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Dr Mai Al-Nakib
Violence in Kuwait: A Sideways Reflection

Discussions about violence in Kuwait have been on the rise, triggered, perhaps, by the murder of Jaber Samir Yousef at the Avenues Mall in December 2012. Some reacted with shock and sadness; others chose to circulate distasteful jokes about the event by mobile phone. Since then I’ve heard people lament the loss of a more peaceful time, nostalgically looking back to the days when we did not have to lock our front doors. Depending on who you happen to be with, blame shifts onto the bidoun (stateless), the bedu, the West, members of parliament, the government, the police, wasta, the crazies, the sick, the poor, and on and on. However, laying blame on groups or individuals is an inadequate and, frankly, disingenuous response. Disingenuous because, let’s not forget, Jaber Samir Yousef was murdered in a mall surrounded by hundreds of people, yet nothing was done to stop it from happening. Nobody interfered, at least not quick enough. The excuse that people didn’t know what was going on does not convince since photos and videos were taken and posted online soon after. In addition, the response is inadequate because it does not account sufficiently for material history. We are all complicit in the violence of our societies, though given our collective bafflement over recent events, we clearly have no clue how. 

             Violence does not erupt out of thin air. Violence is constructed, like everything else, through a conjunction of material forces: economic, social, political, and cultural. In Discourse on Colonialism, Martiniquean poet and intellectual Aimé Césaire argues that the Holocaust should not surprise the West. It was certainly no surprise to the people residing on 85% of the earth’s surface, who had suffered a colonial holocaust for hundreds of years. Germany’s annihilation of six million Europeans in the 1930s and 40s is not surprising to Césaire. It was, as he put it, a “boomerang effect”—savagery, violence, racism, degradation coming home to Europe, as it were, to roost. He explains, “before [Europeans] were its victims, they were its accomplices.” Holocausts were tolerated for hundreds of years because its victims were black, red, yellow, brown; they were not, in other words, white.   

            Sub-humanizing others for political gain or economic profit cannot persist without repercussions. Hundreds of years of European colonial violence elsewhere generated violence on European soil (two world wars and a Holocaust against European Jews and other marginalized groups). In the United States today, gun violence is a major topic of debate. Dramatic shootings at schools, movie theaters, churches, and of political figures at supermarkets tend to draw more attention than the daily shootings and violence in poor urban areas inhabited mainly by minorities. In the former case, the shooting is blamed on one sick individual with a gun. The latter, inner city violence, is blamed on gangs or drugs. In the mainstream media, the long history of North American violence—from the decimation of the native inhabitants of the land to the 250 years of slavery that financed America’s rise to the top—is rarely linked to either. Past violence—physical, emotional, legal, economic—prepares the conditions for future violence. Violence against North America’s native inhabitants and stolen African slave labor helps explain in part the high levels of violence in the US today. European colonial violence against the peoples of the world explains German violence against European Jews, as Césaire argues. German violence against European Jews explains in part ongoing Israeli violence against Palestinians. Césaire makes the case that a civilization which justifies force is “already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased.” In the process of dehumanizing the victims—and using force against another necessitates “seeing the other [person] as an animal,” as Césaire asserts—the perpetrators dehumanize, animalize, and objectify themselves.  

            Given the boomerang effect of violence, we need to consider the conditions of its recent rebound in Kuwait. On the surface, Kuwait does not appear to be a violent place. Kuwaitis rarely die from gunshot wounds. However, newspapers from the last few decades report stories almost daily of stabbings, rapes, and murders of domestic workers and other non-Kuwaiti labor. The key term here is “non-Kuwaiti.” Outrage against violence has been muted or non-existent not because violence does not exist but, rather, because for the most part it happens elsewhere (in Abraq Khaitan or Jileeb Al-Shuyoukh) and to people who, it seems, count less than “we” do.   

In his book, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections—to which the title of my article alludes—Slovenian cultural and political theorist Slavoj Zizek reminds us that violence does not just include direct physical violence, “but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.” What appears to explode as “irrational subjective violence” (the murder of Jaber Samir Yousef by a bidoun man at the Avenues) is, in fact, as Zizek puts it, a return of “the message that [we ourselves] sent out in its inverted true form.” Césaire’s boomerang effect. To understand the message of this returned violence, we need to accept that it is not subjective (one individual’s act) but rather systemic (objective and collective). In place of bewilderment and quick fix responses (from increased police “security” to capital punishment), we need to spend time thinking about the historical and material components that have shaped it. What, we must ask ourselves, could have produced it and how are we responsible? 

            Kuwait is a highly segregated community. One of its key historical divisions (between bedu and hathar) reflects the geographical split between desert hinterland and coast. But this split is only one among many others including: Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti; Arab and non-Arab; Muslim and non-Muslim; Sunni and Shi‘i; men and women; citizen and bidoun; fundamentalist and secularist; and so on. Such divisions and, in the cases of some of the oppositions mentioned, the laws that maintain them, do not seem inherently violent. They exist everywhere in one form or another. But just because identic divisions exist everywhere in the world doesn’t mean we should sanction them here. That Kuwait is a small, rich country exacerbates the problems such divisive lines of opposition create. Legally sanctioned divisions (between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis or men and women, for example) buttress other, non-official divisions (between Sunni and Shi‘i or bedu and hathar). Such divisions are not ideologically motivated (that is to say, they do not exist because my beliefs are different than yours, although that’s what we tend to think). They exist, rather, to maintain a specific economic reality. Segregation prevents a certain way of life from dissipating. We have only to think of the extreme example of apartheid South Africa to recognize this to be the case. Segregation expresses not only fear of the other, but fear of change and, especially, fear of the loss of economic advantage to others. 

            It is my contention that violence in Kuwait exists as a result of feelings of frustration, a sense of economic, social, or political injustice, and a lack of recourse to the law, among other key factors that go beyond the scope of this article. Lines of division produce inequality between members of a society (which, let’s not forget, include both citizens and non-citizens). This, in turn, breeds resentment, fuels anger, and, over time, results in violence. We act surprised that a bidoun murdered Jaber Samir Yousef (himself not a citizen of Kuwait despite his Kuwaiti mother) in cold blood, but we shouldn’t be. If we’re baffled over it, it’s because we’re not thinking about the situation adequately, and thinking about what causes violence is, as Zizek insists, something we must do. Segregation—whether it’s splitting up the healthcare system so that Kuwaitis get service during the day while non-Kuwaiti’s are relegated to the evening; or listing deaths in newspapers in two separate columns, one for Kuwaitis, another for non-Kuwaitis, as if even in death differences matter; or denying citizenship to those who may have a right to it (both the murderer, perhaps, and the murdered); or privileging members of one religious sect or ethnicity over another; or protecting the rights of one group of citizens over another; and so on—is systemically violent. The way out of systemic violence is to consider how the system might be made less asymmetrical, less unfair. Kuwait, it seems to me, as a result of its wealth and small size, is in a better position than most to attempt such a transformation.

            Opening up our community to difference is not simply a matter of tolerance (“I will tolerate you in my midst even though you are a Hindu or a Bangladeshi or a Filipina or whatever else”). Mere tolerance won’t change a thing. We need to learn to envision and actively construct a community of difference that thrives on difference. The dream of identic sameness (“I want my community to be exactly like me”) produces rigidity and social stagnation. Since any community will always be multiple, despite dreams, the desire for sameness inevitably produces antagonism. This is where we are today. Where we might head is toward a cosmopolitan future as a society open to difference, not just nominally but really, guaranteed by law and through equitable political and economic practices. This is no humanistic idealism. It is our ethical responsibility. Violence is not outside us, someone else’s subjective sickness. Violence is us, and it is only through our collective action that it ends.

By Dr Mai Al-Nakib

Author/Professor Special to the Arab Times


By: Dr Mai Al-Nakib

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