Unholy Politics

It has become clear since September 11 that we are faced with a new form of struggle that threatens to dissolve the boundaries of the political in liberal democracies. The terror network of Osama bin Laden, and its various branches in Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria and among Islamist groups in western Europe, is wider, more entrenched and sophisticated than it was believed to be. The attacks unleashed by these groups, (and their potential sympathizers in the USA and Europe among Neo-Nazis and white Supremacists), especially the use of the biological weapon anthrax to contaminate the civilian population via the mail, indicate a new political and military phenomenon which challenges the framework of state-centric politics.

Historians always warn us that the unprecedented will turn out to have some forerunners somewhere and that what seems new today will appear old when considered against the background of some longer time span. Nevertheless to “think the new” in politics is the vocation of the intellectual. This is a task at which luminaries like Susan Sontag, Fred Jameson, Slavoj Zizeck, who have seized this opportunity to recycle well-worn out 1960s clichés about western imperialism and hegemony, have failed us by interpreting these events along the tired paradigm of an anti-imperialist struggle by the “wretched of the earth.” 1 Neglecting the internal dynamics and struggles within the Islamic world, and the history of regional conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Kashmir, these analyses assure us that we can continue to grasp the world through our usual categories, and that by blaming the policies and actions of western governments, one can purge oneself of the enmity and hatred which is directed toward one as a member of such western societies. These analyses help us neither to grasp the unprecedented nature of the events unfolding since September 11, 2001 nor to appreciate the internal dynamics within the Arab Muslim world which have given rise to them.

The line between military and civilian targets, between military and civilian populations, had already been erased during the aerial bombings of World War II. This is not what is new since September 11. Faced with the total mobilization of society, initiated by fascism and National Socialism, it was the democracies of the world, and not some marginal terrorist group hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan, that first crossed that line and initiated “total war.” The civilian population at large became the hostage of the enemy, as during the bombing of London by the Nazis and then of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Allies.

In the 1950s, the Algerian War marked a new variation in this process of the erasure of the line between the front and the home, the soldier and the civilian. The Algerian Resistance against the French aimed at destroying the normalcy of everyday life for the civilians of the occupying population. By blowing up the French residents of Algeria in cafes, markets and stations, the Resistance not only reminded them that they were the enemy but that there could be no “normal life” under conditions of colonial occupation. Since that time, this kind of terror which fights against the superior military and technical weapons of a mightier enemy by tearing apart the fabric of everyday life through interrupting the normal routines of everyday and by rendering every bus or railroad station, each street corner or gathering place a potential target has become one of the favorite “weapons of the weak.” The strategy of this kind of struggle is to make life so unlivable for the enemy civilians that they concede defeat even if they enjoy superior military power. The Palestinian Intifada at least in part follows the Algerian model: By creating conditions of continuous fear, insecurity and violence in the land of Palestine, it aims at destroying the resolve of the Israeli civilian population to continue a normal life. 2 In recent years, however, infiltrators from Islamist groups like the Hamas and the Hizbollah into the ranks of the Palestinians, and the widespread practice of “suicide bombings,” are changing the nature of the Intifada as well.

The bombing of the World Trade Center and of the Pentagon is unlike both the total war waged in the struggle against fascism and the terrorism against the occupier initiated by the Algerians. These attacks, perpetrated against a civilian population in its own land, and against a country in no state of declared hostility with the attackers, not only defy all categories of international law but reduce politics to apocalyptic symbols. Until Osama bin Laden released his terse video celebrating September 11, his deed had no political name: In whose name or for whom were they acting? What political demands were they voicing? The brief references to the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia, to US sanctions against Iraq, and to the US support of Israel were shrouded in the language of “jihad” (holy war) and obfuscated by allusions to the lost glory of Islam in the thirteenth century through the loss of “al Andalus” of Spain to the Christians. While it is conceivable that Palestinian terror could end one day if Israel withdrew from the occupied West Bank, released Palestinian prisoners of war, found a settlement for the refugees and somehow resolved the question of Jerusalem, it is unclear, what if anything, could end the “Jihad” of the Osama bin Laden network against the USA and its allies. Theirs is a war of “holy” vengeance, a war designed to humiliate the mighty “Satan” in New York and Washington by turning the weapons of the most developed technology against the society which created them.

The result is a sublime combination of high tech wizardry and moral and political atavism, which some have named “jihad-on-line.” But this unholy politics threatens to undo the moral and political distinctions that ought to govern our lives, distinctions as between enemy, friend and bystander; guilt, complicity, and responsibility; conflict, combat and war. We have to live by them even if others do not.

One of the most commonly heard contentions in the aftermath of September 11 was that even if the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center and Washington equaled war in the civilian and property damages they inflicted, the deliberateness and precision with which they were executed, and the brazenness with which they violated customary moral, legal, and international norms, the US Congress could not actually declare “war,” not because the enemy was as yet unknown, but because a state can declare war only against another state. The idea that a democratic nation-state would declare war upon a global network of loosely organized sympathizers of a religious cum civilizational cause, strained all categories of international law with which the world has lived since 1945, and in which nation-states are the principal recognized actors. For this reason, the current military action in Afghanistan has not been preceded by a declaration of war, rather the Congress has authorized the President to do whatever is necessary to fight the global terror network and to bring the perpetrators to justice, but Congress has declared war neither upon the Taliban (whom most nations do not recognize as a legitimate regime) nor upon the Afghani people. It is as if the territory, the terrain of Afghanistan, is our enemy, in that this terrain offers a sanctuary and an operational base for one of the great fugitives of our time Osama bin Laden. Ironically, the people of Afghanistan have themselves fallen “captive” or “prisoner” to one who operates on their territory, and to whom the Taliban had granted refuge. Afghanistan is a decaying or failed nation-state, and this very condition of decay permits us to understand all the more vividly the principles of national sovereignty which have governed international relations since the Second World War.

Recall here Max Weber’s classically modernist definition of the state as “the legitimate monopoly over the use of violence within a recognized and bounded territory.” 3  Modern statehood is based upon the coupling together of the principles of territoriality, administrative and military monopoly, including the use of violence, and the legitimacy to do so. When states decay, dissolve, or secede these three principles fall asunder. Their territory can become a staging ground for operations not only of guerilla warfare, but of drug smuggling, weapons production, contraband and other illegal activities; administrative and military competence is overtaken by units at the sub-state level such as warlords, commandos, traditional chieftains or religious leaders; and legitimacy loses its representational quality in that there is no longer a unified people to whose will it either refers or defers legitimacy either flows from the barrel of a gun or from other sources of supra- and sub-national ideological worldviews, be these race, religion or civilization-based.

The decaying and weak nation-states of the contemporary world bear similarities as well as differences to the totalitarian regimes of the mid-twentieth century. The breakdown of the rule of law; the destruction of representative and democratic institutions; the pervasiveness of violence and the universalization of fear are features of both state-forms. The totalitarian regimes of the mid-twentieth century, however, although at times they mobilized “the movement” against the state bureaucracy, by and large strengthened and rebuilt the state by rendering it subservient to their ideologies. But the postmodern/quasi-feudal states of the present, like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, and Rwanda, emerge as a result not of the strengthening but of the destruction of the territorial and administrative unity of the state in the name of subunities, which are then globally networked. As Hannah Arendt has shown us, totalitarian movements also had globalizing ambitions in that they touted supranational ideologies like pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism. 4), Part Three.] Yet the global ideologies of today’s terror movements are both larger and smaller in range instead of the ideology of linguistic or cultural unity among the Slavic or Germanic nations, for example, today we are dealing with ideologies aimed at tribes, ethnicities or at a vision of a community of believers that transcends them all namely the Islamis umma of the faithful. The new unit of totalitarianism is the terrorist cell, not the party or the movement; the goal of this new form of war is not just the destruction of the enemy but the extinction of a way of life. The emergence of non-state agents capable of waging destruction at a level hitherto thought to be only the province of states and the emergence of a supranational ideological vision with an undefinable moral and political content, which can hardly be satisfied by ordinary political tactics and negotiations, are the unprecedented aspects of our current condition.

This remark should not be taken to suggest that I attribute an overarching rationality or normativity to the state use of violence. State terrorism can also be brutal, unjust and merciless recall the war of the Yugoslav state against the Bosnians and the Kosovar Albanians! The point I am emphasizing, however, is that in liberal democracies the monopoly which the state claims over the use of the means of violence is always in principle, if not in fact, subject to the rule of law and to democratic legitimation by the citizenry. These internal constraints upon the legitimate use of violence are then carried unto the international arena, where sovereign states bind themselves to limit their use of violence through entering into pacts and associations, signing treaties, etc.

The end of the bipolar world of the Cold War brought with it not just multiplurality but a global society in which non-state actors have emerged as players possessing means of violence but who are not subject to usual constraints of international law and treaties. All treaties which have hitherto governed the non-use and proliferation of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons have been rendered irrelevant: those who will deploy them have never been their signatories. Furthermore, not being recognized as legitimate political entities, these groups have no responsibility and accountability toward the populations in whose midst they act and which harbor them. Suppose Osama bin Laden and his group possess scud missiles with nuclear warheads, which they may have obtained either from Iraq or from the Russian Mafia or other weapons smugglers. Suppose they start losing ground in the current war. What would prevent them from firing these missiles against population centers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India or Israel if this would serve some purpose? Since they are accountable to no one, the collateral damage which they may cause even to their own allies and sympathizers is of no concern to them. Whereas terrorist groups like the Basque ETA and the IRA still have to be governed by some sense of proportion in the damage they inflict and the violence they engage in, in order not to lose all sympathy for their cause in world public opinion, these new terror networks are not motivated by foreseeable political goals analogous to the independence of the Basque land from Spain and France, the removal of the Irish Catholic population and unity with UK Protestants, and the like. Nor are these groups fighting for hearts and minds in the West by seeking the conversion of the population to Islam and to Islamic ways of life. “Jihad,” which can also mean the struggle of the soul with itself to lead the virtuous life as dictated by the Koran, 5 when it was practiced by Islamic armies in the centuries after the death of Mohammad (632 AD), aimed at the conquest of the land of the infidels in order to force their conversion to Islam. People of all races, colors, ethnicities and tongues could convert to Islam and become “good Muslims.” It is this option of conversion which has made Islam into the biggest Abrahamanic religion of the world, and ironically, it is the very absence of this conversion mission that is striking in the new jihad.

The new jihad is not only apocalyptic; it is nihilistic. Osama bin Laden’s statement that his men love death as much as the Americans love life is an expression of superb nihilism. The eroticization of death, as evidenced on the one hand by the frequently heard vulgarisms about huris, the dark-eyed virgins who are to meet the warriors in the afterlife, but on the other hand and more importantly, by the destruction of one’s own body in an act of supreme violence which dismembers and pulverizes it, is remarkable. Human beings have died throughout the centuries for causes they believed in, to save their loved ones, to protect their country or their principles, to save the faith, to exercise solidarity and the like. But the emergence of “suicide bombings” among Islamist groups on a mass scale is astonishing. As many Koranic scholars have pointed out, there is no theological justification for this: it is one thing to die in war and yet another to make the destruction of one’s body along with those of others the supreme weapon. In order to quell such waves of suicide bombings, the Israeli authorities resorted to an atavistic practice: they made it publicly known that they would bury the remains of suicide bombers in shrouds of pigs’ skin (an animal that is considered “haram” – taboo by Jews and Moslems alike) in order to prevent their ascent into heaven in accordance with Islamic faith. It is of course hard to know whether men of the sophistication and worldliness of Muhammad Atta and others who have lived in the capitals of Europe and the West and who have attended universities as well as bars, movie houses as well as brothels, believe in the afterlife. I personally doubt it. Not only is it clear that the very strict version of Islam Wahabism which Osama bin Laden follows, is not shared by all even within his own group, but the Egyptian Brotherhood which was the original organization for many Islamist philosophies in the nineteen-fifties had its own version of things, as do members of the Algerian terror network. These networks of young militants who trot the globe from Bosnia to Afghanistan, from Paris to Indonesia and back to Baghdad, Hamburg or New York, are like Islamic soldiers of fortune, not in search of riches, but in search of an elusive and decisive encounter with death. In this regard they bear more resemblance to chiliastic sects among all world religions than to the Moslem armies of the Umayyad, the Abassids or the Ottomans. While using friendly Moslem governments and their hospitality for their own purposes, these groups pose a clear threat to any established form of authority which may have been one reason why the Saudis renounced Osama bin Laden’s citizenship and rendered him an international fugitive.

As in the past century, faced with a novel form of totalitarianism, democracies confront unique challenges. The presence of an enemy who is neither a military adversary nor a representative agent of a known state creates confusion as to whether it is the police and other law enforcement agencies or the military who should take the lead in the investigation and the struggle the lines between acts of crime and acts of war get blurred. The concept of an “internal enemy,” which is now being promoted against “suspect groups” through surveillance, wiretapping and stricter immigration controls, is not one that democracies can live with. The category of the terrorist as an “internal enemy,” as one who is among us, even if not one of us, strains the democratic community by revealing that the rule of law is not all-inclusive and that violence lurks at the edges of everyday normalcy. Our thinking about foreigners, refugees, and asylees becomes colored by the image of others as potential enemies; the “other” becomes the criminal. We may be at a point in history when indeed the state-centric system is waning: global terrorism and the formation of a global economy and civil society are part of the same maelstrom. Yet our laws as well as institutions, practices as well as alliances, are governed by state-centric terms which presuppose the unity of territoriality, the monopoly over the use of the means of violence, and the attainment of legitimacy through representative institutions. It is of course supremely ironic that President Bush, who advocated a new version of American unilateralism and isolationism and who denounced “nation building,” now finds himself supporting multilateral actions with allies like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, whose democratic legitimacy is highly questionable, and also reconstructing a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Can we find responses to this new challenge that will break the vicious cycles of violence, incomprehension, repression at home and war abroad?

Although the attacks have so far been directed against the US, and although the USA is justified under international law in invoking the right of self-defense to justify the current war, 6 the US and its NATO Allies have resorted to the clause of collective security and article 5 of NATO which guarantees the security of each member of the alliance. I support this course of action, and I would further endorse the call by the United Nations President Kofi Annan to declare terrorism a “crime against humanity,” and to try the terrorists, if and when they are captured, before an international tribunal. Furthermore, the UN General Assembly should condemn the Taliban regime of committing crimes against humanity not only for harboring Osama bin Laden and his men, but for the way the Taliban have trampled upon the human rights of their own women. There is no reason why the human rights of women to work, to be educated, to walk on the street, to dress as they wish, etc. should be considered any less sacred and any less in need of defense than the rights of ethnic minorities. In response to the events of September 11 and to future threats, multilateral responses that enjoy cross cultural legitimacy and that reflect some of the new norms of international law – like crimes against humanity or genocide, as defined under the statute of Rome of the international criminal court should be invoked.

Of course, (and this cannot be said clearly enough by the citizens of western democracies), a radical revision of US and Nato policy vis a vis the Arab world and south central Asia is needed. The US and its Allies have to stop propping up military dictatorships and religious conservatives in these areas in order simply to secure oil supplies. Democratic movements within the burgeoning civil societies of countries like Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and the new Iran must be supported. A general UN conference must be convened to deal with the rights of nations, ethnicities, and other minorities without states in this region, like the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran; the Shiites in Iraq and the Bahais as well as the Azeris in Iran. Efforts analogous to the Marshall Plan in post-war Europe or the Soros Foundation in Eastern Europe must be developed and furthered for entire regions. But even if all these things are assumed, I believe that a more daunting cultural struggle and civilizational malaise is unfolding before our eyes.


As many have noted (including former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto), the events of September 11 at first seemed to offer a belated confirmation of Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis of the clash of civilizations. Huntington wrote: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 7 Proceeding from a holistic understanding of cultures and civilizations terms which he at times conflated and others distinguished Huntington was unable to differentiate one “civilization” from another, with the consequence that, apart from “the west and the rest,” he could not specify how many civilizations there were and how they were to be differentiated. 8 Edward Said pointed out that Huntington made civilizations and identities into “shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and counter-currents that animate human history, and over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization, and sharing.” 9

It is precisely this history of cross-fertilization exchange as well as confrontation between Islamic culture and the West that we must pay increasing attention to. One of the principal thinkers of the Islamist 10 movement, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who studied philosophy in France and briefly visited the United States, developed a civilizational critique of the West for its corruption, coldness, heartlessness and individualism. His critique resonates with themes from the works of Nietzsche as well as Heidegger, from Adorno and Horkheimer as well as contemporary communitarians. 11 Describing the current condition of the west as one of “jahiliyya,” a lack of knowledge and a condition of ignorance, the Islamists advocate a return to Koranic law the shari’a and Muslim precepts to combat the corruption of the western way of life. To combat the condition of jahiliyya, it is necessary to rebel and establish a counter-community (jama’a) and spread it through jihad12 Very often, the Islamists struggle against jahiliyya took the form of a struggle against established authorities in their own countries and their corrupt, westernizing policies.

This clash within Islamic countries between Islamist religious forces and modernizers like Kemal Atatuerk in Turkey, Habib Burgiba in Tunisia, Gemal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarek in Egypt, the deposed Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran, and even Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Islamist religious forces is long, deep and powerful. The modernizers in these countries have usually come from military rather than civilian backgrounds, and by transforming one of the few intact institutions of the old regime namely the military bureaucracy into an instrument of political power and hegemony, they have consolidated their authority, often with limited popular support and democratic institutions. All over the Islamic Arab world this military modernization paradigm, in which Syria and Iraq had participated through the Ba’ath regimes in the nineteen-seventies, has lost ground. The defeat of the Egyptian armies in the hands of Israel during the Six Day War, the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and the west Bank, are reminders to the military elite of these countries, less of the plight of the Palestinians, whom they have massacred and oppressed when it suited their interests (remember Black September in Jordan in 1970, in which Palestinians were killed by the thousands; or the persecution of the Palestinians by the Saudis because of their support for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War), but of the failure of their own truncated projects of modernization. Israel is a thorn on the side of these regimes, whose very presence is a bleeding reminder of their own failure to modernize in military, technological and economic terms.

The revival of Islamist movements is best understood in the light of the failure of most of these societies to succeed in combining a prosperous economy, with political democracy, and a Moslem identity. 13 Islamism emerges as a plausible civilizational project, not just against the West, but against the failure of westernizing elites who have only managed to import a truncated modernity into their own societies. Some of these modernizing elites had considered themselves “socialists” of sorts. The Ba’ath regime in Syria and Iraq, and even the kind of pan-Arabism envisaged by Nasser in the early nineteen-sixties, advocated strong redistributionist economic measures, built up huge public sectors (in state-owned utilities, for example), and practiced what could be called “statist modernization” from above. The demise of the Soviet Union has left these states with no patrons. Need we remind ourselves that the mobilization of the Islamist mujahideen in Afghanistan began against the Soviet invasion of the country in 1973 an invasion the Soviets engaged in to support their own backers, the leftist fedayyeen?

The collapse of really existing socialisms, and the failure of state-guided modernization from above have created an enormous vacuum in the ideological life of these societies. And into this vacuum have rushed Islamist fundamentalists. Osama bin Laden is the most spectacular member of a long chain of critics in the Islamic world, who, more often than not, have transformed their local struggles against their own corrupt and authoritarian regimes (Nasser banned the Islamist Moslem Brotherhood and hung some of their leaders) toward the outside, toward the external enemy.


I want to end with Max Weber’s question: which directions do religious rejections of the world take and why? 14 There is a fundamental conflict between secular, capitalist modernity, driven by profit, self-interest, individualism, and the ethical world views of the world’s religions. The religious world views preach various forms of abstinence, renunciation of riches, the pursuit of virtue in the path of God, the exercise of solidarity among members of the faith, and the disciplining of everyday life to do the work of the Lord. What is it, Weber asked, that enables some religious interpretations of the world to make their peace with the new world of modernity? For Weber the Protestant ethic exhibited its “elective affinity” to capitalism by transforming the abstinent and methodical pursuit of one’s vocation in the service of God into the methodical, predictable, disciplined pursuit of work and profit in this world. This process took several centuries and not all early modern Christians accepted its logic: millenarian movements which rejected the capitalist control of everyday life for the sake of disciplined labor and profit accompanied the rise of western modernity.

The Protestant and more narrowly Calvinist transformation of religious salvation into an earthly vocation of hard work in the service of an unpredictable God, is one among the many paths that the religious accommodation with the world can take. It is also possible to split the religious and mundane spheres in such a way that one altogether withdraws from engagement with the world; the religious abnegation of the world remains an option. A third option besides engagement or withdrawal is to compartmentalize by separating the spheres of life which come under the ethical dictates of religion from those like the public spheres of the economy which do not. Throughout the Islamic world, such a strict separation of religious observance (in the domain of family life and everyday practices of prayer, cleanliness, food and sexuality) from the sphere of the economy in the “bazaar” (the marketplace) was practiced. This separation of the home from the market was made possible by the practice of Islamic tolerance toward the other Abrahamanic religions, like Judaism and Christianity. The Ottomans adopted this “separate spheres” model, and permitted the wide array of ethnic groups and peoples whom they dominated to govern themselves in their own communal affairs according to their own religious and customary traditions (the so-called millet system.) Global modernization is destroying the fragile balance between these separate spheres; this may explain in turn the obsessive preoccupation with controlling female sexuality which all Islamist groups exhibit.

Technical modernization, which brings along with it the gadgets of modernity like computers, videos, DVD’s, cell phones, satellite dishes, is no threat to the Islamists. 15 In fact, there is a ruthless exploitation of this new media to convey one’s message to one’s believers. Neither is finance capitalism as such problematic from an Islamic perspective. Attempts exist all over the Muslim world to reconcile the shari’a with modern financial institutions. Whether it is the hawale method of money transfers which bypass modern banks and rely on personalized contacts among money lenders, or the practice of the obligation of the rich to the poor by sharing 5% of one’s wealth, as dictated in the Koran (a practice that is partially behind the founding of the Madrassas institutions of religious learning for the orphan children of war in Afghanistan by wealthy individuals all over the Islamic world), institutional innovations such as to make Islam compatible with global capitalism are taking place. The threat to the separate spheres model is primarily a threat to family and personal life.

Global capitalism is bringing images of sexual freedom and decadence, female emancipation and equality among the sexes into the homes of patriarchal and authoritarian Moslem communities. It is Hollywood which is identified as America, and not the Constitution or the Supreme Court, or the legacy of Puritianism and town meetings. These fast circulating images of sexual liberty and decadence, physical destruction and violence sell very well globally because their message is blunt and can be extricated from local cultural nuance.

In a global world, it is not only images that travel; individuals all over the Islamic world are part of a large diaspora of migration to the West. Sizeable Muslim communities exist in every large European and North American capital. These migrant communities attempt to practice the separate life spheres model in their new homes. But the children of Moslem migrants are caught between worlds, be it through educational institutions or the influence of mass culture, if not the parents, between the authoritarian and patriarchal family structures from which they emerge and the new world of freedom into which they enter. There is a continuous renegotiation of clashing moral codes and value orientations in the minds of this younger generation, and particularly of women. If we want to understand why so many educated, relatively well-off Muslim males from Hamburg and Paris would participate in the actions of September 11, we have to understand the psychology of Muslim immigrants in their encounters with secular liberal democracies of the west. Given the failure of their own home-grown versions of modernity like Nasserism and the Ba’ath movement, given the profound assault on their identity as Muslims which the global entertainment industry brings, and given the profound discrimination and contempt which they experience in their host societies as new immigrants who are perceived to have “backward” morals and ways of life, many young Muslims today turn to Islamism and fundamentalism. Commenting on “l’affaire de foulard,” (the veil affair) in France, in which some female students took to wearing traditional veils less as a sign of submission to religious patriarchy than as an emblem of difference and defiance of homogenizing French republican traditions, the French sociologists Gaspard and Khosrokhavar capture these set of complex symbolic negotiations as follows: “[The veil] mirrors in the eyes of the parents and the grandparents the illusions of continuity whereas it is a factor of discontinuity; it makes possible the transition to otherness (modernity), under the pretext of identity (tradition); it creates the sentiment of identity with the society of origin whereas its meaning is inscribed within the dynamic of relations with the receiving society it is the vehicle of the passage to modernity within a promiscuity which confounds traditional distinctions, of an access to the public sphere which was forbidden to traditional women as a space of action and the constitution of individual autonomy” 16

We can intervene in this process of complex cultural negotiations as dialogue partners in a global civilization only insofar as we make an effort to understand the struggles of others whose idioms and terms may be unfamiliar to us but which, by the same token, are also not so different from similar struggles at other times in our own cultures; through acts of strong hermeneutical generosity, we can still extend our moral imagination to view the world through the others’ eyes. 17 While I believe that at this stage of the conflict the use of force against the Osama bin Laden network is inevitable and justified, the real political task ahead is to engage in a dialogue with the hearts and minds of millions of Moslems around this globe beyond vengeance and without apocalyptic expectations. Democracies cannot fight holy wars. Reason, compassion, respect for the dignity of human life, the search for justice and the desire for reconciliation are the democratic virtues which are now pitted against acts of apocalyptic hatred and vengeance.

November 2001

This essay is forthcoming in Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, March 2002.

  1. See Susan Sontag, The New Yorker; Fred Jameson, The London Review and Slavoj Zizek, “The Desert of the Real. Is this the End of Fantasy?” In These Times, October 29, 2001.
  2. Only, the analogy is not quite accurate, for the French who were colonizers, eventually left Algeria. But despite all theories to the contrary, the Jewish population of Palestine are not colonizers in the traditional sense of the term. They are not there to exploit the indigenous population or their resources, but to establish a “Jewish homeland”- however problematic and tragic this vision may be. The refusal of much of the Arab world to understand the uniqueness of the dream which motivated the Zionist enterprise, makes it easy for them to assimilate Israel to the model of the western oppressor while presenting themselves as the colonized and the oppressed. Israel was not established to be a colonizing force; it has become so increasingly since the occupation of the West Bank, and since its growing dependence on Palestinian labor to run its expanding economy.
  3. “However, the monopolization of legitimate violence by the political-territorial association and its rational consociations into an institutional order is nothing primordial, but a product of evolution.” Max Weber, Economy and Society, vol. 2, ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (University of California Press: Berkeley 1978), 904-905.
  4. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, New York, 1979[1951
  5. Roxanne Euben, “Killing (for) Politics: Jihad, Martyrdom and Political Action,” lecture given in the Political Theory Colloquium, Yale University, October 16, 2001. Forthcoming, Political Theory (February 2002).
  6. For a lucid elucidation of the current situation from the standpoint of international law, see Richard Falk,”A Just Response, ” The Nation, October 8, 2001.
  7. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and Shuster: New York, 1996), 2.
  8. See my forthcoming, Democratic Equality and Cultural Diversity. Political identities in the Global Era. Princeton University Press 2002. I discuss the conceptual and explanatory difficulties of Huntington’s theses in the Introduction.
  9. Edward Said on Samuel Huntington, in Al-Ahram Weekly On-Line, 11-17 October 2001. No. 555.
  10. Roxanne Euben observes that ” Islamism is another, slightly less controversial way of referring to Islamic fundamentalism.” In “Killing (for) Politics: Jihad, Martyrdom and Political Action.” Paper read at Yale Political Science Colloquium, October 16, 2001. Forthcoming, Political Theory (February 2002)
  11. See Roxanne Euben’s excellent book, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamist Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  12. Euben, “Killing (for) Politics,” 8.
  13. See Sayres S. Rudy for an in-depth social theoretical analyses of some of these issues, “Globalization, Islamism and Modernity.” Forthcoming.
  14. Max Weber, “Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions,” Economy and Society, vol 1.
  15. At the end of the nineteen-eighties, when I first visited Germany as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Munich, I was taken aback by the sale of cassettes and videotaped versions of chants from the Koran in big shopping centers. Recorded by well-known Muezzins (cantors), these tapes permitted the faithful to utilize the technology of the society around them, while remaining true to themselves. The irony is that the chanting of the Koran, like the reading of the Talmud, the Old Testament, and unlike the reading of the Bible, is supposed to be a communal and collective act of chanting, telling and recalling. The medium of western technology threatens this communal fabric. The result may be “religion a la carte,” as this phenomenon has been called, for many Muslims as well.
  16. Francoise Gaspard and Farhad Khosrokhar, Le Foulard et la Republique (Decouverte: Paris, 1995), 44-45. My translation.
  17. I deal with the ethics of communication and multiculturalism in Democratic Equality and Cultural Diversity. Political identities in the Global World. Ch. 5 (Forthcoming)