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 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.

Thoughts on Western antisemitism and the treatment of minorities in the nation-state era

These are thoughts inspired from reading Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular.

My main little intuition is that there is a peculiar difference between historical western perception of ‘the Jew’ before and after the creation of the state of Israel. A Jew with Israel around is somewhat less threatening than a Jew somewhere in Europe. The territorialization of Jewishness tames antisemitic feelings. First, it gives substance to the Jews, it normalizes them, second, Jews cease to be a perceived disruption in the Western nation-building cultural process. The Jew ceases to be this floating entity but become attached to specific empowered institutions (Israel) that gives it substance at the ideological level. The Jew then can be simultaneously ‘here and there’.

This need for the territorialization of different definitions of subjects (national, religious, ethnic, etc.) owes its genesis to state formation in the West that transported rigidities from religious-based institutional practices to state’s “rule of law”. The gentile becomes the secular citizen. But there are specific practices a ‘secular’ citizen engages in that do not tolerate the practices of other minorities. Secularization is a ‘way of life’, a social set of rules and regulations that reaches down to the management of individual bodies (of subjects). What the “Jew” experienced a century ago, a “Muslim” experience it today. The modern-state has a ‘minority problem’. But here I can let Asad speak.

Asad is very keen on showing that he does not fall in the idea that the secular is just another religion, but that the very definition of the religious that we rely on (the academia and other producer of knowledge that spread prevailing doxas, hegemonies, etc.) is political and serves to push for a particular discursive definition of what the secular is.

The politics of naming

One of the first political phenomenon I am concerned with is the time (and resources etc.) dominant actors spend on finding suitable categories to define (or give meaning to) their various political actions. In addition to the fact that naming gives significance or the illusion of substance in perceiving the enemy, the symbolic act of naming Hizbullah a “terrorist” organization opens the door for so many different legal as well as diplomatic dispositions that has concrete material effect (in the same way the beefing up of an army has material significance):

United States lawmakers are stepping up pressure on the European Union to declare the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

A House of Representatives’ panel is to highlight Wednesday the importance of Europe as a fundraising base for the group, long held responsible by the United States for anti-U.S. and anti-Israel attacks.

Some European countries have resisted an EU designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, arguing that it is better to engage the group given its large role in Lebanese politics.

What is important here is to notice how, generally, legal appellations and social norms are all based on this categorization principle. In this case, the creation of significance is a political process embedded in institutions in place (governments, parliaments, courts, etc.) that serves to create disciplined subjects and the ‘other’.

By the Numbers …

There were almost 500 acts of terrorism across the European Union in 2006 — but only one, the foiled suitcase bomb plot in Germany, was related to Islamist terror, a new EU report reveals.

I guess Bernard Lewis did not get this report.