A guest post by Amit Julka and Medha.
Amit is a PhD student at the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and he is working on India’s engagement with Afghanistan from the perspective of Indian identity formation. Previously he worked as a media specialist with the US Embassy in New Delhi and at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. He holds an M.A. in South Asian Area studies from SOAS, and is a computer engineer by training.
Medha is a research fellow/doctoral student at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), Hamburg. Her research focus is on the role of Islam in India’s identity and foreign policy. She previously worked at the IDSA, and also as a journalist in India, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada. She holds an M.A. in Media Studies, jointly from Aarhus and Swansea Universities.
Among the many anodyne reports from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit held in Kathmandu recently, there was a curious piece of news: an article about how the Indian Prime Minister was being served ‘simple vegetarian fare with less spices and oil’ while his Pakistani counterpart was enjoying ‘halal meat dishes’ during their respective stays in Nepal. The next day, on social media, India’s Ministry of External Affairs posted a photograph of a menu with the caption ‘All Vegetarian Fare. For those asking here is what the SAARC leaders are having at the Retreat.’
While it may be routine for the media to report about the dishes served during meetings and summits, this emphasis on Modi’s vegetarianism—and his apparent success in making sure all the leaders consume vegetarian food, at least at the Retreat—is particularly noteworthy. Especially when the fact that Modi was fasting for Navratri during his visit to the US was also equally publicised. Was this an attempt at burnishing Modi’s image as the Hindu Hriday Samrat within India as well as the increasingly vocal Indian or more precisely, the Hindu community abroad?
‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650
Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God
Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.
We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.
There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story – the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.
The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.
In September 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a draft ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ that proposed enhancing existing punishments for homosexual conduct in the Ugandan Penal Code, introducing new ‘related offences’ including ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexuality, ‘conspiracy to engage’ in homosexuality, the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, or ‘failure to disclose the offence’ of homosexuality to authorities within 24 hours, and mandating the death penalty for a select class of offences categorized as ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill remained bottled up in parliamentary committees for the duration of the 8th Parliament, thanks in large part to a sophisticated local campaign that sought to bring international pressure to bear on the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but has since been reintroduced in the current 9th Parliament and therefore remains a live concern. In August 2010, I travelled to Uganda to interview a range of actors associated with ongoing debates over sexuality in the country. Rather than commenting on the urgent and pressing substantive concerns at issue in these debates, at an ISA panel entitled ‘Researching sexuality in difficult contexts’, I chose to reflect on some of the methodological dilemmas I encountered in the field, for which my training in international relations had left me unprepared. Emboldened by recent ISA panels on storytelling and auto-ethnography (and utterly bored by what passes for mainstream IR), these reflections take the form of excerpts from my diary (italicized), interspersed with the more censorious, academic voice that I trotted out at ISA. (I make no apology for not writing about the more ‘serious’ issues at stake—on this occasion—because it occurs to me that where sexuality is concerned, the pursuit of fun can raise deadly serious questions, making distinctions between the trivial and the serious difficult to sustain.)
Uganda, August 2010: I am here to do interviews and I spend most of my day setting them up, preparing for them, travelling to or from them, or conducting them. The rest of the time I hang out, people watch, trying to piece together a picture of how life outside heteronormativity survives in a climate that seems—on the surface at least—as inhospitable as Uganda is supposed to be. On Friday, Al (name changed, and this account provided with permission) invited me to a strip-tease. This was going to be a straight strip-tease, but one that some of the gay men went to so that they could watch the straight men getting off on watching the women strip. It sounded convoluted, but unmissable. Plus, I’d never been to a straight strip-tease, so it seemed important to plug this gaping orifice in my sexual history. We entered a dimly lit hall and took seats at the back in a group near the bar. I think I was the only brown man there. There was also one white man in the whole place, in our group. He had evidently been to the place before, and because he came with the same motivations as Al, he had been traumatized on a previous occasion by the way the women flocked to him (money?). So Al was instructed to tell the emcee (a short guy dressed in a white track suit) to make sure that the women didn’t come to our corner. The real attraction, from the point of view of the gay guys, was that the women sometimes got the straight guys to get on stage and strip. Al told the emcee to do his best to encourage this possibility. Call it Straight Guy for the Queer Eye. I was impressed by the brazenness with which Al communicated all this to the emcee. As for the show, let’s just say it took the ‘tease’ out of strip-tease. The first woman (girl? all the performers looked like they were in their 30s, but they could have been younger and prematurely aged by their work) danced to some vaguely familiar Western pop number. She was followed by another woman with bigger hips. Somebody in the group, setting himself up as my informant, tells me that she is ‘a real African woman’. She danced to Shania Twain’s ‘From this Moment On’ (a song I played to my last (and final, I think) girlfriend on the first day I met her, after a year-long correspondence). Just when Shania reached the second verse, the woman dropped her panties. None of the performers took off their bras. ‘African men aren’t interested in breasts’, my self-appointed informant intones. The next half-hour is a blur of female anatomy. So here I am, in a country that people have been calling ‘conservative’ and that American evangelist Rick Warren has decided is ripe for transformation into the world’s first ‘purpose driven’ nation, looking at more naked women in ten minutes than I have seen in ten years, to the soundtrack of my failed romantic history.
As the recent protests kicked-off in Egypt two weeks ago, I was working on a thesis chapter about the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In particular, I was looking at the drafting process and the intellectual debates that defined the famous human rights document. A key figure in that debate was the Lebanese representative, Charles Habib Malik, and I thought it worth pausing to remember an important figure in the contemporary human rights movement, who did much to develop human rights both intellectually and politically.
“They want justice… They want freedom… They want a sense of equality with the rest of the world.”
Malik defined himself as Lebanese, Christian and Arab – identities that importantly influenced his thinking and defense of human rights as a moral and political project. Despite claims that he was “Westernized” and that he was clearly a strong opponent of international communism, Malik was not a conventional Western liberal. In particular, he clearly saw himself as a fundamentally religious thinker whose political project was not only the defense of individual rights but ensuring the equal standing of Arab countries in world politics, which went together with a more general concern for securing the independence of colonized peoples and the protection of small states from great powers.
Independence springs from the Arab sense of the difference from others, a sense that has been sharpened in recent centuries by the relative isolation of the Arabs from the rest of the world. Unity takes on many modalities: from the mild form of general community and consultation enshrined in the Arab League to the extreme form of complete political unification desired by certain nationalist movements, particularly in Iraq and Syria. But regardless of its modality, every Arab feels an immediate mystical unity with every other Arab.
Lack of love. Strategy, commerce, exploitation, securing an imperial route: these were why the West for the most part came to the Near East, not because it loved us. Add to this the immense racial arrogance of modern Europe. The West has not been true to itself, and therefore it could not have been true to us.
(Charles Malik, “The Near East: The Search for Truth,” Foreign Affairs, 30, 1952)
Monday 17 January marked the official US holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. While watching Monday’s Democracy Now! program, featuring substantive excerpts from King’s speeches, the clarity with which he connected the domestic fight for equality to international politics, in particular poverty and war, struck me. The international aspects of King’s thinking, I believe, are important for two reasons.
First, it challenges the interpretation of King as an insufficiently radical leader offered by some critics, and the co-option of King’s legacy not only by “moderate” liberals but also by conservative political figures in the US. King has become a symbol in the public consciousness of a safe reformism and a favorite icon for the type of liberal who abhors radicalism above any other political sin. As Michael Eric Dyson says, “Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies. King has been made into a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.”
A personal anecdote to illustrate the point: a couple of years ago while handing over the editorship of Millennium to the incoming editorial team, one of the new editors commented on the large poster of Che Guevara that hangs on the Millennium office door. The Che poster, so far as I know, predates most of us currently associated with the journal, therefore I suggested it should stay. I then asked why Che should go. My colleague suggested that Che’s participation in revolutionary violence made him an inappropriate icon – in many academic disciplines this might be a rather devastating point, but International Relations is full of characters far more violent and less admirable than Comrade Che – see Paul’s post on Kissinger, for example.
When asked who might better grace the walls of the office my colleague suggested Martin King or Mohandas Gandhi (a political figure subject to a similar post-hoc liberal deification), with their key qualification as acceptable iconography being that they had not participated in political violence. While I have a great deal of sympathy for non-violence, my own introduction to both King and Gandhi came through the study of non-violence political strategy, the liberal (and I think my colleague would gladly accept that identification) embrace of King or Gandhi, paired with the repudiation of Che, is (unintentionally?) disingenuous.
It’s a disingenuous embrace because it insists that the first rule of acceptable political action is a renunciation of physical violence, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the violence institutionalized in the state through everyday police brutality and legalized/legitimized imperial warfare, as well as the structural violence inherent to global capitalism. This misses the radical content of non-violence as practiced by King and obscures the link that exists between non-violent agitation and armed resistance. The political commitments and motivations of King and Che are remarkably similar, even as their fundamental orientations (Marxism vs. Christianity) and tactics (non-violent direct action vs. guerrilla insurgency) diverged. Continue reading