Friday, 28 June 2013 | by Dr. Tariq Shadid aka Doc Jazz
By Tariq Shadid – By Tariq Shadid – Every nation with a colonial history is burdened by it to some extent: the ‘white savior complex’. So far, very few have emerged from their state of Western colonial subjugation into a phase of nationwide prosperity, peace and stability. Apart from the many factors that lie at the heart of these post-colonial challenges, including ‘neo-colonial’ corporate exploitation, a significant part of the population wittingly or unwittingly continues to internalize these negative circumstances in a deep-seated inferiority complex.
According to this way of thinking, the reasons for all setbacks are static weaknesses that are inherently connected to one’s own racial, cultural or religious perceived inferiority. The self-destructive logic that it follows is this: look around you. You can clearly see the people of the West are always better off, and you know why? Because we don’t deserve it, because we were born to be messed up.
With our Palestinian Arab background, I and many others call it the ‘Khawaja-complex’. Two generations back, our ancestors often referred to white colonials as ‘Khawaja’, which originally means as much as ‘Master’ or ‘Lord’. Anything the Khawaja said was to be believed, since he was automatically deemed to be more intelligent, morally superior and wiser, and therefore deserving of reverence and trust. Yes, you read it correctly: trust. We all know how that worked out, don’t we?
One would expect that among younger generations, this attitude by now would have eroded and perhaps even disappeared entirely. Unfortunately, this is far from being the case, although there is undoubtedly a wave of awareness that exists among the new generation, indicative of a surge of self-respect at a level unprecedented in these past decades of the modern age.
To some extent, the appeal of today’s political Islam among certain sectors of the young generation can be seen as a reaction against this inferiority complex. It constitutes a total rejection of Western influences and modernity, and an attempt to wipe out all traces of colonial subjugation. This reactionary movement has many downsides, as it often has a strong tendency to pit itself against progress in any form or shape, in the process of shaking off Western dominance.
The above aims only to explain some of the elements of this movement’s appeal to the masses. However, the sociopolitical reality of what is going on in those sectors is much more complex, and does not seem to be providing a proper answer to what is being sought. After all, in the highest political echelons that are driving this movement, it is even questionable whether shaking off Western dominance is on the agenda at all, or whether this element is only being exploited by those in power in order to draw the masses into their sphere of influence.
At the same time, there are also more progressive and constructive sectors of society that embrace political awareness, self-determination, socioeconomic progress and cultural identity, while still rejecting any subservience to Western interests and influences. This attitude is mostly found among young intellectuals with a thorough knowledge of history and geopolitics, coupled with a strong desire for change, development and progress. They reject the belief existing among former generations that the ‘Khawaja’ is superior in any way, but are equally wary of turning back the clock to pre-colonial times at all costs. They aim to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and to retain the benefits of progress that have been achieved in the age of modernity.
Nowadays, most Palestinians who are expressing themselves eloquently in English in independent media, the blogosphere, and in speaking venues, appear to be following this line of thought. Increasingly, they are reaching out to the masses of the international community, and their message is slowly but surely being picked up.
Obstacles and barriers
Nevertheless, they find themselves faced with the daily reality within the realm of international pro-Palestinian activism, where the public – especially Western audiences – has been conditioned to grant significantly more credibility and respect to progressive Jewish voices and other Western activists and writers expressing support for Palestinian rights. After all, the ‘Khawaja-complex’ is a worldwide phenomenon, stretching far beyond the borders of the Arab world, and the challenge to make a genuine Palestinian voice heard globally is proving to be difficult, even if it is presented in perfect English, and even if it supersedes all cultural divides by the use of a language and tone that is accessible to the entire international community.
Still, there is light on the horizon. More and more voices, although far from being the majority, are calling for a stronger empowerment of Palestinian activists, speakers and journalists. This was recently felt very tangibly in the widespread and increasing sounds of criticism among the younger generation of Palestinian bloggers and activists, aimed at the British journalist known as Harry Fear. He was accused of ‘white savior’ behavior, and publicly confronted on this issue. Apparently, his critics felt that he was exploiting the Palestinian cause for his own gain, imposing his own views on culture and struggle, and flaunting a level of fame and recognition that would be hard to attain for any Palestinian journalist or blogger.
Stepping away from discussing this specific case, which is only mentioned here as an example of changing attitudes, there are a few things to be said about ‘Khawajas’ in the Palestinian struggle, in a more general sense.
Let me clarify my own position on this issue. I myself am barely interested in the efforts or opinions of Western activists when it comes to giving direction, meaning or expression to the Palestinian struggle. I focus almost entirely on highlighting, supporting and amplifying Palestinian voices, without losing sight of the importance of cultivating and maintaining international solidarity. The main difference is that I want this solidarity to be based not only on support for the principles of international justice, but on support for the Palestinians as a people as well. In my view, sidelining Palestinian activists, writers, speakers and artists who are expressing their struggle, deeply undermines the credibility of those who claim to be struggling for their rights.
My focus on Palestinians is the result of a perceived necessity, since I too often see our voices being given barely any prominence, not only in mainstream media but also in the circles of pro-Palestinian activism. I have written on such subjects many times before, and for those who have read my articles it must be clear by now that in my view of the world, Western and Jewish voices are never automatically valued over Palestinian or Arab voices. I feel fortunate to be free of any form of ‘Khawaja-complex’, while at the same time, I try to maintain a level of fairness by recognizing the efforts of many citizens all over the world in support of our cause.
The ‘Khawaja’ is only a ‘Khawaja’ if we, Palestinians and other Arabs, turn him into one. There is no pedestal unless we build one for him. In other words, no one can be a ‘white savior’ unless he finds enough ‘brown people’ calling upon him to ‘save’ them.
The argument that those who carry the ‘Khawaja’ on their shoulders usually are quick to put forward, is that having a Westerner tell our story will increase its credibility to the ears of a Western audience. Has there ever been a more effective way to undermine one’s own credibility, than by readily and willingly giving it away to others?
Apart from this, have they not noticed how the mainstream Westerners often treat Western Palestine-sympathizers as social outcasts, who are to be ignored, called anti-semitic or otherwise vilified? Limited credibility, limited effectiveness, that is the reality, and this can and will be the only effect of this modus operandi. This in itself is already an indication that a personal attack on any so-called ‘white savior’ will not bring any improvement or solution, and that much more structural changes are needed.
Therefore, it seems we are in a situation which could be described as a ‘catch 22’: Westerners don’t seem to have a strong inclination to listen to Arabs, which is why some among us become exhilarated when a Westerner tells our story, disregarding the fact that as he ends up vilified and ignored by his own as if he was Arab, our story still is barely heard.
The way out
In the above, I have tried to illustrate how this vicious cycle is being maintained by both sides. Still, there is a way out of this equation. It’s not an easy way, but it steers clear of the disadvantages of following the knee-jerk reflexes of the Khawaja-complex.
The way out is to empower Palestinian voices. Improving the position of Palestinians in the world depends on exposing the international community to Palestinian names, voices, and visions. This is not only what Palestinians themselves should be doing, but also an almost self-explanatory duty for Western activists who support Palestine.
Do you think this seems too obvious to even mention? You would be surprised. This way of thinking is often opposed by Arabs and Westerners alike, and I am now ready to make a few bold statements about this disruptive and nonconstructive attitude.
Arabs who oppose this view are blocked by their own Khawaja-complex, blinding them to the importance of breaking this deadlock. They seem to be lacking confidence in what Palestinians are able to achieve, or are in some cases marred by their personal sense of rivalry and competition. Those who fall in this latter category do support their own Palestinian voice, but do not like to see their peers work their way into the spotlights. They fail to see that by diminishing the impact of other Palestinian voices, they are automatically also muzzling their own.
Western activists who avoid the empowerment of Palestinian voices are often engulfed by their personal drive for prominence within activist circles. In worse cases, they may even be guided by a sense of ethnic or cultural supremacy, and their conviction that any Palestinian expression of the struggle is intrinsically bound to be inferior to what they could produce themselves. Sometimes, they may even feel threatened by the fact that Palestinians expressing themselves might be perceived by the public as more genuine, which could also diminish their own chances to shine.
Kicking the habit
It is time to kick these old habits, if we wish to see a genuine improvement of the situation. We are in no need of any ‘Khawaja’ to dictate the terms of our struggle, or be its champion. There is no lack of Palestinians who are perfectly capable of expressing the views of our people with astounding eloquence, depth of vision, and clarity. They are composed, refined, sophisticated, and immersed in the essence of the struggle of their own people by the history of their family and their personal lives. They are present in such large numbers, that if I would endeavor to list a few of their names here, it would be impossible to do so without doing an injustice to the multitudes of others who also deserve to be heard.
Instead, I am going to ask you a question. If you are a supporter of the Palestinian cause, go ahead and name five champions of the cause that you believe are doing an excellent job at promoting its goals.
Chances are that there may or may not be a Palestinian among those first five names that spring to your mind. There are plenty of them out there, but did you notice them, and did you memorize their names like you memorized the names and visions of progressive Jews?
As far as I am concerned, you can call yourself a genuine supporter of the cause once this top five is dominated by names of Palestinians whose work you follow, promote and share. You are hereby invited to choose your own Palestinian champions, and if you find yourself unable to identify any, it may be time to ask yourself this: which struggle exactly is it, that you are supporting?