Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order

  • Book Title:
 Recalling The Caliphate
  • Book Author:
S. Sayyid
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I do not know much about devils, but I know that Ayatollah Khomeini considered the United States to be the ‘Great Satan’. This vision of a world polarised into contending ‘civilisations’ is one of the most popular ways of understanding the post-Cold War world. It can also be seen against a larger context as an attempt to deal with the problem of the decentring of the West and the associated undermining of a universal language based on the idea of the West as universal culture.

In 1999, Ayatollah Khatami, the then newly elected president of Iran, suggested the possibility of an alternative to this vision of intercivilisational conflict.1 His proposal was for a dialogue of civilisations, a proposal that was taken up by the United Nations. Khatami seemed to hope that the polarisation based on geopolitical differences and represented through the clash of civilisations could be overcome by better communication.

 In other words, dialogue would overcome difference. As the news of the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 spread across the world, a number of Iranians from north Tehran took to the streets and held vigils in support of the people who had died as a result of the attacks. It seemed this act showed the common human nature that lay beneath our cultural skins; underneath all our differences we were basically the same.

 Thus, a universal language could be an expression of our common humanity. The idea of a common humanity carries with it the connotations of an end to trouble and strife. Various individuals and groups argue that if we were to recognise that we are the same, the world would be a better, more peaceful and more just place.

When the towers of the World Trade Center were built they were supposed to be the tallest buildings in the world; proud towers that demonstrated the power and achievements of the American enterprise. But, perhaps one of the most ancient, or at least one of the most famous stories of a proud tower, is the story first recorded in one of the lands until recently under direct US occupation.

 The story goes that after the Great Flood, the Black-Headed people wanted to build a city with a great tower. The tower of Babel was built—perhaps, as is suggested by its possible etymology—as a Gate to God, as a demonstration of the capacity of humans to transcend their humble beginnings, and to recreate divine order on earth. Before the tower of Babel was brought down, the story goes, ‘the whole earth was of one language, and one speech’ (Genesis 11).

The whole world was united and humanity was just one happy family (give or take a little fratricide). There were no collective entities in struggles with each other. There was no state, no nation. It is a vision of humanity that is resolutely prepolitical.

This prepolitical world is often what people have in mind when they appeal to commonsense ideas of all humans being the same and conflict arising out of misunderstandings or manipulation by a few evil men. When the tower of Babel was struck down, the happy human family was torn asunder into distinct nations or tribes, and distinct language groups.

The loss of common language opened up the world for conflict: apparently, it made diversity possible and community impossible. For the break-up of language not only meant the introduction of linguistic differences, but also the loss of our ability to communicate with each other and antagonisms emerged in the absence of such communication.

It is the desire to control the production of antagonism and overcome differences that suggests the necessity of a universal language.

The destruction of the tower of Babel can serve as a metaphor for the transformation of the organic to the social. Or, to be more precise, it marks the emergence of the political itself. That is, society has to be established by managing differences. Organicist notions of identity give way to forms of subjectivity based on the identification of enemies and friends. In other words, the political is a means of mastering difference, but at the same time its condition of possibility is difference itself. However, we now live after the fall of the tower of Babel, and thus we are condemned to babble incomprehensibly with each other. In our inability to communicate, suspicion takes hold and violence becomes endemic.

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Dialogue, then, is a means of recovering that unity and, by mastering communication, of overcoming incomprehension and ignorance, and developing/articulating a language that would allow humans after the fall of the tower of Babel to overcome strife and conflict. Such a language was provided by the Western enterprise.

In its 500-year history, the Western project sought to establish a language that would enable the world to be comprehended in its totality. The name of this system of significations varied with context: sometimes it was called Reason, sometimes History, sometimes Science—but I prefer to call it Westernese.

 For this language game arose from extrapolating a very specific reading of the West and projecting it into the future as the destiny of the planet. During the short twentieth century the proud towers of Western enterprise crumbled, and with them the dream of Westernese replacing the chaos ushered in by the fall of the tower of Babel. It is this vortex created by the abandonment of Westernese that has introduced a series of crises ranging from the so-called ‘culture wars’ in US campuses to the emergence of Islamism throughout ‘Muslimistan’ and beyond.2

The discourse of the clash of civilisations represents an attempt to come to terms with the dislocatory effects of the unravelling of Westernese. With the abandonment of Westernese as a universal language, we are confronted with a dangerous world of difference.

It is in order to find a way around the clash of civilisations and the binary opposition between Islam and West that Hamid Dabashi offers a ‘hermeneutics of alterity’ that rejects the ‘metaphysics of identity’ (2013: 159).

 It is in this light that we see the attempt to articulate a global public joined in an ecumenical embrace that disarms warring factions and refuses the choice between imperialism and terrorism (Buck, Morss, 2003). The idea that the clash of civilisations can be replaced by a conversation between civilisations seems to have instinctive appeal.

This appeal, however, is also a reflection of the hegemony of liberalism. This is the version of liberal philosophy which is based around the primacy of the rational individual and sees conflicts as being the result of the failure to find apodic solutions, a failure that is temporary and that can be defeated by the exercise of goodwill and reason. According to this view, the existence of difference in the world reflects an empirical rather than an ontological limit.3 In the rest of this chapter I want to focus on the attempt by Ayatollah Khatami to cross the frontier between Islam and the West.

In an interview with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour (1998), Khatami explained that the aim of his idea of a dialogue of civilisations and cultures is ‘a world in which misunderstandings can be overcome, nations can understand one another and mutual respect and logic can govern relations among states’.4 Clearly, he sees dialogue as a means of overcoming difference, and difference as contributing to the existence of antagonisms.

The liberalism of Khatami’s approach becomes even more explicit when Khatami recommends that the United States abandon its ‘instrumental rationality’ and embrace a foreign policy approach based on communicative rationality.

 To make this transformation possible, Khatami’s next move is to demonstrate to his American audience that ‘communicative rationality’ is not alien to American culture but completely compatible with it. He then proceeds to show how the foundation of the United States was based on ‘the vision, thinking, and manners of the Puritans’. For Khatami, the Puritans are a religious sect who combine a strong belief in God with a strong commitment to ‘republicanism, democracy, and freedom’. In the Puritan colonisation of the Americas, Khatami sees one of ‘the biggest tragedies in human history’, that is, the belief that religion and freedom have an antagonistic relationship.

 By escaping religious persecution in England, the Puritans elaborate a way of life which sees liberty as only possible without religion, and that an official religion has no room for freedom. At this point in his analysis Khatami introduces Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in

America, which he touchingly assumes most Americans to have read. According to Khatami’s reading of Tocqueville, the importance of American civilisation was that religion and liberty became mutually supportive of each other.

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Khatami deploys Tocqueville to undermine one of the most cherished American visions of America: that in the United States there is a strict separation of church and state and it is this separation that is the foundation of freedom in the country. In contradiction to this belief, Khatami argues that American experience demonstrates that ‘religion and liberty are consistent and compatible’ and that ‘even today Americans are a religious people’.

Regarding the Iranian revolution, Khatami then draws analogies with the American War of Independence: ‘With our revolution, we are experiencing a new phase of reconstruction of civilisation. We feel that what we seek is what the founders of the American civilisation were also pursuing four centuries ago. This is why we sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilisation’.

Throughout this exchange Khatami is keen to try to establish commonalities between the formative period of US history and the foundation of the Islamic republic, in the hope that by highlighting these similarities he would be able to transcend the differences and suspicions that have arisen between Iran and the United States.

 Khatami is keen to argue that Tocqueville’s privileging of freedom took place in the context of religion and that, as such, the religious milieu of the Islamic Republic of Iran points to a similarity between the American and Iranian revolutions, a similarity that US foreign policy fails to acknowledge.5

Khatami hoped that the text of Democracy in America would provide the common language that would enable dialogue between Islamist Iran and capitalist America. To do this, Khatami had to present, as Donald Pease puts it, ‘ Democracy in America as an intercultural artefact that permitted the construction of homologies between Islam and US culture’ (Pease, 1999: 82). This change in the status of Democracy in

America from a clearly Western text to an ‘intercultural artefact’ available to be deployed by a scholar steeped in Islamicate education presents a series of challenges to the nature of US/Western identity. Pease offers a critical (deconstructive?) reading of one part of an editorial in the journal New Republic (tellingly entitled ‘Tocqueville and the Mullah’) that sought to intervene in the debate ushered in by Khatami’s interview.6

 Pease exposes the way in which the Western supremacist discourse insists not only on its universal nature but also on the impossibility of reaching the universal through any other reading except the one steeped in Westernese. For the editors of New Republic, the Khatami interview poses a threat to the US policy of isolating Iran as a ‘rogue state’, but more generally poses a threat to the very constitution of a world order that is constructed by the ‘externalisation of Islam as its historical and cultural Other’ (Pease, 1999).

This articulation is built on the myriad Orientalist representations of Islam found circulating within Western culture at popular, academic and public policy levels. The neo-conservative spin on these representations defined Islam as ‘a transhistorical cultural essence whose irreducible disparity from universalist notions of civilisation rendered it similar to communism in its radical otherness’ (Pease, 1999: 82). As a result, the editors of New Republic neither tried to debate with Khatami, nor did they discuss whether they disagreed with the specific reading Khatami offered—instead they attempted to rule Khatami out of order, to excommunicate him.

As Pease puts it, the editors did not use the text of Democracy in America as an ‘interpretive authority for their argument’ with Khatami, rather they used it as a juridical device to invalidate his reading by denying him the right to be part of the international community in which dialogue can be conducted, by insisting on the exteriority of Islam from the world order.

This expulsion of Khatami could only be achieved through the exercise of a ‘symbolic violence’ that the editors of New Republic had articulated as being characteristic of Islamist terrorism (Pease, 1999: 92).

Khatami’s interview can be seen as an attempt to break the ‘Plato to NATO’ sequence of historical narrative grounded in Westernese, by grafting onto it another reading that interrupts its teleology.

So the canonical sequence of the metaphors of Ancient Greece, Rome, Renaissance, Industrialisation and Modernity is no longer inexorably linked to the next stage of Western achievement and expression. This is achieved by taking Tocqueville out of the sequence of clearly demarcated Western thought, and resuturing him to a narrative that leads not to the West but to what is presented as its antithesis—Islam in general and the Islamic Republic of Iran in particular.

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This renarration reveals the contingent nature of the ‘Plato to NATO’ sequence; it demonstrates the trap of universalism for Westernese. Advocates of Westernese insist on the universal status of their discourse; in other words, the values of that discourse are the ones that have applicability outside any particular frame or context.

 At the same time, they advocate the Western nature of the universal, that Western values are synonymous with the universal. If we can understand that a truly universal value would be unmarked by any association with any particular cultural formation, what Westernese offers is not universal values, but a suggestion that only Western values are universal (a position that many members of the critical Left end up endorsing by conflating the desire for the universal with ignorance of the ‘non- Western’).

Khatami’s deployment of Tocqueville is a cause for anxiety, since his reading recontextualises Tocqueville in a manner that undermines the Western element in favour of the universal element. Khatami seems to be saying, ‘if you want your cultural tropes to furnish the language of universality then you have to give up any special hold or claim over them’.

Thus, Khatami’s use of Tocqueville is not a source of delight that Tocqueville is being ‘universalised,’ but rather horror at the way Khatami’s interview seeks to rupture the sequence to which Tocqueville belonged.

If the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran can find in the mission of a French magistrate to discover the ‘elements’ that sustain ‘democratic stability’ in the United States not a critique of the fundamental relationships within Islamist Iran, but a confirmation of the guiding principles of the Islamic Revolution, and if Tocqueville can be read outside the hegemonic teleology of Westernese, it demonstrates the contingent as opposed to the necessary character of the Western enterprise.

The response of the editors of New Republic was their way of demonstrating the capacity of Islamist discourses to unsettle the claims of Westernese and to disarticulate the relationship between the universal and the Western.

Part of this ability of Islamist discourse can, of course, be traced to the ‘scandal of Islam’, in other words, the way in which Islam, beginning with a very similar pool of Mesopotamian narratives as Judaism and Christianity, recasts them into what becomes a very different kind of cultural complex. Islam, generating a narrative that includes figures familiar to both Judean and Christian discourses (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mary), produces a distinct sense of the sacred, which cannot be simply reduced to being a Jewish or even Christian heresy.

The Islamic venture has its beginnings in a space not dissimilar to where we can locate the beginnings of the Western enterprise. Thus Islam, as a constant counter part to the Western enterprise, introduces contingency into the formation of Western identity, which continues to require Islam’s expulsion to sustain its integrity.

The capacity of Islamism to disrupt and disturb Westernese is not, however, simply due to the accidents of history: it is mainly due to the continued way in which the articulation of Islamism presupposes another future for the world, a future that cannot simply be contained within the prospect of the Westernisation of the planet.

Islamism does not necessarily seek to reject the elements that Westernese would consider to be beneficial, what it does more radically is to reject the association between those elements and Western identity.

 It is at the level of contesting genealogies, at the point where foundational discourses are articulated, that Islamism—by insisting on its ability to renarrate and recast Westernese discourses in such a way that threatens to dissolve the Western identity of these discursive elements—challenges Westernese with universalisation.

One could read Khatami’s interview and his deployment of Tocqueville as another forlorn effort by which those located outside the Western enterprise attempt to have a one-sided di interlocutors whose ignorance is only exceeded by their arrogance. One only has to read

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