Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.
Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.
Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:
The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.
Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”
The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.
Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.
If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.
And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:
Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?
As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.
[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”
Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:
It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.
Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.
[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,
that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.
Ziv responds angrily and honestly:
“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”
Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”
Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read. You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.
Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.
Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.
This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”
When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.
Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.
In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.
At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.
Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.
This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”
[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.
A German Court this week declared that circumcision is illegal. The court decided that the time immemorial Jewish law—the mark of a Jewish boy's covenant with God—is an inhumane act that does "grievous bodily harm" to young Jews and Muslims (the case actually originated when the parents of a four-year-old Muslim boy had him circumcised). But the Court's ruling went further. According to Der Spiegel:
The court ruled that the child's right to physical integrity is more important than the parent's basic rights. The ruling stated that a mother's or father's right to freedom of religion as well as their right to determining how they raise their child would not be limited if they were forced to wait and allow their child to decide for himself if he wanted to be circumcised. The ruling states a child's right to self-determination should come first.
The regional court in Cologne, Germany, held that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents." You can read about the decision here.
This is an amazing decision for many reasons, not the least of which is that a court in Germany has basically said that Jewish and Muslim families do not have a right to practice their religious obligations, which for Jews include the requirement of circumcision as a mark of their covenant with God. A Jewish father who does not circumcise his son on the 8th day after birth is in violation of basic Jewish commandments. This prohibition on what is a fundamental matter of Jewish law and practice is especially shocking given Germany's history.
The blogosphere has erupted over the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim implications of the decision, even as the U.S. mainstream press has ignored it. You can find a helpful and typically smart recap of the dispute over at ViaMeadia.
Beyond the questions of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the decision to outlaw circumcision reveals the frequently overlooked conflict between human rights and the basic rights of privacy. The German court's decision imagines the parental rights to practice religion as a right to privacy—to determine how to raise their child. Against this right it balances the child's human right to bodily integrity. And the court decides the matter on the side of human rights over the right of privacy.
This conflict between human rights and privacy recalls Hannah Arendt's essay "Reflections on Little Rock." Arendt's essay on the school desegregation controversy has been roundly criticized. It has been less well understood. Arendt's argument against forced-federal desegregation turns on her worry about the private realm. She makes four arguments:
1. Arendt is in favor of politically invalidating all laws supporting segregation.
2. She is against forced desegregation of social discrimination that in places such as vacation spots, which she argues are not relevant to the public life. In such spaces, integration may be desirable, but it is not publicly necessary.
3. She supports forced desegregation of social worlds that are publicly necessary (buses and hotels in business districts). Schools would of course usually fit here.
4. But Arendt is against forced integration of schools. Schools are different. Why? Because education is a question of how a parent raises his or her children, and this is the quintessential private right.
Arendt's rejection of forced school integration was not based on a social defense of all discrimination since she clearly thinks that some kinds of discrimination are subject to forced integration. Instead, her rejection of forced school integration is based on her insistence on the need to preserve private rights. For many, her argument does not take seriously enough the public role of education. But Arendt insisted that education must be seen as part of the private sphere.
For Arendt, there is no more basic private right than the right to raise one's children as one sees fit. Since education of one's children is the quintessential private right, Arendt reasons that to deprive people of such a right is to eradicate the very idea of an inviolable sphere of the private realm. If we can tell people how to educate their children, what can't we tell them about how to live their private lives?
Arendt clearly understands education as a private practice. It is in this sense similar to the rights of religious practice and circumcision that, likewise, go to the fundamental authority of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It is important to be vigilant against the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and those who have been critical of the German Court's decision are right. But there is a more pressing threat that this decision raises, which is the desire to continually restrict or eviscerate the realm of the private in the name of humane and efficient regulation.
Private rights are deeply important. It is in the private realm where young people grow up and are led into the world by parents, teachers, and friends. If we value plurality, difference, and individuality, it is essential that we protect the private realm—that world in which individuals are formed in their singularity and uniqueness. As well meaning as human rights advocates may be, they are antagonistic to the private realm. They will forever seek to impose a world of humane conformity at the expense of the singularity suffering. This is the tension that Arendt provokes us to consider.
It is in such conflicts between the private and the social realms that Arendt takes her stand against the social conformity of the regulatory state. She makes fine distinctions that are too frequently overlooked. Thus, she defends the absolute right of mixed marriage (and also by extension gay marriage) as important rights to live privately and uniquely—since these are rights to live privately as one wishes. It is justified for the federal government to overturn discriminatory anti-miscegenation laws. She rejects federal intervention to combat discrimination in vacation spots, but supports such a federal role in matters of buses, hotels and business districts. But she would surely not defend the federal imposition of the right to bodily integrity when it interferes with the right to raise one's child as one wants.
Reading Arendt reminds us that the real controversy in the German Court's decision is less about antisemitism (although it is about that too) and more about the danger that a human rights agenda seeking to eradicate suffering poses to freedom and meaningful difference. It is easy (and right) to get riled up about antisemitism. It is also fairly easy (and right) to speak up for the right to circumcise one's children for religious reasons. What is more difficult, and thus even more necessary, is defending private and often unpopular uniqueness from the social conformism of those who would eradicate suffering in the name of human rights.
There is no more clear-headed articulations of the need for a private sphere of uniqueness than Hannah Arendt's essay "Reflections on Little Rock." It is, this fourth of July weekend, your weekend read.
In the aftermath of the recent presidential elections and the sentencing of Hosni Mubarak, the attention of many observers within and outside Egypt has turned to the complexities of the country’s immediate future. This focus is entirely understandable given Egypt’s prominent place in the wider Arab world and the intractable challenges it now confronts. But it has also entailed a certain emotional and intellectual distance from the transformative events that transfixed the world in January and February 2011. The uprising that took most visible form in the Tahrir Square protests is already retreating into the twilit realm of history and memory.
This process is inevitable, and there is little point in attempting to arrest it. But we would still do well to recall the urgency and enormity of Egypt’s transformation before it recedes even further into the maelstrom of our twenty-four-hour news cycles and day-to-day cares. One occasion for such reflection is the “Egypt Forum” that recently appeared in American Ethnologist, one of the world’s most prominent journals in my field, cultural anthropology. Composed of nine short essays from some of the discipline’s foremost scholars, the Forum illustrates anthropology’s capacity to bring vivid lived experience into conversation with larger processes and forces. Taken together, the assembled contributions remind us that the 2011 uprising was not an inevitable triumph of popular sovereignty, but a tense and even disorienting moment of uncertainty, one in which the very nature of politics was up for grabs.
The “Egypt Forum” makes three notable contributions to our understanding of Mubarak’s ouster from power. First, it underscores how many Egyptian citizens drew on local moral categories, not just the liberal language of rights and democracy, to interpret the uprising. Farha Ghannam examines how residents of one Cairo neighborhood relied on notions of “thuggery” (baltagiyya) to condemn violent attacks against protesters and more general corruption among state officials. Sherine Hamdy describes how her Egyptian acquaintances imagined themselves as resilient in the face of obstacles, but also physically and spiritually enfeebled by years of state-sponsored injustice and brutality. And as Lila Abu-Lughod details, the protests prompted young men and women in one Upper Egyptian village to establish a popular committee to solve problems of resource distribution, build homes for indigent neighbors, and collect funds for displaced families. Rather than couching their efforts in overtly “political” language, however, they dubbed their committee the “Youth of Good Works” (shabab al-khayr).
Second, the Forum highlights the extent to which the protests against Mubarak’s regime defied the commonplace distinction between “religious” and “secular.” Indeed, as Hussein Ali Agrama contends, the protests constituted a moment of “asecular” power not merely because they drew a variety of liberal, left-leaning, and devout participants, but because the protesters were not particularly concerned with characterizing their efforts in “secular” or “religious” terms—or with drawing boundaries between the two realms. Charles Hirschkind is also struck by the accommodating spirit of the uprising, and he traces its guiding sensibility to the careers of three public intellectuals who have reflected in innovative ways on the place of Islam in Egyptian life. For all of these commentators, the Islamic tradition is not an impediment to national independence and democracy, but rather a resource and frame of reference for “an open, nondogmatic style of political engagement.”
Third, the Forum draws attention to the forms of marginalization that the revolution and its aftermath have not entirely overcome. Although women were conspicuous among the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square, Sherine Hafez notes that they have been largely excluded from Egyptian politics after the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. Perhaps most notably, they played no role in the “Council of Wise Men” (note the name) that initially negotiated with the Supreme Military Council, and they were entirely absent from the committee charged with reforming the constitution. (Hafez also observes, with biting irony, that it did not take long for Tahrir Square to regain its reputation as a zone of routine sexual harassment.) For her part, Jessica Winegar highlights the ongoing domestic duties that prevented many women from participating in the protests, and she emphasizes the economic realities that made work more pressing than revolution for many of Cairo’s poorer residents. Indeed, many of the young women Winegar knew were only too happy to see the end of the protests, since it meant that they could once more move about the city and return to their jobs.
All in all, these essays are worth reading because they illuminate facets of the Egyptian uprising that have eluded many pundits and other “expert commentators.” They thereby demonstrate the value of intimate and sustained social inquiry, even—and perhaps especially—when the revolution is televised.
During a conference organized in her honor in Toronto, Hannah Arendt was asked by Hans Morgenthau, to categorize herself as such: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position in the contemporary possibilities?”
Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”
It is precisely in this spirit that one should read Jens Hanssen’s recent paper “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East: Preliminary Observations on Totalitarianism, Revolution and Dissent”.
Hanssen offers in his paper a rather detailed survey of how Arendt has been read – and misread – by the Middle East, beginning with Kanan Makiya’s World Policy Journal article (2006) “An Iraqi Discovers Arendt”, all the way to Israeli revisionist (and evidently critical of Israel) scholars such as Idith Zertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.
The particular examples he brings up are paradigmatic of this already established tradition of appropriations of Hannah Arendt that though emerging from her political thought, have much to do with politics and little with thinking.
For example, the case of Kanan Makiya is interesting if only because of his controversial – and rather maverick – position in the landscape of Iraqi politics. This Marxist engineer-turned-neo-conservative political advisor (in Hanssen's telling) is apparently credited with being the first Arab author to apply Arendt’s phenomenology of totalitarianism to Baathist Iraq.
Makiya makes a case for Iraq as a totalitarian regime in Arendt’s terms, drawing a straight line from anti-Semitism and intellectual support for Saddam Hussein to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Though his book The Republic of Fear stands for many Iraqis as the greatest testimony to the sad state of affairs under Hussein, the analysis is at best a misappropriation in many respects and seems to fall within the line of warmongering that Arendt so vehemently criticized as McCarthyism: To use totalitarian means to fight – real or imagined – totalitarian enemies.
The most interesting reading he brings up however is Vince Dolan’s course at the American University in Beirut, “Contemporary Philosophical Reflections on the Use of Political Violence”, in the spring of 1983. Dolan tailored the course to polemicize Arendt’s distinction between power and violence – perhaps the most difficult in all of her thought – by first exposing students to Habermas’ evaluation of Arendt’s project and then bringing her into conversation with Popper, Adorno and Horkheimer.
While this practice is common among liberal academics, the integration of Arendt into the corpus of critical theory has been time and again debunked by serious Arendt scholars, of which I might bring only two salient examples:
First, Dana Villa (Arendt and Heidegger, 1996, p. 3-4) argues that although Habermas called Arendt’s theory of political action “the systematic renewal of the Aristotelian concept of praxis”, there is no one that would argue more vehemently against Aristotle (and the whole project of critical theory) than Arendt.
According to Villa, critical theory has immensely profited from Arendt’s renewal of Aristotelian praxis as opposed to the instrumentalization of action in order to highlight the intersubjective nature of political action, when in fact this renewal is a radical reconceptualization whose renewal is nothing but a renewal in order to overcome rather than to restore the tradition of political thought of and since Aristotle.
Second, Fina Birulés insisted in an interview from 2001 that there is a wide gap between Arendt’s radical theory of democracy and Habermas. According to Birulés, though Habermas is deeply indebted to Arendt, his theory of communicative action is hardly political at all and he reduces the concept of plurality to some sort of ideal community of dialogue.
Doubtless Hanssen is correct in pointing out that Arendt did not provide a concise definition of totalitarianism. Definition is a privilege of theory that Arendt’s story-telling didn’t embrace and she “merely” listed phenomenological elements. However he also indicates how Arendt insisted that only two forms of totalitarianism existed: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This distinction is crucial to understand the rest of his paper.
Nowadays totalitarianism – as much as the banality of evil – is a slogan in newspapers and politics, often lacking in meaning and intention and this brings to mind the whole post 9-11 discourse in philosophy and politics in which Islam and Islamism – among other things – take the place of the “old” totalitarian movements.
While it is true that in phenomenological and structural terms nothing since the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called strictly totalitarian, there is no doubt that there are totalitarian elements in many movements and policies not only in the Middle East today, but also in the democratic West.
Among other – far less influential readings of Arendt – Hanssen lists the translations into Arabic and Persian, providing crucial information about how and why Arendt informed certain – mostly – Arab authors.
Lastly there is an elaborate discussion on the use – and again, abuse – of Arendt by Israeli scholars since her “rehabilitation” in Israel that coincided with the rise to prominence of certain revisionist scholars.
Though Hannah Arendt wasn’t exclusively concerned with Zionism or the Jewish question, it is undeniable that her entire work was informed by her status and experience as a Jew in the Europe of the early 20th century.
There are many Hannah Arendts and to this effect Jerome Kohn writes in the introduction to her “Jewish Writings”: “In 1975, the year she died, she spoke of a voice that comes from behind the masks she wears to suit the occasions and the various roles that world offers her. That voice is identical to none of the masks, but she hopes it is identifiable, sounding through all of them”.
Something that is identifiable in her entire work – but not identical anywhere, is her concern with the young State of Israel in spite of the controversies into which she became trapped later on.
While it is true that Arendt was very critical of the Zionist establishment and of the course that Israel had taken, it is also important to remember that her writings (“The Crisis of Zionism” and “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East”) were anchored in an intense anxiety over the Jewish people regaining control of their own destinies and entering the realm of politics.
Julia Kristeva expressed this best in her speech upon receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize in 2006, making it clear how for Arendt the survival of Israel and the refoundation of politics in the West was part of one and the same task:
Thirty years after her death, added to the danger she tries to confront through a refoundation of political authority and which, as they get worse, make this refoundation increasingly improbable, is the new threat that weighs on Israel and the world. Arendt had a premonition about it as she warned against underestimating the Arab world and, while giving the State of Israel her unconditional support as the only remedy to the acosmism of the Jewish people, and as a way to return to the “world” and “politics” of which history has deprived, she also voiced criticism.
But Jerome Kohn writes also in the introduction to the Jewish Writings, “Already in 1948 Arendt foresaw what now perhaps has come to pass, that Israel would become a militaristic state behind closed but threatened borders, a “semi-sovereign” state from which Jewish culture would gradually vanish” (paraphrased from her “To Save the Jewish homeland”).
In her piece “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East,” Arendt laid out what is in my opinion a foundation for what could be the ideal of Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East – including even a surprisingly rare background on Arab personalities that had lent support to the possibility of a Jewish settlement from Lebanon and Egypt – but the element of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism that have crystallized now in the Middle East couldn’t be foreseen by Arendt, or at least not to the extent that they were articulated by Kristeva:
Although many of her analyses and advances seem to us more prophetic than ever, Arendt could not foresee the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the havoc it is wreaking in a world faced with the powerlessness of politics to respond, and the apolitia, the indifference created by the omnipresent society of the spectacle.
Hanssen concludes from reading Arendt on totalitarianism, revolution and dissent in the Middle East that “one of the most powerful (in Arendt’s sense of power as consent-based), non-violent movements coming out of the Arab World today is the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments campaign that Palestinian civil society groups have called for in 2005 and has now become a global counter-hegemonic phenomenon” and raises the question whether Hannah Arendt would have supported Palestinian BDS movement to bring about the end of Israeli occupation.
On the one hand he argues that “the intellectual merit of BDS campaign from an Arendtian standpoint is that it is not based on old and invalid hyperbolic equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.” On the other hand, he also says:
There is certainly ample room for this kind of non-violent action in her writings. For one, she supported the economic boycott of German businesses in the 1930’s and was furious when Zionist Organization in Palestine broke it.
Leaving the associations with Nazi Germany asides, it is vital to recall that it was Arendt who said that not even in the moon is one safe from anti-Semitism and that the State of Israel alone wouldn’t come to solve the Jewish question.
It is clear by now that BDS campaign has blended elements no doubt altruistic of non-violent struggle with elements from the old anti-Semitism, in which there’s little distinction made between Israelis and Jews.
BDS has come to include not only boycott to the settlements (as has been articulated with great intelligence by Peter Beinart and his book “The Crisis of Zionism”) but also academic and cultural boycott. In extreme cases, there have been boycotts of products not for being Israeli or produced in the settlements, but merely out of being kosher products produced in Britain and the United States.
While it is more than clear that Arendt saw and foresaw the risks and dangers to which Israel polity was exposed by its leaders, she also articulated with clarity that it wasn’t the Jews alone who were responsible for this sad state of affairs and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s ideal of a binational state is at all realizable at this point – bearing in mind the complexities of Arab Spring – what is clear is that an ideology fed on old anti-Semitism and prejudice as much as on uncritical views of Arab and Palestinian history is very unlikely to produce the Arab-Jewish councils (at the heart of her theorizing on revolutions) upon the basis of which a secular and democratic state might be founded.
What if the meaning of peaceful resistance had to be revisited for the 21st century? Where would you turn to then?
Though examples of civil disobedience, conscientious objectors and peaceful protests are by no means rare nowadays, it is necessary to turn to extraordinary events of the kind that attach new meanings to historical circumstances; the meanings are never new but what remains is the novelty of the event.
Revolution is of course the event par excellence in which history is interrupted and something is begun anew. In the 21st century even though the word revolution is constantly heard, there is no more salient example than the Egyptian revolution.
Inspired by Tunisia, on January 25, 2011 thousands of Egyptians took to the streets and assembled at the now iconic Tahrir Square to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. On February 11 2011 the long-time president departed from office after the Egyptian army took the protesters’ side and apparently helped to complete the revolution.
A slogan – was coined then: “The Army and the People are one hand”. After weeks during which the same army brutalized the demonstrators and killed hundreds of them, the sudden change of heart was welcome and the power vacuum left by the regime was quickly filled by the army, with the promise implied that a transition to civilian rule would happen eventually.
The rest of the story of the Egyptian revolution is now known all over the world: Military trials, virginity tests, NGO raids, constant clashes – often violent – between demonstrators and the security apparatus, massacres, and more than anything a power vacuum that has left the country sliding into a fierce slope of violence and counter-violence, as it was aptly put by Egyptian businessman Hany Ghoraba in his article “Egypt: The Wild Wild East”.
What happened to the Egyptian revolution and to the peaceful protests that in theory overthrew a regime? The question here for political theory (an expression not free from irony) doesn’t have to do necessarily with the particulars of Egypt – the rise of Islamism, the weakness of liberalism and the fact that leftovers of the deposed regime remain intact in office.
One has to ask himself the question whether a revolution is possible nowadays and under which conditions. It is clear by now that the concept of revolution is challenged today by a variety of circumstances that should bring us to examine briefly two aspects of revolution: The distinction between power and violence and the nature of non-violent resistance.
In his reading of Kant, Foucault tells us what it is that Kant considers significant in revolution: “What is significant is the manner in which the Revolution turns into a spectacle, it is the way in which it is received all around by spectators who do not participate in it but who watch it, who attend the show and who, for better or worse, let themselves by dragged along by it.”
This might well lead us to a very basic insight of Hannah Arendt: “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up”. What is then this power that Arendt is trying to grasp? There is almost unanimous agreement among her readers that the distinction between power and violence is the most crucial and yet difficult aspect of her political theory.
Power is the human ability to act not as an individual but in agreement within a group and this power remains alive only for as long as the group is bound together; it can disappear anytime and temporary as it might be, it is the only cure known to the fragility and meaninglessness of human affairs.
Violence is the opposite of power that has been for long glorified as its exact equivalent, turning power into an instrument that needs justification to pursue its own ends but is always at risk of outgrowing the means and remaining at the level of instrument only – means without an end. In her words: “And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything”.
Then we assume that power can become violent and violence but power can never grow out of violence and is in fact destroyed by it. Power – that unmediated action that grows out of common agreement in action between men – is the only thing that can destroy violence and tyranny as it is exemplified in Gandhi, but whatever the reality and success of this non-violent resistance as power is put to test in the modern world often with tragic results.
Arendt is no idealist at this point and she expresses herself with clarity about her reservation on the effectiveness of non-violent resistance after fascism: “In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy –Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England, the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission. However, England in India and France in Algeria had good reasons for their restraint.” Needless to say this has been the outcome of each and every Arab revolution where power hasn’t been enough to defeat violence.
What is required from non-violent resistance to generate the quantity and quality of power that can effectively defeat violence? Here it is obvious that an association with the military and with militarism in general can never be the answer, and while there are no definite answers to draw from tradition or otherwise, there are always singular examples one can meditate on.
On March 28, 2011 an Egyptian blogger, Maikel Nabil, was arrested by the military police and sentenced to three years imprisonment on charges of insulting the military in a long blog post from March 8 2011, titled “The Army and the People Were Never One Hand”.
In his blog, Maikel Nabil provided sound evidence of how activists had been tortured and killed by the army, during and after the revolution and expressed in different words an insight that was already known to Toynbee in his studies of world history: One of the patterns in the breakdown of civilizations is the suicidalness of militarism and its intoxication with victory, out of which periods of freedom have never emerged.
This simple insight proved very dangerous at a time when the power of the people had become a monolithic whole, aptly expressed by Maikel in one fragment written from prison: “Maybe there are many who don’t know the simple distinction between seeking unity and seeking tolerance, but we saw the core difference between the two things and how unity leads to failure while tolerance earns you strength and pushes you to succeed.”
Human action and power – its plural version – can only unfold in plurality and the fact that such was no longer the case attests to the extent to which the suicidalness and intoxication of militarism had already infinitely weakened the power of the revolution. In an entirely un-revolutionary fashion, the sentence delivered on the blogger was celebrated by many and at best met with indifference because of his rather unpopular ideas: Peace with the State of Israel and the end of compulsory military conscription.
Nevertheless, the consensus fostered by militarism and the price paid by the search for unity at the expense of plurality and tolerance was levied on Maikel Nabil not because of a failed analysis but by simple exclusion in a battle of opinions from which truth as a public power – to use the metaphor of Philip Goodchild – was absent; which of course places power in the status of refugee and violence as the supreme ruler.
Arendt insisted that the truths of any age must be always challenged for every generation and it is in this challenge that the power of non-violent struggle resides. It was she who popularized the Austrian adage “there’s no discussion as heated as that on a book no one had read” in reference to the controversy sparked by her book about the Eichmann Trial.
Maikel Nabil wrote from jail that people who supported him should support him for his thoughts and not for his personality because it was his thoughts what put him in jail. It was his thoughts that led him to a hunger strike that lasted over a hundred days. And even after he ultimately was released after a long legal battle of ten months with a clearly illegitimate authority, most of the people who supported him—and those who did not—still don't know much about his thoughts.
Thinking becomes the keyword here: Roger Berkowitz writes of Hannah Arendt that reasoning and thinking are not the same and that thinking for Arendt constitutes a form of action and the basis of all political life and experience – nothing to do with political philosophy or Realpolitik but with our appearance in the world among others.
Thinking and the ability to take responsibility for the consequences of our thoughts is the building block of our ability to appear in the world and as such is the most effective form of resistance under totalitarianism and forms of tyranny in which truth – the material out of which power is made – is absent from the common world.
In an interview of 1974 with Roger Errera, Arendt concluded by saying:
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only a lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but yet get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.
This cynicism is precisely the risk that unthinking unity poses – that thinking, plurality and truth might disappear altogether, and with them power as well. For Arendt, plurality demands the courage for plural individuals to enter the public sphere, which is why courage, she writes, is the first virtue of politics.
Was Maikel Nabil courageous? The answer to this question is obvious but I disagree with Arendt about the political nature of courage as a virtue.
Susan Sontag writes that courage and resistance have no intrinsic value in themselves unless they are coupled with an adjective – for there is amoral courage and resistance too – by means of which it is qualified. The value of courage and resistance depends on the specific content of whatever it is that is being defended. Heroism isn’t what is stake here, for it is something that always comes in hand with tragedy and pathos and it is precisely heroism what the political consequences of thinking mean to dispose of.
Sandra Lehmann writes: “If heroism is to overcome, it can also dispense pathos and vanity. It needs no reward, not even that of great importance and meaning. Probably only heroism without reward is true heroism. It is a matter of the moment and of a far off future.”
What Maikel Nabil was defending was the life of the mind, and in this crusade against those who want to terrorize the life of the mind lies the true nature of non-violent resistance and the potential of every action that might attain revolutionary power – it begins in the solitude of our thoughts one good day and yet, it can unmake the world. All thinking is dangerous.
- Arie Amaya-Akkermans
Independent thinkers are rare. Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers than the radical independence of her thought, her identity as a "conscious pariah," one who eschews all alliances and categories and thinks for herself. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.
So who are the independent thinkers today? Painfully few. But one candidate is Paul Berman, who will be speaking on Alexis de Tocqueville as a guest of the Hannah Arendt Center on Monday, November 14th, at 7 pm (RKC 103).
In the recommended weekend read for this week, we offer an interview of Berman by Alan Johnson, published in Dissent, a journal for which Arendt herself was a contributor. Berman tells of his break with the New Left and of how he found a spur radical independence in the anarchist communities of the period.
The old Anarchists in New York were brave. Anti-Castro on one hand, and opposed to the gangsters in their own unions on the other hand. They were indifferent to the rest of the left – really, to everybody: faithful only to their own judgments and opinions – and I found this really inspiring. I learnt a habit of independence of mind, or I like to think that I did.
Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism is a classic effort to think deeply and philosophically about contemporary political events. Berman sets the 9/11 terrorist attacks within the context of an internal struggle within liberalism, one that is epitomized by Albert Camus. In the rebellion against God, tradition, and order that one witnesses in paradigmatic modern figures like Camus' Rebel and Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov discover that in the name of freedom "everything is possible." This insight that in the name of liberation struggles "everything is possible" is the motto that Hannah Arendt ascribes to the essence of totalitarian movements, movements that will do literally anything and everything in the pursuit of a single and totalizing cause. Thus Berman, very much in the spirit of Arendt, argues that Islamic terrorism behind 9/11 is to be understood as the latest version of a western ideology of rebellion and totalitarianism. In his own words:
At one level I was trying to interpret the events of September 11. At a deeper level I was proposing an interpretation of modern history. And the whole of the interpretation is really contained in the title – there is a dialectic between terror and liberalism. I offer a theory of terror – I draw some aspects of this from Camus – that sees terror as an expression of a larger idea, which can be described as totalitarianism, admittedly a vexed label. Totalitarianism, of which terror is an expression, is a rebellion against liberal civilization and the liberal idea. It is an anti- liberal rebellion which is generated by liberalism itself. Sometimes the rebellion is generated by liberalism’s strengths and sometimes by liberalism’s shortcomings. The rise of liberalism over the last few centuries and the rebellions that have been inspired by that rise can account for the rise of the great totalitarian movements of one sort or another. That’s the theoretical idea expressed in the book. It’s a pretty simple idea, in the end. I don’t think that my simple idea explains everything in the world. But it does explain some things.
Berman's book is well worth a read. But so is this wide-ranging interview. Enjoy. And we hope to see you Monday at his lecture.
Click here to read the interview with Berman.