Illusions of Terrorism and Democracy

XU*5034480The recent bombings in Beirut elevates Lebanon to the ironic status of a democratic country, in the modern Western sense of the term. Sadly, this is no privilege at all, more of a burden really. As I argued earlier, Terrorism as a particular form of carrying out political action is only possible if certain democratic structures are part of society’s general culture. Terrorism targets the feelings of civilians because the latter can, through this particular human disposition, extract concessions from political elites.

After 2005, most assassinations in Lebanon involve a mix of vendetta types of violence that target political actors and this “democratic” form of politics. Vendetta types of violence do not necessarily target the feelings or views of a specific group of people, only political actors. Terrorism though does and is peculiar to the modern age. There is no terrorism without some form of democratic politics as understood through liberal ideals of representations (such as individualism, freedom of choice, mass consumption economy, etc.) and the political setting of the Nation-State. Wherever there were terrorist attacks in the non-Western world, it is noticeable that they always involved a political message either to foreign countries (say attacking touristic sites, nightclubs), or local political regimes that are democratic in the sense that the “feelings” of their societies can have a direct bearing on the political process.

Yet even though nowhere before have we been faced with the immediacy of distant death, nowhere before have we been so distant to killings that are incurred by people who are trying to send a message to us. In effect, terrorism targeting civilians is not targeting the people who were actually killed but potentially any people that are part of a political delineated community (here the Shi’i community but also the Lebanese, and so on). Terrorism in this sense is one of these rare instances where violence is used on a person or group who is not the real target.

To come to the recent suicide explosion in Dahyeh, I’m not here analyzing the political message sent to the elite (Hizbullah’s political party, or whoever is incurring such attacks) or to the constituency of a political movement or organization. I’m more interested in what people actually do about it. Although people can be “terrorized” by what is happening they seem helpless as to what to do about it. Can they really force political actors to change their course of actions?

Then, Terrorism is doomed because on the one hand it assumes that the feelings that civilians have, fueled by media strategies, are going to influence political elites to do something about it, and on the other hand, it assumes that civilians feelings are in themselves a motive of political change. Raw emotions do not create interesting change at the political level. Only does reason. And it is reason that is the stuff from which political decisions are made.

This is why terrorism is a victim of the media effect, and democracies or ideals of democracies are experienced as a spectacle in today’s societies. In our modern political systems that are animated by the technological and media industry, “feelings” and “emotions” understood in a raw sense are the primary human traits that is meant to dictate political action. This is why terrorism exist. In the absence of such human predisposition, terrorism would not be a viable weapon.

Here lies one of the contradictions of the culture of democracies and how they are the source of  their own misery. Democracies as they function today involve a politics of emotions that traditionally was never linked to politics as such. It does not mean that traditionally, feelings where not getting in the way of correct handling of political matter, far from it. War practices always involved forms of cruelties that surely were triggered by specific types of emotions and feelings and in turn triggered these types of feelings. But never, were feelings used in a way were curtailed by higher forms of politics that ordered the way agreements were reached, successions were arranged, or war were started.

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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.

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.

Christian desperation to be "different"

A disproportionate number of the Middle Eastern country’s Christian men carry a Y chromosome that is clearly of Western European origin, which scientists believe was carried to the region by Crusaders and pilgrims between the 11th and 13th centuries.
This genetic signature is more often seen among Christians, and more rarely in Lebanon’s Muslim or Druze communities. The Y chromosomes of many Muslim men trace their ancestry to earlier migrations from the Arabian Peninsula, as Islam spread during the 7th and 8th centuries.
The findings, from a study of 926 Lebanese men, suggest that both Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon owe their origins, at least in part, to different founding events.
Study co-leader Pierre Zalloua, of the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said: ‘This (has) revealed new insights into the complex history of my country.’
The research, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, focused on the male Y chromosome, which can be used to chart patrilineal descent. It found 10 per cent of Lebanese Christian men belong to a Y group known as R1b, which is of Western European origin. Just 6per cent of non-Christians had this kind of chromosome.
This indicates that more Christians than non-Christians have at least one male ancestor from Western Europe, and fits with the region’s history.
More than 250,000 men from Europe travelled to the Middle East during the four Crusades.

Now ok this is a very funny article treating a very pathetic concern but there are things important to note here:

1- The study was conducted by some Christian ‘academic’ from a public university in Lebanon. This tells you a lot about the presence of a knowledge industry that searches and elaborates through scientific legitimating methods the presence of particularities.
2- I really love how this contradicts a lot of Christian claims saying that those who really ‘made out’ with the crusaders were the Shi’a (la’ano keno feltenin) who obviously have a higher intensity of blonds, blue eyed and round cheeks (of course this is another bullshit theory but in this case not being pushed for legitimation).
3- Maronite Christians historically come from the Arab peninsula whether you want it or not. Now in the process was there any fornication that followed that I am sure it sometimes happened with whomever was on the way and depending on a case by case basis. But Maronite Christians are the most Arab types of Christians through their rites, their use of the language, their social practices, etc. (I’m talking historically, because today and especially since the civil war, they changed a lot in all these practices).

The original, not the fake (الأصلي مش التقليد)

Caption says: this is the “original”, el Asli (the one and only, unique, true) general

People often ask in Lebanon, when you buy a pair of Levis Jeans or some ‘famous’ brand, whether it is the original or some copy of the brand. It is not hard to guess what was thought to be the fake in this case. The one who can guess wins a special candy. Interestingly enough, nobody is claiming to be behind this new personality marketing campaign in Lebanon and according to this article nobody knows who’s doing it. It seems that the Lebanese army is out of this one.

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.

Back to Beirut: The Beginning

Since I landed a week ago in Beirut, I have been taken over by a general feeling of weakness (one of the reasons why I did not write since). I’m sure that the humidity has to do with it, and I am ready to bet that Ibn Khaldun and other social theoreticians of the Arab world were right when they conceptualized cultural practices according to regional climates, but something else was weighing on my heart (liver and wit for the Chinese).

These first moments you experience when you arrive to the ‘home’ country after spending a lot of time abroad are the most crucial because if you keep your analytical faculties wide open then you can notice all kinds of anomalous manifestations taking place and made apparent from the quick change in environment. Human beings get used to a specific socially disciplinary mode according to different habitats. Once you settle in a place you internalize these disciplinary practices and tend not to be aware anymore of some of their structures.

The first thing that struck me was the blatant absence of public space in Lebanon. I want to show how this very simple and even cliché observation can explain why confessionalism and any other parochial form of affiliation are the only effective ones. Lack of public space is not only a metaphor for the fragmentation of state institutions in turfs. It is not just an image for the fact that all ‘public’ social interaction happen in either religious schools, religious NGOs, or at home with the family or the kin as well as the socially close friend (so same confession). It is also the case that architecturally speaking (if I may permit myself to venture in a poorly understood area of ‘expertise’) there is no public space except pubs and bars.

This explains why foreigners (especially from countries where public spheres are very prevalent) are always out and everywhere. They unconsciously make up for this lack of genuinely public space. And even with that in mind a lot of non-Lebanese or Lebanese who did not live in the country confessed to me that they were struck by this harsh environment that can be wrongly perceived as too individualizing. It can be individualizing once you did a conscious process of stripping yourself out of the social mold you were brought up in only to find that there is no available space for anything else. So you’re just alone.

To go back to pubs cafes and bars, people can still talk there about their various views on life, meanings and affiliations, but free interaction is minimized in these places because you have to pay to stay. This is very important not just because it stratifies people’s availability but also because it inculcates a specific culture of public interaction. Also, these places are a nest for determined social networks. Ask any of these places managers and you will see how clientèle is finely chosen even when there isn’t a rhinoceros waiting at the door. And this is notwithstanding the culture of voyeurism and other perverse dispositions in which Lebanese finds themselves captured through this social space as subjects.

I’m not saying that in other countries you have perfect social interaction (a concept to compare with the economic one of perfect competition). London where I was staying is a far cry from that actually. It is a city rigged with a stratified social setting, and elitist mentality all throughout with Wasta as we like to call it to make it culturally specific, with paradoxical racial undertones through pragmatic practices.

But still in London you have amazingly vast and developed public spaces where people of all ‘creed’ can just pause and rest. You know parks, public libraries, gardens, benches all over the place, etc. Especially and most importantly public transportation (buses and subways). Now bear in mind that public space in itself is not sufficient to create public interaction, but its absence is symptomatic of specific practices (or lack of certain practices that are conducive to public awareness). It serves to crystallize that the only genuine dialectical process happens at home, or in a church, a mosque, a school. Sidewalks are tight whenever they even exist, people are mostly in their cars, services (shared taxis) and buses are privately managed which means that crosses, virgins, Korans and icons of all sorts are hanging down the frontal rear view mirror, and thus specific routes are favored. For example, to go from Hamra to Tabaris I had to wait until a Christian driver came along. The first one that had a Hollywood Jesus mega picture on his window was indeed the one who took me and then took along with me successively a woman to Ashrafieh and two army guys to Dora.

Take Solidere’s reconstruction and real-estate plan. Winston Smith explained to me over the most divinely prepared Foul Medammas in Sour (Vince, a poster of Nasrallah and Berri, and my sister where there too) how Solidere, although devising gardens and green spaces in downtown have made sure they were heavily guarded by private security contractors so that ‘dodgy’ people would not try to sit there. So how public is that? But wait a minute; did ‘public’ officials think for a minute how a “privately” managed monopolizing real-estate company would actually deliver a “public” social space when they amended the constitution in order to let Hariri and co take a hold on public asset? You see, a private company will care for the ‘well-being’ of its investors and clients. ‘Well-being’ in real-estate means security. Security means militarized geographic space. And in terms of disciplinary practice, this contributes to a fragmentation of societies’ groups of all genres and the crystallization of huge inequalities through separated social classes.

One could cite a lot of examples like services, Solidere, pubs, institutions, etc. to show this pervasive manifestation of parochial social practices enmeshed in a façade of “modern” institutional framework. I want to stress the point that the absence of these public structures inhibits significantly any genuine collective initiative. It illustrates very well how opposition groups in downtown are simple salaried functionaries of elite party cadres. There is even a natour (concierge) with a table and a phone at the north beginning of downtown who stopped me after looking at me suspiciously and asked me where I was going. I said “what?”, and then he hesitantly carried on: “what are you carrying?” alluding to a cylindrical case containing my nays. I told him that these were musical instruments and so after a moment he let me go. These guys would stop bystanders walking in the city but they would not stop Solidere’s on-going projects, or besiege the Serail or something.

Why? Because they are functionaries of higher diplomatic quibbling. Because while their leaders are finding a way out where some type of exploitative structures can be preserved, they sit idle, smoke narguileh and make the lives of people walking, driving and working like hell. This is a direct consequence of a lack of genuine social initiatives at this scale. This is also the result of disciplinary practices. Although causes espoused by the opposition groups are more socially oriented than any of the ideologically rightist and chauvinistic 14th of March mobilizing drives, the practices of elite and constituency in this case is still similar to those of the ruling ‘majority’. And this is but a manifestation of disciplinary practices in the ‘modern’ Lebanon as created by French and local elites.

Social and political discipline in London and in most of Europe means rule of law, the efficient functioning of market institutions and certain key monopolistic economic settings. In Beirut and the rest of fragmented Lebanon disciplinary practices involves the absence of public space, through urban and rural specific institutional and architectural settings. But disciplinary practices are also discursive. So it explains very well why sectarian narratives are the most influential in mobilizing and forming the different Lebanese subjects.

Also there is an unbridgeable discrepancy between State and parochial discourse. What I am trying to say is that although there is a recurring ideas and metaphors fed by the state that Lebanon is as such discursively defined outside the scope of the sects, the daily practices do not mirror this fact. The only time Lebanese act as Lebanese is when they pay their taxes (of course not even during elections as they are confessionally defined), a negative way of defining your identity one could say. This last idea needs further studying through a close look at state, government official but also media rhetoric and symbols. If energy continues to go ascending then I will surely write more.