The walk out of the representatives of the France, Great Britain, and the previously announced boycott of Ahmadinejad’s talk in the Geneva anti-Racism conference on 20 April 2009 has been on top of the news during the last two days. Ahmadinejad apparently called Israel a racist regime and suggested that by sending European and American immigrants to Palestine, the European powers had tried to create a racist power in the Near East. This caused the aforementioned walk-out of the representatives of European powers and their disgust at Ahmadinejad’s words, going as far as M. Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, suggesting that Ahmadinejad should be stopped.
I am no fan of Ahmadinejad, nor am I a fan of people who disrupt important conferences to advance political agendas. However, it made me wonder how it was that only representatives of those powers who have a track record of racism were the ones who walked out or boycotted the conference. Germany, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, USA and Canada did not even go to the conference, alongside Israel, while France and Britain walked out. Now, just think of the countries that come to mind when thinking of racism in the past 200 years and see how many of the above names you encounter!
It has often been pointed out that racism is an essentially Western problem. Numerous works by authors such as Eric Wolf, James Blaut, Andre Gunder Frank, Jack Goody, and many others have pointed out that racism as we know it, the idea that a group is superior to another simply because of their skin colour or national origin, is a problem born out of 18th and 19th century European colonialism. The process is quite simple: European economy expanded exponentially as result of the age of discovery, allowing also for a scientific revolution. These achievements drove Europeans, who already lived in quite territorially limited and rather isolated western edge of the Eurasian landmass, to contemplate on what had made them exceptional (hence the overused term Western Exceptionalism). A feeling of superiority, a sense of uniqueness of these achievements then became prominent, necessitating “research” into why other populations never achieved such success (hence the birth of Anthropology as a field). Of course, one of the easiest, and sadly most pervasive, conclusions was the idea that Europeans are and have always been intellectually superior to others, that there essentially is something exceptional and ingenious in the European race. The most prominent outcomes of this were American slavery and the Holocaust catastrophe.
So, at least as we know it, racism is a European phenomenon, limited and defined by the context of Europe and its extensions in Americas and beyond. However, Europeans have also been excellent in suggesting that their concerns are the concerns of the rest of the world as well. Marx studied European economic history and then wrote disastrous recipes for the rest of the world based on criteria developed from the European models. The essentially European wars of 1914-1917 and 1938-1945 are called “World” Wars. When one talks about the Ancient or Classical or Medieval “World”, one is essentially talking about European phenomena. We are so used to this that we even teach a European version of history in schools outside Europe. Open any history book even in India and look at the amount of space dedicated to Greece and Rome!
So, we get back to my point. Racism is a phenomenon born out of the European experience. The rest of the world has suffered many things, from religious wars to draughts and starvations. Human rights abuses of all kinds have existed, but the closer you look, the less you find these to have been based on skin colour and race. Right now, many of my readers would tell me that I am being biased, since we have evidence that Middle Easterners took black Africans as slaves. True, one easily thinks of this as an example of racism and equates it with the Americas in the 18th century. But you would be entertained to know that the Arabic-Persian word for slave in the medieval Middle East was Saqlāb, coming from Slav, since most slaves in the Middle East were imported from not Africa, but Russia! So, if we manage to separate slavery from racism (which is hard for many people since the American context is so prominent in everyone’s mind) we realize that yes, slavery existed, but it was not race based!
So, if we accept that this problem is a European one, we should then try to see it from a non-European point of view. For whatever reason, I promise it is not because non-Europeans were more open minded, many Middle Easterners have been quite used to living with people of other colours and appearances. When racism comes along, and it is presented purely in term of skin colour and “race” per se, the Middle Easterners think of their own experiences. The fact is, despite all discrimination against Turks in Iran, against Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, against Armenians in Turkey, against Berbers in North Africa, or against god knows whomever around the Middle East, these discriminated people seldom look any different from the discriminators.
However, in Israel, whether we like it or not, the majority of the Jewish population is markedly non-Middle Eastern. Whatever you do, Shimon Perez and Bibi Natanyahou do not look Middle Eastern. David ben Gurion was born David Grün and Golda Meier had blue eyes. They do look different, they have European last names, they have made cities that look more like Nice and Rome than Baghdad or Damascus. Yes, they are progressive and have done an amazing job making the tiny land of Israel fertile, but it is undeniable that they are not Middle Eastern. They have come to the Middle East, and as a historian I am glad that they have, but they are living a European life, naturally, since their ancestors were from Prague and Berlin and Vienna and Paris.
Muslims who go to Paris and London and Vienna and create “Muslim Ghettos” are often discriminated against because they are changing the face of the cities, distorting the Classical characteristics of the cities, making it into “Eurabia” as many European intellectuals like Oriana Fallaci suggested (without being called racists, amazingly!!). They are often told to either become Austrian/German/Swiss/English/ French by removing their veils and not acting like Muslims or are told to “go home if you don’t want to live like us.” But the European immigrants to the Middle East have done the same thing, changing the face of Middle Eastern cities and living like Europeans and acting like Europeans, making it into Eurisrael. So, from the Middle Eastern point of view, they are as alien as Muslims are in Berlin. Of course, since they have had the economic upper hand, no one can discriminate against them (although Muhammad al-Fayad still does not get the respect that one expects the owner of Harrod’s to get, nor is he given the citizenship of the land), but they are seen as a foreign population indeed.
This leads me to re-think the whole idea of the Conference on Anti-Racism in Geneva. What was there to be discussed? If the agenda was dictated by Europeans and based on European issues, then why are all the other people there? Why were the rest of the attendants staying put and applauding for what Bernard Kutchner called “vile”? Why was it that when charges were brought against exactly those European powers who have a track record of racism that the powers left? On the other hand, we notice that issues such as human trafficking and religious discrimination were to be discussed in this conference. Neither one really have anything to do with racism, rather general forms of discrimination, based on religion (as the name suggests) and disregard for human condition (many prostitutes in Europe are actually from racially similar eastern European countries, so the problem is barely a race issue). So, if one is going to make the conference on anti-racism into a conference against all sorts of discrimination (in which case Feminist issues and similar should have also been present), then a speech about Israeli policies against the non-Israeli population of the country is also quite valid. This is besides the fact that it is always polite to listen to what everyone, including your enemies, say.
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