Posted by: sean | March 11, 2009

More on censorship and the Angry Arab

It’s hard to know how to respond to this. AbuKhalil seems to think that I’m missing the “point,” although it’s hard to say what his point actually is. I brought up censorship in Lebanon, much of which is anti-semitic, and he attacked me for being “the White Man” who wants to “civilize the natives.” In addition to being an ad-hominem attack, it’s a non-sequitur as well, not to mention just plain untrue.

I responded, addressing what seemed to be his main problems, as muddled as they were. And he’s responded to my response à la Edith Piaf — Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien:

Some friends felt that I was too harsh and too hasty–which is characteristic of me (politically speaking). But I don’t take anything I said back. I wrote before about my usage of “the White Man”: it is not a racial category–or it is not merely a racial category but also a political and epistemological category. I don’t have time to write too much as I just arrived home but it is amazing how Lee misses the point and reveals the extent to which he is clueless about his White Man (and American) privilege at a place like AUB…

It’s hard to say how a conversation about state imposed censorship might get turned into a discussion about white privilege, unless of course you realize that AbuKhalil isn’t really interested in talking about censorship at all. If we’re to talk about white privilege, that’s fine, but it’s another issue altogether, one that doesn’t have anything to do with the subject at hand.

(For the record, I know that foreign hires — based on passports and residency, not race — are offered more benefits than local hires. Likewise, Arab nationals are paid more in the Gulf than Asians, and within the Arabs, there is a pecking order that puts Gulfis at the top, Levantines in the middle and Egyptians at the bottom. Also, and this may have (hopefully) recently changed under Ziad Baroud, Lebanese labor laws do not apply to foreign domestic workers from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, etc.)

These issues are interesting and important but have nothing to do with censorship.

AbuKhalil finally, however, gets to the crux of his clumsy argument that censorship is part of the boycott of Israel:

And Lee deliberately ignores the issue of the Israel boycott (because he knows he is weak and did not expect the controversial potential) and focused on the censorship of Jewish matters. That was disingenuous on his part as I made it clear that such censorship should be removed. But I live in the US where some Arab TV stations are censored by the US government and listed as terrorist media. Would Lee speak on this matter, or has he spoken on this?

As Nikola Cosmi correctly notes in the comments of my last post, this can be chalked up to a question of whether one links censorship to opposing Israel or to freedom of speech. The reason why I don’t link the boycott and censorship is because they’re not related. I don’t see how banning Cool Hand Luke or Frank Sinatra has any relationship to Israel or the Palestine. But if anyone would care to explain how banning Cool Hand Luke helps to end the occupation of Palestinian territories, I’d love to be enlightened.

On the other hand, censorship is obviously related to the freedom of expression, and I don’t think AbuKhalil or Cosmi would venture to say that it’s not, although they both seem to believe (correct me if I’m wrong, guys) that “the fight against colonialism” trumps the freedom of expression. That’s a disconcerting position, not only because it’s unclear how burning Paul Newman fights colonialism, but also because it’s very similar to the Bush et al. principle that civil rights must take a back seat to the “war on terror.”

AbuKhalil seems to think that a discussion of censorship in Lebanon must necessarily include an indictment of American actions. (Maybe because I’m American?) He then asks if I’d speak to Arab media outlets that have been blocked by the US after being labeled terrorist entities. Actually, I spoke to that exact issue here back in 2006:

Is broadcasting an unpopular television channel now illegal? One might argue that the resistance message stressed by Al-Manar is an incitement to violence, but I think that would be stretching it. And furthermore, if such messages were to actually be punished, then we’d have to start locking up people like Ann Coulter who called for the US to “should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity” and Pat Robertson who called for the assassination of Venezuela’s elected president, Hugo Chavez.

AbuKhalil then continues:

I just don’t get what some Westerners want us to do? Arabs are expected to refrain from armed struggle against Israeli occupation (even against Israeli terrorist soldiers) and now they want to even end peaceful and cultural forms of resistance. This is not government imposed: the governments impose various forms of censorship that he should have mentioned and should have brought up with his friend at the Ministry of Interior in Lebanon.

Well, despite the fact that AbuKhalil would like me to be a mascot for “Westerners,” I can only speak for myself. Personally, I don’t think that Arabs necessarily need to give up armed struggle against Israel, although I make a distinction against targeting soldiers and targeting civilians, and there’s a case to be made that much armed conflict can in many, if not most, cases be counterproductive. And I’m also not against anyone’s individual right to boycott whomever or whatever they want. What I’m against is government-imposed censorship. This goes equally for the ban on things that challenge church and mosque and those that challenge Arab regimes or sexual norms.  I’m not sure how to be any clearer about that. AbuKhalil wants to paint the debate in personal shades, suggesting that I’m only concerned about watching Paul Newman movies and the Nanny, whereas I’m equally concerned about our right to watch A Clockwork Orange and the Battle of Algiers and to listen to Slayer or to read the works of Rushdie and Choukri and watch the plays of Rabih Mroué.

Finally, I’m a little bit confused as to how a discussion about censorship has turned into one on the non sequitur of my place as “the white man.” AbuKhalil seems to think that the government should ban Paul Newman’s films, but he doesn’t really explain why. Furthermore, he seems to think that his students in America are intellectually mature enough to handle watching a movie like Exodus but that Lebanese people in Lebanon are not. He hasn’t answered my question about whether Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine should be banned, but somehow I’m the one missing the point, because I won’t be sucked into a lecture on me, “the White Man.”

Finally, here is an incomplete list of banned DVD titles that originated from the General Security and was sent to a retail store in Lebanon. On the left is the name of the film that’s banned, and on the right is the official justification for the ban.



  1. Wow, Sean,

    I was pretty beat up about Anne Frank’s diary being banned and was contemplating jumping ship to a “freer” society. What you didn’t mention though in your previous blog posts is that the censor list is positively HILARIOUS. I mean, “Mein Kampf” is banned for “Sympathy to Jews”? That’s rich.
    Oh and this: “Life of Brian” is banned for “sexual contents/ it shows david’s star/ too much Jewish innuendos and possibly shot in Israel.”

    Jewish innuendos!
    That’s deep.

    But seriously now: this list is a joke. Yes its offensive to ban things because they include “Jew content”, but this is so obviously arbitrary. Just picture the lowly censor slogging over the IMDB site, a Jewish geneology book in hand, trying to root out Jew content.

    Made my day, honestly. Thanks for posting.

  2. Wait, these are only movies. Where’s the banned book list? Do you have that, too?

  3. Officer in the amn el3am eating home cooked makhlouta and watching movies all day!
    It must be a nice job!

  4. I don’t see why you still don’t understand why Newman and Sinatra are banned.

    Do you believe that the British did not ban the works of Nazis and Nazi propagandists in war time Britiain?

    Did not being a member of the Communist Party get you blacklisted in the US at the height of the cold war?

    Was so hard to understand? They actively supported Zionism. And not everyone will have been aware of that. Therefore it is incumbent on the state to not allow these people to profit in any way from Arab money. Thats what boycotts are about. Whether you are trying to hurt the profits of a corporation or an individual it doesn’t matter.

  5. Mo,

    The tactic of punishing pro-Israel supporters by boycotting their works could easily turned around to harm supporters of Palestine. Look at what happened to Vanessa Redgrave in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

    And you should know that the anti-communist blacklisting of the 1940’s and 50s is now viewed by most Americans as a tragic era of history which completely eroded civil liberties & free thought. It’s something to be avoided by other countries, not emulated.

  6. I am against censorship and will support any person that stand against any kind of censorship. I definitely do not agree with Asa’d on many of his politics.

    From my perspective:any person that mention or use the term Anti-Semitic (You can use inhuman/ promote violence / or any other hate term) even if it might be in the right context / or true I immediately label them as racists (even thought that might not be true).

    Yes! it might not be fair that if you use a term were it best applies you might up earning a nasty label but I am not after being fair…

  7. “AbuKhalil seems to think that the government should ban Paul Newman’s films, but he doesn’t really explain why. ”

    Why is it so difficult to grasp?
    AK mentions that Newman was a staunch zionist, onscreen and out, and actively participated along with Jane Fonda in fund raising for Israel. Such people shouldn’t get Arab money, even if that obviously wouldn’t drive them to bankruptcy.

  8. what i don’t understand is why neither asa’d nor many commenters seem to be able to grasp the distinction between government imposed censorship and popular boycott.

    i’m frustrated enough as a spectator to this exchange — you must be tearing your hair out! bah.

  9. The censorship of films, books, DVD that have a link, whether close or not, to Israel is sheer STUPIDITY. Assad Aboukhalil is himself a jerk. If you read his blog, he is against everyone and everything. Except for the poor palestinian refugees. Move on………

  10. PeterH,

    Off course it can be turned around and probably to much greater effect which makes actions like Vannessa’s and Peter Ustinov’s all the more brave.

    However, that argument taken to extremis means that anyone who considers himself weak should never try to resist or fight against those that are strong and oppressive.

    Of course I know that Mcarthyism is now considered a black spot in US history. But that is because the actions were totaly disproportionate to the threat and resulted from paranoia. But Communism and communist media were still a big no-no in the US up until the end of the 80’s.

  11. Dear all,

    I’ve been reading this exchange on Sean & AbuKhalil’s blogs for a while now & there’s really just one thing to say:

    As’ad AbuKhalil lives, works, consumes and pays taxes in the United States of America, the #1 supporter of Israel. Every day he supports the “terrorist regime”.

    For a man who chides each and everyone else … that’s not just very hypocritical but downright pathetic.

    But then … he also thinks that Al Jazeera (Arabic) “is the best news source in any language”.

    ‘Nuff said.


  12. I agree with Abu-Khalil. You sound like you are more annoyed with the Boycott of Israel than with censorship which Abu-Khalil clearly came out against. I support the boycott of Israel, that means the country and people, and goods, culture, or economy. No decent person should have anything to do with this Nazi, fascist state. I also disagree with your assertion that armed struggle is not effective. Palestinians have a right to resist, and all forms of resistance is valid. Armed resistance in particular will prove to be effective especially in the future. Given the demographic reality and the changes we expect over the next twenty years the Palestinians will be fighting street to street battles in Haifa, Jaffa, Akka, and other cities occupied in 48. The Zionist terrorist militias occupied Palestine street by street and town by town, I expect it to be liberated the same way.

    Also, please understand you have no right to preach to us. You were hired to teach English and you should stick to that. If I had my way you would not even be in that position. Most importantly you have no moral authority.


  13. Abu-Khalil’s vendetta seeking rhetoric is nothing new. I will be straight to the point and suggest he gets some.
    Self-righteousness is no way to get one’s point, let alone the lack of ability to make a distinction between censorship and boycott.
    I do support the boycott of Israeli goods as a means of peaceful resistance, but I definitely don’t won’t some ignorant idiot from the Ministry of Interior telling me what I can watch/read/listen to and what I can’t.

  14. […] But what do I know? I’m just a white man, right? […]

  15. […] in Lebanon, of course, is unfortunately nothing new. I’m not sure what the movie looks like without the “mousterpieces” created by […]

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