A global politics of victimhood by Ahmad Ali Khalid*
Victimhood is the politics of the 21st century -- nay, it has been the defining politics of the 21st century.
This is a politics that is practiced universally across the board -- from America to Iran. It is this type of politics that threatens democracy today right across the world -- destabilizing sensible discourse, replacing it with a sensationalist and conspiratorial brand of politics that hankers after racial, ethnic or religious purity. Neoconservatives practice it, and Islamists of varying shades practice it.
This may seem harmless -- a politics of victimhood seems to be a fancy way of saying that politicians whine and moan instead of giving results and providing solutions. But this politics goes much deeper than this -- the politics of victimhood provides a psychological basis for committing atrocities and waging unjust wars. By appealing to our innate sense of insecurity as fragile human beings, politicians manipulate the language of community, tamper with historical memory and unleash the powerful atomic nature of religious grievance that taps into a primal and raw sense of revenge that can wreck extraordinary havoc.
In his paper “Rethinking ‘Don’t Blame the Victim’: the Psychology of Victimhood,” the author writes: “The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable and forever entitled to sympathy.”
The author further writes that “victims are likely to attribute the outcome of their behavior to situational or external forces rather than to dispositional forces within themselves.”
The religious parties in Pakistan forever ply their trade not in theological discourse but by employing an emotional and reductive politics of playing the victim. The Fox News network’s peculiar brand of hysterical “analysis” is based on a sense of white victimhood where there is a perception that America, which was identified as the bastion of white Christian cultural conservatism, is under attack demographically by immigration and minorities that seek to subvert the constitution. Glenn Beck and his cronies practice a form of psychological intimidation, bullying the Muslim minority on the pretext of white victimhood to the extent that Beck calls US President Barack Obama a “racist” and nearly a fourth of America believes Obama is a secret Muslim. For Americans to complain about the conspiracy theory culture in Pakistan is a case of throwing stones inside a glass house.
In Israel the politics of victimhood is used to justify the sheer brutality inflicted upon the Palestinian people -- the memory of the Holocaust in this instance (see the documentary “Defamation” by Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir and Norman Finkelstein’s “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering”) is manipulated just as the historical memory of the Crusades is manipulated by Muslim extremists seeking to recast today’s conflicts as existential battles between good and evil. The fact is that genuine grievances exist in the first place for politicians and ideologues to exploit. However, instead of inspiring an activism of individual empowerment and expression, politicians like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Douglas Murray in the UK advocate a form of tribal warfare to reclaim some sort of utopian and culturally homogenous Europe. A polity of revenge is being forged, especially when one hears rhetoric such as “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder” or Wilders spewing delusions like Dutch Muslims must “tear out half of the Koran if they wished to stay in the Netherlands.”
In Pakistan, on the other hand, the right-wing media practice a form of disgusting anti-Semitism that tries to find the hand of Israel behind the recent instability and terrorist attacks. While Pakistani ideologues like Zaid Hamid try to exploit Pakistani insecurities of having a bigger neighbor like India by once again framing the very domestic issue of internal terrorism within Pakistan as an issue of national struggle against the “Hindu oppressor” and fighting the machinations of the “Jewish threat.” The shocking episode of the blasphemy case of Aasia Bibi was not a theological controversy -- even religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) admitted that the blasphemy law was a demonstration of “Islamic identity” and any attempt to reform it was an attack on this sacred identity. For the religious parties Islam has been reduced to outward signs of dominance that form the heart of a radicalized Muslim identity.
In Pakistan a narrative of victimhood is spectacularly elaborated upon with intricate tripartite relationships being posited of Israeli, Indian and American interference that derails the Islamic republic from its true potential. The Pakistan Army and its ideologues now appeal to this sort of inflammatory political imagery.
In India, ideologues of Hindutva -- movements advocating Hindu nationalism -- revive the old historical events of Muslim empire in the subcontinent as a means to justify today’s shocking oppression and persecution of its Muslim minority. Pseudo-historical accounts have flooded the Internet about “Islamic oppression” of Hindu culture and civilization that have little reference to scholarly accounts or methodology.
In Iran, the ruling clique rather than use religion as a means of legitimacy still appeals to the memories of colonial injustice as a way of paralyzing any sort of political reform and liberalization that could integrate Iran back into the world. The reformist bloc in Iran is portrayed (very much like how Wilders portrays European Muslims as a Trojan horse for totalitarian rule) as double agents doing the bidding of former colonial masters and of course the “Great Satan.”
Liberal reform and activism in all of these diverse political contexts is equated with betrayal, with Fox News presenters and right-wing ideologues like Beck and Pamela Geller invoking Nazi imagery to slur liberal politicians and activists. In Islamic contexts, the connotation is more religious in using terms such as “atheist,” “heresy” or by appealing to a distorted definition of “secularism.” Patriotism of a jingoistic brand is driving this madness.
All over the world, fear has been used to paralyze liberal activists who are targeted for being “traitors” because they dare to dissent. Anders Behring Breivik’s attack on Norway’s left-wing-leaning ruling party was simply the manifestation of this belief taken to its logical extreme. Breivik, like the case of al-Qaeda perpetrating terrorism against Muslims who they see as degenerate and “Westernized,” was simply targeting people who he thought had betrayed his particularly distorted and perverted vision of Western and European civilization by taking their lives away in a fit of righteous rage. Identity politics rather than theological dispute is the cause of global malcontent today. Politics in the 21st century is being based on fear, xenophobic rhetoric and exclusivist discourse. Breivik was no mad man -- he was in full control of his mental faculties to the extent he could substantiate his views across a 1,500-page manifesto. His terrorist act was cold calculated political violence harking back to old-style European fascism.
There is a sense of hopelessness today that is brooding and multiplying in modern democracies. While it should be the role of politics to empower and to heal, we are seeing a new generation of hate mongers who seek to capitalize on this raw emotional hurt by transforming it into xenophobia and in the more extreme cases violent action.
It is clear that victimhood has the appeal to seduce and transform millions of people worldwide, thus paralyzing any hope for a liberation-based politics. Today more than ever we need politicians of vision, hope, intellectual integrity and moral courage. Political apathy in terms of dismissing such dangerous ideologues as mere madmen is no longer acceptable.
*Ahmad Ali Khalid is a writer and blogger based in the UK. He blogs and writes for Dawn, the Daily Times and other publications. http://www.dawn.com/author/ahmad-ali-khalid Tweets at http://twitter.com/AhmadAliKhalid The author can be reached at [email protected]