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.”
Following the missile strike on Shayrat in Western Syria last Thursday, a wave of protests broke out across the United States. These proved something of a mixed bag, as one might expect. In addition to those who support the Free Syrian Army but oppose further American intervention, a number of unsavory sorts also showed up. Portraits of Putin and Assad could be seen alongside yellow signs put out by the ANSWER Coalition. A few flags featuring the modified orange tornado-swastika of the fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party or SSNP, a close ally of the Ba’athist regime, also appeared at the demonstrations. Some organizers took a more principled stand, however, rejecting calls for a heightened US military role while at the same time refusing to march with Assadists.
While I’m heartened by such unequivocal declarations of principle, we are still all too ready to forgive those who make excuses for…
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.
“Only one thing could have stopped us – if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.” – Adolf Hitler
I take no personal gratification in watching physical assault take place. I recall the trauma of being punched at 14-years old in a racist incident. I was intimidated for years by even the most frivolous fights in high-school and even desisted from playing sports for a long time as a result. I know how intimidating violence can be.
Which is why I believe in violence against fascists. The New York Times today reported that Richard Spencer won’t be going on speaking tours for a long time as a result of being assaulted. He’s even afraid to go out for dinner. Before we conclude that that’s indubitably a good thing, I’d like to turn to the topic of collaboration.
We expect collaborators to appear in the form of the Devil himself. In other words, recognizable. But of course that’s far from the reality. The Biblical story of how Satan himself transmogrifies into the Devil is itself just as implausible. Collaboration, where it most matters, is passive. Collaboration is reduced to executing “normal” tasks in a programmatic manner. Nothing could be more “natural.” This was the insight of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: modern evil is banal. It is the work of millions of men and women. As she argues in The Origins of Totalitarianism, genocide requires the participation of engineers, physicians, accountants, scientists, journalists, small business owners, corporate executives and civil servants. It is an archipelago of labor in the narrowest sense of the term: tedious and mundane.
The most effective prophylactic against any infection is to deny it its conditions of survival. Today our infection is the prospect of collaboration. Evil, according to Arendt, is committed by those who “never make up their minds to be good or evil,” but underlying that is careerism. Eichmann, the chief architect for the extermination of half ofEuropean Jewry, had “no motives at all” she argued, “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement.” And the problem, as Arendt pointed out, was that there were too many Eichmanns. There is no cure for collaboration. The only solution is to prevent the conditions in which passive collaborators have the excuse to say that they were only doing their jobs.
There is a crucial lesson to be learned from how Mussolini and Hitler consolidated power. It wasn’t overnight. It took years. And in those years paramilitary groups roamed the streets ravaging any potential threat. The threat of chaos that they incubated was crucial to the conservative governments’ decisions to permit them into the halls of total power. Violence, as any good anthropologist would tell you, is steeped in symbolism. State and, when allowed, non-State violence intends to send a message “We Are The Only Game In Town.” And in their violence, they assert their convictions. Citizens, too busy and exhausted to think politically, are always ready to acquiesce that point faute de mieux: if someone is violent and angry, then their demands, even ideology, must be somewhat rooted valid grievances and ideas.
The essence of fascism, as historians like Robert Paxton never fail to remind us, is not in ideas but in emotions. Robbing fascism of its virility and hyper masculine pretence is to rob it of its primary capacity to grow and survive. We have to confront the crucial question: are we more interested in upholding the slogan “Don’t Be Evil” or in making sure that no evil occurs? Is instilling fear in the hearts of fascists or fascist-curious individuals, even at the cost of isolated violence preferable to allowing fascists to consolidate power and therefore commit greater atrocities?
In this particular instance, we must utilize fear to our advantage. The continuation of protests and the show of strength must not only intimidate fascists, but also send a clear message to the three most important institutions that fascists require for total power: big business, media and state institutions. They must be constantly fear any form of collaboration with Trump’s administration. They must fear how the nation’s history books will view them but to accomplish that we must compel them to think that future historians will not be fascists. The fascist future must be cancelled, today. We can take it from the tip of fascist reaction today: “The point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.” (Trump, The Art of the Deal, p. 57)
Take for instance a recent example in Egypt. Large large sections of civil servants and big business sabotaged Morsi’s presidency. Hoping against the grain that he would be overthrown by the military, they felt compelled enough to sacrifice their jobs and careers. But the background to this was fierce street violence against fundamentalist supporters of Morsi and weekly mass protests. They had mistakenly placed their faith in the military, but Americans can take comfort in the fact that a genuine opposition in Congress can represent them politically. Americans who will be torn about collaboration must likewise feel compelled to sacrifice their livelihoods and future; but only if the protest and civil disobedience continue unabated and if there exists a genuine political opposition in Congress.
We must be ready to meet their intimidation with greater intimidation. What fascism does is to returns politics to its fundamentals. Those of us who are united in the right of women and LGBTQ folks to their bodies, those of us who believe in the right of life for Black, Native, colored and Muslim communities have to confront that our primary task in the coming months and years is to defend the most basic of political rights: life itself. Politics is back to the visceral for those of us who have long grown accustomed to middle-class bourgeois bubbles. We must consign bourgeois morality to the ash heap before it does us in.
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.