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The False Identity that helped Provide a Moral Case for War
Published on Tuesday, August 3, 2004 by the Sydney Morning Herald / Australia
The False Identity that helped Provide a Moral Case for War
by Ihab Shalbak
 

Marlie-Leonie Leblanc, a 23-year-old Frenchwoman, claimed she and her baby were attacked on a Paris train by several young Arab men who believed she was Jewish. They had, she said, drawn swastikas on her belly after cutting her shirt and overturning her stroller, causing her baby to fall out.

The story flashed across the world. The French President, Jacques Chirac, hurried to express his horror; the Communist Party staged a demonstration; French media reported on the "train of hatred" and the League of French Muslims took part in anti-racism rallies in response to the alleged attack.

A few days later French police said Leblanc had a long history of lying to the police and that, after further investigation, she had admitted to fabricating the story.

What makes this story remarkable is not just the instant condemnation it provoked. It is the ability of a young person in suburban Paris to weave a story out of prevailing global and local ethnic, religious and cultural tensions and then deploy such a story in the public domain without hesitation.

In a similar manner, the unravelling of Norma Khouri's book Forbidden Love illustrates how a young person from suburban Chicago can fabricate a story in which the villains and the victim are known - to borrow a phrase from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a "tale foretold".

As "true stories" both invoked received wisdoms about the ways in which Arab-Muslim cultural and religious practices and texts contradict the modern liberal ethos. Yet after their exposure, both stories have been blamed solely upon their errant authors, ignoring the collective and institutional failings that surround and indeed facilitate such misdeeds.

In reading Forbidden Love we can easily trace the lines of Orientalism, a colonial Western imagination of the Arab and Muslim. In part, what makes this book such a worrying illustration of the present malady is that while earlier Orientalist misrepresentations mainly relied on insider "experts" manipulating information in the interests of the state, the availability of information in our internet age allows new cultural entrepreneurs, such as Khouri, to exploit an overarching climate of fear and mistrust and in the process damage further the possibility of mutual understanding and coexistence.

As the late Edward Said put it, in dealing with texts we need to identify: "Who writes? For whom is the writing being done? In what circumstances?"

Bearing in mind Said's second question, to write successfully to an audience you need to share a common frame of reference. If Khouri had addressed Arab women's rights activists and a liberal Arab audience, then even without factual errors she would not have had an audience, because she does not share a common frame of reference regarding the situation of Arab women, the socio-cultural causes of honour crimes and the best ways to fight such crimes. Similarly, if Khouri had presented herself as a representative of the cause of Spanish women who face widespread violence and murder based on gender oppression, it is hard to imagine that a story about Spanish women's suffering would have generated such huge sales in Australia.

However, in writing to an audience that shared her distorted assumptions about the situation in the Arab world, Khouri found a receptive audience. In doing so, she maliciously confirmed the audience's preconceptions, rather than enlightening them about the very real suffering of Arab women.

The interventionist creed of modernising and democratising the Arab world by force is at the heart of the Western political agenda. In line with this prevailing climate, Khouri presented herself as a refugee from the oppressive Arab world and her book as an intervention to assist in the liberation of Arab women.

In Australia, divided over the morality of waging war against an Arab country, Khouri provided a supplementary moral case for the war to a hesitant public.

Curiously, while many Australians welcomed Khouri as a refugee, and bought 200,000 copies of her book, large numbers of Australians voted in a government with an extremely tough migration policy. What's more, we know there are hundreds of Arab and Muslim women in detention centres around the country.

Most peculiar of all is that our alert Government, which claims it is able to prove most asylum seekers are not genuine refugees, gave Khouri a protection visa, apparently unable to detect that she was a US citizen with a documented history.

In today's world of multimedia cross-marketing, it is hard to believe the publishing of this book did not rely on the war environment. Just as its narrative attaches itself to many existing narratives, its marketing attached itself to the most compelling brand - Arab and Muslim - in media circulation at the time.

In this sense, Khouri is far from the only beneficiary of Forbidden Love's success. It may be that beneficiaries of this lie are able to evade responsibility. Sadly, those tarred with its broad brush have no means of escaping the consequences.

Ihab Shalbak is a PhD candidate at the School of Media and Communication, University of NSW.

Copyright © 2004 The Sydney Morning Herald.

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