Merci, Monsieur Badiou

Secular fanaticism must be exposed for its own hatred and xenophobia, and get over the old cliches of East and West.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, the French far-right politician, received around 20 per cent of the presidential vote [AP]

New York, NY –
In a powerful new essay for Le Monde [Fr], Alain Badiou, arguably the greatest living French philosopher, pinpoints the principal culprit in the success of the far-right in the recent French presidential election that resulted in the presidency of Francois Hollande.

At issue is the evidently not-so-surprising success of the French far-right, anti-immigration, Islamophobe nationalist politician Marine Le Pen – to whom the French electorate handed a handsome 20 per cent and third place prestige.

As Neni Panourgia has recently warned, “the phenomenon of Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi in Greek), the neo-Nazi organisation that received almost seven per cent of the vote in the Greek elections of May 6″ is a clear indication that this rise of the right is not limited to France. The gruesome mass murderer Anders Breivik signalled from Northern Europe a common spectre that hovers over the entirety of the continent – most recently marked by the trial of the Bosnian Serb mass murderer General Ratko Mladic – accused of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including orchestrating the week-long massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim boys and men at Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian war.

As Refik Hodzic, a justice activist from Bosnia and Herzegovina puts it, the implications of that murderous incident are not to be missed:

“The statement that will haunt the consciousness of Bosnians, Serbs and the world for decades to come was recorded in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Srebrenica, a UN-protected enclave in eastern Bosnia: ‘On this day I give Srebrenica to the Serb people,’ he announced into a TV camera. ‘The time has finally come for revenge against Turks [Bosnian Muslims] who live in this area.’ These chilling words were the prelude to a systematic execution of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who had sought refuge with the Dutch UN battalion or tried to reach safety through the woods surrounding Srebrenica. Years later, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice would judge the massacre, directed by Mladic and carried out by his subordinates, to be the first act of genocide committed on European soil after World War II.”

Who is responsible?

In this poignant and timely essay, Alain Badiou dismisses the pop sociology of blaming the rise of the right on the poor and the disenfranchised French, supposedly fearful of globalisation. He denounces the blaming of the poor French by the educated elite for all its ills – and instead offers a far more sensible and factual evidence of what seems to be the matter with the French – and, by extension, other Europeans.

We did not see the left rise forcefully to oppose… such [racist] laws.

– Alain Badiou, French philosopher

Blaming the poor, Alain Badiou retorts, is reminiscent of Berthold Brecht’s famous sarcasm that the French government evidently does not have the people it richly deserves. Turning the table against the French politicians and the French intellectuals, Badiou blames them directly for the rise of the right. Badiou turns to a list of the most recent anti-labour and anti-immigrant statements uttered by socialist politicians and charges them with the responsibility for the rise of the right.

“The succession of restrictive laws, attacking, on the pretext of being foreigners, the freedom and equality of millions of people who live and work here, is not the work of unrestricted ‘populists’.” He accuses Nicolas Sarkozy and his gang of “cultural racism”, of “raising high the banner of ‘superiority’ of Western civilisation” and “an endless succession of discriminatory laws”.

But Badiou does not spare the left and, in fact, accuses them of complacency: “We did not see the left rise forcefully to oppose… such reactionary” laws. Quite to the contrary, this segment of the left maintained that it understood this demand for “security”, and had no qualms about the public space being cleansed of women who opted to veil themselves.

Badiou accuses the French intellectuals of having fomented Islamophobia, as he accuses successive French governments of having been “unable to build a civil society of peace and justice”, and for having Arabs and Muslims abused as the boogymen of French politics.

But this is not just a French thing

The malady that Alain Badiou has diagnosed is not limited to the French, or even to Europeans. It is crucial to keep in mind that there are those among the expatriate Iranian, Arab or South Asian intellectuals in Europe who are identical in their Islamophobic racism against Muslims. A significant segment of these expat intellectuals, clumsily wearing white masks over their brown skin, are integral and definitive to secular fundamentalists’ disdain for Islam and Muslims.

“Saudi Arabia [ought to be] threatened with starvation… Islam reduced to cult status… [the US must] wage near total war [against 1.3 billion-plus Muslims].”

– US military personnel training

The current Islamophobia in Europe is a disease – a slightly updated gestation of old-fashioned European anti-Semitism. The disease is widely spread in North America too. In the US, the selfsame disease is now evident in the fact that US military officers have for years been indoctrinated by a viciously anti-Muslim pedagogy that teaches US military personnel that Muslims “hate everything you stand for and will never coexist with you, unless you submit”.

They go further in asserting that the war against Muslims is so vicious that “the Geneva conventions that set standards of armed conflict, are no longer relevant”; which “would leave open the option once again of taking war to a civilian population wherever necessary”; that “Saudi Arabia [ought to be] threatened with starvation… Islam reduced to cult status” and that the US must “wage near total war” against 1.3 billion-plus Muslims.

And what exactly do the white-masked-brown-skinned amongst these expat intellectuals have to say about that? When the Danish cartoon row engulfed Europe, Salman Rushdie and his ilk – the talented Ms Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Taslima Nasreen and a few other comprador intellectuals like them, keeping good company with none other than the one and only Bernard-Henri Levy – were up in arms charging that after “fascism, Nazism and Stalinism” the world now faced “a new global threat” in what they called “Islamism”.

Yet they become completely dumb, deaf and blind when a mass murderer such as Breivik goes on a rampage murdering scores of innocent people for his pathological loathing of Muslims and Marxists. They are also blind to the fact that military officers of the most brutal killing machine on planet Earth are being indoctrinated with such criminally insane thoughts as those taught to US military personnel. Neither do they care when Qurans, the holy book of Muslims, are flushed down the toilets in Abu Ghraib, or burned in military bases in Afghanistan.

The new moral imperative

The ailment that Badiou diagnoses is not limited to French or even European intellectuals, or American Christian fundamentalist Quran burning pastors, or what passes for comedians in the United States (does anyone outside the United States care to know who Bill Maher is?). It extends well into fanatical secular fundamentalists among expat Arab, Iranian or South Asian intellectuals whose pathological loathing of Islam and Muslims has led some of them even to form what they call a “Council of Ex-Muslims”, while another group that even call itself “Communists” unabashedly hold their anti-Muslim rallies shoulder to shoulder to neo-Nazis.

There is a very thin line that separates these self-loathing ‘ex-Muslims’ from Anders Breivik – except the Norwegian mass murderer hates their brown skin too, white masks notwithstanding.

Still others among “ex-Muslims” are as vicious and brutal in ridiculing, denigrating – and even physically assaulting – a veiled woman who comes from their own country for a short visit to Europe.

The disease that Badiou has judiciously diagnosed is quite contagious and has metastasised far wider than he may care to know. It is now the most recent affliction of the brown-skinned who wear their white masks, wishing themselves white: comprador intellectuals who aid and abet the European and US racists in demonising their own people. There is a very thin line that separates these self-loathing “ex-Muslims” from Anders Breivik – except the Norwegian mass murderer hates their brown skin too, white masks notwithstanding.

What these “ex-Muslims” and their Euro-American counterparts share is a pathological essentialism about “Islam” and “Muslims”. They are blind to the fact that there is a factual and existential difference between the “Islam” of a rich Kuwaiti Sheikh negotiating his fat belly around the table and fearfully watching his cholesterol in a fancy restaurant on the Champs-Elysees and the “Islam” of a an illegal Algerian busboy washing the dishes in the basement of the same restaurant.

That existential difference is the moral imperative of a new intuition of transcendence that escapes all these buffooneries and requires a new vision of what must be the highest moral imperative of a fragile world.

Of course the rest of the world’s Muslim population are implicated by the acts of other members of their religion and the famous retort of “that’s not the real Islam” is not a sufficient excuse. But by what stretch of imagination, and by what authority, can a pharmacist or an electrical engineer or a retired journalist “religious intellectual” tell the bearded Ayatollahs and Hojjat al-Islams in Iran, or Ayman al-Zawahiri or Molla Omar in Afghanistan, that they are not real Muslims?

Of course Ayatollah Khamenei is a Muslim, as was Ayatollah Khomeini, as is the entire ruling elite of the Islamic Republic with zero tolerance for dissent. Ayatollah Khomeini was never a fuller figure of Muslim authority than the instance when with one stroke of his pen he ordered the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran. Of course every single Muslim – particularly these “religious intellectuals” (as they call themselves) – is accountable for the vicious tortures at Kahrizak and other torture chambers of the Islamic Republic.

The same Islam that has created Muslim mass murderers in Mumbai, Madrid and New York is perfectly capable of producing – and having given dignity, purpose and solace – to masses of millions of other Muslims leading an infinitely more dignified life, far more worldly located with the moral mandates of their time. The moral and intellectual incapacity of these “ex-Muslims” not to distinguish between the criminal theocracy that rules over Iran and an Afghan or Somali migrant labourer in Germany or France is where the visionary insight of Alain Badiou demarcates and signals.

The moral imperatives of our time

When a malady thus unites the right and the left, the European and the ex-Muslim, mass murders and expatriate intellectuals, then this common disease also necessitates a new definition of “the public intellectual” that laser beams on the ravages of capitalism – and particularly on the fact of labour migration, entirely irrespective of the varied cultures that capitalism promiscuously engages.

Muslims and Africans face the same ghastly discrimination in Europe as Latin American illegal immigrants do in the United States, Afghan refugees do in Iran, Palestinians (now joined by Africans) do in Israel or Philipino or Sri Lankan labourers do in the Arab world.

There is a structural link between neoliberal economics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling regime in Iran, extended all the way to its morally and intellectually bankrupt “opposition” headquartered in California or Washington DC – the Fifth Columnists who wish for the US to invade and “liberate” Iran (“humanitarian intervention”, they dub it) so they can go back and rule it. There is no difference between the neoliberalism of the Muslim Brotherhood and that of Hosni Mubarak, or the neoliberalism of the reformists in Iran and that of their “opposition” in California – they are made of the same cloth, and that’s why they hate each other.

Confronting them is the necessity of a renewed pact with a principled moral position that crosses over fake cultural bifurcations between “Islam and the West” or “the religious and the secular”. The moral imperatives that our exceedingly fragile and vulnerable world now faces require a radical reconfiguration of ethical principals far beyond sectarian alignments or denominational identification.

That humanity needs new visionaries of its highest aspirations. The principal facts on the ground – beaconing those visionaries – are the wretched of the earth, the masses of millions of human beings roaming the globe in search of the most basic necessities of life and liberty or else for fear of persecution. Muslims and Africans face the same ghastly discrimination in Europe as Latin American illegal immigrants do in the United States, Afghan refugees do in Iran, Palestinians (now joined by Africans) do in Israel or Philipino or Sri Lankan labourers do in the Arab world.

That fact is the ground zero of principled moral positions. The morally blinded who hide their xenophobia or political bankruptcy behind a callous “secular” fanaticism and who are indifferent to the terrors that an Afghan or an Iraqi or a Somali migrant labourer faces – just because she wears a scarf or because he sports a beard – ought to be exposed for the indecency of their position and thus new alliances cultivated far beyond and above the tired and old cliches of “Islam and the West”.

The moral imperative of our time thus demands a sublimation of our inherited faith into something more worldly grounded. Is Badiou a Christian, a Jew, an atheist, an agnostic, a Marxist… so be he a grace to all Muslims? Is Badiou a Frenchman, a European or a Martian, be he a gift to all humanity.

For now a simple thank you will do: Merci, Monsieur Badiou!

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. Among his most recent books is Brown Skin, White Masks (Pluto, 2011).