It is no secret that the threat of the big Other is a primary tool for authoritarian states to marginalize people who are fighting for democracy and human rights. This tool has been used many times throughout the Middle East and North Africa in an attempt to discredit a people’s movement toward freedom and equal treatment under the law.
From Bahrain’s Crown Prince denouncing protestors as agents of Iran to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi slandering his people’s struggle as a plot by Al-Qaeda, the big Other has been working overtime for the past four months. Disregarding the pure absurdity of these claims I think it’s important that we ask fundamental questions about why these heads of state feel the need to engage in this kind of hypocrisy (without a doubt, this is hypocrisy).
Take the example of Yemen’s US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has not only used the spectre of Al-Qaeda to manipulate his population but used it as a pretext to allow the United States to carry out terrorist acts within Yemen’s borders (most recently in the attempted assasination of American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki). Saleh constantly invokes this brooding shadow of Al-Qaeda, condemning them as terrorists who have no regard for innocent life.
But what has Saleh been doing for the past few months? Has he not been participating in terrorist atrocities by approving the murder of hundreds of civilians for simply demanding universal rights? Is not Saleh and the US war machine that backs him just another manifestation of the big Other so conveniently used to smear democratic movements, the difference being that their terrorist atrocities are dignified by the fact that they’re states? Certainly, if the Taliban or Al-Qaeda carried out a bombing campaign in the tribal regions of Pakistan (killing 967 people in the course of 365 days), supported the killing of thousands of civilians in Gaza, and waged two wars of aggression in defenseless countries we wouldn’t give them a Nobel Peace Prize, we would be referring them the International Criminal Court.
So if insurgent groups like Al-Qaeda are nothing more than miniature reflections of state power why do heads of state like Obama, Saleh, Gaddafi, and others claim to dread them so much? I purposely use the word “claim” because these “terrorist” groups have a paradoxical function. More than a thorn in the side of unaccountable rulers, suicide bombers and armed militants are feathers in their caps. Sure these violent groups pose a minor threat to state power but they pose a bigger threat to people power. As world-renowned linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky, points out “Islamic extremism has always been used as a barrier to secular nationalism”.
I think this observation is not only true as it relates to US exploitation of terrorist acts but also for rulers in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s crucial to notice that since the beginning of the Arab Spring every mention of Al-Qaeda has been designed to take advantage of its symbolic power as an imminent threat to human life. Like all symbols of fear, this symbol must also be dismantled.
I’m surprised that no one has thought to ask why Al-Qaeda has been so conspicuously absent from the Arab Spring because I think the answer is easy to perceive. Unlike the courageous citizens that have been storming the streets for the past four months, these groups do much more to preserve the status quo. Like a prisoner on death row these individuals possess a level of hopelessness and despair that not only impedes constructive action but fosters destructive reaction. These insurgent groups cannot overthrow power because their acts of brutality against innocence does more to sustain power.
The people of the Middle East and North Africa are profound testaments to the capacity of the human being to act constructively in the face of a world that is more and more becoming a laboratory for catastrophe. Like the exploited youth that emerged from Pakistan’s madrassas in the 1980s to be castigated in the US media as “savage” and “anti-American”, the people who are flooding the streets today have also endured the brutality of our “democratic values”. Yet the tragedy of these insurgent groups is that they are composed of individuals who have been abandoned along the path, individuals whose grievances have been exiled to the shadows and whose encounters with injustice have been consigned to eternal silence.
Non-violent citizens of the Middle East should no longer accept the ruler’s definition of the big Other especially when that big Other should be standing side by side with the people and not helping the powerful by oppressing them. Imagine if Al-Qaeda re-thought their policy of killing civilians and appeared in the Arab Spring. Whose side do you think they would be on, the foreign states who drove them into the arms of intellectual poverty or the people who share the same grievances that they have but chose to express them more constructively? I think these questions are worth serious contemplation and should not be avoided out of fear or unsettling conclusions.
So next time an aging tyrant or his Western accomplice raises the banner of “extremism” or “Islamic fundamentalism” as a pretext to carry out their acts of terror. The people should respond by saying “yes, we share the same grievances as these people you call ‘terrorists’. But you’re overlooking one significant difference. We are actually going to overthrow you.”