Islamic Taoism

[A] surprising adaptation of Islam to Chinese traditions appears in the martial arts that are partly Islamized. Chinese Muslims (the Hui) are aware that they have borrowed their matial art (wushu) from the Han Chinese, but they maintain they have given it a particular form by rejecting certain techniques and adding new ones. Boxing used to be practised or defence but today it serves to maintain health. The forms of combat that are practised have names inspired by Islam. One is chaquan (cha boxing), a form that legend says was developed by a western Muslim called Chamianer or Chamier, who was probably of Uighur origin. The form begins and ends with a Muslim prayr. Another form, xinyiquan (heart and will boxing), which is also called Hui boxing, is performed slowly. It is simlar to bagua, which is based on the eight trigrammic symbols of Taoism. Among the weapons used in this martial art, besides traditional Chinese weapons – sabre, sword, stick, lance, knife – there is the whip, which belongs to the world of the steppes. This martial art is defined according to Islamic norms. Some forms such as monkey boxing are forbidden (because Islam is opposed to the idea that there is a similarity between man and monkey) and styles alluding to the drunken state (drunken man boxing) for reasons that are easy to guess at. The Hui also refuse to practice some forms that are clearly influenced by Buddhism such as shaolin boxing, but do not reject Taoist forms of boxing, for example T’ai chi chuan and Bagua zhang. In addition they think of these types of boxing as simple physical exercises and not as spiritul disciplines. The Hui also do qigong (breathing and meditation exercises). Originally boxing was practised inside mosques; nowadays it is performed in their courtyards during religious festivals. The martial art is passed on by families of masters who conform to the model of the isnâd, a traditional Muslim chain of authority and kinship. Legend dates Chinese boxing from the time of the prophet Mohammed and relates that he was an expert in the art. The most Islamized form of boxing is called tangpinggong, meaning washpot exercise The pot in question resembles a small watering-can well known among Muslims, who use it to perform their ablutions. The body adopts the shape of this object in the course of the practice; the exercise is not a series of active movements but like qigong, consists of several so-called meditative postures that are used to stimulate energy, or chi. However, the origins of tangpinggong are shrouded in mystery. Surely we must recognize an Islamic version of Taoism in the inner practices of this Muslim form of boxing.

Zarcone, T. 2003. View from Islam, View from the West. Diogenes 50(4): 57

Where I spend my days

I intend to write much more about how the department in which I am enrolled (The War Studies department of King’s College) feeds into the overall production of knowledge for dominant power’s successful policy. But for now this is just to let you know what type of ‘job proposals’ I usually get through my university email:

Afghanistan Brief

The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Although some local military battles are being won and specific projects have made progress, overall, the military presence has been a disaster. It has become apparent that a military approach is unlikely to resolve the conflict. Consequently, it has been proposed that a detailed analysis of the current attitudes, behaviours, communications, sentiments, etc. be conducted so that a new approach can be communicated to the various Afghan audiences. Based loosely on a hearts and minds approach as opposed to a military approach, the central strategy would be to try to win allegiance from as many Afghan groups as possible in a joint programme of development and reconstruction. This type of “Let’s stop fighting and work together” approach is seen by many to be pointless and unworkable, on the basis that messages cannot stop wars. However, an intensive analysis of the motivations and behaviours of the different Afghan audiences might well identify the triggers and levers, which would cause change in the right direction.

The client, a global communications firm, has been asked to write a proposal for conducting this piece of work, and to present this to the UK government (at the highest levels).
We need a report/proposal writer, which can pull together all of the facts, write key elements of the report and edit the final thing into a professional 15 page document.
Date of Work:
End of Work:
14/16 Dec
Next Year:
Availability would be good
Pay will be £150 per day.
Discretion and reliability are required, however, no security clearance is necessary for this project.

Do the math

A recent poll was conducted among the Palestinian refugees of the Nahr el Bared camp (two times refugees that is). When asked which political faction in Lebanon represent best their point of view 40 percent answered Hizbullah, and another 40 percent answered none. On the other hand when asked about which Palestinian faction represent them best, 63.3 percent said no one, and only 11.7 percent said Hamas. Even worse than that, 85 percent of Palestinian two-times refugees think the PLO does not work in “the interest of the people”. And there is much more to discover in the article.

Some cultural considerations behind the exploitation of the Lebanese

Just a quick recap for those who still can’t add things up or are too overwhelmed by the prevailing symbolic and power struggle between two newly-formed factions of the numerous Lebanese turfs. Today, and for a decade or so, we, as in the “Lebanese people”, have been paying for the extravaganza of business-minded policymakers. Today without a president, and with the country in shambles, the Minister of Finance made sure that debt obligations to the local Lebanese banks were paid on time. It does not matter if the State does not pay for the supply of electricity, social security, etc, the most important thing being comforting the banks that they will get their ‘investments’ placed in the Lebanese state back intact and with interest.

Here I want to point out certain cultural implications of this economic and political status-quo. Lebanese are really One People when they are exploited, when they pay taxes that goes to serve the interest of a few bunch who sit calmly and cash in interest hiding behind the idea that the economy will collapse if we don’t do so. In addition to that, Lebanese banks have really very small investments and loans in the Lebanese real economy. But people do put all their money in deposit and savings account. The Lebanese are doubly exploited: Through the money they put in Banks, and through the money they pay to the State none of which goes to pay for the provision of public goods or fueling the economy.

But how come this is so? How does this double-theft process happen? Because the Lebanese do not have a working self-empowering concept of what the Public is. The State can mistreat this notion at will through its daily practices but nobody will lift a finger because in practice there is not really a State, and no public policy per se. In practice, there are factions confessional-tribal-cartelized groups of interests themselves locked in their projected differences.

But the concept of “Lebanese” is only invoked when it is time to pay. In effect, the confessional system is the primary mover of this schizophrenic attitude, it calls upon you to pay your obligations to your State (taxes etc.), while at the same time escapes from providing you with not even a modicum of social security, stability. In this case, you’re used to go to your lord (some confessional/tribal/feudal instance). And if you don’t have one, then you feel inexplicably miserable. You don’t know why it is the case, how come you are so oppressed and you don’t know where oppression comes. Because we took away from you the concept needed to join the right pieces of the puzzle, or simply, it was never developed, nurtured in practice. This concept revolves around some sort of social justice coupled with non-sectarian mobilization. Even if you understand certain things such as how the politicians are corrupt and are exploiting you etc, it does not mean you can act upon it and change the status quo. Does this make you feel any closer to the ‘other Lebanese’. Of course not something lacks here. Something you never lived. Some thing called Public culture. In the meantime you rejoice yourself with fake revolutions (like the one dubbed the cedar appropriately enough, another empty concept) that are actually hate tracts instigated by your ever-shifting elite.

When it comes to make the State function for the provision of the public good, the “Lebanese” frame unfortunately breaks down, in your social encounters you are a Christian, a Muslim. Or a rich Christian, or a rich Muslim or a poor Christian begging rich Christians etc, this is how you get your social security. In this case, you never ask yourself why am I not “Lebanese”.

The confessional system exacerbates economic exploitation because it breaks down any possibility to conceptualize a genuine collective expression, except in the negative sense. So you are left off with paying, hating (the other, the Syrian for example, or simply the other “Lebanese”) and blaming those who do not respect your projected ideal of “nationhood” when you can’t even apply it to yourself.

For the record

There is something sad in this picture. See the guy behind Lahoud to the right? I know this guy. I don’t know his name, but I remember a couple of years ago, when Lahoud came often to this club (if not daily) to take a swim, I used to see him next to the swimming pool roaming around him, and from time to time divert his trajectory and pass through the various women that were sun bathing. Usually he would sit next to Lahoud and whisper in his ear some (I would guess) casual story of the day, and Lahoud, a hand holding his chin, would gently nod with a little smile. Who is this guy? I think he is the guy who kept a link between the highly misanthropic Lahoud and segments of the Christian influentials. I say segments because there was always one part of the Christian constituency, Lahoud would not be able to win over as he was aligned with the Syrians. But Lahoud’s character made it even worse as even those who weren’t die-hard anti-syrians or fiery right-wingers became so ‘anti-Lahoud’ that there was no possibilities for bridging. In a sense Christian elites have historically known a very sad legacy that ended up drawing them more and more towards the cheap petty mercantile interests of the Gulf.

But I am going too far, and I’ll go back to my initial point. For a lot, Lahoud was not a lovable creature. Nobody used to see him, he would rarely talk, and if he talked, it usually was to make these automated quasi-military speeches, where you would think he is exercising his facial muscles more than anything else. His first arrival to power was really greeted ‘with hope’. “He’s going to lift our head up”, people used to say, at least in Christian neighborhood. Plus he has a nice face, a good stature, people just loved him. And then nothing. Swimming and swimming and occasionally acting very pompous. People like glamor and sensational actions, at the very least, the business type. Energetic, successful, rich etc. the Hariri type. In direct opposition to that, Lahoud stays in his presidential palace, looks somber, does not make any public appearance. But Lahoud works like an ant. And that nobody knows it. Lahoud swims everyday, but Lahoud’s day starts at 5h00 in the morning. More importantly, this guy reinforced the very shattered links between the Lebanese groups that were totally alienated by Christian rule and the latter, such as Hizbullah. Indeed, one of the reasons why Hizbullah got more ‘moderate’ or less ‘paranoid’ was because of dudes like Lahoud. Or take the evolution of the army (not its strength in battle of course but its relation with other security institutions, and Hizbullah for example.

Of course I’m not saying it is thanks to him as a person, but it is thanks to his placement in this institutional position, and how this made a lot of people coalesce to work in this direction. There is a lot to be said about both of his mandate but my point is that Lahoud never blocked or initiated something that ended being detrimental to the stability of this country. Now that is already quite an achievement judging from the political pedigree of other political actors that are unfortunately staying for some time to come, and judging from the quasi-doomed institutional partitioned and confessional system in which this state continues to swim.

We think that ‘peace’, ‘stability’, is the natural order of things, and that hard serious political work starts really when there is a conflict or a war. This thinking derives from the fact that there is some kind of right to it, and so we should get it ‘naturally’, we take it for granted. Also, because nobody writes about the daily life of peaceful times people focus on moments of tensions. Nobody writes about the infinite numbers of social/political interaction constantly taking place that keeps people close to each other, or the policies and procedures carried on to that effect. But people should know better that peace and stability are hard won, they are the fruit of difficult processes of coordination and cooperation, of bridging gaps and sensitivities, of making both ends meet while preserving dignity for everyone. You will never hear of the people who really work in this direction in Lebanon. In general, they don’t appear much and when they do, they don’t ‘flash their badges’. But this work is a full time job in Lebanon. And there are few candidates!

Before the concept of Independence!

As some of you know, today is ‘independence day’ for what came to be called the “Lebanese”. This time I won’t bother you with my sentences. I’ll just translate Ziad Rahbani’s column that sums well my point of view (bear in mind that the joke is made in the Arabic language and that the gist is completely lost, but the idea I want to arrive at is fortunately not, so yes I prove again that I am desperately boring):

– Ok but before the Israeli planes, dad, who was violating Lebanese airspace?
– Nobody was violating it.
– You mean that our sky was free and clean?
– no, it was not our sky
– How come?
– It was the British planes violating Syrian airspace
– What has Syria got to do with it?
– Son, do you at least know that today is independence day?
– Yes I know
– Fair enough, but apart from that, it does not seem you know much.
– What do you mean?
– Because before this celebration day, we were at rest from all the meanings of independence and from its skies, and from the violation of our sky by Israel, and the skies of the school I send you to, and from your sky! Do you understand my son?!

On clerical power in Lebanon

Reading the Lebanese press involve the discovery of many fascinating things and we are all most familiar with this. But one of them is the recurrence of stories stating that this or that politician had a meeting with this or that religious instance. Lately, I have in mind the various patriach-ical initiatives supposed to come up with lists of names for the presidency. These activities spark a number of visits, declarations, letters, etc to the Maronite clerics either to be in their grace or to criticize a specific move.

If we step back for a moment and try to think about this, you may agree that it is kind of weird. How come all these virtuoso politicians that have been through so much history, how come all the diplomatic initiatives involved from west to east cannot solve a problem that a few monks living a somewhat ascetic life in Bkerke can? You’ll tell me, this is the confessional system, the respect of religious authority, the legitimacy they inspire, etc But I would say these are vague answers at best. I am pretty damn sure that most politicians do not have transcendental respect for the views of the clerics, and even if there are some that do, why is it that everyone including Aoun who claim to ‘reject confessionalism’ find it necessary to ‘play by the rules’? Also if “it is the confessional system”, what type of actual power these dudes have? The confessional system distributes power among sectarian elites but that are not clerics. Except for Hizbullah who has an overtly clerical leadership and although their political actors (parliamentary members, ministers, etc.) are non-clerical, there are no religious figure who possess official institutional political power. If I’m not mistaken, this is not a constitutional rule, but still in reality there are no instances of political clerical leadership within the confines of the Lebanese state.

So why do politicians still ‘play by the rules’? For the obvious and apparently silly reason that they have to. Because on the level of formulating political arguments you cannot escape sectarian discourse, and given that sectarian discourse is mostly framed by clerical elites then political actors go through this ritual of respect. This leads me to ask the following questions:

1- What type of power is invested in clerical actors? What are we looking at here? Economic assets, land ownership, capital? Security structures, military assets? The capturing of institutional facilities, legal credentials? Symbolic power to name, to influence the terms of speech, of consciousness (what is said, thought, expressed)?
2- How does all this constrain political actors and the people at large in their social practices?
3- What are the forms of resistance to this authority (if any) that emanate not only from the people but from the leaders themselves?
4- What is then the room for discursively defined non-sectarian politics in Lebanon?

A couple of remarks though: The clerics don’t have just any type of power. Their leverage capacities are limited in many instances. So one should try to point out the sphere of their actual reign. For the most part, I would suggest looking at certain social aspect of their dominance through

  • Legal/Economic power: The various ceremonies rituals etc. that manage people’s life for example are all in the hands of clerics. Birth, marriage, Death, certain types of inheritance procedures.
  • Symbolic power: the hegemonic confessional discourse. If you are Lebanese you cannot but define yourself in terms of the sect you were told by the various ‘references’ (family, school, state institutions)
  • This leads me to another point which is that the various non-religious institutions in Lebanon are dependent on the clerics. the exact type of this dependence is still not clear. But suffice it to say for now that it is as if everybody works for the clerics from the day you are born till the day you die.
  • The power to discipline the body through rituals, the use of objects, sexual practices, etc.

More on this later. First, your thoughts.