Taking notes 27: Is there a method in Syrian madness?

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by Slavoj Žižek

We all remember President Obama’s smiling face, full of hope and trust, when he repeatedly delivered the motto of his first campaign: “Yes, we can!” – we can get rid of the cynicism of Bush’s era and bring justice and welfare to the American people… Now that the US is approaching a decision about attacking Syria, we can imagine peace protesters shouting at Obama: “How can you advocate another military intervention?” Obama the reluctant warrior looks back at them and murmurs perplexed: “Can I? Should I?” And this time, he is right.

All that was false in the idea and practice of humanitarian interventions exploded in a condensed form apropos Syria. OK, there is a bad dictator who is (allegedly) using poisonous gasses against the population of his own state – but who is opposing his regime? It seems that whatever remained of the democratic-secular resistance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a strong presence of Al-Qaeda in the shadows. (Recall that a year ago, a top Saudi cleric urged Muslim girls to go to Syria and support the rebels by offering themselves to be gang raped, since the rebels lack sexual satisfaction!)

As to Assad, his Syria at least pretended to be a secular state, so no wonder that Christian and other minorities now tend to take his side against the Sunni rebels… In short, we are dealing with an obscure conflict, vaguely resembling the Libyan revolt against Gaddafi – there are no clear political stakes, no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of superpowers (US and Western Europe on the one side, Russia and China on the other). In such conditions, any direct military intervention means political madness with incalculable risks – say, what if radical Islamists take over after Assad’s fall? So will the US repeat their Afghanistan mistake of arming the future Al-Qaeda and Taliban cadres?

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In such a messy situation, military intervention can only be justified by a short-term self-destructive opportunism. The moral outrage evoked to provide a rational cover for the compulsion-to-intervene (“We cannot allow the use of poisonous gasses on civil population!”) is a fake which obviously does not even take itself seriously. Faced with a weird ethics which justifies taking side of one fundamentalist-criminal group against another, one cannot but sympathize with Ron Paul’s reaction to John McCain’s advocacy of strong intervention: “With politicians like these, who needs terrorists?”

Back in 1843, the young Karl Marx claimed that the German ancien regime “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing.” In such a situation, to put shame on those in power becomes a weapon – or, as Marx goes on: “the shame must be made more shameful by publicizing it.” This, exactly, is our situation today: we are facing the shameless cynicism of the representatives of the existing global order who only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights, etc. So when we witness the ridiculous debate about pros et contras of attacking Syria, the shame, theirs and ours for tolerating such imbeciles exercising power over us, is to be made more shameful by publicizing it.

The situation in Syria should be compared to the one in Egypt: now that the Egyptian Army has decided to break the stalemate and cleanse the public space of the Islamist protesters, and the result is hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead, one should take a step back and focus on the absent third party in the ongoing conflict: where are the agents of the Tahrir Square protests from two years ago? Is their role now not weirdly similar to the role of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 2011 Arab Spring – that of the surprised impassive observers? With the military coup in Egypt – in June, the army, at first supported by the hard core of the protesters who overthrew the Mubarak regime two years ago, deposed the democratically elected president and government — it seems as if the circle has somehow closed: the protesters who toppled Mubarak, demanding democracy, passively supported a military coup d’etat which abolished democracy… what is going on?

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The predominant reading was proposed, among others, by Francis Fukuyama: the protest movement which toppled Mubarak was predominantly the revolt of the educated middle class, with the poor workers and farmers reduced to the role of (sympathetic) observers. But once the gate of democracy were open, the Muslim Brotherhood whose social base are the poor majority, won democratic elections and formed a government dominated by Muslim fundamentalists, so that, understandably, the original core of secular protesters turned against them and was ready to endorsed even a military coup as a way to stop them.

Such a simplified vision ignores a key feature of the protest movement: the explosion of heterogeneous organizations (of students, women, workers…) in which civil society began to articulate its interests outside the scope of state and religious institutions. This vast network of new social forms, much more than the overthrow of Mubarak, is the principal gain of the Arab Spring; it is an ongoing process, independent of big political changes like the Army’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government; it goes deeper than the religious/liberal divide.

The further parallel we should draw here is between the Egyptian uprising and the failed 2011 Green Revolution in Iran. The green color adopted by the supporters of the illegally defeated presidential candidate Moussavi, the cries of “Allah akbar!” that resonated from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicated that they saw their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption. This return to the roots was not only programmatic; it concerned even more the mode of activity of the crowds: the emphatic unity of the people, their all-encompassing solidarity, creative self-organization, improvising of the ways to articulate protest, the unique mixture of spontaneity and discipline, like the ominous march of thousands in complete silence. We were dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution: Moussavi’s name stood for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the revolution. What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover – it was much more. The very fact that this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary opening that unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closing through the take-over of political control by the Islamic establishment.

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Reacting to the well-known characterization of Marxism as “the Islam of XXth century,” secularizing Islam’s abstract fanaticism,  Pierre-André Taguieff  wrote that Islam is turning out to be “the Marxism of XXIst century,” prolonging, after the decline of Communism, its violent anticapitalism. Do, however, recent vicissitudes of Muslim fundamentalism not confirm Walter Benjamin’s old insight that “every rise of Fascism bears witness to a failed revolution”? The rise of Fascism is the Left’s failure: a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “Islamo-Fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries? When Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 40 years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, up to a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union?

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss their social component. Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing with terror its rule – however, when, in the Spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants.” If, however, by “taking advantage” of the farmers’ plight, the Taliban were “raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal,” what prevented liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US to similarly “take advantage” of this plight and try to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this omission is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of the liberal democracy… The only way for the civil-democratic protesters to avoid being sidestepped by religious fundamentalists is thus to adopt a much more radical agenda of social and economic emancipation.

And this brings us back to Syria: the ongoing struggle there is ultimately a false one, a struggle towards which one should remain indifferent. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent Third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. As we used to say almost half a century ago, one does not have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan. Even if Assad somehow wins and stabilizes the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years. What can save us from this prospect is only the radicalization of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.

So what is happening in Syria these days? Nothing really special, except that China is one step closer to becoming the world’s new superpower while her competitors are eagerly weakening each other.

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[Thank you indeed Slavoj for this incisive piece]

The writer is a Hegelian philosopher, a Lacanian psychoanalyst and a Communist political activist. He is also Professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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