Whose Europe? Self-Orientalisation and the Importance of Civil Society as a Zone of Stability amidst the Great Debate over Citizenship.
Parvez Asad Sheikh
I would just like to say that I came up with the title of today’s talk, which we see on the programme, before the events in Paris and San Bernadino had taken place.
What followed after those attacks has complicated the situation I want to address, which was already complicated enough to begin with.
I have had to take a step back, as it were, in order to deal with issue in a manner that is broad enough in perspective to allow for its many elements and to focus enough on particulars in order to suggest, hopefully, possible actions to adapt to a constricting world.
The issue I refer to is the re-inflammation and evolution of the Terror Dialectic, the effect this situation has on Muslim minorities – particularly those who are minority citizens of the countries in which they live – and what Muslims in the West can do, and are already doing, to try and stop the cycle of violence that has been spiralling out of control for the past fourteen years.
The Limits of the Terror Dialectic as a Perspective on the Syrian Civil War.
First, however, it is important to look at the zone from which an evolved and dangerous phenomenon has emerged.
It is important because the Syrian conflict remains the most important geo-strategic conflict of this decade. Numerous players and their interests converge and diverge in this now destroyed country.
Russian fighter helicopters, American missiles and Rebel artillery criss-cross the air.
The pro-Assad military, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and ultra-leftist Alawite militants are pitted against the US-supported Free Syrian Army and Islamic groups such as the Jabat al Nusra- with unknown backers- on the ground.
Daesh stand somewhere in the no-man’s land in the fight. At once staunchly anti-Shia while it fights the Sunni militias, opportunistically taking ground where possible.
It sells its oil to all those willing to embrace the logic of the market, the Assad regime included.
Meanwhile tension between Turkey and Russia continues to increase dangerously like a violin string being tightened ever so slowly until it snaps.
The Syrian Civil War is a conflict that takes place on three levels. It is at its core a deep political and social revolution against the Assad Regime on the part of the Syrian people.
It was the arrest of a teenager for scribbling anti-Assad graffiti that set off the initial mobilisation of citizens. After forty years of living under a typical Arab police state the Syrian people had enough with the yoke of tyranny. And that is what the Assad regime was and continues to be, tyranny.
The nature of Syria’s pre-war power nexus was one in which a minority of a minority, the Assad’s Alawite clan, held control over the state apparatus, both in terms of the military command and political structures.
This while the majority were either alienated and suppressed by the security apparatus or co-opted into a secondary zone that shared economic interests with the regime. Such a tenuous constitution needed extreme force in order to survive and it was bound to collapse under the pressure of popular mobilisation. Because let us not forget, after all, that a system of governance is based fundamentally on the belief that it exists.
This power nexus also ensured that the initial popular mobilisation by the Sunni majority, as well as Christians and Druze, led to a counter revolution based on a sectarian logic.
Hafez al Assad had kept at an arm’s length from any co-dependent alliance with Iran in favour of the Soviets.
His son Bashar, however, had adapted to the post-Cold War environment by hedging his bets on a strong alliance with the Iranians based on a sectarian logic. And this led to Syria being co-opted into the Iranian’s foreign policy mechanism that used it as a conduit to destabilise the region through Hamas and Hezbollah.
This is the second level on which the Syrian conflict is being played out. It has become the main theatre of Sunni-Shia competition over the post-war constitution of the most geo-strategically important country in the Middle East.
The situation in Yemen is an extension of the Syrian conflict and it threatens to become an even more volatile situation after the anarchy that followed the Arab Spring.
Now, the third level at which the Syrian conflict plays out is where it gets post-modern because it is a departure from the reality on the ground, at least in the narratives used by the players involved. And this is the level of international geo-political competition.
It is at this level that the Terror Dialectic has been used differently by both sides in order to rationalise their interests.
This divergence has led to the continuance of the conflict for five years and from the anarchy has risen an entity that fulfils the narrative and adds an evolutionary stage in the development of such organisations.
The United States and the Sunni states in the region have tried very hard to hold on to the initial narrative, our first level, of the Civil War being a popular revolt against a tyrannical regime. But due to indecisiveness on the part of international players to bring about a conclusion to the initial revolution, this narrative has come under pressure.
At the other end, the Assad Regime, Iran and the Russians have used the threat of terror brilliantly in order to delay any consensus on a post-conflict scenario that would exclude the Assad regime, with or without its titular head, and in-so-doing challenge their interests.
It was Alexander Dugin, Putin’s Philosopher, who laid out the technique.
Using a Foucauldian method of anti-hegemonic resistance, he stated that in order to undercut the legitimacy of an enemy’s or competitor’s position, one must create an alternative narrative that relativizes its logic and run with it, as it were.
By defining the anti-Assad elements very early on as Islamist and/or terrorist, Russia, Iran and their aligned players were able to paint a picture in which it was either Assad or them.
In the recent UN summit on the Syrian Crisis, which is a first step five years too late, the international community set to work out a means to a ceasefire and to move towards a political rather than military compromise.
The two major sticking points for both sides are first, whether Assad must go as a prerequisite for talks, and second, which anti-Assad groups represent the Syrian people without being designated as terrorist by one of the players.
For all Daesh and Jabaat al Nusra are both, quite rightly, out of the fold.
For the Assad supporters, all are terrorist including the Free Syria Army that is backed by the US and its allies. For Turkey, the Syrian Kurds, who have borne the brunt of the fight against Daesh – with American support – are deemed a terrorist organisation.
There is a myriad of outside interests and influences and their use of the terror dialectic has ensured that an end to the conflict is a long way away. It has allowed for the conflict’s other two facets – the violence of an aborted revolution and the deep sectarian differences that further fuel its flames – to carry on unabated and without end.
This has left a space for Daesh to emerge and has given them the ability to carry out their gruesome attacks in the West. The attacks in the West have in turn created a state of base panic in which the rest of the Muslims, the ninety-nine percent of Muslims who have nothing to do with this strange Caliphate, have been placed even further under scrutiny and in some places attacked.
This brings us to the issue of Daesh. And here I will revert to the position taken by the fuqaha such as Shaykh Habib Bewley in South Africa and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf in the United States as I am a student of the political and not an Islamic Scholar.
The fuqaha are the bedrock of our, as Muslims, ability to delineate ourselves from what has emerged in Iraq and Syria under the banner of a dystopian Caliphate.
The position of these men of knowledge, who have spent decades learning the traditional Islamic Sciences, is that Daesh or Isis is a Khawarijite phenomenon.
For such groups all except their followers are outside the fold of Islam. This is a group that has banned the use of colouring pencils in schools. It has none of the history and beauty that is to be found in Islam for it is without the mercy that allows for beauty to exist and civilisation to emerge from anarchy.
The reaction of the Muslim leaders to the first Khawarij was to fight and defeat them as one would remove a wart. Today as well, to use Ibn Khaldun, the Asabiyah of the Muslims must be greater than that of the Khawarij phenomenon and, while we may not have military means, we must defeat such a group through our unity against what it stands for.
So, as opposed to stating that Daesh has nothing to do with us as Muslims, I propose that we deal with this group as we have done with those like it in the past and fight it in the capacity that is afforded to us.
The Centrality of Civil Society to the protection of Muslims.
Let us now take what has been said along with us as we finally approach the subject at hand, the initial subject of this talk.
Following the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino in November, I witnessed with a mixture of dismay and hope, the reactions on the part of the politically unsophisticated majority of the United States and Europe towards Muslims and the mobilisation of certain groups that represent the Muslim citizens of these polities in order to protect themselves.
It appears that there has been a certain evolution in these two aspects after fourteen years of the War on Terror.
At one level, while progressive legislation abounds in almost all Western countries in terms of the inclusion of other minorities, the attitudes towards Muslim minorities, in relative terms, represents a marked regression.
Under the aegis of the war on terror, the posturing of state policy, political discourse and the mundane realm of everyday social interaction has gone a long way towards alienating Muslim citizens.
A few examples of this phenomenon are the Prevent policy in the United Kingdom, the recent proposal by the French for a constitutional amendment that would allow for citizens of dual nationality to be stripped of their French nationality at the behest of the state and the political posturing of presidential candidates in the United States that has capitalised successfully on anti-Muslim sentiment.
The Prevent policy securitises the issue of radicalisation to the point that it will ensure that young Muslims will be alienated from the idea of citizenship in its being a means to ensure equality before the law.
It creates a police state for a particular minority while the overall aim should be to allow young Muslim Britons to take on the civic implications of citizenship fully.
In the example of the French and as pointed out by Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley, their Muslim citizens, some of whom are fourth generation Frenchmen and women, are to be found on the economic and social fringes of society.
The banlieu’s of Paris and so many other cities are a manifestation of what the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has called a ‘territorial apartheid’1.
In such a setting, policies that either explicitly or implicitly target this already alienated minority can only push them further from taking on a true civic role in their society.
What has emerged, therefore, from state policies that tend to securitise the issue of terrorism and place minorities in a position of increased scrutiny is one part in a cycle of alienation and a lashing out that must be stopped.
This cycle of alienation is characterised by the position of state policy on the one hand and the reaction of Muslim minorities on the other. And here we come to the idea of self-Orientalisation.
Studies have shown that when an event takes place, such as the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, there is an inflammation of the terror dialectic that reaches the local, national sphere2.
The state, politicians and various members of the multi-million dollar anti-terror industry filled with its cadres of experts will place the position of Islam and the Muslims into question.
As a result, the Muslims who already feel alienated from the political discourse will either resort to apologist positions or attempt to create an island of their own in their country, insulating themselves from the greater society in a process of self-Orientalisation, of becoming in a sense what the politicians, armchair intellectuals and anti-terror professionals portray the Muslims to be.
For the Muslim youth, who are in a critical phase in developing a sense of identity, in political terms a sense of space to which they can belong, this can only lead to disaster.
Therefore, we have this cycle of alienation that has been evolving over the past fourteen years.
Each attack at home or event abroad feeds into the evolution of the scrutiny of the Muslim minority on the one hand and a withdrawal of the Muslim minorities from civic discourse on the other, a withdrawal that gradually goes so far into the darkness of alienation that it leads to the utopian dream and its horrible realities.
A View towards the Future:
However, one of the events that gave me hope in the aftermath of the recent events was the mobilisation of American Muslims who took it upon themselves first to delineate clearly their position vis-à-vis Daesh and the crude dialectic that surrounds it and to stand as Citizens of that country, as members of society; doctors, lawyers and businessmen, to protect themselves from the attacks from the ignorant and the politicians3.
Their embrace of citizenship, and the civic protection that it has to entail according to the ideals and laws of the United States, has enabled them to take a step in ending the cycle of suppression and alienation.
And even though the posturing politicians continue their attempts to feed into the angst of the masses, and even though these simple souls have harassed and threatened defenceless Muslim women on the streets, their ability to embrace their position as citizens and state their claim to the country in which they live, revealed the fallacy of the pre-existing attitudes towards Muslims that had gone unchecked before that.
Our current age is, by and large, the result of the remaking of the world in a Republican and Roman image.
By name and by ideal the political institutions and legislative mechanisms are supposed to allow for the freedoms and dynamisms that allowed for the Romans to flourish as they did.
From Tacitus, Montesquieu, from Montesquieu, Adam Ferguson. From Ferguson and the Scottish Enlightenment we see the beginning of the American Experiment and their first leaders.
In Europe, the bloody Revolution that followed the American’s closely in France gave birth to a more conservative version of the same political model.
At the heart of these events was a quest for an experimentation with the Roman idea of governance. And at the heart of that quest was the idea that citizenship was to ensure political and social freedom.
Now, the reason why I have laid such emphasis on the importance of citizenship is because it means that, far from being aliens, the Muslim Citizens of Britain are British. Those of France are French. It is their land.
And in order to move towards ending the crudity of Terror Dialectic Muslim Citizens must mobilise, as part of Civil Society, in order that those who make the laws under which they are governed hear them before they make them.
The greatest question concerning the relationship between people and political power is the definition of political freedom. And the best definition that I have encountered is by Adam Ferguson, as an heir to Tacitus.
Political freedom is the ability to affect, to influence in your interests, the laws under which you are governed. Citizenship must guarantee this freedom.
2 For one example see Kundrani, K. (2012) Radicalisation: the journey of a concept. Race Class. Vol. 54, no. 2, pp:3-25.
3 The organisation referred to here is the Council on American-Islamic Relations.