Political Protest, Social Change and Bare Breasts

(Inspired by a recent conversation with Nina Mankin and Tatiane Feres)

 

In the midst of the Femen-inspired current where women and girls in North Africa (Egypt and now Tunisia) pose naked in the name of freedom from societal oppression and patriarchy, I feel compelled to make a few remarks. I am aware that this is an extremely sensitive and emotional topic for everyone and I am keen not to be misunderstood. Therefore I will very carefully specify what I think the issues are.

 

  1. There is no doubt that there is societal prejudice against and relatively excessive control of the behaviour of women in Egypt and, I assume, in Tunisia.
  2. This is consciously problematic for some (and not all) women. This is an important point because many women will vehemently deny that they are under any oppression – which brings us to point 3.
  3. This control is society-wide in the sense that it is not just the prerogative of men, but also of women who believe that their place is defined by the space men have created for them.
  4. Some women and some men strongly believe that something should be done about this.
  5. Aliaa el-Mahdy and (more recently) Amina believed they were doing something about this by posing naked (Amina had the slogan ‘my body is mine and not the source of anyone’s honour’ written on her chest- see the photo attached). They believe they are challenging patriarchy and social/moral norms.
  6. There is no doubt that such actions, by definition, constitute a challenge to patriarchy and norms, but are they addressing women’s broader problems of achieving equal rights and recognition in these societies?
  7. One answer is yes: through being subversive you launch debate and discussion on those issues, issues which otherwise remain dormant.
  8. An alternative answer would be that such actions are counter-productive since in being so radical they will cause serious offence in those communities, and people will not see beyond the offence and grasp the message conveyed by this subversive act.
  9. There is truth in both answers. In the case of Egypt some felt that what Aliaa el-Mahdy did will be pivotal for women’s liberation movements, while some women activists felt it was counterproductive as it tainted women civil rights movement in the eyes of a conservative society waiting for any chance to accuse such movements of immorality.
  10. Again there might be some truth in both claims.
  11. So I don’t particularly feel I can confidently say such actions are productive or not, as this really will depend on the nature of the goal you want such actions to achieve. If you want to shock, and you perceive some long-term value in shock – through introducing new elements into collective consciousness for example – then they are productive. If you are concerned with slow, gradual, social change then you will perceive such actions as counterproductive, if not downright harmful to the cause.
  12. Both points of view have something going for them. I am left, then, with the message conveyed by women who bare nude in protest. This message at the core of it is quite simple: My body belongs to me.
  13. The simplicity of this message is what makes it so powerful and divisive.
  14. Basically you can either agree with this message or reject it. This is the source of the perennial misunderstanding between those with a religious outlook and those without, or between the majority of Egyptians, say, and the majority of North Europeans in relation to the question of the meaning of acts of nudity (excuse my generalisation but the point is to identify two positions rather than groups).
  15. The first position (P1) rejects this statement as false: your body does not belong to you, there are so many other caretakers such as God and Society.
  16. The second position (P2) finds this hugely insulting and demeaning. My body is mine, it’s the most ‘mine’ of all things, like my private thoughts. No one has any claim on my body.
  17. And so for P2, those who adhere to P1 appear to disrespect individuality at its most basic – the notion that you have sole autonomy over your body. This disrespect is further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Arabs/Muslims/etc) are backward and belong to the dark-ages.
  18. Alternatively, for P1, those who adhere to P2 represent the worst excesses of individualism: unhinging the body from the sphere of morality as a meaningless physical substance. This may be further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Europeans/Westerners/etc) are mired in immorality and disgusting in the way they have forsaken God.
  19. And so there is a stalemate and we can all part without an ounce of shared understanding and with both sets of prejudices confirmed. Great. Just another day of life as we know it.
  20. But there is a solution. And as with all good solutions it involves some kind of synthesis of P1 and P2, as both contain some truths, and the challenge is to articulate this synthesis .. to be continued ..

 

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The Gradual Isolation of Israel and the Inevitable Move of Israeli Voters to the Extreme Right

For those who have been following the news, you must have noticed a relatively new tide in international politics: Barring the USA (and a handful of other geopolitically insignificant countries) there is a real tide of international opinion that is increasingly critical of Israel’s colonialist policies, actions and general violence in the West Bank and Gaza. The most recent evidence for this are two overwhelming votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations. In the first (29 Nov 2012), Palestine was given ‘observer member status’; only nine countries voted against: Israel, the USA, Canada, Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. The second resolution (4 Dec 2012) ordered Israel to open up its nuclear facilities for inspection; only six countries voted against – the usual suspects: Israel, the USA, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

In addition to this, two days ago several key European countries – Germany, England, Spain – and many others threatened to withdraw their ambassadors – a serious diplomatic move – after Israel began constructing settlements on occupied land in the West Bank. In particular, there was outrage at plans to build on an area called E1, which would separate East Jerusalem (universally agreed upon as the capital of the future Palestinian State) from the West Bank. This move was seen as retaliation for Palestine’s symbolic move at the United Nations.

How will Israel respond to this tide of international condemnation and support of the Palestinian cause? Israel, for a few years now, has been moving steadily to the right. For example, Liberman, a far right politician who only recently would not have dreamed of it, is now in main-stream politics. The Israeli people are voting for more extreme and right wing governments who engage in war and extend the occupation. It is fair to say that the average Israeli voter is experiencing a state of paranoia. Israeli voters who go for the Netenyahu/ Liberman coalition and shun right-of-centre and centrist parties believe that the whole world is against them and that they need to bring in war-mongers like Netenyahu and Liberman to save Israel. The problem is that the actions of these politicians is only turning international opinion against Israel and making it lose support. In response to this, in response to international isolation, the Israeli voters will become even more paranoid and insular, imagining a threat at every corner and feeling that the whole world is against them. The logical conclusion to this will be an extreme right government that wages active war against its neighbours. This is not farfetched: we have seen Netenyahu’s warmongering about Iran. If the Israeli government wages war on its neighbours to appease its paranoid and insular Israeli voters then a broader middle-east war will no doubt be set in motion. At that point the Israeli psyche will be deeply paranoid and the Israeli populace isolated (with only America and perhaps Micronesia and Canada for support), to the extent that the voices of reason within Israel will be completely lost, even if now they are not heard.

This broader middle-east war will result in tens of thousands of death, if not more, and will lead to a true re-ordering of geopolitics in the region, including the very definition and structure of Israel and Palestine. Then, maybe, just maybe, we will finally see a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem.

THE DOGMA IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE DOGMA!

Ideas, like their bearers, pass through several stages unto death. They start life as solutions to practical problems and, if they endure, sediment as inviolable truths about the world. These truths may take on an ethical significance and the ideas become binding moral imperatives. Ideas are born pragmatic, their coming-of-age is positivist, and their maturity lies in a mysteriously compelling normativity. Perpetually and surely, ideas progress towards death, a death that we call ‘reality’. We do not allow ideas to die, we resurrect them by keeping them part of that most concrete of things: reality, the archaeological sediment of centuries of ideas; what our great relatives and their ancestors have thought up to control the world and each other. An idea is most relevant and immediate when it is born, when it still has an intimate relationship to the practical circumstances it arose to address. In time, the material and social conditions change and ideas must change with them. But many ideas persist and we, seemingly oblivious to their death, allow them to remain in our cognition much like mummified relics or, in a word, dogma.

*

To be free of dogma is to realise when an idea has died. Dogma is death, the death of ideas. For an idea only rises to the status of dogma when it presents itself as that which it is not: as ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ or the ‘good’ as opposed to that which it was: a solution to a problem somewhere in the past, a problem that no longer exists but for which the idea continues to present a ‘solution’. Dogma recreates the original problem, in order to present itself as the only solution.

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Religion in the 21st century is pure dogma. The ideas that constitute organised, prescriptive, a-spiritual religion have served their purpose. Religion has nothing to offer but a limitation on thought and a constraint on morality. It tells us what we cannot think; it delineates the limits of thought. Religion tells us what we should do in a world that is different to the one where its precepts were first formulated. A sceptic questions a grand ideology that purports to explain everything without ever doubting itself. Religious dogma tells us that a woman’s body is sinful, it needs to be hidden and covered, and this is presented to us as an entirely natural and self-evident truth; a real and genuine problem. Religious dogma recreates a problem – the woman’s body – in order to offer a solution: a host of limitations on women’s freedom. And it doesn’t matter if women endorse the dogma willingly or if they believe that by covering themselves they will go to heaven. It doesn’t matter because they too are allowing the dead ideas of religion to persist among us: they too are guilty of this perpetual resurrection.

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Scepticism is the mirror that confronts the idea with the image of its own death. Scepticism frees us of dogma, and allows us to align ideas with the social and material world surrounding us.  A sceptic questions the basis of an idea, its raison d’être. A sceptic is not scared by an idea’s claim to truth or goodness; he can see beyond this, he can see that it is dead: a sediment.

*

For many decades now and we have had the foundations to live without an eternal guarantor. Unlike Descartes for whom the world was unimaginable, unthinkable without a mighty Agent overseeing its Truth. We no longer need God. It is not that we have, necessarily, ceased to believe in Him (even if some of us think admitting this is crucial), nor that we feel compelled to prove His non-existence – as atheists are inclined to do, no: we just no longer need him; much like a toddler no longer needs a walking-brace once his legs can carry him. We can tolerate a sense of ‘fundamental insecurity’, we can tolerate ‘existential angst’ – in short, we can tolerate life without God. And none of this is new: this is the legacy of the enlightenment, and has been with us, with a particular laity that is, for centuries. It is no longer unusual – let alone heroic – to forsake God.

*

Throughout the enlightenment, the idea that religion is a necessary condition of meaning-fullness gradually declined, and a slowly emerging humanism began to fill its place. This was not easy. Descartes, the first of the modern, radical sceptics, went as far as the cogito. But he ended up preserving God, the guarantor against falsehood and the protector from nihilism. Nietzsche’s madman roamed the streets declaring the death of God, only for the philosopher himself to die, in the most ironic of predicaments, in the midst of syphilitic insanity. In time, the conditions for a genuine secularity were laid down and human beings were able to seek fullness and meaning without the need for God.

*

Religious political parties are agents of death; they traffic in the dead ideas of religion. And they are only able to do so because we, the People, have allowed these ideas to persist among us; we have continually resurrected them. By capitulating on our failure to eradicate dogma, Religious parties secure power and wield it upon us the willing and thankful people.

*

Have we, Heirs of the Enlightenment, rid ourselves of dogma? Have we trained ourselves to see ideas through the lens of pragmatism? Liberty, Equal Opportunities, Human Rights, Individualism, Freedom of Speech. These are just a few of the ideas that have become our lingua-franca. They are, or have become, self-evident truths. While John Stuart Mill might have had to argue for Liberty, we no longer need to. Evidently, it seems, these ideas represent a massive leap over religious dogma: they reflect a more inclusive society and broader possibilities for human flourishing. But are these ideas beginning to exert a hold on us that exceeds the hold of expediency? Are they, that is, progressing slowly towards death?

*

It’s a story we are all familiar with now: we live in the midst of an aggressive Individualism. Our value system is struggling to define itself independently of the ethos of consumption. We struggle against this but are always driven back by sheer momentum but also by bottomless greed. And then we are faced with fundamental inequalities, and many tell us that that is fine; that is the way it should be. We all have Equal Opportunities, the dogma goes, so you have only yourself to blame when your share of the material world doesn’t match your expectation or your needs: each to his own. And not only do we no longer need to justify the primacy of Liberty, no, some of us are prepared to kill others to bequeath upon them that most precious of our discoveries: Freedom. And you can talk, you can denigrate others, you can burn books like they did in the Middle-Ages and we will call it Free Speech. The rot at the core of enlightenment ideology is rapidly spreading and the stench is becoming unbearable.

*

Freedom of Speech, Individualism, Liberty, Equal Opportunities: dogmas rapidly approaching death. To free itself of thousands of years of Pharaohs, Sultans, Kings and Lords humanity had to discover the individual. It had to enshrine the rights of each and every person, not in order to worship them, but by way of expediency: a solution to the problem of absolute power. Now, these ideas have lost their pragmatic value: they are no longer responding to a practical need. Absolute power is no longer in the hands of the Monarchs; power is in our hands. But we squander it willingly to those gigantic entities that manufacture our desires while also selling us their satisfaction. Individual rights and Liberty have become the justification for the status quo: they have become ideals that no longer limit absolute power but create it.

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Some of us can see that the dogma of the enlightenment and the status quo which it now creates are not sustainable. We are told that we are using up the planet’s resources; melting the poles; raising the temperatures. And if we do not do something about it, many of us will die not so far from now. And this indeed might appear as a highly pragmatic set of ideas. There is a problem, we need to address it, and this is how we do so. But… already, we can hear those who want to raise those ideas to the status of ethical imperatives. They are not content with the issue being a pragmatic issue which should be addressed, they want to transform the ideas into dogma, and thereby move them faster along the path of their inevitable destruction; towards their death. And we must resist this; we must insist that the connection between an idea and the practical need it arose to address is not lost. Because if we do not do so we will join the chorus of humanity in that famous call that echoes from the dark ages and has not yet left us: The dogma is dead! Long live the dogma!

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed   2012

The Dirty Road to Purity: Why the ‘Salafis’ are Apostates (and in presenting themselves as the Representatives of Islam are doing it and us a great disfavor)

When Prophet Mohammed set out to establish Islam over 1400 years ago, he was not starting a new religion; he was not creating a new doctrine or a novel set of ecclesiastical principles. Mohammed’s message was a return to origins, to the essence of the first monotheist’s – Ibrahim – message of a one and true God, a message that got corrupted along the millennia and which Judaism and Christianity had failed to preserve in pure form. Mohammed sought to purify monotheism both of the outright polytheism that dominated the society he lived in, and the human fabrications that corrupted the Torah and the Bible. The goal was a return to a pure form of monotheism characterised by a total surrender to God and the realisation of His will on Earth through a community of believers now bound not by tribal affiliation but by a shared and uncompromising faith in the One.

Fast forward to 2012 and we have – in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution – a curious phenomena which has existed for a few decades (and in Arabia for centuries) but which had only explicitly appeared on the social and political landscape of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was pushed aside by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on 11th February 2011. The ‘salafis’ – as they call themselves – derive legitimacy through affiliating with the Prophet’s companions (salaf); the devout brethren. They call for a return to the ways of the salaf who in virtue of being the first generation of Muslims and contemporaries of the Prophet are prime examples to be followed. Muslims, so they believe, should align their conduct, practices, values and habits with the salaf in order to purify Islam of the accretions that have accumulated over the past few centuries, and which contaminate the message of the Prophet.

There are thus two returns to origins: the first is the Prophet’s return to the Abrahamic message; the second is the ‘salafis’ return to the Prophet’s brethren’s example. These two returns might seem identical but they are not. The Prophet was reclaiming the essence of a call that had first been made many centuries before. He applied this message to the society he found in Arabia at the time, a society that had its own cultural values and social structure. Thus the monotheistic message was wielded upon a tribal, paternalistic society with a strong code of honour and a multitude of gods. Society had to change to allow a true and deep monotheism to flourish, together with the values that accompanied the (historically relative) newly founded equality of all before God.

The ‘salafis’ call to return to origins is not a return to the monotheistic message which the Prophet had espoused, it is a return to the ways of the Prophet and his brethren and therefore by proxy – so the ‘salafis’ think – to the Prophet’s original message. Nothing could be further from the truth. In espousing his message, the Prophet was not returning to the ways of Abraham, but to the essence of the message of Abraham. Imagine that Abraham had sported a decent moustache, would we then expect the Prophet to have grown a moustache in an attempt to return to the ways of Abraham? Of course not. The Prophet’s goal was not a return to purity of appearances, but purity in the conception of and relation to the One. And this is what the ‘salafis’ completely miss. In placing complete emphasis on the ways of people who lived 1400 years ago the ‘salafis’ are in effect worshipping a society and not a God. In donning untrimmed beards and head to toe black wraps they are worshipping a socio-cultural-historical moment and are committing the idolatory that the Prophet had spent the last twenty-three years of his life fighting against. Had the Prophet been born in the 12th century towards the end of the Abbassid Caliphate, the ‘salafis’ would now be wearing turbans and vests. The ‘salafis’ have and continue to commit the basic error of mistaking the sign for the signified, much like a dog that insists on staring at its master’s finger, instead of what this finger is pointing at.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed

Egypt: Only Secularism can guarantee Justice and Equality

Secularism is not at all opposed to religion, not a single bit. Politically, it simply means the separation between government and religion. Worship, by all means, but do not include religious ideology in the bodies that run people’s’ affairs. It makes so much sense, doesn’t it? If we in Egypt adopt secularism then we can expect the following:

1. No more political parading in the name of Islam, which means an end to the abuse of Islam for political ends.

2. No more political interference in how people practice religion, e.g. Friday prayer sermons will no longer be ‘directed’ by the government.

3. A much more fair system of inheritance, e.g. there is no longer any reason why the man deserves as much as two women.

4. Eliminate any possibility of someone legislating for issues such as compulsory wearing of the veil/niqab or prohibition of consumption of alcohol on religious grounds.

5. A renewed focus on real scientific research as opposed to pathetic attempts to ‘Islamise’ the knowledge coming from the ‘West’ or finding proof that the Qur’an had already predicted the most recent and ground-breaking scientific discoveries.

6. A real attempt to protect freedom of worship for all: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Buddhist, etc., etc., including the freedom to worship nothing at all.

7. An end to medieval laws that criminalize any critical assessment of religion, in particular Islam.

8. And perhaps most important of all: it might help move religion back to where it can do the most for people: PRIVATE LIFE

A secular political system will eliminate fundamental injustices and inequalities and set Egypt on the right track. Unfortunately, religious parties have gained a lot of ground in the recent elections, and it might be a few years before people have a sufficiently developed political consciousness to be able to separate their personal identity from how they would like to be governed.

of signs and elves

A while ago I spent some nice hours at the Hampstead mixed pond with my good friend C.K. It was one of those rare, sunny and liberating London days; the view of the pond was complemented by the beautiful bodies basking in the sun, of whom I specifically mark out a certain person C.K. would definitely remember. What struck me the most that day, apart from the sun, was a sign we saw on the way out of West Hampstead Rail station. Never before have I seen a perfectly legible and perfectly constructed sign accompanied by small print indicating that it is a ‘Temporary Sign’. I was curious, and decided to ask one of the guys working at the station the reason behind this unusual signing. Seeing his reaction, I could tell he hasn’t been asked this question before: he paused, delivered a few ummm’s, and gave a non-sensical answer. I assumed he doesn’t know.

I was still baffled. To my Egyptian temperament, used as it is to a certain degree of chaos, and a large dose of unpredictability (you sometimes get signs to the same location pointing in opposite directions), the presence of a sign is itself an event, let alone a sign on the sign telling you the latter is temporary. What in the world could be the reason behind this unusual practice? Maybe, I thought to myself, we could approach the deciphering of this practice in the same manner anthropologists used to approach the unusual rituals of the natives. After all, while the sign is itself familiar to me, the practice, or the logic underlying it, are completely alien.

First things first: Let’s assume, for the sake of our attempt to understand, that the train or station operator have installed this warning because the signs will change soon, whether in message or location. That in itself is not unusual. It’s good to know if things will change soon, but it’s good to know if things that matter will change; why on earth would a sign saying ‘Way Out’ matter to the extent that we must be forewarned about its temporariness? This, it seems to me, is the question we must stay with for a bit. Perhaps this unusual behaviour by the natives is motivated by a desire for completeness; for saying things as they are. This is a temporary sign so we must indicate that it is a temporary sign for all to see. It doesn’t matter if it matters to anyone that this is the case; we must present the truth in all its trivial manifestations. But let’s be generous here. Maybe someone had complained before that a sign was not provided with an indication of its future status even though the lucky sign was relived of its signing duty within two weeks of its life in sign-world. And maybe that person was of the variety that spend their time collecting stamps or modelling trains; in short someone who has a pretty weird idea of fun and an unhealthy dedication to completeness. National rail, so the argument goes, had put up this warning just so they would stave off his sort and have some peace of mind. But, frankly, given all the sympathy, empathy, and all the pathys in the world I couldn’t bring myself to imagine such a person exists. It would be unimaginably sad that someone did find this worthy of complaint. So the problem remains: why on earth did they put up this sign on the sign?

Here I must flex my anthropological muscles and think laterally. Have I ever encountered other instances of pointless signing? Yes! How about a bag of peanuts with a warning, for all nut phobics, indicating that ‘this bag contains nuts’? Surely, as pointless signs, or warnings, go this must win the prize. How did this come about? I can only think of one possibility. In each institution, company, and factory in Britain there are two sets of employees who work in the same location yet never communicate, never ever. The first set of employees gather the nuts and put them in bags that say ‘nuts’. The second set of employees are blind; they feel around for the bags of nuts and assuming they do not indicate their contents push a large button that prints ‘this bag contains nuts’ on each bag they can get hold off. By the time the first set of employees realise the silliness of what the second set have done, it is already too late. And given that they never communicate there is no possibility of remedying this error. Perfect. Q.E.D.

Now the same argument can be applied to the sign I saw at West Hampstead rail station, only changing the employees a bit. The first set are perfectly normal national rail employees who design and print perfectly useful station signs. The second set are elves. Yes, just that, short elves with long-pointed ears, and they all own large stencils saying ‘Temporary Sign’ and cans of black paint. When London is sleeping they cruise around spraying their temporariness all over the station signs. It turns out, after all, that none of the signs are temporary! They are there forever…..

The Man is the Work?

wittgenstein

Reading the biography of your intellectual guru comes as a sobering experience. I’ve always thought the relation between the man and the work should remain a mystery, forever hidden behind the myriad mundane and not-so-mundane details of the few decades they have spent in this life. The more you know about the author, the more they emerge ‘just like everyone else’; with despicable habits, preposterous beliefs, and faults. The image of the flawless genius collapses, and with it the charm of the work, a charm you now realise was partly constituted by the enigma of the author-figure, the super-human thinker. I can no longer recall my favourite arguments in the Philosophical Investigations or the autistic arrangement of the Tractatus without simultaneously being moved by the selfish, egotistic, obsessive, and indecisive nature of the author, Ludwig Wittgenstein, traits I don’t particularly appreciate or consider justifiable no matter the magnitude of the work such a personality produced.

Perhaps this problem holds only if you believe that the Man is the Work. We can ask ourselves: what is the relation between the author and the text, the finished product and the life of the person who produced it? Could we reduce the disclosure of ideas in print to the whole context of the author; his life, habits, temperament, personality, failures, successes, and so on? The answer to this depends on the relation we think obtains between the author and the epoch he thinks and writes in. From a certain perspective the author is only the manipulator of already existing ideas; his skill lies precisely in his ability to crystallise an epoch, to shine a new and clear light on a certain historical thought-space, giving us all the illusion of the creation of new knowledge, when all he has done was point to a new way of seeing what is already there. The author then is the tool, the confluence, the nimbus, the centre of transformation. The work thus produced is independent of the author, what he has been through has no bearing on the ethical status of the work, no more than a carpenter’s misgivings should move us to consider a chair worthy or otherwise.

From a purely matter-of-fact point of view, however, it is fairly obvious that Wittgenstein’s circumstances and personality where directly involved in his ability to conceive of the ‘language-games’; if he hadn’t read Otto Weigner as a teenager, if he hadn’t developed an intellectual antagonism to Bertrand Russell, and more generally if he hadn’t been selfish and self-absorbed, ‘language-games’ may have never entered the philosophic vernacular. This much is true. But this doesn’t prove that the work is purely a consequence of Wittgenstein’s person, unless of course you are a believer in creation, in the emergence of completely new ideas, ideas that fall back on nothing, are a synthesis of nothing, and are an extension or modification of nothing. Pure creation, however, is a meaningless notion. What is purely created would have nothing to tie it to our world. Any apparent creation must be grounded in already existing beliefs if it is to be understandable, and importantly if it is to appear as a creation in the first place, as something new, as novelty. We are thus subject to culture, to history; we are not creators but consumers of ideas, ideas grounded in place and time.

This might seem a depressing conception of the role of the author; instead of pure creation we find manipulation of what is already there. Instead of revelation we find grounded insights. But the role of the author is not to create new ideas; it is to live and think in a certain way so as to be able to move us into seeing an aspect of the world differently. The intended effect is not to be found in ideas but in the minds and lives of everyone who encounters the text, and who are thus moved in fundamental and important ways. This is the beauty of the text; it’s independence of whatever plans the author had for it. And it is this role of the author, the author as mover of minds, where his life and personality emerge as crucial, for not everyone is able to move others in such a way.

In this context I recall Rosanov’s conception of the humanities to involve “the author understanding his existence in terms of its general significance”. This dialectic, at once historically grounded yet personally shaped and motivated, is the only way to come up with a work that has the potential of moving people to think differently, to reconsider their values, and the whole purpose and meaning of their lives. Wittgenstein’s later work had this effect on me, and not because the text embodies his life, but because his life was lived in a way that made the text possible, irrespective of what I think of his personality and values. In the meantime, however, please hide from me all biographies of Dostoevsky.

How to Build the Perfect Racist State: The Example of Israel

Israel does not want peace, it wants to rid the land of the Palestinians. Jonathan West shows how Israel maintains an illusory interest in peace, yet all its policies say otherwise. The ultimate goal? A land free of Palestinians with a Jewish ultra-majority: The Perfect Racist State.

1. Loudly insist on all possible occasions that they have “no partner for peace”. If the Palestinian leadership is united, then say that they are unfit to be negotiated with because they are terrorists, and if the Palestinian leadership is divided, then say that no negotiations are possible because the other side doesn’t have the power to deliver its end of the bargain.

2. When negotiations with the Palestinians are unavoidable, ensure that the negotiations are strung out for the longest possible time with endless bickering over minor issues, and ensure that the negotiations ultimately fail or are arranged for a delayed or progressive implementation which Israel can then cancel at a whim citing “security concerns”.

3. Keep building further settlements irrespective of any promises made to the Americans or others. Obfuscate the issue by describing new building as “natural growth”, or claiming that new settlements are “illegal” and will be removed in due course. Of course, they hardly ever are, except that occasionally a caravan will be removed from a hilltop with great fanfare.

4. Whip up as much fury among the Palestinian people as possible so that they are so angry at Israel that Palestinian public opinion is made as anti-peace as can be achieved. Publicise all Palestinian anti-peace actions (violent or otherwise) and claim that they show that the Palestinians will never be satisfied with anything less than driving the Jews into the Mediterranean. This can be achieved with routine killings of individual Palestinians by Israeli soldiers for which nobody is ever brought to trial, coupled with occasional larger-scale operations going after “terrorist infrastructure” which in practice end up demolishing key elements of Palestinian civil society. For maximum effect, such larger-scale operations should be timed to occur whenever the pressure to participate in negotiations is rising.

5. Ensure that the Palestinians remain as poor and helpless as possible, by restricting economic activity of all kinds by means of checkpoints, blockades, barriers and other restrictions. In doing so, encourage the emigration of as many Palestinians as possible, and make it as difficult as possible for them ever to return once they have gone.

6. Prevent as far as possible the building of new Palestinian homes or the expansion of Palestinian towns in order to claim that the surrounding land is unused and unwanted by the Palestinians, and therefore can and should be built on by settlers.

7. Whip up hatred among ordinary Israelis by making parallels with the Holocaust at every opportunity, and ensure that Israeli history textbooks include lies suggesting that the flight of the Palestinians during the 1948 war wasn’t an ethnic cleansing carried out under the guns of Israeli forces but was instead a voluntary movement to make way for the advancing Arab armies. Neglect to mention that the best way for a population to assist the advance of a friendly army is to stay put and do what it can to interdict enemy lines of supply and communication.

(Copyright: Jonathan West).

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Now delaying any peace initiatives would enable Israel to slowly expulse the Israeli Palestinians who form 21% of the state and are the main obstacle to the establishment of a Racist State with a Jewish majority. It is no news that discrimination against non-jews is rife both in what is now called Israel and the occupied territories, in many cases this amounts to ethnic cleansing. As Reider explains below ethnic cleansing may not necessarily take a bloody path (although that is certainly one of Israel’s strategies – think of the thousands and thousands of Palestinian civilians killed by Israel), but may involve “family-by-family expulsion from “illegal housing” and discriminative economic pressure to emigrate”, precisley the strategies employed against Israeli Palestinians. I can’t help but noticing the similarities between the German exclusion and persecution of Jews after the first world-war and the Israeli exclusion and persecution of non-jews (here arabs/muslims) since 1948.  Should we wait for a second holocaust? Infact the mass murder of Palestinians by Israel is an extended holocaust, but lacking the dramatic and concentrated killing, people are not willing to make this comparison, no doubt, as well, due to ingrained historical guilt that clouds people’s better judgment.

Read this:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/10/israeli-palestinians-jewish-state

THE RELATIONSHIP MANIFESTO

The Problem

In an ideal world all choices and actions would be preceded by a simple formulation of desired ends and the means to attain those ends. Fulfilment would simply be the manipulation of the means within my disposal to attain the ends in my purview. And so long as the ends are possible considering the means, I have a chance of succeeding, of reaching that resting place where desire and its satiation coincide. But an ideal world ours is not. Not only do we frequently – out of a surge of irrationality or a predicament of oppression – fail to manipulate or possess the means to secure those ends, we also may have no idea what our desired ends are, the whole process thereby reduced to a ‘dance on the staircase’; neither heard by those above or seen by anyone below. Relationships are a good example.

First of all we have the old frameworks of marriage/monogamy/long term cohabitation, call what it what you will, all generally emphasising the creation of a family unit and the propagation of that unit along time and across individuals: offspring. This framework provides, within it, the end and also the means to attain it. All you need to do is fall in to it, to plug yourself in the slot – notwithstanding considerations of fit – and carry through. The main function of such a framework is to reduce the immense possibilities of human interaction, the chaos – and therefore the beauty – of human interaction, to one single, controllable, more-or-less agreed upon trajectory. When such a framework no longer appears workable, or desirable, or even possible, when it can no longer do the work it is supposed to do, you find yourself facing a number of choices: You either revert to some other form of the ideal means/end model, you follow ‘love’ if you still can, or you go truly post-modern and deconstruct the framework beliefs that make ‘relationship talk’ possible, the pre-ontology that remains forever hidden yet over-determines our choices.

The Impossible: Doing a Relationship is Like Reaching for a Glass of Water

The immediate problem with the means/end model is this: having forsaken absolute ends and communal means you must find your own, simply because if you don’t then whatever means/ends you absent mindedly embrace cannot be your own, hence you would be revelling in inconsistency and inauthenticity, and I suppose that would be strange considering that you gave up the ‘accepted frameworks’ partly to “be your own man”; you must come up with your own alternatives. But what would those look like? First come the ends: you might not want to be alone when you grow old. In your projection of your future life, you recoil at the thought of having hit seventy and having no one to worry about you, to fulfil your needs, to inspire you. You might simply want to be ‘happy’, as imprecise and complicated such a notion is. You might simply want to be surrounded by children, or you might dream of having a ‘base’, a home, a secure space from where you can move and to which you can return. Assuming you have managed to conceptualise an end you then turn to the means. You could invest time, emotion, money in pursuit of your desired end. You could search for someone seeking similar ends, and – even better – sharing similar values. The list is long, think of your own.

In any case, having formulated clear ends and possible means you still face a problem: how are you to know that the ends you have thus formulated will be desirable by you at that point in the future you based your projection on? Not that they couldn’t, but that would only be possible if you are a static self, a self whose boundaries have long been drawn and its dreams long transformed to faded images. And assuming you are satisfied with your static self, how can you find others who could share your means/ends vision with you, and manage to get along with you on a day-to-day basis? That would only be possible – but hardly guaranteed – if you forsake your individualistic means/end project and revert to some other communal framework, only not saying to yourself that you are. In effect you are back searching for a guiding and impersonal ‘hand-rail’.

The Illusion: If You Follow Love You Can’t Go Wrong

To follow love is to seek gratification. And gratification ends the moment the object of your affection is no longer seen through the lens of lust, and that is inevitable. Following love is like playing Russian roulette; when the allure fades you wake up and face reality, and the person you suddenly find in front of you and who suddenly fails to sustain your illusion, becomes like everyone else with habits, needs, and quirks, and who may share nothing with you, or you with him. This is not a viable route, and one that should only be taken with the awareness that it won’t or is unlikely to lead to anything sustainable. But without the illusion of sustainability, would love happen? No.

But, we are told, there is a deeper kind of love, the love that develops after years of cohabitation, and shared experiences. It’s the love that emerges when destinies are fused, and that love – we are again told – is enduring, sustaining, and nobler than the transient illusory lust that we mistake for love. This sounds good, in fact desirable. But we are again left without a foothold: on what basis will I choose the person with whom such a kind of love would be attainable? Will I again revert to the means/ends model and face the problems mentioned above, or is there another way?

The Solution: Untangling the Web

Deconstruct all relationship discourse. Stand in a position of naivety to all talk of ‘partner’, ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’, ‘spouse’, and ‘sex buddy’. Approach these terms with wonder, and even better with incomprehensibility. What do they all mean anyways? Aren’t they all declarations of limits and boundaries? You are my ‘sex buddy’, so don’t expect me to ring you in the morning and say that I’ve only called because I miss your voice. I am your ‘boyfriend’, so do expect me to offer a (hopefully?) consistent and fulfilling presence in your life. You are my ‘spouse’, so don’t expect me to go crazy at the sight of your naked body. I am your ‘partner’ so do expect me to feature in all major decisions of your life. Limits and boundaries. What all these terms do is offer a ‘hand-rail’; in invoking them we are declaring what we expect of each other in keeping with the social meanings ascribed to these words. But why start or carry through a relationship with preset boundaries and expectations? Why reduce the immense possibilities of human interaction to those set by our prior expectations?

Giving up on relationship talk is only part of the solution, for we have already given up on the means/ends model in so far as it is not part of the interaction from the very first moment. This means that we would find ourselves in the unusual position of wanting something without knowing what we want it for. In other words, we would be seeking a relationship without knowing the end our pursuit is supposed to fulfil. But that should not matter. We do not choose relationships because we can; we choose relationships because we have no choice but to seek others. And if you are willing to argue against that, it would do you well to consult no less than the history of humanity, if the present is insufficient for you. We therefore have already chosen relationships; that is the end: to be in a relationship, or several. What shape the relationship will take, what derivative ends will emerge from it, and what it will lead to are all questions that are answered in the experiment that we launch with the other.

The Manifesto

0. My encounter with the other is no less than an experiment.
1. We will renounce all fears drawn from our previous failures.
2. We must unburden ourselves of the weight of cowardice.
3. Participation must be full and succumb to no boundaries.
4. If my choice of the other is to have some base independent of all formulations or judgments, then I must resist reifying the other in to a familiar mental category; a label.
5. We will – initially – assume nothing; expect nothing (except 7).
6. Desire is the engine that sets the whole in motion.
7. Desire must be unrestrained and its satiation unusually fulfilling.
8. We must debate our fundamental framework beliefs, which will make (9) easier.
9. Ends will be chosen together: nothing is off limits.

(2008)

Cairo Tango

 

Cairo and tango, two words that should not be associated. Earlier today I was driving down Wadi El Neil street, approaching our old flat in Mohandesseen. At that point I had been in the car almost an hour, to cover the distance between El Rawda and Mohandessen, a feat that should normally take twenty minutes. The more I spend time in Cairo the more I realize that normally is a word that no longer applies to this eternally damned and glorified city. The weather that day was exquisitely rotten. The yearly Khamasin winds were in full display bringing sand from the Western desert. Fine grains of sand seeped everywhere, in to the car and on my skin. As if the Egyptian temperament, already disorganized yet fantastically conformist needed the yearly invasion of Saharan sands to dislodge it out of this seemingly hopeless recession. That didn’t work.

I was stuck at a junction waiting for the utterly miserable human traffic light to authorize me to move. On my right a man in a new Korean made car screaming to a decrepit microbus to shift a wheel. He wanted to bear right. On my left was a Fiat 132 that has seen better days. There were two passengers in the back, a woman probably of Asian origin and a man who might be American looking exasperated. The junction ahead of me was an unintentionally produced master work of cubism. Cars heading in every direction forming a perfect gridlock. I knew I was going to be there for a while.

On the pavement in the middle of the road several men in galabeyyas with earthen faces and wrinkled tanned skin where waiting for God’s mercy; maybe a rich contractor would pick them up for a days work and a few measly pounds. On the other side of the road small groups of school children were heading home, all dressed in washed out beige uniforms. Some how they managed to keep a smile on their faces.

Suddenly I was struck by the enormity of the contradiction. An exceptionally majestic tango piece was making its way through my car’s speakers. I remembered the only tango performance I ever saw. I was touched by the beauty of the music and the dance. An impossible mix of power, precision, grace and sensuality. A perfection of the human and musical form – everything that Cairo lacks. Cairo as a friend of mine once said is a soul without a body. True, but what has become of its soul? It has become morally and aesthetically tarnished. Cairo has never been an exemplar of order and organization, but in the past that somehow didn’t matter. There was enough to compensate; in the goodwill of the people, in the endearing submission to God and the unknown. That is all gone. Submission has been replaced either with a revolting dogma or a nauseating collective social conformity. As for good will; that is long gone. The disappearing middle class, the enlarging domain of utter poverty and the scattered islands of extreme luxury have left a collective sense of bitterness, and for the sensitive conscience a daily struggle to justify privilege.

But what is conscience? Is it just an overarching super-ego? Its much more. Conscience is what ties us to other people, it’s the guarantee that other people will figure in my decisions, actions and in the construction of my own identity. It maintains cohesiveness in a society. Conscience can sometimes lead to guilt but guilt never leads to conscience. Guilt is the defense of someone who lacks conscience. Guilt comes only after the act or thought, when its all done. It’s a sign of an inactive conscience. Guilt is solipsistic, it does not include other people, it only includes the subject. It’s a disguised form of self pity.

What I feel in Cairo is not guilt, it’s the deep unsettling pang of conscience. It’s the acknowledgment that I am more privileged and hence more responsible. Responsible for maintaining moral rigour, for keeping my eyes open and living with the pain of contradiction rather than inhabiting a self-enclosed illusion. Tango? Is not life, its an ideal, akin to the platonic forms and maybe it should remain just that. In a strange way tango touches you deep down yet if you really think about it, its not human. For to be human is to be flawed.

April 2007

A Momentary Lapse of Reason?

The topic of this post concerns the current Egyptian Parliamentary Elections. As you can see in the photo on the left this respectable looking gentleman is calmly placing his ballot card in the ballot box while the similarly inclined observers do what they usually do : observing the whole process. Nothing seems amiss here; a normal democratic election. Now turn your attention to the photo on the right and what you see is a respectable lady (indeed respectable for all humans are, or at least should be treated as such) climbing a ladder, risking breaking a limb for the sole purpose of exercising her constitutional right. Now, two questions pop up. One, I suppose, from you and the other from me. You might ask (only if you are not initiated into the Egyptian notion of elections) why is this lady climbing a ladder to get into the polling station, why can’t she just go through the door ? Ah ! Now it gets very complicated, she can’t get through the door because the police guarding the station have blocked all entrances. But why have they done that ?! (You might exhort) They have done that because they have received instructions to ‘indirectly’ maneuver the result of the election towards a certain candidate. All while maintaing the fairness of the elections, for indeed the problem does not lie in the judges who observe the process ‘inside’ the station, nor in the sifting of the ballot cards, the problem lies outside the station, where the voters are not allowed to pass through the entrance to vote !!!! With your curiosity satisfied I now turn to mine. Why do you think this lady is risking going up this ladder ? Do you think she actually believes that having a certain candidate instead of another will actually change her state of affairs ? Or is it that only death will prevent her from exercising her constitutional right ? Is there more to it ? I can only guess…
I am sure many of you recognize this photo : ‘The Unknown Rebel’, a student halting the progress of several government tanks during the Tianmen square protests in China (1989). The protest denounced China’s economic instability and political corruption and was violently suppressed by the government. Over 3,000 died as a result of the suppression by armed soldiers. I will leave the history aside and try to look deeper in to the significance of this picture. Ofcourse it is a clear declaration of defiance, a powerful statement to the government that the will of the people cannot be abolished. But these are all general claims that do not take into consideration the actual individual act performed by this student – these claims justify this act through recourse to revolutionary rhetoric. What I mean is this : The person you see in this picture was not, during his act, thinking of the will of the people triumphing over the communist oppression, he was not trying to send a message to the Chinese government either (although, obviously, he did that indirectly) : He was performing an action with all his being, an action that was an absolute affirmation of who he is, an action that does not need recourse to any political justifications. And that is the only explanation of how he could stand, solidly, preventing several tanks from passing ahead. Doubt did not exist in his mind, nothing existed in his mind during those minutes – nothing but the euphoric feeling that, yes, he is a person, he knows who he is and that gives him the power to do the unthinkable.

A story of three puppies

 
 

Some of you might wonder what that is, some of you might easily guess. Its an image from outer space. The first thing that came across my mind when I saw this picture was of three puppies standing on their back feet. The list is endless, pick your fancy it can be anything you want it to be. But if you keep on doing that you will only manage to fit this eerie, somewhat disturbing image in a comfortable, familiar mental category. And you will miss, by far, the scale of what is represented in this image.

Let me first give you some facts – or to be more precise what we believe to be facts. These dark pillar-like structures are columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust. They are incubators for new stars, where new stars are created. The largest one at the front of the picture is about one light-year (6 trillion miles) long. Now move your focus to the left-most column, start at the bottom and go all the way up, at the very top you will find a very small horn, inside these horn stars start their life. This ‘small’ horn is bigger than our solar system. Enough said.

Some of you might ask – what does it matter ? And that is a very relevant question. How does that affect our daily existence, an existence fraught with anguish and laughter – at it’s best ? Well, it does and it doesn’t. I simply see it as a reminder of the absolute insignificance of what we come to believe – in our tunnel vision existence – as the purpose and goal of life. Don’t worry, I am not an evangelist, nor am I a new religion advocate, actually both repel me to a certain extent. I just admire the beauty and power of what we are yet to understand, yet to grasp, yet to comprehend. A day might come when I see these formidable columns again without the image of three cute puppies popping in my head. But is it possible, is it possible to experience such a thing without recourse to every day mental representation ?