France and the Question of Culture

The media has been swamped by a defense of French culture and values as being superior and enduring than the culture of those who were seemingly targeting it. I just want to propose some nuances that would advise to tone down this rhetoric.

Given that people like to call the Paris attack, a French 9/11, let’s draw some parallels here. When planes crashed in the world trade center towers on 9/11 of 2001 (and provided it wasn’t “an inside job” as some of my friends insist), it was not just America’s symbol of power that was targeted but American symbol of domination over the world. American imperialism is first and foremost economic, and its presence in the Gulf, its security for oil agreement is a testimony to that. What happened in Iraq is another case in point.

France’s “imperialism” has been cultural. Whether in its former colonies, yet most importantly in this case, at home. No other country has philosophized, legitimized and sacralized its way of living like France, so much so that even in the “White” Western world, people stereotype the French on this question. The point is that when attackers hit at the heart of “the Parisian life” they are not just reacting to France’s symbol of power, what French take pride of, but they are reacting to decades of domination and oppression in the name of this culture, as seen in the treatment of Muslims, their religion, way of life, and so on. So what matters is not culture itself (well that does not exist really) but what culture actually does, or how it is used. As an illustration, the Scots are proud of their kilt but they don’t force everyone to wear them, or at least they don’t mock people who don’t think kilts are their cup of tea.

Yet look at French TV, media and intellectual production at large. Over the years, Islamophobia has developed into a complex satirical art in itself (of which Charlie Hebdo is just an ugly frontman) and has been backed by concrete state discriminatory policies such as in the case of the veil all in the name of so-called “republican values”. Terrorism is targeting these symbols of oppression and turning it into a spectacle for global media consumption.

As a side note, whether attackers overthink the reality of these structures of dominance or act impulsively to perceived grievance is besides the point. From looking at the publications of “Islamic” militants they don’t show a higher degree of intellectual depth and reflection of social reality. Contrary to what ISIS and violent “Jihadi” observer theorize about, they are just angry and resentful. And this type of militancy gives them the possibility to channel this anger.

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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

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.

EU blacklisting Hizbullah’s military wing

hezbollah_EUEU’s decision to label Hizbulah’s military wing a terrorist organization is a silly decision, one that betrays a simplistic understanding of the politics of the Middle East in the last three decades.

My intuition is that this decision is the fruit of years of erroneous analyses about the organization that is thought to have “changed”, to have become “moderate” and “democratic” because it is now fully engaged in the local political Lebanese game. This representation of Hizbullah has pushed forth the crazy idea that if one could just somehow neutralize some military wing of the party then a fully gentrified Hizbullah can strive in a healthy democratic and pluralistic Lebanese arena.

Non-sense.

Hizbullah never changed and Hizbullah does not have different “wings”. Hizbulah is the Islamic Resistance, or simply the Resistance as a military project that fights Israeli occupation and ambitions in the region. Hizbullah political “wing” is only a democratic representation of this project in the parliament. This means that people who support the military resistance against Israel voted for Hizbullah to be represented in the Lebanese parliament.

By blacklisting a “military wing” the EU is condemning (or judging!) a popular and legitimate political demand to fight occupation. To give a European example, it is a bit like condemning French resistance “military wing” against the Nazi regime. This is why, most Lebanese political parties whether pro or anti-Hizbullah criticized the EU decision. If anyone in the EU thinks that Israel is a danger to its neighbors and has been committing atrocities (or terrorism for that matter) against the Palestinians then please let us know if anything else than military resistance can force them to reconsider their actions. It is not a hazard then that not one single EU state is willing to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian question seriously.

Hizbullah will disarm only if a comprehensive and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is found and activated. This is what the EU, Arab States, and whoever is putting his nose into our affairs should be working on instead of distributing silly labels.

Whether the recent events in Syria initiated such a step, by blacklisting the “military wing”, the EU is condemning the idea of Resistance against Israel through military means. This is another proof that whether intended or not, most political actions with regards to Syria against the Asad regime are irremediably serving Israeli interests.

Gaza and the legitimation of killing: Lessons for History

Wars, conquests, collective violence, and all kinds of forms of domination and oppression are justified through specific rhetorical strategies, or ideologies.

Take a very recent epoch, the one that was dubbed the ‘modern age’ that starts roughly with European ‘enlightenment’ and is still unfolding today. This is an epoch that sees the development and consolidation of States with their invented National histories, an epoch where capitalist economic and social changing structures have been nurtured by evermore centralized poles of power and more rigid notions of self.  This epoch has seen the rise of a discourse of human rights, ‘rights’ people had, claims they could make on the past, on territory, and even on other people (teaching democracy for example).

Israel represents one little (but oh so deadly) experiment of applying national theory to practice from scratch. It is the quintessence of modern culture: believing in an idea that fathoms a history for a people, projects it on a territory and then consolidates State structures to the detriment of previous social and economic structures in place. In a way Israel is the Frankenstein of the West. It is the horrible result of an experiment where the idea that some ‘ideational’ link with some representation of the past can materialize in ‘reality’, indeed, should, or has a ‘right to’ materialize in reality.

In this sense another type of colonial practice is born with Israel. We could probably talk of a classical colonialism that Europe and to some extent the US practiced, consisting in occupying and seizing the means of production of a specific area (Latin America, Africa, India, etc.). But the new colonialism is one that exist side by side a perpetual condemnation of colonialism. The new colonialism exists in the age of NGOs, UN, and other international institutions that legitimates the occupation and oppression of the ‘uncivilized’. New colonialism is practiced mainly by the US and Israel today and consist in subverting the average person into believing that there are ‘security’ questions to address in order to protect the ‘rights’ of certain political entities.

Several times Talal Asad’s quote at the right top end of this blog has been criticized. But it still holds so well today. War by the ‘civilized’ is much more couched in a moral rhetoric that legitimates it and makes it more deadly. Trabulsi in Al Safir today argues that one such legitimating tool is the concept of “Security”. In this excellent article, Trabulsi showed how Israel and the US succeeded in imposing the notion of ‘security’ as a ‘reason of State’ in order to clamp down on any insurgency effort fighting their occupier. Trabulsi shows also how Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, caught onto this program and gradually switched from a discourse centralized on Palestinian (or say local population) demands to one of imposing security to the benefit of Israel so as to resolve and neutralize the Palestinian question.

I want to develop a couple of points Trabulsi makes in his article. The ‘security’ rationale is very perverse in several ways. First it ignores the fact that insurgents, fighters, resistance groups etc, have longstanding political demands which makes them do what they do when they do it. By this token it refuses to address these demands. Also, the Security rationale sanctifies (and goes fully in line with) a discourse on liberal values in the sense that it is only fair that Israel is a ‘legitimate’ entity that needs to ‘protect’ itself. Protection defined as such may justify the killing of civilians, in a different way than say ‘terrorist’ practices do. Terrorists have nothing to protect. They are out of a discourse of human rights. They are evil incarnate. Falling outside the hegemonic makes you unrecoverable.

A discourse of human rights sanctifies and makes it possible for this political Frankenstein to exist. The question to ask is when does the Palestinian question fall within a discourse on human right (which would then only make it a legitimate claim ‘respected’ by the West) and when does it fall outside of it? The politically dominant strives to push it outside of the ‘civilized’ discourse in order to legitimizes more killing while the world looks at it oblivious because it becomes ‘logical’ that Israel or someone else acts this way. You can kill much more recklessly when you are on the side of liberalism.

One sad point here is that the Palestinian question will only acquire saliency when it fully complies with this discourse, something most western-educated Palestinians or pro-Palestinians strive to achieve. One will always look at Hamas with ‘reservation’ because at the end of the day Hamas is not inscribed in this discourse, neither through its claims (calling for the destruction of Israel) nor through its practices (hitting ‘civilian’ targets). That is the biggest tragedy. One cannot actually make a case that Israel as a political entity with the history it projects should be destroyed. Or maybe one can, but it will take a lot of other subverting strategies. And weapons, lots of them…

For now Islamic movements are not revolutionary enough at the political level. They have to extirpate themselves from a discourse of human rights. Their use of ‘religion’, and their practice of piety is a good place to start. We need to go back to a discourse of human ‘roles’. Away from morals and into ethics…

Terrorism and Democracy

I was watching the Battle of Algiers, a film on the Algerian resistance against the French occupation made in 1966, only four years after the actual declaration of independence of the country. A film most of you have probably seen or heard of but was completely unknown to me until yesterday!

Beyond the fact that the movie has many great subtleties at the level of its images, screenplay, etc I just want to point out from this film one underlying penetrating question that stayed on my mind. After the arrival of the “Colonel Mathieu” who is sent to destroy the terrorists FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) and the start of the “interrogation” that is a facade word for torture in order to extirpate information from any suspiciously looking Arab, there is a very interesting dynamic at play that the authors (possibly not voluntarily) put in image. The film shows in a very raw and powerful manner how the world (here the UN) sat silently while thousands of people were tortured in order to dismantle the FLN:

The eyewitness reports and recently published documents leave no doubt about the brutality, extent and systematic use of torture in Algeria. Part of the daily practice included mass rapes, submerging victims in freezing water or excrement, and repeated use of electric shocks. Even in the Algerian hinterland where there was no electricity, electric shock torture was carried out using the so-called ” Gégène“, utilising the pedal-powered generation system used for the radio stations.

So to go back to the film, the Colonel holds a press conference after we learn that one of the leaders of the FLN have committed suicide in his cell. After several questions prodding indirectly the practices of the military, one journalist decides to directly ask about torture. And the colonel stops him short by saying that he and his military institution are no ‘fascist’, “a bunch of us fought in the resistance against the nazis” he says by adding something like “we are designed to fight and win, once YOU have decided that Algeria should be to France”. The directors of this movie are verbalizing the idea that the army was actually imprisoned of French politicking, and was kind of ‘doing its job’. But there is something much more important to this event, especially when you view it in light of the half a century that passed since then.

Beyond the French policies of the time, it is the French people and their ‘voices’, the intellectuals, the press, and others that are targeted here. Of course I don’t think the directors of the movie tried to make a value judgment imparting full responsibility on either the army or citizens or whoever. And I personally think we would miss in this way the real lesson learned from this very contemporary movie. I think there is a lesson to be learned in the age of mass-mobilization politics. What’s important here is that there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between ‘terrorism’ and ‘democratic’ politics. People have probably written about this before, and no time here to refer and elaborate (but please advise if you’ve seen something written about it) but terrorism is kind of a by-product of democratic politics. Terrorism takes very seriously that it is the people at the end of the day – “in this day and age” – that are structurally linked to the decision taken to exploit, colonize, etc. other people.

But why are we horrified when civilians get killed etc. when most of the time it is civilian pressures that end up extracting political decisions? Of course we all know that when militants hit civilian targets, when they want to create “terror” it is exactly for that, to extract political gain. I just want to stress the fact that although this happens people are still horrified by militants not restricting their targets to military infrastructure. And beyond the fact that ‘terror’ is also practiced by the powerful to extract political gains or just for revenge (for example the Israeli in Lebanon in summer 2006), when we look at terrorist acts arising from an oppressive colonialist situation in this age of democratic politics, people cannot stand horrified at these practices, turning a blind eye at how decision-makers are actually representing them.

In western societies, people take pride in their revolutions, their ‘rule by the people’, the concept of democratic citizen etc. when it actually suits them. The revolutionary narrative (in America or France for example) is either a long gone metaphor that keeps the public at large self-imbued, satisfied by their ‘rights’ gained etc, or just a nationalist idiom that help create a collective imaginary. But when it comes to actual ‘dirty work’ on the ground performed by their military, there is some kind of disjunction. They are not linked to it. It is not them giving the orders. Structurally though it is. Actually the modern state and its democratic/capitalist practices permits this decentralization to the fullest. There is a fantasy in which the population of a country live in that is kept alive by the very institutions they glorify. But more on this later.

The moralistic way we inquire about things

In a very Nietzschean fashion, Asad deconstruct our quest to understand suicide bombing in this most penetrating passage:

So how unique is suicide bombing? If it is special – and I believe that in a sense it is – this is not because of the motives involved. Intentions may be validly deduced from actions in the sense that they define the primary shape of the action (the agent deliberately kills himself together with others, and that is what makes it a particular kind of action), but motives are to be distinguished from causes, because we speak of motives when we demand an explanation in terms of reasons: “Why did he do it?” Not everything that is done has a motive, by which I mean that we ask for an explanation in terms of motive only when we are suspicious of what the action means. We are not satisfied with “He did it because he wanted to kill others (whom he regards as his enemies) by killing himself.” We ask: Why? – and assume that there is something bizarre about the action. But motives themselves are rarely lucid, always invested with emotions, and their description can be contested. They may not be clear even to the actor. Most important, explanations in terms of motives depend on typologies of action that are conventionally recognized and to which individuation is central: for example, by the judicial system that determines (by using one or other psychological theory) guilt and innocence, or by theologies of salvation that trace the origin and consequence of sin, or by a secular theory of the unconscious that claims to make us understand our perplexed unhappinesses. The uniqueness of suicide bombing resides, I think, elsewhere. It resides, one might say, not in its essence but in its contingent circumstance. (Asad 2007, p63-64, my emphases)