​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 required 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 to unbridled capital accumulation and acquisitiveness, and what comes with it in terms of social change and large-scale economic extractive systems. 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 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. Nietzsche is prophetic 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 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.

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.

ISIS and the specter of Zionism

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Spectacles of Jadeed TV

safe_image.phpThe date of this event is not relevant anymore as it is just a template for similar recurring events in the land of the Lebanon. Crumbling under the weight of her make up the talkshow host of “للنشر” (for publication) bullied for about 20min a Syrian woman nursing a baby. The woman turned out to be a beggar who we are told fakes being handicapped in order to get money on the streets of Beirut. The contrast between these two women was striking. The beggar was dressed in rags holding her child whose skin was blackened by Beirut dusty and filthy streets while the TV host shined with her jewelry, her fancy clothes. The contrast went hand in hand with the domineering and judgmental attitude the TV hostess has as the discussion quickly turned into a general critique of the beggar’s way of life. At some point her child started crying and she said that she needed to breast feed him to which the hostess rushed to kick her out of the stage. This episode of the show was immediately followed by a series of ads about glittering jewelry!

After this consumerist interlude, the hostess welcomed with a radiant smile her next guest Miriyam Klink who related in great detail her intrepid misadventures with priests who allegedly “spanked her ass”. The conversation went more smoothly here. The two women looked alike with their plastic faces. Klink is a Lebanese pop singer who parades various parts of her body as she chants her tasteless songs. This is usually enough to get full media attention as Klink is invited for occasional moaning on all Lebanese TV channel talkshows. Unlike the first part of the show, pseudo-journalist here is talking to her alter ego, her partner in the industry of media spectacle. The judgmental tone is replaced by an “échange de politesses” hiding a nonverbal imploration, a “please tell me how did I succeed in the business of female empowerment the Lebanese (plastic voyeuristic) way”. And Klink seem right out of her latest surgery as her face showed less and less expressiveness that could translate any possible emotions left by the priest’s misdeeds.

This in a nutshell is Lebanese TV, ongoing social class affirmation – in this case one aspect of it which is women “emancipation” – paraded as spectacle in order to extract a profit.

A wisdom interlude with Imam Ali: The Heart

وقال عليه السلام: أعجب ما في هذا الانسان قلبُه وله مَوادّ من الحكمة وأضداد من خلافها: فإن سخ له الرجاء أذلّه الطمع وإن هاج به الطمع قتله الأسف. إن عرض له الغضب اشتدّ به الغيظ وإن أسعد بالرضى نسي التحفّظ. وإن ناله الزع شغله الحذر وإن اتّسع له الأمن استلبته الغرّة. وإن أفاد مالا أطغاه الغنى وإن أصابته فاقة مسّه الجزع. وإن نَهِكه الجوع قعد به الضعف وإن أفرط به الشَّبَع كظته البطنة, فكل تقصير به مضرّ وكلّ إفراط به فسد.

 

And Ali (peace be upon him) said: The most wondrous part of the human being is the heart. It has elements of wisdom, and others that are quite opposite. If the heart is lifted by hope, ambition debases it; if ambition boils over, greed destroys it; and if disappointment takes hold, regret kills it. If aggravated, its rage runs rampant; and if made happy, it forgets to be circumspect. If fear takes hold, caution preoccupies it; and if safety is secured, heedlessness strips it away. If it gains property, wealth makes it a tyrant; and if poverty touches it, it panics. If hunger emaciated it weakness ensconced it; and if satiety is excessive, the surfeit oppresses it. Every deficiency harms it, and every excess injures it.

Israel and Hizbullah: A quick round up

This is a summary of the latest events between Israel and Hizbullah. It starts when Hizbullah’s SG Hassan Nasrallah engaged in a long description of Hizbullah’s readiness to fight Israel even if involved in the Syrian quagmire, on Mayadeen TV. Obviously, I would be simplifying if I started the story then, as it is involved in a general buildup of coalitions in the regional arena. Israel’s actions are partly a result of freaking out when Nasrallah boasts about Hizbullah’s capabilities and partly to test if the new regional situation can work on its favor.

There seem to be no doubt that this preemptive strike comes as a direct reaction to this interview. It is also possible that this interview was pushed for in order to send clear messages to Israel based on intelligence reports that Hizbullah must have been getting around the Israeli military brewing something. But then military initiatives bring to light new possible alliances. Israel finds in Jabhat al-Nusra (it’s ugly like ISIS but with a different costume) a reliable ally or at least someone who wouldn’t stand in its way.

Hizbullah’s retaliation is then inevitable, if anything in order to avoid war: thus, today’s attack on what Hizbullah’s media characterized as being Israel’s “Golani” troops. This also mean that enemies have tested each other’s capabilities. The success of Hizbullah’s operation will determine the likelihood of escalation. As of now it looks quite successful. Then, the balance of power has been restored after having been tested, and given the regional situation, it seems doubtful that there will be more escalation in the very short term. But let’s see what the spring or the summer brings.

France and antisemitism: It’s the politics stupid!

The recent events in France betray the primacy of the political (and not religious) dimension in the way different communities, groups, and states have handled (and have been handled in) this affair.

One facet is Israel’s urge to profit from the situation and attract a few more Jews to the promised homeland to which France has answered through Holland’s “Holocaust day speech” that urges Jews to reconsider and reflect on the fact that they are, after all, French.

Now one wonder in this case how truly wonderful are the various ironies of the politics in the age of Nation-State: Jews who have been in France for centuries have no problem going to Israel and adopt a completely different “nationality” yet deterritorialized Muslims who came there for less than a century because of economic imperatives have no place to go.

And another interesting highlight of the speech is a change of emphasis over what antisemitism really means. Although I profoundly disagree with the way the word is used in 99% of cases in contemporary social and political affairs since the end of WWII, Holland did seem to acknowledge that representations of Jews do change over time and come to reflect the concerns of ones time, namely here the politics of Israel and the general politics unfolding in the Middle East. Unfortunately, he acknowledged it through the worst wording ever: “hatred of Israel” (as if the reverse means anything in the first place) and, “imports the conflicts of the Middle East” (conflicts that in large part is fueled by your politically moribund foreign policies Mr Holland). Nobody is importing, it is you (and your predecessors) who is exporting!

And come to think about it, “antisemitism” does not mean much today (except for a very few “white” nostalgics) as it refers to a particular political discourse that is part of a specific period of time that sees the consolidation of national projects in nineteenth century and beginning twentieth century Europe. Today hatred against Jews is mostly similar “politically” to any other form of group hatred, racism or forms of xenophobia that occurs in any heterogenous society.

In any case, to go back to Holland’s speech, I don’t know what others think, but this is a huge improvement: moving from an atemporal abstract concept of antisemitism to one that may have some political historically situated logic (again not that “antisemitic” to describe these acts is in any way a useful term), in official western state discourse. It took the French to start it, who would have known!

The food saga continued

Finally the Lebanese are discovering the extent of the mess of their food industry. Rats have found their home where all the wheat in Lebanon is stored. There will be much more to discover as I have explained here.

Food in Lebanon

A recent scandal has been added to several previous scandals about food quality in Lebanon. But as in the previous cases, the focus was on meat products that are imported and stored in the worst conditions. Few people seem to understand the true extent of the catastrophe that runs deep into a general economic and cultural rationale as old as the state’s short existence.

During the twentieth century, these territories that became lumped into something called Lebanon moved from surviving on their own local economies to becoming net importers of almost all basic food products. For example, this frenetic consumption of meat was a rare privilege as cows did not really exist (there is no place for cows to graze in hilly, mountainous landscapes). Most people rarely ate meat and when they did, it most invariably involved lamb. Today, most of the meat consumed originates from Australia and South America and after a journey of who knows what kind, are parked in the most horrible conditions once they reach Lebanese ports. The periodic smell coming from Dora in Beirut is a constant reminder of their arrival.

But this obsession with meat has left the question of other food products unanswered. The manoucheh Lebanese pride themselves on is made of nothing homegrown. The flour used comes from Canada or Turkey, the sesame seeds are sold on international markets but probably originate from the US, the thyme from Jordan and Syria, the oil has for a long time been sunflower oil (not olive oil like some romantics may think) and is sold on international markets from multiple origins (Latin America, India, etc). It is very clear that none of these products originate from that little chunk of land known as Lebanon.

But that’s just one example. Take another: Hommos! The chickpeas come from Mexico for the most part, the smaller sized ones from Turkey. The Tahini is manufactured in Lebanon (sometimes in low quality ways) yet as mentioned earlier, the seeds come from outside. Only the lemon comes from Lebanon (and judging from the level of pesticide used on any agricultural product in Lebanon, you’d rather have lemons imported as well!) Now what about the lentils for the Mujadara? They are imported from the US.

Two points here: Some people might object that importing products is not something inherently bad for an economy, a society, or a culture. After all, a large proportion of what is consumed in the UK for example originates from imported merchandise. This is true from a purely economic perspective but not so if we look at certain social, cultural, or simply ethical implications.

First, the Lebanese economy is made up of a few cartels controlling most of what comes in and out and very little of that is produced locally. Some economists think that this is a good thing given the small size of the market and the capacity of few players on the arena to produce “economies of scale”, an economic concept to legitimize huge profits in order to produce, in principle, cheaper products. But that’s possible when you are actually producing something, not when you are just acting as a medium in a transaction. Also, this is possible when you have a particular institutional structure that protects consumer interests (usually involving a state, something Lebanon does not really have).

As shown in the recent scandals around meat, there is no quality oversight over what gets to be imported. And this is without mentioning the disgusting way in which animals are treated, how they are shipped to Lebanon and then preserved here. Now when you import something you really need to make sure when it was produced, if it has traveled well preserved, when does it expire, etc. Have you ever noticed that eating bread in Lebanon always tastes a bit dry? That’s not just because the flour that we import is of the worst quality traded on global markets (I heard once that we get the powder that remains in flour factories), but also because we have no idea when it was produced and how it was stored.

All the commodities I just mentioned are staple foods that are the most basic ingredients for surviving: Grains and pulses. But I mentioned these also because they are most of the products that regions such as Lebanon produced locally until recently and have mostly stopped producing. Economically what happened was that food production passed from the hands of a few feudal lords controlling peasant families planting for them to a handful of oligarchs controlling the trade of primary commodities. Such oligarchs import the lowest quality of produce because there just is no incentive or pressure for them to do otherwise. There are no state controls over quality, and no economic competition for them to bring different qualities of products.

In comparison, although the UK is a country that imports a large chunk of its food produce, its agricultural sector does supply for the main part staple foods that it traditionally produced for centuries: oats, wheat, barley, and so on. That means that the flour that is used in many types of food is homegrown, and even the cheapest one is still fresher, and a better quality than any type of bread related product you will ever eat in Lebanon! And everyone knows how much bread (or simply dough) is important for the Lebanese belly. This is beside the fact that Britain still produces the majority of its milk, cheese and meat products for consumption.

There is also an important cultural dimension to this catastrophe. The Lebanese have experienced a drastic shift in their relation to nature and land, and meanwhile to the most basic resource for their existence, food, while being completely oblivious of this process. Lebanese pride themselves on eating in Italian restaurants that serve refrigerated food all imported from the lowest quality produce of Italy, unconscious of the fact that they are living in an undignified way. What is more important than food for the quality of life in creating an ethical community? But Lebanese have been sitting on this disaster for decades still thinking that they have become more affluent because they can buy all these things that come from a different corner of the earth.

Sunni politics in Lebanon

There are three main (intersecting) orientations “mainstream” Sunni politics perceives (or deal with) more radical militant movements such the brief hollywoodean movement of Sheikh Asir, Jubhat al Nusra or Da’esh (ISIS).

1- To secretly feel that they are scoring points against their more traditional political enemy that is Hizbullah

2- To despise them but have no long-term political breath to do much about it and to prefer adopt piecemeal approaches, co-opting these groups for popularity/electoral reasons

3- To practice ostrich politics or avoid looking at the elephant in the room.

In either case, this is untenable especially with more powerful groups such as Da’esh that are highly strategic in their movements and that, by looks of it, definitely plan to eat little by little the border “Sunni” region of north Lebanon.

This will require a political consensus that neither the weak army institution of the army nor the various political force could muster during the short but turbulent history of  the tiny republic of Lebanon.

So if I want to be completely pessimistic, I see that the consociational democracy formula, which is slightly reworked arrangement of the “strength of Lebanon is in its weakness” motto (Pierre Gemayel’s infamous statement), may pave the way for larger Sunni politics. It just happens that it comes (as is often the case) in a very violent and brutal way).

The War with Images

My article at Opendemocracy on the use of images in war situations.

ISIS and the West

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ISIS is the expression of different social and political phenomena that must be understood separately. One of them is undoubtedly the significant amount of “Western” fighters of which some elements are also at the forefront of their media campaign. By Western I mean people who have lived and were educated in Western countries (mostly Western Europe and the US) either as Muslim minorities or as recent converts (or who knows maybe just random Westerners with searching for a cause).

Most media article and think-tank papers (I haven’t come across any serious academic work on ISIS) have by now narrated the story of their success in Iraq countless time. Their alliance with Sunni tribesmen and former Baath regime establishment is what tipped the balance in their favor. This explains one particular victory but it does not really tell us more on the movement as a whole and on their different political visions and strategies. The easy answer here is that there isn’t one but many visions or strategies. Yet looking at the various media campaigns led by ISIS and the reaction to them coming from Western media outlets is revealing of the extent to which the struggle is framed along “Western” concerns and imaginaries (and subsequently somewhat alien to local Middle Eastern concerns).

I think that a lot of what ISIS represents is a war that a disgruntled minority from the West is waging against their respective host countries. The problem is that the battlefield is not theirs, it is a fantasized one that the West has imagined but could not provide for them. Moreover, these groups cannot wage this war within these liberal countries as they are tightly policed and where these types of political questions cannot be asked. Here is the dangerous dimension of ISIS: it is a movement that fantasizes about a territory (Arab world, Islamic land etc) it does not come from, using ideological toolkit that the West has provided through decades of Orientalist studies. The most scary aspect of ISIS is that it represents everything the West has stigmatized about Islam for decades, nurtured (whether consciously or not) in the suburban areas of European cities among Muslim minorities or even people in search for identities, and internalized by the Muslims themselves.

This also is proof that ISIS knows Western societies very well. It feeds it with what it fears the most: security breaches and pitiless slaughtering of human lives (something that has been already imagined in countless possible ways for decades in Hollywood movies). These members of ISIS grew up feeding on this culture of constrained violence (constrained in films and other cultural productions). Now they have a vast terrain to experiment on.

One drawback of this is that ISIS is one of the many instance that blurs the boundaries between what is Western and “Other” or even “Peripheral” in many ways. It emanates from a Center and tries to imagine a a type of living that was thought of in the center but as the latter thought of the periphery as it was exposed to a myriad of cultural material.

العقل والحياء والدين

وفي الحديث
أن جبريل عليه السلام أتى آدم عليه السلام فقال له
إني أتيتك بثلاثٍ فاختر واحدةً، قال: وما هي يا جبريل? قال: العقل والحياء والدين
فقال: قد اخترت العقل
فخرج جبريل إلى الحياء والدين فقال
ارجعوا فقد اختار العقل عليكما
فقالا: أمرنا أن نكون مع العقل حيث كان
من كتاب السؤدد – ابن قتيبة

The Lessons of History: Thoughts on the events in Gaza (part I)

While Israel is pounding Gaza and killing in the hundreds, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and Hamas’ fight are taking place all around the globe. Of course this doesn’t reflect dominant public opinion in the West that still is apologetic of Israel’s actions. Not one official state declaration has condemned the Israeli attacks. If anything, the few who bothered to issue a statement reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself as it was perceived to live under a constant threat of rocket shower. Check here if you want to have goose bumps.

But there is one place where no demonstrations are in sight: the Arab world. Also, not one condemnation was issued by any Arab government, not one declaration. It is taken for granted that no Western government has condoned Israeli attacks either. But how can we explain this apathy sweeping the Arab region? Surely, they have their own problems all linked to one or other form of occupation. But this conflict used to be called the Israeli-Arab conflict for crying out loud!

A couple of centuries ago, the situation in the region looked very similar: the crusaders were well entrenched on the coast of the “fertile crescent”, and the rest of the Muslim world was completely paralyzed, accepting, if not complicit, in the status quo of occupation until Nur ad-din and his successor Saladin challenged the paradigm. This is at least what the history books say. Some of this dominant cultural apathy or nonchalance, the surrender and normalization, must have existed so that these two individuals and the movements they represented have gone down in the books as changing the face of history.

Modern Arabs have not used their historical consciousness as an agent of ideological change or political action. The basic nationalistic experiments that were fashioned by colonial encounters left Arabs struggling over questions of terminology and then categorizing history in one way or another. Devising points of reference and of origin. The crusades episode was barely glossed over (until now the only book that presents an interesting take on that episode is Amin Maalouf’s. That tells you about the state of the literature).

On one hand, Arab leftist movements were too busy looking towards a brighter socially more “evolved” future and being ashamed of their Islamic heritage, helplessly wanting to teach social and political “progress” of the West. On the other hand, nationalist movements were quarreling amongst each other finding all kinds of identitarian anchors to justify their causes (the Omayyad period was a favorite as it looked the most “secular”, but also anything pre-Islamic).

No one thought of approaching history as giving lessons for political practice. More recently but still a couple of centuries ago, the “Renaissance” Italian writer Machiavelli looked at the history of the Roman Empire in this particular vein as he hoped to provide advice to unite the various Princedoms feuding over Italy. Interestingly, Machiavelli was categorized as ushering a new era of thinking politics outside the scope of religion, a state that had lasted since the advent of Catholic Christianity in Europe.

In modern times, we have fallen in to the trap of categorizing Machiavelli a secular thinker as opposed to one that was just opposed to dominant categories of analysis that happened to be held at the time by the Catholic Church with its particular understanding of history. The point of thinkers such as Machiavelli was to say that the Catholic Church could not provide the needed leverage to create political unity. Ideologically speaking, there was a need to produce new categories of thinking. Machiavelli called for a new political science, one that does away with traditional categories of analysis, not because they were bad or “backward”, but because the institutions backing them did not have anymore the means to create new political realities.

All this is to say that Arabs have been obsessed with categorizing things as either secular or religious as intellectuals of all creeds desperately clung on to the categories of colonial heritage. How could they have done otherwise? The colonizer had also captured their texts and by this token had controlled the creation of knowledge emanating from these writings! The primary victim of this reversed Orientalism espoused by Arabs was historical consciousness. The past became a cumbersome process that was only used to create identities, differences and reactionary discourse and not be a repository for good action.

The rise of Political Islam was a direct reaction to this awkward and clumsy attitude towards history. Suddenly the past was all important. But what kind of past? For example, during the Lebanese “civil war”, the crusader episode was visited in history by various Muslim groups but only to identify them to the contemporary Lebanese Christians who they were fighting between 1975 and 1990. Even though one could retrieve lessons in political practice from these uses of the past they were also creating group differentiation (here Christian VS Muslims).

And every time history was revised it was to create identitarian differences. Such as fomenting trouble between Sunni and Shia denominated groups. Books and articles, talk-shows and documentaries, all proliferate on relentless questions and searches of authenticity, developing either an alleged Sunni or Shia take on the Islamic tradition. No wonder we’ve been busied away from other conflicts.

As I looked for what was written on Nur ad-din, most of what I found was how much he was a great Sunni leader who opposed Shia Fatimid Egypt of the time. In effect, this is not incorrect. But that’s not what the prevailing historians of the time want us to remember, at least in the aftermath of the defeat against the crusaders. The point here is not that the “right” conflict is looking for the right identity to conflict with. The point is to look at the location of forms of occupation, oppression, unjust violence, etc. and understand how to remedy that through the legacy of others who did before us. How can one create the necessary form of consciousness through learning from the past in order to produce community change?

With technological revolutions and every single group or individual having a media channel of his own this ideological rallying is an immense challenge. It is ironic that Arabs are said to be closer to democracy or accountability given that they don’t even pressure their government to do something about Palestine. Is this a sign of apathy, a change of heart, or just a failure to understand and return the debt to the past?

Security Guards and Valet Parking

In Lebanon, I’d say half of the population parks the cars of the other half. And when they are not parking cars, valet youngsters roam around the streets with scooter bikes reserving spots for potential customers.

You also have another sizable portion, serving as security guards for residential areas, political figures, and other “big projects”. Say, Saifi village, or very recently now the Sanayeh gardens. Imagine! Who would have thought that a garden needs a security guard? But in Lebanon all gardens (and there are maybe 3 in total with a maximum of 5 trees in them) have security guards.

But someone might ask what is the relationship between security guards and valet parking. I have to say it took me a while to find it but here it is.

Well, to start with, it makes streets a very unfriendly and unpleasant place to be. Valet parking constantly bully you as you attempt to park in a spot they decided to reserve to themselves. And security guards complain for anything they could invent on the spot in order to demonstrate that walking from here, or parking your car there, is a security hasard,  just to demonstrate that they have some form of power in the most Kafkaesque of fashions.

But most importantly, these are jobs that don’t produce anything socially useful, they don’t promote useful communitarian values. They cultivate relations of subservience of one class to another and reinforce whatever social structure are in place to define different communities (in the case of Lebanon read as the confession).

I’m not a “unionist” preacher, whatever that means, but Lebanese are divided socially and this is reinforced by the way streets are populated, the way streets are uninviting to any human individual who is circulating just to breath air or look around.

People are astonished that confessionalism is so deeply entrenched in Lebanon but confessionalism is in every social act you undertake from the moment you are born until the day you die (and afterwards). And Liberalism as an economic project goes hand in hand with this type of social structure because it makes everything security sensitive which constrains people to fall back on their communities.

Marx was not wrong to think that capitalism wrecks any traditional social system and erects new classes continuously. But liberalism which is the ideological backbone of capitalism is obsessed with security, with domestification, gentrification. It does not care about classes in a material sense but preserves a “culture” of social categories.

More on this later.

Zagreb

If you thought Beirut was a complicated place in a complicated (made-up) country, in a chopped-up region, then wait until you travel to one of the Balkan territories where different religions, languages, tribal affiliations are stacked in territories formerly part of different age-old empires. Their entry into “modernity” is paved with tragedies: first joining the communist hemisphere, subsequently creating their own movement such as in the case of Yugoslavia, and finally ending up broken down to a myriad of countries eagerly waiting to enter the EU or NATO (which basically means the same there as the motive for joining is mostly security-related).

Yugoslavia’s Tito was surely one of the strangest instance of late nation building. Did Attaturk, with all the cleansing of dominant cultural Ottoman forms that he engaged in, have an easier task at hand in fabricating the Turkish nation? The answer is not so evident. Turks were as much an invention as the Yugoslavs, and the territory that constitutes modern Turkey is as much a random draw on a map by some bold general in the turn of the century as is Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and so many other parts of the former Ottoman empires.

Why did nation building “succeed” in Turkey when it failed miserably in the Balkans, or at least in former Yugoslavia. Nation-building seems to only work where it is fierce, violent, drastic and uncompromising. the more the cultural changes were drastic and even  I’m sure that many people proposed answers to the question of the failure of Yugoslavia. I mean what’s there to succeed really. But asked through this odd comparison, the question leads us to an interesting problem.

It seems that Tito was “kinder” than Attaturk where the main language, serbo-croat, could be written in several scripts depending on where you lived. In contrast, Attaturk not only imposed Turkish everywhere, a significantly different language from Ottoman but he also changed the script from Arabic to Latin. There is a language committee of some sort that, until now, annually meet and gradually remove from Turkish, words with Arabic origins and replaces them with words that older Turkic tribes may have used. Ironically the Croats have adopted this method to distance themselves from their Serbian compadres.

Another thing that got me thinking is that Yugoslavia was a collection of territories that were at the crossroads of so many different age-old empires: most importantly, the Austria-Hungarian and the Ottoman empire. The worst historical combination is cross empire failure succeeded by cross nation building. At the frontier of traditional empires seem to coalesce a rich mix of communities suffusing religion, languages, sense of history etc. But empires attract the concentration of communities as they are a center of prosperity. How ironic that one type of political system (empire) could bring communities to live side by side, even if for pragmatic reasons, as another (nation-state) tended to create ethnic-cleansing urges or authenticity quests. yet one system (empire) is mostly pre-capitalist where the other (nation-state) is the sine qua non of what economist believe was the take-off of prosperity for mankind.

But here are some random analogies between Zagreb and Beirut. So for example, the Croats were much luckier than the later called Lebanese as Zagreb seemed to be an important city for the Austria-Hungary an empire. The buildings are numerous and magnificent. In contrast, Beirut was a marginalized province of the Ottoman backyard (so much so for all the historians or just ideologues who claim that Beirut is such a historical place). In general, apart from Istanbul, the Ottomans did not really care for building much. They were mostly interested in collecting taxes through local magnates and let them decide on urban planning (sorry for the historical anachronism here but you get what I mean).

In any case, what strikes me the most as soon as I leave Beirut and step into any other country is how poor Lebanon is. And by poor I mean in the many ways you can use this term. Mostly though, in providing the basic necessities of life and in creating a space for people to interact as a community. Zagreb is a magnificent city, with huge sidewalks, parks, markets selling the best agricultural local produce in the middle of downtown. Imagine for one second this happening in our plastic Gulf occupied Beirut downtown, between a parking lot and another, between the Aishti and Prada shop. You do have an agricultural produce market in downtown, Souk El tayeb, but it only works every Saturday and where a cucumber is most likely to sell at 5$ a piece.

Also, just for posterity, if a country is between East and West (what a horrible appellation) it is more likely to be Croatia rather than Lebanon who’s well entrenched in the East if anything. This appellation was used by several Croatians. And when I said that I was from Beirut I got as an answer “Oh how exotic!”. So let’s push the boundaries of East further to the west.

The most memorable moment of my trip was when a Croatian guy drew some parallels between our two “civil” war torn countries. He told me that people who lived in war zones for a long time seem to think that they have a special or unique experience which makes them more special than the rest of humanity. “But as soon as you get out of your country you realize how the world is way ahead of you in every way”, he concluded. On this, I have to say, he is completely right.

A Poetic interlude with René Char

Le Marteau sans maître (1934)

Commune présence

Tu es pressé d’écrire,
Comme si tu étais en retard sur la vie.
S’il en est ainsi fais cortège à tes sources.
Hâte-toi.
Hâte-toi de transmettre
Ta part de merveilleux de rébellion de bienfaisance.
Effectivement tu es en retard sur la vie,
La vie inexprimable,
La seule en fin de compte à laquelle tu acceptes de t’unir,
Celle qui t’est refusée chaque jour par les êtres et par les choses,
Dont tu obtiens péniblement de-ci de-là quelques fragments décharnés
Au bout de combats sans merci.
Hors d’elle, tout n’est qu’agonie soumise, fin grossière.
Si tu rencontres la mort durant ton labeur,
Reçois-là comme la nuque en sueur trouve bon le mouchoir aride,
En t’inclinant.
Si tu veux rire,
Offre ta soumission,
Jamais tes armes.
Tu as été créé pour des moments peu communs.
Modifie-toi, disparais sans regret
Au gré de la rigueur suave.
Quartier suivant quartier la liquidation du monde se poursuit
Sans interruption,
Sans égarement.

Essaime la poussière
Nul ne décèlera votre union.

Raï in Jerusalem

Maronite-Cardinal-Beshara-Rai-Getty-1The new Christian maronite patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros el Rai, has been making some bold moves since the beginning of his mandate. First his visit to Syria in the midst of the conflict degenerating, and now his decision to visit Jerusalem as the Catholic pope has schedule a Middle East tour, all show that Rai wants to re-assert some form of power for Christians in the Middle East. Now I don’t know why everyone on the left side of the political spectrum (whatever that really means nowadays) lashed out at Rai, I think this visit is deemed to be considered as involving novel strategies that inscribes Rai as the most Arab of Christian Maronite authorities since the coming of the French in the region.

Rai kept on repeating, as he defended his controversial trip to Jerusalem, that he was going strictly for religious reasons. But then Rai added “I am going there to say this is our city, I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel.” Now that’s cleverly said as it contributes in a way to challenge the sovereignty of Israel over this chunk of land. Holy land is not to be possessed by nation-states. But that’s the Khomeinist rationale as explicited by his Jerusalem Day commemoration. That’s probably why Hizbullah was not so vociferous about Rai’s visit, opposing it publicly but quickly silencing the subject at the media level.

In the land where “non-state actors” prosper with or without the support of official states, what better way of producing political leverage than to use the various institutional tools at one disposal. Rai seems here to have learned from Hizbullah who uses Iran to further the interest of their community in Lebanon, producing political actions that can spill over outside of Lebanon.

Rai’s power material and symbolic springs from two different directions. His constituency and the various implications of the confessional system in Lebanon, and his institutional affiliation to the Catholic church based in the Vatican. This means that if Rai wants to bolster his position he can act on both these fronts. His recent visit to Jerusalem is clearly an attempt at gaining leverage through the organizational hierarchy of the Catholic Church especially now that the latter elected somewhat of a “third world” oriented pope. And in so doing, Rai can gain more independence as a figure representing a community that is not delimited by nation-states (Maronites in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, etc).

By using the “religious” card, his institutional affiliation to the Church, Rai reminds contemporary societies that communities are still represented by institutions that transcend State boundaries (in this case Israel and Lebanon). Most importantly, they remind us that where State fail to provide solutions for communities, other institutions can be used. Given the type of power the Catholic Church has, this is probably the best political move they can do. And by saying that his motivation are non-political and strictly religious, these are religious motivations that are strictly political.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Rai’s move manifest an action that transcends the State, it is still framed by State-related political calculations, in this case, the power leverage Christian can get in Lebanon.

Illusions of Terrorism and Democracy

XU*5034480The recent bombings in Beirut elevates Lebanon to the ironic status of a democratic country, in the modern Western sense of the term. Sadly, this is no privilege at all, more of a burden really. As I argued earlier, Terrorism as a particular form of carrying out political action is only possible if certain democratic structures are part of society’s general culture. Terrorism targets the feelings of civilians because the latter can, through this particular human disposition, extract concessions from political elites.

After 2005, most assassinations in Lebanon involve a mix of vendetta types of violence that target political actors and this “democratic” form of politics. Vendetta types of violence do not necessarily target the feelings or views of a specific group of people, only political actors. Terrorism though does and is peculiar to the modern age. There is no terrorism without some form of democratic politics as understood through liberal ideals of representations (such as individualism, freedom of choice, mass consumption economy, etc.) and the political setting of the Nation-State. Wherever there were terrorist attacks in the non-Western world, it is noticeable that they always involved a political message either to foreign countries (say attacking touristic sites, nightclubs), or local political regimes that are democratic in the sense that the “feelings” of their societies can have a direct bearing on the political process.

Yet even though nowhere before have we been faced with the immediacy of distant death, nowhere before have we been so distant to killings that are incurred by people who are trying to send a message to us. In effect, terrorism targeting civilians is not targeting the people who were actually killed but potentially any people that are part of a political delineated community (here the Shi’i community but also the Lebanese, and so on). Terrorism in this sense is one of these rare instances where violence is used on a person or group who is not the real target.

To come to the recent suicide explosion in Dahyeh, I’m not here analyzing the political message sent to the elite (Hizbullah’s political party, or whoever is incurring such attacks) or to the constituency of a political movement or organization. I’m more interested in what people actually do about it. Although people can be “terrorized” by what is happening they seem helpless as to what to do about it. Can they really force political actors to change their course of actions?

Then, Terrorism is doomed because on the one hand it assumes that the feelings that civilians have, fueled by media strategies, are going to influence political elites to do something about it, and on the other hand, it assumes that civilians feelings are in themselves a motive of political change. Raw emotions do not create interesting change at the political level. Only does reason. And it is reason that is the stuff from which political decisions are made.

This is why terrorism is a victim of the media effect, and democracies or ideals of democracies are experienced as a spectacle in today’s societies. In our modern political systems that are animated by the technological and media industry, “feelings” and “emotions” understood in a raw sense are the primary human traits that is meant to dictate political action. This is why terrorism exist. In the absence of such human predisposition, terrorism would not be a viable weapon.

Here lies one of the contradictions of the culture of democracies and how they are the source of  their own misery. Democracies as they function today involve a politics of emotions that traditionally was never linked to politics as such. It does not mean that traditionally, feelings where not getting in the way of correct handling of political matter, far from it. War practices always involved forms of cruelties that surely were triggered by specific types of emotions and feelings and in turn triggered these types of feelings. But never, were feelings used in a way were curtailed by higher forms of politics that ordered the way agreements were reached, successions were arranged, or war were started.

Nietzsche: Prophet of the Twentieth Century?

From Human All too Human, “A Glance at the State”
Paragraph 472:

But what if a quite different conception of government such as is taught in democratic states begins to prevail? If it is regarded as nothing but the instrument of the popular will, not as an Above in relation to a Below but merely as a function of the sole sovereign power, the people? Here the attitude towards religion adopted by the government can only be the same as that adopted towards it by the people; every dissemination of enlightenment must find its echo in their representatives, and an employment and ex- ploitation of the religious drives and consolations for political ends will no longer be so easy (unless it happens that powerful party leaders for a time exercise an influence similar to that of enlightened despotism). But if the state is no longer free to profit from religion itself or the people come to hold far too diverse opinions on religious matters for the government to be permitted any single unified policy regarding religious measures – then the way out will necessarily be to treat religion as a private affair and to hand it over to the conscience and customs of every individual. The first consequence of this will be an apparent strengthening of religious feeling, inasmuch as suppressed and concealed manifestations of it to which the state involuntarily or deliberately gave no breathing space now break forth and proceed to excesses and extremes; later religion will be overrun with sects, and it will become plain that at the moment religion was made a private affair an abundance of dragon’s teeth were sown. The sight of this conflict, the malignant exposure of all the weaknesses of the religious confessions, will finally admit of no other way out than that every better and better gifted man will make irreligion his private affair: which disposition will then come to dominate the minds of those in government and, almost against their will, give to the measures they take a character hostile to religion. As soon as this happens the mood of those still moved by religion, who formerly adored the state as something half or wholly sacred, will be transformed into one decidedly hostile to the state; they will lie in wait for the measures taken by the government, seek to obstruct, to cross, to disrupt as much as they can, and through the heat of their opposition drive the counter-party into an almost fanatical enthusiasm/or the state; in which development they are secretly aided by the fact that, since their sundering from religion, hearts in these circles have felt a sense of emptiness which they are seeking provisionally to fill with a kind of substitute in the form of devotion to the state. After these transitional struggles, which may well last a long time, it will at length be decided whether the religious parties are still strong enough to revive the past and turn back the wheel: in which case the state will unavoidably fall into the hands of enlightened despotism (perhaps less enlightened and more troubled by fear than formerly) – or whether the anti-religious parties will prevail and, perhaps through schooling and education, in the course of generations undermine the propagation of their opponents and finally render it impossible. Then, however, they too will experience a slackening of their enthusiasm for the state: it will grow ever clearer that, together with that religious adoration to which the state is a sacred mystery, a supraterrestrial institution, the attitude of veneration and piety towards it has also been undermined. Henceforth the individual will see only that side of it that promises to be useful or threatens to be harmful to him, and will bend all his efforts to acquiring influence upon it. But this competition will soon become too great, men and parties alternate too quickly, hurl one another too fiercely down from the hill after barely having attained the top. None of the measures effected by a government will be guaranteed continuity; everyone will draw back from undertakings that require quiet tending for decades or centuries if their fruits are to mature. No one will feel towards a law any greater obligation than that of bowing for the moment to the force which backs up the law: one will then at once set to work to subvert it with a new force, the creation of a new majority. Finally – one can say this with certainty – distrust of all government, insight into the uselessness and destructiveness of these short-winded struggles will impel men to a quite novel resolve: the resolve to do away with the concept of the state, to the abolition of the distinction between private and public. Private companies will step by step absorb the business of the state: even the most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of government (for example its activities designed to protect the private person from the private person) will in the long run be taken care of by private contractors. Disregard for and the decline and death of the state, the liberation of the private person (I take care not to say: of the individual), is the consequence of the democratic conception of the state; it is in this that its mission lies. When it has performed its task – which like everything human bears much rationality and irrationality in its womb – when every relapse into the old sickness has been overcome, a new page will be turned in the storybook of humanity in which there will be many strange tales to read and perhaps some of them good ones. – To repeat in brief what has just been said: the interests of tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand in hand together, so that when the latter begins to die out the foundations of the state too are undermined. The belief in a divine order in the realm of politics, in a sacred mystery in the existence of the state, is of religious origin: if religion disappears the state will unavoidably lose its ancient Isis veil and cease to excite reverence. Viewed from close to, the sovereignty of the people serves then to banish the last remnant of magic and superstition from this realm of feeling; modern democracy is the historical form of the decay of the state. – The prospect presented by this certain decay is, however, not in every respect an unhappy one: the prudence and self-interest of men are of all their qualities the best developed; if the state is no longer equal to the demands of these forces then the last thing that will ensue is chaos: an invention more suited to their purpose than the state was will gain victory over the state. How many an organizing power has mankind not seen die out: for example that of the racial clan, which was for millennia far mightier than that of the family and indeed ruled and regulated long before the family existed. We ourselves have seen the idea of familial rights and power which once ruled as far as the Roman world extended grow ever paler and more impotent. Thus a later generation will see the state too shrink to insignificance in various parts of the earth – a notion many people of the present can hardly contemplate without fear and revulsion. To work for the dissemination and realization of this notion is another thing, to be sure: one has to have a very presumptuous idea of one’s own intelligence and scarcely half an understanding of history to set one’s hand to the plough already – while no one can yet show what seed is afterwards to be scattered on the riven soil. Let us therefore put our trust in ‘the prudence and self-interest of men’ to preserve the existence of the state for some time yet and to repulse the destructive experiments of the precipitate and the over-zealous!

Ramadan “made in Israel”!

20130808_195648I know it is a bit late now, but I forgot to add this picture I took in a Sainsburys supermarket in Dalston, London, a week or so ago. If you zoom in on the photograph, you’ll be able to see that the dates offered come from Israel. A nice way to celebrate Eid! I wonder what the Sainsburys management team was thinking when they put that stuff out there. Don’t they know that Muslims are generally allergic to something called Israel? At least, for the festivities, include a couple of dates from somewhere else! Out of all countries that can sell you dates, why choose to bring them from that tiny place that calls itself Israel!? This is another example why the claim that UK or Europe adopt policies of “Free Trade” is complete bullocks, to use an expression dear to a British audience. There is always a bit of political logic behind any policy to trade “freely”.

The myths of democracy

Make no mistake, democratic deliberations will always be inversely related to community formation and actual political action. What we see taking place in Syria, Egypt, and in other countries of the Middle East all bear witness to the fact that there is no such thing as democracy if there isn’t prior to that, a non-democratic (meaning non-negotiable by the public) set of rules that inform community bonds.

Don’t be fooled by thinking that Western (and other) democracies around the world permit a public to deliberate freely about all sorts of problems without resorting to violence in the absence of that functioning State that, as it happens, has already laid out the rules of the game. See how France gets crazy just from seeing a veiled woman strolling around a “public space”. See Belgium forbidding the construction of mosques, or British “public” vehemently opposing UK’s involvement in the Iraq war but in vain. Certain demands simply cannot be made democratically or involve one community of people or “interest” imposing their views on another as it may jeopardize the very existence of the State in place or change its nature, its “raison-d’être”.

The particular properties of these community bonds vary from country to country, but there is one thing that does not vary the least, the presence of a strong (Nation)-State with a monopoly over the means of coercion, a very sensitive security network or alignment with another greater neighboring power. Once these things exist, and evidently are established through non-democratic means, then one can play the game of what people mistakenly call today democracy, which could more accurately called an oligarchy if one wants to stick to using Greek terms, as is fashionable in the modern age.

Why do we have an “authoritarian” ruler in Syria highly determined to crush an opposition while the latter can only express discontent through the use of arms? Why do we have a government army pitted against a social movement in Egypt to the point where they freely open fire at demonstrators and have the president declaring that the political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, should simply be abolished? Because in both instances, the conflict is about the very crafting of the rules of the game that would serve as a guide for community building and maybe future “democratic” negotiations. However, the terms of these negotiations will be revolving around the views of the prevailing party that become “raison-d’Etat” (the translation adopted in English is “National Interest” but seem to lose the original meaning of “reason” or logic, or even views that the State reserve itself the power to enforce).

EU blacklisting Hizbullah’s military wing

hezbollah_EUEU’s decision to label Hizbulah’s military wing a terrorist organization is a silly decision, one that betrays a simplistic understanding of the politics of the Middle East in the last three decades.

My intuition is that this decision is the fruit of years of erroneous analyses about the organization that is thought to have “changed”, to have become “moderate” and “democratic” because it is now fully engaged in the local political Lebanese game. This representation of Hizbullah has pushed forth the crazy idea that if one could just somehow neutralize some military wing of the party then a fully gentrified Hizbullah can strive in a healthy democratic and pluralistic Lebanese arena.

Non-sense.

Hizbullah never changed and Hizbullah does not have different “wings”. Hizbulah is the Islamic Resistance, or simply the Resistance as a military project that fights Israeli occupation and ambitions in the region. Hizbullah political “wing” is only a democratic representation of this project in the parliament. This means that people who support the military resistance against Israel voted for Hizbullah to be represented in the Lebanese parliament.

By blacklisting a “military wing” the EU is condemning (or judging!) a popular and legitimate political demand to fight occupation. To give a European example, it is a bit like condemning French resistance “military wing” against the Nazi regime. This is why, most Lebanese political parties whether pro or anti-Hizbullah criticized the EU decision. If anyone in the EU thinks that Israel is a danger to its neighbors and has been committing atrocities (or terrorism for that matter) against the Palestinians then please let us know if anything else than military resistance can force them to reconsider their actions. It is not a hazard then that not one single EU state is willing to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian question seriously.

Hizbullah will disarm only if a comprehensive and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is found and activated. This is what the EU, Arab States, and whoever is putting his nose into our affairs should be working on instead of distributing silly labels.

Whether the recent events in Syria initiated such a step, by blacklisting the “military wing”, the EU is condemning the idea of Resistance against Israel through military means. This is another proof that whether intended or not, most political actions with regards to Syria against the Asad regime are irremediably serving Israeli interests.

Sri Lanka: Al-Akhbar’s lesson to Lebanon

p12_20130713_pic1The peculiar thing about the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar is that they do not really publish news as such but commentaries on news. They assume that you have read or watched the news already and they build on it. If you’re looking for “what happened” on a particular day, the last place you want to go to is Al Akhbar because you won’t find much at that level. Instead you may probably have literary exercises, political positions, twisted analyses, based all on material you are supposed to already know.

I once asked a journalist at Al Akhbar why they inflict on readers this frustrating experience and he answered that in fact, according to statistics (the sanctified word), readership goes up with this type of writing.

In any case, I write this post because for once Al Akhbar published an article, although within the frustrating “polemicist” category, on Sri Lanka’s state and economy, but that still makes great points for Lebanese. The main point of the writer Muhammad Nazzal, is that although Lebanese people think highly of themselves and very lowly of the Sri Lankis who work practically as slaves for them, Sri Lanka as a country fares ten times better than Lebanon in virtually all areas: Industry, agriculture, trade, food, education, public infrastructure, political system.

The endearing discoveries of Nazzal are still worth mentioning: Phone bills are way cheaper, Internet much faster. Also the literary exercises so dear to Al Akhbar journalists are not bad this time as shown by this nice comparison: “The white lines on the roads of Sri Lanka rival with the whiteness of the peaks of Sannine and the Cedars”.

According to Nazzal, instead of privatizing the whole sea coast like the clever Lebanese did, in order to make sure the average citizen was strictly forbidden from enjoying the most natural resource in the world, the sea, Sri Lankis kept their coast, which Nazzal notes is ten times larger than the Lebanese, completely public in order to allow unhindered access to whosoever wishes. As a matter of fact, I can add here that Cyprus did the same – with municipalities of each city managing the coastal area where constructions are prohibited and where a small fee is paid by both locals and tourists to the state when if they wish to hire an umbrella or sunbed – not if they wish to access the beach.

One learns from Nazzal that Sri Lanka has a great history spanning millenniums, and that Sri Lanka, unlike Lebanon, just successfully formed a government after decades of wars and communal divisions, based on a representative electoral law (even though just like Lebanese they have different communities who perceive themselves as rivals).

More importantly, Sri Lanka is sustained by what it produces. The agricultural sector of Sri Lanka is in bloom, whereas in Lebanon one imports virtually everything, especially primary commodities – something every country should at least be producing to a certain extent, and what Lebanon does not import it destroys with horrible quantities of pesticides and chemicals.

The list here is endless and this article is really worthy of being read in full. So, what’s the big difference between Sri Lanka (and Cyprus actually), and Lebanon? Lebanon has no state but a bunch of warlords finding new ways to keep extracting resources from the economy and society, although every once and a while they clash and they have to re-arrange the rules of the game in order to continue.

My other theory is that whereas Cyprus and Sri Lanka were colonized by the British, Lebanon was colonized by the French, and this made a huge difference throughout time. But that is the subject of another post…

Isolationism or Regionalization?

Recently the Phalangist MP Sami Gemayel has proposed to “amend the preamble of the constitution to stipulate Lebanon’s neutrality towards regional conflicts”.

“We request amending the constitution to clearly state that Lebanon must stay neutral towards regional events,” Gemayel said after the weekly meeting of the party’s political bureau. He elaborated: “We are very concerned about Lebanese factions’ participation in the Syrian war and this can lead to transferring the fighting into Lebanon.” “We remind those publicly declaring that they have fighters in Syria, particularly Hizbullah, that they have signed the Baabda Declaration that clearly states we must disassociate Lebanon from regional crises,” the MP noted.

The Baabda declaration took place in June 2012 during one of these so-called “national dialogue sessions”. Whether Lebanon should get involved in regional questions or just adopt an isolationist stance is at the heart of a historical debate that is as old as the existence of the State. Logically enough, the isolationist stance was traditionally endorsed by the Lebanese Christian Right (and still represented by the Phalangist party although recently joined by several other groups). This stance found many enemies whose political existence depended on the resolution or simply the management of regional questions. The coalitions of pro-Palestinian formations, resistance groups against Israeli occupation, pro-Syrian political parties, and so on).

It is not a coincidence that the isolationist stance went well with the famous dictum “Lebanon’s strength is in its weakness” that Pierre Gemayel (again former Phalangist leader and grandfather of the PM Sami Gemayel) declared at some point in the 1970s referring to the multi-confessional nature of the political process and the neutrality position Lebanon strove to enjoy at that time. The event following 1975 were to prove the extent to which this declaration was detrimental to those who found themselves to be Lebanese nationals. It is ironic also, that in the midst of the event following the 1975 debacle, the same party that had adopted an isolationist line had ended up asking for Syrian interference in order to defeat the leftist-Palestinian coalition. Syria was then on an integral part of doing politics in Lebanon. So in order to protect an isolationist/neutral stance the party was forced to ask for a regional cover.

More generally, the paradox of Middle Eastern states is that the more they push for national isolation (for security reasons) the less they are able to confront bigger political forces and thus end up weakening their political bargaining power. The Sunni-Shi’i conflict that has been nurtured gradually since the 1990s is the last mess that threatens to wreck any power the region can accumulate in facing forms of domination. It all started when Iran took precedence in establishing itself as the only regional force that can challenge Israel and the US, a development that left many jealous states and parties across the region. And crucially enough, Iran could only do that because Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas were working together to that effect. These movements are born from the consequence of State ineffectiveness at carrying vital political actions in order to liberate territory and create a strong military deterrence power. Again, the regional nexus permitted local parties to become stronger and voice certain political demands that could not be answered and delivered by local institutions. Whatever one’s stand toward the Syrian uprising (and elsewhere), this development weakens states at the regional at least in the short to mid term as it forces new groups to shorten their attention to “the inside”.

The irony though here is that Middle Eastern countries are not all sticking to a plan of focusing on “the inside” The Gulf and in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar have tried in all possible ways to challenges Iranian foreign policies by targeting its proxy, first Hamas and Hizbullah, then the Syrian state. This regional war cannot be dissociated from its potentiality of boosting certain states or political formations over others that do have regional agendas. Then, in a context such as the Middle East where occupation is regionally organized, where some states have regional agendas, the isolationist stance resemble what is called ostrich politics (where the ostrich is said to try to delude her enemies by hiding her head in the sand). They fail to see how they cannot avoid the fact that any genuinely political action must involve regional interference whether from within or from without. While Gemayel shouts for a Lebanese neutral stance above, members of his most important political ally (Al Mustaqbal party) and its main sponsors (such as Saudi Arabia) are all deeply involved inside Syria.

I am not trying here to defend Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria but more appropriately to explain why it is impossible for them not to intervene, just like it was practically impossible for Palestinians not to try to wage political militant activities from Lebanese territories, or why more generally, regional issues dictates local ones. This is so because first, local quests for influence need certain regional leverage, and second, because certain political questions are irremediably “trans-national” (such as the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But the only way to carry out transnational actions is by putting in place a political formation of State, institutions, organizations or groups, that can operate freely away from the vagaries and individualizing tendencies of the democratic push. More on this later.

Aspects of Capitalism’s waste

Saifi2The disparity between the general care given to Beirut’s “Saifi village” in comparison to certain areas of Lebanon is outrageous. This picture show a man dusting the sidewalk pole of one of the main street of Saifi, downtown Beirut, otherwise known as Solidere land.

The framing of a “research question”

resources-for-the-mediaI came across this paper written for a particular Middle East Policy Council. I have never seen a more awkwardly posed question regarding Hizbullah’s political development:

Hezbollah’s evolution speaks to a larger question in the literature on nonstate actors, both in the Middle East and elsewhere: Why do some nonstate military groups survive attempts to uproot them from particular pieces of territory while others do not? And what lessons do organizations learn from earlier confrontations that enable them to better survive later ones?

So Palestinian organizations, have been “uprooted”, “commies” too, other Arabic or Islamic infestious protuberances all gone. Now Hizbullah. Why are there only failed attempts at uprooting that bad plant? I mean, they did come from outer space (like all the other predecessors) after all? What can Israel or the US, the indegeneous, do to fix this problem? They did try everything after all…

If, “The Middle East Policy Council is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to contribute to American understanding of the political, economic and cultural issues that affect U.S. interests in the Middle East”, then it’s quite understandable that finding that “rootedness” is a resilient attribute of the link between Hizbullah to its people can pose a big problem!