Protest & Paradigms in the Middle East

Conceptualising a New Reality in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

– Vaclav Havel

Since Mohammed Bouazizi, a downtrodden street vendor from central Tunisia, doused himself in petrol and ignited his body in flames, the Arab Spring protests have frequently been described in terms of physical demonstration. From military standoffs in Tahrir Square to the civil war that engulfs Syria, subversion of government authority is oft depicted in terms of brute force. Modern media prefers the more palpable explanation: a revolution is explained through tangible causes and its impact is measured in deaths. But what lies behind the bloodied clothes and dull faces that sell newspapers? What drove these men and women to their shallow graves and windowless prisons? Actions do not arise out of the ether – any social struggle is a patchwork of concepts, arguments and deeds. Arguably these classifications are not neatly distinguishable: each instance of protest resides in the grey-zone, somewhere across this spectrum. By refocusing the analysis of protest to emphasise the ideas and concepts that induce change – rather than the visible mechanical processes – this article seeks to explore the role of cultural dissent within the Middle East and its effect upon contemporary society. A fresh evaluation of protest can explore its impact on the social discourse and, consequently, its bearing on issues of entitlement, rights and cultural values in the region.

Conducting protest through cultural avenues engages popular perspectives. By appealing to prevalent opinion, it is a transaction of ideas and values intended to shake the dominant paradigm of social thought. The economist Douglas North acknowledged the importance of these conceptual systems:

“Culture not only determines societal performance at a moment in time but, through the way its scaffolding constrains the players, contributes to the process of change through time.”

It is by recognising this connexion between political fact and social discourse that protests can disrupt totalitarian trajectories and influence change. As a new wave of revolution spread across the Middle East in 2011, figures rose to prominence not simply through conventional demonstrations of physical might but by exploiting the vulnerabilities of brittle paradigms: they harnessed the power of collective opinion to subvert dominant narratives. Unorthodox heroes emerged in the form of abtal al-keyboard (literally ‘keyboard warriors’), who disseminated fervent messages via Twitter and Facebook to the masses that convened in Tunis and Cairo.

The Israel-Palestine conflict provides the quintessential case study for this alternative analysis of protest in the Middle East. Western media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has, in recent years, more actively referred to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, increasingly emphasising Israeli culpability as the social discourse focuses more upon the rights of Palestinians. Campaigns and intellectual enquiry have engaged public opinion and, through compelling arguments, adjusted the international perspective of Israeli-Palestinian entitlements. A comparison of news reporting over the past 40 years shows the gradual evolution of our global value paradigm. The Washington Post, as a barometer for Western opinion, has become much more critical of Israeli policy in recent years, and also much more aware of the impact upon the Palestinian population. In June 1967, covering the pre-emptive bombing of Arab militaries in the Six Day War, it ran the headlines:

ISRAEL CLAIMS MAJOR LAND, AIR GAINS
ISRAEL ROUTS ARABS, FREES GULF

 

In 2014, the newspaper adopted a different angle in its reporting of Operation Protective Edge:

CHILDREN PAYING A TERRIBLE PRICE IN GAZA
TIME FOR NETANYAHU TO MAKE PEACE IN GAZA

 

Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur to Palestine 2008-2014, argues that the shifting global perspective towards the Israel-Palestine conflict is ultimately going to determine a Palestinian victory, despite their weaker military capacity. “The appearance of Palestinian defeat is an optical illusion – one that hides the probability of eventual Israeli defeat”, he writes in his latest article:

“While Israel is winning one war due to its military dominance and continuous establishment of ‘facts on the ground’, Palestine is winning what in the end is the more important war, the struggle for legitimacy, which is most likely to determine the political outcome.”

But what is causing this change in perspective? Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Ihmoud and Dahir-Nashif have recently advanced a theoretical protest with their article on Israeli colonialism and sexual violence. Through academic argument, this introduces a fresh concept of “Palestinian feminism” to the intellectual debate surrounding the conflict. In attempting to redefine the disputed territories as a “theatre of sexual violence”, the authors seek to change the perspective of their audience: Israeli policies are framed as brutal exploitations of a vulnerable people. The impact of such protest might well be greater than the direct readership. If this narrative of sexual abuse is accepted by commentators – figures from the political and media spheres – then it will shape the public paradigm through which this conflict is assessed and reconfigure the values that constitute our collective consciousness around this issue. Israeli settlement expansion will be equated more with aggression than civilised development; increasingly the Palestinians will be portrayed as victims rather than agitators.

Perspective is largely constituted by established facts – these form the essence of social narrative and influence public opinion. The collective consciousness is a subjective perspective, created by the social discourse. Introducing new observations into the public domain engages the dominant narrative, either affirming or disputing established facts. Documentaries have become a political tool used to frame an issue in partisan terms by emphasising certain facts and excluding others. 5 Broken Cameras is a personal insight into Palestinian life in the West Bank. It provides a perspective from the local level: an intimate snapshot of one family’s experience of settlement expansion and resistance. By interweaving the familial with the political, filmmaker Emad Burnat draws international debate closer to a human narrative. The conflict is reconceived for the audience through the perspective of Palestinian resistance; but, moreover, is illustrated through its effect on individuals and their community. Directors Burnat and Davidi develop a humane dialogue that attempts to deepen empathy with residents in the Palestinian territories. In this regard, the film intends to alter the perspective of its audience and shift the international discourse surrounding Israeli settlement expansion. The documentary also serves as a source of propaganda for the protest movement in Bil’in. A community viewing of Burnat’s footage gives the citizens a sense of local identity; solidarity empowers the resistance. Yet simultaneously, as a visual work of analytical observation, 5 Broken Cameras demonstrates the power of non-violent protest.

Imagination is a powerful catalyst for cultural change. The Czech leader, Vaclav Havel, who guided his country out of authoritarian shackles and into an era of socioeconomic liberation, was a political visionary who believed in the power of creative dissent. Originally a playwright and theatre director, Havel used literature to speak to the soul of his nation, subverting the Communist narrative that engulfed Eastern Europe during the mid-20th century: in its stead he propagated an optimistic social discourse of freedom and change. Elia Sulieman, a Palestinian film director, promoted his private perspective of the Israeli state through his movie The Time That Remains. An elegiac masterpiece of darkly comic observations of life under occupation, Sulieman draws the audience into a sombre, rather than sensationalised, perspective of Israel’s modern history. Through fictional characters, Sulieman is able to control the image of the various actors in the conflict, developing empathy between the audience and the Palestinian plight and exploring their alienation from the Israeli state. This embodies the creative dimension of social history and fact: by injecting his imagination into the narrative, Sulieman has taken control of the audience’s perception – he propounds a new perspective to disrupt the social discourse. In one powerful scene, Palestinians in Ramallah, West Bank dance the night away, despite curfew warnings from the Israeli military. The portrayal of a fictional protest in such a compelling manner reinforces the film’s actual protest: it is both creative and instructive dissent.

Cultural protest is not only conducted through the performing arts – it includes any medium that engages with ethics, identity and perception. The collaboration of an artist, a scholar and a media organisation led to the promotion of Arab Jewish identity, notably through supporting ‘Enemy Kitchen’, a cross-cultural culinary programme in Iraq that “aimed to humanize a culture…in which one could claim both Jewish and Arab identities without conflict”. This project promotes an alternative perspective to the dominant regional paradigm of ‘Jews vs Arabs’. By reconciling these two identities, the intention is to overhaul the popular narrative in which the two cultures are mutually exclusive. This protest injects a more nuanced approach into a simplistic discourse, encouraging others to reconsider the Arab-Israeli conflict within its specific context. In so doing, it reinvigorates the debate with new hope for cultural, and by extension political, compatibility between two largely divided ethnicities.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is equally inseparable from the ideas and perceptions that underpin it as the physical battles that erupt across our headlines. Perspectives and values not only influence the conduct of actors within the conflict but also determine how the international community engages with the issue. The significance of soft power suggests that brute force alone will not alter the political landscape. If institutional and legal change is the ultimate barometer of progress in the Middle East, conceptual protests create the political will necessary to fuel such change. This perhaps explains why so many problems throughout the Middle East appear caught in a cyclical prison. Douglas North argues, “It is simply a fact that the overwhelming majority of change is incremental, gradual, and constrained by the historical past”. Perhaps, therefore, the most effective protests are those that attack such conceptual and ethical rigidities – they seek a new reality, an imagined society towards which they can guide their contemporary one.

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Oliver Davies studied Philosophy, Politics & Economics at the University of Durham, focussing on the politics of the Middle East. He has travelled around the region, working in Jordan and Qatar. Currently employed as an economic analyst in California, Oliver continues to research and write.