Israel's war on Gaza revives colonial tactics of silencing dissent
Following Hamas’ 7 October attack, Israel and its backers have been waging two assaults. The first involves genocide in Gaza, which has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, and intensified brutal violence in the West Bank under the guise of a ‘war on terror’.
The second is an indirect assault on language, amidst heightened attempts to silence and punish Palestinians and pro-Palestinians, including censorship on digital platforms. Despite global calls for a ceasefire and an end to Israeli occupation, censorship and oppression persist.
Present-day silencing of the Palestinian struggle is a form of language policing, an extension of colonial tactics to govern the colonised during their fight for liberation. Recognising these connections underscores language's significance when discussing the oppressor-oppressed relationship, highlighting the importance of resisting language policing in calls for liberation.
"Present-day silencing of the Palestinian struggle is a form of language policing, an extension of colonial tactics to govern the colonised during their fight for liberation"
Colonisers developed colonial police not just for crime control but to suppress anti-colonial movements, ensuring “stability” and “security”. Policing functioned to subdue marginalised groups and quell resistance to ensure compliance for colonial stability.
In our present day power struggles, colonial policing’s echoes are evident in heavy suppression of protests. Since people around the world have mobilised in their masses to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, we have seen police use excessive force to repress them. In France, Germany, Italy, and the US, police have violently attacked pro-Palestine demonstrations.
This has been accompanied by smearing the protests. Western politicians, like US Congressman Brad Sherman or former UK Home secretary Suella Braverman have labelled protestors as "pro-terrorists" or demonstrations as “hate marches”.
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French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin even ordered a ban on all pro-Palestinian protests in the name of protecting “public order”. These are colonial continuities of policing even within the "metropolitan centres".
In contrast, Western responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine support Ukrainian resistance. While this receives backing, Palestine solidarity faces silencing, as Palestinians fighting occupation are labelled uncritically as "terrorists", ignoring the context of ongoing settler colonialism, and Israel’s brutal bombardment of Gaza is justified as “self-defence”.
Western hypocrisy in praising Ukrainians as “like us” - white, European, and ‘civilised’ - while criminalising Palestinian resistance as “barbaric” and “evil” reveals the ingrained racialised colonial biases.
Such colonial echoes of policing perpetuate a struggle rooted in race and class, with ruling elites suppressing people’s dissent worldwide. It helps us understand that our present day struggles are connected, all challenging the status quo.
One of the key features of colonial policing practices was language control. For example, French colonialism in Algeria banned Arabic language in schools, considering it “backward”. Language policing enforces values that restrict legitimate public discussion to impose the oppressor’s worldview.
Today, we see the efforts to control the narrative on Israel’s war on Gaza everywhere.
Firstly, it occurs through avoiding or punishing terms like “genocide” and “ceasefire”. For instance, Western leaders, such as UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both called for “specific pauses” but without mentioning “ceasefire”.
Contrastingly, when politicians do call out Israel’s genocide they are punished. Spanish Social Justice’s ex-Minister Ione Belarra using “genocide” apparently linked to her removal, albeit amidst a cabinet change.
This selective endorsement of terms, akin to language policing, captures Western hypocrisy in silencing recognition of the Palestinian struggle to preserve imperial authority.
Another example is when oppressors and allies confine the use of certain terms, citing “hate”, “security”, and “safety” concerns.
"Language policing preserves imperial power through means beyond silencing the oppressed and allies and implementing punishment"
This suppression is evident when phrases like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and terms like “decolonisation” are deemed inherently violent. US House member Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of the US Congress, faced a smear campaign and was censured for defending the chant.
Secondly, language policing distorts meanings and discourages the use of specific terms. Arabic terms like “Takbeer” (Praise God) and “Allahu-Akbar” (God is Greater), used peacefully in chants, as well as commonly used terms like terms like “Shahed” (Martyr) and “Intifada” (Uprising), are demonised.
Some of these terms have been weaponised by violent Islamist groups, and language policing falsely associates them with terrorism’s glorification and counterterrorism retributions.
Thirdly, language policing extends to social media platforms, through censorship. Users report that their pro-Palestinian content is being hidden or removed, even facing account suspensions. This limiting of certain content’s exposure, labelled as shadow banning, restricts free speech, prompting concerns about digital rights.
In contrast, Israeli and pro-Israeli officials’ statements advocating genocide and ethnic cleansing by explicitly asserting Israel’s intentions to erase Gaza, starve its population, and dispossess Palestinians from their land, remain uncensored.
Distorting history, intimidation, and self-policing
Language policing preserves imperial power through means beyond silencing the oppressed and allies and implementing punishment.
Firstly, it distorts history by suppressing terms such as “illegal occupation”, “apartheid”, and “settler colonialism”, masking the enduring reality of colonisation and the unjust oppressor-oppressed power imbalance.
Pushing terms like “humanitarian crisis” diminishes mass killings to a natural emergency that requires aid as a solution. Labels of “war” or “conflict” falsely imply equal power dynamics, belying the colonial asymmetry.
Similarly, descriptions of “Israel-Hamas war” or “Israel-Gaza war” reduce Palestine to just Gaza, Palestinians to supporters of a “terrorist” organisation, and overlook settler colonial violence in the West Bank.
This all feeds into the dehumanisation of Palestinians and flattens the oppressed’s resistance, portraying their struggle as isolated violence rather than a response to oppression.
Such terms also mask the oppressor’s structural violence, which stems not only from weaponry but also from the results of brutal occupation on everyday life and the economy, like the destruction of healthcare, occupation of water, and control of resources.
Secondly, language policing creates a culture of fear and intimidation, one in which those speaking up against injustice fear for their livelihoods and their safety.
In just the past few months, Palestinians and those speaking up for Palestine have been murdered, attacked in hate crimes, fired from their jobs, arrested, lost funding, accused of being anti-Semitic, denied visas and more.
Accusations of sympathising or associating with the oppressed’s “violence” discourages people from speaking up, prioritising security over liberty.
Thirdly, language policing can lead to self-censorship. Echoing Frantz Fanon’s insights on internalised colonial attitudes, this can lead the oppressed and allies to adopt colonial control tactics due to fear.
A survey found that the majority of US-based academics self-censored their criticism of Israel since 7 October due to external pressure. Internalising this policing of language isolates us from each other, and prevents us building the bridges between our interconnected struggles against injustice.
"Speaking up reclaims our self-autonomy and challenges the oppressor's narrative. Conversely, self-policing reinforces the status quo and sustains violence"
Towards collective liberation
Connecting coloniality, policing, language control, and liberation is crucial as it reveals how censorship extends beyond semantics, underpinning mutual yet uneven struggles against oppression.
Although colonial logics might be invisible in censorship, language policing exposes how they haunt present-day realities. Recognising how language is political, the oppressed and allies, in calls for liberation, must resist linguistic control by oppressors.
Breaking silencing chains requires refraining from perpetuating these tactics of control. Speaking up reclaims our self-autonomy and challenges the oppressor's narrative. Conversely, self-policing reinforces the status quo and sustains violence.
Resisting language control is a liberation of the mind, a step towards the liberation of land and people globally through collective solidarity.
Lujain Al-Meligy is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations (IR) at King’s College London (KCL). Her work delves into intricate narratives and their profound impact on governance and societal control, with a deep focus on questions of colonial echoes embedded in present-day political struggles.
Follow her on Twitter: @Lujain_Almeligy
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.