Friday 20 December 2013

The rhetoric of evasion revisited: strange logic in the gender segregation debate

The other day I was bemoaning the absence of Madeleine Bunting from the pages of The Guardian. Regular readers of Normblog will remember Our Maddy of the Sorrows (© Norman Geras circa 2005) as the leading exponent of a certain kind of world-weary, anti-Enlightenment 'liberalism', which often included a perverse desire to understand (what Norm, in her honour, dubbed ‘mbunderstanding’) the actions of religious fundamentalists.

But hey, who needs Madeleine Bunting when we’ve still got Priyamvada Gopal? Like Bunting, Gopal, a lecturer in English at Cambridge University, has a reputation for writing Guardian columns in which she ties herself in rhetorical knots defending the indefensible. Norm wrote about her efforts here, here, here, here, here and here, while my own humble attempts to understand Gopalian logic can be found here, here and here.

It was only a matter of time, surely, before Ms Gopal weighed into the debate about gender segregation in British universities. If you’ve ever wondered how a secular, liberal feminist might end up supporting the right of religious fundamentalists to segregate men and women in a place of higher learning, then you need look no further than her article about the issue, published earlier this week, not in the Guardian for a change, but (perhaps surprisingly) by the New Humanist.

Actually, the article is really an object lesson in how to avoid engaging with a contentious issue. Rather than taking on the arguments of the anti-segregation campaigners, or suggesting counter-arguments, Gopal uses some familiar rhetorical strategies to ensure that she doesn’t have to, which include:

Delegitimising the opposition

Gopal takes up a lot of space in this short piece, and certainly expends a great deal of linguistic energy, portraying those who campaigned against gender segregation in a negative light. She argues that the campaign has taken place in a context ‘heavily shaped by an intolerant Western 'liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou.’ One wonders who she is talking about here: who exactly are these liberals who are somehow also ‘intolerant’ (how does that work?), who are only pretending to be secular and enlightened (so what are they really: religious, and living in the Dark Ages?), and who claim superior knowledge? Can we have some names, perhaps?

Having erected this straw man, Gopal moves on to specific accusations against those involved in the recent campaign. Her main target is Student Rights, which we learn is ‘an offshoot of the bullishly paternalist Euro-American think tank, the Henry Jackson Society’ and a ‘reactionary and opportunistic formation’ which has ‘cynically’ seized on this issue. Elsewhere she describes their campaign as ‘aggressive’, though she doesn’t substantiate this accusation. In fact, Student Rights was only one of a number of organisations taking part in the campaign, and hardly played a leading role, but it makes a very convenient scapegoat, especially as it can be tarnished with the brush of being both pro-American and right-wing. Never mind that many of those arguing against the ruling by Universities UK were non-western feminists. Later in the article, Gopal characterises the anti-segregationists as ‘so-called "muscular liberals" (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best)’.  This will come as a surprise to Maryam Namazie and the other left-wing, non-white, female activists who played a leading role in the campaign. And once again there’s that completely unfounded suggestion that liberals who oppose religious fundamentalism are somehow patronising and superior, when there’s not an iota of evidence to support this.

By falsely linking her opponents with everything that her intended audience can be assumed to be against – America, conservatism, a certain kind of sexist masculinity (‘bullish…muscular…paternalist’) – Gopal seeks to undermine their arguments without ever having to confront them.

Changing the subject

Rather than take on the arguments of the anti-segregation campaigners, Gopal hurriedly moves the discussion on to a different set of issues. She claims that ‘the group’ – presumably she means Student Rights – ‘has not addressed greater gendered problems on campus, such as the pay gap or sexual violence’ and has been ‘silent about far more widespread forms of gender and economic segregation including the private, often single-gender schools for the wealthy’.  But Student Rights was set up explicitly to combat extremism on campus, not to tackle these other issues. Nevertheless, many of the other activists involved in the current campaign do have a good record of fighting against wider institutional sexism and inequality. But even if they didn’t, would that mean they weren’t allowed to discuss this example of gender discrimination? It's rather like criticising Rosa Parks for highlighting the issue of racial segregation on buses in the American South in the 1950s, rather than focusing her attention on the 'real' issues of black poverty and inequality. It’s a strange and self-serving kind of logic. 

Off-limits to outsiders

Gopal’s third rhetorical avoidance strategy is to suggest that those who campaign against gender segregation don’t really have the right to do so. Having established her own cultural street cred (‘I grew up in a context where gender segregation in many public spaces is common’) she adds: ‘It did not take the proverbial "decent, nice, liberal" Europeans to get us to ask what segregation meant in both ideological and institutional terms’. It sounds like Gopal is saying that western liberals and feminists should keep quiet about discrimination within minority communities. She bolsters this by characterising criticism of cultural practices – such as segregating men and women – as ‘selective attacks on our communities’. Elsewhere, Gopal accuses the anti-segregation lobby of ‘targeting’ Islamic student groups – when of course, these are the only groups that are actually enforcing segregation. Somewhere, buried in the dense and tortuous final paragraph of her article, is an appeal to women from minority communities to ‘express a dissenting view’ from religious traditionalists. At least I think that’s what she’s saying. But it's so wrapped up in qualifying clauses, and tangled up in the message to outsiders to mind their own business, that it gets lost in the thickening rhetorical fog.

Gopal’s smearing of the anti-segregation campaigners as a bunch of condescending white male conservatives is given the lie by two other contributions to the debate that appeared this week – both  written by women, one a secular white feminist, the other a liberal Muslim. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown offered her critique of the pro-segregation ruling here and celebrated its defeat here. Ophelia Benson takes Pryamvada Gopal’s arguments apart here and here. Ophelia ends with this appeal to Gopal:
Liberal universalists are not your enemy. We’re not the ones who think you should be at home instead of teaching at Cambridge … Why… are you ignoring Maryam Namazie and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Abhishek Phadnis and focusing on Student Rights who had nothing to do with the protest against gender segregation? Why are you ignoring the very possibility of international solidarity, and the reality of it that is so conspicuous in everything Maryam does? What the hell do you think that accomplishes? Why not drop the fake accusations of imperialism and just join Maryam and the rest?
Why not, indeed.

Monday 16 December 2013

Understanding the new Christian anti-Zionism: Part 2

In the previous post I wrote about an example of the growing hostility towards Israel among Christian groups. In this post, I want to suggest a number of factors that might explain this phenomenon. But what about my title: is it really fair to talk about a new Christian anti-Zionism? We’ve become used to talking about (and laughing at) Christian Zionists: those rather odd, mostly American fundamentalists who support Israel uncritically because they believe the return of the Jews to their homeland is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a sign of the coming End Times. But Christian anti-Zionism – does such a thing really exist?

Let’s be clear. What I’m talking about here is not the occasional criticism of particular Israeli government policies. Rather, as I noted in the last post, I’m concerned with some Christian groups’ persistent and obsessive focus on the Israel/Palestine issue, to the exclusion of more serious human rights abuses and instances of human suffering elsewhere in the world. And, in focusing on that issue, the wilful tendency to take the side of Israel’s enemies and to characterise Israel in a way that comes close to undermining its legitimacy.

So what explains the growing strength of this attitude among Christians? Here, in no particular order, are some of the factors I think are at play:

Missionary guilt

Much of the recent hostility to Israel comes from liberal Christians who have imported from their counterparts on the secular Left a view of the world that is largely motivated by post-colonial guilt. The anti-imperialist Left is driven by a powerful desire to disavow the West’s colonial past, and in the process they tend to blame the developed world for the problems of its former colonies. Just as Victorian imperialists saw the world through a simple binary framework –  West good, the rest bad – so their anti-imperialist successors simply reverse the poles and adopt a worldview in which Britain, Europe and the US are the source of all that is wrong with the world, and the once oppressed ‘Others’ – whether African, Asian or Arab – are innocent and passive victims. But liberal Christians overlay this secular Left perspective with what we might call post-missionary guilt, which drives a constant quest to compensate for their predecessors’ imposition (as they see it) of western values on the rest of the world. At the same time, some progressive Christians share with some secular liberals a certain weariness and disillusionment with modern, consumerist western society and a tendency to idealise, exoticise and romanticise the non-western world (the much-missed Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian was the mouthpiece par excellence of this tendency).

Liberal Christians, like their secular counterparts, make the mistake of imposing this simplistic, bipolar framework on the Middle East conflict, and reducing a complex historical dispute with multiple causes to a black-and-white case of a white-ish, western-looking nation oppressing a non-white, non-western ‘indigenous’ group. Anything that doesn’t fit into this model – such as the long history of Jewish residence in Palestine, or Arab anti-Semitism – is simply excluded from the narrative.

Heroes and villains

Layered on top of this is a specifically Christian tendency to moralise political issues. What I mean is that some religious people, when intervening in political debates, tend to look for parties who can act as simple carriers of good and evil, praise and blame. In a moralised universe, any situation that is unjust must have a party that is responsible for the injustice and can be prophetically preached against, and a victim who can act as the object of Christian pity and charity. This kind of moralising discourse is not much use in political situations where there are multiple shades of grey and where there isn’t a single, straightforward root cause. Thus there is no room in this approach for the kind of complex chain of causation one finds in the Middle East – no room for an acceptance that the Palestinians might have brought some of their sufferings on themselves, by their refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist, by deliberately failing to resettle refugees in order to shame Israel, or by carrying out attacks that precipitated the building of a security fence. 

As in secular anti-imperialist thinking, there is a reluctance in Christian anti-Zionist discourse to attribute agency to the victim group – in this case, the Palestinians. If Palestinians act in a particular way – whether throwing stones at Israeli soldiers or blowing up Israeli bus passengers – it must be because they are ‘reacting’ to something that Israel has previously done. As Pascal Bruckner has written, this refusal to allow non-western peoples their own autonomous motivation is a kind of narcissism (everything is about ‘us’ – the ‘west’ ). And as I’ve noted before, it’s ironically a kind of post-colonial racism, a refusal to allow the ‘other’ to be anything but a pure victim.

I had a friend at university who was one of the nicest people you could hope to meet. He was a Christian of a very undogmatic kind, from a public school background, and known for his acts of selfless generosity. But he shocked me when he argued that the problem with socialism was that it would do away with the need for charity. So working-class people needed to remain poor, just so that people like him could be charitable towards them! Something similar seems to be going on with Christian attitudes to Israel/Palestine: it’s as though the Palestinians are the latest group that are required to play the role of pure victims in a certain kind of Christian narrative. Dare I say that this sometimes seems to be more about Christians (and others) needing to feel sympathetic and righteously indignant than about the real needs of the objects of their pity?

Sacred and secular

As well as simplifying the Israel/Palestine issue by moralising it, some Christian groups also misrepresent it by ‘sacralising’ it – by turning it into a religious argument. Christian commentators on the conflict are often quick to move it on to religious territory, where they clearly feel more at home. Their first rhetorical move is to assume that the justification for Israel’s existence is purely religious, and that this is how Israelis justify both the foundation of their state and their government’s current policies, including occupation of the disputed territories, a.k.a. the West Bank. Having made that assumption, they can draw on their biblical knowledge and theological resources to take that argument apart, and fulminate about misinterpretation and misuse of holy Scripture. At the same time, they can paint Israelis as intolerant religious fundamentalists drawing on an outdated understanding of the Bible (unlike open-minded progressive Christians, of course).

The only problem with this line of argument is that, at least in my experience, Israelis and supporters of Israel very rarely draw on religious arguments to justify their state’s existence or actions. Perhaps a few ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists might do so, but the most common arguments for Israel are determinedly secular – based on the longstanding presence of Jews in the land, the need for a refuge from persecution, whether in Europe or Arab countries, and the right to a homeland of their own. Having recourse to religious discourse in this way seems like a neat way of sidestepping those compelling secular arguments, and moving the argument on to territory where you think you can put one over on the other side.

Not ‘getting’ it

This brings us on to another factor that I often think is influential in shaping current Christian attitudes to Israel. To put it simply, I think a lot of Christians just don’t ‘get’ Israel, and if they do, they don’t really like what they see. What I mean is that modern, pluralist and fairly secular Israel doesn’t fit some Christians’ image of what the Holy Land should be like. Hence the desperate need to squeeze Israel into a pre-determined religious framework that doesn’t quite fit. Israel was fine, on this view, when it was full of noble pioneers sharing their worldly goods in kibbutzes, but it’s not so easy to identify with its people now that, in many ways, they’re just like us. We’re back to that need for the ‘Other’ to fit the stereotypical image that we’ve created for them. By becoming modern and westernised, the Jews have foregone the right to play the part of the idealised Other, so Christians (like secular Leftists) need to look for another group that can be romanticised: step forward 'the Palestinians'.

And we shouldn’t forget that many Christians just don’t ‘get’ Jews, generally. A lot of Christians don’t know any Jewish people and find it hard to understand Jewishness: is it a religion, a race, what is it? I write as someone who grew up in a suburban Methodist setting and didn’t meet a single Jewish person until I went away to university: I remember having many of the same questions, and experiencing the same puzzlement, about what it meant to be Jewish. In the gap created by this ignorance, there’s inevitably a tendency for lazy stereotypes to form.

And that brings us on finally to…

The ‘a’ word

No, I don’t think that the current spate of Christian hostility to Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic. However, I do think that as Christian hostility to the Jewish state increases, it’s something we can’t avoid talking about. The legacy of Christian anti-Semitism is so deep, of such long duration, and so recently disavowed, that I think Christians should be extremely careful that ancient, barely-submerged attitudes don’t get inadvertently drawn on when criticising what is, after all, the world's only Jewish state. We're back to my starting-point: if we're not going to use the 'a' word, how else are we to describe this singular focus on Israel's supposed sins and this one-sided refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli perspective? I'll leave the last word to the late Norm Geras, writing in a 2009 blogpost about attitudes to Israel's actions in Gaza:

In the outpouring of hatred towards Israel today, it scarcely matters what part of it is impelled by a pre-existing hostility towards Jews as such and what part by a groundless feeling that the Jewish state is especially vicious among the nations of the world and to be obsessed about accordingly. Both are forms of anti-Semitism. The old poison is once again among us.
(You can find Part One of this post here)

Understanding the new Christian anti-Zionism: Part 1

Now that I’ve resumed more or less regular posting, I can keep a longstanding promise. A few years ago I wrote about Greenbelt, the annual Christian music festival, its obsession with the situation in Gaza, and what I saw as its worryingly one-sided representation of that issue. In the course of the debate that followed in the 'comments', I undertook to write something that would try to explain the increasing hostility to Israel among some Christian groups. I felt I was in a good position to do this, both because of my own Christian background, and because I used to be fairly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel myself. This is the first post in a two-part series in which I'll try to fulfil that commitment.

In the period since I wrote that post, attitudes have, if anything, hardened, with anti-Israel campaigning migrating from fringe groups to the mainstream churches. A recent example of this was the Methodist Church seriously debating whether to boycott Israeli goods and institutions – something that particularly aggrieved me, as someone brought up in the Methodist tradition but who is also a critical friend and supporter of Israel.

As I was casting about for a text on which to base this post, the latest issue of the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, dropped fortuitously through the letter box, bearing this front cover:

The cover image promoted a major story inside the magazine by Elena Curti, describing the sufferings of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Taken together, it seems to me that the image and the story exemplify many of the key components of recent Christian attitudes to the issue of Israel/Palestine. Let’s start with that photo, which is typical of a certain kind of pro-Palestinian iconography. The whole complicated and intractable conflict is reduced to, and symbolised by, two figures: Israel is represented by an armed soldier, the Palestinians by a young child. Not only that, but the child is foregrounded and looking at the camera, as if making a direct appeal to the reader, while the soldier is lurking in the background, hand-in-pocket, nonchalant and impersonal. 

It’s pretty clear what this is supposed to tell us: the Israelis are the aggressors, while Palestinians are simply innocent victims. It’s not that the image is necessarily ‘untrue’, but it’s obviously partial and selective. Think, for example, of the very different meanings that might have been conveyed by a photograph of Israeli children cowering under school desks during a Palestinian rocket attack. Or imagine if, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a magazine had carried a picture on its cover of a Catholic child walking past a British soldier. Readers might justifiably have felt that the image represented a simplistic and one-sided view of the conflict, sidelining IRA atrocities and the reasons why British soldiers were present in the first place.

Similarly, my problem with Curti’s article in The Tablet is not that what she writes - about the everyday sufferings of Palestinians as a result of the separation fence and the occupation - is necessarily a lie. I’m not qualified to dispute the substance of the piece, and indeed that’s not really the point of this post. But there are a number of things that are remarkable about the article, and I think they are typical of much recent Christian coverage of the issue. Firstly, there's an exclusive focus on the sufferings of the Palestinians. There's not a word about the sufferings inflicted on innocent Israelis by the aforementioned rocket attacks from Gaza, or by suicide bombers targeting restaurants and buses – the very actions that prompted the need for the security fence and the restrictions on goods entering Gaza in the first place. Nor is the mainstream Israeli point of view given any space in the article: the only Israelis whose voices get represented are a fringe group who oppose their government’s policy. Curti makes not the slightest attempt to provide a balanced perspective, or to put the suffering of Palestinians in any kind of wider context. You’ll search in vain here, not only for any reference to the ongoing campaign of aggression against Israel by Hamas, but also for any mention of the tons of supplies allowed into Gaza by Israel every day, or to the blockade of Gaza by its other neighbour, Egypt, or indeed to the sufferings inflicted on ordinary Palestinians by the increasingly authoritarian regime of Hamas.

And then there’s the underlying question: why choose to put Gaza on the front cover and make it your lead story at this particular time? I suppose one explanation is that Christians have an understandable interest in the Holy Land, especially at this time of year, and stories that try to find parallels between the Nativity story and the current situation there have become a staple of Christmas coverage – often, it has to be said, with a simplistic anti-Israel inflection. The more immediate pretext for the Tablet story is that Gaza is the focus of this year’s Christmas campaign by Christian Aid. If you follow the link to the charity's website, you’ll find further evidence of Christian obsession with the issue, and yet more one-sided treatment of it. On the day that I read this article in The Tablet, the television news was dominated by images of the desperate plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as winter temperatures begin to plummet. One wonders why this urgent issue, or the continuing need of the victims of the floods in the Philippines, or any of the other myriad and more pressing needs around the world, are not the concern of Christian Aid this Christmas – rather than yet another campaign focused on Gaza, in which a complex conflict is reduced to a cartoon in which Israel is the only bad guy?

How are we to explain this current Christian obsession with Israel/Palestine, often to the exclusion of other more urgent issues? I’ve already suggested one reason – the natural concern of Christians with the land which gave birth to their faith – but this hardly accounts for the increasingly partial and one-sided attitude to the issue shown by Christian churches, charities and campaigning organisations. In the next post, I’ll share my personal analysis of the reasons for this emerging Christian anti-Zionism.

(You can find Part 2 of this post here)