An Interview with Laleh Khalili

by Forum Staff

Laleh Khalili is professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She is the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge, 2007) and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford 2013), the editor of Modern Arab Politics (Routledge 2008) and co-editor (with Jillian Schwedler) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (Hurst/Oxford 2010). She is currently working on a project examining the transformations in and centrality of logistics and transport infrastructures in the Middle East since the end of the Second World War.

On November 11th 2014, Professor Laleh Khalili gave a presentation at The Fletcher School titled “The Colonial Origins of U.S. and Israeli Counterinsurgency.” At the talk Khalili discussed the remnants of the colonial counterinsurgency modes of operation in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Israeli and U.S. operations.

FLETCHER FORUM: To what extent is the U.S. and Israeli counterinsurgency a remnant of colonial counterinsurgency?

KHALILI: I think to a huge extent it is influenced by colonial practices. In the case of the Israeli military, a large number of their legal apparatuses that they use as part of their counterinsurgency, including their emergency regulation, comes from the British. Many of their administrative procedures come from the British military experience, and finally a lot of the punitive forms that they use in their counterinsurgency including closures and curfews, house demolitions, and the uses of walls and other security apparatuses are all borrowed from the British. The first set of walls that were built as a kind of an offensive counterinsurgency measure was by the British in the 1930’s. In the case of the U.S. of course there is a much longer history of suppression, first of the Native Americans within the boundaries of what became the continental U.S., but then later the colonization of the Philippines and other Pacific islands, and of course Caribbean islands, and later, the imperial warfare that the U.S. engaged in, again in places like the Philippines in the 1950’s and Vietnam and Latin America and elsewhere. So there are ways in which these kinds of practices are transmitted generation-to-generation, century-to-century, and they are colonial practices.

FLETCHER FORUM: You mentioned [in the talk earlier that day] how the colonial counterinsurgencies had a legal gloss, using international law, can you tell us more about this—what has happened in the past, and to what extent is this still occurring today?

KHALILI: One of the things that is really interesting is to see the way in which the U.S. military academy at West Point, for example, studied the Laws of War as they applied to Native Americans. One of the things that they were taught is that Native Americans belong to a technical category of “savages”—it was a technical legal category, which is why I’m putting quotation marks around the word. And for that reason the Laws of War didn’t apply to them, the military did not have to in any way moderate its behavior—

FLETCHER FORUM: This was what year?

KHALILI: This was in the 1830’s and onwards. Now, what is interesting is that lots of legal scholars have said actually that there are ways in which current U.S. legal practice are similar to that and echo that, where you have new categories, for example, “enemy combatants,” which are almost analogous to the category of “savage,” where by virtue of not fitting a regular category of war to which these kinds of cases of the law are applicable, you end up becoming a kind of a subject to whom anything can happen. So Geneva Conventions don’t apply to you, The Hague Conventions don’t apply to you, and therefore anything can happen to you. So “enemy combatant” in some instances is very similar to the category of “savages.”

FLETCHER FORUM: In the talk earlier, you only focused on the U.S. and Israeli counterinsurgency, do you think that their counterinsurgency is distinct from other counterinsurgencies, say British or French involvement in a conflict zone?

KHALILI: No, I think that they are all very similar. In this talk I focused on the U.S. and the Israeli ones for the sake of brevity, because it’s only an hour and it allows me to focus on the similarities. But of course, the British and the French have been incredibly crucial to the making of these kinds of counterinsurgency practices and their transmissions across the centuries and I cover them in my book much more extensively

FLETCHER FORUM: The aim of the colonial counterinsurgency, as you mentioned in your talk, is to psychologically have the citizens recognize their subjugated status. To what extent is this perpetuated by orientalist discourse?

KHALILI: It’s absolutely crucial, in the Middle East at least, that kind of orientalist discourse is crucial. But racializing discourse is really important in all contexts. I mean it is very interesting to see the way, for example, you find this kind of discourse of savagery being used even to think about for example, the white Boers or the Northern Irish. However, there is that kind of racial discourse that tends to stop with these white populations. So for example, when Northern Ireland was happening, many of the British were writing things like, “the Northern Irish are not like the Adenese [Yemen] or the Kenyans; they are white and European so we can’t do the same things to them.” So race does matter. In some instances the orientalist practice does matter, but it really depends on the context. I think orientalism is much more applicable to the Arab countries, South Asian countries, [places] where the U.S. is involved, and, of course, the Israeli role in Palestine.

FLETCHER FORUM: In what has been described as the “bible of decolonization” Frantz Fanon sanctioned in his book The Wretched of the Earth the use of violence as a necessary first step in overcoming colonial oppression, given the expanding power asymmetry today between the conflicting parties, do you think Fanon is still relevant to conflict?

KHALILI: Absolutely. I think that Fanon wrote at a time where the violence of colonization was being countered by the violence of decolonization. And I think that kind of thinking is really important. But I think it’s also really important to recognize the specific context of the struggles that we have today, and it seems to me we have a much more depoliticized population than there was in the 1960’s. In the parts of the world where we see a lot of the wars happening, we see populations that have lost huge gains in terms of access to resources, in terms of education, in terms of urban areas. Warfare has decimated many countries in the Middle East. So I think, although I will always love Fanon, I think we should also do our own analysis today and see what sorts of forms of struggle are most effective in countering this blight of both proxy, local, and imperial warfare.

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