by Sune Haugbolle
The images of EU representatives walking out during Ahmedinejad’s speech in Genève yesterday, amidst the cheers of Arab and other representatives, are haunting. They speak of a chasm in cross-cultural understanding, and that sense will probably remain as a big ugly stain on our collective global consciousness from this event even if the diplomats manage to avoid further walk-outs and a final document is agreed upon. It is a chasm worth dwelling on for a bit. How can the world’s leaders, in 2009, disagree fundamentally on such a universally deplorable phenomenon as racism?
We can begin to grasp this chasm by looking at the Arab press’ reactions to Durban II. The views on racism presented here differ dramatically both from the Western press and from the universalising UN discourse that forms the basis of the conference. As columnist Mahmoud Mubarak wrote in al-Hayat on 20 April, “the seven years that have passed since Durban I have been some of the most racist in recent history.” From an Arab perspective, the US is to blame for much of this: the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Quran-pissing in Guantanamo, have all been products of a resurgent neo-colonialist US under President Bush. Add to that the Muhammad cartoons, Israel’s incriminate wars on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, the continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and the racist ideology that underpins it. One then wonders, according to Mubarak, why none of these issues will be on the agenda at Durban.
He answers the question himself. The reason is that the Western countries have other priorities, and perhaps other views of what racism means. Mubarak wryly ends his piece by noting that the Dutch call for a sentence on protecting “sexual freedoms” (ie. homosexuality) in the final document of Durban II “reflects the difference in thinking between the Islamic countries and Western countries on the priorities of this conference!”
The feeling of victimization is well rehearsed and nothing new, and not without a certain sense of self-rightousness, as racism is also a fact and a problem in Arab societies and Arab politics. But the important part here is the totally different optic through which the issue of Palestine is viewed.
One should recall that the weeks leading up to the conference have seen an arduous diplomatic work to refine the final document – a piece of work not condoned by all nations, and certainly not by all populations either. Judging from the Danish debate surrounding “Durban II”, the usual cohort of Islam critics in Europe sees this conference basically as a venue for the display of Islamic power on the global scene. There is no understanding for the points of view put forth, least of all given that they come from less than democratic governments.
The points of contention are principally the questions of Palestine question critique of religions. The first was alluded to in the declaration from Durban I in 2001, which said: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation.” That caused an uproar back then in the US and Israel in particular by people who objected to the singling out of Israel, the only country mentioned in the declaration, even though there was other language that respected the “rights to security for all states in the region, including Israel”.
The explicit mention of Israel and the Palestinians has been removed from the new document. But at the same time the text reaffirms the 2001 declaration, which is why the US and Israel have strongly condemned the 2009 text also. Furthermore, an echo of the old formulation has survived in that the text emphasises the need to protect “all those under foreign occupation”. Again, despite its seemingly universal message, a troubling line to Israel, the US and other of its supporters.
The second question, regarding critique of religions, of course follows directly on from the Muhammad cartoons debate. During the negotiations leading up to the meeting, some Islamic countries attempted to introduce the concept of “defamation of religion.” This would have had the effect, so western and other critics argued, of restraining free speech.
The final document deplores the “derogatory stereotyping and stigmatization of persons based on their religion” without singling Islam out as the document deplores all religious intolerance including “Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christian phobia and anti-Arabism”. To some, not least in Denmark, the freedom of speech is so holy that anything that suggests an Islamic temperance of it by recourse to “racism” was seen as reason enough for the Danish government to stay away. As we know, the Danish Foreign Minister, quite boldly, chose to let Denmark participate, as did 22 other of his EU colleagues.
We have here the conflation of several contested issues, racism, islamophobia, freedom of speech and colonialism. Why colonialism? I believe that this is the basic explanation of the chasm that manifested itself in the walk-out yesterday. Colonialism was supported and justified by racist ideas and executed in a spirit of Caucasian and Christian supremacy. It is not the only history of racism. Racist ideas of other peoples have existed in many other parts of the word and in different historical periods. But it is one that has shaped our modern world decisively, and its effects persist in territorial conflicts such as that over Palestine.
The post-colonial states live with this historical experience in a whole other way that any of us in the West. Racism exists anywhere, but we are not equally subjected to it, and have not been equally subjected to it in history. At the UN we are all expected to agree on a formulation regarding this subject. We imagine a universality that is, frankly, illusory. To think that the world’s populations share in a common view on a discourse that has been instrumental in determining the power relations of modern history in way that subjugated large parts of the world to Western control is naïve and ahistorical.
Yes, but…, many would say, colonialism is over. Get on with it.
And this is why some walked out while others cheered.