Saturday, October 27, 2007
Friday, October 26, 2007
The French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Duc de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), remains the classic case of a successful turncoat in politics. For half a century he served every French regime except that of the Revolutionary "Terror."
Thursday, October 25, 2007
from The India Uncut Blog by Amit Varma
This is the 37th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
- Should we care, and is there anything we can do about it?
- Of course we should care: no great civilisation can afford to be indifferent to the way in which it is perceived by others. But what, today, is Indic civilisation?
- Can we afford to anchor ourselves in a purely atavistic view of ourselves, hailing the religious and cultural heritage of our forebears without recognising the extent to which we ourselves have changed?
- Isn’t Indian civilisation today an evolved hybrid, that draws as much from the influence of Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, not to mention two centuries of British colonial rule?
- Can we speak of Indian culture today without qawwali, the poetry of Ghalib, or for that matter the game of cricket, our de facto national sport?
When an Indian dons ‘national dress’ for a formal event, he wears a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim invasions of India. When Indian Hindus voted recently in the cynical and contrived competition to select the ‘new seven wonders’ of the modern world, they voted for the Taj Mahal constructed by a Mughal king, not for Angkor Wat, the most magnificent architectural product of their religion.
- So, doesn’t Indianness come ahead of the classically Indic?
- I would argue in the affirmative, which brings me to the second part of the question: what can we do about it?
It seems to me that we ought to be pouring far more resources into our cultural diplomacy, to project the richness of our composite culture into lands which already have a predisposition for it. I’m not a fan of propaganda, which most people tend to see for what it is: i believe the message that will really get through is of who we are, not what we want to show. But just as, in economic terms, the government must provide the basic infrastructure and let the private sector get on with actual ventures, so, too, in the field of cultural promotion, the government has to create the showcases which individual Indians can then proceed to fill.
Hindus built bridges of culture to connect continents By P. Parameswaran
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Fallacious dreams have reappeared in other garbs. Propagation of democracy, or capitalism belongs to the same mindset
Sunday, October 21, 2007
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
Saturday, October 20, 2007
The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla (Knopf, 352 pp., $26) The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West, by Lee Harris (Basic, 290 pp., $26) Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11, by Matthias Kuntzel (Telos, 174 pp., $29.95)
Some historians will grimace at the overstated claims that Lilla makes for Hobbes’s singular and decisive role in separating religion from politics. And Lilla’s tendency to leap from generalization to generalization is not the only problem with his arguments. Moving to a discussion of Rousseau’s, Kant’s, and Hegel’s religious themes, he blames those thinkers for having reintroduced religion into politics by making romantic sentiment a respectable part of national religious identities. But religion had never left the political arena; rather, a shift occurred from European theology-as-politics—which persisted prior to the French Revolution—to politics-as-theology, which took hold afterward.
Lilla bypasses, for instance, the most politically influential writings of these three philosophers. He says nothing about Rousseau’s idea of “general will” and its influence on the Jacobins, Napoleon, and the Bolsheviks. Nor does he mention Kant’s unintended influence—through Johann Gottlieb Fichte—on the growth of Volkish German nationalism, or the influence of Hegelianism on Marxist dialectics and twentieth-century statism. Instead, he projects the influence of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel forward, focusing on what he acknowledges in his introduction “was a minor intellectual episode, a sideshow”: the revival of redemptive theology in the writings of the noted 1920s religious liberals Karl Barth, a Protestant, and Franz Rosenzweig, a Jew. Here Lilla completely loses the reader. Neither Rosenzweig nor Barth, he acknowledges, “recognized the connection between the rhetoric of their theological messianism and the apocalyptic rhetoric that was beginning to engulf German society. . . . but they did unwittingly help to shape a new and noxious form of political argument, which was the theological celebration of modern tyranny.” The Stillborn God’s nearly 300 pages then culminate in this sentence: “Eschatological language,” referring to Barth’s and Rosenzweig’s writing, “breeds eschatological politics.”
Lilla seems to imply that these men were a significant philosophical source for National Socialism. The reader is left puzzled. What “eschatological language” today could plunge us into the millenarian revival that Lilla fears? Christianity is dying in Europe, and The Stillborn God barely mentions Islam. But summarizing his book in an article in The New York Times Magazine, Lilla added a revealing coda. Referring to the supposed damage done by Barth and Rosenzweig, he wrote, “The dynamics of political theology seem to dictate that when liberalizing reformers try to conform to the present, they inspire a countervailing and far more passionate longing for redemption in the messianic future. That is what happened in Weimar Germany and is happening again in contemporary Islam.” Here again the reader is likely to rub his eyes. When exactly did this liberalizing tendency in Islam take hold? Further, having written a book that decries the Protestant Reformation’s plunging Europe into a century of religious war, Lilla does a 180-degree turn in the Times Magazine, inexplicably praising the Reformation as a model for Muslims. “The complacent liberalism and revolutionary messianism we’ve encountered,” he writes, “are not the only theological options. There is another kind of transformation possible in biblical faiths, and that is the renewal of traditional political theology from within. If liberalizers are apologists for religion at the court of modern life, renovators stand firmly within their faith and reinterpret political theology so believers can adapt without feeling themselves to be apostates. Luther and Calvin were renovators in this sense, not liberalizers. They called Christians back to the fundamentals of their faith, but in a way that made it easier, not harder, to enjoy the fruits of temporal existence.”
Lilla ignores the fact that Sunni Islam has already experienced something akin to a Reformation, in the form of eighteenth-century Wahhabism, which called Muslims back to the unadorned faith first preached by Mohammed. But while the Western liberal tradition stands on the two legs of Athens and Jerusalem, the singular focus on submission to God’s word in Islam—preached nowhere more intensely than in Wahhabi Islam—leaves no room for a second leavening tradition. What Islam has missed is not a Reformation, but an Enlightenment.
And whom does Lilla nominate to lead a renovated Islam? None other than Tariq Ramadan, the grandson and intellectual heir of Hasan al-Banna (about whom more later), the founder of the fascist-influenced Muslim Brotherhood, from which both the PLO and al-Qaida descend. Lilla explains: “If we cannot expect mass conversion to the principles of the Great Separation—and we cannot—we had better learn to welcome transformations in Muslim political theology that ease coexistence.” But he does not explain how the Salafist Ramadan, who has close ties with Islamic extremists, is to be the bearer of good news. My puzzlement grew as I stumbled upon another recent article of Lilla’s for the New York Times, this one about his experiences as a Roman Catholic who became an evangelical Christian and now rejects both faiths. Lilla is still on a mission, albeit a very different one. He writes of a slight acquaintance who is hoping to be born again: “I wanted to warn him against the anti-intellectualism of American religion today and the political abuses to which it is subject. I wanted to cast doubt on the step he was about to take, to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love, perhaps even self-transformation. I wanted to convince him that his dignity depended on maintaining a free, skeptical attitude toward doctrine. I wanted . . . to save him.”
Lilla the Hobbesian has not explained, as far as I’m aware, how he squares secularism with his embrace of Tariq Ramadan’s Islamism as the hope for the future. Perhaps it’s the other Lilla—the one who wishes that Christianity had openly recognized its nature as a political religion—who has moved in Ramadan’s direction. But either way, his sentiments reveal the underlying logic of his book. In effect, he thinks it better to encourage Islam than to allow the malign fruits of Christianity to continue blooming. Given the choice between Hobbes and Christianity, he prefers Hobbes. Given the choice between Hobbes and Ramadan’s Islam, he’ll reluctantly take Islam. What he can never countenance is Christianity, which he seems to view as our most urgent threat. For Lee Harris, Hobbes’s hopes for a society of rational individualists, impervious to all but self-interest, have been so successfully realized as to make it almost impossible for us to comprehend the tribal fanaticism that still defines much of the world. “Instead of grasping that the creation of a society of rational actors was the work of a tradition,” he says, “we have come to think that all men are born rational actors.” Sheltered by success and wide oceans, we assume that reason is “a universal endowment of mankind,” which only needs to “be liberated from the shackles of oppression by an enlightened elite.” It is the Westerners, and not the Islamists, Harris writes, who have been the exception over the course of history, as episodes like the Iraq War demonstrate.
Harris, a man of wide reading, shows us what a solemn, and not just a tactical, multiculturalism looks like. Westerners mistakenly assume, he says, that “modernity is to cultures what old age is to the individual, an inevitable stage of development.” Darwin, for instance, who had witnessed the barbarism of the Tierra del Fuego Indians firsthand, assumed that as men moved beyond tribal loyalties, their sympathies would eventually expand to encompass all of humanity. But, asks Harris, what if tribalism, and an accompanying fanaticism of the sort that inspired past religious wars, are far more functional, far more effective modes of organization than we realize? When an Islamic terrorist insists that “we will win in the end because we are willing to die,” we should take him at his word. Islamic fanaticism is not a relic of the past. It is, argues Harris, “a formidable weapon in the struggle for cultural survival . . . it has served as a powerful defense mechanism that has successfully thwarted all attempts by rival cultures to conquer, dominate, or even influence Islam.” Nor can we take comfort in the assumption that the jihadists are outside the Islamic mainstream. On the contrary, Harris points out, a considerable body of orthodox Muslim jurisprudence buttresses them.
Accurate though he is in his sense of Islam’s capacity to resist modernity, Harris’s pessimism pushes him in an untenable direction. “The only cultures that have succeeded in driving back the inroads of Islam,” he notes, “have been those cultures that have adopted the Muslim principle of fanaticism to serve their own purpose. The Catholic reconquest of Spain, for example, could have only been achieved by a religion that adopted the same ethos that had animated Islam.” This is exactly the argument of those who, during World War II and the cold war, insisted that we could only win by becoming much more like our enemies. They were wrong then, and Harris, and Lilla in a different way, are mistaken now; we are far less fragile than such pessimists assume.
Matthias Kuntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 effectively brings together the political theology central to Lilla’s book and the tribalism and fanaticism central to Harris’s. The small, independent Telos Press deserves kudos for publishing this book by a German historian little known in America. Better than anyone before him, Kuntzel makes sense of the deep and entangling historical ties between European National Socialism and the Muslim Brotherhood. “The idea of using suicide pilots to obliterate the skyscrapers of Manhattan originated in 1940s Berlin,” he notes. “Hitler envisioned having kamikaze pilots fly light aircraft packed with explosives and with no landing gear into Manhattan skyscrapers.” Like the 9/11 bombers, Hitler wanted “not merely to fight a military adversary, but to kill all Jews everywhere.”
Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate. The Brotherhood became to Islamism what the Bolsheviks were to Communism: “the ideological reference point and organization” for future radical movements. Al-Banna’s famous article, “The Industry of Death,” argued that “to a nation that perfects the industry of death and which knows how to die nobly, God gives proud life in this world and eternal grace in the life to come.”
Al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood were a profound influence on the founder of the Palestinian political movement—Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who, drawing on the underworld-come-to-the-surface that Cohn described, was “the first to translate European anti-Semitism into an Islamic context.” Kuntzel explains that “although Islamism is an independent, anti-Semitic, anti-modern mass movement, its main early promoters—the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Mufti. . . . in Palestine—were supported financially and ideologically by agencies of the German National Socialist government.”
The Mufti, who spent the Second World War in Berlin broadcasting propaganda for the Nazis while recruiting Bosnian Muslims for the SS, translated Palestinian political interests into an extension of Hitler’s intentions to wipe out the Jews. The Mufti pointed to passages in the Koran referring to Jews as dangerous and inferior, as well as to Mohammed’s own behavior in beheading the entire male population of a Jewish tribe and expelling the other Jewish tribes from Medina. The Mufti and al-Banna exemplify the fanaticism that Harris writes about. Kuntzel describes how they relentlessly killed off liberals and moderates who might impede their Islamic agenda. Their success has been the tragedy of the modern Middle East.
Apologists for Islamism argue that, if only we can resolve the conflicts in Chechnya, Palestine, Kashmir, Nigeria, Southern Thailand, the southern Philippines, East Timor, and the cities of Europe for that matter, all will be well. But what’s at the heart of the Islamic conflict with modernity is the unvarnished political theology of Islam, which assumes that Muslims are destined to rule the earth. Hassan Butt, a former British Islamist, explains in his memoirs: “When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network . . . I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and 7/7 was Western foreign policy . . . they also helped draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.”
Of these three writers, only Kuntzel takes Islamic theology seriously, which is why his book is so deeply informative. Lee Harris is right to argue that we are unlikely to make serious progress in opening the culturally autarkic Arab and Islamic worlds to the pleasures of modernity, given their ferocious and time-tested defense mechanisms. That’s why it’s all the more important for Europeans unambiguously to defend Western values on their own terrain, rather than abasing themselves before the likes of Ramadan—who, like the Nazis, is a reactionary modernist, and who hopes not to modernize Islam but to Islamicize modernity. But maybe that’s all right for the Mark Lillas of the world. Fred Siegel is a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.
So it is with words in the postmodern condition. There are all too many plastic words, good for decoration and intellectual pleasantries, and little else. One of the key predicaments of the ongoing social and political transition in the world today is the subversion of language and ideas to create political smoke screen or delusion or to give a semblance of social and political legitimacy for the hegemonic discourse. Often progressive-sounding words and phrases are used to conceal the reality on the ground or to create a virtual or projected sense of select images and discourse. The reshuffling of meanings and the subversion of political semantics has become the order of the day. This has become a part of process of creating the new pornography of politics. The very term Civil Society is major protagonist in the post-modern politics of delusive power-plays and elusive semantics. They together often create political and policy mirages.
The term 'Civil Society' is contested terrain. Over the last fifteen years it has been used to denote everything from citizens' groups and activist formations to highly institutionalized non-governmental organisations and foundations. There is another dimension to this process of subversive politics of words from the point of view of the history ideas and the political economy of knowledge.
Civil society as a concept originated in 18th-century Western Europe. It was a theoretical construct useful in analyzing and understanding the emerging socio-political economy of the industrialized west in the 18th and 19th centuries. The concept was resurrected in the late-'80s amidst the ruins of the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe. It was born-again in the manufacturing shops neo-democratization ventures in the North. During the second coming of the concept, more stress was laid on producing and marketing the civil society in different colours and shapes, rather than on reflecting the very validity of the idea in relation to real-life situations and experiences. The civil society is being paraded as the new panacea for issues such as poverty, human rights, gender equity and 'good governance'.
What is this civil society all about? Whose civil society are we talking about? There is no one answer or even set of answers. The colour and smell of the term will change according to the convenience of the various proponents. As a result of such ambivalence, the second coming of the civil society conceals more than it reveals. Civil society, we are told, is synchronous with democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of choice, good governance and opportunity for economic growth. But what do all these goodies entail? Whose democracy? Whose freedom of expression and choice are we talking about?
The new holy trinity of the State, Market and Civil Society can be capable of concealing the structural inequalities, marginalization and patriarchy, and reduces complex reality into neat spaces. There is an underlying tendency to homogenize the world according to an idealized notion of governance that skips the entire historical process of marginalization and unequal distribution of power in the socio-economic and political arena. The problem with such an ahistorical theorization is that anything and everything outside the market and the State can be considered civil society. So the Islamic Taliban, Sangh Parivar in India and all such fundamentalist formations as well as small self-help groups, neighborhood associations or professional groups can be considered part of civil society. A mega-million non-profit organisation with huge corporate structures and tens of thousand of staff or a mega billion Foundation is as much part of civil society as a small NGO or a small community organisation. This is an interesting logic wherein sharks, sardines and shrimps all say we are fish, though the sharks would like the freedom to swallow sardines and other small fish.
The classical political economy tradition of civil society emanated from the works of Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and J S Mill. This stream of thinking perceived civil society as a sphere for the satisfaction of individual interests and private wants. This perspective stressed the primacy of individualism, property and the market.
The other part of the story is that the Civil Society is also being used to denote new democratization, grassroots politics and new way for citizens' participation and engagement in the process of governance and affairs of the state. While the term Civil Society has broader social and political connotations, the tendency is often to equate the Civil Society with NGOs. The very world of NGOs themselves are very heterogeneous and with multiple institutional, social and funding power relations at play. The NGO world is increasingly looking like an Orwellian Animal Farm, wherein everyone is supposed to be equal but some are more equal than others. This becomes all the more problematic given that many of the new-generation NGOs are more like private enterprises in the public domain. The problem occurs when such groups or entities develop a universalistic claim based on an imagined or assumed legitimacy.
The various political and knowledge traditions behind the term Civil Society co-exit w and often intermingle to create new sense and meaning to the term civil society. This often makes the concept fluid and ambivalent.
The new civil society discourse is also a symptom of the crisis in social theorization. Instead of looking for fresh theories to address the profound socio-political and economic transition, the tendency is to resurrect concepts and theoretical frameworks from the residue of the Enlightenment in the 18th century...
Keeping supercapitalism from spilling over into democracy is the only constructive agenda for change
Friday, October 19, 2007
The following speech was given by Russell Means in July 1980
Wealth Of Nations was written to persuade legislators to replace the policies of mercantile political economy
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy