Hare Krishna Inc.

The London School of Economics is considered to be one of the most prestigious universities in the world where a tremendous amount of “international” students flock in to receive the benediction of the neo-liberal priests, from the capitalist-technological temple otherwise known as western academia. They then go back to their countries to preach the new religion. They enter a symbolic economy that directly throw them in the sphere of the elite simply because they know the jargon. It does not mean they understand ‘reality’ in a better way, it is just that they speak of it with particular words, a particular syntax, a style, they ‘name’ things in a way, they diagnose the ‘symptoms’ which permits them to act accordingly in the economy.

In any case, this is not the subject of this post (if this topic interests you, you can read this illuminating case study, or simply that). In front of the main building of LSE, there is a little carriage held by a guy who give away free vegetarian food to the random passerby. Tapestry of hare krishna slogans with facts about how pacifist and enlightened it is to eat vegetarian food, how it inspires a spirit of giving to the to other, of caring for animals, etc.

I seriously wonder, why are these guys giving food to those whose thirst is quenched? Why aren’t they taking their carriage to where the hungry is and to where the poor resides? No doubt that the poor would rather have eggs and bacon at the average coffee place held by a mix of poles, turks and other pariah of the London economy.

Watching the queue of very fancily dressed students coming from the economic and social elite of all over the world, waiting for their karma food, was really something disturbing. Except for Islamic movements I have yet to see emerge social action performed by movements deriving from traditions and specific readings of history preaching to other people than the rich. It may be that the particularities of the European nation-state system does not let emerge interesting social action outside the official party system in place with its affiliated syndicates and pressure groups.

Actually, it is the idea of nation that has been stolen from what is today referred to as ‘religion’, and its sanctioned claim to write history. But more on this later…

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Military codes and what have you

The day after the quick removal of Mustaqbal’s mercenaries from West Beirut, a Saturday if I am not mistaken, there were no cats on the streets. The roads from Hamra to Gemmayzeh were totally deserted. At the start of the bridge of Beshara el Khoury coming from Burj el Murr, the main road was blocked by big piles of sand, and one had to go through a little street to the right in order to cut through around the bridge and end up at the other side. After passing by a couple of smiling Amal kids with talkie walkies, I ended up facing from a significant distance the UN building in down town. The UN building in down town is the biggest masquerade ever. They are more guarded than guantanamo’s prisons. But that’s a different story.

Anyway, there were a couple of guys standing under the bridge, and judging from their clothes, they were Hizbullah militants. As I was a bit lost I approached my car from them and asked one who came forward to me: “How can I get to the other side?” The guy smiled at me and said: “What side are you talking about?”. And so because I am of the humorous type (as many of you have noticed), I said to him as I waved with my hand to the direction of “The East”, “you know… The Other side”.

And this is when he answered with a big laugh: “no, you have to be more precise! Are you scared? you know, even if you are a fan of Samir Geagea (min shabibet Geagea), I have a legal obligation (Taklif Shar’i) to do everything possible to get you safe where you need to go”. This last part was said with such pride that it was spilling over all the traits of his face. I quickly answered that I’m no fan of him, that I was just talking metaphorically, and that I needed to get to next to Gemayze. So he explained to me how to get there.

Why am I telling this anecdote? Many people heard of the “Taklif Shar’i” Hizbullah militants follow, and how it is connected to Shi’a legal principles etc. But I don’t find all these essentialist and culturally-narrow theories satisfying. I want to know in what way does this differ from any code, any disciplinary mode prevalent in military organization or any institution for that matter. What type of training other armies go through (the American army for example), and what are the similarities and differences in terms of crystallizing respect of authority and self-control? What’s the resulting relation between self, group, and organization? How is the carrying of weapon add dimensions to all that? I think it is a good starting point (not the only one by all means) to understand why is Hizbullah so well organized (compared to a chaotically disorganized Arab world).

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.

A linguistic theory (or perspective) to understand "Islamic" movements

Ok friends, here we go. After a couple months of ‘deep’ thinking, I got my own eureka. Here is what I think serves as a binding device for all the arguments I’m going to be making in my work. But I need to have an idea of what you think, if it makes sense, or is my eureka just a figment of my imagination (well it is one) that cannot be shared.

A couple of questions:

Is there something that differentiates Islamic movements from other movements? Is this something has to do with some “Islamic” component? If yes, how to understand this “Islamic” component?

My tentative answers respectively to each questions:

The difference is in the language used as representative of a different ‘form’ of consciousness (culture, etc.) shaped by different institutions and power relations in place. It has to do with something ‘Islamic’ in so far as the discourse and practices used to act are different and claim to borrow ‘legitimacy’ (understood as ‘linguistic coherence’) from a pool of metaphors, symbols, and clusters of meaning (of course constantly changing) derived from the spoken (here Arabic, but other languages too), and the written (Koran, etc.). The Islamic is understood as a powerful pool of meanings anchored (taking authority) from written heritage (Koran, etc.) that provides an all encompassing forms in order to direct changing practices on the social ground. The difference here between the spoken and written is crucial, I will try to explain this in a later post. The borrowing happens in hectic, unpredictable, and even contradictory way sometimes (depending on symbolically powerful actors who are at the forefront of this knowledge creation.

My argument (heavily indebted to ‘critical thought’ in general) then is: Islamic movements are resistance movements to a slowly maturing colonizing process, the one that penetrates and changes the consciousness of subalterns. The fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of modern state, and the entry of new forms of economic and social exploitation, all reverberating in the intrusion in the language used (here Arabic that completely changed its modes of work included new formulations, meanings, etc.), all are examples of this colonizing process. The most successful form of resistance is the one that strives to create separate forms of consciousness (different understandings (symbols, meanings, etc.) of social reality. Islamic movements to varying degrees are about that, that is their only a priori similarity, they go back to a specific articulation of the “language”, the one of the Koran for example (Gramsci rightly points out that language is a worldview). Now depending on historical, social, institutional etc. circumstances in their respective geographies, you have completely different experiences that arise. Most importantly, their relation with other forms of consciousness (like the more hegemonic, “western” form) is crucial to understand the evolution of meanings amongst these movements.

I’m not saying that Islamic movements are a ‘renaissance’ of Arabic as a language. First, this does not mean anything, just as much as the ‘Nahda’ of the XIX century was not a ‘renaissance’ of Arabic but more aptly described as a re-appropriation and development of linguistic devices to assert new forms of consciousness representing a specific social class etc. There is no aesthetic judgment in what I am saying, I’m just putting into light certain processes that I think can be derived from the reality we live in. However, I want to say that Islamic movements strive to master a certain use or practice of Arabic, one that sees specific concepts fusing in. It is like a laboratory of already existing clusters of meaning that is constantly re-worked to include the contemporaneous pressing concerns. the important thing is the artifact, the form in place (the language and its potential of asserting independent forms of consciousnesses)

Also more importantly, I’m not saying that Islamic movements are ‘regressive’ or ‘progressive’, leftist or rightists, fascists, etc. because all these are ‘western’ categorizations (meaning institutionally and historically determined in Europe and elsewhere) for political organizations. One can always compare and derive certain similarities and difference, some of them being very interesting, but remember that this categories are political programs in themselves. Fascism exists in Leftist political formations and vice versa. The dichotomy of right and left in Europe and elsewhere serves as a political disciplining device. Anyway that is another subject. And for fear of diverging too much I leave you with that.

Sadr

What a nice feeling it is to spend one day (Friday 31st) in Baalbeck without it being about either the Roman ruins or some insipid concert taking place inside the ruins. It was really something to start walking towards the entrance of the city, pass by the columns to your left but continuing straight into the actual LIVING quarter where multitudes of people were making their way to watch the ceremony being held by Amal in the memory of Imam Musa Sadr its founder. I don’t feel like commenting too much so here are some pictures that may capture in a much better way traces of that day.

Why Hizbullah does not want an Islamic state

The answer is easy: Because they don’t need it. Because thanks to the confessional system in place in Lebanon, they found everything they could want without having to establish an Islamic state. The skeptic would retort: “But why did they vehemently proclaim all throughout the eighties that they wanted an Islamic state?” Well because at the time they did not know that they could get all their interests preserved thanks to the confessional system without having to go through the painful process of imposing the idea of an Islamic state (of course here ‘interest’ is a term that is at best elusive and must be understood as historically determined, changing according to available opportunities and conceptualizations, so that we avoid making retroactive arguments).

So here I want to first object to the idea that it is out of a process of vague “Lebanonization” of Hizbullah that they decided to drop the idea of an Islamic state. I want to object of course to the idea that they secretly (in a demonizing way for the scared Lebanese) entertain this dream. Actually to clarify what I meant, I would like to accept the “Lebanonization” thesis only by clarifying what Lebanonization mean in the institutional political and social sense by dropping the essentialist bias inherent in the argument. Yaaneh, Hizbullah was never “not Lebanese” and suddenly became “Lebanese”. Hizbulllah starting from an ad hoc group of zealous and enthusiastic few, with sufficient backing, discpline, and favorable local and regional circumstances developed into a fully fledged organization with institutional over-reach. This ‘developmental’ change is key here and nobody (to my knowledge) worked on the intricacies and implications of this change, except from a broad ‘elitist’ and ‘essentialist’ perspective. Yaaneh, scholars focused on the broad political agenda of Hizbullah as a monolithic formation with a leadership making rational decision in the face of changing opportunities. Example: When Nasrallah became secretary general (but already at the time of Moussawi) he saw an opportunity to play by the rules. What does that mean exactly? It means first a conscious decision of the party to get involved in the Lebanese political life indeed, but most importantly it inscribes itself in a process of long-term change that slowly crystallized the idea that ‘we’re much worth it like this’. This last phenomenon was never carefully understood because to do so one needs to understand how Hizbullah slowly became very much dependent on the confessional system.

This requires in turn an understanding of the evolution of not only the institutions and organizations of Hizbullah but in what way the new political class of Hizbullah became very much part of the political system in Lebanon. Actually both these process are intermingled. I don’t have a detailed answer to that, and actually this should be a research project on its own, but I would like to point out on an intuitive basis why this looks like a strong argument.

To name but a few, electoral processes, municipalities, social welfare (organizations, etc.), schools, hospitals, all work according to confessional categorizations in Lebanon, meaning that it is most of the case a particular religious group that holds decision making in these collective activities. Hizbullah found in this case a haven for his own activities. One can study how this affects identity formation through the daily practices of people in these institutions and fosters even more the marks of confessional ideas meanings and beliefs into the consciousness of individuals. Here I want to stress the “culture” of the confessional system is highly alien to the one of an Islamic state at the very least because of the completely different institutional structures in place.

It is important to point out here that Hizbullah is only imitating what other sectarian groups did before them and first and foremost the Christians. Christian schools hospitals etc. are the oldest, and the political system of confessional piecemeal rule was a Christian innovation. The only difference here is that by controlling key institutions in the State, Christian elites were able to export the idea that they were a ‘secularizing’ force as their management of State affairs was resemblant to what goes on in say European states. But in effect, all the institutions of the State, and the institutions of social life in general were heavily divided along confessional criteria. Slowly but surely, Amal then Hizbullah learned to play by these rules. What’s interesting in the Shi’a example is that because they are new comers you can basically see how the confessional system, first makes it virtually impossible and highly costly to organize collective action outside of it, and second, sucks in new comers to build on the available institutional confessional processes and mechanisms.

Activists who later became Hizbullah starts off from various discursive background (communist, Lebanese public schools, religious, clerical, etc) find a voice in sectarian groups like Amal and then decide that through Amal things are not going to work for them (in terms of conflict with the Israelis, utter marginalization of South and Bekaa etc.). The Iranians say we give you a hand and you can export the revolution. That seemed like enough of a mobilizing element for these few radicals. Then organizational capacity develops, these people starts achieving political and socially on the ground, their affinities with their allies have concrete instrumental implications, but are coupled with their grasp of new ways to preserve their interests or the interests of a broad movement inscribed in newly developed and virulently efficient religious (confessional) institutions (just like any other similar institutions whether Christian or Sunni, just take the Jesuit school Jamhour and university Saint Joseph for a comparison).

Basically Hizbullah learned the correct way to get things done in Lebanon. An Islamic state would probably destroy most of what they built until now. It would transform a situation of mutual interest built on solid institutional ground into a big mess where they will have to start afresh and create such gigantic structures in order to reap the same political economic and social benefit.

Opposition in downtown revisited

Since I started talking to people living in Dahyeh and the South I have been collecting tremendous amount of narratives that opens on various social changes that never received the attention of the media. Here I just want to talk about one such instance. According to a young Hizbullah partisan who, along with friends, had put a tent in downtown when opposition demonstrations started earlier this year, the interaction with other political group partisans was very significant.

This guy explained to me how they used to meet everyday and talk about everything from political views, to hobbies, or life in general, around narguileh tea and coffee in and out of these tents. Just one note on the side: Nobody took money from anyone and people were there out of their own will. Actually it was a nice hang out place for most people. One of the reason why it dropped in level of participation according to this guy is that most of them are students and have exams during this period. I would stupidly speculate that others needed to work and can’t just stay there waiting for the elites to decide on future course of events.

So Hizbullah youngsters used to sit with Tayyar and other (mostly Christian movements) and basically socialized. So much so that thanks to that, this Hizbullah partisan ended up making new friends with whom he occasionally go out. A couple of days for example, he was hanging out in… Sassine.

The ad hoc social interactions that were created following these demonstrations I’m sure run deeper than we think. Lives crossed paths and myriad of new images and expressions ran through the discourse of all these protagonists. This is something that should be further researched.

Another note on the side: During the last infamous Metn elections, I was in Dahyeh (in the run up), and Aynata (the day of the elections), and these places had the orange color pretty much apparent on clothes, flags, etc. In Aynata people were glued to their television sets watching New TV (pro opposition non sectarian Lebanese TV channel) as if this was their own elections. These people were watching the unfolding of a minor intra-Christian petty fight as if it was their own fight. Through the various statements that came out during the day people’s enthusiasm or anxiety was bouncing all over the place. Since when did other Lebanese follow Shi’a politics that closely?