Monday, September 3, 2012

Political theology and Obama's war (4.16.2011)

Professor Asad's article was published in ABC Opinion

One view is that war is a mechanism for dispute resolution, a quarrel between sovereigns that cannot be resolved other than violently by victory and defeat.

But what if the antagonists are not both sovereigns? What if there is no dispute between sovereign antagonists, no defined claim to be vindicated? What if the antagonists are simply moved to exchange punishments (as in a feud)? Is this still "war"?

What if each side sees itself as engaged in the defence of non-negotiable values, in what former Secretary of Defence William Cohen called "holy war"? How should one see violent conflict when it is difficult to envisage what victory would look like?

If the violence aims at extirpating the enemy, if the victor acquires no new rights from the vanquished, perhaps the "war" (a term invoking moral resolve) is exactly what today the United States claims it to be: an attempt at exterminating "evil" - a theological concept denoting something with which one cannot under any circumstances come to terms, something that should be eliminated.

Since at least the nineteenth century, Euro-American imperial policies have tended to envisage humanity as divided into two: the one occupying a space of "peace" and the other a space of "war."

In spite of two devastating world wars, genocides and colonial repression, there remains an older imaginary division between the Law-bound West and the Lawless Rest.

In this context, the violence of the Taliban in Afghanisatn is seen as intrinsically expressive, its vision as confined to a "medieval" past, whereas NATO's military action is seen as an act of stabilization, and its violence as aiming at defending and extending basic human rights.

This is what President Bush meant when, shortly after the invasion had begun, he said: "I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace." Some critics have described these words as "Orwellian double-speak," as a reflection of Bush's character, but this interpretation is facile.

To begin with, President Obama has himself used similar language, albeit in a more elaborate way. Thus in his speech three months after he came to office, he warned: "the return in force of al-Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence." His duty as President was to forestall this violence by using war to impose peace.

In contrast to the Taliban who were committed to violence for its own sake, who offered "a future without hope or opportunity; a future without justice or peace," the United States government had a "responsibility to act."

In so acting the United States wasn't concerned only with itself but with maintaining a peaceful order in the world, "Because the United States of America stands for peace and security, justice and opportunity. That is who we are, and that is what history calls on us to do once more."

What Obama's language implies (like Bush's) is that the perpetual peace of the sole superpower requires perpetual armed conflict because the task of fighting evil is never ended. Its sovereignty gives it the responsibility to fight what used to be called "small wars" against non-sovereign opponents, those that lie beyond legality, and against whom, therefore, an open declaration of war is not required, nor a formal declaration of the end of hostilities.

Obama is more articulate than Bush, but they both talk of war not as a way of settling a particular dispute (of war as its resolution) but of maintaining sovereign peace through a continuing process of extermination.

In this respect both administrations are similar, and their similarity derives from the fact that they are both embedded in the same political-financial-military system. Their ability to move independently is therefore limited - but by no means absent.

Three months after his inauguration Obama touched on some aspects of his "Afghan War" strategy:

"to advance security, opportunity and justice - not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces - we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs. And that's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground ... And [why] we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans - including women and girls."

Obama's words reflect the concept of counterinsurgency as expounded by General Petraeus to which I'll return in a moment: a failed state must be rebuilt, a medieval society re-formed in accordance with universal human rights, so that the evil of terrorism can be eliminated, or at least mitigated.

Hence Obama's approval of the Pentagon's recruitment of social scientists - including anthropologists - to help bring development and human rights together through armed hostilities. This is not very different from the way Bush conceived his moral War against Iraq.

But Obama's inspiration goes back further. Like previous presidents, Obama regards America as an example to humanity, as, in John Winthrop's Biblical phrase, "the city upon a hill." Woodrow Wilson, of course, belongs to this tradition.

But there is another political tradition that can be linked to it, one that grows out of the writings of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Together, these two make it possible to advocate universal human rights while accepting the necessity of little - and sometimes large - atrocities as the price to be paid for realistic policies in a wicked world.

Niebuhr has long been and remains today a strong influence on the makers of United States foreign policy - from George Kennan through to Barack Obama who has declared his great enthusiasm for Niebuhr.

Central to Niebuhr's theology is the doctrine of sin. Yet sin for him is not simply the propensity to do evil; paradoxically, in the form of institutionalized killing and destruction, sin can become a means of combating evil.

For Niebuhr this is tragic because in using power sinfully one sacrifices the most valuable thing one has - one's virtue - and yet one does so because one must defend one's righteous community against evil. In this view, when the political agents of one's community perpetrate cruel and deceptive acts they do so reluctantly, and with the ultimate aim of ending greater suffering.

Obama puts his endorsement of Niebuhr this way:

"there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things [entirely]. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction."

The evil that Obama speaks of moralizes the problem of violence in the domain occupied by international law. The evil that Obama speaks of is also referred to by the secular figure of cancer: "al Qaeda and its extremist allies," he declared some months after his inauguration as President, "are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within. It's important for the American people to understand that Pakistan needs our help in going after al Qaeda."

Obama's style is not belligerent as Bush's was - although sometimes it is more equivocal. However, his military interventionism, his authorization of targeted killings and torture centres, his conviction that civil rights at home should not impede the military's performance overseas - these things are similar in both administrations.

The central question is how world governance is to be attained by the United States and what shape the United States itself must take in order to ensure it. Niebuhr's theology does not counsel non-interference; it simply urges prudence.

The Obama administration thus differs from Bush's not on the use of terror to exterminate terrorism; it differs on how strategic priorities are to be defined and the style in which they are to be pursued.

Even if large numbers of people are exterminated, and violations of existing international law committed, these are necessary moral compromises. The will to extirpate evil is combined with a humanist desire to establish universal peace. In Obama's words: "That is what history calls on us to do once more."

I shall call this political theology, not because it is an example of politics in a religious idiom, but because its discourse rests on the vision of an imperfect humanity that must be governed and saved, and of human evil that must be eliminated or warded off.

Theology and politics are not two distinct discourses but one. The medieval theology of sin explained the ways of God to man, justified worldly suffering due to war, plague and famine as expressions of divine punishment for sin.

This was recycled in twentieth-century America by an influential Protestant theologian, but what had begun as a Christian theology of sin and submission is now made to work in a new way within an entirely new problematic: the project of global governance through selective retribution and the dissemination of liberal democratic values.

The vision does not articulate a belief that simply justifies military intervention. What it articulates are attitudes that constitute intervention aimed at rescuing humanity and extirpating evil in the world: the political and the theological work together.

But although some of its elements derive from the Christian tradition, the vision itself no longer depends on that tradition but on modern sensibilities and predispositions that have an adventitious fit. When its theological past is repressed (because we live in liberal democratic states) parts of it can be appropriated as "secular," as an enterprise that is apparently no longer burdened by the intrusive demand of the gods.

Nevertheless, seeing the vision as political theology allows one to understand how human atrocity (the work of evil) is distinguished from transcendental force (the demand of history). Like the secular language of international law, the language of that political theology is not equally - nor equally plausibly - available to all.

So how precisely is this political theology present in Obama's War? By articulating the idea of necessary violence, of combat that aims not at resolving disputes but at destroying the evil that produced 9/11. Evil can be dealt with only by excising it - like cancer.

General Petraeus produced The U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual in Iraq in 2007, where its strategy has been acclaimed by the American media as a triumph, and it has now been adopted as the defining text for the Afghan military effort. But it also belongs to a long line of military manuals produced by imperial officers that deal with what were called "small wars."

One of the earliest of these was Sir Charles Edward Callwell's Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, published in 1906. Much of course has changed in the century between the two, including the language in which insurgency is portrayed. Callwell knows that his is an imperial world, he does not pretend that it is otherwise.

Unlike the present "War on Terror," Callwell's small wars were part of the unending task of policing an empire against internal and external disrupters of order. For him the success of small wars, or at least retaining the upper hand against insurgents and troublesome primitive neighbours, is dependent on a general recognition that European presence in the colony must continue indefinitely.

More important, Callwell's small wars are unlike America's counterinsurgency effort because (a) they do not depend on the duty of using violence for the sake of redeeming sin, and (b) they do not think they are involved in exterminating "evil." Small wars seek only to secure colonial power.

The Petraeus Manual is far more systematic than Callwell's Small Wars, and it seeks to project beneficence rather than power. Where Callwell writes of "guerrillas, civilized and savage," Petraeus prefers the phrase "terrorist and guerrilla tactics common to insurgency."

The occupying army's project is the restoration of stability and legitimacy in what the Manual always calls "Host Nation." "Military action can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy," the Manual states.

"In some cases it can eliminate substantial numbers of insurgents. However, success in the form of a durable peace requires restoring legitimacy, which, in turn, requires the use of all instruments of national power. A COIN [counterinsurgency] effort cannot achieve lasting success without the HN [Host Nation] government achieving legitimacy."

In other words, reform of an entire society is the means of achieving legitimacy, whose loss is signalled not by the American invasion but by the resistance to it. The paradox is that for a government to "host" a foreign army it must already be legitimate and sovereign, and yet that army's mandate is to restore the government's legitimacy and sovereignty.

The reform needed for this endeavour requires that the army use civilized violence against both a reprehensible past and a dangerous present. By pre-empting the sovereignty of a failed state, the United States can distinguish its military violence from the violence of insurgents. Building up and destroying are necessary to this counterinsurgency.

In Callwell's time there were no International Aid Agencies. Why have such agencies multiplied even as formal imperialism has retreated? Today's Aid Agencies have often argued that political stability is the single most important factor in promoting economic development as well as human rights.

The securing of stability in the troubled world by any means therefore becomes a priority - even if it necessitates initiating instability. Projects that describe themselves as humanitarian are consequently entangled with military projects that aim at "political stability."

Various aid organizations in Afghanistan, including Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres, have criticized what they say is a blurring of military stabilization strategies and humanitarian assistance. But what is going on here is not a confusion of two distinct projects.

Counterinsurgency is a unique kind of violence in which reaching out to a hostile population in friendship is essential to undermining the "evil" that is in them. The term "evil" has many uses, but its theological meaning implies that it is something with which negotiation is impossible.

On 27 May 2010, I saw a segment on television about the effort of United States Marines in Marjah. The military was concerned not only to kill Taliban but also to win hearts and minds by building schools and promoting human rights.

On this occasion Lt. Col. Brian Christmas had gathered the villagers to celebrate the signing of a contract to construct a school, and he spoke (through an interpreter) of the children as Afghanistan's bright future and of their human right to education. The colonel and his soldiers were reaching out to the Afghan adults and children - while expressing open contempt for the Taliban fighters before an audience containing many Taliban sympathizers.

The problem on this occasion, so the embedded journalist told viewers, was that the village headman was afraid to appear at the ceremony beside the Marines, and refused to come out. (The Taliban assassinate those who collaborate with the occupation.)

The camera followed the colonel into a darkened, unfinished schoolroom where the reluctant headman was hiding, and after the colonel's talking to him he was eventually brought out triumphantly to join the waiting assembly.

So there he finally stood at the ceremonial spot - clearly uncomfortable, flanked by two elders, facing the earnest colonel - together with the crowd in the open space surrounded by American armoured vehicles.

I wondered what was going on in the headman's mind? What did that moral exhortation coming from a heavily guarded foreign soldier mean to him? Was he reluctant to stand together with the Marines for fear of the Taliban, as the television story had it? Or did he resent the American presence in Marjah? Or was there some other reason?

What persuaded him to come out - a sense of gratitude for the colonel's investment in the children's future, or the thought that fellow villagers might suspect him of colluding in private with the occupier? And what, for that matter, were the colonel's motives: a counterinsurgency tactic, or a humanitarian project, or both? It was impossible to tell.

Motives are not always easy to decipher, as any ethnographer who is sensitive to such matters knows. In the context of counterinsurgency, where motives are cloaked in secrecy and people are surrounded by threats from every direction, they are particularly difficult to discern, and yet knowledge of them is necessary for counterinsurgency. Who should one trust? How far?

All this is a long way from Manhattan and 11 September 2001 - or is it? The terror attack on that day is connected through the idea of "necessity" to the terror of a sovereign seeking to defend itself abroad. Atrocity and deception are inevitable in addressing a danger to the sovereign state.

Counterinsurgency is, of course, unlike war between nation-states, and yet, like total war, it drags the everyday life of entire communities into a web of violence - in this case for the sake of American ideals and the good life they offer. It disrupts the taken-for-granted-ness of mundane existence.

Counterinsurgency does this in a more insidious way than war between states, by trying to capture the motives and feelings of individuals, by seducing villagers into acting as secret informers against their friends and relatives.

The Petraeus Manual presents this work (correctly) as counterintelligence - the secret gathering of private information from intimates and fellow-villagers:

"Counter-intelligence includes all actions taken to detect, identify, exploit, and neutralize the multidiscipline intelligence activities of friends, competitors, opponents, adversaries, and enemies."

That, and not just the killing of innocent civilians, is the distinctive violence of counterinsurgency. For this kind of violation stretches back from the zones of military conflict to include the United States homeland where the fear of treason, and of what state and society might do to individual citizens who have the "wrong" connections or beliefs, is more pervasive than the fear of terrorist attacks happening today.

The "War against Terror" has many sites in each of which sovereignty, with its threat of violence against possible terror, is central.

So here is a final thought about the violence we have been discussing: Many find "the Afghan war" a continuing disaster. What is most striking about it? Certainly not the numbers of civilians killed. That is an old story and numerous civilian deaths will continue, and continue to be explained away, as long as the modern sovereign state exists and can use violence to promote its interests abroad.

11 September 2001 was neither the first nor the last atrocity since the Second World War in which the United States has been involved either as victim or (more often) as perpetrator. There is no sign that the human rights regime (including "humanitarian intervention") can stop such atrocities; for although it can sometimes punish perpetrators of atrocities, it can do so only if they do not belong to powerful states and their friends.

Of course the ruthlessness of militants in general is evident as is the horror of modern war. But what I find particularly striking is something else: the inextricable combination of compassion and ruthlessness that is articulated in civilized war and absent in terrorism.

Modern sovereignty, whether expressed through killing in battle or the torture of suspects, brings together the desire to build up and the desire to destroy, to let Aid Agencies offer charity (in its original meaning of "love") while the military offers death. The two are intrinsically connected.

On the one hand there is the satisfaction that many agents of sovereignty seem to obtain from displaying their tenderness towards human suffering; on the other hand there is the readiness, even eagerness, to kill and be killed for the sake of human values.

Is the war in Afghanistan necessary? (4.9.2011)

Talal Asad's article Is the war in Afghanistan necessary? was published in ABC Opinion

Since this is an era of human rights the invasion was described by NATO as humanitarian, thus indicating how easily attacking a country can be imagined as an act of saving humanity.

I don't mean to imply that what we have here is a simple case of cynicism; political motives for violence and humanitarianism are often deeply entangled, making it difficult to separate them.

But what intrigued me from the beginning were the sentiments that shaped the violence, how the will to extirpate evil ("terrorism is evil") was combined with a desire to reach out, reform and uplift a part of the world in which "evil" (the aggressive rejection of "our way of life") still thrives.

In his address to the nation on the evening of 11 September President Bush spoke of "justice" and "war": "Today, our nation saw evil - the very worst of human nature," he declared and then went on to reassure his listeners that although the immediate perpetrators were dead the search was underway for those who were behind their acts:

"I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them ... America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism ... Be confident; our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it."

Bush clearly preferred the language of war - of a moral assault on evil - to the language of justice as legal process.

Several commentators noted the deliberate parallels in style between Bush's address to the nation and Franklin Roosevelt's famous speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Bush didn't use Roosevelt's phrase "day of infamy," but it appeared widely in newspapers and on television in the days that followed.

It was only in retrospect that the irony of that phrase became apparent: the Pearl Harbor event was thought to be infamous not because it was a surprise attack by terrorists but because it was a pre-emptive attack by the Japanese air force (that was expecting a American attack against Japan). And a pre-emptive attack was precisely what the United States claimed it undertook against Iraq in 2003, by embracing it within the military assault on terror.

On 12 September, William Cohen, onetime Secretary of Defence under President Clinton, echoed Bush's sentiment:

"In a very real sense, America itself must embark on its own holy war - not one driven by hatred or fuelled by blood but grounded in our commitment to freedom, tolerance and the rule of law and buttressed by our willingness to use all means available to defend these values."

Because the human propensity to do evil continually threatens America's values of humaneness and humanity, the war to defend them must be fought again and again in one place after another.

Democracy and the culture of punishment

I recall seeing a placard in a van in Spanish Harlem on September 18 that gave a small indication of powerful popular feelings: "We don't want justice, Mr. President," it read, "we want war." Clearly, for the placard-writer war and justice were mutually exclusive: the one having to do with violent revenge, the other with the process of the law.

But of course, justice does sometimes extend passionately beyond the law; and law is supposed to govern war between sovereign states. The conflicting demands of law/justice on the one hand and the popular desire to see bold criminals punished harshly on the other help to explain the general response to the 11 September atrocity.

The legal historian James Whitman has written persuasively about the strong connection between democratic politics and the culture of harsh punishment in the United States, and pointed out that in the United States, where populist politics often translates directly into legislation, politicians seeking election want to be heard endorsing popular attitudes about the punishment of criminals.

The idea proposed by Norbert Elias and others that the monopolization of legitimate violence by the modern state leads to the internalization and control of emotions among citizens seems to me oversimplified. It certainly doesn't explain the American political elite's embrace of the popular clamour for retribution against "terrorists" who, in the moral imagination of patriotic Americans, are assimilated to the very worst of human nature, and why there was no general political outrage at the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo and Bagram, among others.

The indifference in this matter comes out of a passionate desire to restore the invulnerability of America that is assumed to be a national birthright.

One result of the sudden death and destruction on that day was a great upsurge of collective fear and anxiety reflected in (and encouraged by) the media in New York. Television networks stopped showing commercials, shows and games were cancelled, shops closed, the only planes in the sky for several days were military jets.

The image of the collapsing Twin Towers was continually repeated on television. Reassurance was sought in nationalist fervour. The Stars and Stripes fluttered from each apartment building in Manhattan and was printed on every bus and subway car. The slogan "War on Terror" appeared daily on almost every page of every newspaper; a terrorist threat alert bearing a range of colours from green to red was flashed on television every day. Commentators spoke of "America at war."

Academics and journalists rushed to explain the atrocity by reference to Islamic tradition and Arab culture; the popular hostility against American Muslims this fear generated has continued until today. The "war against terror" was widely accepted as just retribution, as the restoration of national honour, and as an attempt to eliminate a great evil.

Afghanistan: a war of necessity?

Since becoming president Obama has insisted again and again that the invasion of Afghanistan was "a war of necessity." Respectable opinion in the United States agrees with him. The invasion was certainly an understandable response to the terrorist attack on 11 September 2001 - an attack that all international lawyers said was a crime against humanity.

There was disagreement, however, over whether the subsequent armed hostilities were legal. But legal or not, what made itnecessary?

One of the points that I want to argue is that although the launching of the armed conflict in Afghanistan was indeed not necessary, the way that supporters conceptualized the necessity of the "war" helped to produce a particular kind of violence: an attack against evil.

The accepted story was that Bin Laden's organization had attacked the United States without provocation on 11 September 2001 that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan harboured al-Qaeda and refused to yield up its leaders, and that this made the American invasion a necessary act of self-defence.

The Taliban itself had become a serious threat to the peace and safety of "the American people," and even - so it was said - of the world. It was only after the invasion had begun that reasons other than the pursuit of Bin Laden made their appearance: re-building a failed state, liberating women, establishing human rights.

Helping Afghans to develop a humane society would create an environment unfriendly to terrorists. It would also be an occasion for spreading American values - a national task first articulated by Woodrow Wilson on the eve of the First World War:

"The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind."

Critics of the "Afghanistan war" pointed out that terrorists can and do operate from locations closer to the United States, that most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, that the attacks were planned in Germany, and that consequently American security would not be secured by occupying Afghanistan.

Ironically, the inference drawn by the ruling elite from the claim that terrorists might emerge from any country was that in one way or another the United States must be prepared to intervene in every country.

In other words, to defend the United States, the United States must try to control the world; and to control the world America must not only maintain global order but also export its values.

The United States is not committed to conquering the world militarily as the old European powers did, but only to maintaining its (military) "presence" globally and to promoting liberal democracy and the free market everywhere.

Obama reproduced this line of reasoning in several speeches in which he separated gratuitous killing (terror) that threatened the world from necessary military intervention that defended it. Looked at closely, this distinction hangs on a particular argument about sovereignty.

Liberals do not approve of killing or the infliction of pain - unless it is absolutely necessary. But "necessity" in itself is an empty notion that derives its sense from the aim in question. It can be used not only to justify killing in what is called war but also to defend torture or years of solitary confinement or indefinite detention without trial.

Sacred terror

In his recent book, Sacred Terror, Paul Kahn links the necessity of unrestrained violence to the concept of sovereignty. Thus he reminds his readers:

"The Israeli Supreme Court opinion on torture ... while refusing to provide a legal rule under which torture may be used, nevertheless notes that a torturer may have available a 'necessity defense' were a criminal charge to be brought against him."

But I think that the argument from necessity, whether used by torturers or initiators of war, renders it difficult to understand why the space beyond legality begins where it does. Kahn proposes that "terror invokes torture because terror moves us beyond law to sovereignty ... We take the first step toward torture when we take up arms in defense of the state. This is the step from law to sovereignty."

However, I have a small question: If the category "terror" is reserved solely for non-state actors (as it is by Kahn), and "torture," like "war," for a sovereign response to "terror," do we grasp the complexity of state violence?

It is not terror that moves us beyond law to sovereignty, terror is always and already a power of sovereignty, an institution social anthropologists, following Henry Maine, used to call patria potestas when that term applied to the absolute authority of the head of the ancient family who had the power of life and death over its members.

Sovereignty has always been constitutive of the Law and vice versa. In the United States it was "We the people" who constituted themselves as a sovereign body, becoming thereby the ultimate law-making authority, a body at once terrible (it possesses the prerogative of war) and rights based (it is rooted in law).

Torture belongs to the terror of law - that is why a legal plea of necessity can be made by and accepted from the torturer and the initiator of war, why various violent acts of the state (in war and in peace) are claimed to be necessary.

In short, sovereignty lies at the heart of the notion of war (the sovereign's principle prerogative) as it does of "enhanced interrogation," and the concept of law circumscribes both. When one moves from law to sovereignty one does not leave the law, one moves to its foundation. And the space beyond legality is itself a product of the law and essential not only to the integrity of the state (the formal embodiment of sovereignty) but also to its many definitions of "violence."

That is why it was important for supporters of the invasion to cast doubt on whether Afghanistan under the Taliban was really a sovereign state because if the state was not sovereign it could not demand the rights of war and peace that belong to sovereignty; and the individual soldiers of a failed state could be denied the right to fight under the protection of humanitarian law.

It's worth noting that the concept of a "failed state" originated not in international law but in political science theory where its purpose was to help devise development strategies to modernize the Third World - for modernizers the idea of a society that isn't regulated and disciplined by a strong state is intolerable.

But in "the Afghan war," the term failed state became a quasi-legal concept that helped to justify invasion and to create a new category - that of "unlawful combatant," standing in opposition to "lawful combatant." Thus on 9 January 2002 the Justice Department of the Bush Administration published a memorandum stating: "Afghanistan's status as a failed state is ground alone to find that members of the Taliban militia are not entitled to enemy POW status under the Geneva Conventions."

They were to be classed as "unlawful combatants," equated with "terrorists" and subject (in a "war against terror") to American military authority: the camps in which they were held, and the tribunals by which they were tried thus became instruments of military command (not limited in these cases to internal military discipline) as opposed to conditions of civil justice.

However, when the Geneva conventions speak of "lawful combatant" it is to give soldiers protection against the law of homicide; its antithesis is not "unlawful combatant" (a category absent in international law) but "civilian," a status subject to normal legal prohibitions and protections.

The concept of "failed state" thus marks the absence of the sovereign right to prosecute a just war - in this case a necessary "war" against terrorism: because such a state is not sovereign, it does not have the sovereign's right to make war, and so it cannot defend itself but must be defended (if defence is called for) by a sovereign power mindful of its rights and responsibilities in "the international community."

Terror and the sovereign state

There is another question regarding the state's sovereign power and its relation to terror. In its reference to terrorism the United Kingdom Terrorism Act 2000 explicitly includes the threat of force and not merely to its actual use. From this there follows the question: Does the state's threat to annihilate its hostile opponent's civilian population by a nuclear strike constitute terrorism?

A common (and somewhat paradoxical) answer is not only to concede that terror is a prime purpose of nuclear armament but also to claim that a "balance of terror" is a necessary way of securing peace.

Of course, the emotional experience of witnessing a terrorist attack such as 11 September is not the same as the experience of living under the permanent threat of a nuclear holocaust that is, after all, pushed beyond everyday consciousness.

Yet it is precisely the implicit appeal to that difference in emotional experience that induces people to accept 11 September as a genuine case of terror ("radical evil") necessitating a punitive war, and nuclear confrontation as an international arrangement for preventing the evil of war.

In the one case there is a sense of moral certainty, in the other a hope based on probabilities.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice gave an Advisory Opinion in answer to a question from the World Health Organization about the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons in international law.

Its reply was that although it was unlawful if it failed to meet all the requirements of the United Nations Charter or all the principles and rules of humanitarian law, it was neither authorized nor prohibited.

The Court's final conclusion stated that "in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."

Note that the phrase "extreme circumstance" in this Advisory Opinion refers not to an imminent threat to the lives of large numbers of human beings but to the sovereign power's claim to immortality. The International Court of Justice offers an Advisory Opinion on the legality of a state's resort to organized terror and concludes that it lies ambiguously within the space of necessity indicated by the Court.

The survival of the state as a sovereign entity is taken as the highest value. The curtailment of the civil rights of United States citizens after 9/11 as part of the Homeland Security system may thus be seen not as a response to a threat to American lives but as a perceived threat to the sacred power of the state to which even citizens must be sacrificed - in the battlefield, in prison, and as the object of targeted assassination. Kahn correctly observes that

"what is most important about our political culture is our willingness to kill and be killed ... We remain embedded in a culture of sacrificial violence ... At stake in the existence of the nation-state has been the presence of the sacred. The polity begins as a particular community with its own history only when the finite goings-on of individuals are touched by the sacred ... This social imaginary comes to the West in the Old Testament narrative of the origin of the Jewish nation: the sovereign God reveals himself to Abraham. For the individual, the presence of the sacred is expressed in the willingness to sacrifice ... This is the paradigm within which the Western state has developed. It has a sacred origin and a sacred space. Sovereign survival is not one value but an ultimate value without which there can be no meaningful life. The means of survival is sacrifice not because killing and being killed are effective tools ... but because absent sacrifice there is no sacred presence of the sovereign."

This sense of sovereignty's right to demand human sacrifice may explain the fear registered in the final sentence in Paul Kahn's book of terror wielded by militants that echoes numerous security experts today. "The terrorist with weapons of mass destruction may very well put an end to our dream of a global community of human rights," he writes.

And yet is it really terrorist-initiated mass destruction that threatens the dream of a global human community? Is that what is at stake here? So far only the United States has shown that it is capable of using nuclear bombs against another state, and only the United States has used vast quantities of depleted uranium shells in an urban area to win a battle against insurgents.

Is it wrong to see in Kahn's thought an implicit argument not about the survival of a human dream but about the survival of the sovereign state - and hence its right take any means necessary, wherever necessary, to maintain itself?

In spite of the insistence on necessity, however, doubts have emerged about the "war" against terror in Afghanistan. These arise from a mixture of ethical and pragmatic considerations: the continuing slaughter of civilians, the corruption of the Karzai government, the enormous cost of maintaining the army in Afghanistan, and the lack of significant military and political achievement by the occupying forces.

The original invasion was just, many critics now say, but the process of the hostilities over the last nine years has led to the erosion of its moral legitimacy and this has seriously undermined its practical chances of success. (Immorality here does duty as part of a pragmatic argument about military success/failure.)

So people ask why a "war" that many experts agree is unwinnable is nevertheless pursued. In fact there is no single answer to this question.

The assessments of the situation by the military and political establishments (with the latter deferring increasingly to the former) and the different interests (especially of the various corporations involved in the military effort) encourage continuity.

A serious factor, given the military's central position in American society, is the fear that withdrawal will be seen as yet another national defeat like Vietnam, leading to a weak President being politically destroyed - or at the least, the Pentagon budget cut by Congress.

At any rate there is the sheer complication of withdrawing from the country a vast machine like the United States army with which numerous private interests, at home and abroad, have become entangled.

How Americans are seduced into war

Popular support for/indifference to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan depends on the way the armed conflict is presented in the mainstream media, and the mainstream media generally reflects the prevailing military consensus. Besides, there is no conscription.

The increasing rate of unemployment among young African-Americans and Latinos provides a steady source of army volunteers. There is also increasing reliance on mercenaries. And perhaps more significantly, there is the expanding use of drones.

The result is that middle-class anxieties about the casualty rate sustained by the United States isn't great. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars may not be popular but organized opposition to them is insignificant.

Another reason has been suggested for this indifference: there is a general despair at the failure of the massive anti-war demonstrations prior to the Iraq invasion, leading to a sense that the rulers will not listen. This may well be so, but I think there is something else as well: complicated emotional identifications and displacements within American public opinion.

Mahmood Mamdani has pointed out that the muted opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contrasts with the large numbers of Americans (including public personalities) mobilized for action by the Save Darfur Campaign that opposes a non-American counterinsurgency.

The powerful desire to intervene compassionately - to identify with victims of violence and save them (that is, oneself) at the same time - is here exhibited in contrast to any sense of responsibility on the citizen's part for the highly destructive conflicts being fought in foreign lands by her government in her name.

There seem therefore to be two kinds of "necessity" at work here: One driven by a humanitarian sentiment, the other resulting from the passivity of a democratic citizenry. Both are socially constructed but whereas citizenship presupposes political rights and political duties, the former only needs living beings with which to empathize.

What is the relevance of this distinction for the strength of the opposition to the Afghanistan war? It suggests that since the Second World War social-historical conditions in the United States - and in particular the emotional identification of most Americans with their state as the world's freest, most virtuous, and most powerful nation - have developed so as to render the concept of responsible citizenship less and less viable.

For to demand that one's state managers be held accountable is at once to take a distance from the law state and to assert the sovereignty of responsible citizens of that state.

Andrew Bacevich (a retired United States army colonel, and now a professor of history and international relations) has attempted to explain what he sees as the decline of American citizenship by reference to the military.

In the American past, he says, citizenship and soldiering were seen as being closely connected (only full citizens were liable to be called up) but that now the link is severed.

The fact that United States citizens are no longer required to do military service has a serious impact on United States politics and culture generally, and with the performance of American sovereignty in particular.

As with religion, and so much else in secular market society, soldiering has become a matter of individual choice. The distancing of the military from civil society separates full citizenship from exposure to death and mutilation in defence of the political community, and passes on that responsibility - and the anxieties that come with it - to a small number of professionals, including mercenaries who are often not American nationals at all.

One consequence of the average citizen's non-involvement in a distant war is the lack of any consciousness that he has a responsibility for it. But, as I have indicated, this seems to go along with a curious eagerness to mobilize for active support of one side in a distant civil war for which the United States government has no responsibility.

I thus agree with Bacevich when he maintains that 11 September 2001 was not a new beginning but an impetus given to a trend since the Vietnam War that gave the military a central place in American society, in which the world's most powerful military became the most important object of national pride and the preferred answer to foreign policy problems.

Review of Ghazi-Boullion's ''Understanding the Middle East Peace Process''

Professor Asad reviews Ghazi-Boullion's  ''Understanding the Middle East Peace Process: Israeli Academia and the Struggle for Identity'' published in Anthropology Now

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Praise for Ovamir Anjum's ''Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment''

"Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought is a valuable contribution to the history of Islamic political experience. It approaches this rich history as a tradition of conflicting interpretations and debates that culminates in a fascinating re-examination of Ibn Taymiyya's creative response to the politics and thought of his turbulent time. In this account Ibn Taymiyya emerges as an original political thinker who restored (and elaborated on) the central role of the community in theories of Islamic governance. This book deserves to be widely read not only by specialists in medieval Islamic history but also by all who are interested in contemporary Islamic thought."

Ovamir Anjum's book came out from Cambridge UP - MORE INFO

Praise for Khaled Furani's ''Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry''

"This is a wonderful ethnography of contemporary Arabic poetry. Khaled Furani has made a significant contribution to a relatively neglected territory in the study of the secular. Silencing the Sea enlarges our understanding of the way modern pressures and seductions have led to the undermining of older sensibilities and the formation of new, and of how this process is reflected in Arabic poetry. This not simply a book for literary specialists, but for anyone interested in thinking about the different dimensions of secular experience."


Monday, April 30, 2012

Praise for Hussein Ali Agrama's “Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt”

“Questioning Secularism is a mind-widening book. It is not simply a contestation or reconstruction of the doctrines of secularism but an enquiry into the ways in which it continually generates questions—about necessary limitations to public expression, about the dangers of religious politics, about the place of the Shari‘a in a liberal state, and so forth. At the center of these questions, says Agrama, is the concern to determine the line between politics and religion. Agrama explores this theme brilliantly in the context of contemporary Egypt by drawing on a rich body of ethnographic and historical data, and presents the reader with valuable insights into the ways sovereignty, public order, and state of exception are implicated (often in contradictory ways) in the question of secularism in that country. The most innovative part of this impressive work is the comparison between the Egyptian family court and the Fatwa Council, both based on understandings of the Shari‘a but each very different in its conditions of existence and its orientation. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in secularism today.”

Questioning Secularism: 
Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt

Hussein Ali Agrama 

University of Chicago Press, 2012

Praise for Nadia Abu El-Haj's “The Genealogical Science”

The Genealogical Science is a wonderful account of how old-fashioned race science has come to be re-defined by resort to the most recent developments in genetics. But this book is not simply another story of the ideological uses to which science may be put. Nadia Abu El-Haj has provided the reader with a very detailed analysis of the historical entanglement between science and politics. Her study should be required reading for anyone interested in the sociology of science—and also for those dealing with Middle Eastern nationalisms. This is a work of outstanding value for scholarship.”

The Genealogical Science: 
The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology 

Nadia Abu El-Haj 

University of Chicago Press, 2012

for more details click here

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Praise for Samera Esmeir's 'Juridical Humanity' (2012)

''Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History is an impressive work of scholarship—original, soundly argued, and thought provoking. Although existing histories of law distinguish between colonial and pre-colonial periods, Esmeir argues persuasively against the distinction, insisting that essential aspects of the latter can only be understood by examining how the former construed and dealt with it. This book helps the reader to formulate questions about the history of law and society in the Middle East that have not been raised in this way before. It deserves to be widely read by everyone interested in the Middle East.''

Publisher's Website

Esmeir teaches at Berkeley Rhetoric

Talal Asad Interview (2011, Minnesota Review)

Janell Watson interviews Talal Asad: 
Modernizing Middle Eastern Studies, Historicizing Religion, Particularizing Human Rights

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Asad's ''Towards a Genealogy of the Concept of the Ritual'' (1988)

Asad's famous genealogy of the concept of the ritual was first published in a Festschrift to Lienhardt.
Vernacular Christianity: Essays in the Social Anthropology of Religion, edited by Wendy James and Douglas H. Johnson, Lilian Barber Press, 1988.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Reprint: The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (2009 [1986])

Talal Asad's classic article The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam has ben reissued by Qui Parle (17:2)


The suspicious revolution: an interview with Talal Asad

Nathan Schneider's interview with Talal Asad at The Immanent Frame
Schneider, Nathan. 2011. The suspicious revolution: an interview with Talal Asad. The Immanent Frame. (accessed January 13, 2012).

NS: Since you’ve just been in Egypt, I wonder if we can start by talking about some of your reflections on the Arab Spring. How would you characterize what has changed in the Middle East, and in the world?

TA: I wouldn’t say that I’m competent to talk about the whole world, but I think it’s an extremely encouraging development in the Middle East. The bravery and courage and idealism of the people was really something to watch and to listen to. It is quite true, as everybody says, that, whatever happens, we’ll never go back to square one in Egypt. But a lot of the other things that people want, I suspect, may not be realized. There won’t be social justice—there won’t be all sorts of reforms that the pro-democracy activists called for. Currents and forces both inside the country and out will ensure that it doesn’t proceed as many people had hoped at the beginning. It’s much more complicated than accounts in the media would lead us to believe. I’ve been trying to make sense of it myself ever since I arrived in Cairo. But, you know, I’m a pessimist about all sorts of things—politics included.

NS: What was it like to be there in the midst of a revolution?

TA: Even before my wife and I went, people kept saying to us, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Our Air France plane was actually cancelled. We were due to go on the 29th of January. We eventually left on the 12th of February, via Paris. We weren’t even able to go directly to Cairo, either. We had to go through Beirut. Then, all sorts of people starting ringing, again asking, “Is it safe? Are you sure you’ll be safe? We’ve heard all sorts of frightening things.” Remember the stories circulating early in the uprising about the prisons that had been opened and the police being withdrawn from the streets? That was what the fear was about. People wouldn’t believe me, but I was there for four months, almost, and I went all over town and never encountered any violence. I didn’t have any friends who could attribute violence to the uprisings—which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Cairo contains eighteen million people, so it has always had its fair share of criminality. But ordinary life, actually, continued. Cafes were open, and shops, restaurants, and so on. You’d often hear that foreigners were in danger, or that ordinary life was impossible, but that is really not true.

NS: Impossible, that is, without the control of the state and the police?

TA: Exactly. There are elements in Egypt that were quite happy to circulate stories of unrest. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces talked again and again about the fact that we must have stability, which is then linked ominously to questions about the state of the economy. Since the economy suffers from the political instability in the country, they say, we shouldn’t have more demonstrations or strikes. But one of the things that emerged for me there, and which I’m trying to make sense of, was the constant flow of speculation, of suspicion, about who’s saying and who’s doing what. Why are they doing this? Are they really doing it for good reasons? Is it the army? The Muslim Brothers? Is their presence or absence significant? Do they mean what they say?—You know, that sort of thing. I can’t claim to have made good sense of it yet, but, to me, this seems very important.

NS: The fault lines of Egyptian society definitely seem to be shifting, and maybe suspicion is a consequence of that. We saw lots of images here of Muslims and Christians watching over each other in Tahrir Square, for instance.

TA: I was very pleased to see these expressions of solidarity.

NS: A lot was made of the fact that their demands were economic and political rather than explicitly religious. Did you see, or did you sense, that this suspicion was part of a novel form of secularity emerging on the streets there?

TA: My own work has questioned the mutually exclusive categorization of the secular and the religious, and I think there is lots of evidence, empirical and analytic, to show that the way in which secularity has been thought of conventionally won’t do to understand all that has occurred in recent history. Just recently, I saw scenes on Democracy Now! of people carrying placards with slogans for the camera, in Arabic, which said, “We insist on the trial of such and such,” but which started off with “Allahu akbar!” These utterances were not seen as inconsistent. I saw this myself in Tahrir Square. Egyptians use these expressions, like inshallah—God willing—all the time. As far as expressions are concerned, there was such spillover in all sorts of ways.

NS: But does that linguistic spillover go so far as to affect how institutions are being transformed?

TA: They may, to the extent that language use carries sentiment, hopes, and fears about social changes. There is discussion about whether the new Egypt will be a secular state or not. Many among the Muslim Brothers and those who are sympathetic to them have said, of course, that they are against a secular state. But they’re not saying they want a religious state either. Instead, they’re talking about having adawla madaneyya, which literally means a “civil state.” What that implies isn’t entirely clear yet. But the insistence by people that they want neither a religious state nor a secular one has appeared again and again in all sorts of discussions.

NS: Such ambiguity might be disappointing to some secularists watching from the West.

TA: But it isn’t a straightforward question, in any event, of unambiguous “secularism” arising in that context. What will emerge in Egypt, in terms of both practical politics and thinking about politics, and the role of religion, is still very open.

NS: Do you think something had to change in the minds of people to build this kind of movement? Take the assassination of Anwar Sadat, compared to the uprising against Mubarak. One had machine guns and grenades, and the other had millions out in the street, mostly peacefully. What accounts for the difference?

TA: Well, it isn’t as if the recent events were totally without precedent.

NS: No, there had been decades of organizing—and, of course, there was the example of Tunisia.

TA: There had been strikes and demonstrations for a long time, and there was the Kefaya movement, although it was rather limited and somewhat elitist. But peaceful protests in the past have not attracted much attention from the Western media. I do think things have changed, but I don’t think it was quite like a conversion, so to speak, nor was it all pre-arranged and carefully thought out as a revolution. In some cases, people discover that they’ve got some power they didn’t think they had—even a technique that they don’t intentionally develop, but which they suddenly find themselves with and begin to understand. Maybe one needs to think of the uprising as more than a technique for getting rid of a despotic regime, but as a mode of existence, almost. The novelist Alaa Al Aswani said in an interview with The Independent that being part of this revolution is “like being in love.” I don’t think it’s quite like that. You might say, actually, that it’s more like a religious experience.

NS: Does the sense of suspicion that you were talking about fit into those comparisons? Is it like jealousy in love, or doubt in religion? How uniquely Egyptian is it?

TA: I’ve been thinking of it as something intrinsic to revolutionary situations. If you look back even to the French Revolution, and certainly to the Russian Revolution, that’s exactly what always happens. The revolution eats its own children, as the saying goes—partly because there’s so much at stake. There are so many enemies, and you don’t know who they are or who will do what. I see it simply as part of such a situation, which can never be resolved by final answers because it is always generating new questions on one side or another. No revolution is ever finished.

NS: Can you say more about how that suspicion took form in Cairo?

TA: I had a discussion with some friends of mine just before the March 19 referendum, and all the left-wing ones were saying that they’d be voting no. I remember thinking that it doesn’t quite add up. To sayno would be to say that there would be no elections in September for the national assembly as originally planned, and that the army would stay on ruling the country for another year and a half. And yet these same people had already said that they didn’t trust the army! “Yes,” they said, “but we want the army to be replaced by a committee of three civilians.” But you know that’s not going to happen, I said. So there seems to be a certain inconsistency here: one becomes so suspicious about some possibilities that where one should be suspicious one isn’t.

NS: Since coming back to the United States, have you noticed a shift in how the West perceives the Muslim world?

TA: Well, I don’t read newspapers regularly—so you might be in a better position to answer that than I.

NS: Really? Why don’t you read newspapers?

TA: It’s not that I have any sound reason for it. I haven’t read newspapers for thirty years because I find that, for some reason, they tend to break up my mind. They write about so many different things, and you’re always going from one thing to another, and then on to another, unrelated to the last. I like to read journals—weeklies. I also watch Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! and some of the news programs on Russia Today. Listening to TV newscasts is less disruptive, strangely. So I’m not sure I can adequately answer your first question as to whether there has been a change in Western depictions of the Muslim world or not.

NS: I suppose I’m thinking about the difference between the images we saw of the “Arab Street” in Tunis and Cairo and, say, those during the Danish cartoon controversy—

TA: Shouting, and the rest.

NS: Yes, shouting, and burning flags, intense violence, people getting killed and killing each other—this sort of self-immolating fury. And then, suddenly, we have this other set of images, where two dictators get knocked off in the space of a few months, in a relatively orderly and impressive way.

TA: I think one should distinguish between the cartoon affair, which mostly involved Muslim immigrants in Europe, and the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Western media haven’t been interested in the long history of political protests and strikes in Egypt, say, as they have been in the sexy cartoon affair. The significance of the current uprisings is not just that they are peaceful. It’s that they indicate a major unsettling of a region strategically crucial to Western powers.

NS: What do you think made the Danish cartoon incident such a crisis?

TA: I’ve written about this at length in several places a couple of years ago. I think it was partly the continuing obtuseness of liberals, especially in Europe—liberals who are almost never consistently liberal. That particular scandal was unfair to the immigrants, and somewhat hypocritical. Liberals like to say that everything should be up for criticism. But we know it isn’t. And now in the US we have a state that is increasingly invading our privacy, and there seems to be very little resistance to that from liberal intellectuals. Anyway, shouldn’t we be more disturbed by the intellectual undermining of things we think of as eminently rational and decent? We should be ready to ask ourselves whether perhaps they’re not quite as rational or decent as we thought. But instead of learning how to deal with immigrants as part of our society we think of them as invaders.

NS: It sounds like the revolutionary suspicion that you were talking about earlier—seeing enemies everywhere except where it matters most.

TA: Normally, the element of hypocrisy in itself is not terribly interesting. What interests me more is that the cartoon scandal raises questions about how we think of freedom, including religious freedom, and about the language that is used to defend some of the things we think of as most valuable, if not sacred, to us.

NS: In the case of the cartoon controversy, for instance, free speech.

TA: Yes, if you want to put it that way.

NS: What’s being asserted, then, when Western, secular liberals claim that a cartoon about Muhammad is free speech and shouldn’t be apologized for? What is encoded in that claim?

TA: I think one thing that’s encoded there is a certain attitude toward religion in general, toward Islam in particular, and also the attitude that nothing is sacred. But there is also a sense of “these wretched immigrants who don’t understand our culture.” The encoding in this whole cartoon affair was a secularist one, which categorized the cartoons as free speech, even if they were deliberately provocative—not just deliberately provocative, but insulting. Why do it? What’s the motive? I’m talking about speculation and suspicion; what is the motive for wanting to attack Muslims? Why not just say, “If you riot in the streets or kill somebody, I’m afraid you’ll have to suffer the consequences under the law”?

NS: Well, wasn’t there a principle at stake: the right to provoke if one so wishes, and to criticize religious beliefs?

TA: Yes, but why do we want to exercise that right in some cases and not in others? I’m not just after prejudice, but the morphology of our provocative choices. There was much talk, sentimental and romantic, of a duty to fight for the right to free speech. As soon as an incident like this happens, we’re immediately regaled with stories about Bruno at the stake, and the Catholic Church, and so on. One doesn’t quite have to think in these terms. Our problems are not medieval problems. The challenges are not the same. For God’s sake, let’s think clearly! All this complaining about religious dogmatism—we know very well that some of these secular critics are about as closed-minded as you can get on all sorts of issues. Even as eminent a theorist as John Rawls says that certain kinds of reasoning should not be allowed into the domain of politics because all they do is create irresolvable conflict, so that only what liberals deem rational can be allowed to enter public space. Is it the case that religion always produces conflict that can’t be resolved peacefully? Doesn’t secular provocation—“fighting words”—lead to violent conflict? Does every conflict in society have to be “resolvable”? Of course there have to be limits on provocation.

NS: What about the election in the Palestinian territories of Hamas, or even the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood right now in Egypt? There’s this incredible suspicion right now in the West, which views these factions as unpredictable and uncontrollable, and we’ve taken political measures to suppress them. Is that a kind of censorship, too?

TA: Yes, I think you’re right. The need to control and predict non-Western movements is what it’s partly about. But let me give you an example of what I think happens, mistakenly, in the explanations secularists give of the Muslim Brothers. The Brothers’ ideas are really, in many respects, in a state of flux. The younger members often contest or disobey the directives of their leaders. There are different currents within the movement itself. Their present situation is also an expression of the fact that—and most people in the West don’t know this—the Muslim Brotherhood was savagely repressed by past Egyptian governments for 60 years. They have been put in prison, hanged, tortured, exiled. I say this not because I think one should be sympathetic to them because of what they’ve suffered, but because, like so many people who have suffered, they have developed an instinct for mere survival. In my view, having talked to some of them, simply how to survive politically, as an organization, is what their leadership has learnt best over time. Their minds are focused on that aim and have become rigidified. They’re not able to think freely enough yet—about freedom of thought, speech, and action—to take advantage of the new situation.

NS: Perhaps, when repression is involved, suspicion can turn to paranoia.

TA: Yes, for both persecutors and persecuted. Because the Muslim Brothers have contradictory positions and are in many respects confused, my friends in Egypt say, “Ah, you see? They say one thing and mean another! One member says this and another says that!” What could quite reasonably be seen as fluidity, uncertainty, and disagreement on their part gets represented as speaking with a forked tongue. I’ve heard so often the remark: “This is just a game that the Muslim Brothers play.” This makes me wonder whether anybody else in politics plays games! Liberals? Socialists? Conservatives? Don’t they say one thing and then do another, or compromise on their principles for the sake of practical ends? That is, in part, how an obsessive suspicion closes off the mind to any serious attempt at understanding what’s going on. For most of my left-wing friends, the Muslim Brotherhood equals hypocrisy and the hidden determination to establish a totalitarian state. I think this a priori suspicion is wrong. I don’t think, by the way, that there’s even a danger of anything like that happening. In comparison to other groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah—with whom, I should say, I do have sympathies—the Muslim Brothers do not have a militant wing. This hasn’t been sufficiently recognized. In the past they were involved in violence, but for many decades now they’ve moved away from it toward a more or less parliamentary line—like Eurocommunism—rather than a revolutionary one.

NS: But isn’t the concern about what could happen if they were voted into a position of power over the police and the military in Egypt?

TA: Yes, but the point is that they would have to get into that position of power in the first place, and the military isn’t their instrument. There’s always a possibility, of course, that they might become a dominant force in government and that they might use the police repressively, like the Mubarak regime. But would that mean a totalitarian government was imminent? For God’s sake, even in the United States the police are used to harass various kinds of movement—peace movements, ecological movements. The security measures now in place here have deeply invaded our liberties and privacy. Still, the United States is not (yet) a totalitarian state, it’s a secular state and it’s highly unlikely that its secularism will be abandoned anytime soon. In Egypt the Muslim Brothers would have to have a very substantial presence in the national assembly before they could do anything really significant, and I doubt that they will have that. In any case we don’t even know what policies the Muslim Brothers would support as members of a government, because the policies haven’t been sufficiently formulated and agreed upon yet. Let’s bear in mind the difference between the promises made by Obama the candidate and the decisions taken by Obama the president. They tell us that democracy is all about compromise and being realistic.

NS: Consider someone who would oppose a right-wing, religious party in the United States. Is there any difference between opposing such a thing in one’s own country, where one understands what’s at stake and what’s at play, and opposing an ostensibly similar party in a foreign country, just by saying, “I wouldn’t want that myself”?

TA: Yes, I can understand that—

NS: Or is there something different that we have to understand about the other society that makes the two incomparable?

TA: I can understand why many people would equate the religious right here and the religious movements there. But I don’t think that they’re directly comparable. There is a difference, and I thinkpart of it comes from the savage repression in Egypt of the Muslim Brothers, which the religious right in the U.S. has not had to undergo. This doesn’t justify anything in particular, but it’s something that one has to think about. And, connected with that, there’s the fact that the Brotherhood is a movement that has been resisting what I would call Western imperialism, whereas that isn’t true of the religious right in the U.S., which, on the contrary, very often supports it. Now, I don’t want to be understood to be saying that simply because the Muslim Brothers oppose imperialism they’re beyond reproach. What I’m saying is that it’s more complicated. During the Brotherhood’s rise in the 1930s, it was strongly anti-British. And the United States has been constantly intervening in Egypt after the British left—even supporting Mubarak right until the very end—and that’s not going to be lost on the Muslim Brothers, although it’s still an open question as to whether they and the U.S. government will now regard each other as implacable enemies.

NS: How much does the fact of their being religious fuel the suspicion leveled against them in the West and among liberals generally? Should it?

TA: I don’t think, in principle, that just because a movement declares itself to be religious, it should be made the object of special suspicion. In my view, one shouldn’t trust anyone who hankers after state power, whether they call themselves religious or secular. The modern state is at once one of the most brutal sources of oppression and a necessary means for providing common benefits to citizens. Whether it is secular or religious seems to me much less important than the fact that it is a state. If we look back over the twentieth century and this should become obvious.

NS: How does having grown up and having been educated on both sides of the colonial divide affect how you look at situations like this? You often see colonialism where other people are blind to it, it seems.

TA: Yes, but I’m also sometimes irritated by people who would like to explain everything in terms of colonialism. That is just so crude. I also find myself resisting people who say that colonialism has nothing to do with the present situation because colonialism is dead and gone. My own feeling is that what people assert or deny is due to colonialism should be constantly interrogated. In our world, external intervention by strong powers, superpowers, or the superpower, is a fact of life. The United States has been intervening in the Middle East for a long time—it would be surprising if it didn’t!

NS: Is such intervention the same as the old colonialism? Or can it be better than that?

TA: It’s neither better nor worse, but it’s certainly not the same. I recall something Hillary Clinton said, in some conference or other, to the effect that in the end the government is concerned not with promoting democracy, as such, but with promoting America’s national interest. That would have to come first. At the same time, she said she would be the happiest of persons if the two things converged—which of course makes the ideal of democracy into an instrument, not an ideal. But I can understand that. I can see why she would say that, because power is what the modern state is about. I can see why the US would want to have what it calls “stability in the region,” a region in which the US has such immense interests—in its oil, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in the confrontation with Iran, and so on. I can see that they would want to have, in every country, some kind of influence, if possible. I might want to attribute everything to colonialism or imperialism, but I think that won’t do. But then nor would I want to say, “Don’t blame imperialism, it’s all your own fault really!” It’s not a question of fault, it’s a question of the way in which various forces collide and intervene and shape what are regarded as national interests.

NS: It’s interesting that you seem so accepting of this interventionist order—

TA: No, I am not accepting of it, certainly not. I’m trying to see things as they really are. But, at the same time, I’m aware that this means not being able to invoke one’s own moral position very easily. Perhaps that’s why I said, early on, that I am a pessimist. I have felt for a long time now that we have gradually—and when I say “we,” I mean everybody in the modern world, and I’ll say more about that—worked ourselves into a situation that is truly tragic, in the Greek sense of having no real resolution. There are the most awful prospects before us, with the kind of technological warfare we now have, with the fantastic extension of consumerism and money, with the consequent growing gap between the very poor and the very rich, with the destruction of the environment, and with the ramifications of climate change and nuclear energy. I really hope that this is simply a sign of my being old. It may well be, because I don’t see things in the way that a younger person would, I’m sure. I see it all as being absolutely disastrous. But people will try to resist, and they should.

NS: How? I think of the Human Terrain Teams that were dispatched in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which anthropologists and other experts in local culture and language would be embedded with military units. Should an anthropologist, someone with a more textured view of what’s happening on the ground, be a part of that process of intervention so as somehow to improve it?

TA: No, certainly not—absolutely not. That’s not resistance, that’s collusion. I remember talking once a long time ago with Edward Said about empire and how it might be defeated. We were just sitting and having coffee, and at one point I responded to some of his suggestions by saying, “No, no, this won’t work. You can’t resist these forces.” So he demanded a little irritably: “What should one do? What would you do?” So I said, “Well, all one can do is to try and make them uncomfortable.” Which was really a very feeble reply, but I couldn’t think of anything else. But it doesn’t follow from a pessimistic outlook that one just has to accept things as they are and ask fellow anthropologists to do the same. In any case, I’m very much against the kind of involvement you mention, making things smoother for empire.

NS: What was it you wanted to say about the “we”?

TA: Oh. When I was a young man, I used to hear and read about the marvels of European civilization, about how Europe had achieved so much, and how the Muslim world, and others, hadn’t. Even China was nowhere then. It was Europe that led the world. People used to speak about “European civilization,” you know, at one time. Then the language gradually shifted, and it’s interesting to trace some of those shifts in language. Now, more and more, one hears people who are very sensitive to our impending disasters talking about how mankind will destroy itself, how mankind has brought itself to a position where it will destroy itself. I find that to be an interesting shift, the move from praising one’s distinctive “civilization” when one thinks of positive things, in order to be able to say to others, “You haven’t been able to achieve these things.” And then, when you’re in a bloody mess to which there may be no solution, you talk about “mankind” having brought itself to the brink of disaster.

NS: “We’re all in it together.”

TA: And in a sense we are—it’s true. But maybe we aren’t all equally responsible. People in villages in India, or Africa, or Latin America—they’re not responsible for climate change. There’s an interesting way in which one says, not only, “We’re all in this together, so let’s work together,” which is fine. But “It’s everybody’s fault”? That’s different. As one used to say in school, trying to spread the blame around, “It’s not only my fault, sir! All of us, we all made this mess!” It’s that kind of cowardly reaction I’m referring to.

NS: Whose fault is it, then?

TA: Again, it’s not a question of fault. There’s a long history of human choices that is leading us all, unintentionally, to where we shall soon be—at a dead end. Some of these choices were more momentous, affecting far more people, than other choices. Some of us now are in a more powerful position to choose than others are. “Mankind” is not an agent.