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?

Who’s reading what and how?

Mali rebels torched library of historic manuscripts
Fleeing Islamist insurgents burnt two buildings containing priceless books as French-led troops approached, says mayor

Beyond the tragic implications of such an event, a small anecdote:

The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.
The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. The oldest dated from 1204.

Women’s rights? Was this “topic” added to suit the modern mind? I did not know there was a discipline as important as astronomy or poetry, music and medicine called “women’s rights”? Is it now a science of some sort?

A Christmas Lesson

In Christian festive times, Al Manar TV uses such rituals in order to focus attention on a political cause either pertaining to internal Lebanese issues (Jesus and messages of co-existence), regional (usually related to the Palestinian cause) or even international. On Christmas Eve for example, the seven o’clock news broadcast has most of its content devoted to the celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem and the various political performances around that event: Interviews with Palestinian leaders, review of the history of Palestine and specifically Jerusalem as center of Muslim and Christian co-existence. As a comparison, if there is a mention of some Christian symbolism in Christmas, and not just the usual global-market-legitimated consumerist style in the event of Christmas, it is in general simply about abstract concepts of love and tolerance that Jesus is supposed to have upheld. How many times have we watched on LBC and other Christian affiliated channels the different Hollywood productions of the life of Jesus and other figures of his time? When was this guy born? Bethlehem? Where is Bethlehem? In occupied Palestine. Where did Jesus make his most important appearance? Jerusalem. Where is Jerusalem? In occupied Palestine.

Why haven’t Lebanese Christians, so proud of their “Christianity” never made this link when celebrating Christmas? Whenever focusing on Christian related rituals or when simply referring to Jesus’ legacy, Hizbullah’s related media operationalizes these concepts in order to derive political engaged statements about certain forms of injustices in the world. When “Christianity” isolates itself in Lebanon by becoming a localized, privatized, and a-historical form of thinking ethics, some ways of re-thinking Islamic heritage shakes Christianity out of its torpor and tries to put it back in one of its historical continuum.

A note on the power of images

The most disturbing aspect of the Gaza assault is that it is proof once again that the more you are considered ‘civilized’ or ‘righteous’, the more you can get away with the most atrocious acts.

But it seems that it is not just the ‘western’ sphere, the international community, the Islamophobes, the western media, history books, movies, etc that are contributing to that.

I may go out astray here but I worry that the Arab media are contributing to this asymetry in human ‘value’. Showing all these dead Palestinian bodies, children and others, although shocking and moving to all types of audiences,  paradoxically helps these audiences grow immune to them.

One thing to learn from certain types of Islamic practices, and that Islamic movements are drifting away from in their own construction of modernity is that not showing faces is crucial to create respect, legitimacy and authority.

God, his Laws, his prophets and his leaders, are never more powerful than when they become an idea completely devoid of illustrations. This is one thing we can learn from tradition for concrete political action.


This post is undergoing severe re-Clarification! It is the writers opinion, following his enlightened readers, that the terms used obscure more than clarifies the meanings he is trying to propose…

It is not “religion” that makes people more “conservative” and sexually less “liberal”, but it is the capitalistic system, and the emergence of a bourgeois society. So Religion, or religious institutions in a capitalist system, religion under the watchful eye of the State can project more “conservative” practices.

Yet “conservative” does not mean much, and the management of the body is a much more complex issue than being “free to do whatever I want”. Because “free” and thinking that one knows what he/she “wants” are conceptual illusions that blind you from seeing how enslaved one is by the power structures in place. And that’s the merit of the liberal system.

Sense and non-sense about “Political Islam”

Those studying what is commonly refered to as political Islamic movements should know that the paradigm of the Nation-State is here to stay, and quite for some time and with all its institutional and politically practical consequences. The whole ‘secular VS religious’ debate begs the question. It is all an endlessly renewed effort to find a discursive envelope to the same infernal machine called the modern State with its projected population/territory/etc. It does not mean that alternative to the classical European narrative to the nation is not possible. “Islamism” is one such. And I’m not saying that the Nation-State cannot be challenged by “Islamists”. It can actually be challenged by any politically relevant actor/organization when the latter can challenge on a large scale the economic and cultural logic of the capitalist system and all of its institutional (legal for example) ramifications. Although “Islamists” branch out and create at times slightly different type of institutional structures they by and large stay very much fall prey to the cultural logic of the system no matter how hard they officially fight the ‘nationalist’ paradigm because their political calculations cannot but be national, geared towards using the structure of this pre-established colonial State.

It is in the music

There is a mass on LBC for some saint, and there is a choral playing the most horrible type of badly westernized melodies. Major and minor scales with little sharps and flats thrown in really awkward places. It is so ironic to think that a couple of decades ago you could still find traditional Maronite mass sung based on Arabic maqams. I loved the little part in Aramaic about the blessing of the bread and wine that was meditatively uttered in the maqam of Bayati. For those interested, in Arabic music there is no minor and major scales, intervals are much more subtle and based on smaller tonal changes.

You know how you can tell that Maronites were the most “Arabic” of all Christians in the Middle East? They were the only ones whose music was traditionally integrally faithful to Arabic musical modes. The only ones. And what a beautiful mass that was. Fortunately, you have good recordings of how it sounded. Not much different from any good Muslim inshaad or azaan. Alas, it does not exist anymore. The Maronite Church has completely altered the musical melodies/structure/lyrics (I don’t even want to talk about the new texts that are of such a bad taste), ‘westernizing’ the mood.

And rest assured, most of the songs composed by the “Islamic” artistic sphere among the Shi’a of Lebanon (and Iran) is following similar structures, although for totally different reasons. But will talk about that some other time.

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.

The sexuality fixation of the left reveals its liberal nature

Following Jamal’s post on leftism and its concern with “nudity” I did some thinking (never enough) and I ended up circling around this idea that the left always contained the elements needed to provoke its own demise.

The left’s stance concerning the dispositions and use/techniques of the body (sexual freedoms sometimes narrowly defined) is supposed to go hand in hand with the idea that to fight oppression, one must be able to manage his body as he/she pleases. Society imposes all kinds of rules on these practices, this status-quo is called “conservative”. When you put into question these rules you become “progressive” or “leftist”. One of the biggest problem the left has with Islamic movements is their very disciplined, gendered type of politics.

Notwithstanding the fact that this aversion betrays a bourgeois contempt of the left towards the other, I think the left completely lost focus of what fighting the domination/oppression of the body really is about (surely not the narrow minded ‘sexual freedom’). The exact lines of power between the self, the body and society are not as clear as “i can have sex with whoever I want”.

First the contradiction: if one is supposed to cultivate a ‘free’ management of the body, then one becomes self-centered and with time loses his more social concerns. I think this is why Fascism and Communism are not just two sides of the same coin (two opposite extremes), they are the mirror image of each other. Both ask for the erasing of the individual into the overarching ‘social’. The left thinks naively (in a liberalist way) that the individual actor can do this and at the same time learn to do “whatever he wants with him/herself”. But this makes one fall into a narcissistic pseudo-destructive individualistic practice of the self.

By the way, the real challenge to the Liberal political system of state-forming Europe was Fascism, and not Communism. Because it challenged the very nature of the relation between the self, the body and society, whereas the left was more concerned with preserving the liberal legacy of the all-mighty individual actor. I don’t know to what extent fascism was truly a challenge to the liberal order because Fascism was defeated (as a grand project, but fascistic tendencies still exist in Europe and the Americas today).

This is what the Islamic trend really objects to: Communism and other leftist trends are part of the liberal legacy. Both legacies (leftist and its father liberalism) through their doctrines have poor understandings of the place the relation between body and self-mastery occupies in society.

The secular and the religious (Part I): Conceptual confusions

Let’s wrap up the concerns that were voiced over the idea of an Islamic State. This text is a bit disarticulate and is mostly a series of thoughts on the question that I fail to more effectively organize. But I have been trying to produce a decent post about this for the two last weeks and I promised an answer so here it is. This is just the first part. Part II will be on the actual practices, historical and present, of political movements and institutions in the Middle East in relation to the concerns raised in the comment section of the last post.

I will start by the statement I found the most interesting: “I disagree though that an Islamic or for that matter any religiously derived state is better than a secular one. Unless the religious is regulated in a secular way”.

At the heart of this highly coherent and seemingly legitimate comment, lies the working of modern hegemony: The acceptance of a social system that has changed the significance of the term ‘religion’ or for that matter our understanding of the “religious” phenomenon and led to the rise of another elusive concept, the “secular”. The trigger of this discursive shift is the emergence, the rise of the almighty modern nation-state. New structures of power require new conceptualizations of social reality. The definition of two allegedly different phenomenon namely “the religious” and the “secular” is a political move before anything else.

It does not mean that the secular creates similar social spaces than the religious, on the contrary, but it is important to remember that the difference has nothing to do with something intrinsically religious or secular about it. Ok, for now I’m talking abstract and enigmatically so let’s try to illustrate.

When we use these terms we usually mean several connected spheres of social life:
1- personal beliefs about reality physical or spiritual
2- rituals and practices we engage in and the meaning we give to them (i.e. 1)
3- legal rules we abide by that regulate the interaction between social agents
4- Institutions that have the power to enforce the legal rules specific to the region (the State, courts, etc.

When people discuss the relation between the religious and the secular they usually refer to one or more of the four mentioned areas. The problem, I think is that sometimes they mix everything up. In a pre-modern settings these 4 areas of social life are not politically separate or distinguished, but the rise of modernity triggered a discursive separation, meaning that it enabled intellectuals, political actors, institutions etc, to talk of a separation of spheres.

The rise of “the secular” as a space in modern politics is, if you ask me, a big trick. In marxist linguo, it serves to preserve the interests of the overarching state (thus the dominant actors behind it). The rise of the ‘secular’ is accompanied by the rise of the concept of “individual”. The individually maximizing profit type of actor. The individual who thinks independently of his social structures. When we refer to the fact that ‘the individual’ should be free to make his own decision about what he believes in is to play by the rules of modern political structures of power. In this case, we fail to understand that in the first place, individual are social actors, meaning that they form beliefs ‘socially’, that their decisions are socially determined. But this valorization of the individual paves the way to the biggest political alienation of the individual which is the creation of the national actor. So you become an individual who is supposed to make his own decisions about things provided that you’re labeled from birth to death as a ‘citizen’ with benefits, and responsibilities vis-a-vis an overarching State.

So the State compartmentalize the four areas mentioned above. It privatize what becomes “religion”. Whereas in a pre-modern setting there is no such thing as “religion”, but more of a general understanding of social and political life that disursively links beliefs to rituals and political rule. It does not mean at all that people are automatons following the dominant ways of holding beliefs, it just means that talking about beliefs as different from rituals and other social activities, at the political level is non-sense. Privatizing religion (saying that religion is a private affair everyone chooses to practice on his own) involves fooling the individual into thinking that he is free to make his own beliefs about things, and these beliefs will be called “religion”, or non-religious is they don’t derive from a tradition of beliefs.

Arguing that there is something peculiarly religious about Islamic political movements is I think to miss the point of general political, social, and economic processes at stake. We think we have different beliefs about life etc. The content may be different but the form is pretty much the same. We all believe the same way. There is a striking resemblance between women who strive to look undressed and those that veil. Both are elaborating a specific representation of femininity. It is basically the metaphors that change, linguistic metaphors that end shaping the conceptualization of our Self. And this process is virulently social: We are all social agents holding socially determined beliefs. Rimbaud was not that stupid when he said “je est un autre” (I is another or Self is Other).

Also, we should not think that when one talks about being ‘religious’ he means going back to a pre-modern understanding of the four areas mentioned above (even if he/she think he/she is). Islamic movements for example accept, whether consciously or unconsciously the dominant social paradigm of modernity. Why? Not because there is something special about them but because of the imperative of new political and economic structures in place namely the modern-State.

Islamic movements are totally in line with these new conceptual categories the modern State feeds to the people. In this sense claiming to want an Islamic state is a profoundly modern phenomenon. The key here is that the reaction against the dominant discourse of ‘secularism’ is one against the identification to institutions that are not ‘homegrown’ (a point mentioned by one commentator). In this sense if I can vulgarize a bit, asking for an Islamic state is asking for a different ‘nationality’. Of course here the process of national formation is very different from initial European ones at the very least because the former is a post-colonial one. This is why we may in the foreseeable future see the rise of modern-state that are not exactly “nations” in the old European sense (as Islamic movements approach power).

So Secularism cannot exist without nationalism (or maybe other forms of projected collective history) i.e. language and stories from which governance legitimacy is derived. Likewise nationalistic manifestation in the Middle East take place through the discursive Islamic prism. France is ‘secular’ but without French ‘history’ of kings, revolutions, age of enlightenment and other Totemization of the past (to use a Straussian concept) what would become of the secular “French” system.

One should read Islamic resurgence through the same lens: the dialectical relation of social actors to a specific territory, its institutions. The Islamic is the set of signifiers attached to specific representations of the self. It is in this sense, I think, that the secular/Islamic debate is a bit sterile at the normative level. At the legal level, it wants to derive the rule of land, people, and resources from a different regional and historical context.

I have tried to understand Islamic movements as a cultural movement through the use of language in an earlier post for those interested. But I will have to develop these ideas further.

Do you prefer a "Secular" or an "Islamic" State?

Al haqid, during a lunch we just had, defied me to defend the idea that an Islamic State would be better than a Secular one, especially in the case of the protection of minority rights. Of course here by “minorities”, I mean any group that derive its imaginary sense of belonging from a different tradition (discursive that is) than the Islamic one. So in the case of Lebanon, most importantly religious minorities. This leads me to first make several claims that I think are crucial before defending my position:

1- There is no basic difference at the theoretical between a Secular and an Islamic state. It is only in terms of the institutions empowered and the repartition of power that difference could arise. there is nothing intrinsically more ‘democratic’ or ‘just’ in one or the other.
2- The conceptualization of an Islamic state is an imaginary one that include a lot of the secular tradition, especially as elaborated by Islamists. Today, the debate between both ‘systems’ is not a normative one because they are not clear cut and one discourse component has penetrated the other, this leads me to the two last points:
3- The question of an Islamic state is mostly tied to a question of belonging to a specific history and not to a form of governance
4- The secular state should not be the point of reference in terms of efficiency. The secular state hides many unresolved questions such as the one of the justification of nationalism, the resulting discourse of difference and the treatment of ‘national’ subjects especially in the age of growing minorities in the West.

So my argument goes as follows. In the case of the Middle East. Or what has been labeled as the Middle East, an Islamic state is not something to outrightly condemn, something that if probably well implemented may be more adequate than a ‘secular’ system. First of all because there no one ‘type’ of Islamic state, second because the claim for an Islamic state has to do more with a ‘national’ configuration of territory (imaginary sense of belonging), drawing on tradition, social practices, etc. And it is my belief that a political system that mirrors and travels well with age old institutions in place will be more efficient than any other. And in terms of minority treatment in the area we call the Middle East, we know for a fact that the Ottoman Empire area was one of the most peaceful between confessions, ‘ethnicities’ etc. So far as I can recall our biggest problems started with the colonialist quests, the subsequent breakup of the region and the formation of the ‘secular-state’.

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