(Or, liberalism vs. fundamentalism today)
From a certain point onward
there is no longer any turning point.
That is the point that must be reached.
–The Trial, Franz Kafka.
Although origins are hard to pinpoint in these matters it probably started when a geriatric America got a second wind from the windfall of the implosion of the Soviet Union and Bush the Elder let loose the dogs of war for redrawing the map of the West Asia, if not when a similar redrawing that had been done by the victorious colonial powers – mainly Britain and France — at the end of World War 2.
The recent Parisian Charlie Hebdo affair of professional slaughter was carried out in the name of Islamic religious sentiments. The well televised mass rally of global politicians afterwards was the reaction — in the name of democracy and freedom – carrying banners saying We Are All Charlie Hebdo. Worldwide TV repeated this banner a thousand times. Not much else happened. Till the St. Denis mayhem. The spectacular warlike reactions to that massacre – again well televised — had followed the same template, more or less.
Since then there have been many similar such action-reaction binaries. Nothing new is happening. It is Charlie Hebdo 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, or more of the ongoing death-waltz of West versus Islam. Of course Charlie Hebdo affair is just one randomly picked instance; one can pick 9/11, Bali, Nigeria, Germany…, etc before and since. This was not the most important or the most violent skirmish between the two sides, and by now the global narrative has boiled it down to yet another event in a supposedly unfolding serial civilizational clash between megatrends of liberalism and jihadism — the current manifestations of capitalism and Islam respectively. A close look on this civilizational clash is called for, but there is a practical difficulty.
A lot of discussions of capitalism and islam — and there is a lot of these around — easily get sidetracked, not necessarily because the discussants are at fault but because these are genuinely complicated matters. So a calibrated and yet representative sampling from the ongoing complex battles may prove useful, for a neat case study. Let us take the Charlie Hebdo affair as that sample since it is now distant enough for the purpose, as a biopsy of the defining malady of our times.
In the Charlie Hebdo thing the terrorists saw and projected themselves as public agents for the cause of Islam. They wished to convey the message that Charlie Hebdo and such other media were transgressing the sanctities of Islam and were therefore to be made public examples of so as to deter other transgressors. The actual point at issue happened to be depiction of Islam`s prophet Muhammad in some cartoons, which is supposed to be banned in Islam. The subsequent St. Denis shootings and bombings were a continuation of the same outrage, an escalation — as retaliation to deeper depredations done by the West to Islam. It is the same war.
It had been pointed out by diligent liberal commentators that such a ban is not a foundational tenet of Islam, but is a historically evolved convention. It was said that from the earliest to the medieval times many islamic texts describe the prophet unhesitatingly, and his depictions were common even in medieval western (not always disparagingly) and Asiatic paintings, murals, and architectural motifs, oral narratives, and even down to posters in modern times (Shia, yes). It was implied, therefore, that the current ban in depiction of the prophet Muhammad is a “fundamentalist” and retrogressive step for Islam and therefore should not be seen as a reasonable cause to be defended in our enlightened times.
Description and depiction of Muhammad was indeed common in the early centuries of Islam when it was growing in catholicity and depth, and expanding beyond the Arabia. This fed the natural and pious curiosities of the growing new adherents of Islam. But having originated after transcending the narrow, tribal idolatries of Arabia – centered round the Qabaa in Mecca – Islam has had a very understandable taboo against idolatry at its foundational core. While it tolerated and indeed imbibed the often rich artistic traditions it encountered during expansion – in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia – it remained vigilant against idolatry.
Then there was a major accident. Islam was nearly decimated, like much else in west Asia, by the onslaughts of Changhez Khan and the later Mongol hordes — when Imam al-Ghazali famously declared “Islam is (now) in the books, and Muslims are in their graves”. And later feudalization of islam`s post-Mongol political dispensations in the conquered lands curbed and curtailed its original emancipatory impulses, including scientific and artistic ones. By the time of the (Eurocentrically-called) Renaissance (actually, Naissance) for which in fact Islam had been the midwife for Europe, it had gone into a conservative decline and defensiveness. And still later by the time Islamic and African lands started going under the yoke of European colonization from the 18th century CE, its fundamentalist strands (Salafism, Wahabism, etc) started hardening the leftover fertile liberalism of the now colonized people, as a strategy of resistance and survival. Perhaps a mistaken strategy; it is too early to say.
The point about depiction of the prophet is just one item in this huge saga, and should be seen as such. In a war any point can become a trigger point.
Now idolatry is one thing and idol-worship is something else, and use of idols and icons for liturgical purposes is yet another kind of thing – not to mention use of images for artistic narratives (in epics, for example)). Idolatry holds the idol to be the sole and complete site and manifestation of the godhood itself. Historically it is associated with the tribal/pre-agricultural stage (James Fraser had called it the magical stage) of religious sensibility. Evolving into gradually more inclusive and catholic stages the religious sensibility and imagination begins to permit more pervasive and non-localized and also multiple godhoods, even allowing idol worship wherever necessary or expedient, while leaving idolatry behind. The sensibility can and does evolve even beyond this too, of course. Evolution of Christianity and Judaism, both as monotheistic as Islam, has historically followed these trajectories. Evolution of Islam was drastically derailed by the Mongol devastations; and its feudal period was too short before European colonization engulfed its social bases globally. So its encounter with the question of idols has been modest and fraught with nerves.
Add to all this the unfortunate xenophobic burden peculiar to all the three Abrahamic religions – of being the chosen people of god – which automatically imparts almost a military/strategic dimension to every religious issue.
OK. A sidelight will yield useful perspective and nuance. Hinduism has gone through the whole spectrum of religious evolution, and has managed to retain alive, owing to its specific historical and social bases in India, all its formative strands. But it was only after colonial subjugation in the 18th century CE – exactly like in the case of Islam – that a new strand was added to the Hindu manifold, the strand of fundamentalism. Instead of seeing Hinduism`s wide catholicity as a prime strategic resource, and exposed as it was to the triumphal and predatory Christian evangelism of colonial British and Portugese varieties, this new strand sought to fabricate an equal and opposite Hindu evangelism. It deplored the Hindu tendency of tolerance as “weakening”, tried to erase most of its living history of pluralist diversity as “divisive”, and felt ashamed of its liberalism as “emasculating”. In short, aping the colonial conqueror, the Hindu fundamentalist political project of resistance and defense used religious faith as an instrument – exactly like today`s Islam. Not surprising. Religious instruments forged for purely political purposes do tend to be crude everywhere. The issue was political.
Our historical detour helps to prop up the depiction issue nicely in its twin dimensions. On the one hand it seeks to draw allegiance and support of the Muslim masses by positing itself as a tenet of the beleaguered faith itself. On the other hand it seeks to represent and convey the political force of Muslims in their resistance to the 21st century re-colonizing Christian Powers, with Britain and France superseded now by America. Therefore pooh-poohing the ban on depiction of the prophet as mere religious regression misses the political point, just as is done by treating the “lunatic fringe” agitations by Hindu fundamentalists over historically remote temple-destructions as mere religious bigotry. If only things were that simple!
Truth is, after the interesting times of the 20th century the nationalist streams of resistance against colonialism everywhere harnessed in their arsenal the nativity and specificities of the colonized people and these were not wholly atavistic, pre-modern, and feudal in motivations as is made out by the traditional Left. Likewise, the internationalist streams drew sustenance from universal and emancipatory impulses of humanity and were not wholly democratic and scientific in their motivations – e.g. the question of racism( the as yet unanswered Jewish Question).
By the onset of 21st century it has become clear that these various strands are more tangled than what was thought earlier, and the equations are far less linear. Colonialism is deeper stuff. Understanding it is unfinished business yet. Some scholars like CLR James, Aimie Cesaire, Fanon, Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, Edward Said, Amiya Bagchi, Partha Chatterjee, Bhabha, etc have been struggling with it, as also, of course, non-scholars like Conrad, Greene, Naipaul, Rushdie, Achebe, Ghosh, etc. These were generally 20th century people; the 21st century has already yielded more such thinkers.
Disproportionately suspicious of nationalism, mainly due to its horrendous European legacy of 20th century, the Left has abdicated the rich terrain of historical nativities and cultural concreteness and has got mired in an abstract and infertile internationalism. On the other hand, disproportionately afraid of the anarchism and plurality inherent in proletarian movements, the Right has abdicated its economic policy sphere in favour of the bourgeoisie. It must be remembered that both had started in early 20th century primarily as responses to working class distress!
This is probably a good place to look at the post-Charlie Hebdo chorus built up in the self-righteous intellectuals of the West: Why doesn`t Islam reform itself, like the Christianity did after Renaissance? And not only in the West. The chorus was, interestingly, less vocal about needed reformation in Judaism; and this restraint was not because of Nazi guilt as is made out by its apologists but because of the agenda of the constituting social elements of ruling American imperialist ideology. The question is obviously rhetorical and vacuous. Religions don`t reform themselves; socio-political needs of the human societies do this job – religions merely reflect and adapt themselves to the socio-political changes. Christianity got its Reformation in order to adapt to emerging capitalism in Christian societies. Judaism was not there at the starting line-up. Islam and Hinduism were there but were hobbled by colonial bondages – so they didn`t get their Reformations. Reforming Islam today means reforming Islamic societies of today, embattled as they are against a post-capitalist imperial America. Do these intellectuals understand what they are talking about? But, then, understanding is not what it is about.
Within Islam in post colonial times, it must be remembered that the narrative has not been only of fundamentalist strands like Salafism, Wahabism, etc, although these have dominated the mass narrative space. Many modern Islamist thinkers – and India`s Muhammad Iqbal was among the earliest of this trend — have been attempting reinterpretation of Islam in the opposite direction, within ideas of modern capitalism and democracy. So far these voices remain incubating in academic spaces.
Which brings us – staying with the Charlie Hebdo affair — to the other side: the cynical and pretentious marches and rallies in Paris and elsewhere in the white Christendom – hours and days of televised solidarity for democracy and freedom. This side too is agonizingly twin-stranded, the roots of which can also be traced back to colonialism.
Starting with democracy it is old hat that mass genocides of indigenous people in north and south Americas and Australia by civilized colonizers, institutionalized slavery as economic foundations of economies of north and south Americas, the two WWs, covert and overt wars of aggression in Palestine, Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia, contemporary war crimes in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Africa – the whole planet really — are not a shining testimony to the liberal, democratic credentials of the West. The airtight repression of modern crusaders of democracy and freedom like Manning, Assange, Snowden, etc without any major public outrage shows the deep rot within. The knowing people know that by the 21st century the civilized West has been effectively subverted by warlordism of NATO centered powers and the cutely named Non State and Deep State actors of the military-industrial complex of imperial America – the earliest warning against which was given during WW2 by, of all people, Eisenhower!
These failings are of course well known, but there is more. Deeper thinkers also of the West have been pointing out, at least since the WW1, a hollowing out of the foundational spirits and sensibilities which have been the wellsprings and aquifers of the liberal-democratic project of European Enlightenment – by racial, religious, gender, and class self-centeredness of the ruling elites. In the current era of Trump-Erdogan-Modi-Duterte-etc there is widespread disquiet even in the deep conservative circles about the probable demise of the whole Liberal Project itself. The only people who can`t or don`t see this even today are those blighted by the MBA-centric education or the globalised 24^7 drip of the compromised aqnd complicit corporate-controlled media.
So, it is easy to be cynical and reductionist against the West too, and to reject its democracy/freedom parades out of hand. But this would be a mistake, equal and opposite to ridiculing the ban on depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Let us see.
Here is an enigma. It is sobering to recall that when Socrates, Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, etc in ancient Greece were spouting their admittedly profound ideas on Democracy, Reason, Humanity, etc they were living in a civilization based on institutionalized slavery of horrendous barbarity. There was a similar economic underpinning( of colonialism) to the Western — ironically today, actually the French — political philosophers like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, etc who provided as political principles the ideational framework of modern mass democracy and individual liberties, which are used extensively today according their own lights both by the Left and the Right. The point here is this interesting co-incidence: just as ancient Greek ideas on democracy and freedom were riding on slavery-based surpluses, the modern ideas on these matters were being reborn and polished precisely when the whole non-white mankind was being crushed under an unprecedented super-slavery of colonialism. Great philosophers always have had huge blind spots!
To bring the story home, it is fascinating to see that the lofty ideals of democracy and freedom, elitist and exclusionary to begin with, have by today been as much hollowed out of moral force and pedigree-value as has been the nuanced Asiatic religious sensibility that, e.g., underlay the restraint on the depiction of prophet Muhammad among the plebian and excluded masses – both by the same process of colonization. Today`s democracy/freedom rallies and candle marches, reduced to being mere fig leaves, are as much a fundamentalist and desperate talisman as the ban on the prophet`s depiction. Colonialism has degraded both sides, as they stand face to face today — mirror images of each other. The Liberal or, the Enlightenment Project started by Europe in the 16th century CE has, it must now be finally admitted, reached its end — drained on both sides by the colonialism. We are back to a new Middle Ages – barbarian, stagnant and short-sighted.
Of course this idea has been around for some time; voices like Spengler, Nietzsche and Caudwell keep echoing in the newer voices even today. Of course the West vs. Islam duel is just one face of the end of the Enlightenment project, which is by far a much bigger catastrophe. The world has barely started sensing its enormous dimensions. Sample this: not much of epochal significance has happened in their respective fields after Picasso, Tolstoy, Einstein, Schrodinger, Fellini, Keynes, Pasteur, Freud, Marx, Brecht, the Beatles – and they all look terribly dated today. The unending economic stagnation, the spiritual ennui, fear of future, loss of hope, moral apathy… one shivers. But that is another story.
It could not have been otherwise, of course, since Enlightenment cannot be sustained in class-divided societies, and all the revolutions – from the French, through the Russian, to the Chinese – have not succeeded in liberating the laboring classes so far. But that is yet another story.
So what had really happened in Paris?
Here it is, in bald, Post-Enlightenment terms: The colonial powers got rich and civilized (in the algorithm of capitalism) by appropriating the fruits of labour of the colonized people. After formal decolonization in mid 20th century this appropriation was threatened. The ex-colonial powers countered by importing legally and semi-legally the laboring people of their ex-colonies to function as the bottom layers of their working class and congratulated themselves for their gracious “multiculturalism”. All working classes everywhere, steadily impoverished by the neo-liberal economic policies imposed through the whole rigged institutional Disneyland nicknamed Washington Consensus, are now rebelling. The multi-culti ruling elites are dividing the working classes by singling out for blame and by police/court repression only the “immigrant” segments. These segments being now native to the ex-colonist nations are retaliating with extra indignation, understandably. See the Trump episodes.
There is the usual petulant outcry against this boring, old deprivation-mongering of the wimpy liberals: See, the shooters and bombers at Charlie Hebdo or St. Denis are not the deprived, madarsa-bred and impoverished mad mullahs blowing themselves up in misguided frenzy, but professionally trained and educated youth carrying out their retaliatory operations with expertise and finesse equal to their nations` Special Forces! How can you bring up deprived-classes theory every time?
This is a Tory sort of myopia, if not idiocy. The main tectonic fault-line of society always remains the class divide, and it acts as the mother-lode for emergence and indeed proliferation of many other subsidiary but more vicious divisions of societies — and feeds these divisions their motive energies. Like the working classes crushed by poverty everywhere in the world, the barely subsisting poor of north Paris would not have had the energy and gumption to contemplate retaliation against, say, Charlie Hebdo or the Stade de France but their relatively fortunate brothers/sisters would!
The crux is that ex-colonizing nations are caught in a dilemma. Under the neo-liberal umbrella they cannot have a viable economy without the underpaid labour of their immigrant people; and at the same time without the underpaid immigrant people being given proportional political representation they cannot have a viable and stable polity. Something has to give. America has so far resolved it by simply creating an officially non-existent vast substratum of illegal, immigrant labour army – corralled and managed below the radar by the police forces alone.
Nobody is mentioning the elephant in the room – Colonialism 2.0 led by America, with Europe as its wholly owned subsidiary since the Marshall Plan. This emerging post-Capitalist mode is akin to the ancient slavery mode, in a sort of outsourced/subcontracted template. And it is busy cynically plundering, degrading, and crudely re-ordering the global economic sphere according to its needs — and devil take the hindmost. Why is America attacking and degrading Afro/Arabian nations who happen to be Islamic? Because of oil and minerals. Ergo its Non State adversaries — most often covertly USA-spawned — are al Qaeda, ISIL, Boko Haram, etc, apart from the State-adversaries like the most often democratically elected, official, regime-changeable Arab States. Medieval wars 2.0? The idea of a nation formed recently in the 19th century is already flaking away? Well, it certainly looks like we live in pre- Westphalia Treaty times now. This reversion, this neo-colonialism, is what it is all about.
To clinch the matter why not do an old fashioned “thought-experiment”, a much liked tool of the likes of Einstein, Schrodinger, etc? It is a useful but neglected tool of inquiry and analysis. It will expose the prevalent bipartisan neo-barbarism starkly?
Tomorrow some globally strategic mineral as important as petroleum gets discovered solely buried around the Alps and its plateaus in Europe! What will happen? It will take a decade or two but NATO will be reconstituted. Destruction/degradation/redrawing of boundaries of Western Europe will begin. Regime changes will happen in France, Italy and Germany. West-European refugees will flood the black markets of labour globally. The discourse will shift to, say, race – not Christianity vs. Islam anymore but Anglo-saxon vs. Goths & Gauls and so on. Think tanks will re-strategize. Prima donna professors will write new books. Films and TV and Internet will be re-scripted. Thor Phalange, Odin Brigade, Asterix Delta-force, etc will replace Al Qaeda, ISIL, etc…
Unthinkable? Far from it. Remember the then unthinkable 20th century World Wars – whites and Christians killing wholesale whites and Christians, and they were doing it for the colonies. It is the economy, stupid. Always.
Nobody is Charlie Hebdo anymore.