Published in The Muslim World Book Review, 25:2 (Winter 2005); pp. 6-17.
Faith beyond the Messianic Violence of
Terror and Empire
The unspeakable horrors of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ have put a big question mark on the future of Islam’s dialogue with modernity. The total collapse of moral order in the gruesome chain of kidnappings and decapitations in Fallujah and the annulment of war ethics and sanctioning of sadistic savagery in Abu-Ghuraib are hardly likely to promote further conversation. Any Muslim reflection on modernity as a universal insight into the human condition has therefore little meaning in a world where the Muslim has to run constantly for cover. Modernity’s claim for authority has now been eclipsed by the imperial demands for compliance and acquiescence – not only politically but also ideologically, not only militarily but also morally. What cogency then can an Islamic critique of modernity have, when the authority of modernity now simply reads as the power of Empire?
True enough, for the radical Islamist, there never was any moral calling worthy of summoning the intellectual resources of his faith for the envisioning of a political future within the regime of modernity. And yet, the tragedy is that he/she too is a child of modernity. The radical Islamist’s politics of terror and suicide are only possible in a world without transcendence, in a consciousness where God is dead, and where history alone remains. Terror, in other words, is a gift of modernity, not of Islam. It is a fact which even outsiders have not failed to acknowledge. ‘The logic of violence’, one analyst admits, ‘does not have it roots in what goes by the name of terrorism. Rather, the opposite is the case: “Terrorism” has its roots in the logic of violence!’
For Muslim conscience, then, the only cogent reading of contemporary violence in the merciless world of Fallujah and Abu Ghuraib is that the nihilistic logic of modernity has triumphed over the demands of faith and humanity. Even for the zealots of Islam, history and politics have precedence over spirituality and transcendence. If we have to defeat this nihilism with an Islamic face, if we are not to be made hostages to the dysfunctional logic of violence and counter-violence, if we are not be become prisoners to the Manichaean rhetoric of Empire and Terror, a dialogue with modernity on the pivotal issue of transcendence must go on. Islam means peace and the Muslim community of today must move beyond the violence of Terror and Empire both. It is for this reason that we examine here some works that deal with the problem of terror and violence as it appears in the mirror of modernity.
Does modernity’s claim for authority inevitably translate into the logic of Empire, or, like any other universal vision of the human condition, is modernity plagued too by its own unresolved tensions and inner contradictions? Is modernity inherently an imperial enterprise, which its rhetoric of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘freedom’ merely seeks to mask, or does it genuinely cherish hopes of a universal peace that is based on justice and equality for all? Do the power-brokers of modernity, to say it bluntly, honestly believe in a world order without the exploitation and enslavement of the weak by the powerful, or do they employ their rhetoric in a cynical vein just to further their own interests? Indeed, to come to the most disturbing insight of all, is modernity’s commitment to freedom incommensurate with a world order in which justice is the defining norm?
One may start this inquiry by listening to the internal debate on the problem of organized violence in the name of the state that constitutes, in theory if not in practice, a formidable challenge to modernity’s rationalist world outlook. Here Hans Joas’s work offers an intense meditation on the issues of war in the sociological and philosophical discourses of modernity. Despite the density of its labyrinthine German style, not to mention the studied opacity of its ‘message’, it is a rewarding work that provides no simplistic reading of the martial text of modernity. Joas’s starting point is that for anyone who confronts the history of modern violence in all its bloody seriousness, it is difficult to be seduced by the myth of progress. And this is despite the fact that the optimistic worldview of Enlightenment, shared both by liberalism and Marxism, promises us a world without violence. History, it is also worth recalling, constantly reminds us of its tenacious persistence. Indeed, war and violence are to be construed as intrinsic to the modern project, and not merely parts of its prehistory. And yet, modernization theory, the standard interpretation of contemporary history, posits, more or less implicitly that modernity is peaceful. In fact, in the post-World War theory, the non-violent resolution of conflicts is presumed to be the defining feature of modernity. Not surprisingly, Joas muses, ‘the major theories that are the subject of general discussion today – let’s take Habermas, Luhmann or the post-structuralists – contain hardly any mention of war and peace.’ (126)
On the other hand, as suggested by Michael Mann, there exists a strong ‘militaristic’ counter-tradition, usually traceable to non-liberal currents, within the annals of sociological thought itself. Here, one finds an over-emphasis on power and violence that is the obverse of their neglect by liberals and Marxists. These anti-liberals and staunch defenders of bourgeois society fear that ‘a peaceful civilization and the disappearance of warlike virtues would lead to a general decline in morals and a rise of softness and effeminacy.’ (31). In Germany, old-fashioned militarism is couched in the language of Lebensphilosophie or existentialism: ‘violence as creativity, struggle as inner experience, the community of soldiers at the front as the inspiration of a new type of state-order.’ (32). The most influential theoretician of the ‘existentialist’ school was, of curse, Carl Schmitt whose conception of the political was nothing but a recasting of the biological maxim of Darwinism – the survival of the fittest - in a metaphysical mould.
For all these internal contradictions or external challenges, it is well-worth emphasizing that the most fundamental tension within the political thought of modernity concerns the dreams of a pacifist utopia and the realities of power-politics. Obviously, like any other universal vision, modernity cannot escape the logical contradiction, and existential unity, of the Empire-Mission nexus. It too exhibits the logic of Din and Dawla as the two opposite sides of the single coin of its project. The most disturbing insight into modernity’s intrinsic unity of the discursive and the coercive however comes from the sombre sociological studies of Zygmunt Buman whose inquiry into the Jewish Holocaust led him to conclude that the Holocasut does not constitute a peculiarity of the German history, or an aberration of the modernist ethos. There is instead a direct link between modernity’s bureaucratic rationality and its politics of genocide – a practice that was by no means rare in the modern enterprise of the colonization of non-European peoples.
In a radical but well-documented work, Modernity and the Holocaust (Polity Press, Oxford, 1991), Bauman demonstrated that the Holocaust is the obverse of modernity; that it represents 'another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body.' The Holocaust, he insisted further, cannot be dismissed as the failure of civilization, as the 'hiccups of barbarism' that humanity has to suffer through only temporarily. No, it is part of the same 'morally elevating story of humanity's march towards greater freedom and rationality' that forms the imperious, nay imperial, myth of modernity and Enlightenment. Of course, modern civilization was not, according to him, the Holocaust's sufficient condition; but 'it was most certainly its necessary condition. Bauman further insinuated that reason not passion, civilization not barbarity, science not superstition, imperils the existence of man as a moral being. He even argued that the bureaucratic logic of the modern state inevitably translates into the imperative of 'final solutions' and that the value-free epistemology of modern science indubitably redeems its claim in the merciless world of the gas chambers. Obviously, Bauman’s work has great relevance for any non-Western attempt to appraise modernity as Empire.
Against the backdrop of colonialism and the genocide of non-European peoples, which went hand in hand with the unfolding of the modernist project, all these theories smack of insufferable sanctimony. (But then it has to do with modernity’s construction of the Other and the Pandora’s box of moral paradoxes that it opens!) Colonial wars, even from the universalist perspective of Enlightenment, were not only necessary; these actually worked in the service of peace! For it has been constantly proclaimed and untiringly reiterated to this day that ‘the War and world dominance of Western powers serve the cause of strengthening and disseminating universalist values.’ (9)
Joas’s work is commendable not only for exploring the agonizing issues of war, on which the theoreticians of modernity, he admits, are curiously reticent, but also for earnestly confronting all the moral and pragmatic arguments of pacifism and Realpolitik. It is also to his credit that he never looses the moral compass and succumbs neither to the logic of force, which legitimates itself in the name of some putative human nature, nor to its total renunciation for the realization of utopian dreams. For instance, he does not shy away from facing ‘the empirical persuasiveness’ of power-political realism but asks: ‘Are the social sciences obliged to see the world without illusions as an eternal of conflicting interests, or can sociology prove that ‘realpolitik’ is itself an ideology.’ (32). From his dialectical approach, it appears that ‘there is not just an analytical need, but also a moral one, to create or increase our sensitivity to the distinction between different kinds of acts of violence, instead of applying a global formula that reduces them all to the same level.’ (10).
Joas’s work significantly is about war and modernity, and not about modernity and Empire, a subject of crucial importance for any understanding of modernity as a historical project. And this is despite his recognition that ‘phenomena such as the use of power to perpetuate the inequalities in development are never discussed’ by the ideologues of modernity. (47; emphasis supplied).
Covering the same ground but far more lucid in style is Jonathan Schell’s courageous and eloquently articulated argument about the obsolescence of the imperial dream. In fact, Unconquerable World provides a most felicitous expression of our longing for a world beyond the logic of Empire and the obscenity of terror, beyond even the rational calculus of war and the irrational cult of violence. Violence as a political instrument, he maintains, has now become dysfunctional and the world is no more conquerable. So reads the inspiring message of this book. In these dark times, when every conversation is saturated with apocalyptic imagery, Jonathan Schell, the author the highly acclaimed work, The Fate of the Earth has succeeded in producing an optimistic vision of the future. It is an optimism, however, which comes from a bold and innovative reading of history and which is not a product of wishful thinking or day-dreaming. On that score alone, it is worthy of the serious attention of all who are disgusted by the Manichaean rhetoric of Empire and who refuse to wallow in the visions of doom and gloom.
Some of the most important changes for the future of war, Schell observes, have come from within war itself. In the modern age, war has in fact undergone a metamorphosis so thorough that its existence has been called into question. The advancement in the technology of war have given us the unusable nuclear weapons and the development of people’s war has taught us that popular resistance can bring down the fall of the dictators or the defeat of the imperialists. This is the gist of the thesis advanced in this volume, but it is a thesis which is presented with a thorough survey of the history of events and ideas that have produced the paradox of violence being the midwife of nonviolence. Schell’s book is as much a history of politics as that of ideas, but its principal virtue is lucidity; a joy to read. It is also panoramic in scope, giving full attentions to the arguments of ‘realists’ and ‘visionaries’ both (Gandhi receives as much attention as Clausewitz), assiduous in the pursuit of details, but imaginative in its grasp of the whole.
What Schell has to say
on contemporary realities is no less insightful, courageous and candid: ‘None
of the structures of violence – not the balance of power, not the balance of
terror, not empire – can any longer rescue the world from the use of violence,
now grown apocalyptic. Force can lead only to more force, not to peace. Only a
return to structures of cooperative power can offer hope. To choose that path,
Philosophy, it is
often argued, is indifferent to history. It reflects on eternal truths, not on
contingent events. However when certain contingent events become the defining
moments of history, when these are perceived as watersheds in the political
landscape of an age, philosophical reflection becomes ineluctable. With her own
intimate and traumatic experience of the September 11 attack on
In many ways, we are informed, this is the first real engagement between these two eminent thinkers who disagree on most issues and who are generally perceived as speaking from the opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum. Habermas’s discourse is, as expected, dense, elegant and unmistakably modernist. Derrida on the contrary takes a long, tortuous and often unpredictable path. Central however to both these philosophical vision is a deep suspicion of the concept of ‘terrorism’, and they both agree upon the need for a transmission from classical international law, premised on the model of nation-states, to a new cosmopolitan order based on a new kind of international sovereignty. Most significantly, they both discard the intellectually facile and morally problematic rhetoric of good and evil. Their intense philosophical gaze, it is apparent, shatters the chalice of Manichaean rhetoric which holds the sacrament of the Empire!
The most notable feature of Habermas’s response is that it is uncompromisingly committed to Enlightenment rationality and universalism. Out of this engagement comes a moral sensitivity which does not relinquish its calling even at the time of tragedy and pain. Not impressed with modernity’s worldly triumphs, he expresses his misgivings in a strongly worded statement as: “However, the asymmetry between the concentrated destructive power of the electronically controlled clusters of elegant and versatile missiles in the air and the archaic ferocity of the swarms of bearded warriors outfitted with Kalashnikov on the ground remains a morally obscene sight.” (28) Further, ‘The world has grown too complex for this barely concealed unilateralism. Even if Europe does not rouse itself to play the civilizing role, as it should, the emerging power of China and the waning power of Russia do not fit into the pax Americana model so simply.’ (27)
perceptibly sad and pensive; he was supposed to be in
Predictably, then, Habermas is able to reiterate the liberal mantra without diffidence, namely, ‘that the complex life circumstances in pluralistic societies are normatively compatible only with a strict universalism in which the same respect is demanded for everybody – be they Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhists, believers and non-believers’ (32). Even if the Muslim has no compunction agreeing with him, it is impossible not to discern the secular moorings of this universalism. Religious allegiance is for him without any political quotient, and hence innocuous and inconsequential for the public square. It does not cause his liberal conscience any discomfort and may therefore be tolerated. The snag however is that the liberal cannot vouch any form of universalism in which nation, state or citizenship are equally inconsequential and their diversity is simply a matter of personal choice! Liberal universalism remains subservient to the sovereignty of the liberal polity and the world order that sustains it. Be that as it may, in this interview, Habermas comes across as a very gifted, articulate and affable personality.
For all his volubility, Derrida, on the other hand, remains largely inaccessible to the uninitiated reader. His is a veritable sophist’s discourse that advances by questioning everything and that perpetuates itself by answering every question with a question. (Not a surprising strategy for a philosopher who claims that ‘the more one decodes a text, the more one encodes it.’!) Probably, it is because of the spin that has gone into the making of 11th September as the watershed of current history that Derrida seeks to deconstruct it first. At any rate, the perception of the singularity of 11th September, he feels, is ‘less spontaneous than it appears: it is also to a large extent conditioned, constituted, if not actually constructed, circulated at any rate through the media by means of a prodigious techno-social-political machine.’ (p. 86). Being extremely ‘attentive to the phenomenon of language, naming and dating’, and to the ‘repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, poetical)’, Derrida comes to the conclusion that the most powerful and destructive appropriation of terrorism is precisely its use as a self-evident concept by all parties involved! Thus, the discourse of terrorism appears in the light of Derrida’s philosophical analysis as a kind of language game which defines history by its own vision and by so doing seeks to control it.
A very different portrait of terrorism as a radically modern phenomenon, sprung from the loins of a totalitarian, positivist and imperial modernity, emerges from John Gray’s brilliant little volume, Al-QAEDA and what it means to be MODERN. Indeed, Gray who possesses exceptional facility with language, being able to expresses complex ideas in the simplest words, also has the enviable gift of analysis and perception. He exposes the intellectual and moral pretense of modern ideologies as no one else, and his writings have attained the status of being the veritable landmarks of cogent and powerful kulturkritik. Gray is censorious of all kinds of totalitarian projects and universalist visions which give rise to illusions of omnipotence and megalomania. Modernity’s mistress, science with a capital S, he believes, is the mother of the mythic belief in humanity’s ability to control its destiny.
precursors, we are informed in the beginning, are the revolutionary anarchists
of late nineteenth-century
In brief sketches,
Gray presents a history of modernist illusions, paying equal attention to their
political, economic and ideological matrices. Whatever the topic, be it
positivism or globalism, free-market or Pax Americana, limits to growth
or the end of history, his is a lucid and intellectually gratifying analysis.
Nor is there any reticence when it comes to describing the follies of the
modern ways. Some examples: ‘It is a mistake to think that opponents of liberal
values are enemies of the Enlightenment…. The European right is not so much a
return of fascism as an attempt to modernize it.’ (14-15); ‘French nation is an
artifact of military conscription and the school system.’ (19); ‘