...... The Antinomies of Tolerant Reason: A Blood-Dimmed Tide is Loosed

...........Slavoj Zizek

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A Glance into the Archives of Islam

The excitation and the sense of urgency caused by the daily reports on violent demonstrations against the perpetrators of Muhammed caricatures is on the wane. The time has come to look back (as well as into the future, of course) and draw a balance.

The irony not to be missed is that 99.99% of the thousands who feel offended and demonstrate had never even SEEN the Danish caricatures. This fact confronts us with another, less attractive, aspect of globalization: the “global informational village” is the condition of the fact that something that took place in an obscure daily in Denmark caused such a violent stir in the far-away Muslim countries – it was as if Denmark and Syria (and Pakistan and Egypt and Iraq and Lebanon and Indonesia and…) are neighboring countries. This is what those who see globalization as the chance for the entire earth as a unified space of communication, bringing together all humanity, fail to notice: since a Neighbor is (as Freud suspected long ago) primarily a Thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life (or, rather, way of jouissance materialized in its social practices and rituals) disturb us, throw off the rails the balance of our way of life, when the Neighbor comes too close, this can also give rise to aggressive reaction aimed at getting rid of this disturbing intruder – or, as Peter Sloterdijk put it: “More communication means at first above all more conflict.” [1]

This is why the attitude of “understanding-each-other” has to be supplemented by the attitude of “getting-out-of-each-other’s-way,” by maintaining an appropriate distance, by a new “code of discretion.” European civilization finds it easier to tolerate different ways of life precise on account of what its critics usually denounce as its weakness and failure, namely the “alienation” of social life.” Alienation means (also) that distance is included into the very social texture: even if I live side by side with others, the normal state is to ignore them. I am allowed not to get too close to others; I move in a social space where I interact with others obeying certain external “mechanical” rules, without sharing their “inner world” – and, perhaps, the lesson to be learned is that, sometimes, a dose of alienation is indispensable for the peaceful coexistence of ways of life. Sometimes, alienation is not a problem but a solution: globalization will turn explosive not if we remain isolated of each other, but, on the opposite, if we get too close to each other.

Was, however, that what triggered such violent reactions really the cultural gap between the secular West and the Muslim countries, i.e., the fact that Islam fundamentalists find unbearable any playful-ironic reference to God? For a Western liberal, the sight of mob violence cannot but evoke the first line from William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” (quoted in the title). The poem goes on: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is this not a good description of today’s split between anemic liberals and impassionate fundamentalists? The best are no longer able to fully engage themselves, while “the worst” engage in (racist, religious, sexist) fanaticism.

Are, however, the terrorist fundamentalists, be it Christian or Muslim, truly fundamentalists? There is a feature that clearly distinguishes all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. Since they really believe they found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he is far from condemning him; he just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. The contrast cannot be stronger to the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists who are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers – one can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation. A so-called Christian or Muslim “fundamentalist” is a disgrace to true fundamentalism.

It is here that Yeats’ diagnosis falls short: the passionate intensity of a mob bears witness to a lack of true conviction. The fundamentalist Islamic terror is NOT grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of the global consumerist civilization: the problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that THEY THEMSELVES secretly consider themselves inferior (like, obviously, Hitler himself felt towards Jews) – which is why our condescending Politically Correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dosage of true “racist” conviction of one’s own superiority. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s well-known distinction between amour-de-soi and amour-propre is more than pertinent here:

The primitive passions, which all directly tend towards our happiness, make us deal only with objects which relate to them, and whose principle is only amour de soi, are all in their essence lovable and tender; however, when, diverted from their objects by obstacles, they are more occupied with the obstacle they try to get rid of, than with the object they try to reach, they change their nature and become irascible and hateful. This is how amour de soi, which is a noble and absolute feeling, becomes amour-propre, that is to say, a relative feeling by means of which one compares oneself, a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others. [2]

A true egotist is all too busy with taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortunes to others; a violent pseudo-fundamentalist is, on the contrary, more occupied with (causing misfortune to the) others than with (providing a happy life to) himself. And does this not hold for fundamentalist violence, be it the Oklahoma bombings or the attack on Twin Towers? In both cases, we were dealing with hatred simple and pure: destroying the obstacle (Oklahoma City Federal Building, Twin Towers) was what really mattered, not achieving the noble goal of a truly Christian or Muslim society. [3] Not bearing in mind this logic of envy and resentment is the main cause of the debilitating deadlock of our reactions to the Muslim violence. These reactions oscillated between the two extremes of clinging to the freedom of the press and of demanding respect for the others.

Antinomies of Tolerant Reason

Immanuel Kant developed the notion of the “antinomies of pure reason”: all reason inevitably falls into self contradiction when it attempts to go beyond our concrete sensible experience to address such questions as: "Does the Universe have a beginning in time, a limit in space, an initial cause, or is it infinite?" The antimony arises because it is possible to construct valid arguments to argue both sides of the question: we can conclusively demonstrate that the universe is finite and that it is infinite… Kant argues that if this conflict of reason is not resolved that humanity would lapse into hopeless skepticism which he called the "euthanasia of pure reason." The reactions to the Muslim outrage at the Danish caricatures of Mohammad seem to confront us with a similar antinomy of tolerant reason: two opposite stories can be told about the caricatures, each of them convincing and well-argued for, without any mediation or reconciliation between them.

On the one hand, for a Western liberal for whom the freedom of the press is one of the highest values, the case is clear. Even if we reject in disgust the caricatures, their publication in no way justifies murderous mob violence and the stigmatization of a whole country. Some companies already caught up with the new rules of the game – among others, Nestle and Carrefour. Nestle now emphasizes that no milk of Danish cows is used in their products. The French supermarket chain Carrefour in Egypt informs their “dear clients” that out of “solidarity” with Islamic community they “don’t carry Danish products.” The horror is that they both accepted the stigmatization of a whole country. Going even a step further, the Slovene president apologized to Muslims on behalf of “European civilization” itself!

Those offended by the caricatures should go to a court and persecute the offender, not demand apologies from the state. The Muslim reaction thus displays the blatant lack of understanding of the Western principle of an independent civil society. What underlies this attitude is the sacred status of writing as such (which is why Muslims are prohibited to use toilet-paper). The idea of thoroughly secularized writing is unimaginable in an Islam culture, not to mention a Monty Pythonesque “Life of Muhammad.” There is more in this than may appear. A carnivalesque mocking of divinity is part of European religious tradition itself, starting with Ancient Greek ritualistic ridiculing the gods of Olympus. There is nothing subversive or atheist in it: this is an inherent part of religious life itself. As to Christianity, is the crucifixion itself not a mocking spectacle of blasphemy, making fun of Christ as a king riding a donkey with a crown of thorns? Even more, are there not moments of carnivalesque irony in Christ’s parables and riddles themselves?

On the other hand, a no less convincing case can be made against the West. It soon became known that the same Danish newspaper which published the Muhammad caricatures, in a blatant display of its bias, previously rejected caricatures of Christ as too offensive. Furthermore, prior to resorting to public manifestations, the Danish Muslims did for months try the “European” path of dialogue, asking for reception with government authorities, etc., and were ruthlessly rejected and ignored. The reality behind all this is the sad fact of the rising xenophobia in Denmark, signaling the end of the myth of Scandinavian tolerance. And, last but not least, what about our own prohibitions and limitations of the freedom of the press? Is holocaust not our sacred untouchable fact? At the very moment when the Muslim protests were raging, David Irving was sitting in an Austrian prison for expressing his doubts about the holocaust in an article published 15 years earlier, and was then condemned to 3 years of prison – so it IS prohibited to doubt the holocaust in our liberal societies…

Furthermore, the obvious over-reaction to caricatures, rising up to murderous violence and expanding to the whole of Europe or of the West, indicates how the protests are “not really” about caricatures, but about humiliations and frustrations with Western imperialist attitude. Journalists in the last weeks compete with each other enumerating these “real reasons”: Israeli occupation for Palestinians, dissatisfaction with the pro-American Musharaf regime in Pakistan, anti-Americanism in Iran, etc.etc. However, the problem with this excuse is: does the same not for anti-Semitism itself? It is not “really” about Jews, but a displaced protest about capitalist exploitation. So this excuse only makes it worse for the Muslims: why don’t they address the TRUE cause?

And, last but not least, what about the brutal and vulgar anti-Semitic and anti-Christian caricatures that abound in the press and school-books in Muslim countries? Where is here the respect for other people and their religion, that they demand from the West? Some Muslim groups replied to the Danish caricatures with their own offensive of caricatures. A Muslim group in Europe distributed on the net drawings of Anna Frank in bed with Hitler. Hamshahri, Iran's largest selling newspaper, has announced it is holding a contest on cartoons of the Holocaust in response to the publishing in European papers of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The plan is to turn the tables on the assertion that newspapers can print offensive material in the name of freedom of expression: "The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let's see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons." This exercise is clearly self-defeating: if they really believe that the Danish caricatures of Mohammad were a sacrilegious crime that deserves the harshest punishment, will the holocaust cartoons not repeat the crime? The fact that they are doing it with the excuse “Let us see how tolerant YOU are!” in no way changes this fact. In short, this reaction is a proof that what really matters to the enraged Muslims is a struggle for recognition and respect, a sense of humiliation and hurt pride, NOT religion.

A further proof of this fact is the strange inconsistency in their reference to the holocaust. The Jordanian newspaper Ad-Dustur published on October 19 2003 a cartoon depicting the railroad to the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with Israeli flags replacing the Nazi ones; the sign in Arabic reads: “Gaza Strip or the Israeli Annihilation Camp.” This idea that Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians have been comparable to Nazi actions towards Jews strangely contradicts the holocaust denial. Are we not witnessing here yet another example of the joke evoked by Freud in order to render the strange logic of dreams: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny – that I returned you a broken kettle… Does the same inconsistency not characterize the way radical Islamists respond to the holocaust? (1) Holocaust did not happen. (2) It did happen, but the Jews deserved it. (3) The Jews did not deserve it, but they themselves lost the right to complain by doing to Palestinians what the Nazis did to them. Speaking in Mecca in December 2005, the Iranian president Ahmadinejad implied that guilt for the holocaust led European countries to support the establishment of the State of Israel:

Some European countries insist on saying that Hitler killed millions of innocent Jews in furnaces, and they insist on it to the extent that if anyone proves something contrary to that, they condemn that person and throw them in jail. /…/ Although we don't accept this claim, if we suppose it is true, our question for the Europeans is: Is the killing of innocent Jewish people by Hitler the reason for their support to the occupiers of Jerusalem? /…/ If the Europeans are honest they should give some of their provinces in Europe, like in Germany, Austria or other countries, to the Zionists, and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe, and we will support it."

This statement is the mixture of the most disgusting and of a correct insight. The disgusting part is, of course, holocaust denial or, even more problematically, the claim that Jews deserved it (“we don’t accept this claim”: which one? That Hitler killed million of Jews or that the Jews were innocent and did not deserve to be killed?). What is correct about the quoted statement is the reminder of European hypocrisy: the European manoeuvre effectively was to pay for its own guilt with another people’s land. So when the Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said in response, "Just to remind Mr. Ahmadinejad, we've been here long before his ancestors were here. Therefore, we have a birthright to be here in the land of our forefathers and to live here," he evoked a historical right which, when applied universally, would lead to universal slaughter. Alain Badiou recently addressed this impasse:

The founding of a Zionist State was a mixed, thoroughly complex, reality. On the one side, it is an event which is part of a larger event: the rise of great revolutionary, communist and socialist projects. The idea to found an entirely new society. On the other side, it is a counter-event, which is part of a larger counter-event: colonialism, the brutal conquest, by the people who came from Europe, of the new land where other people, other peoples, live. This creation is an extraordinary mixture of revolution and reaction, of emancipation and oppression. The Zionist State should become what it had in it of being just and new. It has to become the least racial, the least religious, and the least nationalist of States. The most universal of them all. [4]

There is a truth in this insight. Cecile Winter proposed along these lines a nice mental experiment: imagine Israel as it is, in its destiny of the last half-century, IGNORING the fact that Jews came there stigmatized by the signifier of the absolute Victim, and thus beyond moral reproach. What we thus get is a standard story of colonization… However, the problem remains: can one really think these two aspects as different, in the sense of the possibility of the first one (the Zionist state) without the second one? It is like in the legendary “If…” answer of an American politician to the question ”Do you support the prohibition of wine or not?’: “If by wine you mean the terrible drink which ruined thousands of families, making husbands a wreck who were beating their wives and neglecting their children, then I am fully for the prohibition. But if you mean by wine the noble drink with a wonderful taste which makes every meal such a pleasure, then I am against it!” [5]

So why should we, as Badiou proposes, abstract from the holocaust when we judge the Israeli politics towards Palestinians? Not because one can compare the two, but precisely because the holocaust was an incomparably stronger crime. It is those who evoke holocaust that effectively manipulate it, instrumentalizing it for today’s political uses. The very need to evoke holocaust in defense of the Israeli acts secretly implies that Israel is committing such horrible crimes that only the absolute trump-card of holocaust can redeem them.

Udi Aloni’s Forgiveness (2005) is a fiction movie based on one of those crazy historical coincidences: in order to arouse panic among the Palestinians and make them flee during the 1949 war, the Israeli army killed the population of a small Palestinian village in the suburb of Jerusalem and razed to ground all houses; afterwards, they built on these grounds a psychiatric hospital for the survivors of the holocaust (later for the victims of the terrorist kidnappings). The hypothesis of the film is that the patients are haunted by the ghosts of those who are buried beneath the ground of the hospital, in an example of what Gilles Deleuze referred to as the atemporal superimposition of historical moments in the crystal-image. The irony is shattering: those most sensitive to the ghosts of the killed Palestinians are the very survivors of the holocaust (the film plays with the fact that the living dead in the camps were called Muslims, Musulmannen). Aloni neither elevates the holocaust into the Absolute Crime which somehow legitimizes Israeli activity in the occupied zones, allowing the Israelis to dismiss all criticism of the Israeli politics as secretly motivated by the holocaust-denial; nor does he resort to the ridiculously false (and effectively latently anti-Semitic) equation “what Nazis were doing to the Jews, the Jews are now doing to Palestinians.”

The ”anonymous religion of atheism”

It is, however, all too easy to score points in this debate with witty reversals, like: what if the true caricatures of Islam are the violent anti-Danish demonstrations themselves, offering a ridiculous image which exactly fits the Western cliché? The ultimate irony, of course, is that the ire of Muslim crowds turned against Europe which staunch anti-islamists like Oriana Falacci perceive as way too tolerant towards Islam, already capitulating to its pressure; and, in Europe, against Denmark, part of the Scandinavian model of tolerance. It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure will be on you…

In the guise of the raging Muslim crowds, we stumble upon the limit of multicultural liberal tolerance, of its propensity to self-blaming and effort to “understand” the other: the Other is here a REAL other, real in his hatred. We thus encounter the paradox of tolerance at its purest: how far should tolerance for intolerance go? All the Politically Correct beautiful liberal formulas on how caricatures were insulting and insensitive, but violent reactions to them are also unacceptable, about how freedom also brings responsibility and should not be abused, etc., show their limitation here. What is this famous “freedom with responsibility” if not a new version of the good old paradox of forced choice: you are given a freedom of choice – on condition that you make the right choice; you are given freedom – on condition that you will not really use it.

How, then, are we to break this vicious circle of the endless oscillation between pro and contra brings the tolerant reason to a debilitating standstill? There is only one way to do it: to reject the very terms in which the problem is posed. As Gilles Deleuze repeatedly emphasized, there are not only right and wrong solutions to problems, there are also right and wrong problems. To perceive the problem as the one of the right measure between the respect for the other versus our own freedom of expression is in itself a mystification. No wonder that, upon a closer analysis, the two opposite poles reveal their secret solidarity. The language of respect is the language of liberal tolerance: respect only has meaning as respect for those with whom I do NOT agree; so, when the offended Muslims demand respect for their otherness, they accept the frame of the liberal-tolerant discourse. On the other hand, blasphemy is not only an attitude of hatred, of trying to hit the other where it matters most, at the core of the real of his belief. It is stricto sensu a religious problem: it only works within the convolutions of a religious space.

What lurks at the horizon if we avoid this path is the nightmarish prospect of a society regulated by a perverse pact between religious fundamentalists and the Politically Correct preachers of tolerance and respect for the other’s beliefs: a society immobilized by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is, and in which individuals are engaged in regular rituals of “witnessing” their victimization.

In the last years, a public debate was raging in Slovenia: should the Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from ex-Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political, and even architectural reasons, the weekly journal Mladina was most consistent and exposed in its support for the mosque, in line with its general support for the civil and social the rights of the people from other ex-Yugoslav republics. Not surprisingly, in line with its libertarian attitude, Mladina was also the only one to reprint the Muhammad caricatures. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest “understanding” for the violent Muslim protest were the very ones who regularly expressed their concern for the Christian Europe.

The parallel the conservatives evoked was with a scandal in Slovenia a couple of years ago, when a rock group Strelnikoff printed a poster announcing their concert: a classical painting of Mary and the baby Christ, but with a twist – Mary holds in her lap a rat instead of the baby Christ. The point of this parallel was, of course, to reprimand also the caricatures mocking Christianity; at the same time, the difference in reactions of the concerned religious community was noted as an argument for the difference of civilizations, i.e., for the superiority of Europe: we, Christians, limited ourselves to verbal protests, while the Muslims now resort to killings and burnings…

These weird alliance confronts the European Muslim community with a difficult choice which best encapsulates their paradoxical position: the only political force which does not reduce them to second-class citizens, but allows them the space to deploy their religious identity, are the “godless” atheist liberals, while those who are closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that (not those who first published the caricatures, but) those who, out of solidarity with the freedom of expression, reprinted the Muhammad caricatures, are their only true allies.

In his analysis of the political imbroglio of the French revolution of 1848, Karl Marx pointed out the paradoxical status of the ruling Party of the Order. It was the coalition of the two royalist wings (Bourbons and Orleanists). However, since the two parties were, by definition, not able to find a common denominator at the level of royalism (one cannot be a royalist in general, since one should support a certain determinate royal house), the only way for the two to unite was under the banner of the »anonymous kingdom of the Republic«: the only way to be a royalist in general is to be a republican. And does the same not hold for religion? Here, also, one cannot be religious in general, one can only believe in some God(s) to the detriment of others. The failure of all the efforts to unite religions proves that the only way to be religious in general is under the banner of the »anonymous religion of atheism.« As the fate of the Muslim communities in the West demonstrates, it is only under this banner that they can thrive. There is thus a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the all-Muslim outcry against godless Denmark was immediately followed by the heightened violence between Sunnis and Shiites, the two Muslim factions, in Iraq. Is not the lesson of all totalitarianisms that the fight against the external enemy sooner or later always turns into an inner split and the fight against the inner enemy?

When God exists, everything is permitted!

After all the fuss about the “post-secular” return of the religious, about the limits of disenchantment and the need to rediscover the Sacred, perhaps, what we truly need is a dose of the good old atheism. The outrage caused by the caricatures of Muhammad in Muslim communities provides yet another proof that religious beliefs are a force to be reckoned with. Deplorable as the violence of the Muslim crowds may be, the reckless and cynical Western libertarians must also learn their lesson from it: the limits of secular disenchantment. Or so we are told.

Is namely this really the lesson to be learned from the mobs killing, looting and burning on behalf of religion? For a long time, we were told that, without religion, we are reduced to egotistic animals fighting for their lot, with the only morality that of the pact of the wolves, and that only religion can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the main source of murderous violence around the world, one is getting tired of the assurances that the Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting a noble spiritual message of their creed. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, perhaps our only chance for peace?

More than a century ago, in his Karamazov Brothers, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of the godless moral nihilism: “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted.” The French “new philosopher” Andre Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky’s critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book – Dostoyevsky in Manhattan – suggests. He couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if there IS God, then everything, up to blowing up hundreds of innocent bystanders, is permitted – to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, as the instruments of His will, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies our violation of any “merely human” constraints and considerations. The “godless” Stalinist Communists are the ultimate proof of it: everything was permitted to them since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress towards Communism.

In the course of the Crusade of King St.Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she is doing it, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: “Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God.” It is as if today this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Fundamentalists do (what they perceive as) good deeds in order to fulfill God’s will and to deserve salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do not do it with a view on gaining God’s favor, I do it because I cannot do otherwise - if I were not to do it, I would not be able to look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show a true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God’s existence.

The history of European atheism, from its Greek and Roman origins (Lucretius’ De rerum natura) to modern classics like Spinoza, offers a lesson in dignity and courage. Much more than with occasional outbursts of hedonism, it is marked by the awareness of the bitter outcome of every human life, since there is no higher authority watching over our fates and guaranteeing the happy outcome; at the same time, they all strive to formulate the message of joy which comes not from escaping reality, but from accepting it and creatively finding one´s place in it. What makes this materialist tradition unique is the way it combines the humble awareness that we are not masters of the universe, but just parts of a much larger whole, exposed to contingent twists of fate, with the readiness to accept the heavy burden of the full responsibility for what we make out of our lives – is today, when the threats of unpredictable catastrophies loom from all sides, such an attitude not needed more than ever?

A year or so ago, a debate was raging in Europe: should, in the preambles to the draft of the European constitution, Christianity be mentioned as the key component of European legacy? As usual, a compromise was worked out, where Christianity is listed along with Judaism, Islam, and the legacy of Antiquity. But where was modern Europe’s most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post? THIS is the European legacy worth fighting for.

While a true atheist has no need whatsoever to boost his own stance by way of shocking the believer with blasphemous statements, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to the one of respect for other’s beliefs. Respect for other’s beliefs as the highest value can only mean one of the two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions; or, we adopt the relativist stance of multiple “regimes of truth,” disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth. What, however, about submitting Islam – together with all other religions – to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs. When I visited the University of Champaign in Illinois, I was taken to a restaurant which offered on the menu “Tuscany fries”; asking friends what this is, they explained it: the owner wanted to appear patriotic apropos the French opposition to the US attack on Iraq, so he followed the US Congress and renamed French fries freedom fries; however, the progressive members of the faculty (the majority of his customers) threatened to boycott his place if “freedom fries” remain on the menu. The owner didn’t want to lose his customers, but also did not want to appear un-patriotic, so he invented a new name, “Tuscany fries” (which also sounded European, plus echoing the vague of idyllic films on Tuscany…). In a move similar to the one of the US congress, Iranian authorities recently ordered the bakeries to change the name of Danish pastry into “roses of Muhammad.”

It would be nice to leave in a world in which the US Congress would change the name of French fries into Muhammad’s fries, and the Iranian authorities the name of Danish pastry into Freedom pastry. But the prospect of tolerance is the one in which our stores and restaurant menus will be more and more full of different versions of Tuscany fries.

The irony not to be missed is that 99.99% of the thousands who feel offended and demonstrate had never even SEEN the caricatures. This fact confronts us with another, less attractive, aspect of globalization: the “global informational village” is the condition of the fact that something that took place in an obscure daily in Denmark caused such a violent stir in the far-away Muslim countries – it was as if Denmark and Syria (and Pakistan and Egypt and Iraq and Lebanon and Indonesia and…) are neighboring countries. This is what those who see globalization as the chance for the entire earth as a unified space of communication, bringing together all humanity, fail to notice: since a Neighbor is (as Freud suspected long ago) primarily a Thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life (or, rather, way of jouissance materialized in its social practices and rituals) disturb us, throw off the rails the balance of our way of life, when the Neighbor comes too close, this can also give rise to aggressive reaction aimed at getting rid of this disturbing intruder – or, as Peter Sloterdijk put it: “More communication means at first above all more conflict.” [6] This is why he was right to claim that the attitude of “understanding-each-other” has to be supplemented by the attitude of “getting-out-of-each-other’s-way,” by maintaining an appropriate distance, by a new “code of discretion.” European civilization finds it easier to tolerate different ways of life precise on account of what its critics usually denounce as its weakness and failure, namely the “alienation” of social life.” Alienation means (also) that distance is included into the very social texture: even if I live side by side with others, the normal state is to ignore them. I am allowed not to get too close to others; I move in a social space where I interact with others obeying certain external “mechanical” rules, without sharing their “inner world” – and, perhaps, the lesson to be learned is that, sometimes, a dose of alienation is indispensable for the peaceful coexistence of ways of life. Sometimes, alienation is not a problem but a solution.

What we should always bear in mind is the fact that the protests (and the very real violence accompanying them) were triggered by means of representation, by words and images (caricatures, which a large majority of those protesting did not see, but just read or heard about). The Muslim crowds did not react to caricatures as such; they reacted to the complex figure/image of the “West” that was perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures. Those who proposed the term “Occidentalism” as the counterpart to Edward Said’s “Orientalism” were up to a point right: what we get in Muslim countries is a certain ideological image of the West which distorts Western reality no less (although in a different way) than the Orientalist image of the Orient. What exploded in violence was a complex cobweb of symbols, images and attitudes (Western imperialism, godless materialism and hedonism, the suffering of Palestinians, etc.etc.) that became attached to Danish caricatures, which is why the hatred expanded from caricatures to Denmark as a country, to Scandinavian countries, to Europe, to the West – it was as if all these humiliations and frustrations got condensed in the caricatures. And, again, one should bear in mind that this condensation is a fact of language, of constructing and imposing a certain symbolic field.

This simple and all too obvious fact should compel us to render problematic the idea (propagated lately by Habermas, but also not strange to a certain Lacan) of language, symbolic order, as the medium of reconciliation/mediation, of peaceful co-existence, as opposed to the violence of immediate raw confrontation: in language, instead of exerting direct violence on each other, we debate, we exchange words, and such an exchange, even when it is aggressive, presupposes a minimum of recognition of the other. The idea is thus that, insofar as language gets infected by violence, this occurs under the influence of contingent empirical “pathological” circumstances which distort the inherent logic of symbolic communication. What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity to violence precisely because they speak? [7] As already Hegel was well aware, there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification; this violence operates at multiple levels. Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a “unary feature”; it dismembers the thing, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous; it inserts the thing into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it.

Lacan condensed this aspect of language in his notion of the Master-Signifier which “quilts” and thus holds together a symbolic field. That is to say, for Lacan (at least for his theory of four discourses elaborated in late 1960s), human communication in its most basic, constitutive, dimension does not involve a space of egalitarian intersubjectivity, it is not “balanced,” it does not put the participants in symmetric mutually responsible positions where they all have to follow the same rules and justify their claims with reasons. On the contrary, what Lacan indicates with his notion of the discourse of the Master as the first, inaugural, constitutive, form of discourse, is that every concrete, “really existing,” space of discourse is ultimately grounded in a violent imposition of a Master-Signifier which is stricto sensu “irrational”: it cannot be further grounded in reasons, it is the point at which one can only say that “the buck stops here,” a point at which, in order to stop the endless regress, somebody has to say “It is so because I say it is so!”.

Perhaps, the fact that reason (ratio) and race have the same root tells us something: language, not primitive egotistic interests, is the first and greatest divider, it is because of language that we and our neighbors (can) “live in different worlds” even when we live on the same street. What this means is that verbal violence is not a secondary distortion, but the ultimate resort of every specifically human violence. Let us take anti-Semitic pogroms (or, more generally, racist violence). They do not react to (i.e., what they find intolerable and rage-provoking is not) the immediate reality of Jews, but (to) the image/figure of the “Jew” constructed ands circulating in their tradition. The catch, of course, is that one cannot simply distinguish between real Jews and their anti-Semitic image: this image overdetermines the way I experience real Jews themselves (and, furthermore, it affects the way Jews experience themselves). What makes a real Jew that an anti-Semite encounters on the street “intolerable,” what the anti-Semite tries to destroy when he attacks the Jew, the true target of his fury, is this fantasmatic dimension. And the same goes for every political protest: when workers protest their exploitation, they do not protest a simple reality, but a certain meaningful experience of their real predicament. Reality in itself, in its stupid facticity, is never intolerable: it is language, its symbolization, which makes it such. So precisely when we are dealing with the scene of a furious crowd, attacking and burning buildings and cars, lynching people, etc., we should never forget the placards they are carrying, the words sustaining and justifying their acts. [8]


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, “Warten auf den Islam,” Focus 10/2006, p. 84.

[2] Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques, first dialogue.

[3] See Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Petite metaphysique des tsunamis, Paris: Editions du Seuil 2005, p. 68.

[4] Alain Badiou, Circonstances, 3. Portees du mot “juif,” Paris: Lignes 2005, p. 89-90.

[5] There is a deeper problem here, which concerns modern State democracy as such: is it not that the democratic abstraction (“all people independent of sex, belief, wealth, religion…”) is always sustained by a remainder of the contingent Real in the guise of a national Thing (“the /French, American…/ people”)? And does not this remainder return in Badiou’s suppressed French nationalism?

[6] Peter Sloterdijk, “Warten auf den Islam,” Focus 10/2006, p. 84.

[7] See Clement Rosset, Le reel. Traite de l’idiotie, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit 2004, p.112-114.

[8] The further crucial thing to add, of course, is that we do not have multiple cultures, each of them dwelling in its own closed circle: each culture is traversed by an inherent “impossibility,” clashing primarily with ITSELF. Every racist and “fundamentalist” violence always and by definition has the character of a violent passage a l’acte, of escaping into a violent act in order to mask/displace a symbolic deadlock.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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