Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Magnus Carlsen—just 22 years old—beat Viswanathan Anand (the reigning world chess champion) this week at the World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. There has been much excitement about Carlsen’s victory, and not simply because of his youth. As Joe Weisenthal writes, Carlsen’s win signifies the emergence of a new kind of chess. Behind Carlsen’s victories is what is being called his “nettlesomeness.” I encountered the idea in an essay by Joe Weisenthal, who himself quotes Tyler Cowen: “Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.” Read more about nettlesome chess and humanity on the Arendt Center Blog.
Lincoln Caplan has an excellent essay on Judge Learned Hand in the NYRB this weekend. Hand was one of the most influential legal minds in the United States. Here is Caplan: “To Hand, law’s role is to help shape common purpose and reflect the will of the people as part of the compact between them and their government. He was a small “d” democrat. Case by case, he saw his job as weighing competing views of the law and its application to the facts and working his way toward the best outcome in the circumstances. His psyche, outlook, and practice aligned to make him a model of a restrained judge…. “The spirit of liberty,” he said, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded….””
Matthew Davis, in a piece that's part memoir and part profile, describes his relationship with the Syrian writer Khalid Khalifa, who is, even now, still working from Damascus. Although Davis's description of his time in and eventual deportation from Syria is striking, and his worry for his friend is palpable, in his conclusion he suggests something that is too easily forgotten: life, for Khalid and Damascus both, goes on, even as Syria appears to be crumbling. “Ever since the war began in January 2011, I had little doubt that Khaled Khalifa would remain in Syria, in Damascus, his paradise, to help usher in the new ideas he spoke passionately about in Iowa City. More than two years on, however, I wonder whether this ending will change, too. Khaled’s health is failing; he is depressed; he has been barred from leaving the country. I get none of this from him, only those close to him. From him, I get positive emails, an optimism as much at Khaled’s core as his rotund gut and passion for writing. Khaled’s fourth novel was recently published in Cairo. I’ve also heard that Qasabji is still open, Nabil still serving arak and beer, albeit at a higher price.”
Reviews of the movie "Hannah Arendt" have been thinly veiled opportunities to rehash old scores and attach Arendt once more for her reputed sins. That is why David Rieff’s review in The Nation this week is welcome. It offers meaningful praise for the film, with detailed accounts of what Rieff likes, while also offering serious-minded criticisms. From there, Rieff moves on to the question of the controversy itself. Rieff has little love for Arendt or, in the end, “Hannah Arendt.” I may disagree on both accounts, but he is fair-minded. “For entirely understandable and legitimate reasons, both philosophical and (though she almost certainly would have denied it) biographical, Arendt believed that the Shoah was not only the greatest crime in human history (a claim for which an argument can unquestionably be made), but an unprecedented one. The concluding pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem are suffused with her fear that, as she put it, “once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.” For Arendt, Eichmann was nothing less than a new type of criminal, one who “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel he is doing wrong.” But it is not clear that she was right.”
William Weaver, the esteemed translator of Italian works including novels by Umberto Eco, Alberto Moravia, Eugenio Montale, Oriana Fallaci, Ugo Moretti, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Elsa Morante, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Svevo died this past week. “Bill Weaver,” as he was known on campus, taught at Bard from 1992-2002. I never met Weaver, but he looms large in the world of the Hannah Arendt Center. The Center is housed in what we refer to as the “Mary McCarthy House,” because Arendt’s close friend Mary McCarthy lived there during both her stays teaching at Bard College. But most of my senior colleagues still refer to our dwelling as the “Bill Weaver House,” since Weaver lived there for 10 years and hosted many a dinner party there during his time on campus. As Bard’s President Leon Botstein wrote, “His contribution to the literary and cultural life of the College was extraordinary. It is through him that the College received the endowment that created the Bard Fiction Prize.” You can read his obituary in the New York Times, which quotes from this 2000 interview in The Paris Review. “Some of the hardest things to translate into English from Italian are not great big words, such as you find in Eco, but perfectly simple things, buon giorno for instance,” he said. “How to translate that? We don’t say ‘good day,’ except in Australia. It has to be translated ‘good morning,’ or ‘good evening,’ or ‘good afternoon’ or ‘hello.’ “You have to know not only the time of day the scene is taking place, but also in which part of Italy it’s taking place,” he continued, “because in some places they start saying buona sera — ‘good evening’ — at 1 p.m. The minute they get up from the luncheon table it’s evening for them. So someone could say buona sera, but you can’t translate it as ‘good evening’ because the scene is taking place at 3 p.m. You need to know the language, but, even more, the life of the country.”
The movie "Hannah Arendt" has just been released on DVD and features an extensive insert booklet produced by the Hannah Arendt Center!
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Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Gary Shteyngart tries Google's new digital glasses and feels alternately estranged and powerful. Above all, Shteyngart comes to feel the emergence of a new human-technological symbiosis that he explains by referring to "Bloodchild," a science fiction story by Octavia Butler. "The story takes place on a faraway planet dominated by a large insect-like species called the Tlic. The humans who have fled oppression on their own planet live on a so-called Preserve, where their bodies are used as hosts for the Tlic's eggs, culminating in a horrifyingly graphic hatching procedure often resulting in the death of the human host.... Butler wrote that she thought of "Bloodchild" as "a love story between two very different beings." Although their relationship is unequal and often gruesome, Tlic and humans need each other to survive. Today, when I think of our relationship with technology, I cannot help but think of human and Tlic, the latter's insect limbs wrapped around the former's warm-blooded trunk, about to hatch something new."
We know that eyewitness evidence is notoriously unreliable, but confessions are still thought to be meaningful. Wrongly, it seems. Using a case study where a man admitted to a murder two others were already in prison for, Marc Bookman examines the false confessions of the innocent: "People have been admitting to things they haven't done for as long as they've been committing crimes. On the North American continent, prominent examples reach back to 1692 and the Salem witch trials. DNA exonerations over the past 24 years have established not only how error-prone our system of justice is, but how more than a quarter of those wrongly convicted have been inculpated by their own words. Now an entire body of scientific research is devoted to the phenomenon of the false confession."
Turkish photographer Cihad Caner recently traveled to Syria, where he took pictures of Syrians. He then asked his subjects to alter pictures of themselves; writing and drawing on the photos, his collaborators take the last word on the state of their home.
Chris Pomorski profiles Atlantic City, intermixing the narrative of one of the city's recent homicides with a short history of the area. What Pomorski finds is a place that was promised much, and that promises much, but that didn't get, and doesn't give, what it was hoping for.
Charles Hope writes a short history of the art forger: "It is often said that art forgery has existed as long as the demand for works of art, but this is not strictly true. There is no clear evidence that art forgeries as such existed in the ancient world. There were plenty of collectors, but they seem to have found copies just as desirable as originals. Even the presence of a signature was not necessarily taken as an indication that the object in question had been made by that artist. The notion of art forgery, as we understand it today, seems to require the idea that originals possess certain qualities not found even in the best copies. It also requires the presence of an expert with the ability to distinguish between the two; but such expertise does not seem to have existed in antiquity."
The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"
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This week on the blog, Jeff Champlin investigates the relationship between Arendt and Feminist politics. Lance Strate delves into the human condition. Your weekend read looks at the splintering of culture in an intellectual world no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium.
No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.
To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.
The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.
To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.
This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.
Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.
As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.
We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.
As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.
Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.
In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,
happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….
Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.
Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.
In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.
Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.
In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.
“Power is indeed the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the ends it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.” – Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”
The last few weeks have witnessed the return of scenarios of violence to North Lebanon around the city of Tripoli where clashes have disrupted the fragile and tense balance of peace. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising last March, fears mounted that the violence would spread quickly to Lebanon, whose very fragile balance of power is deeply intertwined with the fates of Syria and a complex network of sectarian alliances that spread into Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the West.
It would require an entire encyclopedia of Lebanese politics and history – which by the way, has never been written – to define all the terms necessary to adequately discuss the complex scenarios of postwar Lebanon and the players involved, but suffice it for now to say that the current political system was not only born out of the unresolved sectarian struggle of the civil war but hearkens back to the French edict of 1936 that made it obligatory to declare belonging in one of the religious communities to be eligible for citizenship.
Often it is assumed that conflict in Lebanon is limited to the tripartite division between Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians but the “communities” established by the French aren’t exactly equivalent to the broader sect and the Lebanese constitution (promulgated in 1926) acknowledges 18 different religious communities – though the presence of Jews is almost none – and still, the National Pact (1943) that truly laid the foundations of the Lebanese state was indeed negotiated between Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites.
These three sects – with their respective alliances at home and elsewhere – dominate the political landscape in an overtly complex system of offices, distribution that fails to account for the diversity of the political spectrum within them (at least in the case of Sunnis and Christians) and that was once conceived as an interim measure that remains in place to this very day. Tensions between the different communities and sects can be traced back to the 1860’s when Lebanon was an Ottoman province and remain still unresolved.
Tripoli is an exceptional example of the role that sectarianism plays in Lebanese life: one of the most impoverished and neglected areas with a diverse population of Sunnis, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Alawites. The city has a Sunni majority and sectarian distribution is also geographical; the dividing line between the northeastern neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) along the Syria Street has been the epicenter of gun fighting.
Already in November 2011 Lebanon’s Alawite minority – mostly based around Tripoli – expressed concern over the situation across the Syria-Lebanon border long before the Syrian crisis reached the tipping point in Homs. Syria’s besieged ruler Bashar Al-Assad, belongs also to the Alewite sect, and the long-time Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended only in 2005 with the Cedar Revolution included Sunnis being massacred by the Syrian army in Bab al-Tabbaneh (1986-1987). The course of the Syrian uprising has paved the way for a renewal of old tensions going back to 1970’s.
In June 2011, seven people were killed and over fifty wounded in clashes between the rival neighborhoods following a rally in support of Syrian protesters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, and then in February 2012, clashes erupted again that required the intervention of the often powerless Lebanese army. The situation worsened by May when a Sunni Islamist was arrested, and clashes erupted again between both neighborhoods. The fighting continued on a low scale throughout several days and over a dozen casualties were reported.
In the first days of June clashes erupted once again and with non-existing media coverage (different, for example, from the clashes spread from Tripoli to Beirut around Tareeq Jdeideh, another dividing line between Sunni and Shiite rivalries, even though this time clashes were between two rival Sunni factions, one of them being the Arab Democratic Party, with close ties to Hezbollah and to which many Alawites in Jabal Mohsen belong) citizens from Tripoli reported the clashes as the worst gun fighting since the end of the civil war.
The clashes resulted in at least 14 casualties and extensive material damage, in which civilian life was not only disrupted but there were also reports of non-combatants wounded, and as it was reported by pro-independence site NOW Lebanon, it is unlikely that Tripoli battles will end with the last shot fired. Following from the clashes, Alewite businesses were reportedly torched in the more affluent area of Azmi, closer to downtown, and the calm returned after the army intervened – with a spectacular delay – to impose a fragile and tense ceasefire.
The particulars of the unrest in Lebanon are too intricate to discuss here, but Emile Hokayem has provided all the historical background in his Foreign Policy piece “Lebanon’s Little Syria” , and Lebanese blogger Mustapha M. Hamoui has written an extensive analysis on what the arrest in May of a Sunni Islamist tells us about Tripoli, the state of affairs in Lebanese politics, and wider effect of the Arab Spring in Lebanon in his “A Phone Call That Shook a Nation”. Now, with all this in mind, we should turn our attention to some ideas on power and violence and the specific case of Lebanon.
In "On Violence", Hannah Arendt established a crucial distinction between power and violence, and though her definition of violence itself comes only via negativa – by what it is not, she articulates a very clear notion of power as distinguished from force and strength. Whatever it is that we understand nowadays as power is the rough equivalent of force, that is, the uncontrollable forces of nature, and has little to do with power as a function of human relations: power as the ability to act in concert with others.
The meaningful distinctions between power, strength, force, violence, and authority have somehow evaporated in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and have been made roughly identical with each other. The emphasis of the shift from power to force implies the operation of natural forces that render human capacity for decision irrelevant ,and the shift from force to strength confuses the irreparability of the natural cycle with a trait of character or personal quality. Conversely, authority is not power or strength or force, but specific sources of power.
Violence, on the other hand, bears an extremely complex relationship to action rather than to above described elements of government – as distinguished from politics and as such, from human plurality – and here action is roughly identified with the human capacity to begin something anew, as if miraculously. According to Arendt: “Neither violence nor power is a natural phenomenon, that is, a manifestation of the life process; they belong to the political realm of human affairs whose essentially human quality is guaranteed by man’s faculty of action, the ability to begin something new”.
It should be said however, that violence cannot be disqualified as a form of action – and in this regard, the Arendtian canon and legacy is very ambiguous – and there is such a thing as violent action, but it is a tautology to speak of non-violent power: “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”
Lebanon’s relationship to both power and violence – which is nowhere better exemplified than in Tripoli’s violent history – emerged as it is, in jeopardy of power and excess of violence: born out of confessionalism and as a buffer zone of regional conflict in which every confessional faction sought to enter deals with players abroad to protect sectarian interests, the idea of power has been infinitely weakened as a birth defect. These particular aspects of Lebanese modern history have been discussed by former minister Charbel Nahas in his lecture “Liban: L’état tampon entre confessionnalisme, disorientation et dissension sociale” held on May 25th in Paris.
The criteria of religious affiliation have impaired participative democracy through a system in which the absence of violence is understood as an achievement in unity, but the immediate absence of violence – as exemplified by the National Pact in 1943 and the Taif Agreements in 1989 – does not immediately translate into consent to act (power) but simply into non-aggression.
The raison d’être of politics – and this is in a nutshell, all of Hannah Arendt – is freedom and not sovereignty, that I understand - particularly in the political philosophy of Fichte -as bearing a relationship to freedom based on free will and not on action. Accordingly, for as long as the terms of the debate are framed exclusively by territoriality – the sectarian geography of Lebanon comes to mind again – and the acceptable tension between national sovereignties (which in Lebanon means sect sovereignties and is far from any concept of federalism), the vacuum of power will remain. Consequently, every time that the terms for negotiation need to be laid, violence will be the only way to settle them.
In the absence of power, the government is permanently impaired to make political decisions – regardless of the coalition, whether March 8 or March 14 – and the powers of the state will continue to be handed to regional warlords, without whose consent, the army will remain forever incapable of restoring security, and the idea of national unity will be always preceded by a confessional affiliation within an abstract figure of power whose pillars are everywhere but in Lebanon.
Power is a terrible and incalculable force, whereas violence is predictable and calculable, and that is why power grows in between men, while violence is possessed by one man alone – even if the many act upon it, it is still possessed individually – and cannot be the foundation of politics because it is a means to something else that ultimately becomes identical with the means it utilizes.
Violence cannot be overcome through force or violence, because both are incapable of spontaneity – the hallmark of human action and plurality – and for as long as power will remain absent from the political, weapons will always set the terms of negotiations for Tripoli. It cannot be denied that violence is a form of action and a very human one at that, but the writing on the wall is crystal clear in Hannah Arendt’s writings: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”
There is probably no question more debated in the course of Middle Eastern uprisings than that of the status of human rights. Anyone familiar with the region knows that the status of human rights in the Middle East is at best obscure. The question of why there was not a “revolution” in Lebanon is a very complex one, tied with the fate of Syria and with the turbulent Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war, and hence cannot be fully answered. In a vague sense it can be said of course that Lebanon is the freest Arab country and that as such it bears a distinctively different character.
While at face value, the statement is true, being “more free than” in the Middle East is simply understating a problem. Just to outline the basic issues, Lebanon’s record on human rights has been a matter of concern for international watchdogs on the following counts:
Security forces arbitrarily detain and torture political opponents and dissidents without charge, different groups (political, criminal, terrorist and often a combination of the three) intimidate civilians throughout the country in which the presence of the state is at best weak, freedom of speech and press is severely limited by the government, Palestinian refugees are systematically discriminated and homosexual intercourse is still considered a crime.
While these issues remain at the level of the state, in society a number of other issues are prominent: Abuse of domestic workers, racism (for example excluding people from color and maids from the beaches) violence against women and homophobia that even included recently a homophobic rant on a newspaper of the prestigious American University in Beirut. The list could go on forever.
The question of gay rights in Lebanon remains somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits explicitly homosexual intercourse since it “contradicts the laws of nature”, and makes it punishable with prison. On the other hand, Beirut – and Lebanon – remains against all odds a safe haven, for centuries, for many people in the Middle East fleeing persecution or looking for a more tolerant lifestyle.
That of course includes gays and lesbians and it is not uncommon to hear of gay parties held from time to time in Beirut’s celebrated clubs. At the same time, enforcement of the law is sporadic and like everything in Lebanon, it might happen and it might not; best is to read the horoscope in the morning and pray for good luck. A few NGO pro-LGBT have been created in the country since the inception of “Hurriyyat Khassa” (Private Liberties) in 2002.
In 2009 Lebanese LGBT-organization Helem launched a ground-breaking report about the legal status of homosexuals in the entire region, in which a Lebanese judge ruled against the use of article 534 to prosecute homosexuals.
It is against the background of this turbulent scenario that Samer Daboul’s film “Out Loud” (2011) came to life, putting together an unusual tale about friendship and love set in postwar Lebanon in which five friends and a girl set on a perilous journey in order to find their place in the world.
Though the plot of the film seems simple, underneath the surface lurks a challenge to the traditional morals and taboos of Lebanese society – homosexuality, the role of women, the troubled past of the war, delinquency, crime, honor – which for Lebanese cinema, on the other hand, marks a turning point.
This wouldn’t be so important in addressing the question of rights and freedoms in Lebanon were it not for a documentary, “Out Loud – The Documentary”, released together with the film that documents in detail the ordeal through which the director, actors and crew had to go through in order to complete this film.
Shot in Zahlé, in mountainous heartland of Lebanon and what the director called “a city and a nation of conservatism and intolerance”, it is widely reported in the documentary that from the very beginning the cast and crew were met with the same angry mobs, insults, and physical injuries that their film in itself so vehemently tried to overcome; a commercial film about family violence, gay lovers, and the boundaries of relationships between men and women. A film not about Lebanon fifteen or twenty years ago, but about Lebanon of here and today.
Daboul writes: “Although I grew up in the city in which “Out Loud” was filmed, even I had no idea how difficult it would be to make a movie in a nation plagued by violence, racism, sexism, corruption and a lack of respect for art and human rights.” The purpose of “Out Loud” of course wasn’t only to make a movie but a school of life, in which the maker, the actors and the audience could all have a peaceful chance to re-examine their own history and future.
Until very recently in lieu of a public space, in Lebanon, any conflict was solved by means of shooting, kidnapping and blackmailing by armed militias spread throughout the country and acting in the name of the nation.
The wounds have been very slow to heal as is no doubt visible from the contemporary political panorama. Recently, a conversation with an addiction counselor in Beirut revealed the alarming statistics of youth mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction across all social classes in Lebanon, to which I will devote a different article.
Making films in Lebanon is an arduous process that not only does not receive support from the state but is also subject to an enormous censorship bureaucracy that wants to make sure that the content of the films do not run counter to the religious and political sensibilities of the state. In the absence of strong state powers, the regulations are often malleable and rather look after the sensibilities of political blocs and religious leaders rather than state security, if any such exists.
The whole idea of censorship of ideas is intimately intertwined with the reality of freedom and rights and with the severe limitations – both physical and intellectual – placed upon the public space.
In the Middle East, censorship of a gay relationship is an established practice in order to protect public morality; however what we hear on the news daily that goes from theft to murder to kidnap to abuse to rape to racism, does not require much censorship and is usually consumed by the very same public.
If there is one thing here that one can learn from Hannah Arendt about freedom of speech is that as Roger Berkowitz writes in “Hannah Arendt and Human Rights”:
The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”
Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act –to be effectual and meaningful in a public world – that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.
While these ideas might seem oversimplified and rather vague in a region “thirsty” for politics, they establish a number of crucial distinctions that must be taken into account in any discussion about human rights. Namely:
1) The failure of human rights is a fundamental fact of the modern age
2) There is a distinction between civil rights and human rights, the latter being what people resort to when the former have failed them
3) It is the fact that we appear in public and speak our minds to our fellowmen that ensures that we live our lives in a plurality of opinions and perspectives and the ultimate indicator of a life being lived with dignity.
Even if we have a “right” to a house, to an education and to a citizenship (that is, belonging to a community) if we do not have the right to speak and act in public and express ourselves (as homosexual, woman, dissident and what not) we are not being permitted to become fully human. Regardless of the stability of political institutions, provision of basic needs and security, there is no such a thing as a human world – a human community – in the absence of the possibility of appearing in the world as what we truly are.
“Out Loud” – both the film and the documentary – are a testimony of the degree to which the many elements composing the multi-layered landscape of Lebanese society are at a tremendous risk of worldlessness by being subject to an authority that relies on violence in lieu of power. Power and violence couldn’t be any more opposite.
Hannah Arendt writes in her journals:
Violence is measurable and calculable and, on the other hand, power is imponderable and incalculable. This is what makes power such a terrible force, but it is there precisely that its eminently human character lies. Power always grows in between men, whereas violence can be possessed by one man alone. If power is seized, power itself is destroyed and only violence is left.
It is always the case in dark times that peoples – and also the intellectuals among them – put their entire faith in politics to solve the conflicts that emerge in the absence of plurality and of the right to have rights, but nothing could be more mistaken. Politics cannot save, cannot redeem, cannot change the world. Just like the human community, it is something entirely contingent, fragile and temporary.
That is why no decisions made on the level of government and policies are a replacement for the spontaneity of human action and appearance. It is here that the immense worth of “Out Loud” lies; in enabling a generation that is no longer afraid of hell – for whatever reason – to have a conversation, and it is there where the rehabilitation of the public space is at stake and not in building empty parks to museumficate a troubled past, as has been often the case in Beirut. In an open conversation, people will continue contesting the legacy and appropriating the memory not as a distant past, but as their own.
The case of Lebanon remains precarious: Lebanon’s clergy has recently united in a call for more censorship; and today it was revealed that the security services summon people for interrogation over what they have posted on their Facebook accounts; HRW condemned the performance of homosexuality tests on detainees in Lebanon, even though this sparked a debate and a discussion on the topic ensued at the seminar “Test of Shame” held at Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and the Lebanese Medical Society held a discussion in which they concluded those tests are of no scientific value.
In a country like Lebanon, plagued by decades of war and violence, as Samer Daboul has said in his film, people are more than often engaged at survival and just at that – surviving from one war to another, from one ruler to another, from one abuse to another, and as such, the responses of society to the challenges of the times are of an entirely secondary order. But what he has done in his films is what we, those who still have a little faith in Lebanon, should have as a principle: “It’s time to live. Not to survive”.
We are witness to more handwringing today from the international community over Syria. Something must be done to respond to the tragedy unfolding in slow motion. And yet, unwilling to act outside the rubric of humanitarianism, the international community is paralyzed. What the rebels in Syria want is not humanitarian aid, but weapons so that they can fight, defend themselves, and bring about a revolution. But that is what the international community will not give them.
The NY Times reports today that the "Friends of Syria" met in Istanbul over the weekend to debate whether they might, under the rubric of humanitarian aid, send $100 Million to the Syrian rebels to pay their soldiers and offer communications equipment. Weapons are off the table because Russia and China have limited UN action to solely humanitarian assistance.
Even such tepid help as money and communications assistance is not yet agreed to, since aid beyond bandages and food is understood as political, not humanitarian.
There remains no agreement on arming the rebels, as countries like Saudi Arabia and some members of Congress have called for, largely because of the uncertainty regarding who exactly would receive the arms.
The assistance to the rebel fighters as Mr. Assad’s loyalists press on with a brutal crackdown could worsen a conflict that has already led to at least 9,000 deaths and is increasingly showing signs of descending into a sectarian civil war. Some say that enabling the uprising to succeed is now the best bet to end the instability and carnage sooner.
In Syria, such hand wringing is a non-event. The Syrian rebels have ignored the conference in Istanbul. One Syrian activist blasted that the absence of promises of arms far overshadowed the financial and communications aid: “I’m the only one who watched this conference in our neighborhood, because there was no electricity and people don’t care,” he said. “I only watched it because Al Jazeera wanted my comment.”
The revolutionaries opposing Butcher Assad in Syria are inspirational—at least those who have been opposing him for nearly a year now at grave risk to themselves. As I have written before, we should feel gratitude to them for showing us what it means to fight and stand up for and suffer for what they believe in. The rhetoric of humanitarianism clouds this issue and calls for medicine and bandages, or tries, as the Conference in Istanbul last weekend, to extend humanitarianism to communications equipment. But if the revolutionaries deserve our support, we should arm them and let them fight the battle they believe in. If not, or if the situation is too confusing, we should stand back. But this is a political question, not a humanitarian one.
Hannah Arendt was always careful to insist that life is not the most important human right. The core right of humanity is to speak and act in public, which Arendt also called The Right to Have Rights. The Right to Have Rights includes the right to resist and even to die for one's beliefs. To do so is human, and is not senseless, especially when one is then remembered for bravery and heroism. Indeed, human life can often have more meaning in martyrdom then in a comfortable life. Whatever else one can say about Syria, it is the case that people fighting and struggling there are being seen and heard both in Syria and around the world.
The revolutionaries in Syria have shown their bravery, courage, and dedication. They are fighting for freedom, even if different groups understand that in dangerously various ways. After one year, however, they have earned our respect. For that, we should be grateful for their example and awed by their sacrifices. We should also have the courage of our convictions and give them the arms and means to carry on their struggle themselves.
The most exciting aspect of Occupy Wall Street was seeing Americans—young and old, white and black, Jew and Muslim—coming together in public spaces to talk about matters of public importance. The most disheartening failure of Occupy Wall Street was how quickly those conversations turned to navel gazing. Instead of aiming to lead, to take on responsibility, and to honestly and courageously work to impact the public world around them, the protesters (and that is what they are, at least to date, rather than revolutionaries) satisfied themselves with talking to like-minded people about their dreams and hopes. Occupy Wall Street fizzled because the passions and happiness at making a difference gave way to the solipsistic self-pleasuring of those speaking to themselves, and those like them.
Consider, as an alternative, the villagers of Wukan, China. In September of 2011, the village government sold town land to real-estate developers. Such deals are reportedly common in China, since China repealed local agricultural taxes in 2006. To raise money to run local governments, Chinese local officials are increasingly selling farmland to developers. According to Michael Young, "the local government compensates the farmers with a minimum amount of money and then is paid 50 times more by the developer." According to Young, "60 to 70 percent of local government income comes from selling land to developers." The land sales "enrich officials" and also contribute to economic growth of China.
The land sales have generated huge resentment throughout China, and for a while Wukan was no different. In 2009 villages petitioned and protested the sale of 67 acres of land to a Hong Kong developer. In September of 2011, another protest erupted, but this time serious clashes only intensified the protests. Eventually new villagers were elected to the village government. One of these, Xue Jinbo, was then arrested and died in custody, amidst rumors of torture and mistreatment. The resulting uproar led to something unheard of in China: A free and democratic village election with secret ballots.
On February 11, 2012, over 6,000 of the Wukan's 8,000 residents filled out "pink ballots in rows of plywood booths that ensured their choices would remain secret, then dropped them in big steel boxes sealed with tamper-proof stickers.
Officials tallied the votes in the schoolyard as residents looked on." According to The New York Times report,
It was the first truly democratic vote here in decades, if not ever, and something of a landmark of transparency in China's opaque politics. By the time it ended, the very men who had led Wukan's struggle against an entrenched village autocracy had been chosen as its new leaders.
Even as the Times article reports on the amazing victory in Wukan and the optimism it has spawned, the narrative of the article questions whether anything will change. The corruption underlying the land sales is deep and "reaches into layers of higher governments." The new leaders of Wukan have received threats. Other similar attempts at protests in China have lately been suppressed: "this month in Zhejiang province, north of Guangdong, officials suppressed a Wukan-style land protest in Panhe by systematically rounding up protest leaders and sealing their village off from journalists." The Times quotes Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing scholar, who argues: "Reform in China doesn't start in places like Wukan. It starts at the top and soaks downward."
I am not an expert in Chinese politics. But dismissals of the Wukan revolution—and that is what happened in Wukan—do seem to ignore the incredible and seemingly impossible victories of the people there.
So what, we must ask, has changed in China? How does the people's occupation and revolution in Wukan compare to the Occupy Wall Street movement here?
Whether or not the people of Wukan get their land back, they have tasted what Hannah Arendt calls public freedom. Like OWS, the people of Wukan experienced the joy of collective action in public. In both cases, they did not simply protest. They also created councils and general assemblies and thus built organizations in which people could act together in public. But there is where the similarities end.
In Wukan, the people did not only occupy parks. They came together and created a new power in society and used that power to take over their government.
Leaders emerged, who channeled the spirit of protest into demands not only for redress of their land claims but for an openness and participation in government. What Wukan shows, in other words, is a new model for revolutionary politics in China—a path towards the creation of local power centers built upon the consensus of individual villagers.
I have no doubt that China can, if it wants, violently suppress these concretions of people power. As Syria is showing now, unrelenting violence can overcome power. And yet, to employ such violence risks destroying the power of the state itself, which is always based upon the consensus of the people. More likely, the revolution in Wukan is an example of the way that people in China are, in steps big and small, demanding the control of their political fate.
What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words,
They knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else.
Arendt was always alive to this sense of "public happiness" which she distinguished from the economic and social needs that comprised being well fed and comfortable. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions." It was this passion to be involved, to be seen and heard in matters of public importance, and to distinguish oneself before one's peers that Arendt points to as central to the experience of freedom in America.
The promise of Occupy Wall Street was not simply that it would bring about economic equality or other specific results. It was that it returned citizens to the public square to engage again in the public life of the nation. Its failure, at least to date, is that its activists refused to take seriously the responsibility and need to speak and act not only in public, but also for the public.
By avoiding taking stands, by eschewing leadership, by insisting on appealing to everybody, by seeking to offend no one, and by holding themselves above and outside of politics, the movement became consumed by itself, inward looking, and, ultimately, apolitical. The joy of OWS did not translate, as did the joy of the collective action in Wukan, into political power. If we are to rejuvenate our political culture, it is better to look to the revolutionaries in Wukan than the protesters in Zuccotti Park. Or rather, maybe the OWS movement needs to pay attention to Wukan, and think about how to transform its power, joy, and public engagement into political channels.
See the NY Times Slideshow of the Voting in Wukan, here.
Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and author of Human Rights as Politics and Idolotry, has an essay out calling for intervention in Syria. We should all, he writes, feel shame for abandoning the opposition.
The fighters in Homs are holding out now because utter desperation puts them beyond fear. Watching them fight on, we have reason to be ashamed if we think the only thing we can do is send them bandages. More
Ignatieff's is the attitude of the savior from afar. Yes, we should be ashamed, but for very different reasons.
Instead of shame at our abandoning of the Syrians, we should feel gratitude to them for showing us what it means to fight and stand up for and suffer for what they believe in. We should be ashamed less for abandoning the Syrians in Homs than for not heeding their example, for feeling defeated by a corrupt political system, for apathy in the face of a bankrupt political culture, and for not taking responsibility and acting to change our world.
Hannah Arendt was always careful to insist that life is not the most important human right. The core right of humanity is to speak and act in public, which Arendt also called The Right to Have Rights. The Right to Have Rights includes the right to resist and even to die for one's beliefs. To do so is human, and is not senseless, especially when one is then remembered for bravery and heroism. Indeed, human life can often have more meaning in martyrdom then in a comfortable life. Whatever else one can say about Syria, it is the case that people fighting and struggling there are being seen and heard both in Syria and around the world. For that, we should be grateful, awed, and respectful.
That respect may lead some to aid them in words, money, or action. I agree and am not opposed to some of the prescriptions Ignatieff suggests. But let's begin with respect for their incredible courage and willingness to act. We might be able to help the Syrians, but we may have more to learn from them.
Click here to read more about Arendt and Human Rights.
The Constitutional Council, France’s highest court, will soon issue a ruling with significant implications for how we think about free speech, violence, and collective memory. The ruling, due by the end of February, will determine whether French lawmakers can criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Legislation to this effect passed the French National Assembly in December 2011 and the Senate just last month, but the Council agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the provision after inquiries from dozens of parliamentarians. President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated that he will sign the bill into law if and when it reaches his desk, but he cannot do so until the court announces its decision. The geopolitical implications of this ruling are potentially far-reaching, for it may decisively shape Turkey’s relationship with the European Union and other states in the Middle East. But the ruling’s cultural and philosophical ramifications are significant as well, for they raise important questions about public discourse and collective memory not simply within but also across national boundaries.
The bill that would criminalize Armenian genocide denial was introduced in the National Assembly by Valérie Boyer, a parliamentarian from Marseilles who is affiliated, like Sarkozy, with the center-right Union for a Popular Movement. It would require a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 Euros (approximately $59,000) for “those who have praised, denied, or roughly and publicly downplayed genocidal crimes, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.” Significantly, the legislation does not specifically mention the mass killings of Armenians, but the only other instance of genocide recognized by the French government is the Holocaust, and its denial is already defined as a criminal act under another law. Despite the bill’s generic formulation, then, its effective point of reference is rather targeted.
Members of the French opposition have charged that the bill constitutes a cynical effort to curry favor with the country’s sizable Armenian population in advance of this spring’s presidential elections. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, meanwhile, has opposed the legislation because he believes it will hinder efforts to maintain Turkish cooperation on urgent matters of state, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the ongoing government crackdown in Syria.
But the bill’s proponents deny that they have any ulterior motives in either the national or international arena: Boyer insists that genocide is a general human concern that stands “over and above politics,” while Sarkozy asserts that the bill is in “no way aimed at any state or people in particular.” In this respect, the legislation and its overt rationale are consistent with an important strand of the French republican tradition, one that equates the nation and polity with a commitment to universal principles.
Given the state’s ideological position, it should come as no surprise that Turkish responses to the legislation have been hostile. The national government, led by the center-right Justice and Development Party, has suspended many of Turkey’s diplomatic, economic, and military relations with France, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dismissed the bill as an instance of “evident discrimination, racism, and massacre of free speech.” In addition, Erdoğan has accused France of its own unacknowledged genocide during the era of colonial rule in Algeria, while other lawmakers have insisted that France has failed to confront its unseemly role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Far from regarding the legislation as a universalist condemnation of genocide and genocide denial, then, Turkish state officials have treated it as a direct attack on their national self-regard, and they have been quick to accuse the French government of a pernicious double standard: Sarkozy and his colleagues want Turkey to reckon with its burdened past when France has not scrutinized its own violent (post)colonial history.
On the one hand, I sympathize with the bill’s impulse to engage with past instances of violence. Remembrance of traumatic pasts is not a zero-sum game: attention to one instance of collective violence, such as the murder, deportation, and starvation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, does not prevent or preclude attention to others, such as the assault, torture, and killing that accompanied French colonial domination in Algeria. In fact, as Michael Rothberg suggests, the remembrance of past violence across national and/or imperial contexts “has the potential to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice.”
On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the premise that certain forms of public discourse, even those associated with the denial of genocide, should be prohibited by law. I am too committed to liberal thinking to believe that this kind of restriction on free public speech is acceptable, and I have my doubts that it will actually encourage a reasoned understanding—and condemnation—of collective violence in the past, present, and future.
In particular, I am very concerned that this legislation, if it indeed becomes law, will have a chilling effect on ongoing discussion and debate in Turkey.
Turkish state and public institutions have grown a bit more receptive to Kurdish grievances over the past decade, and in November 2011 Prime Minister Erdoğan took the remarkable step of apologizing for army and air force attacks that killed nearly 14,000 Kurds in Dersim (now known as Tunceli) from 1936 to 1939. To be sure, Erdoğan issued this apology as police and military personnel were detaining hundreds if not thousands of Kurdish activists in the state’s renewed counterinsurgency campaign. But we should not neglect the fact that such a pronouncement would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. How ready will Erdoğan’s government be to acknowledge other elements of Turkey’s fraught past if France criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide? Not very, I suspect.
In the end, then, I support concerted public engagement with the nature and extent of the Armenian genocide in France, Turkey, and elsewhere. Precisely for this reason, however, I also oppose the criminalization of Armenian genocide denial.
For more discussion of the transnational politics of memory, I highly recommend Michael Rothberg’s book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009).
- Jeff Jurgens