In April of last year Critical Quarterly inaugurated its book series with the publication of Moustapha Safouan's Why Are the Arabs Not Free? – The Politics of Writing. This book argues that a crucial factor in the political backwardness of the Arab states is the divorce between classical Arabic, the language of all educated discourse, and the various demotic Arabics. The only substantial review in English was in the New Statesman of 18 October 2007, where Samir el-Youssef portrayed Safouan as out of touch with the contemporary realities of Arab life and language. This review has not been untypical of reactions from Arab speakers teaching in Anglophone universities. The ad hominem attack is simply untrue: throughout his more than sixty years in France Safouan has maintained the closest contact with the most important currents of Egyptian and Arab thought.
However, all such attacks miss the essential point of Safouan's argument: that classical Arabic remains tied to the order of the sacred. Safouan maintains that the history of Europe and the Middle East has always been the history of their economic, cultural and military relations. Far from conceiving them as civilisations that never meet, one could more accurately say that they have never been separated. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental distinction. While the development of the city states of the Greek world was accompanied by a use of writing which developed by the fourth century bc into a critical reflection which purged writing of any sacred characteristic, the archaic states of the Middle East were characterised by a use of writing dedicated to prestige, power and exploitation, which perpetuated the belief in writing's affinity with a sacred order from which the despotic regimes derived their legitimacy. The so-called Islamic state was no different. This state was founded on the Sassanid model although the Koran does not contain any indication of the principles of government. Only the grammar of the Koranic language (in fact pre-Islamic) is taught in schools, to the exclusion of the vernacular grammars. Thus the failure of the despotic regimes in the accomplishment of their tasks leads not to a revolution, but to an opposition which contests their very legitimacy in the name of a fallacious fidelity to the sacred letter of which the opposition claims to be the true guardian. With this identification with the Truth, ‘the death of the enemy’ becomes a duty which knows no limits. A difference of political philosophy runs the risk of degenerating into the bloodiest of struggles.
One must hope that this important argument will become more widely recognised as the book gets translated into the European languages (a French translation was published earlier this year and Italian and German versions are forthcoming). Most important, the book will be translated into Arabic this year and published on the web.
As part of the book's publication in France, Safouan showed it to his old editor, François Wahl. Wahl felt that Safouan had failed to make clear how his argument related to the new forms of Islamic terrorism that have so defined our contemporary world. Safouan therefore added a final part to his concluding chapter and an appendix on the concept of takfir. It is these new sections that we publish here – a second edition of the book, incorporating these new sections, will be published at the end of this year.
It seems to me impossible to bring terrorism to an end as long as despotic regimes remain in place in the Arab world. Let me explain.
Regimes of absolute power depend on three practices, which constitute their very essence: corruption, repression and censorship. Corruption means that he who enjoys absolute power, whatever his personal honesty or dishonesty, also enjoys complete control over the wealth of the country. And this is as true today as it ever was. However we judge Nasser's motives, set out in his book-length manifesto, The Philosophy of the Revolution– and nobody doubts his personal honesty – it remains the case that the coup d'état of 1952 was an operation carried out by the army to seize the whole of the country, from the machinery of the state to its wealth. Ministers, ambassadors, diplomats, prefects, directors of banks and of nationalised industries, heads of major commercial operations, members of boards of directors whose numbers grew one knew neither how nor why – all were military officers. When the rector of a university was not an officer, he would be well aware that certain members of the teaching staff were agents of the mukhabarat (the secret services). Needless to say, the best hospitals, the best houses, the best schools, even the best clubs and the best beaches were reserved for officers. The crucial point is that, in the last instance, it is the monarch who decides who will administer the country. It follows that the bureaucracy clings to the monarch as to its very existence. A regime of absolute power can thus be defined as the rule of a bureaucratic apparatus that manufactures despots. I mean by this that even if the head of state is a child heir or an imbecile, who finds himself unexpectedly occupying the office after the assassination of his predecessor, to whom he was vice-president, even in such an extreme case, the apparatus takes it upon itself to make a monarch of him, who will often be more obtuse, spineless and cruel than an ‘authentic’ monarch who would have known how to seize power with his own hands. The people understand these distinctions perfectly. Egyptians are fond of saying that a president always chooses someone more stupid as their vice-president in order to emphasise their own intelligence. Thus Nasser chose Sadat, Sadat chose Mubarak … who can't find anyone to choose. Nevertheless, Egyptians know that if this is so, it is because Mubarak, just like the first lady, is determined that it is his beloved son who will succeed him. It is not ruled out that a different method will arrive at the same result. Besides, as far as Nasser is concerned, opinion is divided between those who believe the call for him to return to office after the defeat of the Six Day War was spontaneous and those who believe it was from beginning to end an operation mounted by the apparatus; that is to say, in the last analysis, by the police. The odds are that the two were not exclusive: the police, having caught wind of Nasser's intention to announce his resignation by radio, had prepared their men to take to the streets when the time came; and people followed them. This omnipotence of the apparatus at work in regimes of absolute power enables us to understand an event much closer to us. When, after elections imposed by the West, Hamas won the majority in Palestine, it was inevitable that this victory would degenerate into civil war – a war that the very same West has fuelled. After all, there was no question of the kind of structurally corrupt apparatus the Palestinian Authority had become giving up the wealth of this unhappy country to newcomers (even if that wealth was nothing but aid and subsidies).1 Without a doubt Arafat was a man devoted to the cause, and the most ascetic of all; this did not alter the fact that he had no other model of leadership than the one in front of his eyes, Nasser first of all. In a state of blindness which he couldn't have avoided without stepping outside the limits of language – that's to say, without jumping on his own shadow – he had become a monarch.
All this also explains the extreme ferocity with which the apparatus represses any attempt to gain a share of its spoils. This ferocity will be all the less inhibited because the apparatus, in defending its booty, believes it is defending nizam (a word one can translate equally as ‘system’, ‘order’ or ‘discipline’); in short, it believes that it is defending the country against anarchy. Moreover, the apparatus doesn't have to worry about factors that the monarch must take into account. We know that the important militant Shohdy Attiya was tortured to death in a Cairo prison. At that moment Nasser was at a conference in Yugoslavia. One can imagine his embarrassment when this news was announced by a member of the Yugoslav Communist Party. But the important thing to recognise, here again, is that, in regimes of absolute power, repression is not simply in reaction to this or that threat: it is constant and omnipresent. Everybody knows that nothing will be done – for example, to drain a canal – if the request is not first made to the adminstration, which decides. We know that there are villages in Upper Egypt that no longer have drinking water and we have seen television reports in which a woman points a finger at a canal and shouts, ‘There's the water where we and our animals all piss, where we throw our filth, where we wash our clothes and bathe, and now we've got to drink it as well’. A man complains, ‘There's nothing left for us but the air we breathe’, and another adds, ‘for the moment’. Crucially, one phrase may be heard again and again across the land: ‘What can we do?’ And it is true, they can do absolutely nothing. First because they don't have the means – water and electricity are the business of the state. But furthermore, even if they could do something together, their action would be considered as a serious delinquency – because undertaken without the authorisation of the state – and they would have to answer for that in the courts.
It is evident that nothing is more dangerous for regimes of absolute power than the ‘Western’ idea of civil society. And this danger becomes all the more menacing as the state fails to carry out its allotted tasks. But the state dare not cast off the mask behind which it conceals its terrorist face. And this ‘dare not’ is not an act of hypocrisy. Or rather this hypocrisy represents the slender thread which continues to tie this state to a discourse of consensus, or the discourse of reason, as it is called. The ‘solution’ is to promulgate laws that authorise civil societies while ensuring that it is nigh on impossible to make them a reality. This pathetic solution, a synthesis floundering between madness and reason, is, alas, impractical at the political level.
The state is generally defined as an institution that has a monopoly of the legal use of violence. In fact, the monarchical state should be defined, despite the contradiction in terms, as a legalised terrorism. From this perspective the greatest danger for totalitarian regimes is democracy, with all that it entails of a separation of powers, a separation that manifests itself concretely in the multiplicity of political parties. Certainly the monarchical regime can seek a synthesis analogous to that for civil societies by authorising the creation of parties; provided there is no chance at all that they will threaten the majority enjoyed by the party of the monarch and thus the monarch himself – a majority that is jealously guarded by the apparatus. Only one party is outlawed in Egypt: the party of Muslim Brothers. Anyone who says that this is because we are talking about a terrorist party or a party that advocates terrorism simply reveals his or her ignorance of the life of this country. The Muslim Brothers seek, and have always sought, to become a political force in Egypt, but it has never attempted to seize power by violence. It has always attempted to play the game in the framework of existing institutions. As long as Nasser introduced reforms which responded to the aspiration of the people – such as agrarian reform, industrialisation, even when accompanied by ill-considered nationalisations, or the promotion of the rights of women to participate in social and political life – he could inflict on the Muslim Brothers the most varied and ferocious repressions (death, prison, torture, arbitrary arrest followed by disappearance, exile in the desert, etc.) without, as is now the case, violently upsetting public opinion. In fact, the force of the Muslim Brothers comes from the simple formula they offered, which represented the only possible way out for a people who had just suffered the failure of both socialism and capitalism: Islam is the solution– what else is left? But the most important reason for the popularity of the Muslim Brothers is certainly their dedication in organising popular educational and medical initiatives in the face of a state whose failure has become evident at every level: education, health, transportation and other public services, not to mention economic and political bankruptcy. This bankruptcy shows that the lesson of Mossadegh and Nasser has been well learned: more than one head of state in the Middle East has understood that the time of heroism is over and that his survival is linked to his ‘friendship’ with the United States. But nobody is in any doubt that the reality of this friendship is submission. Given the cultural backwardness mentioned at the beginning of this book and to which I will return, it is not surprising that the third way, between dogged hostility and grovelling realism, has been completely lost sight of. What beggars the imagination is that everything happens from the West's point of view as if all that is necessary is for a regime to declare itself ‘a friend’ and the West shuts its eyes to its greed, its corruption, its injustices, even its terrorism, its crimes and its contempt for all the most elementary rights of the human being. Doubtless the West believes that a friendly regime, even a terrorist one, protects it and the whole world from an even more horrible terrorism.
One thinks of al-Qaida. But one forgets that the masterminds of this organisation which, in an unprecedented logic, glories in its crimes, are in large part Egyptians, former members of the Muslim Brothers who broke with that organisation over their advocacy of violence and the use of arms against the infidel2 state. They call themselves ‘Takfirists’. This name comes from the word takfir, which means ‘to declare such and such a physical or moral person an infidel’. The Muslim Brothers have never adopted this ideology and have always condemned crimes against tourists, crimes committed with the declared goal of destroying the country's economy. The Takfirists have declared the Muslim Brothers ‘infidel’ because of their determination to play the game, to play it in the framework of a regime which calls itself democratic. And I imagine that if the game were played, the Muslim Brothers would obtain a majority, even if it is less certain that they would have an absolute majority. What is sure is that the different currents of economic and social life in Egypt could find expression in movements and parties capable of forming a solid opposition. As for the literal application of the Sharia, à la Taliban, it would provoke resistance rooted in the customs of the country, customs which sometimes date back thousands of years: Egyptian peasant women have worked barefaced in the fields for centuries and it is difficult to imagine how that would change from one day to the next. In truth, the Muslim Brothers themselves do not call for such a literal application. To give them the chance of governing, of playing the game, is the only way to judge their slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ in a convincing manner, that is to say by its results.
Far from playing the game, al-Qaida is an organisation which advocates the destruction both of states which ‘lie’ when they call themselves Islamic and of their Western protector, whose troops profane the holy land of Islam. What characterises this organisation, however, is not its explicit goals, nor even the criminal methods that it uses to achieve them. If we limited ourselves to these, we could even do its members the honour of considering them as brave resistance fighters against the most powerful imperialism that history has ever known – that of the United States. Indeed, this point of view, alas, is fairly widespread amongst large sections of the Arab masses. There is an Arab saying that can be rendered as ‘preaching the truth in order to pass off the lie’. It is not the first time that this pernicious technique has succeeded with the masses. One can even ask if it is not, par excellence, the dominating mechanism of political history. Modern history is particularly rich in examples of it, from both East and West. In any case, the credulity of the Arab masses is not in the least surprising. Let me explain.
As long as the despot can guarantee his people an acceptable standard of living, as long as he succeeds in maintaining the borders of the country and as long as he bolsters the narcissism of the nation with important projects, both internal and external, the people have no need to become aware of the despotic character of the regime to which they are subject. Indeed, this regime seems to them part of the natural order of things: to govern is to be the only one who governs. So much so that when the despot fails totally, a vague desire, or even a real wish, for change does indeed make itself felt, but as regards the despot, not despotism itself. The existence of an exterior model, here Western democracy, can indeed give rise to a new consciousness, but this is limited to the class of ‘intellectuals’. The people, and I'll come back to this when I consider censorship, have been trained to give up thinking. Thus, if you speak of democracy to the man in the street, and I have countless examples of this, either they will tell you, ‘that isn't for us’ or they will simply see it as an unrealisable ideal. The ideal is expressed in all their minds by the one word: ‘Islam’. I say the word advisedly, because an Islamic party has never been given the opportunity to show us in practice what a ‘properly Islamic’ social and economic politics would be in the contemporary world.
Remember that the hard core of al-Qaida is made up of dissidents from the Muslim Brothers. They had to emigrate not simply because of the ferocity of the state apparatus, but also because the people condemned their brutal methods, aimed at destroying tourism, which represents an important source of income for them. I have heard on more than one occasion a peasant turned taxi driver exclaim, ‘If only they killed the officers and left the tourists’.
They give themselves the name of ‘Takfirists’. What does that mean? All believers in the three monotheistic religions, whether they be Jewish, Christian or Muslim, admit that the distance between man and God, between creature and creator, is the distance between the finite and the infinite. It follows that identification with the very being of God is not a heresy, but an impossibility. States of mystical union themselves are of the order of love and bliss, not that of identification. This impossibility is all the more categorical in Islam in that the representation of God by images is forbidden – which closes the door even to second-rank identifications of substitution or compensation. In short, God is the being par excellence for whom Lacan's assertion is valid that ‘all identification is an identification with a signifier’. The Takfirists have thus succeeded, blindly and dishonestly, in this double tour de force in which impiety reaches its highest degree: simultaneously, they have identified with the most venerated symbol of all, while at the same time they exploit this identification to claim for themselves a real power which is God's alone: that of being the final judge of the purity or sincerity of faith. In other words, they have made their unconditional submission to the will of God – as if the will of God had become transparent to them – the reason to set themselves up as God's purveyors of justice, arbitrarily granting themselves the right of life and death over others. Never has there been a more devastating example of the blindness of man to the unconditionality of his desire.
The question of knowing whether what we have here is what is called a ‘defence mechanism’ against desire, or whether it is a desperate attempt to hold on to the thin thread that links them to the field of desire, even reduced to the death drive, is not of interest to us here. What is important is to understand the characteristic that distinguishes the phenomenon of al-Qaida from everything we have hitherto seen as regards human crimes, either individual or collective.
In his Notebooks, 1914–1916, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, ‘The following question might also be asked: If I were to try to invent Language for the purpose of making myself understood to someone else, what sort of rules should I have to agree on with him about our expression?’3 I will paraphrase this statement in these terms: ‘one can pose this question again: if one wanted to invent language in order to bring about agreement with others, to what kind of rules would the one and the other needs be subject?’ From which I draw the conclusion that language is reason, that without which there is no agreement. Those who, through whatever weakness, give in to the madness of committing collective crimes, generally seek to shield themselves behind the excuse of having committed them ‘on orders’. Those who give those orders, without speaking of the Fûhrer, are not without awareness of their madness, as witnessed by their determination to make sure their crimes are hidden from public view, since we are here talking of actions which are not only difficult to reconcile with any order of truth but, as I have already said, which exclude them from the very order of language. In fact with the Takfirists we are dealing, for the first time, with people who not only commit their crimes in broad daylight and seek to make them as widely known as possible, but, further, succeed in portraying themselves as heroes and martyrs in the eyes of large numbers of the oppressed, whose only escape from the censorship that is imposed on them is through jokes, which, as far as I know, are not made in classical Arabic! All this doesn't surprise us any more, I assume, because these crimes are not made in the name of such and such a value as debatable as another, but in the name of the Supreme Being who is Truth and Reason themselves.
We know that the United States and the European Union consider Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups, on the same footing as al-Qaida. This lumping together is unacceptable. Hamas and Hezbollah are not Takfirists; they do not give themselves the right of life and death over others. Between these two groups and al-Qaida there is a huge difference, as there is between the two groups themselves. Let's begin with Hamas.
The best information on this group's thinking can be found in an article by Bernardo Valli in an issue of the newspaper La Repubblica, published towards the beginning of July 2007. The Italian journalist reports a conversation that he had with Dr al-Rantisi, the elected head of Hamas, after the targeted murder of Hamas's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Indeed, al-Rantisi himself was murdered in the same way, four months after his election.4 Al-Rantisi was a paediatrician, admired for his devotion to helping his countrymen, and professor at the Faculty of Medicine, where he had taught several generations of doctors. Valli asked him how a man like him could countenance a method as bloody as the sending of kamikazes to kill innocent civilians in Israeli towns. Al-Rantisi replied, ‘But every day we see our wives, our parents and our children killed right next to us by bombs dropped on us from the sky by helicopters’. Not without reason, the journalist remained unconvinced! After all, a ‘regular’ soldier, to use the standard term, goes to war, not to death. Of course he risks losing his life and becoming one who ‘died for his country’. We say in this case that he was killed, not that he killed himself. On the other hand, a young person who lets themself be willingly transformed into a living bomb demands a death which he or she sees moreover only as the route to a beyond where they will receive their reward as a martyr. This is not only an individual belief. It is shared not just by the members of Hamas but also by a large number of Palestinians who have seen themselves robbed of 40 per cent of their land since it was occupied in 1967.5 In itself, this belief is not surprising. For my part, I even wonder if life and death were differentiated by human beings before Socrates drank his hemlock. What sense can otherwise be given to the insistence over the last twenty-five centuries on the statement, ‘Socrates is mortal’. For that matter, isn't the Heideggerian insistence on ‘being for death’ part of a more general attempt to give a certain authenticity to humanity, which risks losing all sense of limits in its fascination with the prestige of technology? What is important for the matter in hand is this: the fact that I share a belief with another person doesn't mean that I must reply ‘yes’ to their demand for death, still less incite them to take this path, thus misleading them as to the complete responsibility they have for this supreme act. This is an ethically serious, indeed a criminal, mistake, if considered with regard to its consequences, and cannot be justified by an appeal to the right of reciprocity, even that of terror and counter-terror.
The linking of Hezbollah and al-Qaida is even less defensible: if there is for al-Qaida an enemy even more satanic than the United States, it is the Shiites, and this for historical reasons. Remember that Christianity formed itself against the State, this allowing its organisation into that clerical body which is the Church. By the sleight of hand that I have explained above, Sunni Islam is constituted as a state whose powers are comparable to those of the Pope, save only that the Caliph does not exercise his religious powers directly, but delegates them to the ulamaa whom he himself appoints. The Shia have, from the beginning, questioned the legitimacy of the Sunni state. For them, the caliphate was hijacked from its legitimate heir, Ali, the Prophet's nephew. This is why, comparable in this to the early Christians, they managed – and despite their persecution in the Sunni states, to which they owe the name of ‘Muslim Jews’– to constitute that clerical body composed of ayatollahs which succeeded in seizing political power in Iran. It is impossible to imagine such a revolution being led by the ulamaa of the Sunni states. In Lebanon, political power has always been shared between Christians and Sunni Muslims. The Shia, formerly a minority, were excluded from power. This state of things has been overthrown by the fact of demographic growth, a growth that had to be reflected in the balance of forces in a way comparable to what has happened in Belgium because of the increase in number of the Flemish compared to the Walloons. Far from being an ‘agent of Iran’, Hezbollah, which is a political party with elected representatives in the Lebanese parliament, is rather the manifestation of this change in the composition of the different groups which make up the Lebanese people. Its undeniably pro-Iranian position is a result of their Shiite allegiances. The fact that in the region where it is in the majority it commands armed forces independent of the state poses the question of whether the Lebanese state has ever strictly speaking had an army, a question which becomes the more pressing when one knows about the existence of the kataeb (militias) of Pierre Gemayel and the part they played, with the complicity of Ariel Sharon, in the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. As to Hezbollah's differences with Israel over the question of Sheba, they call rather for a peace treaty that will fix the internationally recognised frontiers of the state of Israel as well as those of Syria and Lebanon, not to mention the Palestinian territories.
Simply stated, in continuing to support unconditionally states that call themselves ‘friendly’ (a word that misleads no one as to their position as ‘satellite’ or ‘client’ states) and by discrediting the Muslim parties willing to play the game within the framework of democratic institutions, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, the West runs the risk of radicalising the Arab Muslim masses and encouraging them to support al-Qaida, who will thus be offered an ever vaster pool of potential recruits. Whether one likes it or not, only the Muslim political parties who do not support violence as a method of seizing power are capable of introducing a real change in the structure of political power in our countries. Whatever the degeneration of our current states, they will never fall to their own internal forces. I touch here on the final element in our despotisms: censorship.
The explosion of the French Revolution, following the great poverty in which Louis XIV had left the country and exacerbated by the pitiless repression imposed by the police of the debauched king Louis XV, has fostered the idea that revolutions break out when the state fails in its essential functions. But this is to forget that this revolution would never have happened without the Enlightenment and the encyclopedists. Without going back over what I have said about the impossibility of the very idea of civil society because of the structural and not just reactive nature of the repression, the fact is that our writers have never played a historical role in the destiny of their countries. Their constitution as an elite that is an integral part of the apparatus has resulted in such a narcisisation – in other words an annihilation – of thought that they cannot comprehend that a language assigns limits to thinking. They talk of the rights of man, of democracy, of globalisation, and so on, without noticing that they are using concepts they have played no part in producing, as one uses a car, a computer, a television or other imported objects. As long as the Arabic with which we learn to write remains a sacred tongue, we will remain stuck with the impossibility of revising the concepts which rule our existence and which appear as self-evident or things that are part of the natural order. As long as the contempt for our mother tongue as a language unfit for thought lasts, the people have no choice but to resign themselves to leaving that revision to those who … don't think. Far from calling despotism into question, the bankruptcy of the despotic regime is always blamed on the despot: all one has to do is wait for another! As for non-governmental organisations, they would do better to allocate a large part of their resources to the republication of the really innovative writers such as those quoted earlier in this book, to multiply the study of the grammars of Arab mother tongues, to establish centres for the study of foreign languages, to publish the masterpieces already written in the vernacular and those that will be written.
Without this political and cultural reorientation of the West, the difference in political philosophy between it and the Muslim world risks degenerating into a ‘clash of civilisations’, or worse, into crusades.