Collision 99: July, 2024

Source: The Guardian

The Ungrievability of Palestinian Life

Roaa Ali

The current war on Gaza has revealed the prevalence of the idea of the dispensability of Palestinian life in European and American political and media spheres. This widespread tolerance of the dehumanisation and existential negation of Palestinians is the result of decades-long discourse and systematic construction of Arabs in ways that deny them humanity and legitimise their ungrievability.

In a recent Guardian article, Moustafa Bayoumi challenges common perceptions of the order of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian prejudices. He argues that anti-Palestinian bigotry in the US actually preceded and evolved into broader anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. Bayoumi asserts that the conflation of anti-Palestinianism and Islamophobia reduces the Palestinian issue to a matter of religious acceptance rather than addressing the much more challenging question of what the US might owe Palestine (Bayoumi, 2004).

Bayoumi’s article rightly highlights that the Palestinian cause has often been framed in the West as an Islamic issue, thus redirecting the political focus from anti-colonial rights to combating Islamophobia. In the UK, also, Labour has consistently framed support for Palestinian rights as an Islamic issue (BBC News, 2004). This strategy benefits UK Labour in containing both the left and the right while maintaining political naturality on the question of Palestine. It reduces the Palestinian issue to a matter of religious tolerance on the left and reinforces Islamophobic prejudices on the right by positioning it as an external, and by nature a non-white issue, in which the UK is not involved.

Bayoumi’s article dedicates significant effort to highlighting the political and imperial origins of anti-Palestinian prejudices, which, it contends, have evolved into broader anti-Arab and post-9/11 Islamophobic biases. However, I argue that Anti-Arab stereotypes, which have been politically manufactured and culturally and socially disseminated and popularised are fundamentally rooted not only in political and imperialist animosity but in racism. This racism follows an Orientalist tradition that spanned over centuries with the aim of producing the idea of “natural social hierarchy” (Singh, 2015) to “structure” the power “relationship between Europeanness and non-Europeanness, which is often, but not always, equatable to whiteness and non-whiteness” (Lentin, 2018). This racism has dire consequences, culminating in the unprecedented devaluation of Palestinian lives, making them perceived as ungrievable.

Anti-Arab Racism and Stereotyping

For decades, scholars like Edward Said and Jack Shaheen have decried anti-Arab racism, documenting the systematic ways in which it has been cultivated. Edward Said (1978; 2003) argues that Arab stereotypes convey a Western projection of Otherness, which has been historically transmitted through Western academia and literature, evolving into images circulated via, for instance, modern cinema (Said, 2003). Jack Shaheen (2008, 2009) exposes how Hollywood has perpetuated negative Arab stereotypes employing the strategy of repetition “as a teaching tool, tutoring movie audiences repeating over and over again, in film after film, insidious images of the Arab people” (2009, p.7), portraying Arabs as uncivilised and contrasting them with white Western protagonists (2008, p. 25). Shaheen argues that “Arabs remain the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood”; just like all constructions of the Other, ‘the Arab’ is imagined as “unethical and inferior […]; he worships a strange, different deity and does not value human life as we do. Incapable of democracy, the ‘other’ is projected as a violent primitive mass opposing world peace and religious tolerance” (2008, p.2).

Negative Arab imagery had been widely circulated in media outlets long before the attacks of September 11. However, 9/11 added a new layer to these narratives, leading to a collective attribution of blame to Arabs and Muslims. This conflation between Arabs and Muslims overlooks the vastly diverse religious and ethnic composition of the Arab and Muslim worlds. While political, colonial and imperial interests in the region, along with an Orientalist framework that positions the European American (White and Christian) as antithetical to the non-European (Brown, Black, and Muslim), are significant factors, it is essential to emphasise that the core issue is the development of a racial system that privileges ‘whiteness’ over ‘non-whiteness’, leading to racism as the primary mode of interaction. Muslims have been thoroughly racialised in the European-American public imagination (Meer and Modood, 2019).

One of the ways in which anti-Arab racism has manifested is through systematic stereotyping, which aimed to govern ideological and cultural differences and place those differences in a hierarchy that ultimately devalue and dehumanise Arabs. Stereotyping has long become an ideological system that framed the immigrant Arab, and now the Muslim, as a foreigner, and an alien who is starkly different from the white naturalised citizen and thus easily blamed for the nation’s tragedies, and conveniently barred from its protection. The danger of co-opting stereotypes socially, culturally and politically cannot be overstated, especially in contemporary times.

Ungrievable No More: Addressing Systemic Racism Against Palestinians

On a global stage, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism have led to numerous injustices, but none is more catastrophic than the ‘ungrievability’ of Palestinian life. Judith Butler explores the concept of “whose lives are grievable”, arguing that Western ethical and moral responsibility is not inclusive. Those excluded from this frame of responsibility are dehumanized and positioned outside internationally operating conventions and protocols in times of war. The suffering, torture and eventual death of those considered outside the spectrum of human rights are unaccounted for; Western moral responsibility does not extend to them. Butler (2016, p. 60) argues that “an ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all”. The ungrievablity of Palestinian lives has never been more pronounced than in the current times where these lives have been reduced to not only numbers, but, in fact, endlessly disputed numbers.

Understanding the historical and systemic roots of anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism as well as Islamophobia is vital for effectively combating these prejudices. Only by recognising that not only political and colonial discourse drive these biases, but also (and more fundamentally) racism plays a crucial part in constituting this discrimination can we illuminate their present-day manifestations. The issue at hand is not just a matter of religious intolerance, but a deeper issue of racial injustice. It is imperative for the global community to confront and denounce the dehumanisation of Palestinians and the ungrievablity of their lives, advocating fervently for Palestinian rights as a moral imperative. Only through such acknowledgment and action can we strive for a more just and equitable world.


  • Bayoumi, M., Chalabi, M. and Chalabi, M.B. with illustrations by M. (2024) “Decades of spying and repression: the anti-Palestinian origins of American Islamophobia”, The Guardian, 23 May. Available at: (Accessed: 17 June 2024).
  • BBC News (2024) “Labour must rebuild trust with Muslim voters, says senior MP”, BBC News, 4 May. Available at: (Accessed: 17 June 2024).
  • Butler, J. (2016) Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso (Radical thinkers).
  • Meer, N. and Modood, T. (2019) “Islamophobia as the Racialisation of Muslims”, in The Routledge International Handbook of Islamophobia. Routledge.
  • Said, E.W. (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin (Penguin classics).
  • Shaheen, J.G. (2008) Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11. Northampton, Mass: Olive Branch Press.
  • Shaheen, J.G. (2009) Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Revised and updated edition. Northampton, Mass: Olive Branch Press.
  • Lentin, A. (2018) “Why racism is so hard to define and even harder to understand”, The Conversation. Available at: (Accessed: 2 July 2024).
  • Singh, N.P. (2015) “A Note on Race and the Left”, Social Text Journal. Available at: (Accessed: 2 July 2024).