Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

Like many of our readers I’ve watched the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt unfold with a mixture of hopeful expectation and anxious trepidation. It has been a long time since something called a revolution has actually been one. Still, I am one of those on the Left who celebrate every act of resistance, regardless of its subsequent failure, because they serve to remind all of us that the state we are in is always contingent. That there are fissures and cracks dotting the seemingly monolithic entity that is Empire. And so with the same expectation I have watched and tried to understand. I don’t think that I do completely understand, as I’m sure most of us feel, but I felt the need to write down some thoughts on the matter especially since the other big theology blogs yet again remain silent in the face of massive political and social unrest. Preferring instead to continue their usual self-flagellation about their chosen career path or posting links to lectures by yet another conservative theologian espousing a sophisticated form of apologetics.

All of these events have happened at the same time as my interests in certain messianic forms of Islam has deepened, mostly through reading the work of Christian Jambet and his teacher Henry Corbin (though through them I’ve now tracked down a few English translations of their source materials that I’m looking forward to reading, sadly many of them remain untranslated in English with Brigham Young University leading the field in translation[!]). They worked mainly on Ismaili Shi’a Islam and Sufi Islam, but the contribution of Corbin in showing that there exists a larger mystical tradition in Islam outside of Sufism and that there is a distinct philosophical tradition in Islam as a whole should not be discounted. While Corbin’s personal politics are certainly suspect, I don’t think we can really locate in him the anti-semitism present in many Orientalist’s focus on Sufism within Islam.

What strikes me about Corbin’s theory of religion, subsequently taken up by Jambet, is its dualistic essence: there is an Islam where forms of liberty are manifested and there is a law-bound Islam. The reason I’m attracted to this is because I think it works generally as a metaphysical model of religion and politics, and we see it operative in thinkers as diverse as Bergson (the static religion of closed morality and the dynamic religion of open morality) and Negri (constitutive power and constituted power). Sometimes these two metaphysical tendencies can be located within a single body, as in Qutbism (which is an ideological form at play within the Muslim Brotherhood) where there is simultaneously a closed society of true Muslisms and an underlying devotion to the universal freedom of the divine that manifests itself politically, at least in his late writings, in the rejection of all forms of human governance. This fundamental ambiguity at the heart of every religion, between the outbreaking of the messianic act (which is always, in the last instance, a human or “creatural” act and so not an ‘inbreaking’) and the capture of creative power by way of some form of the law. Qutbist conceptions of the law are perhaps the most dangerous and mirror standard biopolitical models of “(self-)care of the self” where the law is internalized within, rather than being located within a regime that one can be against. Yet, this is also what makes Qutbism so close to the form of the messianic act that we see throughout religious history, notably for Islamic history in the Ismaili proclamation in 1164 of the “Grand Resurrection”, where the abolition of the external law occurs through the internalization of a higher law (Taubes writings on Marx and Kierkegaard are of interest here).

The Grand Ressurection is the focus of Christian Jambet’s simply amazing book La grande résurrection d’Alamût. Les formes de la liberté dans le shî’isme ismaélien. There he traces the proclamation alongside of a number of different philosophical and theological treatises by important Ismaili thinkers. In short, the event of the Grand Resurrection, proclaimed in the middle of Ramadan, abolished the law and instead united the entrenched community according to a single imperative – to contemplate in the perfect man (the resurrected man) the visible and manifest face of divinity. In short, this was a utopian community where one lives a divine life in the midst of this World, at once focused internally and yet remaining a political community. While Jambet cautions his readers from making an overly hasty connection between this event and political revolutions related to class struggle, he himself makes sees within the abolition of the law and the interior turn of the Ismailis a form of cultural revolution (which I’ve written about before).

It seems that if we are to understand these situations, or even if we are to understand the ongoing struggle in Iran to make actual the revolutionary moment of 1979 after it was captured (in part through democrat means) by Khomeini, then we must begin to consider the role of law and religion at work in Islam and it may be that, especially it in its heretical forms, Islam has real consequences for philosophy. But the Muslim is, as Medhi Belhaj Kacem has argued, the pariah of Europe. Kacem’s point is largely adapted from Agamben’s Homo sacer, but he shows how the Muslim population of Europe is both interior to Europe’s identity and excluded from that identity. In some sense this is true in general, since Empire remains a largely European entity and since within Empire the peripheral nations to Europe are still interior to its political and economic functioning. I think that the ban Kacem locates regarding those in the banlieues, largely Black, North African or Arabic and thus “Islamic” bodies, is operative in our philosophy of religion as well.

As philosophers largely within the “Continental tradition”, meaning, in some sense, related to the history of Europe, Islamic thought is somehow never fully engaged with. Toscano points this out regarding Zizek, who never engages with Islam philosophically in the same way he is willing to engage both Judaism and Christianity, but I think it goes back in some sense to Hegel, who Toscano also talks about (actually I just re-read the chapter on Islam, “The Revolution of the East”, in his Fantaticism and it is really brilliant and helpful). Hegel’s philosophy of religion does deal with Islam, but in some sense Islam comes out of sync with the rest of his historical philosophy because Islam comes after the consummate religion. He’s able to wiggle around it somewhat by placing the true consummation of religion in Protestant Christianity, which develops after Islam, and in this way he can lump together the excesses of universalism present in Islam with that of Catholicism, often seen to be in rivalry with the State. But this exactly repeats the ban on Islam MBK locates. For Islam is the constitutive exception to philosophy of religion – it both doesn’t fit within the schema, and so is excluded, and negatively reveals the truth of Protestant Christian universalism. (In MBK’s most recent book, L’esprit du nihilisme. Une ontologique de l’Historie [a critical but appreciative review in English by Alexander Galloway is available online], he, who is himself of Tunisian origin, reveals that Islam actually offers universal resources for thinking through the contemporary political situation. He writes, polemically, that “The Islamic fissuration of the being-One … intuits already the beyond of Christianity and thus the “supercession” of Hegelianism.”)

Who knows if what we are seeing play out today will be the imperative community of tomorrow or will slip into an Ideological Islamist Thermidorian reaction, if this will be the overturning of a culture, or simply the replacing of the old master with a new one. What is clear though is that, if it succeeds, it will do so by way of Islamic material transformed through secular forms. That is the only way I can understand the Egyptians resisting the police by holding prayer, which is at once a sign of obedience but also of rebellion to this regime, or to Coptic Christians forming a human shield around those at prayer in much the same way Muslims formed a chain around Coptic churches during the celebration of Orthodox Christmas after they were attacked by fundamentalists. In each case, like the protesters who announce to the media that they are ready to die on the street or those in Tahrir [Liberation] Square who deified the fighter jets and military helicopters trying to intimidate them, we see an example of the life of the resurrection. These people do not care about survival, after all there was a very real threat today of a massacre from the air, but they are living as if immortal. I’m waiting to see, with hopeful expectation, if these Islamic struggles can continue to draw their power from the generic secular, but I also know that those of us in the West must not cower and acquiesce to the media image of the dangerous Muslim and try to think this as if it were an event, rather than prize our secularism.

30 thoughts on “Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

  1. Thanks, Anthony. Could you clarify what you mean in your last paragraph about ‘Islamic material transformed through secular forms’ and ‘Islamic struggles…continue to draw their power from the generic secular’. Your examples in that paragraph are religious: prayer and protecting other people praying (the latter of course is not exclusively religious but was, in this instance, religiously motivated). So the examples seem to run counter to the idea of the ‘power’ coming from the secular. Isn’t the motivation religious in your examples?

  2. your notice of a dualistic metaphysical model in religion and politics (between an ‘inbreaking’ and an ‘outbreaking’ – or in hegelian terms between the literalization of the law as external power and a raised righteous inclination that overcomes the fate induced by the former) also appears in hegel’s ‘the spirit of christianity and its fate’ that we are trudging through with andrew benjamin right now. the lectures are up on the following site if you’re interested:

  3. Andrew,

    They are religious but in a mode that is “in the last instance” human, rather than Muslim or Christian (or what have). I’m still working out the theory of a generic secular, but if you read the introduction to After the Postsecular and the Postmodern and my piece in the volume you’ll see where I’m heading, I think. In short, I’m claiming that a certain kind of secularity is primary within the messianic act, which I take to be religion’s most intense manifestation of liberty or creativity. It’s a secular that has nothing to do with post-Christian secularism.


    Thanks, I should note, since I’ve recently bothered some younger Hegelians, that my problem with Hegel stems from the way he mixes these two tendencies in a consummation. I want to keep them separate, as I think Bergson does and as Laruelle certainly does. I think this kind of coincidence of opposites is a problem that Corbin has as well.

  4. You might find my supervisor’s work on Hegel interesting in this regard (in French) although it tackles Hegel’s tendency toward suppression in terms of Judaism it might be helpful qua Islam:

    – Le spectre juif de Hegel, Paris, Galilée. Preface by Jean Luc Nancy. November 2005.
    – Le sacrifice de Hegel, Paris, Galilée. October 2007.

    We also read the ‘The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate’ lectures in our Hegel reading group. When it comes to religion the younger Hegel seems far more speculative than the older one. Although I do tend to think (rather uncritically of course) that for Hegel Islam was simply not on his radar. Hermeneutically speaking there was not a lot of Islamic (and other Eastern religious) material for him to work with. He seems to have depended on some ropey sources from time to time. That’s not a defence of Hegel just a mundane fact that I suspect led him to make misinformed speculations on Islam*

    *someone mentioned on twitter before that Zizek may not have read Laurelle when Ben interviewed him for the ST but had to make a comment all the same because he must be seen to have read-it-all – ditto for Hegel on Islam I sometimes feel

  5. I’ve been reluctant to say much about these events, both because I feel under-informed and want to avoid saying something stupid or projecting my hopes onto someone else — but also because of a thorough-going pessimism that affects my thinking about all but my most immediate domestic circle (hence the “hope” I would project would most likely be “despair,” given my subjective state).

    Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Said’s Orientalism the past couple weeks. The typical imperial logic of “Arabs have no tradition of liberty, so we’d better make sure they don’t experience liberty” seems very much at work in the Western responses to Egypt and Tunisia. The discourse of “readiness” is also great — how can the Arabs ever be “ready” for liberty if they have no opportunity to practice it?

  6. Thank you. Well said. Looks like I have to get Toscano’s book on Fanaticism.
    I have been reading some of Tariq Ramadan’s stuff lately and even introduced some of his essays in my History course. I was a little disturbed on the reaction it received; there was either indifference or outright disgust because he was a Muslim. When I opined that he was a moderate Muslim who basically advocates the main points of the Enlightenment, one student responded by saying that Muslims are basically crafty and are allowed to lie to non-Muslims. I know I teach at what is considered conservative Christian colleges but c’mon… Orientalism at its worst.
    @ Anthony: Have you read some of Ramadan’s stuff on mysticism. I’ve only read a little bit of his social-political stuff, but I’m planning to read his Truth is Meaning/Pluralism book soon; I would love to get your thoughts.

  7. Michael,

    First – holy fucking shit!

    OK, so basically, and you probably already know this, your students are talking about taqiyya, which conservatives in the US were obsessed with at the height of the Ground Zero Mosque of Doom controversy. It’s an interesting concept, basically saying that under threat of persecution you can hide your faith, though it is limited to Shi’a Islam. While I’d like to think that elements of Ismaili Islam (a form of Shi’a that has deep and complicated gnostic roots) are spread throughout the Islamic consciousness, the fact is that Sunni Islam (the branch to which the majority of Muslims belong) does not recognize Taqiyya. For the Ismailis taqiyya became important when their empire broke down and they were under threat from Sunni Muslims and from those outside the Islamic world. It was essentially a tactic for the continuation of their culture underground, which of course, as it was a deeply antinomian movement, doesn’t fit within the general adherence to the law in Sunni Islam.

    There is certainly an element of exclusionary politics traditionally associated with Jewish antisemitism, since the practice of taqiyya creates “Secret Believers” not unlike Marrano Jews, the internal threat to Christian Europe after the expulsion of the Moors. I actually think this practice isn’t unlike the parable of the unjust manager though, a rigorous amoralism at the heart of a messianic religion.

    As for Ramadan, I’ve pretty much been reading these quasi- (and sometimes not so quasi-) heretical works. My impression of Ramadan is that he’s the Islamic version of someone like Stout, which is fine and even tactically important considering students like the ones you’ve mentioned, but isn’t so theoretically interesting to me personally. As I start to work more on Islam, though, I’ll likely engage with the more mainstream stuff. Let me know what you make of the book and I’ll try to track it down.

  8. You’re missing the most important issue vis-a-vis Egypt protest: what name should the patronizing Western media give to this revolution? Tunisia got “Jasmine Revolution” (although I’ve only seen this in French newspapers), but what about Egypt? It’s going to be a week soon and no name?! Outrageous!

    If I may propose my own – “Made in the USA tear gas revolution”…

  9. I’m not quite ready to let this die.


    Thanks for the book recommendations. They look interesting and I’ve heard good things about him in the past.

    I’m not quite so sure that Hegel’s thinking of Islam as the exceptional religion can be chalked up to ignorance. While you’re probably right that he wasn’t working with the best studies of Islam, he did devote a lot of time to talking about it in both the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of History, and, if I remember right, there is some discussion of it in the Phenomenology. I have pissed off some friends who are Hegelians lately, but it does seem to me that you can’t simply wave away the centrality of Hegel’s prejudices against “not-Europe”. While everyone was racist then, he made it central to his philosophy.

  10. I think a stronger argument would be to try to argue that Hegel was trying to transcend the thorough-going Euro-centrism of his society in the very act of setting it forth, etc. It’s a little suspect to try to argue that aspects of the ultimate systematizer are detachable due to cultural influences.

  11. Perhaps we could even say: “trying to transcend the thorough-going Euro-centrism of his society in the very act of setting it forth” is the essence of Euro-centrism.

  12. Hegel also said very questionable things about Africa, Asian people, and war. Overall I would say that, while I don’t think it’s entirely productive to try and map contemporary political views onto texts written in the early 19th century and then make moral judgments based on that method, nevertheless I think it’s equally fruitless to excuse the bad things Hegel said, since even judged by the standards of his own time they are somewhat questionable.

    But the more important point is that, in the end, the dialectic does not stand or fall based on what Hegel said about Islam or slavery or Prussian marriage laws, or any of the other various “old syntheses” with which his works are associated. The question is whether it is a productive philosophical construct or not, some will obviously say yes and others no. I think there’s a strong case to be made for a “conditional yes,” and so no reason why it couldn’t prove to be equally relavent to understanding Islam, but that’s just my Euro-centric statist twaddle.

  13. Bryan,

    You really do seem to be a master at missing the point, holding on to this statist thing as if I accused all Hegelians of being Fukuyama.

    Perhaps what would be more interesting than philosophy as fan fiction would be a demonstration of the dialectic’s usefulness in understanding Islam.

  14. I could go for some venting, if someone explained to me that “statism” is. As for dialectic’s “usefulness” in this or that, I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that dialectic isn’t a method in Hegel, so it can’t be “used” at all – thought is in motion (and so on, I don’t want to lecture anyone on Hegel’s Logic, of course).

    I am intrigued, however, by this offending young Hegelian business – you’d think that purporting to being all dialectical (and shit), young Hegelians would be the least sensitive group, you know?

  15. Somehow I was under the impression that my comment would be greeted less petulantly. Perhaps as a form of catharsis, I’ll get a picture of Hegel tattooed to my forearm with some tears coming out of his eyes.

    Mikhael, I don’t think usage implies methodology. Otherwise it would be difficult to think of philosophy in any context outside of exegesis.

  16. I’m not entire sure I understand this “usage” comment – if usage does not imply using, and using does not imply some sort of applying, and applying does not imply some sort of method, then of course there is no connection between usage and methodology. I suppose what I meant to say was that in Hegelian sense one would not say that one can “use” dialectic to understand this or that. One can surely and legitimately say that “I wonder what a Hegelian take on Islam would be” but that would not be suggesting whether dialectics is usefull or not (inasmuch as, say, formal logic is or is not useful when thinking). Dialectic describes (let’s leave descriptive/prescriptive issue for the moment) how thought moves (from abstract to negative to concrete and so on) – you can’t use it to look at X or Y, it’s not a method. That’s all I was suggesting.

  17. With all due respect to the learned interlocutors here, may I notice the workings of an uncanny “Hegelian” effect: As Adam and Dan (Barber) may be aware (see above), the attempt to overcome Eurocentrism in this dialogue can all too easily become yet another unwitting expression of it. What started nicely with Anthony’s earnest engagement with Egypt’s present struggle and its possible cultural-political (whether “religious” or “secular”) potencies, quickly turned into a debate about Hegel, his Eurocentrism, and the “usability” of his dialectics. This is the sort of thing that would have made Hegel happy: to have everything (re)enfold and subsume itself (and thus disappear) under the effects of his own thought.

    But there is another, more subtle mode of “Eurocentrism” which plagues even the soberest of all: We assume that in the legitimate struggles of others for liberation, they must deploy their own ethical and intellectual traditions and only (or chiefly) those source-springs. We forget all too easily that THEY might be just as cosmopolitan as (if not MORE SO than) we ourselves. One of the oft neglected effects of hegemony is that it CAN (over time) afford the colonized and subaltern forceful weapons of self-liberation. Gandhi should have taught us well, as Dr. King well knew. Hence we should not be surprised at how much, say, the discourse of human rights has been pressed into useful service by oppressed peoples all over the world – not least by Engaged Buddhists of Asia today (the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi among them) – certainly in the international arena, where help is understandably solicited, but also increasingly among their own constituents. The fact that the sophisticates in Continental philosophy think this problematic (as I also do) does not necessarily blunt their weapon. “To everything there is a season”: Different temporalities intersect.

    Finally, as much as we would like to think (“postcolonially”) in terms of cultural integrity (not to say historical specificity), there is a stronger transcultural element between Berlin, Tiananmen, Baltic, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt (just to name the recently obvious) than we like to admit. When people of all ages know they are fed up, they know that for a certain truth, whether they can articulate it well to themselves or others – or not. Someday we can return to a calm exchange about the dihlīz (liminality) of an Al-Ghazālī and how it allows for strategic pivoting between a multiplicity of discursive and political praxes. But TODAY (I realize things have turned since the weekend when this blog thread occurred) as we watch the ferocious counterattack by Mubarak’s blood hounds on the multitudes while Obama keeps giving him time, we must lay aside our theorizing (for now) on this or the other topic and urge our President to take IMMEDIATE ACTION (start with emails and demonstrations): STEP DOWN TODAY, MUBARAK, OR WE TAKE AWAY YOUR AID!

    Short of this, Mubarak will most likely prevail, thousands will die, and more will disappear. We can’t let this happen, or – and this would be the least of the shames – we won’t have much to theorize about concerning the political future of “Islam.”

  18. David,

    I’m less hopeful about entreating the powers that be. I can’t get the scenes of February 15th, 2003 out of my head. But I too have been wondering what ways I can show solidarity other than by shouting into the ether that is the internet.

    As for your other comments, I just want to say that I didn’t mean to suggest there is a lack of cosmopolitanism at work in the Islamic world (and I use this phrase knowing its weakness). This is what I meant to say with the idea of the generic secular, which is a kind of principle of human translation primary to any static element of whatever tradition. The generic secular is the becoming “whatever” of tradition in this regard.

    Thanks though, I like this comment.

  19. Anthony,

    I agree with your reservations both on cosmopolitanism (as often a sophisticated acquiescence to and availing oneself of Empire) – and that is why I alluded to Ghazali toward the end, and on the efficacy of “entreating the powers that be,” in this case because of the influence of our entrenched reactionaries on the far right and the possibly more conflicted Israeli lobby. Nevertheless, one HAS to act sometimes despite the odds of success, if nothing else than to say, “here I am too, and I damn well care!” This is, at least, my poor man’s paraphrase of the prophetic tradition (which never regarded possible success as a motivation), as well as the innumerable acts and movements of resistance that, failing, still inspire. At the very least, it is a clear registering of dissent. The poor alternative, I fear, is to be numbered among Yeats “best” who “lack all conviction.” We’ve all made that mistake before.

    That said, I look forward to your exposition on the generic secular, and reiterate my call to solidarity for the people of Egypt in this hour of their glorious need!

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