability to cope with reality are displayed in full view in the expectations of a strong-man who will come to the rescue. Fiction or historical interpretation is no substitute for the grassroots struggle against authoritarianism and occupation in the Arab world.

As the young Palestinian activist Ahed al-Tamimi maturely observed in 2014 when she was only 14 years old: there is no waiting for Saladin to liberate her people and this task falls squarely on the shoulders of ordinary Palestinians. Flights of the imagination to a glorious past cannot recreate the victories of old. Time moves and evades capture even by the best-intentioned. Land, water and home are the existential issues that undergird Palestinian self-determination. Any narrative that fails to engage with the specific and bonded nature of human life, including the values of dignity and freedom, descends irresponsibly into flights of the imagination. Loud pronouncements about Saladin or other heroes appear to compensate for a deep-rooted sense of powerlessness in present circumstances.

Ahed, now 17 years old, was recently arrested in her village of Nabi Saleh in the West Bank. She offers the clearest instance of self-determination from the bottom-up not obscured by utopian ideology. The young student has stood up for the defence of her land in displays of rage against all odds. A rage ignored by the Israeli soldiers who are protecting Israeli settlements around her home in the West Bank. On both counts, the presence of the soldiers and building of settlements, international law has been flagrantly and repeatedly broken for half a century. With no recourse to a state authority to enforce her and her family’s rights, Ahed, like countless other Palestinian students, has led and participated in protests against Israeli occupation often in direct confrontation with soldiers. Rage and protest by Palestinian protesters are rendered illegitimate while rage and force by Israeli soldiers are automatically legitimate. Indeed, as Shenila Khoja-Moolji points out, the case of Ahed illustrates a disparity not only of the resources at one’s disposal to resist the might of the modern state but also that of a sovereign power able to award political value to human life and to take it away.

Ahed’s struggle for home lies in the recognition that the very foundation of her and her family’s existence is threatened in the broader context of the deprivation of statehood and nationhood. The dawning realisation of the empowerment of rage can be seen in bell hooks, the African-American feminist writer, and her claim of emotional subjectivity à la Malcolm X: the passion for justice is a catalyst for rage. Freedom from an occupation based on racism in Palestine is demanded, nothing less, nothing more. Daily humiliations of Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank can be transformed to empower and create the living praxis of resistance. Against this backdrop, for a long time, the ideals, objectives and movements of Palestinian liberation were hammered out in foreign capitals, Cairo, Baghdad and even Washington DC, and this continues today. What is taking place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a fusing together of a praxis of resistance and an ethic of belonging to the land, home.

Teenagers such as Ahed are the torchbearers of the cause of Palestine, in large part, due to their very presence on the ground. Constant interference from regional powers and international actors in Palestinian self-determination, however, has served to undermine the process of building the local capacity and resources badly needed to realise the moral object of a sovereign Palestinian state. Any externally-imposed settlement, such as that being cooked up by Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, would merely repeat the disastrous experience of a Palestinian National Authority beholden to foreign donors and interests that have emptied it of the power to defend ordinary Palestinians such as Ahed and her mother, Nariman Tamimi, from arbitrary arrests and detentions.

Mohammed Moussa is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University in Istanbul. He has written on Islamic political thought, the Arab uprisings and the politics of the Middle East.