Demonising Palestinian men — terrorists until proven otherwise

Arab and Muslim men are instantly guilty, stripped of the presumption of innocence and the right to due process. They are terrorists until proven otherwise.
Published December 11, 2023

When Edward Said wrote, “I am an Oriental writing back at the Orientalists, who forever thrived upon our silence,” he did so as a Palestinian scholar.

But even more narrowly, he penned that perspective from the vantage point of a Palestinian man.

His landmark work, Orientalism, was a text about the systematic European and then-American demonisation of the “Muslim world”. It was deeply gendered, even if not explicitly, with analysis rebutting the orientation of Arab and Muslim men as the principal purveyors of fundamentalism, violence, and warmongering.

Said, a Palestinian man, surveyed the world from that lens. While the world saw him and his Arab and Muslim male counterparts as security and demographic threats and reported as such on corporate media outlets and newspapers, Western governments enacted laws that policed, punished and prosecuted them.

While Arab women were caricatured as submissive and suppressed, and Western feminist efforts to “liberate them” beat the drums for war, the men were always the primary targets of violence. They remained the principal objects reduced into “human animals” whose only reason for being was terrorism, then systematically killed because of that ascription.

Arab and Muslim men are instantly guilty, stripped of the presumption of innocence and the right to due process. They are never individuals, judged upon the merits of their actions, but always lumped up into an anonymous monolith that inspects their bodies through the lens of terrorism and instantly assigns guilt because of their identity.

They are terrorists until proven otherwise. And that until seldom even comes.

They are branded with that label by a system of Islamophobia that is rooted in the orientalism Edward Said reckoned with four decades ago, which was never more potent than today.

We see this, vividly and violently, in Gaza.

We saw it, most virulently, yesterday, in Beit Lahia in the northern section of the Gaza strip. Atop the bombed soil in between shattered homes and shuttered businesses, Palestinian men were laid down like criminals, stripped of their clothes and their dignity, then lined into rows.

They were civilians. Men who worked at schools and shops, government agencies and private businesses. Many of them were fathers, all of them sons, who lost loved ones during two months of genocidal violence that seemingly has no end.

They too, were victims.

The facts of who these men are, like their clothes, were violently stripped from view. In an instant, the world saw them through the lens of terrorism, and the Israeli military capitalised on the immense power of this stereotype to claim that they were “Hamas fighters.”

Whether they were or were not, did not matter. What mattered is that they were Arab men — Palestinian men — only seen, then scrutinised by Western media outlets and governments through the prism of terrorism.

Their faces and names, ethnicity and geographic locale provided the corporal evidence needed to draw that conclusion, and the Israeli military weaponised that stereotype to claim a fabricated military victory.

Then, the Israeli Defence Forces peddled the propaganda for all the world to see with images of beaten down, bare naked Palestinian men lined across their native soil, then dragged off like cattle towards a destination that ended with torture, death, or some morbid stop in between.

The world gave them the green light. Principally, the United States’ “war on terror” machine, which gave global license to the trope that Arab and Muslim men are presumptive terrorists unless proven otherwise.

This was echoed by pundits and politicians during the 60-day stretch of the crisis, even among those calling for a permanent ceasefire. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, five weeks after the crisis began stated that Israel must stop “the killing of women, children, babies’ in Gaza”. He made no mention of Palestinian men.

Four days before Trudeau, President Emmanuel Macron of France held:

“These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop.”

Palestinian men, again, were conspicuously absent from his words. Absent, as individuals worth saving even among calls for a ceasefire.

Nonexistent in his words and the world alike, as real human beings, let alone victims. Rather, putative terrorists unworthy of being seen through the neutral lens of individuality and therefore, unworthy of being saved from the march of genocide that marks them as terrorists, wherever and whoever they are.

The demonisation of Palestinian men is a project rooted in longstanding orientalist narratives and emergent Islamophobic discourses. Their humanity is written out of news stories and redacted from demands for ceasefires.

Intentionally, by design, because prevailing interests are invested wholly in the demonisation of Palestinian men, and the destruction of a masculinity conflated with terrorism.

This is why innocent men are paraded around as terrorists, stripped of their dignity and masculinity, for the whole world to see. Humiliated, then reduced into animals and objects of scorn.

We saw it in Abu Ghraib and we see it, again, in Gaza.

That is how the world has come to see us.

I see myself in those men. My faith and name, phenotype and ancestry connect me to them as I look at their sullen faces and bare bodies from a screen.

A screen where the only guilt I see is worn by their captors, and the complicit and conspiring governments that enable this inhumanity.

This article was originally published by the author on his blog, Pen>Sword and has been reproduced here with permission.