An "interesting" conspiracy tale circulated in the wake of September 11, 2001. It went like this: Arab Muslims were too dumb to plan something like
the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington; it must have been Mossad that was behind the attack.
The story is interesting because it combines two racial stereotypes: the anti-Semitic stereotype of the conspiratorial Jew and the typical colonial stereotype of the dumb, inferior, "Third World-looking" colonised. The fact that these
two racisms are combined in trying to come to terms with an action initiated by Arab Muslims is not a coincidence. The latter have always had an ambivalent position
within the spectrum of European otherness.
This spectrum is structured by a polarity between what we might call "the other of the will" and "the other of the body". The other of the
will is the cunning other, the competitive other, the manipulative other, the conspiratorial other, the other that can thwart my plans and undermine me, the
other who, deep down, I fear might be superior to me at least with regard to intelligence.
The epitome of this other is, of course, the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew. It
is also the product of a racism very specific to it, the racism of extermination.
The other of the body, on the other hand, is an unambiguously inferior other
(except, perhaps, when it comes to sexual prowess), inferior in terms of intelligence,
inferior in terms technical know-how, inferior in terms of capacity to be productive
(eg the category of "the lazy other"). The epitome of this other was
the colonial portrayal of the black African. Likewise, it is also the product
of a very specific type of racism, the racism of exploitation.
Paradoxically, it was his or her supposed inferiority and lack of intelligence
that made the lazy other of colonisation, the other that is all body, exploitable.
The other of the mind, the cunning other, was by definition un-exploitable, for
if anything, such an other had the potential to exploit the European colonisers,
to manipulate and use them against their will. By definition such an other could
only be exterminated.
This does not mean, of course, that the other of the body was never exterminated.
The history of colonial extermination in the process of territorial and political
domination is well established. Yet, what is interesting about such processes
of extermination is that, within them, the colonised other was much less, and
on fewer occasions, essentialised as an object of extermination. The European
colonisers, like everybody else in this world, try to exterminate what they classify
as a threat, not what they classify as inferior. And once the colonised are eliminated
as a threat, once they have been reduced in number, once their political will
has been eradicated, once their capacity for resistance has been squashed, that
is, once they have been "killed" politically and socially as a group,
then, most often than not, begins a period where a substantial number of people
among the colonisers begin to love those "socio-politically dead other",
and yearn to "preserve" their culture. One can see this, in an anthropological
spirit, as a kind of "political necrophilia" specific to the evolution
of colonial culture. Perhaps it is best exemplified by those European settlers
or their descendants who, once the natives have been politically smashed, but
only then, not only express their love of "native cultures" (like the
European "appreciation" of indigenous desert paintings in Australia)
but manage to express outrage at their "living conditions", at "the
death rate among them" and even courageously celebrate their "resistance".
All is done for as long as it is subliminally well- known that it is a resistance
of the politically dead, doomed to have no effect on the quality of life they,
as colonisers or descendant of colonisers, have acquired from being "well
positioned" in this cumulative process of resource appropriation and theft.
It is this necrophilic appreciation of the politically dead other that characterises
the racism of exploitation. Practically, it means that the other has been subjugated,
pacified and tamed enough to become classified as "valuable", either
aesthetically or for labouring purposes.
This necrophilic dimension is totally absent in the racism of extermination.
For the Nazis, no matter how many Jews have been exterminated, the Jew was still
a threat. The capacity of the cunning, manipulative other to be a threat is not
dependent on numbers as is the case with the colonised. One manipulative Jew can
do as much harm as ten, or a thousand, or a million. One cannot imagine a situation
where a Nazi says, "we have this Jewish family in our neighbourhood, they
have such an interesting culture" while another says "we have 'too many'".
For the Nazi, one Jew is always already too many.
It is from within the field constituted by the polarity between the racism
of exploitation and the racism of extermination, and their imaginary others, that
we can appreciate the "ambiguous categorisation" of the Arab by the
European colonisers. For the Arab is at the same time a hybrid that is both a
"Jew" and a "black African" and an in-between that is neither.
He is an other of the will and the body, and neither. She is both cunning, and
too dumb to be cunning. Even in phenotypical terms, the Arab is neither a "Jewish
type" nor a "black type" but an in-between, or a "both".
The Arab is both an uncivilised other like the black African but also, like the
Jew, belonging to an early modern civilisation that has shaped European civilisation.
The Arab is a monotheist like the Jewish other but with an "inferior"
religious imagination (eg the paradise as full of virgins) akin to more primitive
religious forms. And while the dangerous Jew of the anti-Semitic imagination is
categorised as a snake, a hyena, or a vermin, and the exploitable black as a domesticated
animal, the Arab is neither. The Arab seems to be for the European coloniser what
the pig is for Jewish and Muslim cultures, a polluting non-exploitable (ie not
good for consumption) creature, and yet unlike the "Jewish snake" not
so much of a threat that it must be exterminated at all cost.
Today's racialised Arab, the bin Laden-like figure of the scheming international
terrorist, is a continuation within a global context of this racialising dichotomy.
For is not the imaginary bin Laden an in-between figure, hybridising the two key
figures of otherness in the era of globalisation: the superior, manipulative,
scheming (Jewish) international banker and the miserable, inferior, exploitable
(Third World-looking) migrant labourer?
And here again, the postcolonial state is ambivalent about the Arab within
the metropolis in much the same way as the colonial state was ambivalent about
him or her in the colony. It continually asks itself the same question: Is the
Arab a migrant "black African" bodily other, or a "Jewish"
subversive scheming will?
Like every bodily migrant other, the Arab migrant smells (his or her house,
kids, clothes, cars and cooking smells and pollutes the neighbourhood), his or
her way of life and place of worship is an eyesore that needs to be contained.
Within this "bodily register", one or two Arabs might be tolerable but
when there are "too many" it becomes unbearable.