IN German concentration camps in World War 2, the term “Muselmann" (plural “Muselmänner") was commonly used. It referred to the way some starving prisoners would fall to their knees then forward, without the strength to get back up. The origin of the word is uncertain; it was probably another of the horrific inventions of the German guards, but it could also have been the kapos: the Jewish prisoners who bossed the others around and looked down on those who had completely surrendered and wanted to live no longer.
I wrote in a previous article about the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben about the homo sacer* of Roman times — a figure not only at the lower end of the social hierarchy but entirely outside it; people you could kill at will or let live. For Agamben, the Muselmann, like the comatose patient on a heart-lung machine, was emblematic of the empty lives that modern democracies create (the Nazis were initially democratically elected).
Agamben also elaborated on the gibberish often spoken by the Muselmänner, and somewhere in the videos I have seen from Gaza there was also such a man. Admittedly (not yet) starved, but already clearly losing his mind. Many more must have emerged since Big Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, decreed that all means of livelihood to Gaza would be cut off and that people should leave the city. This is a textbook example of what Agamben wrote of, the creation of 2.3 million potential homines sacri. With the European Union, which immediately halted aid to Gaza, also complicit.
We know such no-man's landers from our own history as well. There were the fugitive slaves who were rejected by those from the interior and often summarily killed; the “deelpagters" who after the Native Land Act of 1913 suddenly found themselves as “the black man… a pariah in the land of his birth", in Sol Plaatje's words, and the millions of Section 10 workers of the homelands, to name just a few types. Etienne Leroux created the character Gert Garies in Magersfontein, o Magersfontein! who drives back and forth across the Free State border as he tries to get a grave for his child from the authorities.
The further questions now are: who created these homines sacri in Gaza, and what is being achieved with them?
Many Israelis point the finger for the Hamas attack on October 7 at Big Bibi. Was it not he who withdrew Israel's military forces from Gaza in 2005, after which a takeover by Hamas was inevitable? He reckoned he would thereby sow division among the Palestinians between the much more moderate Palestine Liberation Front of the West Bank and the fanatical Hamas.
It was also another act from the Agamben textbook: how democratically elected leaders use states of emergency to establish sovereignty in their own person as the country's (and the military's) final decision-maker. With rockets raining down on your land and suicide bombs exploding, citizens will be more inclined to accept a forceful character as their leader.
‘A just war’
Bibi ultimately draws from the paranoia that is the cornerstone of the State of Israel, so to speak: that it is virtually in a permanent state of emergency after the Shoah (Holocaust). Indeed, it is true that after every Hamas horror, anti-Semitic violence and hate speech increase around the world. It is also the Achilles heel of the West — the trauma of the European Enlightenment, which culminated in the catastrophe of World War 2 and the extermination of a people, remains the strongest driving force in contemporary Western thought. Add to this the doctrine of the “just war" against the Nazis that is also essential as an alibi for their own military actions. Just think of the numerous invasions by America and its allies of other countries for the sake of “human rights" while anyone can clearly see that they are about other things, often economic considerations, or merely projects for commercial friends.
It is telling that in his brief speech after the formation of his unity government — which makes him Israel's new dictator — Netanyahu did not refer to the Shoah by name. He spoke of his people who previously could not defend themselves but were now capable of doing so, and would do so with full force. One reason for this is that the alibi is wearing thin; indeed, it is obvious that the Extermination is no longer actually referred to in apologies about Israel's interventions in Gaza.
Another major gap in the opinion pieces is the complicity of Arab states themselves in the creation of the Gaza problem.
Incarnation of a drive for freedom
I visited Iraq in 2003 as part of a group led by Gift of the Givers, after which we had to travel, due to sanctions, through the Arabian desert to Jordan. While we were stranded at Amman's airport for a day, I hired a guide to clandestinely show us the city, and we ended up in the Palestinian refugee camp Wihdat (Amman New Camp) with its 50,000 inhabitants. It was a surprise that the place was so full of permanent multi-level buildings, and the bustling activity we witnessed was so different from the usual picture of such camps.
The one image from that visit that has stayed with me is of four young women in their chadors, clad in black from head to toe but with their faces clearly visible and lips gleaming in crimson. They were a picture of vibrancy and looked effortlessly comfortable in their robes, as beautiful and sexy as can be, the very incarnation of the drive for freedom and with full expectations of the life ahead of them.
It also placed in strong relief the women we saw in Iraq at the other end of the spectrum. In Baghdad we were at the Hotel Palestine, and there I sat captivated by the comings and goings of pilgrims on their way to Karbala from Iraq and Iran. Here just about every woman in a chador was a timid creature, enveloped by a pale deadness. These women were gathered together in flocks — there is no other word. A man with a cane watched over each group and an unpleasant smell came from their direction.
Iraq and Iran also have strong secular communities, so there were also women who appeared completely free. It was only after my introduction to Agamben's work that I realised who these sometimes repulsive creatures were: homines sacri or foemina sacri. Their role was to make every man a sovereign; the one who could either have mercy on them by making them work in his kitchen, or violate, attack and even murder them, with only a minor punishment as the result.
The homo sacer is not a foundation for Islam; on the contrary, the command is clear that believers should take care of the poor. But there are enough ways to manufacture such creatures in political Islam, in the form of reprehensible women. After Iraq, I noticed how some of them are also to be seen in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, with its large Muslim community, although this is not the norm there at all.
When searching on the internet for statistics about women living under Hamas, it is worth noting that the subject is only touched on in propaganda by the Israeli Defence Force. My experience is that propaganda figures from Israel are usually accurate, such as women generally being treated far worse than the median in the Middle East. Statements from Hamas leaders themselves show a contempt for women; they don't even find it necessary to maintain a consistent definition. First women are spoken of as being of importance because they are producers of male fighters, and then as supporters of men.
In Jordan, all those of Palestinian descent have the same rights as the local people, and 80% of Amman's population today have Palestinian ties. The fair and charismatic Queen Raina, a Palestinian, has been the benchmark for secular women throughout the Middle East for decades. But this liberal ethos also caused Amman to back out of the one plan many people reckon could have worked in Israel: the now-forgotten three-state solution.
This involves Egypt taking control of Gaza and Jordan taking control of the West Bank. But the Jordanians are wary of the extremists of the Palestine Liberation Front, even though under President Mahmoud Abbas they are far more moderate than Hamas. And so it happens that Jordan, like other Arab governments, still keeps the Palestinians at a distance, albeit only an inch away, and still refers to the 10 neighbourhoods in Amman where they mostly live as refugee camps. In Agamben's thinking, the “camp" is the “nomos" (legal name) of the 20th century, the name for the kind of settlement that gives an identity to a government.
Haters of women
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the homines sacri, in the form of women and foreigners, are found in large numbers — and many of them are Palestinian refugees. In Qatar, the workers at the World Cup stadiums could be attacked without major consequences; the death toll was as high as 700. In Iran, the world watched in disgust as morality police punished young women to death, with praise from the government afterwards. It is no coincidence that the women-hating Iranian government is Hamas's biggest supporter.
What are we to do? It might sound frivolous to exclaim: become a feminist! It would mean liberation for many women if Hamas were to be destroyed as a political force, so should we then support an Israeli occupation of Gaza? Possibly, but then only in the sense of it being the slightly lesser of two evils, and only if accompanied by the kind of humanitarian programme from which the Gazans will emerge as Israeli citizens' equals, something Netahyahu's government clearly has no appetite for.
To me, it is more fruitful to view the Israeli government and Hamas as birds of a feather. Both prey on the defencelessness of women and children in Gaza, using them as pawns and sandbags. Hamas orders and commands as it pleases, while Netanyahu, like a Jacob Zuma, has had charges of corruption against him postponed for the umpteenth time and has even been able to neutralise fierce street protests against his dictatorial moves to “reform" the country's courts.
To some extent, we are all guilty of shifting these two all-important issues to the backburner with our incessant comments on social media. There is nothing we can do directly about the Gaza catastrophe, but we can make sure the people there remain in the spotlight. For those who support the Palestinian fanatics, you might ask, what about the kind of rights Muslim women enjoy in South Africa? And for Jewish friends: what are you going to do to stop Netanyahu from further eroding the powers of Israel's courts?
And we can look at the homines sacri around us and ask: where did they come from, where are they going?
* Oxfordreference.com: “Homo sacer is a paradoxical figure: it is the one who may not be sacrificed, yet may be murdered with impunity. In this sense, the homo sacer is outside or beyond both divine and human law.”
♦ VWB ♦
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