If as the saying goes, history is written by the victor and never the vanquished, it may go some way to explaining the hegemonistic status of western political and academic discourse on colonialism. The process of colonial settlement is accompanied by a rewriting of history such that the appalling evils and suffering inflicted on indigenous peoples is legitimised by academic sleight of hand. It is what the author of our lead article in this issue, Randa Abdel-Fattah, calls the “inversion of responsibility” whereby the colonial occupier shifts the burden of blame from enactors of state violence to the victims. Occupied lands become places without people, as we hear in the case of Palestine, or where native inhabitants couldn’t be expunged from the record as in Australia and Africa, they were barbarians who needed subordinating and civilising.
Accepting this rewritten history as a starting point for any discussions or political negotiations on restitution or justice means ceding the status of victim and the moral high ground. There is no morally justifiable case for Israel to exist as an exclusivist ethno-religious state on land belonging to Palestinians but the moment we accept that then we legitimise the outsider and intruder status currently conferred on those that have been dispossessed and colonised. “Every attempt to frame the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’ in the language of a two-state solution, or Israel being represented as a state founded as a refuge against the Nazi Holocaust, or this being a religious conflict is a move to deliberately redact the historical record,” writes Abdel Fattah.
This was precisely the problem with the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In return for recognising Israel’s right to exist on pre-determined and yet to be determined Palestinian territory, the Palestinian leadership surrendered their position as victims of an illegal occupation to become morally equivalent parties in a land dispute. The subsequent years have vindicated critics of Oslo as the infinitely more powerful party reneged on its commitments under the agreement and exploited the moral equivalence to assist its return into the international fold.
Israel was for long a pariah in many parts of the world, especially those with a colonial past that, naturally, could empathise with the Palestinians. This was certainly the case on the African continent where at one point in the 1970’s no African state, other than Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland, had official diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Oslo changed all that, as Ramzy Baroud writes in the second article of this issue. The “deal” allowed African leaders to buy into the illusion that Israel had agreed to comply with the international community’s demands and a lasting peace was finally at hand. By the late 1990s, Israel had reactivated its ties with 39 African countries. And as Palestinians lost more land under Oslo, Israel gained many new, vital allies in Africa and elsewhere.
What seems to have escaped African leaders is that Israel continues to champion the same colonial mindset that enslaved and subjugated Africa for hundreds of years. Moreover, barefaced anti-African racism that defines mainstream Israeli politics and society also seems of no consequence to the growing Israel fan club in Africa.
Just as the rewriting of history legitimised colonial settlement it has also sought to erase the histories of its victims. As western empires tightened their grip on their ill-gotten possessions in the era of colonialism a whole new discourse was created – Orientalism – to perpetuate and justify the subjugation of other peoples. This reconstruction of the East through Western eyes extended to cultural and religious beliefs and practices and where it was not possible to recast them, attention turned to misrepresenting them as factually implausible and/or morally repugnant.
Islamic societies were confronted by an onslaught from Western thinkers who now assumed to know how better to interpret their scriptures using more reliable, rigorous techniques. In the Muslim world, these overlaid a pre-existing religious hostility and gave rise to lingering misrepresentations, tropes no less, which helped to set in place a structural western animus to Muslims and Islam in the West.
Some of these distortions have found support in misinterpretations of a key verse of the Quran, according to Imam Muhammad al-Asi. In our third piece in this issue he analyses the contention that the Quran advocates physical violence against women, taking issue with interpretations of the verse in Sura an-Nisa’ which has been interpreted as conferring upon a husband the right to physically chastise his wife. Taking a linguistic approach he demonstrates how such interpretations are mistaken, and in any event, fly in the face of Quranic and Prophetic injunctions regarding the status of women.
Understanding correctly the import of Allah’s revelation is a sine qua non of knowing His Will and drawing closer to Him, which is the ultimate goal of Muslims. Naturally then, from the very outset of Islam, Quranic hermeneutics have occupied a central place in religious literature. However, the sheer scale of tafaseer or exegeses are such that it is often difficult for the newcomer to this genre to know where to begin. In our final piece, Shaykh Mohammad Bahmanpour tries to simplify this task for the uninitiated by providing an outline of the tafsir tradition. He takes issue with the prejudices, cultural, sectarian, religious and scientific, that have weighed upon the interpretation of the Quran down the centuries arguing that the act of interpreting requires us to look for guidance from within the Quran itself, not externally within a preferred sect or culture.
The power of words, it is clear, bears heavily on our current state as citizens of a world beset with ever increasing power imbalances. Whether it is our histories of oppression, ongoing occupations or the languages – divine or secular – through which we seek to reframe our existence and our liberation, understanding this is key. Whilst power has been abused against the many, the many can and must find the counterweight of justice through a continued search for meaning and the concomitant power that goes with it.