Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Mourning for Bali

No links are needed for this piece, as all of us are sadly too familiar with the details anyhow: Another day, another atrocity; and among places that are not Iraq, Bali has been especially favored in recent years.  And yet more evidence (if any were needed) that terrorism has become an instrument of precision, albeit a predictable one.  The mode is simple: (i) attack "soft" targets, preferably ones involving Westerners for maximum media coverage; and (ii) if the staging ground is populated by infidels, all the better-- to what end though is the question.  One possibility (the cause of which advances everyday) is the manufacture of an Islamic identity uber alles, a call that extends across the boundaries of culture, ethnicity, and local circumstance.  A call, in short, that is utterly irredeemably ahistorical.  The likely result is a dualism, a trans-national religiously infused yet far less stable echo of the Cold War familiar.  The goal?  Nothing less than the utter separation of "Muslim" from "non-Muslim."  Such a fate would be historically unprecedented.

There is no comfort in this analysis: the ahistorical nature of an ambition does not, sadly, innoculate it against success, it merely means that copious doses of violence are required if the agenda is to be advanced.  This, if nothing else, is a lesson we have learned from the twentieth century, a lesson learned from an ugly politics that boasted that its true art lay in making the impossible possible.

The new Islamism shares this with the fascisms of the twentieth century (though perhaps let me not say "twentieth," as if it had safely been consigned to the pages of history books), namely that it endeavors to conceal its own radicality, its newness as it were, beneath a veneer of tradition.  In this manner the most radical innovations are propounded -- in a manner that renders confusion with the conservatism of tradition plausible.  Once upon a time in Europe, the symbols of such a radicalism were "nation," and then "race," "people" and so on.  Today, the symbol par excellence for the bin Ladens of the world is religion.  In itself a masterful ploy, since religion enjoys a prestige nothing else can match, particularly when politics has become not the art of the possible so much as the art of managing -- that is to say displacing -- disappointment, a happy conjunction of imperial and post-imperial corruption and exploitation, cynicism, and the substitution of sloganeering and mythologizing for reflection.

But clothed in particulars, even religion cannot prevent discontent, which is why for the post-modern age we have Islam 2.0, a creed stripped of theology, the law, and mysticism, and animated by a theology of grievance, a grievance which strives to see only itself in the mirror.  One wonders what Imam Ghazali, or any of the other medieval luminaries assiduously evaded by contemporary Islamists, would have made of such narcissism.  One suspects they would have recognized in it the same doubt that lent so much dramatic tension to The Satanic Verses: in a word, blasphemy.


rabfish said...

'ahistorical ambition requires violence': yes!

'new Islamism conceals newness under veneer of traditon': yes!

postcolonial (or more broadly speaking?)'politics as art of displacing disappointment': oh, yes!

'narcissistic theology of grievance': yes, yes yes!

what a refreshingly insightful post to read about contemporary muslim politics. thanks.

have you read aziz al-azmeh? methinks you would like him.


Qalandar said...

I have not read aziz al-azmeh, but will check him out; I was intrigued by this speech that turned up when I ran a google search:


Anonymous said...

Very eloquent and I agree with you about the dangers of islamic fundamentalism...
But I question whether it is really a new phenomenon.Hasn't islam always been expansionist since its very inception..the concept of ummah uniting muslims across ethnic boundaries....non muslims relegated to dhimmitude or worse...kafirs?
hasn't there always been a strong yearning for a return to the caliphate among many muslims?...bin laden is just articulating a feeling seemingly widespread in countries like Pakistan, Sudan etc isn't he?