Friday, October 5, 2007
The Radical Transformation Of Self
I just got back from a brilliant lecture at the Université Paris Descartes titled "Islamism Today". The speaker was Hamit Bozarslan, who gave a brief history of the Islamist movement from the Muslim Brotherhood through Osama Bin Laden. He avoided stereotypes and clichés, instead focusing on the historic continuities -- and discontinuities -- in the evolution of this movement. In the process, he completely changed the way I understand the current expression of radical Islam and its violent confrontation with the West.
According to Bozarslan, the initial phase of radical Islamism (which arose in the late-Seventies in response to the failure of leftist/nationalist Arab liberation movements) had run out of steam and was largely in decline by the year 2000. Unable to re-generate itself, and finding its violent methods rejected by mainstream Muslim opinion, Islamism was in retreat before authoritarian states that represented order and stability for an increasingly cosmopolitan Arab world.
But at roughly the same time that Islamic scholars were anticipating the disappearance of jihad, a new form of Islamism appeared that, in Bozarslan's words, introduced a new "subjectivity": That is, a new way of understanding the self in the world. This new subjectivity centers around the body and its singular role as locus of both corruption and salvation: Corruption through its participation in an imperfect world; salvation through its sacrifice in jihad.
To illustrate this dramatic shift, Bozarslan compared Yasser Arafat's body with that of Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The one, portly, corporal, pugnacious. The other, feeble, paralysed, almost blind. When the goal is national autonomy, the physical body is an end in itself. When the goal is spiritual salvation through martyrdom, the body is a only a means to an end.
The new wave of Islamism advocated by Yassin and Osama Bin Laden represents a rupture: with worldly society, with classical Islamism, with the Western tradition. Its struggle is an eschatological battle between good and evil, with little attachment to the physical body or the material world. The individual becomes responsible for both the decline of Islam and the deliverance of the world, and self-martyrdom becomes the central if not determinant act of devotion.
I've had an intuition for a while now that suicide bombings, if not radical Islam itself, will eventually just peter out on their own, if only we just do our best to prevent them from happening and carry on with our lives as normally as possible. And Bozarslan's lecture just convinces me that there's something to that intuition. Because the metaphysical subjectivity he describes is just not that appealing. Especially in the long run. But it's one that is reinforced by frontal engagement with its bi-polar imagination: The more its enemy attacks it as evil, the more convinced it becomes of its saintliness.
It's often been said that Levi's and rock 'n roll played as big a role in the fall of the Soviet Union as any military or political measures taken during the Cold War. Because the West, with all of its shortcomings and contradictions, was able to combine the elements that led to the emergence of a new subjectivity (modern, liberated, expressive) that ultimately proved more appealing than that proposed by Communist society.
The same goes for the current struggle with radical Islam. Our most potent weapon isn't a better bomb. It's a better alternative.