by Muneerah Ab Razak
In our attempts to understand violence in the Middle East, utilising the framework of queer international relations (IR) theory and Fanon’s theory of violence can be useful in placing these actors in their appropriate temporal contexts, instead of judging their actions (including violence) in isolation.
In May 2017, US President Donald Trump spoke in Riyadh, where he called on Middle Eastern leaders to combat a crisis of ‘Islamic extremism’. He then went ahead to equate ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Al-Qaeda with Hezbollah and Hamas, labelling all of these groups, despite their varied temporal and political contexts, under the umbrella term ‘terrorists’. He declared a ‘battle between good and evil.’
Former US President Barack Obama also stated in November 2012 (about the Hamas missile strikes on Israel): ‘There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians. And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.’
We see the pattern continue: the moral dismissal of non-state perpetrators of violence – via the label ‘terrorist’ – with the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Muslim Brotherhood (the latter, in particular, a localised and non-monolithic group which resists any easy categorisation).
Perpetrators of violence are always portrayed as acting outside the boundaries of morality and violence itself is regularly dismissed as irrational or subject to reductive explanations: the assertion of the perpetrator’s lack of self-control, their dehumanisation (as they are usually an ‘other’), or ascribing to them sadistic psychological tendencies. But is it just to lump all acts of violence in the same category with resistance movements such as those in Yemen and Palestine, fighting against foreign occupations that they consider illegitimate? Why are those engaged in acts of physical violence deemed ‘extremists’ while those who accept or work with foreign occupying forces deemed ‘moderates’? Who decides, and what is the criteria?
We don’t have to agree with or approve of the justifications for violence given by the myriad of non-state actors, but understanding the psychology behind violence, using queer IR theory as well as a Fanonian lens, can bring us to more nuanced engagements and solutions as opposed to simply dismissing violence as ‘evil’ or ‘bad’.
Queer IR theory is useful in resisting and investigating such dichotomies – ‘order vs anarchy’ or ‘normal vs perverse’. Using this theory with regards to violence allows us to be alert to the colonial discourse of splitting the subject into ‘good’ – an agent of mimicry – and ‘bad’ – ‘subservice repository of menace’. This allows observers of the ‘international’ to understand before immediately moralising and setting diverse actions against the standards of universalised norms of conduct. Understanding involves historicising and situating a movement or action as well as the temporality of the subject, thus providing meaning.
With this, we approach Fanon in Wretched of the Earth, in general, the excerpts below highlight both the practical and psychological reasons for violence against the coloniser:
‘He [the native] of whom they have never stopped saying that the only language he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force. In fact, as always, the settler has shown him the way he should take if he is to become free.’
‘At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self‑respect.’
According to Fanon, colonial rule is sustained by violence and repression. With violence as the ‘natural state’ of colonial rule, it follows that in fact it is the colonisers who only speak and understood the language of violence. As such, only the use of violence by the colonised can physically restructure society. Furthermore, Fanon argues that psychologically, violence returns agency to the colonised who were hitherto dehumanised, and allows them to recreate themselves in a light that is not tainted by the colonisers. In Sartre’s introduction to the book, he described these physical acts of violence – or anti-colonial revolutions – as ‘man recreating himself’. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon states that freeing oneself of colonialism through violence can be ‘cathartic’. In the context of the Algerians, violence was cathartic as it allowed them to restore the ‘self’ which was systematically destroyed by colonialism. Thus, Fanon theorises that violence enables the colonised to restructure their country politically and also, recreate themselves and resume a self-determining existence.
Despite this, Fanon does not think that violence is an end in itself. He constantly expresses the physical and human cost of violence. He also stressed that mere violence, without a clear plan for decolonisation, would only reproduce the power relations of the coloniser. In addition, he claims that despite reclaiming land and power, violence will not be able to ease the creation of a new national identity after overthrowing the colonisers.
Without denying the potential of violence to be moral or immoral, understanding Fanon’s thought on violence as both a creative and cathartic, yet limiting power for the colonised, allows us to look at other revolutionary movements – whether anti-colonial or anti-establishment – as surges or collective movements acting against perceived aggressors, rather than in conformity with universal moral norms. With queer IR theory and a focus on Fanon’s work, the ‘agent’ becomes something that is contingent, temporal and changing. It thus places peoples in their struggles and appropriate temporal contexts, instead of judging the action in itself, i.e. violence.
Such approaches discussed above support Mignolo’s call for using the ‘pluriverse’ in the sphere of decolonial projects from the global political society – looking at a world of truth in parenthesis. It leads us to discuss ‘hegemony’ and look to a future where instead of one hegemonic set of values, there is a ‘hegemony of truth in parenthesis that defined the horizon of pluriversality as a universal project’. Thus, while both moralising violence prematurely as well as rejecting other moralisations of violence, in effect, we adopt the same attitudes of superiority that Fanon condemns – a characterisation of the ‘Native’ that essentially dehumanises them.
Muneerah Razak is a Research Associate at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. Her research focuses on themes surrounding religion and politics, with a particular interest in Islamism, critical Muslim studies, and Islam and Modernity. She tweets at @mnrhrzk