Marc Aziz Michael — Under Queer Eyes: Visibility Politics and the New Reaction (Review of Sa’ed Atshan’s Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique)

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Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique by Sa’ed Atshan (Stanford UP, 2020)

by Marc Aziz Michael

At the outset of the 20th century, an odd fever took hold of the civilized world: modern parliaments passed endless legislation ordering Oriental female subjects to discard fashion items covering their faces. From Lord Cromer to Atatürk, “unveiling” Oriental women became a matter of modernity or barbarism, life or death. Political tracts, traveler’s diaries, public health reports depicted the many untoward medical, social or political consequences of the “veil”. Financial incentives or meetings with heads of state rewarded unveiling volunteers. Soviet parliaments in Central Asia opened their meetings with unveiling rituals—dozens of women taking off their scarves while declaring allegiance to secular socialist progress, often reveiling on the way home.

Over a century later, not much has changed. First Lady Laura Bush justified her husband’s Oriental genocides with liberation from the evils of the burqa. “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes”. In 2010, French Law 092, “La République se vit à visage découvert[1]”, banned access to public space for any woman sporting a face-covering—uniting the political landscape around philosophical gems such as president Chirac’s “Like it or not, the veil is a kind of aggression” or Hollande’s “the veiled woman of today…could free herself of her veil and become French.” “To conceal one’s face is to threaten the minimal demands of social life,” concludes the text of the law. Democratic “vivre ensemble”—like the CIA—requires recognizable and identifiable faces. And thus the burqa stands proudly as the only piece of cloth criminalized within the EU.

Once upon a time, the left could easily read this hunger for bare flesh as a symptom of colonial domination. In the 1950s, Martinique-born psychiatrist Franz Fanon diagnosed this political malady of the colonial gaze as an aggressive will to “possess” elusive brown women. “This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer. There is no reciprocity…She does not offer herself.” The veil drew the abrupt line beyond which colonial eyes failed to penetrate—refusing entry into the nooks of Muslim hearts and minds; a civilizational middle finger, testament to the failure of the West in seducing the Rest with its norms, beliefs, and ideals. Fearing for unsuspecting beachgoers, Prime Minister Valls conveyed this frustration with French eloquence: “The burkini is…the translation of a political project, a counter-society, founded amongst other upon the subjection of women.” In 2020, while the sanitary virtues of the niqab are hotly debated on air, the confused amongst us wonder what kind of faceless shadow society the French government is peddling in with compulsory COVID masks.

Drifting far from Fanon, progressive dogma today equates visibility with representation and justice—rather than occupation. On international women’s day 2011, in the midst the largest uprising in living Egyptian memory, a small group of women in Tahrir staged their own unveiling rituals reminiscent of the good old British days, spectacularly committing to an open democratic existence far from Islamic obfuscations. In another corner of the square, half a dozen queer socialist youths donned slogans asserting their sexual difference publically, spring cleaning their personal and political closets in one swift move. The front of the War on Veils has expanded to queerer shores. The new bearers of the flame of transparent freedoms, the international LGBTQ movement, promotes de-closeting rituals that would leave Marie Kondo blushing. Amidst the 2019 Beirut uprisings, a young man walked through the protests with a banner reading “I am a top; why does the government still fuck me? #timetoswitch”. And on goes the axiomatic train wreck linking visibility and representation to leftist progress, unquestioned and unquestionable. How believable is this proposition on the left today?

Saed Atshan’s recent Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique provides a fertile terrain upon which to ponder the reactionary nature of visibility politics. Cornell West blurbs it “prophetic” for revealing that “justice and freedom against empire and homophobia are indivisible”. In my less religious view, Queer Palestine navigates the thin line separating woke-sex travel-guide and a jargon-inflated coming of age diary about the tribulations of leaving the closet in Arabia for an assistant professor at Swarthmore and a selection of close friends. The whole thing is packaged in queer corporate PR wrapping—Hate Crime Legislation, Marriage Equality and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—and a veneer of “gayopolitics”: Tel-Aviv, all the tops have gone to Berlin, so why don’t you just let the sexy Arab doms in…

Atshan has somehow convinced himself that his book’s “theoretical” innovations, “ethnoheteronomativity” and “discursive disenfranchisement”, will be of political use to the liberation of Palestine, sexually or otherwise. In his conspiracy, a shady set of “radical purists” he has outgrown—the likes of Michel Foucault, Edward Said and Joseph Massad—dominate Western academe and have been choking the queer Palestinian movement with an unrelenting focus on critical theory and anti-imperialist politics, marginalizing important “leftist” corners of the OPTs. The voice of a sad activist captures the depths of this queer Palestinian plight: “Massad’s criticism of our work is like a cloud that always hovers above me. How do I prove a negative? I am tired.” To combat radical “Western” [sic] theorists and their ploy to “level critiques against subaltern populations in the Global South for the pursuit of their financial livelihoods”, Atshan suggests acknowledging the presence of “ethnoheteronormativity” (syn: homophobia) as a central problem in Palestinian society—saving young queers from emigrating or becoming Mossad collaborators, while condemning the rest of us to another fatuous neologism.

Here, Queer Palestine stumbles upon the problem of empiricism: evidence for Palestinian homophobia proves more visionary than real. “By and large, Palestinian society as a whole does not acknowledge the existence of homosexuals in their midst…As a result, queer Palestinian communities do not provoke repression from patriarchal authorities.” The plot thins: Palestinians do not seem to use “homosexuality” either as a category of lived experience or as a criminological one. Under such conditions, the hatred of homosexuality can remain elusive, and may require unorthodox evidencing. Hamas’s “homophobia”, for instance, Atshan derives from a lone article in the ‘entertainment’ section of Out magazine, entitled “Was Arafat Gay?”—by a conservative Zionist American journalist familiarized with Arabic via Google Translate. Later, Atshan conjures a Pew survey indicating low tolerance of “homosexuality” in the West Bank, and deplores the absence of similar data among Palestinian Israelis, but concludes “it would not be surprising if rates of acceptance among the population were confirmed to be higher than for the Occupied Territories.” It is unclear how Pew managed to survey a population weary of imperial or state surveillance—and for whom, as Atshan admits, the concept of homosexuality holds no meaning—about their attitudes towards homosexuality. It is equally unclear why Atshan assumes, without evidence, higher acceptance rates for Israeli Palestinians—unless proximity to modern occupiers improves the backward Arab mind.

Atshan’s own liberal attacks against Palestinian populations, promoting “queer rights”—meaning violent state intervention into family life, novel techniques of policing, incarceration, and gentrification—in line with imperial political programs, are portrayed as somehow “empowering” and “progressive” for the Global South, whereas Massad or Puar’s critiques of imperial social engineering are presented as disempowering “radical purism”. Despite recognizing the absence of “repression from patriarchal authorities” for queer Palestinians, Atshan nonetheless goes on a crusade to render this queer population ever more visible to the state—a move reminiscent of imperial management of “vulnerable minorities” from “Oriental Christians” to “Eastern women”: imperial powers coaxed these “minorities” into visibility—from forcing special privileges and rights out of the Ottoman empire to overstaffing colonial administrations with these minorities, or later special access to Euro-American visas. This increase in privileges drew unwelcome popular attention to these otherwise integrated populations, until their environment became so hostile that only death or emigration remained.

Atshan’s emulation of imperial ‘divide and rule’ can only pass as “progressive” within a framework equating political struggle with visibility. “[I]n addition to the white gaze I must also contend with the Zionist gaze, the heteronormative gaze, and the radical purist gaze… and this can be suffocating for Palestinian queers.” Some struggle with colonial occupation, police abuse, military strikes, or arbitrary prison sentences and torture. Atshan struggles with deer in the headlight syndrome, and elevates this photosensitivity to a political program. “Because I am a queer Palestinian who is also entrapped in forms of external surveillance, the development of my own consciousness in some ways mirrors the development of this [queer] movement at large.”

This reader wished he had used the development of his consciousness as less of a template: from upper-middle-class background, attending an elite Anglo-Quaker school in Ramallah, moving onto Swarthmore and Harvard, following up with a job at his alma mater, he is hardly a Palestinian everyman. A more critical scrutiny of his peculiar social position, or a cursory reading of a sociology textbook, might have stopped him peddling in Orientalist stereotypes like Muslims believing “unmarried men have not yet completed ‘half of their religion’”; or that anti-imperial radical discourse prevents the advent of human rights in the Arab world—the main thesis of American foreign policy from Nixon to Clinton; or writing on behalf of Arab victims, while dedicating an entire chapter of his book to trashing the only two local queer organizations on the ground, and their female Palestinian founders. The accusations of profiteering waged against Massad and Said—who have defended their political positions at great personal costs—sound like an initiatory bashing ritual to access the highest spheres of American Academe.

What emerges from Atshan’s methodological narcissism is a desire—not for less surveillance—but for the queer community in Palestine to achieve visibility in white eyes, no matter the costs. Atshan bemoans any suggestion toward a politics of invisibility as a relic from a pre-historical past, a cowardly attachment to the closet. “Bare sex”, for instance, is evidently inferior to romantic coupledom. Visibility politics amount to competition for the attention of the world’s elite, through fidelity to their codes of bourgeois respectability. Queer Palestine excels in that respect. The only two examples of “subversive” queer emancipation in the book drown under his thirst for white respectability. The first involves a gay West-Bank couple driven by gay foreign friends on a militarised Israeli road to Tel Aviv, where they breathe romantic seaside air from a hotel balcony, and where the “spirit of queer Palestinian resistance” gets ominously close to the spirit of consumerist entitlement.

The second example has Atshan attend a party where “scripts and body movements could be as outrageous as was possible in a Palestinian context.” Translation: a woman impersonating Leonardo DiCaprio hugs a man embodying Kate Winslet standing at the helm of a boat. This queer reenactment of the Titanic script moves the assembly to tears at the thought of the dangers they escaped by confining their ‘subversive’ performance to a private event. We are now in Hollywood millenarian cult territory, replete with the invocation of queer American ancestor-spirits (Leonardo and Kate), ancient gay esoteric sounds (Celine Dion), and cathartic possession (“outrageous body movements”) healing the traumatic wounds of history. How does this ritual subvert the Israeli occupation, we will forever be left to ponder? More importantly, why would Atshan bother with the long history of Arab drag performances—from Fairuz to Ismail Yassin via Bassem Feghali—who occupied prime-time TV before Ru Paul was a thing, or with any relevant local cultural symbols when hegemonic imperial ones are widely available?

Recognition from the powerless doesn’t taste as good as from those holding the reigns of grants, fame or tenure. While his friends are allowed to play DiCaprio behind closed doors or in Tel-Aviv hotels, Atshan resents that “[radical] queer Palestinian activists find it convenient to shield themselves behind arguments such as, “Coming out and gay pride are Western”. Escaping bloodthirsty Arabs’ gaze while dressed in American garb is good invisibility; escaping Pew surveys and the categories of Euro-American identity, statistics or academe, however, is bad invisibility. How seamlessly visibility converges with market success, and recognition with personal branding, for those in Swarthmore.

There is a tacit understanding within marginalized queer communities that visibility entails a measure of personal risk. Drag culture perfected “reading” as an art form for that reason: with visibility comes exposure, and ritualized insults toughen the skin against the vicissitudes of life at the center of the stage. LGBT troublemakers of times long gone, say Harvey Milk, shook heaven and earth fighting with their lives on the line. Atshan, like many other Arab sex prophets—the likes of Mona al Tahawi—at the first signs of battle, swiftly teleported to safer shores, regrettably throwing many increasingly visible brown lives under the wheels of state torture and repression.

The Sarah Hegazy affair is a prime example of such dynamic. In 2017, the activist raised a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo—inspired by the Lebanese band’s openly queer lead singer, Hamed Sinno. Sarah was subsequently arrested, and tortured by state forces. A year later, both Sarah and the lead singer of the band ended up moving to North America—where she committed suicide—and the rest of the population had to reckon with a new law sanctioning homosexual acts with up to 5 years in prison, and new allowances for police to survey social media accounts. Visibility, at the school of middle-class gay, remains exclusively synonymous with success—despite all evidence to the contrary. This is where queer theory meets Chicago economics: ‘Tomorrow sex will be better; but first sacrifices must be made!’ One must break brown eggs to make queer omelettes; somehow, they always happen to be your neighbor’s.

“In more recent years, the queer Palestinian movement has shifted toward radical purism, and its growth has plateaued.” One can only imagine all the grassroot Palestinian activists eagerly reading Massad or Puar, converting en masse to ‘radical purism’ and ‘existential paralysis’, and leading the movement into a “toxic plateau” stunting its highest visibility potential, “its natural market share in terms of audience and capacity”. Visibility cannot flirt with respectability unless it has a “sizeable” market share to back it up. So it flirts with the monogamous language of sales, drifting far away from the polyamorous speech of solidarity.

*

Unveiling and de-closeting are European obsessions as old as The Enlightenment, social reform and social engineering. Kant’s definition of the Aufklärung, “dare to know”, enjoined the elite to bring the Light of Reason to the reluctant masses, turning them into a tameable transparency. The grandfather of market thought, Adam Smith, bemoaned the invisibility of human desires, and therefore posited the deployment of the “invisible hands” of the market as the sole rational way of dealing with human opacity for a blind sovereign. Karl Marx clung on to a “scientific” view of socialism, which would empower the proletariat to “see” their “real”, “objective” interests, in beheading the global bourgeoisie. Freud’s lifelong project was to “bring the id into the ego”—make visible the lurking instincts that sabotage human agency.

To convince large swathes of the middle classes that submitting to the gaze of the state and its army of corporate drones was somehow desirable involved sustained ideological work and financial carrots. Kim Kardashian’s fame has its roots in the 17th century abolition of curtains from Protestant areas of Holland or Germany. Why sport curtains if your living room is like a hospital reception room? Invisible hands do the Devil’s work. An entire culture of self-policing, confession and denunciation spread through these regions of Europe, cutting the costs of surveillance for the prince, and smoothing out their dominion. In Bavaria, neighbors who denounced a fellow peasant to the state for failing to maximize the use of their land would be gifted the land themselves. This protestant cult of visible virtue has trickled down so profoundly as to stay virtually unchanged in debates over online privacy today: why would I need privacy if I’ve got nothing to hide? Instead of land, the rewards come in Facebook likes.

The holy trinity of visibility, recognition, power benefited the few, and hurt the masses—because the elite never nurtured irrepressible benevolence towards the wretched of the earth. And so increased visibility historically translated into greater ease of domination, as well as majoritarian resentments for the  claims of the vulnerable. The scars run deep. African-Americans reflexively shirk away from the lethal gaze of police officers. The bulk of colonial populations shy from corporate Randomized Control Trials. In Arabic, bahth, the word for research, is close to mabaheth, State Intelligence Services. Geolocation, contact tracing, and cyber-bullying have sent even middle-class protestants scrambling for anything resembling privacy. The multitude—bereft of money, status, networks, or access to powerful lawyers—experiences visibility not as a resource in the survival of the fittest, but as a tsunami of social hatred, isolation, and loss of livelihood. The backlash against affirmative action, feminism or queer minorities across the world speaks movingly of the social fragmentation resulting from a politics emphasizing visible differences. For the Kardashians of the world—a privileged few who own the social and symbolic resources to alchemize visibility into increased privilege—visibility remains a mark of virtue.

Starting the 1960s, New Left intellectuals craftily repositioned this tercentennial cult of visibility into the realm of progressive dogma. In an effort to reform Marxist exclusive concerns with working classes and class conflict, these thinkers deployed a more ‘sophisticated’ politics of identity and visibility. This novel emancipatory equation linked visibility to social recognition to political rights. The American civil rights movement insisted that white supremacists see beyond the melatonin veil of Afro-American skin, and extend market and political participation to all. Feminist critiques of patriarchy gathered around “the personal is political”, emphasizing the continuity of patriarchy from the spotlight of the corporate boardroom to bedroom curtains. The most intimate desires were political acts, underwritten by social forces in dire need of change. In the midst of the AIDS crisis, the LGBT movement rallied around ACT UP’s now famous slogan, SILENCE=DEATH, to fight off governmental and societal indifference to their invisible plight. And within democratic theory, the new left’s focus made sense: how could progress occur without visibility, if visibility was a precondition for political representation?

Foucault’s iconoclasm, from Panopticon to history of madness, insisted on the association between visibility and domination. The 19th century invention of sexuality was a central part of the Victorian state program to render the desires of the population visible, and thus manageable, through constant disclosure and attentive confession. The results, two centuries later, are clear: from the porn industry to night clubs, from compulsory gym memberships to plastic surgery, from steroids and amphetamines to Viagra and anti-depressants, from Incels to BDSM, and from sex work to trafficking. The hyper-emphasis on desire as the fundamental pillar of personal identity and of the “good life” has led to the crumbling of political solidarity, and the advance of competitive consumption. Imagine the hours of weight-lifting, porn-jerking, sexapp-chatting, redirected towards helping the poor and marginalized or fighting corporate predation, and you get a good idea of what the sexual privatization of pleasure has done to life in common.

The Ancient and Medieval worldviews understood desires as accidental movements of the soul; mere weakness of flesh to be occasionally humored with derision. Desires dawdled at the periphery of the self. The invention of sexuality linked desires to personal identity, and thus reinforced the market dogma that desires are the foundations of the self, in need of relentless social scrutiny, medical examination, psychoanalytic questioning, and criminological analysis. Enshrining sexual desires as matters of human rights later facilitated the adjacent notion “there is no alternative” to market liberalism. If there is a right to pleasure—through sex—then there is a political right to all pleasures, including consumption. If desires deserve utmost attention and protection, then what better protection than a liberal market democracy to provide for a storm of ever changing desires? Communism, with its bland display of functional goods and perfunctory sex had historically failed.

More than any other movement of the soul, lust provides a fertile terrain for governments arguing desires are political affairs in need of regulation. Left unattended, sexuality can be linked to a number of unspeakable dangers that threaten to bring society to its knees. Too many unsatisfied, “hysterical” women could threaten to turn into serial killing mothers. Too many paedophiles could lead to a generation of broken children. Too many homosexuals, to the plummeting of the fertility rate of the nation, and to a weakened military force. Too many interracial couples, to the disappearance of the white race. Too many “deadbeat dads” and “welfare queens”, to proliferating street gangs and the end of private property. Sexual perversions constitute one of the swiftest routes to national annihilation in the bourgeois imaginary, and therefore a site of prime surveillance. Thus, the queer, internal enemy came to complement fears of the barbarian at our doors.

To a large degree, this history of sexuality and political domination remains a Eurocentric one. Sexuality has not been the most successful export of European imperialism. The case of Egyptian ‘journalist’ Mona Iraqi is instructive. She ran an “investigative” show called ‘The Hidden”. In 2016, she anonymously denounced the Beit El Bahr bathhouse for homosexual depravity to authorities. Her crew seamlessly captured the ensuing police raid on camera—filming multiple angles while the naked men were arrested on charges of public debauchery. A few days before the planned airing of her episode about invisible sex practices on Egyptian TV, her Facebook wall suffered a massive wave of popular discontent: few understood the necessity to pry into the sex lives of strangers, apart from satisfying Iraqi’s thirst for sensationalism and fame. The backlash was enough for Iraqi to pull the planned airing. A few months later, she announced the show would air on International Aids Day. In the meantime, it had been reframed as an investigation into male-to-male sexual practices spreading HIV between men, then to their wives at home, and eventually to the whole of the unsuspecting nation. Framed as a public health investigation into lurid corners of Cairene life, the show aired with minimal resistance. Nonetheless, the court cleared Iraqi’s victims of all accusations, and their families successfully litigated against Iraqi for defamation—earning her a six months prison sentence.

Despite the post-colonial state’s constant click-bait assertions that gangs of “queers” are threatening to ruin the country, despite international journalistic and NGO reports discussing the existence of queers in the hearts of darkness, despite PornHub itself, the concept of sexuality still fails to take hold outside of a cosmopolitan section of Third World upper-middle classes. In the words of a Congolese UN chief of Security, “How did white men convince us that polygamy is unnatural, but that homosexuality isn’t?” Although many international observers decry this as a cause for concern for invisible minorities, the absence of sexuality and its numerous techniques of control over “normal” desires might present political opportunities to avoid the reactionary fate of Euro-American liberal politics. Fighting authoritarian leaders and their heavy handed legal prohibitions could turn out much easier than struggling against the social apathy of naturalized consumerism and normalized desires.

The rise of homophobic homicides in 1970s San Francisco provides a good example of the reactionary prison of sexuality. In the words of an activist, visibility “may be our most basic achievement in the 1970s, but it also means that every homophobe in America knows what you look like and where to find us.” This trend only started receding in the 1980s, with the growing gentrification of the city, and the expulsion of the Catholic working classes from the city center, to the relief of many LGBT activists. As Dan White—Harvey Milk’s murderer and a Catholic-Irish working-class politician—explains in his prison notebooks, “The people in my neighborhood felt that gays have made things even harder for big families because they don’t have any children to worry about and several of them can put their salaries together and pay more rent than a single family, and this has the effect of driving up prices.” Are the victims of homophobic violence to blame for siding with their bourgeois benefactors—the police, redlining banks, and racist property developers? Perhaps. Or perhaps the choice between “being ourselves”/brown-nosing the bourgeoisie and “staying in the closet”/fighting the fight is no choice at all.

*

“There’s a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.” Leo Bersani’s injunction to put the good old in-out back in its rightful position—at the periphery of our selves—sketches the outlines of an escape route from the prison of sexuality. Sex is not dangerous, transcendental, or particularly worthy of our time. Left to the confinements of mortgaged bedrooms, monopolized kisses and chemically-enhanced sexcapades, it would drown in its own standardized, repetitive boredom. Bonobos—our go-to sex experts—for all their indulging in the activity, seem not to enjoy it for much longer than 13 seconds at a time, perhaps for a reason. For the mythology of sex as the ultimate pleasure to survive, drama is needed—dressed in Oriental garb, surrounded by the specter of repression, and propped up by the closet and its multifarious police agents. Nothing like some mild impediment to consumption—the prohibitive pricing of a Louis Vuitton bag—to fan the flames of a refined governmental technique of control. The cult of sexuality is the negative psychology of the market state, a ham-fisted injection of regular doses of passion to avoid us falling into the blandness of a life of mere interests. Letting our desires recede to the shady backburners of our minds, where we can’t see, be obsessed or discuss them much, invites unexplored avenues of resistance.

Could invisibility and opacity be plausible political strategies for another leftist program? Socialist universal rights are one such technique of political invisibility that benefits the most vulnerable without bringing the spotlight onto any particular plight. Trans women’s participation in female competitions wouldn’t be much of an issue if every professional athlete was given a livable wage instead of overpaying the 3 standing on the podium. Why campaign for an equal “right to drive” for women to drive in Saudi Arabia when the universal right to “free public transportation” awaits in a silent corner? If mobility matters to women in particular, it also matters to the poor majority. Why insist on disciplining Palestinian families in accepting their “queer” kids—Atshan’s human rights plea—rather than focus on all “vulnerable” children? Instead of imposing bourgeois sexual identity categories backed by the force of law, why not promote a universal right to housing and income so that all teenagers rejected from home (and adults) can live off the streets, and away from the warm embrace of Israeli intelligence services? Can the homeless only betray the homeland if queer?

The same could be said of the gay marriage campaigns focusing on discriminatory treatment at the bedside of an agonizing unwedded lover. Instead of pushing for marriage equality, these self-proclaimed leftists could have fought for the abolishing of the legal and economic privileges of contractual love. The latter could appeal to much broader populations—widow(er)s, single-parents, the never-married, the married-and-repenting—and would have the added advantage of making inheritance more difficult for everyone—an old progressive goal. Egalitarian social, economic and political aims could be achieved by making vulnerable groups less visible, rather than more. But the bourgeoisie wants to buy and sell more cars, to shape working-class masculinities, to maintain familial structures of property and privilege, and to compete for millions at sports tournaments. And so we all foot the bill.

Anarchists have long developed cultures of passing under the radar, carving up spaces of invisible freedom outside of state and corporate surveillance. The tuber drew its cult following amongst free peoples due to its capacity to thrive beneath the protective veil of the soil, and thus beneath the gaze of tax-collectors or scavenging invaders. Tribal social structures have long prized forms of extreme social disaggregation, based on scattered household units and subsistence agriculture, which Ernst Gellner has baptized the “divide that ye not be ruled” strategy. If Ottomans preferred dealing with Christian or Jews rather than heterodox sects; if Brits constantly invented tribal traditions as imperial administrative units, it was because amorphous, unstructured populations were much harder to rule—having no one common language but a complex mesh of adjacent idiolects, no demonstrable leader to bargain with, and nomadic mobility that made them hard to pin down.

The same could be said of the near complete corporatization of LGBT movements in Europe against the multifarious Arab governmental anxieties “deviant” populations inspire: it is easier to deal with a structured gay community and its parliamentary representatives—bribing them with an impoverished diet of Grindr and marriage equality—rather than a multitude of discontented invisible subjects stirring up constant trouble. Without the attachment to visibility and identity politics, the current juncture contains great potential: instead of fearing the proliferation of incoherent ‘tribes’, we can let ourselves divide until we become an unidentifiable and ungovernable thorn in state and corporate bottoms. In the late 90s, when an epidemic of contagious spirit possessions took over Indonesian factory workers, panicked industrial owners were forced to sacrifice chickens to assuage angry ancestral spirits, and feed the laborers.  Perhaps it is time to let our desires grow tuber-like, veiled by our own disinterest; or perhaps to let them take possession of us at the most unpredictable times, like privilege-hacking vengeful spirits.

While for most of human history invisibility has been a primary resistance art for the poor and powerless, over the last few centuries invisibility has become the prerogative of the chosen few. While everyone is forced into tighter identity handles, top corporate predation happens increasingly in the dark, behind closed doors. The luxury of withdrawal behind walled castles, ivory towers, and gated communities—immune from social regulations and the most deleterious effects of the marketplace—is now the landmark of true wealth and power. Ironically, the niqab obeyed this very elitist logic. It gained in popularity amongst rich Arab and Central Asian populations to distinguish their women from those who would be available for sex work to occupying European soldiers. During the 80s, the hijab found its way onto the hearts and heads of aspiring urban middle-classes, marketed as granting exclusive status and positional advantages on a saturated marriage market. If unveiling campaigns are so important in European eyes, it is because the veil mirrors the white elite’s own logic of power through invisibility—but in a monstrous form.

“Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him,” Marx writes. “We draw the magic cap down over our eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.” If predators hunt behind the cloak of darkness, the prey survives with camouflaging strategies. It is not surprising that predators denigrate both camouflaging and conspiracy as futile and primitive ways of ruining their fun. The veil is an adaptive strategy of survival in the face of much predation. Renunciation—the strategy of willfully reducing desires and consumption to their most invisible minimum—has been the only radical green political strategies of the 21st century to create an effective threat to corporate domination. Instead of denigrating the veil, wishfully denying the existence of monstrous power relations in the world, a progressive politics would insist on the importance of invisibility for the vulnerable masses, and on compulsory transparency for the rich and powerful. Instead of fighting “homophobia in Palestine” with increased policing and incarceration, let us fight its actual causes: militarism caused by Israeli occupation; the patriarchal family linked to the maintenance of private property relations; masculinity as aggression due to the demands of class conflict. The prey will adapt to shed its camouflage when the predators have been neutralized, when political economic structures are put in place that prevent massive accumulation of capital and power. Atshan’s book is no more than the continuation of centuries of unveiling campaigns, the degraded symptom of a neoliberal politics of visibility and identity. So instead of drawing the cap over our eyes, let us focus political energies to fight the very visible monsters who won’t let us be our best selves.

 

Marc Aziz Michael teaches Sociology, Middle Eastern Studies and Gender Studies at the American University in Beirut. He has previously taught at NYU and NYU in Abu Dhabi. Beyond academic venues, his writings have appeared in Al Jazeera, Jadaliyya, The World Today, CounterPunch, OpenDemocracy. He is currently writing a book about the history of commercial banking. In his spare time, he is training as a group analyst.

 

[1] “The Republic must be lived face on display”

 

EDIT (2/11): An earlier version of this piece referred to the location of the Friends School attended by Sa’ed Atshan as Jerusalem rather than Ramallah.

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