By Tariq Shadid
Politicians in Europe, being better informed than the masses, are well aware that the results of the American mid-term elections are unlikely to cause a drastic change in American foreign policy. The centre of military concern now lies in and around the Middle East, and this is exactly where American and Israeli interests are now so intertwined, that the staunchly pro-Israeli Democrat sweep is not likely to cause any substantial difference in policy, perhaps with the exception of the Iraq issue.
The Europeans may mistrust the Bush administration deeply, and as further exposure is given to the failures of American international strategy, this wariness seems to be fed steadily, according to the results of opinion polls. Nevertheless, their perception of the media-enlarged ‘Muslim Enemy’, is presented to them in a far more comprehensive fashion. Through the stereotyping seen in TV-shows, newspaper columns and Hollywood movies, a lot more fear and mistrust are still generated towards the East, than towards Bush.
The western audience is left to digest what is being presented, only to find it to be contradictory in its very essence. This leads to a situation known in psychology and sociology, as cognitive dissonance. How can it be possible, that most of the deadly violence is taking place ‘over there’, instead of ‘at home’, yet the Americans are still the ‘good guys’? And: how can these scary-looking, dark-haired and angry Arab people, possibly be the ones fighting a just struggle?
Lack of information, based on an intrinsic media bias that portrays the US-Israeli project for rebuilding their ‘New Middle East’, as a morally justified endeavour, is certainly a very important factor. However, the dehumanization of non-Jewish Middle Easterners, undertaken by western media pundits, also plays a strong role in building up cognitive dissonance.
Once a Palestinian, Afghan, Iraqi or Lebanese person would be seen as a fellow human being, which is now, in many perceptions, not fully the case, would the words ‘human rights’ not be more able to find their proper context and meaning, within the immense streams of information a European citizen is subjected to? However, the situation being as it is now, cognitive dissonance continues to cause a double standard in thinking when it comes to the Middle East.
The word ‘Palestinian’, is still not generally associated, in a majority of minds here, with ‘human rights’, but rather with ‘violence’, as a result of this brainwash. This perception blocks the Europeans, often subconsciously, from associating 18 murdered Palestinians reported in the news, with 18 dead people, as in real people. Instead, he or she associates it with 18 dead violent people.
Still, the notion that their own tax-payer’s money is being used in these military campaigns, to perpetrate these very same massacres, in some cases even through the use of illegal weaponry such as cluster bombs, white phosphorous bombs and even depleted uranium, gets quickly entangled, and lost, in that same web of cognitive dissonance. It contradicts so strongly with how the Europeans view themselves and the world, that the information is more or less neutralized, made meaningless.
The divergence of these European democracies, like Britain and the Netherlands, among others, from international law, has gone on largely unnoticed by the masses. The involvement of these governments in the US-led military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the cases of the Netherlands and Britain, in weapons transports to Israel during its massive bombing campaign last summer, has not rung a bell with the majority of people. Their state of cognitive dissonance acts as a barrier, that disables them to make that step, and draw their conclusions.
Dehumanization and Rehumanization
Without a media-apparatus that can reach widely, it is not an easy task to counter the effects of cognitive dissonance. The essence, however, in my view, should be sought in countering the effects of dehumanization, one might call it, ‘rehumanization’. Outside of the world of mass-communications, after all, there still are venues that are relatively uncensored and accessible, such as the internet, theatres, exposition halls, and so on.
The most radiant example of a massive defeat of cognitive dissonance through rehumanization in history, is South Africa, whose oppressed people introduced themselves to the peoples of Europe and America with their colourful and charismatic arts, music, and dances, and rehumanized the coloured population in the western mind. Eventually, the human rights issues involved were seen for what they really were, and democratic political action was eventually undertaken, Apartheid’s South Africa ending up being subjected to a world-wide boycott.
Palestinians (or any other demonized people) can also rehumanize their image, by presenting themselves and their culture through their arts, since art often speaks a language that is understood by more people, than political discourse. Palestinian art, of course, is so intertwined with the recent tragic history of the Palestinian people, that the political message stands a much stronger chance of reaching its audience, through this indirect, more emotional form of communication.
When Palestinians display their culture, and many unseen Palestinians in the Diaspora do have the ability, cultural knowledge and talents to express it, the story of the Nakba, the origin of the disaster, will undoubtedly be told, and understood. Palestinians, especially those living outside of Palestine, need to ensure that not one world citizen is left, who is not familiar with that simple but highly charged word, ‘Nakba’. It is important to realize, that any outsider who can grasp the context and the meanings of that word, in connection to its historical facts, will be able to recognize how the Nakba is still happening now, but has today entered a new aggressive phase.
The most effective message to be conveyed through these arts, like music, poetry, theatre, dance, and graphic arts, is the message that the Palestinian cause is, in its essence, a human rights issue, more than it is a political one. This way, by stepping forward and actively countering the dehumanization process, Palestinians living in the West can help remove the barriers of cognitive dissonance from the minds of the Western audiences, and eventually help affect the democratic decision-making, that determines the international politics of these nations.
-Tariq Shadid is a Palestinian surgeon and media activist, living in the Netherlands, who writes for the Palestine Chronicle on a regular basis. In 2001, he initiated the still active musical internet project “The Musical Intifadah” (www.docjazz.com). He is also board member and spokesman of the Palestinian Community in the Netherlands, and member of the central action committee of the Dutch Stop the War Coalition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.