ISIS and the specter of Zionism


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

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

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

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

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

Why Lebanon is definitely not Switzerland

I have been cooking up this post for so long now, ever since the Swiss president paid us a visit, and yet before that, I was thinking that it is time to set the record straight. Yesterday, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea (who we love to talk about on this blog, and here (also here) some background reading) presented his Defense Strategy plan. And again, ever since, because it is always about picking up from the past, ever since Hizbullah’s SG Hassan Nasrallah in a goodwill gesture, mentioned that if one needs to talk about Hizbullah’s weapons, one should first discuss a workable “Defense Strategy plan”, everybody from all ends of the political spectrum seem to have defense plans.

But how the hell would the LF have a Defense plan? Against who? The Syrians? Since when did they perceive the Israelis as their enemy, and since when, oh since when, anything past the ‘Christian cantons’ did matter to them? Well, I mentioned the key word here, Cantons, because Geagea took this as an opportunity to propose to follow the Swiss model of ‘7iyadiyeh’ (neutrality), that is the word used I am still working out how did the ‘Defense Strategy plan’ made him think of Switzerland. First, this is an interesting slip from the original Christian isolationist ideological version, couched in Western-State-building jargon: Federalism. One has to be in tune with fashionable words. “Defense Strategy”, “Consensualism”, that is the stuff one wants to hear on the Lebanese political arena. Basically today, in this tiny shit hole called Lebanon, you don’t talk about Federalism anymore, you just say ‘the Swiss model’, even though no one knows anything about Swiss history and their lack of neutrality that spanned for centuries when their State was being built. But let me address all this by branching out and picking up from the footsteps of that lovely Swiss president who came to visit us some time ago.

Some time in October 2008, when Swiss president Pascal Couchepin listened to his Lebanese counterpart talking about the years of sectarian strife in the Lebanon, Talal Salman reports that Couchepin simply answered “not to worry”, that Switzerland experienced ‘civil war’ for more than a hundred years, only to come down to the conclusion that “people realized that they had to live together whether they want it or not”.

Couchepin was maybe trying to be ‘civil’, or ‘diplomatic’, or maybe he just did not know (just like any other politician) ‘what people think’. The only ‘civil war’ (labeled as such by the official authorized versions of Swiss history) lasted a mere 27 days at some point in 1847, marking a transition between one form of rule and another. This does not mean that people were not divided inside the country for centuries, who knows, probably till now. But the Swiss State actually grew to become strong as it engaged and won battles thanks to a long-time feared army. How come this is so there but not here? How come poor little Lebanon could not have a strong army, or a strong state? When one comes to think about it, not only do we have the ‘divided people’ criteria in common (multi-confessional society) but we also “have banks”, and we tried to remain ‘neutral’ during the “Israeli-Arab conflict” just like Switzerland during the Word Wars. Worse, we actually speak the same language whereas they don’t even do that in Switzerland!

In order to understand this seeming paradox, let’s go back a little. First of all, this ‘We’ I am using refer to political Maronitism who was the first to join the nods that made up this highly imaginative comparison. Political Maronitism basically loved the ‘neutralit’ argument, the ‘confederation’ setting, all supposed to justify their isolationist stances.

In the middle of the twentieth century, theories flourished on what makes up the particularity of Lebanon and one of them, very dear to Christian elites (that was subsequently very much internalized by Muslims as well) was the idea that Lebanon is the Switzerland of the Middle East. Although I would think that the ideological wind will shift hegemonic nationalist discourse towards one based on the idea of “resistance”, we still hear a lot of people from all sorts of social backgrounds saying that Lebanon is like Switzerland more or less. One of the highly useful aspects of this ideological construction is that it could ultimately legitimize the idea of a federal state and of a inoffensive army. As used to say Pierre Gemayel (father of Kataeb cum LF), the strength of Lebanon is in its weakness. In the ideological euphoria of the 50s and 60s we hear people talk about ‘confederation’, a laughable term in Lebanese standards judging by how the actual Swiss confederation came into being, through wars, and the strengthening of an army.

The first irony to mention here is that Switzerland may be the oldest ‘state’ or political arrangement alive today. What is called the Old confederacy was instituted in 1291, so roughly when say the Ottoman empire was starting to enjoy monopoly over what can be labeled as “Islamic” territory. So yes, one cannot say the same thing about our dear Lebanon who in fact is a late colonial creation (compared to India say, or Latin American states). But more importantly, the Swiss confederacy emerged ‘from within’, as an alliance between several commercial hubs (city-states) that facilitated trade between them. This alliance became so strong that it could military rival neighboring powers. These dudes were so keen on having their interests (namely economic) preserved and trade channels unchallenged by the conquering fantasies of neighboring kings that they ended up agreeing on a political formula. We are very far from Lebanese standards: Lebanon is created by a colonial power (France) and strongly lobbied by one paranoid sect of the Middle East (the Maronites) that happened to be quite concentrated in a particular mountainous region, as an alleged mean to protect itself from, yet at the same time dominate the other neighboring sects and groups.

This basic difference is just huge. First and foremost it foreclosed the possibility of initial ‘homegrown’ contract or agreement. And in the first place there was no need for any such agreement because only the Christians were calling for this isolationist stance, while other groups were content with having some kind of a pan-Arab form of rule. So even if the Christians wanted, with the best intentions at heart, to have an agreement with the different non-Christian groups convincing them of the economic and political utility of the creation of the Lebanese entity, that would not have worked in the first place. So it locked the project of building a State and sharing power through outside alliance to protect the divisions in place.

But ideologies flourished. The analogy to the Swiss model was used to legitimize other segmenting drives. It brought substance to the idea that Lebanon’s economy strive through the strength of its banks, another laughable statement judging from how poorly they fair today. The whole ‘service economy’  argument, developed by lauded ideologues such as Michel Chiha, all these pieces were fitting in this big puzzle called ‘the Swiss model’ , that the Lebanese were creating for themselves, imagining a Switzerland of their own, each group to his own benefit.

And yet the biggest difference still remained at the ‘existential’ level:  Switzerland’s various groups came together to protect themselves against outside intervention, whereas in Lebanon it is the various local groups who pick outside actors to protect them against ‘inside intervention’!

There are so many unexplored sites when one opens this highly ridiculous analogy. I prefer to focus on a couple of points as this post is already too long. But just as another area that could be explored, it seems flagrant to me why Federalism as an ideology, a system of thought (but not as a de-facto option, the distinction is huge) is so alien to Hizbullah’s political culture. The idea of Federalism in Lebanon, ferociously lobbied by Christian elites can only emerge from there, from an isolationist trend that in the first place led to the establishment of the State of Lebanon. And that’s isolation from within, against the ‘other’ within the delineated territory, and that is one of the crucial difference with Switzerland. The way Hizbullah dealt with the ‘other’, the way also it conceptualized itself in re-action to the ‘other’ followed diametrically opposed trajectories than the Christian one. I will write more on that later.

And I leave you with this brilliant line from a Chinese newspaper article writing on Couchepin’s October visit to Lebanon:

This was the first visit of a Swiss leader to Lebanon, however, the Swiss model has been seen as convenient to apply to Lebanon due to the similarity of having various factions in the same country.

Don’t you love the “however”? If you thought the Americans don’t know where Lebanon is on a map, well, see how the next superpower looks at the miserable 10,542 km2

"the other" is like me!

Check this Jewish guy discovering that “Hizbullah people” did not feel like barbecuing him when they discovered he’s “a Cohen” (thanks Emily). Notice how simplistic and naive his existential questions are. It is always with great childishness and innocence that we discover that most of what we believe are creations of the authority that ‘raised us’, because the internalization of these views are done in such an infantile way, that their demystification requires a jump in past processes. Freud called this ‘regressive states’.

Faces of Christian culture in modern Lebanon

I hope that one day we will have a detailed historical and social account of the rise of a chauvinistic culture among the Christian constituency of this newly created state of Lebanon. It mustn’t stay in the generalities, like ok they were rich and all (because that is not accurate at all) or privileged, but it will have to really go deep into an analysis of their changing lifestyles, educational patterns, different placement in the economy, material and spiritual expectation, the dynamics of colonial and post-colonial influence etc. But until then, and for fear of repeating myself I will continue pounding in this direction.

So in another post away from this blog, I quoted this Lebanese Parliamentary member’s very luminous political convictions. I thought that was it, but I don’t know why his words got stuck in my mind for a couple of days. As it was part of a nice article written in French and published in L’Orient le jour on the lifestyles of the parliamentary members that were locked in the Phoenicia hotel and because I wanted to comment further on these words, I translated the haunting passage:

From his first [Bassam Chab] words we understand that he is against all type of compromise, “because it could be the prelude of the end of Lebanon”, he thinks. “There should be no concession in our decisions because we are not waging a political war, but a battle against an ideology that refuses to be in phase with its epoch, an ideology that will sink the country in the darkness of the Middle Ages and ring the tocsin of a free and modern Lebanon. We are struggling with a system of the past that is fanatic and mediocre; against a foreign culture that has nothing in common with our cultural heritage.” Chab even refutes the principle of “neither winner nor a loser”. “Either I am a winner and I live like a free man or I am a loser and I leave this country. A country where it is enough for a person to put on a robe to crown God and decide to humiliate me in public [too bad I can’t translate the word he uses here: gémonies] because I drink alcohol or because I am Christian. I want a definitive solution to the Lebanese problem. I don’t want to see my kids to live what I am living now. They (Hizbullah) liberated the south? So what? The Communists have fought the Nazis, but this is not a reason to accept a system that has violated human rights and has been responsible for 10 million death.”

Ok breath in slowly, and breath out even slower…

See, every single word, clusters of words, are a sign of so much prejudice and ideological content. I won’t even mention the style in which this paragraph was written (the particular French syntax), but this betrays the practices of two agents, the journalist and the deputy. Instead of commenting lengthfully on each, I am going to list a number of points that comes out of this paragraph:

1- The ‘Middle Ages’ metaphor (imported from the West) to symbolize ‘backwardness’. The other is the enemy and the enemy is inferior. (Post-Colonial rhetoric of social difference)
2- We have a ‘cultural’ heritage, ‘the other’ does not. Superiority is always established through symbolic struggle, the power to name or to set the terms of speech (Sahebna Bourdieu)
3- Demonization of the enemy through the ideological. Hizbullah is like “Communism” (the idea) because on the ground, Communist was ‘responsible for so and so’, so Hizbullah must surely be the same thing, no need to judge Hizbullah on the ground. The alcohol example goes in line with this type of reasoning. (Shrikna Zizek).
4- The idea that ‘we don’t compromise’, patriotism is either I win everything or I get out. What follows from 1 to 4, is a chauvinism and a complex of superiority that precludes the possibility to negotiate, to engage ‘the other’, the other has been abstracted as an idea. In turn this signals no real capacity for diplomacy and engagement.

Ask a "Shiite"?

I don’t know if I should laugh or cry, but this blog or whatever you want to call it, has thought it would be useful for an alleged ‘dialogue of civilization’ to “Ask a Shiite” in such an ingenious fashion:

Our resident expert will be fielding questions of a philosophical, physical, and political nature in regards to Shiite Islamic belief and Middle East perception from his own eyes.

Notice the ‘rank’ of the ‘resident’. And notice that a lot of weight is put on “perception from his own eyes”. Did they mean to talk about his eyes encapsulated in a reified conceptualization of a uniformed and monolithic bunch of Shiites?

The loveliest part of it all, is that these forum of discussion are genuinely believed to engage ‘dialogue’ when in fact they serve to crystallize at a much deeper level a rigid perception of “the other”. “Lodge” it in your head: Nobody thinks according to a cohesive system of thought that a dilettante ‘thinker’ has written in a paper or book or what have you. There is not such a thing as a Shiite. Only you, me, political dominant players whether Shiite-named or not, are those who conceptualize an alleged “Shiite Islamic belief”.

The "legal" manipulation

Please don’t even go there, don’t even pull the argument that as Israel showed it could criticize its actions as a warmongering state, then Lebanon should do the same and uphold Hizbullah responsible for alleged constitutional violations. Because, if it really was a ‘constitutional’ problem then Hizbullah has played by the rules from beginning to end. It has been talking of its defense strategy which included capturing soldiers, and all the political players seemed to agree. Go back to your newspapers of last year and the year before. Hizbullah has been at great pains and spent a lot of useless time playing by the rules so that no one comes to pull out stuff like that. Why? Because it pays for Hizbullah to play by the rule because this way it can reach the state and create an image of legitimacy in a much more effective way.
Why? Because Hizbullah is a popular movement and popular movements build credibility incrementally.

And one important detail: It is Israel who attacked and destroyed the shit out of the country damn it, and it was planning to do so anyways!

Check this pitiful call for ‘accountability’ by leader of the infamous democratic left Elias Atallah (thanks Hilal). See him beg for the international tribunal. Shame Shame Shame. Maybe we should apply some accountability on him and see where he gets his paycheck at the end of the day. I can’t believe people like him do not just keep a low-profile and shut the hell up. Do you realize that this guy was with a party that fought in the ‘resistance’? I don’t think that at the time he was waiting for constitutional decrees to answer to Israeli aggression. But with time things have changed, one starts living the good life of the bourgeois and starts courting the rich magnates, then one discovers that ‘state’ ‘legality’ etc. are useful tool when it comes to impose a specific view that can get him closer to power.

The ideological in L’Orient le Jour and beyond

I unfortunately cannot post the link because the article was published yesterday and L’Orient le Jour think that they are so interesting as a read that they make their archives payable (although without an online system to view it), but there was a certain Elie Fayad who wrote a horrible article unleashing his wrath against none other than Michel Aoun (leader of Christian opposition group). Funny how the most vitriolic charges against Aoun are written by Christian proto-fascist culprits. And L’Orient le Jour has been the most important platform (much more than Annahar interestingly enough I would argue) to make it a duty to criticize Aoun everyday (two days ago it was the decadent made-columnist Ziad Makhoul). Without reviewing all of the non-sense these guys propose, I just want to stop at one idea articulated by Fayad that is quite symptomatic of the intellectual thinking of the political right not only in Lebanon, but also in any produced political depiction of the Middle East, and that is the idea that today, the Arab world is not anymore in a struggle to assert an ‘Arabist’ face (as it was supposedly the case from the 1950s till the 80s) but is actually struggling to deal with the internal demon of the ‘Sunni-Shia’ divide. He uses this historical development to explain why Christians (because it is always about the choices Christians should make at L’Orient le Jour) should change their point of focus.

The following is just a parenthesis of thoughts derived by this reading (I will try to elaborate these ideas at much greater length in later posts). In this simple statement, you have decades of symbolic construction (elaborated by intellectuals, political actors, etc.) condensed to produce the best example of an ideological statement. It is as if when you talk of a ‘Sunni-Shia divide’ there are such entities in reality as ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’ beyond the political interest of a few who instrumentalize and create constantly re-drafted boundaries for what we should understand when we say ‘Sunni’ or when we say ‘Shia’. Of course, Fayad may know this, may be able to do this deconstruction. But if he’s conscious of the political manipulation, he nonetheless uses the available discursive form thus complying with the dominant discourse, reiterating something essentialist about the ‘Sunni’ or the ‘Shia’ beyond the material basis for such labels. This is the crux of the ideological: some hidden meaning in the word that does not really exist in the Real, that is nonetheless used to make sense of reality, even if conscious of its non-existence (i.e. that the subject is conscious of the fact that the concept of a ‘Sunni-Shia divide’ is not really existent across all of the Arab world).

Take for example the concept of ‘the Syrian’ or ‘the Palestinian’, and see how the pervasive ideological element (the idea that there is something lodged in the idea of a Syrian or a Palestinian, something synonymous to ‘the other’, ‘the enemy’, ‘the manipulator’, or the one who pulls the strings for example) has foreclosed the possibility of genuinely interesting inquiry about political developments in the past couple of decades.