​Remnants of Nietzschean aristocracy

When Ruhollah Khomeini, while visiting Iraq met with Muhsin Al-Hakim, he urged him to take action against the Baath regime who has just arrived to power in 1968. Al-Hakim is said to have replied: “If we took drastic measures people would not follow us. The people lie and follow their whims, they are in pursuit of their world desires”.

Here you have it, the ultimate difference between the old order and the new, between the aristocratic wisdom of Al Hakim and the genius intellect of Khomeini: using the new institutional and organisational technology to turn “people” into an “active”, useful political force. Ultimately, this required the reinvention of what is meant by “the people”. There were other known changes that separated the old order from the new. First as Marx would argue, there are the capitalist modes of production which leads to unbridled capital accumulation and acquisitiveness, and what comes with it in terms of social change and large-scale economic extractive systems. There is also following from the first, the formation of the modern state with its rule of law, bureaucracies, policing system and disciplining institutions that Weber, Foucault and others have explained in great details. But one  overlooked visionary of “modernity” is Nietzsche, who saw the change located more specifically in our vision of “the human condition” or the relation between social classes. Nietzsche is prophetic as he could foresee the left and right side of the political spectrum, belonged to the same tradition triggered by the age of enlightenment but also as a remnant of a Christian morality turned into populism.

wp-1477142125446.jpgNietzsche’s warning is that this discourse of human rights, socialism, nationalism, equality, all this stuff that reinvented our notion of “the people” had very dangerous implications. The theorist of “the will to power” was ironically the earliest to be wary of modernity’s potential to abuse power and lead states to useless wars. His critique of democracy was very much along the line of Plato’s and based an elitist view of the different capabilities of humans to develop political skills.

In this sense, Nietzsche was the last anti-mass-politics anti-populist thinker, the last of the old order (which stretched back to the Greeks and before). Al-Hakim’s quote mentioned above is revealing in the way that he thought through a pre-modern understanding of the human condition. That is not too surprising given that he belonged to an uninterrupted lineage of a class of people, Shi’i clerics, who went back almost a millennium. In this old order, humans were comfortable with the idea that equality doesn’t mean anything and does not exist in reality. If anything, equality is a dangerous reality. As al-Hassan (the son of Ali bin Abi Taleb) is reported to have said in a cryptic way: “if all men were equal the world would have been destroyed”. Equality is not to be confused with Justice, which is the foundation of conceptions of the-living-together in the older order. Ironically, today justice is conceived as a stripped down version of the old notion, as “fairness”, to echo Rawls.

Equality here is problematic because it involves an idea that we want to impose to an otherwise different reality. In reality, people have different capabilities, do different things and develop different skills. They also have different types of wealth, control different types of resources, all this relating to family, geography, history etc. Equality involves building a system that forces everyone to potentially receive the same kind of treatment. This involves erecting a while series institutions and technologies with unbridled power which although keeps the ideal of equality alive, in reality produce oligarchical systems in which influence and control of people and resources are in the hands of the few. Another difference in reality is that in the modern era the human condition is understood through a system of rights rather than through a system of duties and development of skills or ethics. The older order that was based mostly on this paradigm was rejected because of the power abuses that ensued from it. But the new system is presenting unprecedented power abuses that are for the time being unaddressed.


A wisdom interlude with Imam Ali: The Heart

وقال عليه السلام: أعجب ما في هذا الانسان قلبُه وله مَوادّ من الحكمة وأضداد من خلافها: فإن سخ له الرجاء أذلّه الطمع وإن هاج به الطمع قتله الأسف. إن عرض له الغضب اشتدّ به الغيظ وإن أسعد بالرضى نسي التحفّظ. وإن ناله الزع شغله الحذر وإن اتّسع له الأمن استلبته الغرّة. وإن أفاد مالا أطغاه الغنى وإن أصابته فاقة مسّه الجزع. وإن نَهِكه الجوع قعد به الضعف وإن أفرط به الشَّبَع كظته البطنة, فكل تقصير به مضرّ وكلّ إفراط به فسد.


And Ali (peace be upon him) said: The most wondrous part of the human being is the heart. It has elements of wisdom, and others that are quite opposite. If the heart is lifted by hope, ambition debases it; if ambition boils over, greed destroys it; and if disappointment takes hold, regret kills it. If aggravated, its rage runs rampant; and if made happy, it forgets to be circumspect. If fear takes hold, caution preoccupies it; and if safety is secured, heedlessness strips it away. If it gains property, wealth makes it a tyrant; and if poverty touches it, it panics. If hunger emaciated it weakness ensconced it; and if satiety is excessive, the surfeit oppresses it. Every deficiency harms it, and every excess injures it.

العقل والحياء والدين

وفي الحديث
أن جبريل عليه السلام أتى آدم عليه السلام فقال له
إني أتيتك بثلاثٍ فاختر واحدةً، قال: وما هي يا جبريل? قال: العقل والحياء والدين
فقال: قد اخترت العقل
فخرج جبريل إلى الحياء والدين فقال
ارجعوا فقد اختار العقل عليكما
فقالا: أمرنا أن نكون مع العقل حيث كان
من كتاب السؤدد – ابن قتيبة

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?


If you thought Beirut was a complicated place in a complicated (made-up) country, in a chopped-up region, then wait until you travel to one of the Balkan territories where different religions, languages, tribal affiliations are stacked in territories formerly part of different age-old empires. Their entry into “modernity” is paved with tragedies: first joining the communist hemisphere, subsequently creating their own movement such as in the case of Yugoslavia, and finally ending up broken down to a myriad of countries eagerly waiting to enter the EU or NATO (which basically means the same there as the motive for joining is mostly security-related).

Yugoslavia’s Tito was surely one of the strangest instance of late nation building. Did Attaturk, with all the cleansing of dominant cultural Ottoman forms that he engaged in, have an easier task at hand in fabricating the Turkish nation? The answer is not so evident. Turks were as much an invention as the Yugoslavs, and the territory that constitutes modern Turkey is as much a random draw on a map by some bold general in the turn of the century as is Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and so many other parts of the former Ottoman empires.

Why did nation building “succeed” in Turkey when it failed miserably in the Balkans, or at least in former Yugoslavia. Nation-building seems to only work where it is fierce, violent, drastic and uncompromising. the more the cultural changes were drastic and even  I’m sure that many people proposed answers to the question of the failure of Yugoslavia. I mean what’s there to succeed really. But asked through this odd comparison, the question leads us to an interesting problem.

It seems that Tito was “kinder” than Attaturk where the main language, serbo-croat, could be written in several scripts depending on where you lived. In contrast, Attaturk not only imposed Turkish everywhere, a significantly different language from Ottoman but he also changed the script from Arabic to Latin. There is a language committee of some sort that, until now, annually meet and gradually remove from Turkish, words with Arabic origins and replaces them with words that older Turkic tribes may have used. Ironically the Croats have adopted this method to distance themselves from their Serbian compadres.

Another thing that got me thinking is that Yugoslavia was a collection of territories that were at the crossroads of so many different age-old empires: most importantly, the Austria-Hungarian and the Ottoman empire. The worst historical combination is cross empire failure succeeded by cross nation building. At the frontier of traditional empires seem to coalesce a rich mix of communities suffusing religion, languages, sense of history etc. But empires attract the concentration of communities as they are a center of prosperity. How ironic that one type of political system (empire) could bring communities to live side by side, even if for pragmatic reasons, as another (nation-state) tended to create ethnic-cleansing urges or authenticity quests. yet one system (empire) is mostly pre-capitalist where the other (nation-state) is the sine qua non of what economist believe was the take-off of prosperity for mankind.

But here are some random analogies between Zagreb and Beirut. So for example, the Croats were much luckier than the later called Lebanese as Zagreb seemed to be an important city for the Austria-Hungary an empire. The buildings are numerous and magnificent. In contrast, Beirut was a marginalized province of the Ottoman backyard (so much so for all the historians or just ideologues who claim that Beirut is such a historical place). In general, apart from Istanbul, the Ottomans did not really care for building much. They were mostly interested in collecting taxes through local magnates and let them decide on urban planning (sorry for the historical anachronism here but you get what I mean).

In any case, what strikes me the most as soon as I leave Beirut and step into any other country is how poor Lebanon is. And by poor I mean in the many ways you can use this term. Mostly though, in providing the basic necessities of life and in creating a space for people to interact as a community. Zagreb is a magnificent city, with huge sidewalks, parks, markets selling the best agricultural local produce in the middle of downtown. Imagine for one second this happening in our plastic Gulf occupied Beirut downtown, between a parking lot and another, between the Aishti and Prada shop. You do have an agricultural produce market in downtown, Souk El tayeb, but it only works every Saturday and where a cucumber is most likely to sell at 5$ a piece.

Also, just for posterity, if a country is between East and West (what a horrible appellation) it is more likely to be Croatia rather than Lebanon who’s well entrenched in the East if anything. This appellation was used by several Croatians. And when I said that I was from Beirut I got as an answer “Oh how exotic!”. So let’s push the boundaries of East further to the west.

The most memorable moment of my trip was when a Croatian guy drew some parallels between our two “civil” war torn countries. He told me that people who lived in war zones for a long time seem to think that they have a special or unique experience which makes them more special than the rest of humanity. “But as soon as you get out of your country you realize how the world is way ahead of you in every way”, he concluded. On this, I have to say, he is completely right.

Nietzsche: Prophet of the Twentieth Century?

From Human All too Human, “A Glance at the State”
Paragraph 472:

But what if a quite different conception of government such as is taught in democratic states begins to prevail? If it is regarded as nothing but the instrument of the popular will, not as an Above in relation to a Below but merely as a function of the sole sovereign power, the people? Here the attitude towards religion adopted by the government can only be the same as that adopted towards it by the people; every dissemination of enlightenment must find its echo in their representatives, and an employment and ex- ploitation of the religious drives and consolations for political ends will no longer be so easy (unless it happens that powerful party leaders for a time exercise an influence similar to that of enlightened despotism). But if the state is no longer free to profit from religion itself or the people come to hold far too diverse opinions on religious matters for the government to be permitted any single unified policy regarding religious measures – then the way out will necessarily be to treat religion as a private affair and to hand it over to the conscience and customs of every individual. The first consequence of this will be an apparent strengthening of religious feeling, inasmuch as suppressed and concealed manifestations of it to which the state involuntarily or deliberately gave no breathing space now break forth and proceed to excesses and extremes; later religion will be overrun with sects, and it will become plain that at the moment religion was made a private affair an abundance of dragon’s teeth were sown. The sight of this conflict, the malignant exposure of all the weaknesses of the religious confessions, will finally admit of no other way out than that every better and better gifted man will make irreligion his private affair: which disposition will then come to dominate the minds of those in government and, almost against their will, give to the measures they take a character hostile to religion. As soon as this happens the mood of those still moved by religion, who formerly adored the state as something half or wholly sacred, will be transformed into one decidedly hostile to the state; they will lie in wait for the measures taken by the government, seek to obstruct, to cross, to disrupt as much as they can, and through the heat of their opposition drive the counter-party into an almost fanatical enthusiasm/or the state; in which development they are secretly aided by the fact that, since their sundering from religion, hearts in these circles have felt a sense of emptiness which they are seeking provisionally to fill with a kind of substitute in the form of devotion to the state. After these transitional struggles, which may well last a long time, it will at length be decided whether the religious parties are still strong enough to revive the past and turn back the wheel: in which case the state will unavoidably fall into the hands of enlightened despotism (perhaps less enlightened and more troubled by fear than formerly) – or whether the anti-religious parties will prevail and, perhaps through schooling and education, in the course of generations undermine the propagation of their opponents and finally render it impossible. Then, however, they too will experience a slackening of their enthusiasm for the state: it will grow ever clearer that, together with that religious adoration to which the state is a sacred mystery, a supraterrestrial institution, the attitude of veneration and piety towards it has also been undermined. Henceforth the individual will see only that side of it that promises to be useful or threatens to be harmful to him, and will bend all his efforts to acquiring influence upon it. But this competition will soon become too great, men and parties alternate too quickly, hurl one another too fiercely down from the hill after barely having attained the top. None of the measures effected by a government will be guaranteed continuity; everyone will draw back from undertakings that require quiet tending for decades or centuries if their fruits are to mature. No one will feel towards a law any greater obligation than that of bowing for the moment to the force which backs up the law: one will then at once set to work to subvert it with a new force, the creation of a new majority. Finally – one can say this with certainty – distrust of all government, insight into the uselessness and destructiveness of these short-winded struggles will impel men to a quite novel resolve: the resolve to do away with the concept of the state, to the abolition of the distinction between private and public. Private companies will step by step absorb the business of the state: even the most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of government (for example its activities designed to protect the private person from the private person) will in the long run be taken care of by private contractors. Disregard for and the decline and death of the state, the liberation of the private person (I take care not to say: of the individual), is the consequence of the democratic conception of the state; it is in this that its mission lies. When it has performed its task – which like everything human bears much rationality and irrationality in its womb – when every relapse into the old sickness has been overcome, a new page will be turned in the storybook of humanity in which there will be many strange tales to read and perhaps some of them good ones. – To repeat in brief what has just been said: the interests of tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand in hand together, so that when the latter begins to die out the foundations of the state too are undermined. The belief in a divine order in the realm of politics, in a sacred mystery in the existence of the state, is of religious origin: if religion disappears the state will unavoidably lose its ancient Isis veil and cease to excite reverence. Viewed from close to, the sovereignty of the people serves then to banish the last remnant of magic and superstition from this realm of feeling; modern democracy is the historical form of the decay of the state. – The prospect presented by this certain decay is, however, not in every respect an unhappy one: the prudence and self-interest of men are of all their qualities the best developed; if the state is no longer equal to the demands of these forces then the last thing that will ensue is chaos: an invention more suited to their purpose than the state was will gain victory over the state. How many an organizing power has mankind not seen die out: for example that of the racial clan, which was for millennia far mightier than that of the family and indeed ruled and regulated long before the family existed. We ourselves have seen the idea of familial rights and power which once ruled as far as the Roman world extended grow ever paler and more impotent. Thus a later generation will see the state too shrink to insignificance in various parts of the earth – a notion many people of the present can hardly contemplate without fear and revulsion. To work for the dissemination and realization of this notion is another thing, to be sure: one has to have a very presumptuous idea of one’s own intelligence and scarcely half an understanding of history to set one’s hand to the plough already – while no one can yet show what seed is afterwards to be scattered on the riven soil. Let us therefore put our trust in ‘the prudence and self-interest of men’ to preserve the existence of the state for some time yet and to repulse the destructive experiments of the precipitate and the over-zealous!

Thoughts from India II

Starting probably with Gandhi, but all throughout the twentieth century, it is my belief that Indian societies (not that I think India does not preserve some blatant forms of injustice) have been both judicious and clever in protecting the importance of ethics to maintain forms of social stability and power. By ethics, I mean social rules and regulations, practices and rituals, that dually constrain and open ways for the individual to act and engage levels of consciousness (I acknowledge that my definition of ethics is quite vague!).

Indians reveal how useful ethics are by demonstrating the logics behind them, their inherent “rationale”. In brief, they linked philosophy to ethics. Here I am not at all talking about a modern understanding of philosophy where people venerate and sacralize the act of Reason. Rather, I point to the use of philosophy in order to arrive at a place that goes beyond reason, namely, the practice of ethics or living harmoniously with other fellow human beings and living entities.

In other traditional societies that have witnessed this gradual mix of realities and practices, brought on by “modernity”, the original purpose of the premodern social settings was lost. Modernity came as bearer of lessons: you are backward, you need to change, and the first thing you need to do is liberate yourself from all such social obligations that seemingly did not make sense. Beginning in the nineteenth century, a huge storm swept towards the east and scrutinized social life in order to corner it as something that forced people to abide by rules that have no purpose, namely Religion, or at the very least that there existed other ready-made social recipes that would make people happier, or free.

The strategic importance of Gandhi and the reservoir in which he picked his ideas and practices was how odd he must have sounded when ethics, “truth”, and other metaphysical objectives had been discredited by a mercantile and individualistic society. These western societies had replaced these forms of “spiritual truth” by “reason”, which they thought the Greeks worshiped. Nietzsche’s critique here could not be more visionary. Alas, Nietzsche’s fell into the trap of Orientalists when he put Indian philosophy in the same bag as European enlightenment. “Truth” for Indians was not at all the self-righteous model that Nietzsche detected in Western philosophy and which morality he labeled as the one of slaves.

And so when Gandhi lays down ‘the system’, this meticulous observation of countless ethical norms and practices, which seemed odd in the beginning, it becomes highly strategic as it empowers societies and thus political systems. I explained one drawback of this in the previous post. Fighting colonialism in this case involved working on the mind, the spirit. Even though the Indian political system is still heavily indebted to colonial practices it did escape to some extent another virulent form of colonization that other societies gave into.

Indeed, unfortunately, Islamic societies of, say, the Arab world that contained the exact same potentials as Indian society, fell completely for the worshiping of new liberal secular values brought on by colonial political changes. One implication of this is that ethics as in “religion” was something “bad” precisely because it did not have any “logic” to it. One should look at what is “rational” and her lies the most important point: the irrational element within (and thus the ideology behind) the “rational” recipe did not excluded most rules and regulations that these societies followed and so most of them were abandoned.

And even today, with the so-called “Islamic resurgence” and its emphasis on the importance of ethics in regulating the life of the individual colonial schemas, especially aspects of the liberal paradigm are taken for granted. To be continued.