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?

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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!

Clarification

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.

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’.

The "Islamic" as outside the "secular"

Check this very interesting passage of Asad’s series of lecture on suicide bombing:

…however reprehensible it was to liberals, the violence of Marxists and nationalists was understandable in terms of progressive, secular history. The violence of Islamic groups, on the other hand, is incomprehensible to many precisely because it is not embedded in a historical narrative – history in the “proper” sense. As the violence of what is often referred to as a totalitarian religious tradition hostile to democratic politics, it is seen to be irrational as well as being an international threat. (p.8, emphasis added)

Exactly! What is outrageous about violence discursively defined as “Islamic” is its non-inscription in History, that is in the writing of history by social and political institutions. Leftists, or “progressive” have their place in this history, they can be condemned, but they are pretty much part of it.

The secular discourse has a history. Ex: antiquity, middle ages, renaissance, enlightenment, modernity, etc. These are all historical events injecting the narrative, the story, the plots, that forms the Secular. Even when we read the history of the region labeled as Middle East, the history of Arabs, or Muslim, etc. We read it through these markers (from school years up to history books, etc). The hidden question is then how does the Islamic world fare with regards to the onward march of the secular world?

The secular system is perceived to be an abstract system people strive for, and the Europeans reached it. But in truth, it is overloaded with these historical markers. it is the product of a history. Reifying it this way makes it a political weapon to claim moral superiority and legitimizing coercion. I do appreciate better the historicization of specific conceptions of the political. Marxist, leftist, etc. are part of a euroamerican (as would call it Asad, when he, I assume, wants to avoid the term “western”) history. Things that just pop out of nowhere are bound to be demonized even further. Ok, we know the rest of the story.

But what interest me the most is how did the secular discourse permeate all our understandings of social and political processes (especially locally)? Why today when we talk of ‘religious’ movement, when we think of religion, or the religious, we cannot but think of it, in secular terms? The extraordinary conversion of the planet into “nation-states” with all the related institutions, rule of law, particular use of the written, etc must have something to do with it, and the way some Arabic state lived this change is surely symptomatic of our general conceptualization of what is religious. The modern subject is allergic to the religious not because of what came to called religious movements as such but because of what he thinks the religious is (that plugs back into his perception of these movements), and so what the secular is. Because of what he thinks “belief” is, or private/public life is etc. The whole repertoire of concepts that entail the secular/religious division paradigm have to be unearthed, in order to focus better on the actual practices any type of movement engage in and how they are conducive to social or political change.