Precedents of cruelty can rarely, if ever, be left in the past. This psychodynamic is a rule in any relationship that’s presumably based on mutual trust. “The past never dies,” as Faulkner would remind us. Humans are hardwired to believe that if something has occurred once, it likely will happen again.
But how does this rule apply to large subsets of individuals? Particularly for a group of organized individuals who define their existence as one of a Promethean toiling for definite egalitarianism in every social and economic domain, i.e. the historic project of the Left. What happens when large segments of this group engage in widespread apologia for terror and murder? That is in fact what has happened over the past decade. Yet this transgression of values and principles for which the Left stands receives virtually no comment from its own intelligentsia.
After all, the spectacle of seeing comrades come to barbarize themselves in apologia for terror is a perturbing one. We marched with those people, organized with them and thought with them, only to see them go down in the flames of self-inflicted indignity. How does one deal with this fact? Some have dealt with it by unambiguous condemnation yet most have simply decided to look away from this unseemly sight. Why is that?
Analogizing this with another nation of strangers, France, is instrumental. As Eugene Weber argued, France had to stand for Patrie, as well as Progress, to transform its peasants into Frenchmen. Likewise, the Left had to stand for the universal emancipation of mankind and internationalism in order to transform an army of thick-skulled syndicalists, merely utopian pamphleteers and chauvinistic union organizers into socialists and communists. This is where both the Left and France draw most of their historic larger-than-life quality in the public’s imagination.
What happens when those values for which those groups stand for comes to clash with reality? A decade after the French State had ruthlessly massacred thousands of its own citizens in the streets of Paris during an uprising, Ernst Renan noted that, “Forgetting . . . is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”
That, I believe, accounts for the conspicuous lack of engagement with the question of Left-wing apologia for terror on the part of leftist public intellectuals. The Left, after all, isn’t above history. Like every other nation or group, there’s a degree of trust and loyalty that must be safeguarded among its members. The more Left public intellectuals engage with this question, and the more leftists acknowledge the great crime of betrayal committed against Syrian leftists and democrats, the more difficult it will be to imagine a Left at all. If your comrades have betrayed leftists on the other side of the globe, what makes one think they won’t betray you? This must be brushed aside. In a strange reversal of Robespierre’s maxim, “The King must die so that the country can live,” Syrians and what has been said about them in the name of the Left must be forgotten in order for the Left to live. Without perceived loyalty and trust in the cadres, so to speak, the historic project of the Left and its raison d’etre is no more.
A reckoning may not bring redemption, but destruction, so the logic goes. And that may well all be correct. Yet that one too many Left public intellectuals think this actually will work should give us all pause on the question of whether the Left will continue exist.
The history of the past century is littered with episodes of anthropogenic evil: Armenia, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. In their aftermaths, reverberated the collective riposte of “never again.” Only to be followed by Syria, awaiting its eventual transcription into modernity’s catalog of barbarism.
Seven years in the making, the internecine conflict has mutated into nothing short of a global catastrophe: culminating in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the postwar period, spawning a refugee crisis of unparalleled proportions, and fermenting a belligerent sectarianism where ‘disaster Islamism’ wound up thriving. As the world looked on in horror and outrage, it simultaneously resigned itself to the conclusion that the Syrian byzantine precluded any objective extrapolation; that it is far too “complicated” to acquire neutral information is invoked with almost chronic exhortation.
A sub-thread to this sophism of withdrawal is a rancid Assadist discourse that has colonized debate in radical circles…
Evelyn Waugh, on a visit to Germany in 1933 shortly after the boycott of Jewish businesses, wrote: “I had come across antisemitism in Eastern Europe before, but I thought racial persecution belonged to another age. Half-civilized peoples might still indulge in it but surely not the Germany I had known.”
Waugh’s inability to amputate the image of the exceeding greatness of the German kulturnation from the barbarism it could thus deport itself to was by no means uncharacteristic of his age, nor, apparently, ours. Consider the New York Times article in which its author is too incapacitated in his fascination with a self-described white nationalist’ highbrow cultural tastes and lifestyle (he watches Seinfeld!) to aptly represent the danger that his subject poses. The New York Times’ decision to publish it—if the institution is to be taken as a yardstick for enlightened opinion—suggests that the intellectual class, or at least a fraction of it, is no longer able to imagine, along with George Steiner, that we “now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”
It’s not incidental that no other killing field can compete with symbolic resonance of the Nazis’ concentration camps in the postwar moral economy. For Tony Judt, National Socialism’s ultimate demonic status serves “a rather distinctive reminder—or a distinctive warning—of what happens when the patina cracks . . . civil society, public life, open political systems and the forms of behavior they encourage and on which they depend, are all paper-thin constructions. They are all more fragile than it suits us to believe.” Judt here is arguing in an idiosyncratically Benjaminian spirit in tangible terms. That which appears as progress—and that cultivation which Fauccet and Waugh are disarmed by in fascists’ tastes contra their monstrous beliefs—is in fact the storm that drives the Angel of History “irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.”
The Nazis’ uniqueness was in their ability to successfully conceal their true nature behind the sheen of Progress to a public easily astonished by Speer’s grandiose architecture and august Wagner symphonies. At any rate, we came to see that our prewar narcissistic obsession with the modern, civilized and sophisticated causes one to be too disoriented to suspect that the civilizing mission may perhaps be a pretence for something sinister—the bread and butter of colonialism’s stated historic mission and moral valence. Hitler’s crimes occurred in the house next door. Not against faceless peasants in the Congo or the Soviet Union, but against a key, though problematic, component of Western civilization: European Jewry. This time, as Philip Lopate pointed out, it was “gentle, scholarly, middle-class, civilized people who are then packed into cattle cars . . . images of Jews lined up in their fedoras and overcoats tug at our hearts precisely because we see them as individuals.” Civilization was not a guarantee against barbarism, neither at home nor abroad.
This somewhat commonplace realization and its impingement on Europeans’ conscience in the post-war era necessitated the popularization of that now-familiar epoch-defining Herculean-pledge—“Never Again.” Lest it loses its moral valence, it had to be universalized. Atrocities at the edges of Europe and beyond were rendered more or less visible. The entire affair of memorializing genocide—be it that of the Armenian genocide or Stalin’s Gulags—wasn’t a reality before the aftermath of the Shoah. When Europeans had learned that, in Steiner’s words, “the high places of literacy, of philosophy, of artistic expression, became the setting for Belsen,” the crimes their states were committing against Non-Europeans were too unbearable to imagine. As Jeremy Rifkin noted, the developed postwar societies saw “the greatest single empathic surge in history . . . When we say to civilize, we mean to empathize.” This is a key paradigmatic shift which has facilitated de-colonization and the ascent of human rights discourse in the West. The Holocaust’s capacity to solidify this paradigmatic shift, for Judt, was in its ability to capture “something for which we lack a modern vocabulary, but which lies at the heart of our recent past and thus our present inheritance. That something is the idea of evil.”
That something seems to be an anachronism today and it can be attested to in the nation’s “paper of record.”
Every once in a while, this space christened the Left—of whose foundational texts and core values I largely hold in regard—feels like a foreign place. The paradox is that occupying a place on the Left, a priori, is “supposed” to feel like refuge.
A curious phenomenon I’ve come across on the Left is a politics of pro-Muslim islamophobia. Take for instance Angela Merkel’s proposition to ban the Niqab, or the face-veil. Of course, a ban would be an affront to egalitarian ideals. And a ban should be very much be opposed. But one noticeable knee-jerk reaction—even cliche—that many progressives have produced is that such an initiative would alienate German—and by extension all—Muslims, if not impel them to active opposition or radicalization. This is profoundly mistaken. There is no data that supports such a conclusion.
But it’s worth noting, first, the problematic nature of the underlying presumption: that Muslims define themselves by loyalty to tribe and religion first. Nation—and the liberal democratic values it embodies—coming last. Second, much of these discussions have the familiar feel of a “gotcha” game between a strand of Euro-American feminism that is supportive of such measures and a strand which is critical of them.What’s not accounted for is an ongoing and long-tradition of intra-Islamic debates on women’s rights—led by Muslim feminists—and secularism.
If Islamophobia is in fact a form of irrational fear, then perhaps we can presume that there’s a fear of Muslims when one is unwilling or incurious to engage with these discussions in their own terms. They speak of Muslims, but not with Muslims, or rather they’d only speak with those best tokenized. The subaltern can in fact speak, but they must say what fulfills the our constant desire for self-problematization. When the Other is invoked, he or she is held up as mirror to ourselves. Tell us about our qualities.
Frederic Jameson once wondered if capitalism can’t survive without the fantasy of a socialist utopia on the horizon. In the same breath, we can ask if imperialism and racism can’t survive without the fantasy of a non-imperialist, non-racist utopia. Not that those utopias are beyond the possible, as there’s no way to prove that. The point is that a certain dominant strand of anti-capitalist or anti-racist or anti-imperialist ideology ultimately ends up reproducing its object of negation precisely those ideologies place themselves mainly in negation, rather than in offering a way out and a positive vision. In other words, anti-islamophobia defines itself against a Big Other and eschews challenging the legitimacy of key Islamophobic premises. In form, such a politics challenges Islamophobic discourse but in substance it keeps in place and reduces the dominant signs and symbols, opting to only invert them. In practise, what contemporary anti-Islmaophobia does is to adapt better to the ever-widening goalposts determined by the Right. “Trump is a hypocrite because he didn’t ban Saudis and Egyptians in his executive order,” as somehave argued. Ergo, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that any political activity will ultimately mimic what it defines itself against.
To gnaw at identifying the sources of the issue, one must carefully probe the singularity of the Muslim Question.
Anne Norton, author of The Muslim Question, has argued that she sees the “Muslim question as the Jewish question of our time: standing at the site where politics and ethics, philosophy and theology meet. This is the knot where the politics of class, sex, and sexuality, of culture, race, and ethnicity are entangled; the site where structures of hierarchy and subordination are anchored. It is here, on this terrain, that the question of the democratic — its resurgence or further repression — is being fought out.”
This aspect is fairly well-known and correct. But the risk of reducing the rights of the Muslim into a touchstone of progress or fraudulence of liberal democracy inevitably comes with the risk of solipsism about a question that is by no means limited to the geographic confines of the West. It is precisely failing to note the global aspect of the Muslim Question that leads to the supposedly paradoxical nature of anti-Islamophobic islamophobia.
“si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu.” (If you are trapped in the dream of the other, you are screwed)—Gilles Deleuze
Some on the Left attempt to speak of the global dimension—often only by obligation when an Islamist terror attack in the West takes place—but their failure to go beyond superficial gyrations indicates why the discussions of Muslims in the West is flawed.
Ranging from the bien-pensant liberal to the generic Marxist, the figure of the Muslim is akin to a transistor on a circuit board. They’re there receive and amplify the force of current exerted upon them. Accordingly, such current take form in racist exclusion, legal inequity, (neo)colonialism, or crude bombs made in the West—never indigenous oppression. If we wish to turn off violence perpetrated by the Muslim, we shall stick to the mechanistic laws of physics: just switch off the current! The active role is Western racism and imperialism, the passive role is occupied by the Muslim. We are the reason they exist in the way they exist. They have no history before we show up. We ultimately pay the price for what our governments do abroad. Sometimes it is admitted that there is a mediating ideological factor, such as Wahabist and Salafi-Jihadist ideology. But it is only “forced” upon Muslims against their will by the Saudi authorities worldwide. Of course, this too presumes that Muslims are passive actors readily vulnerable to be imbued by radicalizing influences.
After this has been established, any discussion of the radicalization of Muslims assumes the familiar feel of it approaching the end. This depoliticized framework results in the disarmament in the face of the the Islamophobic Right. As Hannah Arendt noted, “It has been one of the most unfortunate facts in the history of the Jewish people that only its enemies, and almost never its friends, understood that the Jewish question was a political one.”
If the constant rise of Islamophobia is any indicator or the fact that the fall of anti-Muslim prejudice has not been coeval with the fall in other forms of prejudice, it’s that the Islamophobic Right has been winning this battle precisely because it has politicized the Muslim Question. The Left doesn’t politicize the Muslim Question, whereas the Right does just that —though in a deliberately malevolent fashion. The Left, by definition the active agent of history, has decided that its role is to provide the Right with the driving seat on this question, opting for the role of simply opposing its every action.
Consider the dilemma: how is it that the Left is more or less opposed to the bigotry led by theRight against Syrian and Muslim refugees, but some sections of the Left are in agreement with the Right that all, or most, of the opposition to supposedly anti-Western regimes like Bashar Al-Assad’s or Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime is led by proxy groups and/or fanatical jihadists? Why is it that it’s ubiquitous to see Leftists warn of instability if Assad is deposed, but no warnings are ever pronounced of a withdrawal of Israel occupation from the West Bank?
Examples abound. Stephen Kinzer thanks Russia for its bombing campaign, Robert Fisk, Vijay Prashad and Ajamu Baraka argue that there are “no good guys” in the opposition—despite Assad bearing the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties. Tariq Ali has called for a joint Russian-US campaign to destroy the opposition and ISIS. Jill Stein has even went as far to say that the goal of the US government is to help “restore all of Syria to control by the government.” United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) staged a demonstration where they carried the regime’s flag. Veterans For Peace has sent a delegation to meet Assad in his palace in Damascus. Stop The War Coalition in the U.K. has went as far as to refuse a platform for anti-Assad Syrian and even call on the police to arrest them. Examples abound.
A close inspection of the mainstream armed Syrian opposition would demonstrate that they are more or less just as fundamentalist as Hamas and Hezbollah. Leaving the fact that there are democratic and anti-sectarian elements opposed to Assad, it appears that the Syrian opposition’s curse is that they aren’t fighting Western imperialism, but Russian imperialism. Which at any rate hardly qualifies as imperialism at all in certain Left quarters. Of course, it’s hard to find an example of a Leftist voicing concern about the populations that are living under the boot fundamentalist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah. Let alone those groups’ exploitation of workers. But once the fairytale of a fanatical Syrian opposition controlled by the West has been established, the victims of those groups are recognized because they are “our victims.” Their goal is not to challenge those who are committing and justifying the largest perpetrators of crimes—of which there are plenty of on both Left and Right—but to challenge the “Western” narrative.
Minimalism for anti-Western groups and regimes, maximalism for those whose direct target is anti-Western regimes. Remaining trapped in the dreams of the Left.
Such is the false and deadly dualism that sees Muslims as either victims or suspects, leaving no room for complexity. Such is the politics of score-settling that invokes the Other as a tool to hammer home a point, at home. Ensconced in a solipsistic ontology, they see the victims not because they recognize them in themselves, but only when they can recognize the perpetrators, who often look and speak like them. It’s the perpetrators that are relatable, not the victims. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the most creative anti-war slogan that one can hear in London, New York and Paris is “not in our name.” Just not in our name, we are better than this. Speaking to Israeli journalist Judith Lerner, Mahmoud Darwish noted that “Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interest in us stems from the interest in the Jewish issue. The interest is in you, not in me.”
After all, how many on the Left could talk about Syria without succumbing to yelling “What about U.S. atrocities?” At this point, such a cliche should sound like “What about me?” The outside exists only as a motif to speak of the cordoned inside. Wallowing in self-problematization, one can even feel exonerated.Navel gazing and guilt, it turns out, have a tendency to centre the Self.
More, how many on the Left staged a defence of Syrian refugees’ demands of the European Union by pointing out that Syrian refugees’ radical demands of the European Union have a direct genealogy to the chants of the Syrian uprising: “Bread, Freedom and social justice.” But the defence of Syrian refugees’ right to shelter we’ve heard from radical quarters has relied on sediments of liberal bromides such as the virtue of diversity, inclusivity and tolerance for its own sake. Difference doesn’t exist in a free floating abstract world, it resides in politics, always. In fact, Leftists who have argued that the regime of Assad is legitimate have directly contributed to the toxic environment of Islamophobia by way of opening the space for the far-right to freely argue that Syrian refugees are traitors for refusing join the supposedly secular Syrian Arab Army. To borrow Brecht’s line about the difference between robbing a bank and founding one, we could ask what is robbing Syrians’ agency to founding an anti-refugee and islamophobic politics?
In this sense, one can be simultaneously espouse an imperialist and anti-imperialist mindset. The largest radicalizing factor today in the world is the carnage in Syria and the biggest perpetrators are not Western. That fact is inescapable.
As Edward Said noted of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo:
All Conrad can see is a world totally dominated by the Atlantic West, in which every opposition to the West only confirms the West’s wicked power. What Conrad cannot seeis an alternative to this cruel tautology. He could neither understand that India, Africa, and South America also had lives and cultures with integrities not totally controlled by the gringo imperialists and reformers of this·· world, nor allow himself to believe that anti-imperialist independence movements were not all corrupt and in the pay of the puppet masters in London or Washington.
This ontological and epistemological weakness results in a foreclosure of any possibility for a politics. This approach fails at home precisely because it fails abroad, and vice versa. As we have seen with the near-absent knowledge of the Syrian uprising, the Left has betrayed its core historical provenance—Revolution. To try to account for the lacuna of solidarity with Syrians on the Left, some have offered despair as an entrée: “What do you propose we do? How do you know it’s going to work?” Of course none of these questions were posed to those who marched in the streets of Washington, London and Paris during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Something is malfunctioning and the contradictions will eventually have to explode. To paraphrase Benjamin, the Left’s progress is but a document of barbarism.
A statement in solidarity with the multi-pronged Israeli assaults on Hezbollah and Hamas in 2006 read:
“We offer solidarity and support to the victims of th[e] brutality [in Lebanon and Palestine] and to those who mount a resistance against it”
The gist of the statement is that no matter how fundamentalist and sectarian someone is, they have the right to resist oppression.
Tariq Ali, one of the signatories, 9 years later would argue that in order to defeat ISIS,
“[Y]ou should be fighting side by side with Assad and the Russians . . . that’s the logic.”
In other words, we must join hands with other imperialists and mass murders to . . . fight imperialism. He went on to assert that
“This notion that there is a liberal third force is nonsense… 70,000 people collected together by the CIA, no, it’s not true, it’s a lie”
They just don’t exist, it’s a Muslim country after all!
Another signatory, Lindsay German, later went on to assert in 2015 that
“[T]he majority of the so-called “rebels” are and always have been foreign invaders and not domestic insurgents . . .”
Another signatory, John Rees—who in 2001 went as far as to argue that “whether or not to oppose imperialism” shouldn’t be premised “on whether or not we find the past or present behaviour of the [opposing] regime to be progressive”—would later insist that any rebel group in Syria that’s demanding arms and money from the West, the Gulf and Turkey shouldn’t be supported by the Left. By that logic, of course, the Spanish Republicans shouldn’t be supported for demanding arms of France. And the same would go for Hezbollah and Hamas who are both funded by Iran and, in the latter case, by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The task of defining Assadism is useful for specific purposes only—such as identifying arguments that legitimate or exonerate Assad’s iron fist rule and crimes. But to even gnaw at what Assadism exactly is, it is necessary to adopt a holistic approach and thus move on to define what conservatism exactly is.
I wish to argue that Assadism is conservatism. It should be clear as day, but this argument should be elucidated. So what is conservatism? If we wish to define it narrowly: conservatism is the ideology of reaction to demands for egalitarianism. Historians of conservatism trace its progeny to the reaction to the events in Revolutionary France that began in 1789—all the way down to opposition to feminism and racial equality. Commonly thought to be conceived by Edmund Burke, conservatism has been embellished and re-produced by thinkers stretching from slaveholder intellectuals such John C. Calhoun to Ayn Rand and Ludwig Von Mises. One would reasonably ask: why would such an impulse—to conserve power in the hands of so few—only “begin” in 1789, much less require original thinkers at each turn? The answer is that by virtue of the fact that conservatism is anideology for defending privilege, it necessarily arose at a time when power had to be established and maintained by consent and hegemony. The baroque ways of domination just didn’t achieve their task anymore. What was different about conservatism was that it constructed ex nihilo “the people” and pitted them against the forces of egalitarianism. “The people” were authentic, pure and facing them were the forces of destabilizing modernity.
The rest of the story is that conservatism is often haunted by its own victories. Once it clings to the levers of power, it sheds its drapes and becomes associated with its eternal core—the preservation of hierarchies of power. Its rhetoric may valourize The People and claim to speak for them against “foreign influences,” but its essence is the enslavement and domination of those who are neither of the aristocracy or the bourgeoise.
Which brings us to the question: what is the significance of this to Assadism?
Assad increasingly appears to be re-monopolizing power. Regardless if they’re true, one common trope we’ve heard is that Assad is the only one who stands between barbarism and secularism. Sectarian division—he has so carefully germinated—is adopted as a primary lens, to interpret the revolutionary processes, not struggle for class or political equality
“With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class.”—John C. Calhoun
“He’s a moderate and was only provoked.”
“But [French revolutionaries,] who began with refusing to submit to the most moderate restraints, have ended by establishing an unheard-of despotism.”—Edmund Burke, Reflections On The French Revolution
And so on and so forth. Conservatives have historically branded themselves as the last bulwarks of order against the chaos self-government. Moderation against the fanaticism of the guillotine, or the “headchoppers.”
But this is all coming unstuck. Consider the dilemma: despite his defenders’ denial of his crimes against fleeing civilians, none of them have found an argument against one stark fact: civilians are being evacuated. They will doubt the existence of a 7-year old girl with Twitter account in Aleppo, they will scrutinize activists who can speak English and have internet connection (the crime!) they will doubt the veracity of human rights organizations’ reports on his crimes, they can claim that the White Helmets are in bed in Al-Qaeda/funded by shady organizations in the West but they won’t ever deny the fact that ethnic cleansing is in fact occurring. That is not a paradox. The defence of hierarchy by any means is the essence of conservatism. To deny that displacement is occurring is to deny the legitimacy of Assad’s rule.
Considering the fact that many on the Left and the Right share almost the same exact opinions of Assad and Putin today, it may not be a coincidence that conservatism was born of the same womb—Revolutionary France—that gave us the categories “Right” and “Left.” Perhaps a rearrangement is in order.