Intersectionality: West vs East

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An indigenous rights activist waves the flags of Israel, Kurdistan, and the Amazigh--three aboriginal peoples of the region before the Arab Conquest.

(December 26, 2018/KDJ) In progressive circles throughout the Western World, intersectionality has become an integral part of social justice. Intersectionality is the idea that all systems of oppression are linked, and to fight and dismantle this oppression, those of diverse backgrounds must unite all of their struggles together.

The problem with intersectionality in the Western context stems from a few key factors. One is the simple fact that not every oppression is linked to the same system. The racism exhibited against Hispanic migrants by the far-right is not linked to the anti-Semitism exhibited by the far-left. Homophobia is not linked to racism (excluding against LGBT people of color); the same can be said of sexism.

All bigotry is equally reprehensible and more must be done to dismantle it. Yet claiming that all bigotry is linked is ridiculous. It is equally absurd and almost immoral to suggest that the only way one can end bigotry against a group is by relating it to on a personal level.

Intersectionality as Exclusion

In the Western World, intersectionality has become a tool often used for exclusion. Take, for example, the Women’s March leadership. At the helm are Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez. With the exception of Bland, all of the women are people of color, and Sarsour is a proud Muslim. Yet recent exposes show that the Women’s March has marginalized, ignored, and isolated queer women and Jewish women. None have been placed in the leadership. Anti-Semitism was not mentioned in the groups “Unity Principles,” which included concern about other forms of bigotry.

The Women’s March leadership has stood by controversial comments that support Louis Farrakhan. Other than being a man who loathes White people and has made sexist comments, Farrakhan has targeted the Jewish and LGBT communities with extreme ferocity. Local chapters of the Women’s March have since pulled out of the organizations following a slew of anti-Semitic and insensitive comments made by members of the Women’s March leadership. This all comes after allegations of corruption within the leadership, as well as the controversial attendance of Farrakhan rallies (and praise of him) by Tamika Mallory and others. Despite this, the leadership has doubled down in its support for him.

The Women’s March is only one example of the flaws of Western intersectionality. Imagine, for example, two members of a progressive protest movement: a gay Mexican man from Tijuana and a straight African-American women, born & raised in the US. The woman may feel that she is more oppressed due to being female and Black. The man, however, could disagree. While he is male, he is an immigrant, gay, and Mexican.

Western Intersectionality’s ideology of “wokeness” could end up pitting oppressed peoples against each other rather than against systems that oppress them. Those who otherwise would be allies could very well become competitors–or at best, indifferent to each other’s struggles. Meanwhile, there is an overemphasis on wokeness and an underemphasis on strategy and conflict resolution. Moreover, not all oppression is linked; nor are they all the same. And in some societies, those we in the West view as oppressed are, in fact, oppressors.

An Example of Real Intersectionality

This is not to say that intersectionality doesn’t exist, or can’t be useful in some ways. In the Middle East, intersectionality has brought together three indigenous peoples of North Africa & the Levant: Amazigh (Berbers), Kurds, and Jews.

In light of the 2017 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, Amazigh people expressed their solidarity. Kurds have often returned the favor. Jewish-Kurdish ties have long been documented, with Israel giving both vocal support to Kurdish independence as well as behind-the-scenes military support and lobbying in Western capitals. Kurds, for their part, have provided oil to Israel and helped Middle Eastern Jews escape to Israel from anti-Semitic regimes. The Amazigh people have also come out in support of Israel in some ways recently, decrying what they call  “Arab hypocrisy” for oppressing and colonizing native peoples in the region while slamming “the occupation.”

In this case, the oppressors of all three peoples are linked and common: European imperial powers and pan-Arab colonial nationalism. Arabs expanded out of the Arabian Peninsula during the age of Mohammed and conquered the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, southern Europe, and North Africa generations ago. Through a system of settler-colonialism and forced conversion–used by Europeans in the New World as well–Arabs subsumed the native peoples of the region to become the dominant society. Centuries later, European colonial powers came to dominate the region. France, Spain, and Great Britain drew new borders to create artificial countries–without the consent of the existing populations. After the end of European colonialism in the Middle East & North Africa, Arab rulers created and maintained government and military structures to ensure their dominance. Only Israel–through luck and military force–managed to emerge victorious.

Conclusion

Intersectionality in the Middle East case works, as all three of the affected populations–Jewish, Kurdish, and Amazigh–share the same oppressors. All three have also come together for cultural outreach as well as more overt political support. Unlike  Western Intersectionality, there is no so-called “oppression olympics” that sometimes divides the oppressed and sets them against each other.

This isn’t to say that a stronger foundation or connection can’t be built among the three populations. But there is greater cohesion, advocacy for, and focus on joint efforts at autonomy, equal rights, and/or independence. Dialogues about oppression suffered by Kurds, Jews, and Amazigh are generally of relating to each other, not competing to see who had it worse.

With fewer divisions and more solidarity, the intersectionality in the Middle East has been more successful at achieving results on the ground than its Western counterpart.This is why Amazigh feminists can speak successfully about how “Arab feminism”–which has become fetishized in Western feminist discourse–marginalizes their experience. It is why Jewish feminists still speak up for women’s rights and equality for all while condemning the anti-Semitism of the Women’s March. It is why Kurdish feminism in Rojava (northern Syria) has thrived despite facing attacks from jihadists on all sides. But the work continues. I hope that the West can look at this Middle Eastern model of intersectionality as an example for real solidarity and practical ways to achieve their goals. In the meantime, Jews, Kurds, and Amazigh must increase awareness between and about our communities and our shared destiny.