Critical Perspectives on the construction of the (Australian) West with and through the Middle East


Sophie Hoyle

 

An element of my artistic practice and academic research explores the geopolitical ideology in the (ongoing) cultural construction of the West in relation to the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. Growing up as part of the Arab diaspora in the United Kingdom, I began to see my experiences within wider histories of post-colonialism and migration between the Middle East (and globally) as impacted by Western foreign policy, Neoimperialism and the motives of the military-industrial complex that perpetuate a ‘permanent war’ in the region for purposes of political power and resource extraction. With family from and living in the MENA region including Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, I continue to explore Western news media and popular cultural representations in which Orientalism and Islamophobia is rife and how this contrasts with their lived experiences. I want to make a critical reflection into overlooked histories of the Middle East including its relation to Australia refracted through the lens of British empire, as well as my own mediated cultural understandings and attempts to de-construct and re-educate myself about the region. In this article I will broadly look at Australia both as part of the construction of wider Western culture, and the specific trade routes between central and western Australia by British colonial forces that became part of the global network of imperial trade.

 

CULTURAL CONSTRUCTIONS OF THE WEST, AND THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA (MENA)

Western news media and cultural constructions perpetuate Orientalism and Islamophobia, contributing to an overall ideology that justifies Western cultural ‘enlightenment’ and imperialism. Contemporary representations continue to depict the Middle East as an inherently ‘troubled’ and ‘unstable’ place, often overlooking the historical structural causes stemming from Western imperial intervention and the division of territories at odds with pre-existing sociopolitical formations. The MENA region is constructed as ‘traditional’ or ‘intolerant’ towards subjects seen as emblematic of Western ‘modernity’ and ‘liberal’ attitudes, such as equal rights on grounds of gender and sexuality (even though it is highly contested whether this even occurs in the West itself). Media representations tend to over-essentialise religious identities and depict sectarianism as the (only) ruling logic to MENA societies and decision-making. These portrayals play into both the agendas of those who strategically instrumentalise sectarian rhetoric, and obscures or overlooks the complexity of internal conflicts or tensions within these groups.

Current sectarian power dynamics are ‘reinforced and catalysed by’ both geopolitical and national security interests[i]. Conversely, despite multiple communities, ethnicities and religions living in the same region historically it is represented as homogenous or monolithic by other groups in the West, and the Middle East and Islam are reductively conflated despite the highest percentage of Muslims globally living in South and South East Asia (62.1 percent). In many cases the perceived ‘intolerance’ in Arab culture has been the result of oppressive dictatorships supported by the Western military, producing extremes of conflict and poverty that can lead to a reactionary conservatism. This is not to say that it is the sole cause of certain cultural norms or political instability in the region, but more to account for and acknowledge how structural causes of Western imperialist intervention play a part in the current situation.

 

PINK WASHING

Current news commentary focuses on a Western model of democracy, compares social movements in the MENA to this and then declares they have ‘failed’; this overlooks significant (and anti-colonial) revolutions and democratic movements in recent Middle Eastern history. There are intersections of leftist, radical, feminist and Queer histories and communities in the Middle East, as seen in the (re)radicalisation of the feminist movement in Egypt with Nawaal El Saadawi’s 1972 book Women and Sex critiquing how Islam has been (mis)used as form of patriarchal oppression historically and in the global post-modern capitalist system[ii]._ LGBTQ groups are growing in visibility despite facing marginalisation and narratives of prejudice from both Queer, Muslim, MENA and Diaspora communities. The regulation and representation of LGBTQ bodies is at the frontline for control and meaning of contested notions of public life, morality and social conformity, where the risk of LGBTQ+ minorities being exposed or persecuted can be based on class differences that enable access to privacy[iii]._ They are used both by oppressive authoritarian regimes to demonstrate their legitimacy through imprisonment, execution and police crackdowns and mass arrests of LGBTQ+ venues[iv]_, as well instrumentalised by the discourse of human rights to justify external intervention despite the existence of many LGBTQ+ subcultures such as in Amman and Beirut; though these in turn are critiqued by anti-imperialists as adopting ‘Western culture’ and continue to have a precarious position. Many have commented that ‘intolerance’ towards LGBTQ+ people was imported by the West, with Jama noting the incidence of Islamic countries without anti-homosexual laws were also those never colonised by the British[v]._ This is not to say that there wasn’t any prejudice or homophobia (as it is now known), as there have and continue to be broad social and religious codes for decency and anti-debauchery, but that the social construction of homosexuality as a separate category is a Western import that didn’t have historical precedence before imperialist intervention. Despite legal, social and familial pressures to conform to expectations of marriage and family in MENA and Muslim societies, an element of Quranic Islam is interpretation (Tafsir) that doesn’t necessarily denounce LGBTQ+ as evidenced by the increasing number of openly LGBTQ+ Imams. A number of Western or allied countries including the United Kingdom and Israel promote themselves as socially liberal states citing their support for LGBTQ+ equal rights, and yet this overlooks the multiple forms of oppression against minorities within these states and by their police and military, described as an active ‘pinkwashing’ of their public appearance[vi]._ This includes: the rejections of those claiming asylum in the United Kingdom on the grounds of LGBTQ persecution but refused for a lack of ‘proof’ of their sexual orientation[vii]; intra-Jewish racism of different ethnic groups entering and living in Israel as seen by the Black Lives Matter Protest at Tel Aviv Pride by Israelis of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent[viii]; and the creation of Israel itself not primarily for the ‘salvation of the Jews’ but for ‘the salvation of Western interests’[ix], which continues a brutal occupation of Palestine and an apartheid state, and where supposedly liberal attitudes within Israel do not apply to LGBTQ+ Arab minorities[x]._

 

GLOBAL IMPERIALISM AND LEBANESE DIASPORA IN AUSTRALIA

There has been a history of migration of MENA groups to Australia but I will focus on the largest group, Lebanese-Australian. The Lebanese diaspora account for 1.2% of the entire population by ancestry[xi]_, and the majority reside in Sydney (72%). They emigrated to Australia from what is now Lebanon and Syria, from the 1880s onwards, to escape religious and political persecution under the Ottoman empire. Concurrently, British colonisers imported camels and their owners—cameleers—into the semi-arid areas of western and central Australia from the MENA, India and Afghanistan. They were imported for expeditions into the Outback to locate mineral resources, to transport wool, goods and raw material, and as knowledge of the new local environment grew Muslim cameleers settled and ran their own businesses. This trade dynamic has recently been reversed with Australia now exporting camels to Saudi Arabia experiencing shortages. The semantic construction of these ethnocultural groups has shifted over time, and how they have been classified by the state effects their social acceptance or assimilation, and experiences of marginalisation and prejudice. Many Lebanese and Syrian communities who settled before the First World War fought on behalf of Australian-British forces, whilst other Lebanese communities were misclassified as ‘Turks’ (having left the Ottoman Empire) and were forced to report to the police as an ‘enemy alien’. Following Lebanese independence in 1943 they began be recognised as a separate ethnic group, and saw newer waves of Lebanese people following 1967 Arab-Israeli War and during the 1975-1990 civil war.

 

MIREILLE ASTORE: REPRESENTATIONS OF BORDER REGIMES

Arab-Australian artists working with issues of migration, refugees and fleeing conflict and occupation include and Melbourne-based Mireille Astore whose work Tampa (2003) addresses how recent waves of MENA refugees attempting to enter Australia have been obstructed and detained[xii]._ The work refers to an incident where a boat of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution were rescued by the Norwegian ship ‘Tampa’ on 29 August 2001 but then intercepted by the Australian Army and detained in an Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection offshore asylum processing centre in Nauru, an island in the South Pacific. The sculpture was a prison-like cell constructed from bamboo (the proportions scaled down from the MS Tampa ship). Between 30 October to 16 November 2003, a daily performance took place on Bondi Beach—as part of Sculpture by the Sea—that involved the artist being restricted to this space from 10am to 6pm, entering only with a small suitcase of daily supplies. Tampa intended to convey the ‘claustrophobia’ and ‘endurance’[xiii] of those seeking asylum_, mirroring the endless waiting though bureaucratic processes, and to confront through proximity in bringing this situation physically closer to population of Sydney. This work explores visibility and the ‘gaze’ from the perspective of those looking in, whether they acknowledge or choose to ignore what they see. It also captures the spectacularised ‘display’ of the migrant through Australian news media representations, which Astore aims to subvert by taking photographs from inside the structure. As seen in her documentation, people continue to leisurely visit the beach alongside the sculpture, merging signifiers of the sea and coast in the imaginary of travel and consumerism, with those of the precarity and survival of refugee populations fleeing their homeland.

Astore herself fled the conflict of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Her video work 3494 Houses + 1 Fence (2006) combines exterior photographs of houses in Broken Hill, in regional New South Wales, in rapid succession with sounds of conflict and an image of a damaged fence in Lebanon (though the location and actions remain intentionally unidentified). The work explores how displacement can be evoked by images of domesticity ruptured by sounds of violence, the untold significance of specific sites and memories and the need to find or re-establish a home elsewhere.

 

KHALED SABSABI: MEDIA NARRATIVES

Khaled Sabsabi is a Lebanese-Australian artist born in Tripoli who moved with his family to Sydney in 1978. His socially engaged practice involves working with marginalised communities such as immigrants in western Sydney or in youth prisons, using dialogue and participation—including hip-hop—as a tool to explore identity politics, prejudice and exile. His multidisciplinary practice questions news media narratives—including representations of MENA and Muslim minorities in the post-9/11 backlash of Islamophobia and neonationalism in Australia—and differing scales and instantiations of violence from structural violence within Australia to conflict zones such as occupied Palestine. Sabsabi co-curated the exhibition The Resilient Landscape (Ivan Dougherty Gallery, 22 November – 22 December 2008), which comprised mainly Lebanese-Australian artists to problematise collective narratives and stereotypes; still pertinent topics in Australia’s current political climate. The show was composed in response to both the 2005 Cronulla riots—in which white Australians clashed with and targeted violence against people perceived to be of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance[xiv]_—and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, including invasion southern Lebanon by Israeli Defence Forces. The exhibition was, the curator’s noted, an ‘expression of concern about the level of ignorance of many Euro-Australians about the so-called “Middle East” in general and about Lebanon in particular’, and though focussing on two separate incidences, it explored how they were broadly interconnected by themes of borders, peripheries and transitions in the region between Israel and southern Lebanon, and state boundaries within Australia itself.

These artworks and exhibitions corresponded to specific events, and the issues surrounding them continue to be pertinent in contemporary Australian politics. The topic of refugees arriving in Australia continue to be a central part of political debate, tying into a longer narrative of ‘boat people’ arriving in the 1970s from Vietnam, in the 1980s from Cambodia and from 2001 onwards from the MENA, though around this time political rhetoric began to re-frame this as a ‘security’ issue rather than a humanitarian one. This can be seen from the Coalition’s success in the 2013 elections with Tony Abbott’s campaign to ‘turn back the boats’, proposing specific policies such as Operation Sovereign Borders, although this approach was softened post-election. The 2016 Federal elections saw a strange lack of immigration rhetoric in campaigns and news media[xv]perhaps seen as a risky subject that divided both Labour and Liberal parties. Political and public perceptions towards asylum processing centres portray them as a separate issue from the influx of skilled migrants or established migrant communities, and by using the nominal language of ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘diversity’ continue to overlook or actively reinforce social inequalities, including those of marginalised MENA migrant communities.

 

 


[i] Luomi , Mari. 2008. ‘Sectarian Identities or Geopolitics? The Regional Shia-Sunni Divide in the Middle East’ 56 Working Papers, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Accessed online: https://academy.fanack.com/? get_group_doc=31/1460467043-08_Sectarian_Identities_or_Geopolitics.pdf

[ii] El Saadawi, Nawal. 1972. Women and Sex, Cairo

[iii] After Haddad, Saleem. 2016. ‘The Myth of the Queer Arab Life’ 04.02.2016 The Daily Beast Accessed online: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/02/the-myth-of-the-queer- arab-life.html

[iv] ‘Zizi’ 2016. The Possibility of Being a Queer Arab 01.05.2016 Accessed online: http:// www.madamasr.com/opinion/lifestyle/possibility-being-queer-arab

[v] Jama, Afdhere. 2014. ‘5 Muslim Nations Where Gay is Legal’ 12.05.2014. Accessed online: http://islamandhomosexuality.com/5-muslim-nations-gay-legal/

[vi] Kuntsman, Adi .2003. ‘Queerness as Europeanness: Immigration, Orientalist Visions and Racialised Encounters in Israel/Palestine’ Dark Matter. 3; Puar, Jasbir. 2010. ‘Israel’s gay propaganda war’ http://www.theguardian.com/ commentisfree/2010/jul/01/israels-gay-propaganda-war

[vii] Dugan. 2015. ‘Home Office says Nigerian asylum-seeker can’t be a lesbian as she’s got children’ Published in The Independent online 3rd March 2015. Accessed March 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-says-nigerian- asylumseeker-cant-be-a-lesbian-as-shes-got-children-10083385.html

[viii] ‘Activestills’ for 972 Magazine. Accessed online 3rd July 2016: http://972mag.com/ethiopian-israelis-protest-police-brutality-in-tel-aviv-12-arrested/120401/

[ix] Baldwin, James. 1979. ‘Open Letter to the Born Again’ Originally Published on September 29, 1979 in The Nation magazine. Accessed online: July 2015. http://www.thenation.com/ article/open-letter-born-again/

[x] Mortada, Leil-Zahra. 2014. ‘Israel Kills People Like Me, Israel Exploits Queers Like Me’ http://www.leilzahra.com/?p=997 Published 29 Dec 2014. Accessed online Jan 2015.

[xi] Batrouney, Trevor. 1995. ‘Families and cultural diversity in Australia: 9. Lebanese- Australian families’ Australian Institute of Family Studies

[xii] Astore, Mireille. 2004. Website work description. Accessed online: http:// mireille.astore.id.au/tampa/

[xiii] ibid.

[xiv] Sydney Police Report. 2005. in ‘Strike Force Neil, Cronulla Riots, Review of the Police Response Media Component’ ABC Media Watch Transcripts

[xv] Wyeth, Grant (2016) The Diplomat http://thediplomat.com/2016/06/why-is-immigration-a-non-issue-in-australias-election/

Sophie Hoyle is an artist and writer currently based in London, UK. Their artwork and research explores an intersectional approach to post-colonial, queer, feminist and disability...


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