Thursday, July 26, 2007

Holy Land Foundation and knowledge

Testimony in the Holy Land Foundation trial so far has demonstrated one truth above all others: “terrorism” is not only in the eye of the beholder. It is also a matter of semantics and definition. Defining “terrorism” thus becomes a personal rather than a communal project. Epistemology [the science of understanding what we know and how we know it], in the broadest sense of the term, is not a private matter. It is the science of understanding the nature of knowledge—of all knowledge. The current pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian climate in this country, skews the perception of what we “know” so far from reality that the government of the United States and most of our citizenry accept as “knowledge”—as fact—an interpretation of events that is simply opinion.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization.” That bit of “knowledge” goes virtually unchallenged in the United States. We—all Americans—have reached a point of no return. Until we begin to challenge what our leaders, and the “experts” who support them, mean by this bit of “knowledge,” we are abdicating our responsibility to protect our own freedom of conscience (the freedom to “know”) and our to responsibility to help others gain theirs.

In the current climate of opinion (which has lasted since the “six-day war” in 1967), the received “knowledge” in this country is that the Palestinian people in general, and militant resisters to the occupation in particular, are terrorists. This received “knowledge” is so pervasive that we have lost the ability to pay attention to the ramifications of accepting that denotation.

Yet much less attention has been paid to the epistemological implications of waging a war against an enemy essentialised as terrorist. Evidently, labeling the enemy as such may have direct political advantages, in that it rationalizes state-endorsed violence, mobilizes support for state policy and communicates a threat to opponents [of state policy] of being treated like its namesakes elsewhere. But for knowing, understanding and predicting the opponent’s intentions and actions, the term’s merits are far less certain. (1)

The immoveable and immutable American support for the state of Israel no matter how many international conventions the state of Israel violates, no matter how many United Nations resolutions the state of Israel ignores, no matter how much obvious destruction of Palestinian society the state of Israel engages in makes it impossible for what we “know” to resemble what “IS.”

This is the way the received “knowledge” comes about.

At the highest level of our government, the decision is made (notice the passive voice—no one wants to take responsibility for the making; rather leaders together want the appearance to be that this is simply the way it has always been and always must be) that the state of Israel must be supported and protected at all cost. The ancillary decision is that whatever Israel says is true and whatever Israel says we must do is the path we will follow.

Then a “trickle down” ensues. The stated policies of the top players in our executive branch, and the supportive policies put into law by Congress comprise whatever Israel says is “true.” This “truth” becomes our “knowledge,” and researchers rush into the field to prove that every action by anyone who has another view of reality, a “knowledge” based on a different empirical experience, is an offense against the received “truth.” Anyone who questions the received “knowledge” becomes a dangerous person. And in the climate of public opinion (at least since 9/11, 2001) that fears danger, the easiest way to maintain the received “knowledge” is to label dangerous persons as “terrorists.” Thus, any action by anyone who has an experience of reality different from the received “knowledge” becomes an act of “terrorism.”

The “researchers” who have rushed into the field to prove the existence of “terrorism” are obliged to look at every act that does not support the “knowledge” that we all accept as “truth” as, at best, anti-social behavior, but, more likely, “terrorism.”

And what is “terrorism?” Everyone “knows.”

“Knowledge” contrary to the received “knowledge” exists, however:

.... just as a political scientist would hold that war is politics by other means, so too is terrorism. It exists because of the disparity of power between an aggrieved group and the holder of dominant power and is an attempt to alter that relationship and to press a list of grievances. In some cases terrorism is resorted to only as an action of last resort, or when other effective avenues of complaint are cut-off or non-existent. (2)

Americans give almost no credence to the idea that “terrorism” is an expression of a grievance against a dominant power. Americans are confused when we try to sort out our “knowledge” that “terrorism” is bad from the idea that resistance to tyranny is the heritage we share and, in many struggles other than that of the Palestinians, we support.

The confusion arises by conflating terrorism in the context of a liberation struggle and terrorism in a larger ideological battle. After September 11 Israel and its American supporters wanted to brand Palestinian resistance to occupation as part and parcel of American's war on terrorism. Any early hesitancy by President Bush to disallow this co-mingling was quickly overcome by the deft movements of Israel's supporters in Congress and the media. (3)

And so, because we are confused, we allow “experts”—government operatives who have access to classified information that we must not have, and researchers trained to interpret all information they uncover as support for the received “knowledge,” that is, those who have the most to gain by our skewed “knowledge”—to inform and manipulate us, and ultimately to persuade us that anyone who deviates from the received “knowledge” is, most likely, a terrorist.

Bernardine Dohrn writes about a poster that made the rounds of the offices at her university:

It’s a faded picture of four aging Native Americans at the turn of the century in their indigenous dress. They’re all holding rifles and they’re not posing. They are standing with their rifles looking directly into the camera. And the banner across it says “homeland security, fighting terrorism since 1492.” That’s our tradition. (4)

(1) Harb, Mona & Reinound Leenders. “Know thy enemy: Hizbullah, ‘terrorism’ and the politics of perception.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2005
(2) Jabara, Abdeen. “Introduction.” Arab Studies Quarterly; Spring/Summer2002, Vol. 24 Issue 2/3.
(3) ibid.
(4) Dohrn, Bernardine. “Homeland Imperialism: Fear and Resistance.” Monthly Review July-August2003.