“To be rational when everyone else is emotional makes you a traitor,” noted prolific twitterati Iyad El-Baghdadi after his Palestinian identity was questioned when he became critical of Hamas’ extrajudicial killing of five alleged Israel collaborators. Disturbed by the images of bodies dragged in the street by motorcyclists, Al-Baghdadi spoke his mind and paid the price on his twitter feed. Critics lashed out with nasty epithets of “house Arab” and “colonized Arab.”
Despite being the stateless son of refugees, El-Baghdadi is – in the minds of his fellow Arab Muslim detractors – not supposed to think outside of the box, or at least say his thoughts his out loud. Merely questioning Hamas’ behavior immediately became grounds for Al-Baghdadi’s core identity to be attacked and ultimately revoked. His transgression was to openly question the “wrong” side of the Israel-Palestine equation. The message, El-Baghdadi observes, is “you either uncritically adopt our narrative, or you’re not one of us.”
The outrage – so strong that it would brook no dissent – is ostensibly generated by the Israeli army’s attacks on Palestinian civilians. Yet, when Hamas or another faction blows up a city bus or fires rockets into a classroom it generates no outrage. Why? Many never say but the underlying rationalization of such overt war crimes is “resisting occupation by any means necessary and available” or the even more simplistic “we are oppressed.”
People thunder furiously about an op-ed by Gilad Sharon calling openly for Gaza to be leveled and holding Gazans responsible for their fate after having willingly voted in Hamas. And the Hamas charter that calls for all Jews to be killed? It cannot be explained – unless you actually agree.
El-Baghdadi’s example illustrates that delivering harsh criticism of Israel as well earns no immunity. In fact, he got himself in further trouble on Twitter for criticizing the cheapening impact of using words like “genocide” and “Holocaust” to describe the situation in Gaza. One notable Palestinian-American celebrity tweeted: “Every time I see Iyad El-Baghdadi retweeted my stomach turns and I feel sick.” (A separate but important discussion is exploring why so many Americans of Arab background can get even more riled up than folks on the ground – from the safety of America.)
As someone who frequently tweets in both Hebrew and Arabic, I know firsthand how group-think can become a form of tyranny that makes liberals remain silent whenever tensions flare with Israel. Any word or phrase can be used to level charges of being a traitor. Being re-tweeted by an Israeli can seal the verdict, allegedly providing ammunition for “hasbara” efforts (this is precisely what happened to Al-Baghdadi, compounding his ad hoc expulsion). Expressing genuine compassion for friends across the conflict line risks ex-communication from a community that one belongs to and cares deeply about.
But staying silent has its own terrible cost. It means acquiescing to Hamas’ values, which run counter to a moral core that holds sacred human life regardless of ethnicity or faith. It flattens multiple identities into an imposed internal stereotype of what an Arab is and believes. It also reinforces external stereotypes of Arabs as bloodthirsty barbarians stuck in a pre-modern clan mentality. Both stereotypes deny individuality and the essential human need to express compassion.
Across the Middle East and in the Arab Diaspora, there are millions who have cheered uprisings against repression, throwing off decades of stifling group-think and having the freedom to debate openly about the future. The last two years have been transformative precisely because old dogmas were finally challenged and discarded, at least in part. It is long past time to bring the same spirit to the Arab-Israeli conflict – and most importantly to how we talk about it to each other.
For some Arab liberals, this change has already begun. Arguably the most influential Lebanese blogger Mustapha Hammaoui recently published a post provocatively titled: “What is the proper ‘Arab’ way of talking about Gaza?” After criticizing commentators from across the Lebanese spectrum, his piece grew to a crescendo: “Does being Arab require that I protest loudly when innocent Palestinian children are killed, but that I completely give away my humanity and turn a blind eye when innocent Israeli children are killed?”
Hammoui’s rejection of this false choice offers hope and a way forward for Arab liberals. To avoid being held hostage to the whims of illiberal and obscurantist ideologues, we need a clear set of values for navigating the complex reality of identity and geo-politics. Here is my first attempt to articulate these values, which deserve a rigorous and open debate:
- Be yourself and allow others to be themselves. Don’t impose ideologies.
- Discussion is not treason – don’t expel people (Arabs have had enough of that).
- Self-criticism and introspection are healthy because they help clarify the truth.
- Criticizing and even denouncing Palestinian leaders does not mean abandoning the plight of Palestinians. In fact, it may be the best thing you can do for them.
- Don’t let the Islamists set the agenda and use Palestine to delegitimize liberals.
- Keep perspective: Bashar Al-Assad today has more civilian blood on his hands that any non-Arab oppressor.
- Avoid whenever possible cheapening rhetoric like “Holocaust” and “martyrdom.” (And no need to be holier than President Morsi, who kept the Rafah Crossing locked, destroyed smuggling tunnels, and just certified the Muslim Brotherhood’s recognition of Israel.)
- Stand up for liberal values with consistency, recognizing that reality is complicated and doesn’t always have simple solutions.
- It’s okay to be friends with Israelis, Jews, athiests, gays, masons – as it should be with a conservative religious Muslim.
- Feel free to disagree with me.
- Don’t be afraid to speak out even if you feel alone and the mob comes for you. If no one else does, I still stand with you.
Arab liberals must avoid the temptation to take leave of our moral values whenever Israel enters the conversation. I do not have the solution to the conflict with Israel, but I know that having a sense of compassion and humanity can help lead the way. But in the end, our main challenge is not Israel, but rather our (in)ability to have a conversation without fear or self-censorship.
What we need now is a new resistance movement – to resist being co-opted by Islamists and nationalists whose price for belonging requires betraying core human values. Our resistance movement struggles to secure liberty of thought and to reject the false choice of barbarism or guilt. We need to set ourselves free. We have a third way: Be ourselves without fear.
Again, feel free to disagree with me.