France and the Question of Culture

The 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.

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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!

Gaza and the legitimation of killing: Lessons for History

Wars, conquests, collective violence, and all kinds of forms of domination and oppression are justified through specific rhetorical strategies, or ideologies.

Take a very recent epoch, the one that was dubbed the ‘modern age’ that starts roughly with European ‘enlightenment’ and is still unfolding today. This is an epoch that sees the development and consolidation of States with their invented National histories, an epoch where capitalist economic and social changing structures have been nurtured by evermore centralized poles of power and more rigid notions of self.  This epoch has seen the rise of a discourse of human rights, ‘rights’ people had, claims they could make on the past, on territory, and even on other people (teaching democracy for example).

Israel represents one little (but oh so deadly) experiment of applying national theory to practice from scratch. It is the quintessence of modern culture: believing in an idea that fathoms a history for a people, projects it on a territory and then consolidates State structures to the detriment of previous social and economic structures in place. In a way Israel is the Frankenstein of the West. It is the horrible result of an experiment where the idea that some ‘ideational’ link with some representation of the past can materialize in ‘reality’, indeed, should, or has a ‘right to’ materialize in reality.

In this sense another type of colonial practice is born with Israel. We could probably talk of a classical colonialism that Europe and to some extent the US practiced, consisting in occupying and seizing the means of production of a specific area (Latin America, Africa, India, etc.). But the new colonialism is one that exist side by side a perpetual condemnation of colonialism. The new colonialism exists in the age of NGOs, UN, and other international institutions that legitimates the occupation and oppression of the ‘uncivilized’. New colonialism is practiced mainly by the US and Israel today and consist in subverting the average person into believing that there are ‘security’ questions to address in order to protect the ‘rights’ of certain political entities.

Several times Talal Asad’s quote at the right top end of this blog has been criticized. But it still holds so well today. War by the ‘civilized’ is much more couched in a moral rhetoric that legitimates it and makes it more deadly. Trabulsi in Al Safir today argues that one such legitimating tool is the concept of “Security”. In this excellent article, Trabulsi showed how Israel and the US succeeded in imposing the notion of ‘security’ as a ‘reason of State’ in order to clamp down on any insurgency effort fighting their occupier. Trabulsi shows also how Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, caught onto this program and gradually switched from a discourse centralized on Palestinian (or say local population) demands to one of imposing security to the benefit of Israel so as to resolve and neutralize the Palestinian question.

I want to develop a couple of points Trabulsi makes in his article. The ‘security’ rationale is very perverse in several ways. First it ignores the fact that insurgents, fighters, resistance groups etc, have longstanding political demands which makes them do what they do when they do it. By this token it refuses to address these demands. Also, the Security rationale sanctifies (and goes fully in line with) a discourse on liberal values in the sense that it is only fair that Israel is a ‘legitimate’ entity that needs to ‘protect’ itself. Protection defined as such may justify the killing of civilians, in a different way than say ‘terrorist’ practices do. Terrorists have nothing to protect. They are out of a discourse of human rights. They are evil incarnate. Falling outside the hegemonic makes you unrecoverable.

A discourse of human rights sanctifies and makes it possible for this political Frankenstein to exist. The question to ask is when does the Palestinian question fall within a discourse on human right (which would then only make it a legitimate claim ‘respected’ by the West) and when does it fall outside of it? The politically dominant strives to push it outside of the ‘civilized’ discourse in order to legitimizes more killing while the world looks at it oblivious because it becomes ‘logical’ that Israel or someone else acts this way. You can kill much more recklessly when you are on the side of liberalism.

One sad point here is that the Palestinian question will only acquire saliency when it fully complies with this discourse, something most western-educated Palestinians or pro-Palestinians strive to achieve. One will always look at Hamas with ‘reservation’ because at the end of the day Hamas is not inscribed in this discourse, neither through its claims (calling for the destruction of Israel) nor through its practices (hitting ‘civilian’ targets). That is the biggest tragedy. One cannot actually make a case that Israel as a political entity with the history it projects should be destroyed. Or maybe one can, but it will take a lot of other subverting strategies. And weapons, lots of them…

For now Islamic movements are not revolutionary enough at the political level. They have to extirpate themselves from a discourse of human rights. Their use of ‘religion’, and their practice of piety is a good place to start. We need to go back to a discourse of human ‘roles’. Away from morals and into ethics…

Democracy for you

What is mostly fascinating in Lebanon is that it presents an excellent example of the fictions of democracy. It renders visible the inherent tension between power/authority necessary for rules and decisions to be taken and people’s ‘bread and circus’ the democratic processes where unlike the Roman setting, here, we are made to believe that ‘everybody has an opinion that has to be taken into consideration’.

But authority discriminates inherently. State (and Nations) are built on this fundamental principle. Language, histories, territory, etc change based on this inherent violent founding act.

People are quite content to talk about democracy, liberalism, and the right to choose a leader, when the most basic violation has already happened: that people are defined by the very authority they think they are choosing, the very way authority is structured in the first place. In this case, people never choose, they are born and grow up in a conditioning state, established by the local legislative contexts and the relation to a history, a past they inherited from others before them.

Do you choose to be an American, a Lebanese, or anything else that authority sanctions before you are even born?

And in effect, Lebanon is a flagrant example of this because it has several layers of conditioning hierarchies while championing the discourse of democracy and rights et al. First there is the absurd positing of Lebanon as an entity with a State that barely functions. Today, no one questions this fact. Second, the confessional system which in the way it was established here (I will draw your attention to the radical difference with the Swiss case in a later post) precludes the possibility of building a State. Democracy here (the actual act of voting in the legislative and municipal elections) is set to strengthen this status-quo by renewing the acceptance of this newly conceived ‘society’, or ‘civil society’ (another absurd term), of the prevailing divisive and discriminatory system (to the different ‘confessions’ of the territory, and to who is conceived as ‘non-Lebanese’).

Democracy, in the case of Lebanon, has this added element that it fosters, year after year, the schizophrenia of people that must answer to the jurisdiction of that State.

The politics of “the rule of law” and that of “God”

I am more and more convinced that there is no basic difference between what is commonly called “secular” and “divine” rule. And I’m stressing the political dimension of this. Its performative dimension. Of course religiously derived rule is “rule of law” too. But here I’m using the secular concept of “rule of law” as European enlightenment has convinced itself and convinced the colonized world that there is such a difference, between “human-based” rights, and ethics (turned into rules) derived from religious teachings. Secular rule derive legitimacy from the texts of men whereas religious rule (an invention that arose in reaction to the idea that ‘secular rule’ exists) derive legitimacy from the texts of God, and the words of prophets (let’s not even venture in the discussion that prophets are men).

But in both cases, it is the actual texts that authorize ruling (not men). Reading is interpreting and interpretation is always different depending on the historical context of the reading (if I want to summarize a very thorny theoretical issue!). Texts are read by men (of course ‘women’ too) and they assume a constant supremacy over them. Indeed the most important aspect of these texts at the legal level is this space where the text is held above men, which is the same in rules supposedly whether derived from men or ‘God’. It is assumed that texts change more often in content under a ‘man-based’ rule, and I’ll go with the assumption that it does, but the result is the same when the text is set during a specific period of time it is above immediate human judgment.

Now a little story that will illustrate only one application of what I am trying to say: If I cross the street in London when the green light is on for cars, taxi driver (those who probably are mostly used to follow ‘the law’ to the letter) would actually accelerate the speed of his car in a seeming attempt to hit you. In this instance, there is a brief time where the law supersede the ‘human condition’, where the possibility of killing is ‘ethically’ less condemnable because “he’s conforming to the law”. And in every human action the English system is mainly based on this all pervasiveness of the law. Every human action is sentenced by a rule, a role, that is made much more explicit and inscribed than in other systems of rule (my point is that the “God” predicament does not change much).

Actually most Nation-State’s rate of success (economically, socially, etc.) is measured according to how strongly the ‘rule of law’ is ‘respected’, to what extent it dominates human relation, over human’s ability to make instantaneous choices. The disciplinary extent of that can be quite pervasive: it is the flip side of the fictitious ideology of “Individualism”, “free will”, etc. So many times have I gotten the typical answer “Sorry we understand you, and although it is an exceptional case, we have to follow the procedure or else it will be against the Law”.

I would actually postulate that human-derived laws can be way more detrimental and ‘despotic’ than God derived ones at the very least because of this feeling of superiority that man has when he finds out that he’s the bearer of ‘the logos’, of the Verb. I will stop here so that it does not result in a long post. But these ideas will be developed at length in coming posts.

Sex, Sex, and Sex (now do your job search engines)

Some time ago NBN (care of Nabih Berri, leader of Amal) had a show on relationships between the sexes that quickly turned into a debate about sex before marriage. The show consisted of an audience of students probably in their twenties, put in front of one Maronite priest, one Shi’a sheikh, and a sociologist from the Lebanese university (or Balamand, not sure).

I want to comment on what came out of this show, because I think it demonstrated quite well the big questions around which ‘sexuality,’ as a concept, has been framed, at least, in this part of the world. And my aim is to be as brief as possible so that people might actually want to read the whole post. So here are my tentative claims:

When we talk of sex before or after marriage today we raise questions; we come to understand sexuality very different ways than say a century ago. The role concepts like ‘religion’ and ‘belief’, play in the way sexuality is understood or framed change overtime in the sense that the very ‘notion’ of ‘sexuality’ does not mean the same thing for different people at different point in time and space. My claim is that the way we ask questions about sexuality betrays a specific ‘modern’ understanding of it that we in turn project back to some ‘non-modern’ past. This was clearly present in the discourse of the people attending the show, with or without social status (priest, academic, etc). Again just to illustrate, sexuality in the ‘modern’ sense is framed along new categories such as ‘private’ and ‘public’, sex related choices are made by ‘individuals’ living in a ‘society’. Most importantly, it puts the individual in the spotlight as a taking decision, analyzing and making ‘choices’ based on ‘reason’ or reasoned thoughts (i.e. this is good for me because such and such, or bad because such and such). All this is rather new.

The problem raised by all these ‘individuals’ when talking of their notion of sexuality is mostly not one of ethics, or even ‘morals’, but one that resembles what we clumsily call ‘identity’, and that I would characterize for the sake of simplicity here as a problem of ‘projected tradition’. Of course, social actors in place do for some think that the nature of their question is ‘moral’ (or reasoned) and that’s the whole novelty of it, but one need to go beyond the moralistic claim as representing fixed ‘values’ each person borrows from a pool of eternal norms that here we call ‘religious’ and there ‘secular’, etc. And so by identity I mean a completely fragmented constant effort at attaching representations of the self according to different traditions, histories or narrative, different signifiers built on difference, while being subjected to the various institutions, ‘legimators’, disciplinary agencies that are put in place. One needs to understand the specificity as well as the banality of statements such as ‘I am a secular’ or ‘a religious’, a ‘Muslim’, or ‘liberalist’, etc.

Every claim is attached to different representations of what the body ‘means’ for the self along with its experiential testimony (that in any case is always reverberated by meaning). If I put a veil or I don’t do sex before the marriage it means that I decide to manage my body in a specific way that builds up my ‘individuality’ as attached to the different signifying chains I make. But this building up of ‘individuality’ is crucially modern and legitimated by very similar agencies of power throughout the world, namely Nation-States and what has been dubbed ‘the liberal system’, that I definitely don’t think the “Islamic” wave challenged, for the simple reason that the political apparatus prevailing is being used without being changed by “Islamists”.

Which leads us to my third idea: with the rise of the modern state as a massive redistributor, reorganizer, and mobilizer of resources, living entities and geographies, and most importantly, as an institutional challenger to other social arrangements that once prevailed, ‘religion’ comes to occupy a different social space. The ‘religious sphere’ is created in reaction to this weird invention, the ‘secular sphere’. There is no religion, at least as we know it today before the rise of ‘the secular’ (a perfect example is the word ‘Din’ that did not mean the European term ‘religion’ likewise developed through the emergence of the capitalist system). These are new understandings elaborated in the epoch of ‘modernity’, projecting in the past notions worked out in the present through a specific reading of history, another tool for creating narratives or stories of belonging.

Now let’s see how all three points meet:

So during the show, as every person deploys such concepts and notions depending on personal strategies, experience, background, lifestyle, dispositions, etc, the different protagonists battled their way through making sense of their different social positions. The sheikh kept on going back to the idea that ‘religion’ is still very useful to regulate the lives of the commoners and that sex before marriage is more a source of nuisance than anything else, especially with marriage as a contract and very flexible tool etc. Here for example what the Sheikh points out to be ‘the religious’ was once ‘the social’ (also as we call it today) if I can permit myself such an abstraction. But the Sheikh does not realize this or let’s say that even if he did he’s nonetheless constrained by this hegemonic notion of the religious I am myself trapped in as I presently write.

The priest tried to articulate a concept of “love” which various significations could help the individual confront the realities (read as ‘choices’) fragmented families, teenagers and young adults are exposed to, and in turn could be used to strengthen their relationships. Knowing how to love creates types of union etc. The priest was in this sense way ‘weaker’ than the Sheikh, a sign of the more enduring autonomy of Islamic institutions in legislating lives and so adapting to changing meaning of words. This is understandable in the sense that the priest (along with Christian ecclesiasts of the Orient) internalized the western discourse on religiosity, an effect of the influence of Christian western missions to Lebanon that completely changed local Christian understandings of ‘Christianity’, and created an unbridgeable schism between enduring local social practices that are very similar to Islamic ones and are alien to practices that emerged in the ‘secular’ world, and the actual language that derives from the latter world.

One obvious example of this is when one guy quite sarcastically said that he was already in his mid-20s and kind of had difficulties managing his libido, and could not get married for obvious socio-economic reasons (changing realities we live in), and that he asked for counseling. So the Sheikh immediately answered him that he had the choice of zawaj el muta’a, while the priest kept on turning in circles diverting from the very banal issue of the guy until he said in an exasperated way “I have no solution for him”. The priest is left with the ‘secular’ version of Christianity, one that has no social solution in itself, but needs the backing of the all powerful State and its disciplinary institutions. Both the Sheikh and the priest though are trying to find answers to questions modernity asks.

The sociologist was a bit useless, stating obvious things such as attraction exist and that ‘statistically’ when two people are attracted and they are in the same reason there will most likely be some type of contact, you can avoided etc. This is probably a mark of the weakness of academic institutions in this part of the world in creating predominant worldviews (ideologies) and adapting discourse to local particularities without copy pasting Comte, Weber, or Gidden’s Sociology. Again this reinforces the authority ofwhat are today called ‘religious’ instances.

At some point a veiled woman in the audience answered a guy who’s been arguing for sex before marriage, explaining his argument by saying: ‘You are a secular, and I am a motadayineh’ the latter translates roughly as ‘religious’, in any case nowadays. But I think this claim is one that aims at drawing imaginary and so political differences (whether they exist in a ‘hard’ reality or not). They don’t exist as ‘sign’ that’s for sure. The question of identity that I tried to get around before is probably at work here. Then she adds quite interestingly “there is no difference between ‘making love’ and ‘having sex’ except for the emotions involved” and so for her, “marriage is for sex”. Indeed, for her, the system which encompasses what she calls ‘religiousness’ includes the social practice of getting married, legitimating, rendering ‘just’, in order to have sex. This choice she makes is akin to the one some women make when they decide never to have sex on the first night, or any other disciplinary practice that has the function of managing ‘sexual’ activity, or of course the total opposite which is to be ‘sexually liberated’ to choose to have sex whenever she wants.

But to go on a tangent here (already somehow explored in another post), one of my main ideas is that when we invoke the concept of the Secular we either refer to an institutional arrangement or a ‘State of being’. In the first case, the modern nation-state makes it very hard for alternatives to secular arrangements to exist (for example even if Iran as a political system claims to divert from secular governance, it is still institutionally very much a secular state where ‘religious’ authorities always have their legitimacy challenged by other political actors). In the second case, we are in a totally different place, we are referring to an imaginary sense of being (any sense of being is imagined I am just stressing the ‘imaginary’ part of it), that resembles more nationalist discursive elaborations, appealing to a historical tradition, a narrative that makes sense differently to each individual, although the process itself is the same (for ex claiming to be ‘religious’ or ‘secular’).

During the show, the most important (in the sense of the most mentioned) argument against sex before marriage revolved around a specific understanding of femininity, of ‘the woman’, the ‘woman in the east’, ‘the east’ as opposed to ‘the west’, etc. Most of the students agreed that one of the main problems facing women is how they will be marginalized and oppressed if they have sex before getting married (‘the fault is always on the woman’ they repeated). The Sheikh and the others agreed with this perceived social status-quo, calling on the students to then take marriage as a useful tool to escape this danger.

But I was astonished to see the extent to which certain women internalize this status-quo. At some point, one woman says to a guy advocating sex before marriage: “At the end of the day, will you accept to marry a non-virgin woman”, and I don’t know why but the other guy did not answer, and the discussion went into another direction. But this woman takes very seriously this eventuality: being refused by men because they lost their virginity ‘to somebody else’. She was practically accusing the guy of even thinking getting a woman that is not virgin. This is not just ‘female subjection’ as would a classical feminist reading of this would go but also ‘man subjection’: She was calling on the man to fulfill his role as “man” in a certain sense as dictated by ‘eastern society’. When you define the woman you are defining the man, a subject always overlooked by those studying women’s condition in this part of the world.

So in a way this was an unconscious acknowledgement that there is no ‘essential’ moral problem with having sex before marriage, but that it had to do with a particular region (they do it in the West but they are ‘different’, again the identity argument) that creates specific understandings of what it is to be a woman or a man. By the way, all this stands in radical contradiction with (and actually incorporation of) the repeated claim during the show that ‘we live in another epoch today’, the ‘epoch of fast information, internet, etc’ where ‘everything is available’. This is basically sex in the modern age: A redefinition of roles, a re-ordering of the functioning of institutions whether called religious or secular, a remaking of differences, and in order to defend these differences, the flashing of hollow moral arguments that hides a re-ordering of perceptions of the body and what it ‘means’ to the actors involved.

Unearthing civilizations

How did the “Lebanese” discover that they had a Phoenician tradition? Or for that matter how did the Arabs discover that they had some past glorious tradition that was decimated by the Ottomans? Don’t we read Arabic history as one that stops around the Abbasid era, and that then picks up around the end of the nineteenth century with what is called the “Nahda” (a concept copied from the European “Age of Enlightenment“). This reading of history finds its most perverse account in the writing of people like Samir Kassir who longs for another enlightenment Arab style.

This is the unearthing of civilization, of golden ages. In his study Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: The Fairouz and Rahbani nation, Christopher Stone ( 2008 ) makes this argument forcibly. He draws on other post-colonial scholars like Chatterjee ( 1993 ) on India who argued that the “national” paradigm has been unescapable by present post colonial polities. Stone has an excellent way of formulating this dynamic at the heart of this “classicization of tradition”:

the same historical construct that paved the way for colonization could, ironically, do the same for independence: “You were once great and need our help to become so again,” becomes tweaked to read, “We were once great without you and can become so again.” (p.14)

I would argue, that Islamic movements are totally in line with this process of recuperating history, contrary to Chatterjee idea that ‘Islamists’ are breaking out of the ‘national’ paradigm. Wherever there is State, there is Nation or a discursive efforts at producing a historically continuous imagined community, or different attempts at justifying the presence of the State.

Of course, it does not mean that “Islamists” are conventional nationalists, quite the contrary, and that is the historically unprecedented aspect about them: How are they struggling to make sense of these discursive contradictions? Read Tariq el Bishri in this case for interesting conscious elaboration (especially this one) of state territory and tradition in Egypt. Hizbullah’s intellectuals is a completely different story, that I may tell later.