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The prerequisite to speaking
Posted: Monday, March 3, 2003

By Steven Salaita,

A pernicious and perhaps asinine, albeit unstated, sensibility has lately pervaded discourse of all sorts on the Middle East. That sensibility can be called the burden of qualification.

I speak about the pressure in the United States to denounce certain Arab actions or leaders before denouncing American and Israeli aggression. We have seen the denunciation employed thousands of times in the past few years. A typical example looks like this:

"Of course Saddam is a brutal tyrant whose actions I detest, but I oppose war because [insert reason here]."

Or this:

"Yasser Arafat is despicable, but Ariel Sharon [insert criticism here]."

Or one of my favorites:

"I unconditionally condemn suicide bombings, but Israel [insert anti-occupation slogan here]."

These formulations are disturbing because they assume (not so tacitly) that Arabs only have agency in the context of American morality. They also insinuate that Arabs and Arab Americans are illegitimate commentators unless they acknowledge their own shortcomings before condemning American and Israeli perfidy.

This fact wouldn't be so distressing if numerous Arab Americans (and others) didn't acquiesce to the standards constructed by Zionists and American hawks, the two main advocates of Arab dispossession. Most Arab Americans do acquiesce, though, and so we are left with serious problems.

The solution is short and simple: No more. Nobody should speak based on the rules set forth by those who willfully tolerate -- nay, advocate -- the destruction of an entire people (i.e., Zionists). Zionists and pro-war Americans are the ones who should make qualifications before they speak. It might sound something like this:

"I think that Jews are superior biologically to Palestinians and should therefore receive a privileged status while the Palestinians live in misery; by the way, here is my take on the peace process."

Or this:

"American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives; here, therefore, is my opinion about the impending war."

Or the inverse equivalent of Arab American qualifications:

"I am a blatant racist because I support Israel's occupation, but [insert apologia for the occupation here]."

It would, of course, appear quite ridiculous to most of us if pro-Israel and pro-war Americans qualified their opinions in this manner. Why, then, do we make such qualifications, which ultimately amount to a pathetic capitulation to the demands made of us by the very people who support the slaughter of Iraqis and Palestinians? Those qualifications essentially reduce us to beggars because they denote uncritical subservience: "If I justify your aggression, may I have a voice?"

If we eliminate the qualifications, then we are left with truth, with a voice on our own terms, rather than with a watered-down version of reality that, in the end, can't do much more than make our antagonists marvel at our complicity in their belligerence.

Let's take it from the top, without the burden of qualification:

"Of course George Bush is a brutal tyrant whose actions I detest, and that's why I oppose his war."

Or this:

"Ariel Sharon is a bully and a bloody war criminal, and I don't care about much else because Israelis have nothing worth hearing as long as they continue to legitimize him."

Or the one everybody seems scared to mention:

"I unconditionally condemn Israel's flagrant oppression and ethnic cleansing and will be glad to discuss suicide bombing as long as its context, Israel's occupation, is discussed first."

Yes, it is that simple. Our prerequisite to speaking should be truth, not the appeasement of those who condition truth to mystify aggression.

[Steven Salaita recently completed an English doctorate at the University of Oklahoma, with emphasis on Native, Palestinian, and Arab American literatures. A West Virginian with Palestinian and Jordanian parents, he splits his time between the United States and the Middle East.]

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