Muftah is again pleased to present another exclusive excerpt from Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s latest book, On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution: Power and Resistance Today, published by Bloomsbury in October 2013. Previous excerpts can be found here and here.
These extracts, specially selected and made available to Muftah by the author himself, are part of an ongoing Special Issue here at Muftah, featuring numerous cultural, political, and popular analyses entitled, “The Arab Spring – Three Years On.”
In this excerpt, Adib-Moghaddam takes aim at renowned Marxist philosopher, political theorist, and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek, who he charges “has been a prolific opponent of liberals ideas, especially when it comes to contentious issues such as immigration and Islam.” In Adib-Moghaddam’s view, rather than being able to accurately and honestly assess or “appreciate the wonderfully interwoven experiences of resistance,” Žižek’s own critique of Western liberalism suffers from tacit nativism.
Muftah readers interested in purchasing Adib-Moghaddam’s book can receive a 35% discount by entering the code GLR 9XR at www.bloomsbury.com.
Slavoj Žižek’s Europe, the Left and Islam
… Žižek seems to be concerned about liberal acknowledgement of “otherness,” especially the liberal tendency to tolerate the “violence” of “Muslims.” “For the Western liberal,” he writes, there is the “problem of the brutal and vulgar anti-Semitic and antichristian caricatures that abound in the press and schoolbooks of Muslim countries.” No reference is given. Elsewhere, Žižek attacks “Muslims” for reacting to caricatures of the prophet Muhammad published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten: “Some of the Western partisans of multiculturalist tolerance” are criticized for displaying understanding for the Muslim reaction and their “murderous violence at first aimed at Denmark, but then expanding to the whole of Europe and the West.”[i] According to Žižek, this “Muslim rage” should not be seen within the context of imperialism, the occupation of Palestine, anti-Americanism, etc. Liberals are merely presenting such contexts as apology and to divert attention away from the “TRUE cause,” that is Islam as a whole. Citing Oriana Fallaci, whose writings must be deemed racist even by the most tolerant standards of contemporary intellectual thought, Žižek concludes that the “enemy is not the political misuse of Islam, but Islam itself. The danger from within is the compromising attitude predominant in Europe.”[ii]
From the perspective of Žižek, then, Islam and multicultural liberalism are two sides of the same coin. Effectively, he is calling for a politics of identity that would evaporate cultural differences in a strange mixture of Eurocentric communism and populist belletristic. Here lies the poverty of his argument. He is attempting to recover particularly “European” norms and symbols in the name of a communist universality. But as a communist he is meant to argue the other way around: from the universality to the ways the European experience fits into it, from the international to the local. By starting with a warped understanding of European-ness he is essentialising what it means to be European a priori. As such, he is denying what Said aptly called “overlapping territories” or what we have worked out as dialectics via Fanon and Sartre.[iii] Žižek reveals himself as neither a Marxist nor a humanist, but as a Christian-democratic conservative.
It is not so much Europe that is the problem here, but the politics of difference that Žižek pursues. Hard pressed for a normative judgement, I would agree that compared to other areas of the world, Europe today has safeguarded a degree of tolerance, human rights and democratic transparency. In many ways, Europe is what the United States always wanted to be, but never really achieved. But the problem with Žižek is that he seems to think that such norms and their institutional manifestation (courts, governments, NGOs, etc.) are particularly European and that they have to be celebrated as such. All of this serves a central ideological purpose to subsume the “other,” in particular Muslims, under the category of Europe (as defined by Žižek). Here is embedded the political message that he attempts to get across. From his perspective, resistance to the “anti-immigrant wave” and support for “multi-cultural” diversity should not be limited “to the endless ritual of confessing Europe’s own sins, of humbly accepting the limitations of the European legacy, and of celebrating the wealth of other cultures.” Rather Žižek advocates—very much in line with ardent conservatives like Niall Ferguson—that we need a European Leitkultur or a dominant culture that moulds the European project into one. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” he hijacks a phrase coined by Yeats. For Žižek this “is an excellent description of the current split between anaemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists, Muslim as well as our own, Christian.”[iv] “Muslim as well as our own Christian”: the delineation of us versus them could not be clearer than in this patronising sentence that separates Islam from Europe. Žižek does not want Islam. What he prefers are politicians such as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel whom he praises for announcing that the “multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and live happily with each other, has failed.”[v]
What is missing in Žižek then is an understanding of Europe and the world as a dialectical surface effect of the common experience of humanity. Freedom, democracy, human rights and/or social justice are not the prerogative of one culture. Žižek does not appreciate such cosmopolitanism. His is a tacitly nativist project which is why he never really talks about India, the civil rights movement led by African-Americans, or the anti-Apartheid struggle of Nelson Mandela. There is no room in his writings for the heroes of humanism of the non-Western world. Consequently, Žižek is incapable of proposing a dialectic of power and resistance that is truly appreciative of the reciprocal complexities of the contemporary world order. Hence, his ideas about Europe share with conservatives a sort of hermetic sense of identity, which yields an approach to resistance that is not dialectical, but sectarian and partial.
[i] Žižek, Violence, 91.
[ii] Ibid., 96.
[iii] Said, Culture and Imperialism, 253.
[iv] Slavoj Žižek, “Europe must move beyond mere tolerance,” The Guardian, 25 January 2011. Available at <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/25/european-union-slovenia> [accessed 12 March 2011].