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How opposing racial stereotypes combine to create anti-Arab racism

By Ghassan Hage - posted Monday, 1 September 2003

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.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on 15 August 2003. A version of it will appear in Bin Laden in the Suburbs, edited by Greg Noble, Scott Poynting, Paul Tabar and Jock Collins (Institute of Criminology, 2003).

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About the Author

Dr Ghassan Hage is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney.

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