​Remnants of Nietzschean aristocracy

wp-1477142134887.jpgWhen Ruhollah Khomeini, while visiting Iraq met with Muhsin Al-Hakim, he urged him to take action against the Baath regime who has just arrived to power in 1968. Al-Hakim is said to have replied: “If we took drastic measures people would not follow us. The people lie and follow their whims, they are in pursuit of their world desires”.

Here you have it, the ultimate difference between the old order and the new, between the aristocratic wisdom of Al Hakim and the genius intellect of Khomeini: using the new institutional and organisational technology to turn “people” into an “active”, useful political force. Ultimately, this requires the reinvention of what is meant by “the people”. There were other known changes that separated the old order from the new. First as Marx would argue, there are the capitalist modes of production which leads unbridled capital accumulation and acquisitiveness, and what comes with it in terms of social change. There is also following from the first, the formation of the modern state with its rule of law, bureaucracies, policing system and disciplining institutions that Weber, Foucault and others have explained in great details. But I think one  overlooked visionary of “modernity” is Nietzsche, who saw the change located more specifically in our vision of “the human condition” or the relation between social classes. I think Nietzsche is interesting insofar as he could foresee the left and right side of the political spectrum, belonged to the same tradition triggered by the age of enlightenment but also as a remnant of a Christian morality turned into a form of populism.

wp-1477142125446.jpgNietzsche’s warning is that this discourse of human rights, socialism, nationalism, equality, all this stuff that reinvented our notion of “the people” had very dangerous implications. The theorist of “the will to power” was ironically the earliest to be wary of modernity’s potential to abuse power and lead states to useless wars. His critique of democracy was very much along the line of Plato’s and based an elitist view of the different capabilities of humans to develop political skills.

In this sense, Nietzsche was the last anti-mass-politics anti-populist thinker, the last of the old order (which stretched back to the Greeks and before). Al-Hakim’s quote mentioned above is revealing in the way that he thought through a pre-modern understanding of the human condition. That is not too surprising given that he belonged to an uninterrupted lineage of a class of people, Shi’i clerics, who went back almost a millennium. In this old order, humans were comfortable with the idea that equality doesn’t mean anything and does not exist in reality. If anything, equality is a dangerous reality. As al-Hassan (the son of Ali bin Abi Taleb) is reported to have said in a cryptic way: “if all men were equal the world would have been destroyed”. Equality is not to be confused with Justice, which is the foundation of conceptions of the-living-together in the older order. Ironically, today justice is conceived as a stripped down version of the old notion, as “fairness”, to echo Rawls.

Equality here is problematic because it involves an idea that we want to impose to an otherwise different reality. In reality, people have different capabilities, do different things and develop different skills. They also have different types of wealth, control different types of resources, all this relating to family, geography, history etc. Equality involves building a system that forces everyone to potentially receive the same kind of treatment. This involves erecting a while series institutions and technologies with unbridled power which although keeps the ideal of equality alive, in reality produce oligarchical systems in which influence and control of people and resources are in the hands of the few. Another difference in reality is that in the modern era the human condition is understood through a system of rights rather than through a system of duties and development of skills or ethics. The older order that was based mostly on this paradigm was rejected because of the power abuses that ensued from it. But the new system is presenting unprecedented power abuses that are for the time being unaddressed.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Social theory, State

Poland, Lebanon, and the Catholic Church

churchInteresting parallels between Poland and Lebanon (this probably applies to Ireland as well). Two places where a strange marriage between Catholicism and nationalist projects took place. In both cases, a perceived “external threat” led groups to find in the Catholic church a way to not just defend their interests but also to imagine their national specificity (although arguably the threat in the Polish case was much more real judging from the successive invasion of the current territory we call Poland up until the world wars). But what was the kingdom of Poland before these invasions (with its highly diverse population) could only become the “nation” of Poland through a complex (probably unfinished) homogenizing process in which the Catholic church would play a central role. There is no other way to understand this bastion of Catholicism that is Poland in a sea of Protestant regions on one side and Orthodox on the other. Catholicism which was the last remnant of an older pre-nationalist world order became here the main locus for the development of nationalist specificity. the paradox here is that the once “universalist” brand Catholicism could strive in isolated territory because of the development of a peculiar nationalist specificity. For examples, the Lebanese specificity developed by Maronites involved a complex bridge between Europe and the East, Arab but not really, between Latin and Syriac etc). Here the “essence” of being Lebanese is always escaping but is easily substantiated by Catholicism.

Meanwhile the church’s interest involved mainly the purchasing of land (which still happens in Poland and I think in Lebanon) as they made up for the loss of territory encountered in “the wars of religion” in the rest of Europe and all the privileged they enjoyed before the protestant reformation movements. The church struggled to adapt to the rising sovereignty of nation states, by espousing the latter’s strategies of control but without ever being able to institutionally monopolizing this process leaving local nationalist project the task to preserve their interests. In echo to this, one should not find strange that Islamic institutions sponsored by either Saudi Arabia or Iran have followed a similar strategy of land purchase all around the world as they adapt and seize opportunities offered by nation state institutional apparatuses and the modern legal framework of private property.

Ironically, the Polish nationalist project was a main instigator of the persecution, displacement, and emigration of whole Jewish communities to the newly created state of Israel. Initially most members of these communities identified to their original locality (Polish from this or that city) just as much as Arab Christians were entrenched in theirs. Zionism was born out of a reaction to other European forms of nationalism with its invention of one Jewish people. It is ironic because although the Catholic church, through the Poles (or those now labeled as Poles), helped create the territorial problem of the Zionist project, both Poles and Lebanese Christians where relying on the same institutional and ideological help, that is the Catholic church, to create their respective sovereignties.

Posted in Catholic Church, Europe, Lebanon Groups, Nationalism, Poland, Zionism

ISIS and the specter of Zionism


I’m not saying that Zionism and ISIS are identical or anything as simplistic. But in trying to find generalizing labels for ISIS, such as being a fascist organization, or a totalitarian state and so on, and in the effort to draw parallels between different political experiences one can more subtly propose that ISIS and Zionism have some features in common.

ISIS just like Zionism (at least if we take seriously their media production, in itself a matter of debate) does imagine that a land is promised to them, or should belong to “the Muslims” at large, irrespective of creed, culture, local tradition, etc. ISIS does project the notion that the Muslim homeland involves a rejection of what is not Muslim, or at least a seclusion from what is perceived to be a political other. From the first issues of their newspaper Dabiq, ISIS highly encouraged people to emigrate to this land, to perform “hijra”, based on the idea that the prophet Muhammad also moved from Mecca to Medina to found his community of believers.

Some may retort that Zionism was a secular ideology, yet the seriousness with which the Jewish movement treats passages of the Old Testament as part of the history of a political community is quite similar to what ISIS does with stories of the prophet and his companions, especially when it comes to relating these stories to a material experience involving the seizure of territory and management of population. In fact, the differences (how the religious uses secular textual technologies) as well as the similarities (what they actually do with it) can shed light on the peculiarity of state or other organizational formations in the Middle East.

The production of a climate of fear is essential to ISIS’s political strategy which involves pushing some people out of the territory they control (and thus turning them into refugees) and inviting others, who share their ideological views, to come and live with fellow like minded Muslims. Yet this was exactly what early Zionists practiced in different ways in the beginning of the twentieth century, with the most spectacular image being the Haganah and then the more virulently powerful Irgun, but also the less spectacular political tactics of various groups practicing land appropriations that follows similar rationales. These groups were definitely different from what ISIS is today, just as the context in which they operate, but the political logic is mostly the same.

Because these movements are essentially foreign and irremediably unpopular, their objective is to drive out an eternally discontented population, and to invite another that travels for mostly ideological reasons. In the failure to do so, these movements cannot survive on the long term, which is another reason why a politics of violence is inherent to their modus operandi. And ultimately, just like Zionists Jews imagined belonging to one secular rationalized community despite different geographies and histories, Muslims from all over the world travel to Syria and Iraq in order to belong to a similarly imagined community.

Posted in History, Ideology, ISIS, Israeli practices, Nationalism, Political Islam, Sectarianism, Syria, Zionism

Turkey & the bigger game of repositioning

I have been scratching my head for the past week over the reason behind Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet. I understand why it would make sense theoretically, but it just didn’t make sense why they would have the balls to do it. So here is my understanding of it. Basically, the Turks played it really clever. The Turks want to tell the Europeans that the ISIS question is more or less in their hand, that they want to deal with it without having to compromise their position on the Kurdish question, and they want to use this as a bargaining card (among other things) to enter the EU. They know that if they shoot a Russian plane down, it can only get them closer to Europe through NATO that faces its own security dilemma.

But it is also possible that NATO is closer to Russia than they think? In which case, it may only justify why Turkey would react in such a spectacular way, hoping to produce a reaction from NATO. Turkey after all wouldn’t want to fall under what could become a Russian security zone.

Yet one last scenario, a bit more far fetched I agree, would be that it is NATO that gave the green light to the Turks to bring the plane down. In which case we may be witnessing a bit of a competition over how to conduct the war against ISIS or the rest of the non-state actors.

In all these cases the point is that Turkey realizes that by having such an ambiguous policy towards ISIS it also has the possiblity to turn it into a bargaining card at the international level.

Posted in Military Strategy, Terrorism, Turkey, Uncategorized

France and the Question of Culture

frenchcultureThe media has been swamped by a defense of French culture and values as being superior and enduring than the culture of those who were seemingly targeting it. I just want to propose some nuances that would advise to tone down this rhetoric.

Given that people like to call the Paris attack, a French 9/11, let’s draw some parallels here. When planes crashed in the world trade center towers on 9/11 of 2001 (and provided it wasn’t “an inside job” as some of my friends insist), it was not just America’s symbol of power that was targeted but American symbol of domination over the world. American imperialism is first and foremost economic, and its presence in the Gulf, its security for oil agreement is a testimony to that. What happened in Iraq is another case in point.

France’s “imperialism” has been cultural. Whether in its former colonies, yet most importantly in this case, at home. No other country has philosophized, legitimized and sacralized its way of living like France, so much so that even in the “White” Western world, people stereotype the French on this question. The point is that when attackers hit at the heart of “the Parisian life” they are not just reacting to France’s symbol of power, what French take pride of, but they are reacting to decades of domination and oppression in the name of this culture, as seen in the treatment of Muslims, their religion, way of life, and so on. So what matters is not culture itself (well that does not exist really) but what culture actually does, or how it is used. As an illustration, the Scots are proud of their kilt but they don’t force everyone to wear them, or at least they don’t mock people who don’t think kilts are their cup of tea.

Yet look at French TV, media and intellectual production at large. Over the years, Islamophobia has developed into a complex satirical art in itself (of which Charlie Hebdo is just an ugly frontman) and has been backed by concrete state discriminatory policies such as in the case of the veil all in the name of so-called “republican values”. Terrorism is targeting these symbols of oppression and turning it into a spectacle for global media consumption.

As a side note, whether attackers overthink the reality of these structures of dominance or act impulsively to perceived grievance is besides the point. From looking at the publications of “Islamic” militants they don’t show a higher degree of intellectual depth and reflection of social reality. Contrary to what ISIS and violent “Jihadi” observer theorize about, they are just angry and resentful. And this type of militancy gives them the possibility to channel this anger.

Posted in France, Hegemony, ISIS, Terrorism

State formation and the US

Check this article. While it makes a great point about the fact that state building is a bloody business, and while it goes through numerous (although quite stereotypical) historical instances that makes this point clear (England and Empire, France and the revolution, Germany and the holocaust, etc) it conveniently omits the US case. In fact the only mention of an American bloody episode is that of the war of secession where “violence” was the enslavement of populations. Throughout this article, somehow, there is the implicit assumption that there is an enlightened state project. There is no mentioning of the various wars the US, as a state, has engaged in, the dropping of nuclear in Hiroshima, and countless other violent instances in history. Germany and holocaust? That’s state formation (they weren’t there yet, those Germans). US and Hiroshima? That’s skirmishes or war strategy.

Posted in United States, War

Lebanon in Syria

The fates of the modern states of Lebanon and Syria are inextricably linked. It is important to read their history not just as was done conventionally that is Syria never fully recognizing Lebanon as an independent state but also the reverse, as Lebanon, or particular segments of the Lebanese political establishment involving and using Syria for its own survival as a small state. During the first half of the twentieth century and until the 1970s, Muslims and pan-Arabists of all creed had difficulty recognizing that Lebanon should be a separate state as such. The civil war forced the Christians to realize that they needed help from the Syrians first when the Phalangists risked defeat against pro Palestinian forces around the second half of the 1970s, second when a section of the Christian establishment had allied with the Syrian help after 1982 Israeli invasion, and third after the Taif agreement of 1982. Even Michel Aoun the staunchest opponent to Taif and the Syrian regime realized that such categorical attitude was detrimental to Lebanon’s strategic advantage.

In the beginning of the 1990s, and after bitter clashes with the Syrian regime, it was Hizbullah’s turn to realize that they could not survive and strive as a resistance force without Syrian geographical strategic positioning, as well as security and logistical support. This brought them closer to other political groups in the country during the 1990s. Then events unfolding after 2005 when the former prime minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated should be understood as a struggle to fill the security vaccum left by the withdrawal of the Syrian army and more importantly the removal of the Lebanese-Syrian security nexus that was built during the post-war period. Hizbullah’s recent intervention in Syria and in Qalamoun in particular should be read in this light, as an effort to create a protective boundary around the small state of Lebanon that the Syrian regime once provided.

Likewise Sunni politics in the post-war period should be read in this way. Hariri needed pax-Syriana to implement his reconstruction program and the various economic (and oh so social) changes that ensued. It is only when he was constantly paralyzed by his political counterpart the President Emile Lahoud, that he urged the Syrians to intervene on his behalf. The Syrians refused given that Lahoud represented the security complex which helped build the pax-Syriana. And yet, it is not even clear if Hariri was fully convinced that Lebanon did not need the Syrian regime. The Hariri-Hizbullah negotiations that took place before he was killed attest to this ambivalence. After 2005, Sunni politics was slowly driven to increased intervention in Syria in trying to work for regime change. This process involved many groups from “moderate” to radical all the way to al-Qaeda and ISIS type. The Arsal episode is a perfect example of the blurred political boundaries between Lebanon and Syria.

The whole point here is to recognize that overall, various Lebanese actors strived to change things to their advantage in Syria just as it was done by Syria in Lebanon. Some day the history of this “intervention” should be written through that lens.

Posted in Historiography, Hizbullah, International Relations, Lebanon Groups, Lebanon Security, Syria