Friday, July 06, 2007

Why labeling bothers me

Maybe it's just me, but there's something about switching back and forth between Western and Arabic war- and political-reporting that gives me a feeling of nausea, which I will now try and explain.

It starts with the labeling. This group (Ansar al-Sunna, say) is AlQaeda; this group (same one at a different time or in different circumstances) isn't. This man (Harith al-Dhari, say) is a thug; this man (same person, at a different time) is an important leader. The same groups and the same individuals are put through these explanatory hoops as the circumstances and the US government position change. From time to time someone critiques the prevailing nomenclature (for instance, bravo for recognizing that "we are primarily fighting AlQaeda in Iraq" is a misleading and tendentious theme). Label-critique is fine as far as it goes, but where does it get us? Who are we fighting, really? The new line is we are fighting people who get a kick out of fighting each other, and each of these groups has its own label, for purposes of English-language reporting, and no other characteristics. Labeling someone or a group as a way of not seeing that person or group has another name--racism--and I guess that's where the nausea comes in.

That's one source of it. The other is that labeling is a way of more or less deliberately missing what is actually happening, in favor of perpetuating a party line. For instance:

Some groups and individuals, for one reason or another, don't get any tag at all. Take the Islamic Army in Gaza led by Mumtaz Darmoush and his family. A self-styled salafi jihadi group, accused of being more of a hometown organized crime family, western accounts don't really say anything about them. The high-profile release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston was entirely based on pressure-and-negotiations with this group on the part of Hamas, and in spite of the importance of the event as evidence of a degree of stability in Gaza, nothing is said about them. The reason is that this is one of those situations you can't label in quite the same way. All elements of Gaza society recognized the prevailing need, and the prevailing pressure, for unity in the face of collective isolation and collective starvation. What do you call that kind of a situation, out of your thesaurus of labels, O English language reporter? I guess you couldn't start with some concept like "solidarity"?

I think once you see why some groups and events don't fit the labels, you can begin to see what is wrong with the whole labeling approach. It isn't just a matter of calling Hamas terrorist in order to justify trying to annihilate the movement. It's that too, but it is also a matter of labeling everything in sight, in order to avoid coming to grips with the underlying phenomena. Take the assumed distinction between Islamist movements that participate in electoral politics (Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, for instance) and those that reject the idea (AlQaeda and its relatives). The fact is that the pre-eminent salafi Ayman Zawahiri, in his periodic pronouncements, while he still criticizes concessions to Israel, seems to have dropped his earlier very pointed criticism of Hamas being involved in electoral politics at all. Does that mean Zawahiri is becoming less "salafi"? Or would it be better to try and understand what is actually happening. Similarly in Iraq, the current debate about whether it is wise for the US to arm "non-salafi" groups to fight "salafi" groups falls into this category. It risks being an argument primarily about labels. For instance, there is a lot of jihadi chat-room discussion about this issue that might be enlightening, but where have you ever seen an extended summary of such a discussion? Much safer to stick to in-principle discourse about the labels.

In Iraq, the labeling has been easy. Iraqi resistance has a modern history going back at least to the resistance to the British in the 1920s, but that was another generation. Post-2003 Iraqis all to easily fell into the sectarian trap, giving Western commentators plenty of support for their labeling strategies. Western denunciations of Sadr used to echo what the Baathists have had to say about them, and conversely, the erstwhile denunciations of the Baathist resistance echoed what the Shiite government was saying. I use the past tense, because for instance a resistance spokesman by the name of Awni Qalamji, in his regular Al-Quds al-Arabi op-ed, appears to have dropped his earlier very pointed Sadr-criticism and is instead focusing on the resistance as a manifestation not only of Iraqi and Islamic values, but of universal values as well.

Since the US sharpened the focus on Palestine, the situation with respect to labeling has changed much more noticeably. Palestinian resistance is a tradition going back many decades, and you can see that in the difficulty Washington is currently having in driving the wedge between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah people, from the rank-and-file to the leadership, recognize a cheap occupation ploy when they see one. Putting it another way, you can go to many websites and read something about the experiences of Palestinians under the occupation, and under the recent anti-Gaza measures, and you won't find anything like the sectarian or small-group-based hatred and group-labeling that characterized so much of the early post-2003 Iraqi experience.

Interestingly, after Hamas took control of Gaza, there was an effort to revive labeling as a principle of Western reporting. It was widely reported that Egypt was going to be upset about having an "Islamist state" (meaning Hamas) on its eastern border, because of the potential encouragement this might give to its Muslim Brotherhood opposition, and therefore Egypt would cooperate with the US, Israel and others in confronting and eradicating them. It wasn't true. Hamas and the Egyptian authorities seem to enjoy an excellent relationship, and there are reports of coming efforts by Egypt to re-start Hamas-Fatah talks, to avoid just such a confrontation. The confrontational label "Islamist" didn't stick. It didn't stick because there is more to the "Middle East" than "Islamist" and "secular". You could say: There are many ties that bind, and America isn't one of them. And what do you propose to call those ties that bind, O Analyst? What expressions in your native English language do you propose to use for that?


Blogger Helena Cobban said...

There are many ties that bind, and America isn't one of them. And what do you propose to call those ties that bind, O Analyst? What expressions in your native English language do you propose to use for that?

Easy question, o Badger! That's when we hear the content-free old canard of "moderates vs. extremists."

8:22 PM  
Blogger Dick Durata said...

Just the one I was going to mention, helena. Pro US are moderates, everyone else is an extremist. There aren't many news stories about the region that don't use those labels in a most disingenuous way.

9:12 PM  

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