Why the ‘progressive gaze’ is like the male gaze

Gaza Damage October 2023

It was in a vast building called ADNEC that I saw history being made. The building was the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre and the history was made by a team of women wearing blue and white , and short in stature playing basketball.

It was the 2019 Special Olympics World Games and the Israeli basketball team were a blur of blue and. white up and down the court. I spent most of my time barracking for the Aussies for good family reasons, but I was curious to find the Israeli team in an Arabic country, so halted for a while to support them.

I had experienced Special Olympics as a force for social inclusion before – China hosted the games back in 2007, and my daughter Hannah was the first member of the family to visit China as an athlete representative. The Chinese Government was using the games to promote inclusion.

So when it came to Abu Dhabi, it was easy to read the Emiratis as doing the same.

Back then, Abu Dhabi’s Abrahamic Family House complex with an equal-sized Synagogue, Church and Mosque, had not been built, and neither had the Abraham Accords come about. Yes, President Trump played a part in the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco recognising Israel

But the warm welcome given to the Israeli Special Olympians was a harbinger that things were changing in what have become to be seen as the moderate Sunni countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

A slow de-radicalisation has been taking place in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. There’s a long way to go: the niqab (face covering), abaya (robe), or hijab(head scarf) is still worn by women in Saudi, and male guardianship rules still apply. In 2017 women were given the right to drive, with the World Bank’s 2022 Women Business and the Law reporting, “When it comes to constraints on freedom of movement, laws affecting women’s decisions to work, laws affecting women’s pay, constraints on women starting and running a business, and laws affecting the size of a woman’s pension, Saudi Arabia
gets a perfect score.”

Constraints related to marriage, laws affecting women’s work after having children, and gender
differences in property and inheritance were listed as areas for improvement. The overall score was 80/100.

According to a London School of Economics report the UAE “in 2019, placed second to last on the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law (WBL) Index, scoring 29 out of 100, indicating that women had less than a third of the legal rights of men. However, by 2023, the UAE’s score almost tripled to 82, surpassing the global average of 77.”

This slow deradicalisation process forms a background to the Israel-Gaza war. Will the Abraham accord countries be able to offer a future for the Gazan people, with both Hamas with a different future in mind, and Israel blockers President Biden’s promotion of a “grand bargain” involving normalisation of Israel’e’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and a pathway to a Palestinian state?

Some observers like the Times of Israel’s senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur offer a reframing of the Israeli Hamas conflict. In an interview with Bari Weiss on The Free Press site he widens the discussion to the future of Islam. With apologies for speaking into what Muslims think he summarises: “Why is the Muslim world where it’s at? We used to be the repository of commerce and science and progress and military and geopolitical power. What happened to us and in Islamic discourse? This is a profound question that goes way beyond economics and geopolitics because it’s a question that’s essentially theological.”

Is the answer the ancient trope of military force – pursued by Iran and its proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza and Israel? Or the slow Islamic reformation underway by the Sunni moderates? Which is the more fruitful path for Islamic renewal?

Weiss compares Islam to Christianity and asks, “Are you talking about like a fundamental reformation? Because you’re right today, most people in the world look at Christianity and say, look at the good it does. If we went back to the Crusades, we’d have a wildly different understanding of what Christianity was about. Is that what you’re intimating?”

And Gur responds by comparing the Iranian version of Islam – one of military conquest with that of the Saudis. “If [Iran’s version is] Islam, we’re heading into we’re talking about civilisational war. The Saudis, this deeply conservative theocratic kingdom are saying that’s not Islam. Most Muslims say that’s not Islam. Most Gazans today say that’s not Islam.”

Weiss asks why the Iranian perspective is popular with progressives in the West. Gur compares a “progressive gaze”‘” to the well-known “male gaze.”

 The “male gaze” is the act of viewing women and their accomplishments through a heterosexist male centred lens. It is fairly read as an imposition of privilege, the gaze defines its object.

The male gaze reflects a possessive worldview, that prioritises a set of assumptions.

In the same way the progressive worldview comes with its set of assumptions. Hamas’ ideology presupposes a liberation struggle based on Algeria in 1962, when the Algerian National Liberation Front drove the French pied-noirs which had settled in North Africa from 1830 back across the Mediterranean. It has formed the template for many decolonisation struggles,, especially in the Middle East.

And armed with philosopher Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, a searing critique of colonisation and settler societies, generations of Western progressives have adopted anti-colonial thinking. And decolonisation justly is a major theme of the second half of the twentieth century, both bloody and peaceful.

The Israel-Hamas conflict is possibly a case study to see if decolonisation remains a dominant paradigm in this century. Gur argues that Israel has unique features that do not fit a classic colony. Jews arrived as refugees from 60 countries; there’s no homeland benefiting economically from colonisation, there’s no place for many of them to return to (for example, Baghdad), and they have a long tradition attached to the land they settled. Gur positions himself as outside the US/European bloc, arguing for an Israeli identity that is a hybrid, reflecting a people split between Ashkenazi (European) Jews and Sephardic Jews largely exiled from other Middle Eastern countries.

But its the placing of the Israeli-Hamas conflict within the larger inter-Islamic struggle – moderate Sunni v militaristic Shiite that opens up new possibilities.

It comes with unanswered questions.

Will Israel, with a government coalition that includes religious zionists with their own version of the river to the sea, allow a moderate Arab future for Gaza and a path to a moderate Palestinian state? The Netanyahu led coalition government includes a powerful minority faction that calls for re-settlement of Gaza by Jews, and expulsion or containment of the Arab population. Like Biden, he has a political future to think about.

Israel, still traumatised from October 7 terrorist attack, massacre and mass rape, would like the US to give its military freedom of action. Netanyahu’s coalition partners call for a maximalist solution.

Biden faces maximalist demands from his progressive wing as well: “from the River to the Sea,” which variously means a bi-national state or a Palestinian homeland.

Can President Biden bring about his grand bargain of Saudi-Israel normalisation, massive humanitarian aid for Gaza and a de-radicalised Palestine with a pathway to statehood?

You’d need to be a prophet to know.