Witnessing genocide being labeled as a conflict and Palestinians depicted as inherently violent, leaves many of us confused and puzzled. But, what if we delved into unveiling the mechanisms enabling these injust depictions to become a part of the public discourse? Looking into concepts like orientalism and homonationalism can help us critically deconstruct the biased narrative of the Israeli war machinery and finally answer - how is it possible that LGBTQIA+ rights are used to justify war crimes?
On the 21st of December, Prague experienced its deadliest and most horrifying mass shooting in the history of the independent Czech republic. After hearing about it, I was glued to my phone, calling my loved ones to ensure they were okay, praying no more casualties would happen. But, I also had one constant thought in my mind: I prayed to God the perpetrator wasn’t coming from an Arab, Ukrainian, Black, Muslim, or brown background. I knew if that was the case a good chunk of people including racists and white supremacists would unfairly blame the entire demographic for what happened and use it to justify their racism.
As I scrolled through the stream of tweets, hunting desperately for fragments of truth, my heart dropped at the sight of posts painting the shooter as of Arab descent or labeled as a Muslim assailant. It was as if a reel of memories played - the echoes of strangers hurling the word “terrorist” at me during protests or just for walking down the street wearing my kufiyyeh, or the sting of an elderly woman’s contempt as she spat in my direction while I wore it. Kufiyyeh draped around my neck, a skirt around my waist are two pieces of clothes symbolizing my queer and Arab identities. I imagined that hatred amplified a hundredfold.
Yet, approximately 25 agonizing minutes later, it was revealed that the culprit was, in fact, a white Czech individual. Even after the truth emerged, many racist, Islamophobic and Arabopobhic individuals continued to propagate false claims that the shooter supported Hamas because they had liked one single pro-Palestinian post. I felt scared and angry that a significant portion of our society equates Hamas with any pro-Palestinian opinion and associates any act of terror with Arab or Muslim people, perpetuating a false binary. Unfortunately, that’s what went through the minds of many marginalized communities here.
Orientalism - from the Middle East to SWANA
When you hear the term “Middle East,” what springs to mind? Let’s be candid; my educated guess is that at least one of these words might come up: war, conflict, backwardness, Muslim, desert, exotic, terrorists, Iraq, and so forth. Despite all of these connotations that do not accurately depict the reality, The Middle East is not a monolith; its diversity encompasses varying dialects from town to town, constituting an area steeped in rich history and culture. Therefore, labeling and treating it as a singular entity, homogenizing its identity, is something I fundamentally disagree with. Even the term Middle East alone carries connotations rooted in centuries of orientalism — marked by dehumanization and negative associations. The term SWANA, which stands for South & West Asia, North Africa, on the other hand serves as a fresh decolonial frame that offers a way to reference the same area without carrying those loaded meanings.
To talk about any issue in the SWANA region, one must grasp the concept of orientalism first. The term initially denoted the exploration of the Near and Far East — its culture, societal structures, language — studied by Western scholars, mostly European and British. However, in the late 20th century, notably in 1978, Edward Said, a highly influential Palestinian-American scholar, published a seminal work titled Orientalism. Said critically analyzed the Western academic discipline of orientalism, contending that it wasn’t merely an unbiased study of the East; rather, it functioned as a tool of power used to legitimize colonialism, imperialism, and dominance over Eastern cultures. He argued that orientalism didn’t neutrally portray the Eastern world but instead, presented ‘the orient’ or ‘people from the east’ through a perspective that enforced a stereotypical depiction of these people as backward compared to the West. The influence of orientalism extends across various facets of life: art, beauty standards (for instance, the preference for fairer skin or slimmer bodies as ideals of beauty), and news coverage.
Over time, orientalism evolved into a Western method of dominance, reconstruction, and exertion of authority over the Orient. Said argues that the West, particularly Europe, formulated its identity by contrasting it against the ‘Orient’, portraying the East as barbaric, backward, irrational, and less developed, while positioning the West as the antithesis of these traits. Furthermore, Western colonizers, by consistently portraying the Eastern world as primitive, utilized this narrative to rationalize their imperial endeavors. They portrayed their actions as a noble mission to ‘educate’ these purportedly ‘barbaric’ societies, bringing enlightenment and imposing their supposedly superior ways of life upon these populations.
Palestinians die, Israelis get killed
In the media discourse, language is crucial. Countless article headlines I’ve come across in recent months addressing current events in the historical territory of Palestine use the phrase ‘Palestinians die’, whereas ‘Israelis get killed,’ ‘Palestinians injured in war conflicts,’ or ‘Palestinians missing in clashes with Israeli forces.’ There is an obvious disparity in whose life is valued less and whose is valued more. In numerous Western news outlets and Israeli propaganda, Palestinians are frequently depicted as backward, violent, uncultured, and labeled as terrorists, using a language that dehumanizes them. Various Israeli political, military, and religious leaders have at different times referred to Palestinians as “cancer,” “cockroaches,” or “human animals,” advocating for their “annihilation.” In a deleted tweet, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently characterized the conflict as a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.”
In addition to that, building on the narrative that Palestinians are backwards and lack morals, Israel creates an image to the world that it is a progressive gay haven, putting itself in contrast to the stereotypes of Palestinians as regressive, and gay-hating. Homonationalism, a term composed of “homo” and “nationalism” and coined by American scholar Jasbir Puar, describes the fusion between nationalistic ideology and LGBTQIA+ individuals or their rights.
War is homophobic in any context and has failed to create an LGBTQ+ friendly world throughout history. Settler colonialism in its nature is homophobic. We cannot justify the oppression and occupation of a people to make them better, less barbaric, more moral and more gay loving.
This phenomenon becomes apparent when certain LGBTQIA+ individuals or groups, especially in Western contexts, align themselves with nationalist or conservative ideologies that prioritize LGBTQ+ rights within their nation over those in other countries, especially marginalized or non-Western communities. For instance, there was a tweet posted by an Israeli occupation forces (Israeli occupation forces or later in text IOF, is a force to which Israel refers Israel Defense Forces, Ed.) soldier holding the Israeli pride flag on top of the rubble in Gaza saying “To Gaza’s hidden LGBTQ+ community: STAY HOPEFUL of a future where you can live and love free of Hamas!” Unfortunately, members of the hidden community he was talking about are murdered, under the rubble, have their relatives killed, or are experiencing extreme inhumane conditions.
However, homonationalism is not limited to Israel. For decades, we’ve been observing many white queers from the USA who exhibit homonationalistic tendencies aligned with patriotic and nationalistic ideologies following the attainment of specific rights, such as the right to serve in the military as openly gay individuals. They celebrate these achievements while disregarding or concealing the atrocities committed by the US military on a global scale.
In today’s media landscape, that intertwining of orientalism and homonationalism is used to justify the murder of civilians in Gaza simply because these regions lack progressive LGBTQ+ policies. These LGBTQ+ policies came from western norms and they are used as a yardstick, applied recklessly across diverse cultures to “measure” how progressive these societies are. One of the examples of these yardsticks is the Western concept of “coming out”, which is imposed on all queer people around the world. In some communities in SWANA region however, coming out is not the end-all and be-all, as many queer people use a term called “coming in” where there is no pressure on an individual to make a private part of their identity out to the public but rather choose people to let in and allow them to know. Such assumptions influenced by the Western hegemony therefore disregard the unique struggles, histories, and values of each country.
Pride in Tel Aviv? No, thanks.
The usage of homonationalistic attitudes to make legislation, news, to create an image, and a brand is called pinkwashing. The term “pinkwashing” emerged over a decade ago within Palestinian activism to expose how Israel and its supporters strategically divert international attention from Palestinian oppression by showcasing the country as having progressive policies on gay and trans rights. This manipulation involves promoting cities like Tel Aviv as LGBTQ+ havens while concealing the truth of displacement, occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, xenophobia and daily enforced violence on Palestinians. There is no pride in apartheid and no pride in a city (Tel Aviv) that is built on the ruins of Palestinian villages that got wiped out. Initially focused on countering these propaganda tactics, activists evolved their understanding of pinkwashing, recognizing it as an expression of deeper gender, sexual, and ideological aspects of Zionism. Pinkwashing is a symptom of settler-colonialism — the root issue, as said by alQaws, a Palestinian politicized queer organization.
The Israeli governments have always been homophobic, but the current one is homophobic to the point that Netanyahu is accused of being pro LGBT in the West and homophobic at “home.” However, It’s not only Netanyahu, it’s almost everyone in his cabinet. Head of government, Avi Maoz, has petitioned to ban Jerusalem Pride; Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, proclaimed himself a “fascist homophobe” and argued to stone queers; and Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, organized anti-Pride “beast parades” in 2006, comparing queers to animals, repeating the Defense Minister’s claim that Palestinians are “human animals.” The Israeli government and IOF obviously don’t care about Palestinian queers. Why would they when they want to eradicate all Palestinians, queer and not queer, why would they, when they don’t care even for their queers. No one is safe under occupation. If that wasn’t convincing, there have already been multiple reports and stories of the IOF blackmailing queer Palestinians forcing them to work as informants.
If the argument is that both sides (one is Israel and the other is Gaza) are homophobic, then condemning one side and ignoring the other is illogical. It would be more fruitful to examine the underlying causes that shaped the events and the power imbalances that have dominated the conflict. War is homophobic in any context and has failed to create an LGBTQ+ friendly world throughout history. Settler colonialism in its nature is homophobic. We cannot justify the oppression and occupation of a people to make them better, less barbaric, more moral and more gay loving.
Pinkwashing, however, has other poisonous effects which are perpetuating harmful notions that sexual diversity is alien to Palestinian society, thereby fragmenting Palestinian communities and isolating queer Palestinians. Internalized pinkwashing exerts immense social pressure on queer Palestinians, pushing them to negotiate their identities within a framework of victimhood and powerlessness, therefore making their possibility to become agents of change within their own society very hard. Ultimately, Israeli pinkwashing strategy dictates that only by aligning with their colonizers can queer Palestinians find liberation.
Queerness vs. Arab identity
I believe the ongoing genocide resonates with many queer individuals from the SWANA region. For the longest time, I held the misconception that my queerness clashed with my Arab identity. It seemed I had to choose between embracing either my queer self or my Arab heritage, but never both. Unknowingly, I internalized the pinkwashed orientalist narrative ingrained in Western media I was consuming. My personal journey toward understanding commenced with delving into orientalism, followed by exploring postcolonial theories and then discovering the queer history of where I came from. Finally, I immersed myself in black, intersectional feminist literature. These discoveries transformed my perspective entirely. I found a firmer footing in my identity, started questioning the biases I once regarded as normal, and experienced a profound shift in my perception.
The orientalist mechanisms are often invisible, because they have been woven in the fabric of European and American sense of identity for hundreds of years. That’s why I assert that the perceptions held by almost every European, Western, and American individual regarding any place in the world that is not Europe or USA, are inherently influenced by systemic racism. It’s therefore important to scrutinize our biases and work towards deconstructing them. Instead of speaking for individuals from the SWANA region, let them speak for themselves. And when they point out a racist or white supremacist belief, listen to them.
Many local grassroot LGBTQ+ organizations in Palestine (eg. @queersinpalestine, the amazing organization of alQaws, @queensforpalestine) recognize pinkwashing as colonial violence and challenge its narratives. By rejecting colonial fragmentation, they strive to reclaim a space within their communities and struggle against oppression. Their activism proves that a Western based “solution” to western based patriarchy or sexism cannot just be copied and pasted everywhere in the world. Homophobia and patriarchy operate differently in different circumstances. If your belief system leads you to feel superior or better than others, it’s essential to reflect on that. For this mindset or belief system is most probably repackaged white supremacy.
When fighting a multi-layered system of oppression, our path forward can only be one of vocal and unconditional support for the rights of all marginalized communities. The settler colonial project of Israel is the epitome of all of the oppressive systems, it is a manifestation of every western power, pouring all their resources in keeping one of the most cruel imperialist empires of all time alive. Palestine is therefore a spearhead for fighting all the oppressive systems, it is the litmus test whether or not we have the potential to break them down and build a new world together. If we fail and Israel completes its colonial project, which includes the total annihilation of Palestinians, then the people upholding the power will know that no matter how much we fight and stand together, we cannot defeat them. Use your voice, your vote, your ability to make a change. Let us all chant “No one is free until all of us are free”, and “Free, free Palestine!”
Our struggle does not end with this article. Join us on Transmission 4 Palestine, an event we co-organised with Amphibian, nūr prague, Prague Youth & Student Collective for Palestine and Ankali & Planeta Za. This Saturday, 13th of January!