Whose Humanities? Western Academia’s Persisting Complicity

Sanabel Abdelrahman

Martyrdom research is a coveted topic in Western academia. Hundreds of research papers and books discuss the ‘poetics’ and the ‘collective’ images of martyrdom while tracing the permeance of the theme in posters, movies, speeches, graffiti, and the popular imagination. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s construction of the martyr figure and his presentation of the land as a female lover for whom resistance must be performed are widely researched and commonly celebrated themes. Nevertheless, Darwish's poetry, dubbed the ‘poet of resistance’, is often defanged from its profound revolutionary potential and hollowed from its political ramifications, leaving behind shells of aesthetic language and poetic signifiers—namely, a world of exotic projections.

Western academia tends to extract martyrdom from all contexts but real life. Whether in the United States of America, Europe, or other contexts in which white hegemony and supremacy could potentially be upheld, Western academia lingers on the potentialities of death, love, poetry, pluralism, sacrifice, nobility, discipline, liberation, and commitment without investigating Israel’s settler-colonial prerequisites to Palestinian martyrdom and its tragic materialization. Thus, the Palestinian martyr is transformed into an abstract entity that provokes Western academia’s curiosity and fetishism regarding this blurred time-space in which a human being willingly accepts death—the annihilation of their very being—as a price for a dignified life for future Palestinians. The Palestinian martyr becomes an impossible thing, an unfathomable feat, while being pigeonholed in non-real, non-believable, non-understandable spheres of being and of dying. The Palestinian martyr in Western academia is seldom perceived in the flesh and blood to begin with, and their death, therefore, is not a human death. For this imaginary, all Palestinian martyrdom is the stuff of fiction at best; at worst, an act of awesome terror.

The Western imaginary is thus baffled by martyrdom. It demands to know, with curiosity, repulsion, and envy: what would push thousands of Palestinians to sacrifice their bodies for a cause? The answer is not a romanticization of an existential question; it is not a poeticization of the afterlife, nor is it, ever, a suicidal longing for ending the pain. Martyrdom is the price paid for bearing witness to great pain. The greatest pain of all is the absence of freedom. The excruciating unfolding of the variegated forms of martyrdom that we have been witnessing in Palestine exposes the West’s disinterest and even repulsion regarding its recurrence. It reflects the West’s cowardice to name the culprit, its refusal to acknowledge its terrors, and its complicity in turning a bloodied blind eye to the genocide.

The video of a Gazan father stepping out of his van holding two grocery bags containing the burnt remains of his child will haunt ‘humanity’ until the end of history. This video, and thousands of others, ripple a form of partial martyrdom into the refugee, exiled, Palestinian watching from afar. The palm-sized algorithm bringing live images of the onslaught of an entire nation while the West and complicit Arab governments abet and take an active part, transforms the Palestinian spectator's physical surroundings into a facade. By that, the algorithm becomes the only real realm, and their witnessing body is hollowed out of a soul. The refugee, exiled, Palestinian goes through the motions while this digital violence is enacted upon them: maybe they will remember to have some food to sustain them, maybe they will recall how to operate their car, maybe they will even open their mouth and say something. However, something in those witnessing Palestinians has been martyred.

Much of the West’s academia collapses categorically. It proves at this critical point in liberatory and decolonial history that its sole goal is to accumulate, archive, enumerate, pile, regurgitate, reproduce, and further take up space.

Palestinian martyrdom, in all its forms, occurs because of a total and fatalistic application of an orientalist, vilifying, all-encompassing premise. For ages, the applications of white supremacy included the refusal to see the Palestinian, or any other Arab, as a human being. The Palestinian is, at best, viewed as a hybrid, a human-animal, as Israeli leadership keeps asserting before the extermination of this creature. It echoes Israeli Ayelet Shaked’s statement that all Palestinian babies are “little snakes” that need to be killed before they grow up to become terrorists.

White faces appear on screen, red with indignation, because they have to remind the Palestinians, time and again, that they are human animals whose only right is to die quietly. Ursula von der Leyen, who plays the sea villain in real life, does not even offer anything in exchange for usurping Palestinian voices and lives. Yoav Gallant asserts with the same indignation that there will be no electricity, no food, no water, no petrol. Berlin-based ‘migrant-welcoming,’ ‘rave-throwing,’ ‘vegan-eating,’ ‘flat-sharing’, ‘Nazi-deterring’ cultural institutes paint their pages white and blue and declare not only that they stand with Israel but that they expect their faculty, workers, and staff to take part in the genocide.

The indigent faces are the same. They are the face of the white man when the human animals he has been kicking, beating, starving, torturing, caging, injuring, raping, robbing, stabbing, and blinding fight back. The indignation conceals the white man’s ire at being robbed of the opportunity to practice further sadism against the human animal. The white man is angry because he can no longer fetishize and apply violence against an unconscious human animal. The Western politicians' fiery indignations imply a collective cognitive dissonance upon seeing the human animal fight back.

Franz Fanon directly references the reaction of indignation among the French regarding the Algerian resistance. “From the moment that the native has chosen the methods of counter-violence…they [the colonized] find out on the spot that all the piles of speeches on the equality of human beings do not hide the commonplace fact that the seven Frenchmen killed or wounded at the Col de Sakamody kindles the indignation of all civilized consciences, whereas the sack of douras of Guergor and the dechras of Djerah and the massacre of whole [Algerian] populations…all this is of not the slightest importance”.1

It is in the present moment that the critical role of academia’s humanities should be in a full-fledged mode. We witness today the opposite of that. Some might leap in to defend the humanities as a field, arguing that those spheres are the defenders of all humanities and are the most vivid expressions of human life for all. They might even argue for the ‘sanctity’ of the humanities field and might insist on the need to keep it ‘apolitical.’ This is ideal for the recipients of the exploitative fruits of Western extractivism, especially the privilege of choosing either to ‘politicize’ or enforce ‘apolitical’ spaces onto suffocating Palestinians. However, Western universities do not feign neutrality in this horrible moment of clarity. In fact, Western universities, cultural institutes, and other spaces that celebrate ‘humanity’ have been at the very forefront of not only apologism regarding the Palestinians’ ongoing genocide, but its further perpetuation.

The ‘Free’ University of Berlin, with an astounding number of over 30,000 students, openly declares that it stands with Israel. Not only that but “during this difficult time, we ask all our university members to demonstrate solidarity with our Israeli friends”. The Palestinians do not appear once in their statements. Berlin-based cafes, theaters, cultural spaces, music venues, restaurants, exhibition spaces, and other spaces meant to essentially exchange the ‘human’ experience released similar statements in which the Palestinian is either wholly erased or villainized or, paradoxically, both.

Following one of the many ongoing heinous massacres in Gaza, a ‘meeting’ was prompted by a group affiliated with one of the German universities. Mediated by white German faculty, the speakers insisted on the need for ‘dialogue’ and ‘using the scientific skills gained from academic practice’ to look beyond the ‘polarization.’ They waited, with nervous faces, to see if the attendees would take the bait, if they would internalize the fear, the Palestine phobia, the German ‘guilt,’ and fall silent. This is the mechanism of the colonial machine at work. It is precisely in this cowardly position, in asking Palestinian and other migrant students to swallow their voices after the same speakers had lectured, for tens of years, on Arabic literature and arts, that the flesh covering the colonial war machine breaks apart. Exposed, the colonial machine glows in bullet-proof shimmer: complicit, bloodied, and ever-white.

A re-denuding of the well-known orientalist, who had never really disappeared, thus takes place, deeming this a rare spectacle. Arabic-speaking Western academics who have lived in the Arab World, who publish literature on Arab culture and politics, who lunch with their graduate students to discuss Franz Fanon, who preach about speaking truth to power, who teach courses on orientalism over and over, and over again, who hold high positions in Western and Arabic universities whose students are plighted by wars, who submit self-congratulatory papers on ‘resistance literature’, who build their entire careers on the suffering of the Palestinians and other Arabs as ‘subjects’ of academic curiosity, who criticize ‘colonial’ urges and applications, are, today, either dead silent or worse: offering lukewarm apologist half-statements. If they ever leave their silence, it is to make a statement about some obscure, mysterious pain they are suddenly inflicted with in observing what is happening in the ‘world.’

In the rare occasions when they become conscious of it, they may attempt to mask their ambivalence by throwing in the air glitter dust of ‘coexistence’: didactic, uncontextualized, solipsistic, and vapid. Behind the paper-thin facades of ‘coexistence’ and normalization, the war goes on. It may be cold, fought in the infinitely expanding cyberspace surveilling and attempting to suffocate Palestinian voices, or in academic meetings that fire faculty who dare to humanize Palestinians. It may be hot and kill thousands of terrified Palestinian children sheltered by their parents while the world watches as it does today.

What is the reason for this ambiguous ‘discomfort’? What is the origin of the current genocide—which they will not name? Why was Edward Said ostracized? Where was Mahmoud Darwish born? Why were the posters of the Palestinian struggle archived? How did Ghassan Kanafani die? How did their universities react to the Russian invasion of Ukraine? What are they scared of? What are they scared of? What are they scared of?

The white man, the “child of light,” fighting the Palestinian, the “child of darkness” in defense of “civilization against the law of the jungle,” opens the space to define two hunger-arousing terms in Western discourse: ‘humanity’ and ‘civilization’. Both are the very basis of orientalist application and apologism. Does the study of humanities reproduced and shared among the academics in the West extend to Palestinians and other Arabs? What are the fatal effects of insisting on the ‘uncivilized’ nature of those Palestinians?

Not being a recipient of the West’s ‘humanities’, the Palestinian subject is transformed into the child of darkness. The West’s orientalists voluntarily take on the role usually ascribed to politicians, pundits, mainstream media, talking heads, and soldiers: to prioritize the ‘humanity’ of a group against a far-removed, exotic nation undergoing physical and metaphysical obliteration. Perhaps the Western academic swallows their shaky voice for fear of their academic positions, careers, future salaries, and social standings. Nevertheless, there must be a greater reward for this complicity. There must be a greater sense of self-importance and collective realization. Perhaps it is a collective insistence by Western academic institutes to maintain the ‘Middle East’ at an arm’s length (or much farther) so that they can continue to study it from a distance and to plant in the geographies, bodies, and literatures of those children of darkness a utopia, a dream, an orientalist heaven. Perhaps because a liberated Palestine, a liberated Arab World, would have nothing exotic, nothing grotesque, nothing inaccessible, nothing dreamlike, nothing nightmarish, nothing pathetic, nothing victimizing, nothing criminal, nothing far-removed about it that would be worthy of study.

Thus, much of the West’s academia collapses categorically. It proves at this critical point in liberatory and decolonial history that its sole goal is to accumulate, archive, enumerate, pile, regurgitate, reproduce, and further take up space. All the while, it is granting those academics bigger paychecks, higher positions, retirement plans, and an illusory social status that the popular intellect rivals against and easily triumphs over. Its complacent and fatal silence has wholly hollowed out the term ‘decolonization’. Decolonization in those academic contexts morphs into an empty shell, a space filler, a standby trend, a conversation starter, and occasionally a means of self-congratulation. It does not attempt to interrogate white ‘humanity’ or white ‘morality’ or overall white blindness, which kills. It sits in the corner and watches until the severed Palestinian bodies have been removed, the blood cleaned, and the reports brought to the table. Then, after a long slumber, the West’s academia goes back to accumulating, archiving, enumerating, piling, regurgitating, reproducing, and further taking up space.

At this juncture of excruciating upheaval, a statement keeps circulating that ‘history will not forget those who stood idly by’. This implies that the bystanders, the spectators, the voyeurs, the flaneurs, and the orientalists will collectively wake up one day with a pained conscience. Or, perhaps their children and their grandchildren would. One needs to only look at Germany, its dehumanization of everything Palestinian, to see how this statement shatters completely. One needs to only look at South Africa’s ongoing resource colonization by ‘ex’ white settlers. One needs to only look at the United States of America’s racism, ecocide, poverty, and fatal consumerism. The colonizers never woke up with a pained conscience. They had never gone to sleep.

How can those same scholars continue to lecture about decolonization when they have been the quiet observers of the Palestinian genocide that continues today? How can they believe any word that escapes their mouths in this regard—or any other? How can they draft proposals about something that proved, to them, non-existent? What is the solution to this complete distortion, the collapse of the very practice and propagation of academic work? Amid this horrifying violence against Palestinians and the equally horrifying silence of the West’s academics, perhaps the answer to those difficult questions lies not in the negation of academia but in a kind of willful transformation that collides with its whiteness and complicity. Academia can be saved in this moment and its aftermath by breaking the shackles of institutional hegemony and pushing academic work into the trenches of praxis.

This can only happen if those suffering from the West’s selective humanities come together and embed academic tools into non-academic spaces: making academic thought and decolonial theory accessible to the people outside the walls of universities and utilizing, to a greater extent, cyberspace to disseminate the messages of intellectuals concerning freedom. Also, organizing teach-ins, making resources public, and incorporating movies, artworks, oral histories, documentaries, graffiti art, popular music, and everyday conversations around solidarity as materials for pedagogy. This also includes protesting, drafting petitions, organizing, writing, debating, and speaking to others with the impassioned fire of intellectual liberation and freedom.

Academia can learn abundantly from martyr Ghassan Kanafani’s theories on resistance literature; academia can even apply them. Resistance poems, short stories, novels, experimental texts, novellas, plays, poster texts, and exhibition texts can be used towards that. Texts that insist on the need to keep hope, to resist the eradication and annihilation of the Palestinians, to love our kin in moments of pain, to extend our solidarities, to liberate ourselves from the wretchedness of this earth, to bring about liberation, to live, to live, to live.

Perhaps the most violent thing humanity has ever experienced is the absolute crystallization of the West’s white humanities: the white man’s dreams of purged utopias, his obsession with possession: enslaving the bodies, looting the objects, colonizing the land, archiving memories, his thieving of the discourse around decolonization, his fatal consumption, and his indoctrination of students about the limits of humanity and its inapplicability to the children of darkness.

The colonizers never woke up with a pained conscience. They had never gone to sleep.

Franz Fanon, a beloved interlocutor to thousands of Palestinians in this dark moment, can be heard clearly now. “Finally, in the third phase, which is called the fighting phase, the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people. Instead of according the people’s lethargy an honoured place in his esteem, he turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature, and a national literature. During this phase a great many men and women who up till now would never have thought of producing a literary work…feel the need to speak to their nation, to compose the sentence which expresses the heart of the people and to become the mouthpiece of a new reality in action”.2

1          Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin Group, 2001 [first published 1961]), 70
2         ibid, 179

Sanabel Abdelrahman holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Studies, focusing on magical realism in Palestinian literature. She is a bilingual writer and publishes essays critiquing art and literature on platforms including Fus7a, al-Akhbar, 7iber, Jadaliyya, and NO NIIN. Sanabel uses texts and images to achieve a reading of the material reality in order to devise ways to counter it. In academic papers, literary texts, and film photography, she investigates literature’s potential in transforming the imagination into a lived reality.

 🇵🇸 We Will Not Stand by in Silence: ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories ✦ 🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.
🇵🇸We Will Not Stand by in Silence:  ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction  ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.