Marxist Missionary Cults (on Dogmatism)

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M-L-M Mayhem! (Marxist-Leninist-maoist reflections)

Posted 13th January, 2012

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve complained off-and-on––sometimes humorously and sometimes with outright annoyance––about the cultish “marxist” groups that tend to afflict the broad left like an unfashionable sweater. Anyone who has spent time as an activist is very aware of these ultra-sectarian groups, of their dogmatic “holier-than-thou” attitudes, and how they make the lot of us look like backwards weirdos trapped somewhere between 1840 and 1915. And anyone (such as myself) who has spent a lot of years encountering these self-satisfied dogmatic cabals has learned that it is: a) generally unproductive to engage them because it is usually impossible to have an honest debate with close-minded zealots; b) better to ignore them, treating them as quaint and amusing, and hope that they will go away.

Quite often they’re the subject of leftist “in-jokes”, sort of like how one would laugh at an embarrassing family member. Around ten years ago, I used to have a group of friends who thought it was the height of entertainment to go to Spartacist events where the only other people in attendance would be the members of other Trotskyite sectarian groups (some who had split from the Spartacists) who only showed up to engage in inter-sectarian fights––all great fun for my friends who usually attended slightly inebriated, giggling at the back as they observed a war of theologies.

But after so many years of tolerating these uncritical dogmatists––who have shown up at events put on by other groups and/or coalitions since as far back as I can remember to repeat the same tired slogans, to start arguments, and to try and poach members from other groups––I am getting rather tired of their behaviour. Maybe this is because, after half a decade of choosing to avoid them and successfully avoiding/ignoring them at demonstrations and rallies, I have now had them force their unwanted attention on me in the same way that Mormons and Jehovahs Witnesses bug me outside of subways and on street corners. What has stopped bugging me for half-a-decade is bugging me again: no wonder the rest of society thinks communists are nut-jobs, and that the bourgeoisie can sell the lie that “communism is just another religion”, with these people still hanging about.
Listen: when I say I don’t want to buy a copy of Workers Vanguard, don’t hover over me repeating yourself, staring at me with glassy-eyed fanaticism, and flipping anxiously through pages of said paper asking me if I’ve read your stupid and simple-minded analysis of historical events. Stop coming to events you didn’t help organize when you only plan to be a nuisance, blocking off hallways and trying to poach activists––learn how to organize something of your own that isn’t attended by your own members and isn’t an excuse to just talk at people.
Really, a part of me is amazed that these sorts of groups continue to exist, but obviously without growing and retaining pretty much the same numbers (give or take a few) of active members as they had fifty years ago. I’m especially amazed that they are able to take themselves so seriously when the rest of the left see them as a joke. But another part of me is not entirely amazed: I have referred to them as cults, as missionary marxists, and as dogmato-revisionists who think “that there is some sort of pure communism outside of time and space, and that they are the elect capable of reflecting and understanding this perfect theory […] they have abdicated a scientific view of revolutionary theory in favour of religious superstition.”
In other words, groups like the Spartacist League are cults, marxists in form but religious fanatics in essence, and should be treated as such. In the rest of this entry I will explain, point by point, why these tiny little trotskyist sectarian groups are the marxist equivalent of cults.

A. Dogmatism #1: mechanical application of doctrine

The inability to understand classical marxist theory as anything other than a collection of “sacred texts” demonstrates, as I have complained before, the religiosity of these cults. Rather than making sense of the historical method, by doing the hard work of interrogating the dialectical interplay between the interplay of the universal and the particular, these marxists assume that what is expressly written by Marx (filtered through Trotsky and whatever “experts” write their newspaper articles) is mechanically correct. A one-to-one relationships between doctrine and the concrete world is assumed; critical thought is abdicated in favour of rote repetition. Abstract categories replace the concrete: this is idealism, not materialism.
Take, for example, the simple-minded and offensive claim that peasant revolutions are “petty bourgeois” because peasants are “petty bourgeois.” Blasted out of the original social context, treated as a truth existing above and beyond the material world, this position originates from how Marx and Engels sometimes examined the class consciousness of the peasantry in nineteenth century Europe. But even if Marx and Engels were correct in their assessments of the European peasantry (and how dare anyone argue that the gods of communism might be wrong here and there!), universalizing the class content of the nineteenth century European peasantry to the rest of the world is a dogmatically mechanical, rather than critical, application of thought. A peasantry still existant in a cohering capitalist mode of production is not the same as a peasantry persisting in a capitalist formation on the periphery of world capitalism. One would expect that these dogmatists, with their obsession with doctrine, would have some notion regarding Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, but this is assuming that we can even call cultish dogmatism “marxism-leninism.”

B. Dogmatism #2: rote repetition rather than critical thinking
Ever deal with a religious fanatic standing at your door and trying to convert you? You probably recall how they tended to pepper their sales pitch for salvation with random quotes from their favoured religious text. Same thing with these marxist cult groups: and they like to repeat these quotes for comfort, as if they have the power to channel Marx from beyond the grave: Praise Trotsky!
(On a side note, it’s funny when they get their quotes wrong. Several months back a Spart quipped about humans making history, but not in circumstances they please, and then assigned this quote to Theses On Feuerbach. When I told him it was actually from 18th Brumaire on Louis Bonaparte, he refused to believe me––he was utterly convinced that I was essentially incapable of the same knowledge of Marx.)
If something exists beyond the sacred texts, beyond what is only acceptable as proper “marxist” thought, then it is unworthy of investigation. All critical and academic literature and theory that emerged after the 1950s might as well not exist because revolutionary theory ended with the death of Trotsky. Thus, if you mention concepts outside of this religious canon (i.e. “eurocentrism”, “anticolonialism”, “patriarchy”, etc.) then you are immediately speaking in terms the cultists refuse to investigate.
Although my knee-jerk reaction to this sort of dogmatism is to demand critical thinking––to point out that the mindless repetition of quotes is not only idealism but an argument from authority––I know that our dogmato-revisionist friends will simply reply by dismissing critical thinking as petty-bourgeois. Critical thinking has been done for us by Marx, Engels and Trostky, thus there is no point in learning to think critically. Clearly this defines the mindset of a religious cult: don’t think through the principles, don’t engage with the material world, the real thinking is complete and simply waiting to be applied.

C. Recruitment strategy
Like a cult, groups like the Spartacist League tend to recruit people who are a particular type of social outsider. No, not oppressed minorities or extremely exploited proletarians, but misanthropes––the kind of people who experience the petty-bourgeois alienation of not being “cool enough” who are excluded from the social circles of their class because of supposed “nerdiness” and other bullshit reasons.
Cults prey on social misanthropes. Being social animals, all of us desperately want to fit in––to find a group or groups that will accept us. Cults have always relied on a recruitment strategy that targets the socially excluded, often converting suburb kids who are unpopular in highschool and brain-washing them with a dubious notion of “friendship”.

D. Proselytization rather than organization
These groups generally refuse to organize, preferring to go to events organized by others and using these events as an excuse to preach their specific brand of leftism. So if you have a coalition of leftists gathering around some anti-imperialist cause, most of whom are on the same page, these folks will show up simply to tell everyone why they’re “stupid”, hoping that their self-declared cleverness will snag them more members. Refusing to organize outside of the student and left movements organized by others, they function only to preach a “pure” marxism and poach people mobilized by others.
The claim is that they are protecting a pure marxism and if they just preach “the good news”, the masses will be won over by their gospel and eventually join them. Thus they can always maintain a distance from organic movements (this way they can’t make mistakes, and their slogans can remain untainted), but “intervene” in the way that Mormons and Jehovahs Witnesses intervene on your daily life by ringing your doorbell.
Years ago some leftists used to argue that groups like the Spartacist League were most probably police agents: after all, why would someone waste so much time proselytizing in such a way so as to disrupt events that others worked hard to organize? But the truth is that, while the police might need to invent them if they didn’t exist, these groups are simply so invested in missionary dogmatism that they actually believe disruptive proselytization is the same as organization.

E. Persecution complex
The anti-capitalist left often has good reason to feel persecuted: the state is trying to maintain its power and does go out of its way to arrest and imprison leftists. And yet these marxist cults aren’t the groups being arrested (because they aren’t doing anything that really threatens the state), so the fact that they always act as if they are being targeted for their “radicalism” is similar to those religious groups who feel that they are not growing because of some pernicious conspiracy.
The thing is, since the rest of the left finds these groups annoying, then they create the terms for their persecution complex. And since they feel like they are disliked because they are “more clever” and “more revolutionary” than everyone else (nobody can understand how brilliant we are!), they are able to reconfirm their own existence by imagining that this is some form of oppression. By assuming that the reason they are disliked is because they are right and everyone else is wrong, the more they are disliked the more they feel they are correct. This is precisely how adherents to different forms of religious fundamentalism think.
Let’s be clear: you’re not being “persecuted”––people just think you are annoying and disruptive. The state is not trying to infiltrate and ruin your movement because your movement has done nothing in recent memory to challenge the power of the state.
In any case, as should be evident from the tone of this post, I am tired of interacting with people and groups who are the communist version of Moonies. Being a critical leftist, I enjoy friendships and long-standing intellectual debates with comrades/friends from various left-wing traditions: anarchists, autonomists, draperites, trotskyists and post-trotskyists, other maoists, indigenists, african nationalists, even stalinists. I think it is important to interact with people from various leftwing traditions, to support their initiatives and events, because I think it is important for us to learn from each other. Although I have a theoretical commitment to a specific political line, and am convinced that it is correct in principle, I am also aware that there is always a chance that my commitment might be proved wrong–-indeed, the reason I became committed to a marxist-leninist-maoist position in the first place was because of an open-minded and critical investigation and interaction with various traditions and organizations. In all my years as an activist, however, I cannot recall one conversation with a member of one of these missionary groups, in almost fifteen years of activist experience, that has been fruitful and/or politically relevant. Hell, even when I used to try and end conversations that were going nowhere by saying “let’s just agree that, despite our disagreements, we’re all communists and allies of some sort” I would usually be told that I was wrong because “we” are not “all communists” because only they are “true” communists.
As much as I don’t want to celebrate those moments in marxist history where extremely dogmatic trotskyites in third world contexts were targeted, whenever I walk away from conversations with dogmato-revisionists I can understand why this happened. Ho Chi Minh might have been theoretically inaccurate by claiming that the small cabal of Vietnamese trotskyites were “worse than fascists”, but the statement was a long result of having to deal with people who were organizing against the peasant-based anticolonial revolution because it was “not properly communist”. And if future revolutions throughout the world are going to be hampered by people with this sort of ideology, who resist revolutionary movements and end up siding with the oppressors in practice if not in theory, then it is clear that these marxist cults are more problematic than a leftist in-joke.

The Eurocentrism of Marxist Traditionalism

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June 20, 2012

By: M-L-M Mayhem! (Marxist-Leninist-maoist reflections)

Frequent readers of this blog will be aware that I am generally annoyed by “movementism” and the tendency to ignore revolutionary history in pursuit of some new revolutionary theory that is neither new nor revolutionary. Indeed, my previous post was another (and admittedly ranty) screed about this tendency. If I’m not careful, I might end up coming across as a crotchety old leftist who is afraid of new ideas––like that old man who perpetually shakes his cane at children.

Thus, I think it is probably important to again point out that my annoyance with the above tendency is balanced by my equal annoyance with the tendency to fetishize the past. As I have argued before, revolutionary theory needs to be understood as the dialectical tension of continuity and rupture. The movementism that wants to see only rupture is no less erroneous than the dogmatism that focuses only on continuity––or, more accurately, sees a continuity up to the Bolshevik Revolution and then, rejecting any notion of theoretical rupture as properly revolutionary, seeks a return to this Eden of continuity that never existed.

In the past, I have complained about the dogmatism of this traditionalist approach to communism and why it is a practice in defiance of historical materialism––something that is more properly religious than scientific and, because of this, is often forced to ignore reality. Its practitioners end up becoming sad little sectarians who annoy the hell out of everyone else in the left because they’re self-righteous and do nothing to warrant their self-righteousness (like that annoying academic who thinks s/he’s more brilliant than everyone else even though s/he is still working on that fifteen year PhD), and in general just make the left seem like a joke to the non-left.

But now I want to write about what I find significantly troublesome about the ideology of those marxists who think that the left died somewhere around World War One, whether or not they have decided to commit themselves to some missionary marxist sect. For there is a rather problematic story that is sometimes told about communism: from Marx and Engels to Lenin there was an unbroken movement that was amazing and properly “marxist”––the First International was a gas, the Second International was a setback, but thank god that the Third International put some of the fun back into communism… And then Stalin came along and ruined everything and marxism has lost its way ever since. Oh and maybe the “Fourth International” could have been fun, but no one’s really sure what that tiny and insignificant (insignificant for world revolution, not for Trotskyists mind you) European “international” really meant anyhow because all of those Trotskyite sects who hate each other have a different interpretation of what happened.

This view of actually existing communism is a historical simplification primarily because it is virulently eurocentric. What it really breaks down to is this: the communist movement was good until it was no longer a movement centred in Europe and its colonies, and until the theory of these other movements no longer argued that the eurocentric world would lead the revolution. And maybe throw in some ahistorical analysis about how all of these other communist movements are somehow “Stalinist” just to hide your eurocentrism; sit back on your pure Marxism-up-until-1917 theory, never bother to study other revolutionary movements and the theory that actually emerged from these movements, and you can write books pining for the days when marxism was pure––meaning, of course, racially pure and properly focused on Europe.

Even the Bolshevik Revolution is white-washed according to this eurocentric traditionalism. Now we tend to forget that Russia was once considered “Asiatic”, that Nazi ideology even considered Russians to be a weaker race, because this discourse has somehow succeeded in bringing the Russian Revolution into the history of Europe. Isaac Deutscher, for example, promoted this way of seeing the Bolshevik Revolution in his biography of Stalin (although it must be admitted that this biography, despite its eurocentric flaws, is better than a lot of the current pseudo-history written today) in his claim that Trotsky was an enlightened and cultured European whereas Stalin was a boorish Asiatic. The former was the proper heir of Lenin’s “european” legacy, whereas the latter betrayed it with his orientalish ways, and thus the Soviet Union could have been saved if only it was properly European!

Deutscher, however, was influenced by the ideology of the so-called “Fourth International” where Trotskyism was born as a marxist theory. And it is important to note, regardless of the charges of sectarianism that might result from this insight, that the Fourth International and the theory it produced was a thoroughly eurocentric affair that succeeded in generating a discourse that would permit one to ignore any significant revolutionary developments outside of the European and European-colonized world. Pabloism, after all, was the great heresy of the Fourth International: not because it advocated that Trotskyists should work with “Stalinists” (shudder!), in my opinion, but because European marxists were horrified by the Pabloists support of anti-colonial movements in places like Algeria. We need to ask why the only Trotskyism that pushed an anti-colonial ideology was considered blasphemous by all of the other sects that splintered out of the Fourth International.

In any case, what is most interesting about the theory that emerged from the Fourth International was that it was a theory that recentered Europe as the global agent of revolution. In a combined and uneven global mode of production, the best that revolutions in the periphery could do was hold their revolution in permanence and wait for the “proper” proletariat of the imperialist centres to lead the revolution: the marxist equivalent of imperialist discourse about the peripheries “catching up” to the advanced and civilized centres. Thus, any revolutionary communist movement and its theory manifesting in the periphery would be treated, by necessity, as backwards, useless, and part of the theoretical fall from grace that happened after 1917. Most probably this theory was “Stalinist”… although Stalinism, regardless of it common pejorative usage, is really an empty concept that breaks down to little more than “they seem to like Stalin so they’re bad” or “this is ‘socialism in one country’ damnit”––complete nonsense, really.

This is why I have little patience for Trotskyism as a revolutionary theory. Not because I think Stalin was super awesome (and I have even less patience for the binary ideology, often promoted by some Trotskyists, that all Leninist theories that aren’t Trotskyist are somehow secretly “Stalinist”), but because I find the commitments of historical Trotskyism to be wholly eurocentric. None of this is to say, of course, that the Soviet Union under Stalin wasn’t also affected by eurocentrism: Stalin’s approach to anti-colonial movements was no more laudable than Trotsky’s would have been if he was in the same position, and there is an eerie similarity in Stalin and Trotsky’s approach to revolutionary theory. Nor am I trying to say that Trotsky was an uber counter-revolutionary who was taking money from the CIA––really, I could care less for these arguments. My point, here, is that Trotskyism is the prime example of that traditionalist marxism that, in seeking a paradise before the collapse of the Bolshevik Revolution, imagines that all of the communist movements since that point are worthless––primarily worthless because they are not properly “european”. What we call Trotskyism isn’t Trotsky anymore than Marxism is properly Marx, Leninism is properly Lenin, or Maoism is properly Mao.

But of course this fetishization of the “good old days” of marxism has become broader than the boundaries drawn by the Fourth International. It is now an entire industry of eurocentric marxism that, though at one point was influenced by Trotskyism (which became the prime marxist ideology at the centres of capitalism), has now morphed into a nebulous orthodox marxism. More importantly: the arguments made from the position of this orthodoxy have now succeeded in affecting heterodox marxisms who are unaware of the orthodox nature of some of their core commitments.

Those marxist theories that go further than Trotskyism in recentering marxism in Europe––that reject the theory of the labour aristocracy, downplay the importance of imperialism, de-emphasize the role colonialism played in the emergence of capitalism, fetishize a working class that is essentially white, continue to promote an historical ignorance when it comes to every revolutionary movement after the Russian Revolution… all of these theories result in the erasure of over two thirds of the world’s population.

So forgive me if I have little tolerance for those who are overly nostalgiac for a pure communism that existed up until 1917––or, even worse, those whose “pure communism” is only to be found in the works of Marx and Engels––because I feel that this is an attempt to write-off the majority of the world’s population, and primarily the most oppressed peoples in the world, because they are incapable of contributing to revolutionary science. Moreover, I feel it demonstrates ignorance to the actual unfolding of communism as a living science; those who claim that there has been no development in marxist theory since 1917 are those who refuse to study the Chinese Revolution and those who are unaware that maoism was asserted as a new development of revolutionary communism around 1993. And even if we forget these molar crystallizations of revolutionary communism (which we should not), then what about an entire constellation of revolutionary theory that has exploded, from 1917 until now, due to the struggles of the most oppressed? Here is where these revolutionary moments of the new triumph over the traditionalism of the old… and yet marxist traditionalists, because they are immersed in tradition and only tradition, are incapable of grasping the fact that communism needs to be a living science in order to be properly revolutionary.


Talal Asad: A single history?

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4 May 2006

Talal Asad is distinguished professor of Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. His books include Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003). His work is the subject of an essay-collection edited by David Scott & Charles Hirschkind, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors (Stanford University Press, 2006)


Francis Fukuyama’s defence of the universalism of western values and institutions is challenged by modern global political realities, says Talal Asad.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Fukuyama’s afterword to the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man is its conception of a single history of mankind – at once universal and multiple. The question: “What binds the multiplicity of peoples and cultures into a single history?” is indeed a key theme in intellectual history, and was answered by Hegel and later thinkers in evolutionary terms, with European societies representing the future of all others who were not fated simply to die out.

I’m not sure I understand what Fukuyama means when he asks whether western values and institutions have “a universal significance” and when he opposes this to the notion of “the temporary success of a presently hegemonic culture”. Clearly these values and institutions have a universal significance if by this he means that they have spread globally – whether consensually or not. But this doesn’t exclude “universal significance” being seen as the productof a forceful, hegemonising culture. The assertion that with the defeat of communism, capitalist democracy is now the only imaginable future for humanity doesn’t prove that nothing else can emerge. Since nothing is permanent, it is quite possible that this hegemonic political culture will mutate into other, equally hegemonic ones (that is, if we still have a planet fit for humans in the next century).

What is interesting about Fukuyama’s essay, however, is not its contribution to the debate about culture but its assumption that different human societies are running a race towards a more or less recognisable end, and that the relative success or failure of each runner is to be sought in his internal make-up. There exists an ample literaturedemonstrating the complex interactions between political-economic entities – sovereign states that do not control sovereign destinies – but Fukuyama’s essay doesn’t address the subject.

Democracy’s roots

Fukuyama traces “modern democracy”, as do others, to the Christian doctrine of “the universal dignity of man”. I find this odd, because in medieval Latin dignitas referred to the privilege of high office, not to political equality. Christianity did have a notion of universal spiritual worth, but it was always compatible with great social and political inequality. For most writers the roots of modern democracy lie not in Christianity but in classical Greece. Pre-Christian Athens certainly had a (restricted) concept of equal citizenship and (rudimentary) democratic practices, but it had no notion of “the universal dignity of man”. This suggests that modern secular democracy – which gradually, through struggle, replaced Christian inequality in the West – does not depend on the value Fukuyama and others make so much of. What it does depend on is the substitutability of the individual by any other: each voter counts as one and no more than one in the arithmetic of democracy.

If not dignity then perhaps happiness? Fukuyama claims the superiority of capitalist democracy by pointing to the many people who migrate to the rich countries of the north “because they see that the possibilities for human happiness are much greater in a wealthy society than in a poor one”. Yet the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples don’t move; immigrants to western societies are an extremely small proportion of non-western populations. Should we see those who stay put as having no conception of “human happiness”?

Surely the motives for migration are often complicated. They include the desire to escape from dangerous political conditions as well as the desire to earn money abroad to provide for relatives at home, rather than the simple wish for happiness. Not to mention that dreams of finding “happiness” do not always correspond to the reality that meets most immigrants (or native citizens, for that matter) in capitalist democracies.

Democracy’s future

Doubts also apply to Fukuyama’s conception of “the future of democracy” in the non-western world. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the democracy Fukuyama envisions is one that everyone wants: closely connected to a neo-liberal regime “promising universal happiness” and one that is also necessarily “secular”. Christian doctrine, according to the hoary old thesis, has been receptive to democracy because church and state began as separate entities. This is historically inaccurate because the Byzantine church-state was the ground on which central Christian doctrines were formulated. And even in the European middle ages “that separation was never necessary or complete”, as Fukuyama admits. Yet the same can be said of Islamic history (a subject too large to be discussed here).

The alternative argument is to attend not to historical origins but to the contemporary scene, and note that democracy is uniquely absent in the Muslim world. What is the obstacle? Is it Islam? (The faulty reasoning here is to take absence for incapacity.) Fukuyama finds that some Muslim countries are making the transition to economic prosperity and political democracy, and so suggests that the culprit is not Islam but “Arab political culture”.

But consider in this light the electoral victory of Hamas in occupied Palestine in January 2006 – a democratic formation that is being undermined by the European Union and the United States, those models of humanity’s liberal democratic future. There are excuses, of course, but they remain excuses. Evidently there is far more concern by those governments for “Israel’s security” than for the future of the Palestinians.

In his 2004 National Interest article “The Neoconservative moment“, Fukuyama describes Israel as “a small, vulnerable country surrounded by implacable enemies”. Yet Israel is clearly the most powerful (as well as the most democratic) state in the region, the only one possessing nuclear weapons; it has easily won every war with its neighbours, expanded territorially, achieved wide international recognition, and peace treaties with two Arab states with more on the way. It not only has never formally recognised the right of Palestinians to form their own state on all the land stolen from them, but continues unchecked in its violent creation of conditions that are making a future Palestinian state impossible.

It is in this connection that I cite the most important statement in Fukuyama’s entire essay: “There is no reason to think that sovereign liberal democracies cannot commit terrible abuses in their dealings with other nations, or even with respect to their own citizens.” To the representatives of universalism (principally the United States and the European Union) these abuses must appear as the harsh necessities of “realistic” global governance.


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December 18, 1946 – September 12, 1977
“We have set on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horison we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face”. Steve Biko.
The above quotation from Steve Biko’s essay:”Black Consciousness – A Quest for a True Humanity”, perhaps encapsulates his mind frame and the role that he set himself towards the betterment of his people, given their experience, which he shared.

Bantu Stephen Biko was born in Kingwilliamstown on the 18th December 1946, the third son of the late Mr & Mrs Mzimgayi Biko.
He did his primary schooling in Kingwilliamstown. His secondary schooling was virtually all done at the Marianhill Secondary School in Kwazulu.
He entered the Medical School of the University of Natal(Black Section) in 1966. This is where he broke his political teeth.
Biko gave up what could have been a comfortable and affluent life of the stethoscope to selflessly work for the total liberation of his people.
He and his colleagues founded the South African Students’ Organisation(SASO) in 1968. He was elected the first President of the organisation at its inaugural congress held at Turfloop in 1969. This organisation was borne out of the frustrations Black students encountered within the multi-racial NUSAS and geared itself at addressing those frustrations and problems of black students and black people generally.
But the black students, under his leadership, went on to further argue that they were black before they were students and argued for a black political organisation in the country. Opinion was canvassed and finally the organisation, the Black People’s Convention (BPC), was founded in July 1972 and inaugurated in December of the same year.
Through his inspiration, the youth of the country at high school level were mobilised and this resulted in the formation of the South African Students’ Movement (SASM). This is the Movement that played a pivotal role in the 1976 Uprisings, which accelerated the course of our liberation struggle.
The other formation was the National Association of Youth Organisations (NAYO), which catered for the youth generally.
He was instrumental in the formation of one of SASO’s projects, the Black Workers’ Project (BWP) which was co-sponsored by the Black Community Programmes (BCP) for which Steve worked. This project addressed problems of Black workers whose unions were then not recognised in law.
After serving as President, Biko was elected Publications Director of SASO where he wrote prolifically under the pen name Frank Talk in the SASO Newsletter.
On leaving the Medical School in 1972 – from which he was expelled, Steve joined the BCP, which he co-founded, in their Durban offices.
This organisation engaged in a number of community based projects and published a yearly, Black Review, which was an analysis of political trends in the country.
In March 1973 he was banned and restricted to Kingwilliamstown. There he set up a BCP office where he worked as a Branch Executive. But soon his banning order was amended to prohibit him from working or associating with the BCP. The BCP did well however, building a clinic, the Zanempilo Clinic, and a creche, both of which were very popular.
Despite the inconvenience brought about by the restriction order, Steve was instrumental in the founding of the Zimele Trust Fund in 1975. This was set up to assist political prisoners and their families. This was another example of the man’s resolve and his indestructible black pride.
In Ginsberg, he set up the Ginsberg Educational Trust to assist black students.
In January 1977, the Black People’s Convention (BPC), in recognition of his momentous contribution to the liberation struggle, unanimously elected him its Honorary President.
In his short but remarkable political life, Steve was always a target of the “system”. He was frequently harassed and detained under the country’s notorious security legislation.
On the 18th August 1977, he was arrested in a police roadblock with his colleague and comrade, Peter Cyril Jones and detained under Section 6 of the nefarious Terrorism Act.
Steve and Peter had in fact been to Cape Town, despite Steve’s banning, to lend their weight to efforts to get all political organisations of the people to agree to a broader programme of co-operation to advance our course. His quest for black unity was eventually to cost him his life.
That is the kind of man Steve was, no price was ever too high for him if what was asked of him was to advance the struggle.
Unfortunately, this detention rudely interrupted Steve’s noble journey in his quest for a true humanity. His death in detention at the hands of the operatives of one the most savage and repressive regimes ever known to humankind, less than a month after his detention, robbed the country of one of its foremost political thinkers and analysts.
But, he did us proud as people, because even in the face of his death, he remained dignified. The man died on his feet and not on his knees as the enemy would have loved

الربيع العربي ثورة بـ”عمق ديني” يتجاوز “التيار الديني”

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وسام سعادة – صحفي يساري لبناني

لا يكون “الربيع” ربيعاً إلا عندما يكون هذا الربيع “في خطر”. الثورة التي تجد كل طريق مفتوحاً أمامها لا تعود ثورة. والثورة، حتى لو زُيّنَ للقائمين بها، أو المنخرطين فيها، أو المتصدّين لها، أنّ الأوضاع التي يجتازونها قد سبقت لهم رؤيتها، لكنها لا تتكشّف كثورة الا في قدرتها على مخادعة الجميع.
كما أن الثورة ليست “فرزاً” بين أنصارها وأعدائها فقط، بل هي أيضاً ثورة بمعنى خلط الحابل بالنابل. من لا قدرة لديه للتفاعل مع هذين البعدين المتناقضين، الثورة كفرز والثورة كخلط، والتنقل بينهما بسرعة الزمن الثوري نفسه، خيرٌ له انتظار حركة الزمن الثوري نفسه بين الفرز والخلط. الانتظار هو أيضاً من تقنيات الزمن الثوري، أو من أساليب التحايل عليه.
الربيع العربي هو ثورة بمعنى من المعاني. فرز وخلط، وسخرية لا آخر لها من كل معتصم بحبل “قانون الثورات”، الذي يستأمنه الممانعون مثلاً على أنفسهم، ويقاتلون به الثورات الجارية التي من لحم ودم. كذلك، فالربيع العربي ثورة لأنه يسخر أيضاً من أوهام المثاليين، الليبراليين النمطيين، الذين ينتظرون “ثورة في حدود القانون”. أما الأهم من كل ذلك، أن الربيع العربي شكّل النافذة التي عادت من خلالها الثورة، اصطلاحاً ومفهوماً وأفقاً، الى مساحة التداول في مطلع هذا القرن، مثلما كانت الثورة “من تحت” الروسية والايرانية لعام مدخلاً ل”عودة المفهوم” في بدايات القرن الماضي..
والنظرة الى هذا الربيع تظلّ قاصرة أو طائشة بالضرورة، ما لم يجر الانطلاق من سياقه العام: أزمة آليات السيطرة الغربية، السياسية والاقتصادية والثقافية والامنية، القائمة منذ نهايات الحرب الباردة، وأزمة المتفلتين من هذه السيطرة، سواء في شكلها العام أو في وجه من وجوهها، ما يضطرّهم وفي اللحظة نفسها التي يظهرون تعطّلها، الى الاحتكام اليها، على ما يظهر في جميع وقائع الربيع العربي، من مناجاة ميدان التحرير في القاهرة لباراك اوباما، الى مناشدة ثوار ليبيا لحلف شمال الاطلسي في اللحظة الحرجة، الى مفارقات الوضع السوري الكثيرة في هذا الاطار، بين من يرفض التدخل الدولي قبل ان يطرحه احد، وبين من يستعجله بساعة ليست ساعة “العالم”.
واذا كان الانتفاض الشعبي لإطاحة نظام مومياقراطي قد بدأ في تونس، وسبقته عملية اهتزاز النظام العربي الاجمالي من خلال استقلال جنوب السودان عنه، الا ان الربيع العربي بحد ذاته بدأ في مصر، والثورة المصرية لا تزال محوره، وفيها اكثر من سواها يظهر الزمن الثوري بتعقيداته وصعوباته، خصوصاً الآن، حين يظهر ان هذا الربيع في خطر.
في المجتمعات العربية الاخرى، وفي السنوات الماضية، كان الاحتقان من ظلم الحكام يجد التعبير عن نفسه بالهمس وفي نطاق ضيق. فقط في مصر كان هذا التعبير يترجم نفسه على نطاق اجتماعي واسع رغم سطوة الفرعونية الامنية. في المجال الخاص فقط، كان يمكن لكل تونسي او ليبي او سوري أن يفتح لك صدره. أما في مصر، فالنقمة الشعبية على حسني مبارك والحزب الوطني والمؤسسة القمعية كانت قد انتشرت بشكل هائل في المجال العام، وهذا فارق اساسي بين مصر والمجتمعات الاخرى. المجتمعات الاخرى كانت محكومة بطغاة، بعضهم غير فئوي وغير ايديولوجي ومتواضع في عنفيته (بن علي)، وبعضهم الآخر فئوي وايديولوجي وسفّاح بالوراثة (بشار الاسد). أما حسني مبارك الديكتاتور، فلم يكن طاغية، تحديداً لأنه كان على رأس دولة الاستبداد، الاستبداد الشرقي الذي يجعل شرعيته بديهية تماماً، بحكم كونه عريقاً في مصر، “منذ أيام الفراعنة”.
بإزاء هذا النموذج، استدعى سيد قطب في ظلمات سجنه في الخمسينيات والستينيات، ثنائية “موسى ضد فرعون”، في مواجهة نظام ثورة يوليو، التي سبق له ان اندفع لتأييدها بشدة، وشكل حلقة وصل بين ضباطها الاحرار وجماعة “الإخوان”، قبل الاصطدام النهائي وحادثة المنشية.
اليوم، هذه الثنائية تتخذ لنفسها في مصر اشكالاً عدّة، وتشكّل العمق الديني للثورة المصرية، الامر الذي لا يختزل في هيمنة “التيار الديني” بالمعنى السياسي للكلمة. انه السؤال عن مصدر الشرعية. الفرعونية الامنية تقول ان صك توليتها امر وادي النيل هو منذ بدء التاريخ، وان خلع حاكم من الحكام ليس الا تجديدا لحيوية النموذج الفرعوني نفسه. في المقابل، في كل لحظة من لحظات احتدام الثورة المصرية، السؤال المفتاحي المباغت والمثابر يبقى: موسى أم فرعون؟



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Talal Asad, the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Living up to his family name (which means lion in Arabic), Asad has been a major force in the field of anthropology, always pushing its boundaries. In his own words:

…I’ve been constantly trying to pull away from established anthropological positions and move in interdisciplinary directions. One reason is simply that even if you think of British anthropology, its most fruitful moments have involved engagements with something outside: theology in the nineteenth century, classics at the beginning of the twentieth century, sociology through Durkheim, linguistics through Saussure, political economy and history through Marxism, and so forth. Whatever one might say about each of these, about the results of each of these encounters, they have certainly been fertile moments generating interesting questions. So I see myself as somebody who was educated in this very loose discipline called anthropology, familiar therefore with most of the major texts in its history, valuing it as a tradition.[1]

Born in Saudi Arabia and brought up in Pakistan, Asad attended a missionary boarding school where he was one of only a few Muslims among a majority of Christians. This situation seems to have given Asad a particular view toward East-West relations and influenced his later studies. After his boarding school experience he was sent to England to be schooled in architecture. The study of architecture had no special appeal to him and he moved on to Edinburgh where he began his studies in anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. In general the British anthropology scene at the time was concerned primarily with the study of social structures. But at Edinburgh he was exposed to American styles of anthropology, such as psychological anthropology, symbolic anthropology, and the like. After obtaining his M.A. at Edinburgh he went on to Oxford to work with the renowned social anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, who had done studies in the Middle East and Africa, notably on the Nuer tribe of the Sudan and the Sanusi of Libya. It was as a result of his association with Evans-Pritchard and his work that Asad chose to do his field studies for his book on the Kababish during a five-year stint teaching at the University of Khartoum in the Sudan, a position he obtained through the close relationship between the Sudanese university and Oxford.

Asad’s book The Kababish Arabs: Power, Authority and Consent in a Nomadic Tribe (1970) was a reflection of his thinking at the time about colonialism and anthropology. Asad’s interests became focused on colonialism and on the ways the West defined the East as “non-Western.” On colonialism, Asad later wrote: “The historical process of constructing a humane secular society, it is said, has aimed at eliminating cruelties. Thus it has often been claimed that European rule in colonial countries, although not itself democratic, brought about moral improvements in behavior — that is, the abandonment of practices that offend against the human.”[2] He continued: “I want to propose, however, that in their attempt to outlaw customs the European rulers considered cruel it was not the concern with indigenous suffering that dominated their thinking, but the desire to impose what they considered civilized standards of justice and humanity on a subject population — that is, the desire to create new human subjects.”[3]

During his time as a lecturer at Hull University, Asad and his colleagues Roger Owen and Sami Zubaida began holding regular seminars and publishing papers on Middle East studies, and they founded the journal Review of Middle East Studies (1975- ) in order to publish the papers from these seminars. When Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism was published in 1978, its popularity was a reinforcement and encouragement to Asad’s own investigations on the uses of Western-world standards as measures of the non-Western world.

After his time at Hull, Asad moved across the Atlantic and joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research as a professor of anthropology. His book Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993) was published after his move. Parts were written and published separately prior to his relocation. The work was well received and much reviewed. Bryan S. Turner in his review of Genealogies stated: “The book concludes with an analysis of the nature of British national culture under the impact of multiculturalism, Islamization, and religious change, especially as these issues have been illustrated by the case of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.”[4]

The work defines religion as being contextual: each religion is the product of its specific cultural and historical developments. This follows Asad’s view on the interchanges between East and West, between the “developing” and the “developed” worlds, and on who should participate in them. As Bruce Lincoln writes in his review of Genealogies, Asad “maintains that ethnographers and others ought to limit themselves to description, reserving critique to those who participate firsthand in the language and culture under discussion: that is, people who offer their criticism on the basis of shared values and are prepared to engage in a sustained conversation of give-and-take.”[5] Measuring non-Western societies with a Western Christian measuring stick places the non-Christian, non-European societies in a position of never being able to advance to that standard.

Asad’s recent writings have been focused on his investigations into secularism and modernity (e.g., his book Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, 2003.) In his essay Thinking about Secularism and Law in Egypt, Asad defines secularism thus: “A secular society […] is a modern construct based on the legal distinction between public and private, on a political arrangement requiring ‘religion’ to be subjected by law to the private domain, on an ideology of moral individualism and a downgrading of the knowing subject, on a celebration of the physical body as well as on a range of personal sensibilities, that all emerged in Western Europe together with the formation of the modern state.”[6]

On modernity Asad has said, “One of the things that modernity has done, as you know, is to extinguish various possibilities.”[7] Further, in an interview with Saba Mahmood published in the Stanford Humanities Review, Asad explained that Western academics “still make assumptions that prevent them from questioning aspects of Western modernity. For example, they call these movements [such as Islamism] ‘reactionary’ or ‘invented,’ making the assumption that Western modernity is not only the standard by which all contemporary developments must be judged, but also the only authentic trajectory for every tradition.”[8]

Given his background and interests, Asad has of late become a popular commentator on current events: he has been asked to talk and write about fundamentalism in the Islamic world, and his analyses of secular societies facing fundamentalism have been the focus for a number of recent articles.[9]

[1] Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2006. p. 274.

[2] Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003. p. 109.

[3] Ibid. p. 110.

[4] Bryan S. Turner, Deakin Univeristy, in Sociology of religion, V. 55, N. 3, (Fall 1994) pp. 371-373.

[5] Bruce Lincoln, University of Chicago, in History of Religions, V. 35, N. 1 (August 1995) pp. 83-86

[6] Thinking about secularism and law in Egypt. Leiden, ISIM, 2001. (ISIM papers, 2) p. 1.

[7] David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, editors, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2006. P. 274.

[8] Interview, “Talal Asad, modern power and the reconfiguration of religious traditions” by Saba Mahmood. Stanford Humanities Review, v. 5, n. 1 (http://www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/5-1/text/asad.html)

[9] E.g., Thinking about Secularism and Law in Egypt. Leiden, ISIM, 2001 (ISIM papers, 2), and “Reflections on Laicité and the public sphere,” Beirut Conference on public spheres, October, 22-24, 2004. (http://www.islamamerica.org/articles.cfm/article_id/94/)


Talal Asad discusses his work on secularism in the modern world

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Talal Asad has conducted extensive research on the phenomenon of religion (and secularism), particularly the religious revival in the Middle East. Professor Asad is the author of Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). His new book, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity will be published by Stanford University Press in February 2003.

Professor Asad is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.

In this interview, Professor Asad discusses, among other things, religious revivalist movements, human rights, Shariah law and the modern state.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh, Asia Society Online

You have suggested in your essay “Religion, Nation-State, Secularism” that the term religion is often used anachronistically. Why is it that the term religion does not exhaust all the components — the practices, the ways of being — that comprise it? How did this understanding of the term come about and why is it that you place such emphasis on an alternative conception of the term?

I think there is a slight misunderstanding here. I’m not really concerned to give another definition of religion. I am not concerned to say that we can get a more comprehensive, a more dynamic conception, and so on. I wish only to point to the fact that religion as a category is constantly being defined within social and historical contexts, and that people have specific reasons for defining it one way or another.

Religion is associated with various kinds of experience, various institutions, with various movements, arguments and so on. That is what I am pointing to. In other words, it is not an abstract definition that interests me. People who use abstract definitions of religion are missing a very important point: that religion is a social and historical fact, which has legal dimensions, domestic and political dimensions, economic dimensions, and so on. So what one has to look for, in other words, is the ways in which, as circumstances change, people constantly try, as it were, to gather together elements that they think belong, or should belong, to the notion of religion. People use particular conceptions of religion in social life. This has really been my concern.

My concern in the Genealogies of Religion was to trace some of the ways in which this notion has come to be constructed historically, rather than to provide a cross-cultural definition of religion that can be applied to any society. This is what I have been trying to say.

It has frequently been argued that processes of modernization should culminate in the retreat of religion to the private sphere, so that wherever religion manifests itself in public life, this can be attributed to an incomplete or failed project of modernization, or as the vestiges of tradition forestalling the inevitable triumph of the modern. How would you respond to this?

Well, certainly that is the theory, but, of course, for a long time it has been recognized that this is not the way history has gone. Indeed, it is not even clear that the so-called “retreat of religion” has been quite a simple thing even since the beginning of the 19th century. The way in which people have thought about secularism – that is, the separation between state and religion – has in fact been adapted to very different kinds of state.

Let’s think of three examples of states in the West that are supposed to be liberal, democratic and secular: France, Britain and the United States. What you have in France – very schematically speaking – is a state that is secular and a society which is secular. In England, you have an established religion and you have a very secular society. In the United States, you have a very religious society and a secular state. There are therefore very different ways in which the negotiation between religion and politics works itself out. There are different kinds of sensibilities, even in these three modern states and societies. There are different kinds of reactions that people have towards what is a transgression against “secular” principles.

For example: such sensibilities are found in the debate in France (l’affaire du foulard) about whether Muslim girls should be permitted to wear the veil in public schools. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that this has led to a negative reaction by secularists whereas wearing a yarmulke to school has not. What is it that makes the wearing of the veil a violation of secular rules of politics and not the yarmulke? My point is not that there is unfair discrimination here, but that even in a secular society there are differences in the way secular people evaluate the political significance of “religious symbols” in public space. Or take America. There are clear rules in the United States about the separation of state and religion, but that doesn’t prevent “non-secular” interventions in the politics of the present regime. As we all know, the Christian Right is at the heart of the Bush government. It is an anti-Semitic ally of the Zionist organizations in America, and its political imagination embraces the coming war against Iraq as a step towards Armageddon. A “secular” war is supported by them for “religious” reasons. Again, I say this not in order to express my disapproval of the Religious Right (although, of course, I do dislike them) but to point to the fact that a secular state can without difficulty accommodate such politics.

So to come back to the question of what is modern and what is not, and what ultimately is expected of a liberal, modern state: I think one has to recognize, first of all, that the transformation of societies in what is called a modern direction, included all sorts of accommodations and all sorts of changes, all sorts of re-adjustments as well as concessions. The “secular” politics that is emerging is partly the result of these changes. And in that sense modernization/secularization is not really a simple story.

I myself am very skeptical of the notion that modernity is some kind of straightforward destiny for everybody. There is a sense in which modernity can be thought of as a historical periodization, as temporality, but also of particular ways in which people live – must live. I am not at all sure that the “modern” necessarily presupposes everything that people in one or other of the so-called liberal, secular states want or think it should be.

Secularism has always been considered a crucial component of the process of modernization. How would you define the relationship between religion and secularism?

I have a book coming out in February 2003 called Formations of the Secular in which I try to look at questions of sensibility, of experience, of the embodied concepts which orient subjects’ sensorium and guide public understandings of truth. I also look at the political doctrine of secularism itself, and at the secularization of law and morality in modernizing states. I think these are complicated questions. I think we don’t understand fully what all the implications of the secular modes of everyday existence are for secular politics. I think we need to think about such matters far more deeply in the human sciences than we have done so far.

Secularism as a political doctrine I see as being very closely connected to the formation of religion itself, as the “other” of a religious order. It is precisely in a secular state – which is supposed to be totally separated from religion – that it is essential for state law to define, again and again, what genuine religion is, and where its boundaries should properly be. In other words, the state is not that separate. Paradoxically, modern politics cannot really be separated from religion as the vulgar version of secularism argues it should be – with religion having its own sphere and politics its own. The state (a political entity/realm) has the function of defining the acceptable public face of “religion”.

It has been argued elsewhere that religious revivalist movements — such as (but not limited to) ones in the Muslim world — are not in fact atavistic or premodern, but that the very condition of possibility of these movements is the modern. Would you agree with this?

I think to some extent this is certainly true. I would agree if, in “the modern condition of possibility” you include the nation-state, and the ambitions of the nation-state. It seems to me that both kinds of movements – both militant movements as well as the liberal forms of Islam that have emerged since the 19th century – are adjustments to the fact that the state has ambitions regarding the formation of subjects and the regulation of entire populations, of their life and death. These things were the concern of various other agencies previously – including what one might call the religious – or there was no such function at all. But now a single political structure, the modern nation-state, seeks to deal with them.

I think it is true that, if you like, both the radical forms of religious movements as well as the liberal forms are accommodations to the modern state. The liberal ones obviously because they represent attempts to adjust to that overarching political power and the spaces it authorizes – to the forms of privacy and autonomy that it enables and legitimizes. The radical ones too belong to the same modern world because what is at stake for them primarily is the state since that is the seat of power determining all sorts of things in ways that previously were left unregulated.

So in that sense, yes, these movements are modern. They are also of course modern in the sense that there are all sorts of modern techniques that are now available and employed by them (electronic techniques of communication, scientific forms of knowledge, the various means through which knowledge is produced and circulated, etc.). So it is quite true: various aspects of these movements are constituted in a modern way. At the same time one should not forget that they draw on traditions of reform and reinterpretation that are part of an old history – a history of disagreement, dispute and physical conflict – that is drawn on and re-presented.

Can or should contemporary Islamist movements make us rethink Western conceptions of secular modernity?

On the whole, neither radical Islamist movements nor liberal Islam appear able to make people rethink Western conceptions of secular modernity. In part this is because many of their projects, in so far as they are modern, have taken over modern assumptions of politics. In part also it is because there is an enduring antipathy in the West towards Islam and ideas coming from the Islamic tradition. And of course the mere fact of the enormous disparity in power between apparently successful Western societies and evidently weak Muslim societies also plays a part.

But I think that the phenomenon as a whole – that is the phenomenon of Islamism – as well as comparable religious movements elsewhere in the world ought to make us rethink the accepted narratives of triumphant secularism and liberal assumptions about what is politically and morally essential to modern life. The very existence of these phenomena should make us rethink our assumptions about what is necessary to modernity.

There has been much discussion recently of the fact that Islam is antithetical to liberal democracy and all it entails (equality, individualism, human rights, pluralism, tolerance and so on). How would you respond to this claim?

This is connected to the previous question. If you think of Islam and the Islamic tradition as fixed, as having a certain kind of unchangeable essence, then it might well be argued that Islam is antithetical to liberal democracy: what is modern is not really Islamic and what is Islamic cannot really be modern. So it’s a Catch-22 situation that many critics insist on putting Muslims into.

Of course there are people who are trying to rethink the Islamic tradition in ways that would make it compatible with liberal democracy. But I am much more interested in the fact that the Islamic tradition ought to lead us to question many of the liberal categories themselves. Rather than saying, “Well yes we can also be like you,” why not ask what the liberal categories themselves mean, and what they have represented historically? The question of individualism, for example, is fraught with all sorts of problems, as people who have looked carefully at the tradition of individualism in the West know very well. The same is true of the question of equality. We know that the equality that is offered in liberal democracies is a purely legal equality, not economic equality. And the two forms of equality can’t be kept in water-tight compartments. Even political equality doesn’t necessarily give equal opportunity to all citizens to engage in or contribute to the formulation of policy. What do Islamic ideas about the individual, equality, etc., tell us about Western liberal ideas?

These are questions worth pursuing, I think. So instead of leaping up and saying, “Ah yes, we can all be liberal,” I think it is more important to ask, for example, “What exactly does the liberal mean by tolerance?” It is easy enough to be tolerant about things that don’t matter very much. That tends to be the rule in liberal societies. Increasingly what you believe, what you do in your own home, whether you stand on your head or decide not to, is up to you as an individual in liberal democracies. So who cares? The liberal tolerates these things because the liberal doesn’t care about them. Yet tolerance is really only meaningful when it is about things that really matter. Even in ordinary language we talk about “tolerating pain”. In other words, the kind of tolerance that really matters is something we ought to be exploring, thinking more about – and the ways in which the Islamic tradition conceives of tolerance (however limited that might be) helps to open up such questions.

So we ought to be thinking about questions like that instead of simply – and rather defensively – saying, “There are Islamic traditions that are very liberal, you know. We can also become liberal.” It is in fact much more interesting to ask, “What does liberalism mean by tolerance, or by pluralism? Is the meaning of individualism totally clear, is it totally desirable? Does an exploration of Islamic traditions give us a deeper, more critical understanding of individualism, or tolerance, or pluralism?” I would like to see more of this kind of questioning, rather than people trying to prove their liberal credentials.

How would you explain why there are infinitely more reports of human rights violations in the “Third World” than there are in the Euro-American world?

One reason for this is of course the fact that there are quite a lot of dictators in power in the Third World. This applies to Latin America, to Africa, and to China – not only to the Muslim world as the media would have us believe. But I think that there is something more that interests me in this whole question of human rights. Very often, many of the assumptions underlying human rights have to do with ways of life that are recognized as Western. Many things are found insufferable in the Third World merely because they are in the Third World. Things in the West are not found quite so insufferable simply because they are part of a different (more prestigious) way of life.

I was reminded of this again when I was reading the Christian Science Monitor recently. There was a long article on Qatar, which is said to be relatively liberal and tolerant, and so on. Qatar is portrayed as a progressive society, therefore as one of the more interesting societies in the region. The examples given to support this claim, quite unselfconsciously, are that Doha has Starbucks’ cafes, that people eat Subway sandwiches, that there are malls. And of course they are also America’s crucial military allies in the region at a time when Saudi Arabia is shuffling its feet in the coming war against Iraq. I am not trying to trash Qatar, of course. What I am saying is that the conception here, automatically and quite unselfconsciously put forward, is that “they are becoming more like us”. “Us” here refers explicitly to Americans, not even to Europeans (which the Europeans are discovering now much to their frustration).

There is another important aspect to this human rights issue, one that has international dimensions. Many of the conditions of disenfranchisement in the Third World are due not only to brutal dictators but also to the way in which these societies are connected to the global system. The point is that conditions inside a country are not thought of as being anybody’s responsibility but that of the national government.

The trouble with the way human rights violations are conceived is that they invest the sovereign state with legal responsibility for all the sufferings of its people. There is some reason for this, historical as well as political, but increasingly around the world this notion makes nonsense of the way in which the violation of people’s rights should be understood. The notion that lack of education, poverty and misery of various kinds has only to do with those countries themselves is absurd. Of course (it is grandly conceded) we in the West have an obligation to give aid and they in the Third World have an obligation to follow the sound policies urged on by the IMF and the World Bank that lend them money. But beyond that each Third World country is responsible for its own miseries – and its own human rights abuses.

In other words the responsibility cannot lie here with Western countries as far as any human rights violations in the Third World are concerned. So it is that as well. There are really a number of different things that contribute to people thinking in particular ways about human rights violations, and therefore to more violations “there” than “here”.

Some Muslim states such as Nigeria and Pakistan have attempted in various ways to implement Shariah law, attempts that have frequently been contested and criticized, since there is a prevailing belief that Shariah law is “backward” and anti-modern. Would you agree with this? Is it possible for Shariah law to be accommodated by the centralized and coercive system of law that is so crucial to the modern state?

Can it be accommodated? Aspects of it cannot be accommodated, and have not been accommodated of course since the 19th century – commercial law particularly, but also procedural law, and so on, have long been abandoned in most Muslim countries. Criminal law as well but that has less to do with how the modern capitalist state works than with certain kinds of liberal values (for instance, ideas of what is really cruel and insufferable and what is not). There is a rejection of punishments that have to do with the body, they are anathema to the liberal sensibility. I happen to have the same sensibilities but logically Shariah punishments are not inconsistent with the demands of a “centralized and coercive system of law so crucial to the modern state”.

As far as family law is concerned, it is quite clear that this has been adjusted and accommodated in and by modern states in all sorts of ways. And now there is increasing demand for equality on the part of women in relation to particular kinds of laws that discriminate against them. Here the Shariah has come under pressure.

Again I would stress that there are movements of re-interpretation going on among various Muslims who are keen to introduce liberal values into the Shariah, who would like to re-write the Shariah from its foundations, as it were, so that it has both some kind of attachment to the historical tradition but at the same time is more palatable to a Western liberal sensibility. In principle, I do not see why this is impossible, and indeed, it may very well happen to a greater or lesser extent. In this country, there is for instance an interesting woman, Azizah Al-Hibri, a lawyer and a law professor at Richmond University, who has been very concerned to develop liberal interpretations of the Shariah in this country. Surely there are movements of this kind and they will be accommodated by a liberal democratic state.

What is the relationship between modern forms of power and the way in which questions about religion and human rights and secularism are framed?

This is a large question. And short of repeating myself, I would only say that many of the things claimed about liberal tolerance should be questioned. There are various kinds of intimidation and coercion that go on both covertly and overtly to make things acceptable to liberal sensibilities. Power is exerted not only in the ways people are allowed to speak or not speak, but in what it is that makes sense to them. Rather than thinking of power only in terms of the question of freedom of expression and its limitations, we should also pay attention to the kinds of power that go into the formation of listening subjects, of subjects who can open their minds to something that is strange or uncomfortable or distasteful.

I think we need much more investigation of what people regard as poppycock and of what they are willing to open their minds to. Secularism has tended to regard religious traditions as either making nonsensical claims about public knowledge or as having dangerous consequences when they are allowed to enter the political realm. William Connolly, for instance, has been trying in many of his writings to re-theorize the political arrangement of secularism as it is has been understood historically so that a more compassionate, open-minded attitude can be invited into modern politics.

You have been accused of sympathizing with nativism, “Islamic fundamentalism”, and the like. Recently one critic charged you (along with others) of cultivating an “aura of authenticity”. How would you respond to such a charge?

My first reaction would be to say that I only answer charges in a court of law!

I find this rather disappointing, frankly. It is a reflection of much of the careless thinking that is going around in the human sciences these days. It is the kind of carelessness which has some rather unfortunate and worrying moral implications. The people who say this are not unlike Bush who says, “You are either with us, or against us,” and not unlike people who condemn attempts at understanding disturbing events as nothing more than attempts at excusing. I do not think quite honestly that anybody who has read my work carefully could think that I am for irrationality and for the kind of fanaticism that is associated with fundamentalism (a term I prefer not to use for theoretical reasons as well as political ones).

I know also that at least one critic has said that I have endorsed an “aura of authenticity” – and that, in his eyes, is clearly a great political failing on my part. What I have to say in response to this is not only that the person concerned has not read my work carefully but also that he has not read Walter Benjamin carefully, from whom the expression “aura of authenticity” is derived, particularly from his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

Many people in cultural studies and anthropology who invoke that text do not seem to have noticed that Benjamin had a very ambivalent attitude towards “authenticity”. If you re-read that essay, you will see that on the one hand, he looks forward with approval to a time when certain kinds of authority are undermined, he particularly expects the end of religious authority with the collapse of cultic aura and envisages a consequent enhancement of freedom that the technique of mechanical reproduction will make possible. We know, of course, that this optimism has not been justified.

At the same time, Benjamin’s idea of authenticity and aura is a very complex one. It is also a notion that relates to historicity, to the historicity of the authentic thing. It is precisely because a thing is authentic, because the same thing moves from one time to another that it acquires, as it were, certain qualities of ancientness and genuineness, an aura. Its authenticity as an ancient thing guarantees its historicity. Benjamin recognized ambivalently that the undermining of aura, in the complex sense in which he was talking about it, might also mean the undermining of historicity. Thus it is precisely the fact that certain ancient documents are authentic documents, that they show, as it were, the “real” wear and tear of their historical experience, which makes it possible to use those documents to construct a reliable historical account of something. In other words, Benjamin had a notion of aura not only as essential to modern concepts of historicity but also as intrinsic to “tradition”. This lends his work a productive tension because it is not straightforwardly progressivist.

I find that what Benjamin has to say there is much more complicated and dialectical, much more suggestive, than is often vulgarly assumed by progressivists. So I would say that whoever accused me of sympathizing with fundamentalism because I’m supposed to have endorsed the idea of “aura of authenticity” that Benjamin dismantled, has done a rather superficial reading not only of my own work but of Benjamin’s as well.

You have spoken of self-criticism within the Middle East. For strategic reasons, the US has now also discursively complicated its reading of Islamic tradition; it speaks of a plurality (or rather, a duality – the regressive and the modern) of traditions within Islam, and declares its aim to be to encourage the more modern, democratic element. What is the difference between your appreciation of the complexity of Muslim tradition and the US schema? Is there any commonality between the forces that the US seeks to encourage, and the sources of criticism that you gesture towards? Where would you locate, and how would you read a possible emancipatory politics today?

Well first of all, let me distance myself from US policy, and say that clearly, as I read it, US policy is only concerned to find tendencies in the Middle East and the Muslim world, whether they are religious or secular, with which it can ally politically. That does not interest me of course. Secondly, these US policymakers have a teleological conception of regional developments, and I touched on that when we talked about Benjamin. In other words, people like the patriotic journalist Thomas Friedman evaluate these movements by reference to what “we” in the US are. Because that, of course, is what all civilized human beings should become – and if this is not obvious to everyone in the world then clearly there’s something terribly wrong with them.

I do not see it that way at all. I hope that things will not develop that way. In my more pessimistic moments, which are now increasingly frequent, I think that regardless of what one would like, one may end up with a world that the Friedmans of this country want. In other words, we may see a world that is more dominated and hegemonized by a singular power pushing us in a singular direction, with less and less possibility for a multiplicity of experiences, and so on. I see power as being more and more polarized, I see cultural options becoming narrower – even though individuals might have more things to consume, more ways to amuse themselves, more ways to aestheticize their personal lives. I would like to see something else, but what I like is neither here nor there, so I distinguish between how I see things as desirable and how I see things as probable. This is what I fear: a homogenization which may well lead to a victory for the kind of world US policymakers have in mind. So in that sense Friedman and I might agree, but I with sadness and he with great delight.

But then history is full of surprises; that is the one thing I console myself with. The best-laid plans of mice and men go wrong. People who confidently predict particular outcomes of historical developments are often mistaken. I hope that I will be wrong too. What might emerge as this century proceeds is in the end very difficult to say. I think that what kind of emancipatory politics makes sense will depend very much on what emerges. I am not in favour of talking confidently about what kind of politics is emancipatory. We have had too many programs of this kind in the past that have been dismal failures. Clearly one can try to resist oppressive power in various ways, some big, and some small; one can resist morally, one can resist politically. But I don’t think academics have quite as much impact on politics as they sometimes think – except if you happen to be a Kissinger of course. Then you are a public intellectual integrated into the ruling apparatus. So I don’t know, quite honestly, if I have anything useful to say on this subject. All I can say is that certainly politics has always had an oppositional dimension. So we ought to try to make our arrogant rulers uncomfortable at the very least, and insecure, at best. Whether we can do more than that I doubt. In the end it is up to the younger generation that has both a greater imagination and a stronger sense of commitment to fellow-human beings to decide what to do and how to do it. At present I see large uncertainties around. We are all in a sense much more in the dark than we think we are.



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