Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today I would like to meditate with you a little on the situation of politically thinking people. It is said that politics has almost disappeared in recent decades, and that the primacy of politics is threatened. Economics, they say, is what now drives our destinies. Yet lately we have again been witnessing political struggles of the highest intensity. We might therefore ask ourselves: is this the return of politics, and where do we Muslims stand in all of this?
Goethe said in his West-Eastern Diwan: “Thrones shatter, empires shake.” That is a description which fits our times as well when we think of areas like the Middle East, where, over the past few months, we seem to be seeing the emergence of a new geopolitical order – or one might say disorder.
States like Iraq, Libya and Syria face terminal collapse and have become like tinder-kegs with their horrific civil wars. New forms of irregular guerrillas are bursting onto the desolate arenas left by disintegrating nations. But there is unrest in Europe as well. The worst-case scenario is that Europe might find itself ‘sleepwalking’ into war in Ukraine.
Whenever the Muslims’ role in these conflicts is described, the magazine-view of us tends to be simplistic: ‘bad’ Muslims wish to destroy modernity completely, while ‘good’ Muslims submit to it absolutely. What this means is that in neither case is the actual, constructive Muslim contribution visible. Images of archaic perpetrators of violence bolster the West in its smug conviction: ‘we must be so good, because they are so bad’. With regard to the horrific IS troops in Iraq, the young English Imam Shaykh Habib Bewley brilliantly defined the context from the Muslim point of view, and provided a clear foundation for our absolute rejection of them.
I wish to add just one anecdote. A few years ago I was at a seminar about Islam in Europe which was being held in a valley in Macedonia. In one of the breaks, a small delegation of Christians from a mainly Christian mountain village nearby invited me up for a coffee. When I arrived there I was surprised not only by the wonderful view, but also by a little museum about the history of the village. Over coffee I asked the group how the village had been able to maintain its integrity during the time of the Ottomans. The answer was simple. “Getting up here,” they told me, “was too strenuous for the Ottomans.” All the villagers had to do was present themselves to the local sultan in the valley once a year, and for the rest of the time they lived on undisturbed. The totalitarian view of territory propounded by ‘modern islamists’ today shows just how far we are now from such coexistence.
But where do we really stand today?
By way of an introduction I would like to recall Rumi’s famous story of the ant crossing the complexities of a woven carpet. Rumi teaches us that the meaning of a situation can be seen only from a certain distance, and of course only in remembrance of the Creator.
We have to begin by critically questioning the point of view now fed to us by fast-paced media. It is important to maintain a distance from events, especially since it has become difficult to assess the veracity of news at all in the age of social media and the daily production of ‘breaking news’. A consequence of this constant bombardment of information (which, as Jean Christophe Rufin points out, is equivalent to censorship) is the dominance of a ‘radical subjectivity’ totally irreconcilable with real thought. Many media consumers are absolutely convinced in what they believe to be ‘their’ reality, a reality which they assemble daily by clicking with their mouse among the offerings.
Before continuing with our assessment of the world situation, let us recall something Paul Valery wrote in his Cahiers: “Events are the foam of things when the breakers wash over them. What is most important is what is least visible. An event rises, appears, dazzles, astonishes – and dies away. We must look carefully at that which does not change. That is what warrants closer examination.”
We must always pause before returning our attention to ‘breaking news’ so as not to lose the overview. Assessing a political situation requires more than just snapshots of the here-and-now. We need to rethink our relationship with politics as such – which means, in modern terms, our relationship to the state. As we will see, the Heraclitean saying of “everything flows” is especially applicable to the political field of state institutions.
Ibn Khaldun also reflected on it in his Muqaddima: “Know that the state passes through various stages and characteristics. Those who live in it acquire in each phase, from their relationship with that phase, character traits that are different from those of other phases, since a person’s character naturally follows the character of the situation in which they find themselves.”
So we can only really understand today’s ‘breaking news’ and put it into context if we overcome the lack of history prevalent in our times. We have to begin to understand that every historical event, every crisis, has not only a history, but also a set of terminology used to classify it.
In his Political Theology, the German jurist Carl Schmitt said something very profound about this: “All of the concepts of state-theory are secularised theological concepts.”
Entirely in keeping with this, Hobbes in his Leviathan paradoxically refers to the state a “mortal god”. Power has been ascribed to this omnipotent entity for centuries. This mortal god continues today to be the political form of organisation to which we citizens are subservient. In a vicious circle of logic, it deeply affects our political thinking.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also touched upon the subject in his lectures On The State: “The further I get with my work on the state, the more convinced I become that the peculiar difficulty of imagining this entity lies in the fact that – and I choose my words carefully – it is almost unthinkable. If it appears so simple to say simple things about this entity, then that is because we are to a degree permeated by that which we wish to examine.”
Bourdieu also points out the theological dimension of contemplating the state: “A warning: every proposition which has the state as its subject is a theological proposition – which does not mean it is wrong; the state is a theological entity, in other words, an entity which exists on account of belief.”
This means, according to Bourdieu, that when we imagine the state as an entity, we always define ourselves with it. This insight has so far remained totally overlooked by political Islam, which wishes instead to blindly conquer the state because it believes power to lie therein.
I would like to use three other important thinkers to show how we as European Muslims, from the starting point of our own intellectual tradition, can contribute our own knowledge and experience to this subject. What I want to do is to stress the contributions these thinkers made to man’s relationship with power, the state and technology. It is crucial that we as Muslims reflect on such things.
1) To Goethe, himself a significant political thinker, financial technique is the dynamic midwife of the emerging modern state. In his Faust, Goethe describes the systematic meaning of new financial techniques, in particular the creation of paper money, which provides politics with a completely new scope of action. Goethe sensed that the new arenas which would be opened up and to which we would have to submit would endanger the original human measure of things.
2) After the madness of nationalist ideology and its grab for geopolitical space, Heidegger, in his later years, began to doubt the active subject itself – be it the ‘I’ or the ‘state’. Ideologies, to Heidegger, ended up being the same as each other in their relationship to the world. The new techniques of power, said this philosopher, are not controlled by people, instead the opposite has happened: technology now rules over people. The issue is not to replace world-threatening technology with something else. Rather, as Günther Anders says, “it is very feasible that the danger we face is not in the wrong use of technology, but rather is inherent in the nature of technology.”
3. To Heidegger’s student Byung-Chul Han, who currently teaches in Berlin, the new world-citizen is not free, he is subject to a new digital totalitarianism, which he refers to as data-ism. This new technique of power is able to assimilate any resistance. The old idea of locating power geographically has also been swept away. Unlike the totalitarian state as imagined by Orwell, the new totalitarianism is based on free-will. In his essay entitled Psychopolitics, Han writes: “Big data is supposed to liberate knowledge from subjective caprice. It proposes that intuition is not a higher form of knowledge after all; it is merely something subjective, a stopgap to balance out a lack of objective data. According to this argument, intuition is blind in complex situations. Even theories are suspected of being ideologies; and if enough data exists, then they become superfluous. The second Enlightenment is the age of purely data-driven knowledge.”
European thinking, in other words, has frequently reconsidered the transformation of the state as a political form, within the context of the triumph of global technology. The original purpose of the state was to ensure security and affluence within certain borders, but in today’s globalised world this function has been cast into doubt.
Without considering the current meaning of the state and the crisis of its global model of order, we will hardly be in a position to understand events in Gaza, Syria or Ukraine.
Let me first make another preliminary remark: we are precisely so shocked by the experience of ‘breaking news’ because history seems unable to provide any meaning or purpose to it. These days it is as if one dies for nothing. We are understandably alarmed because power often appears as nothing more than sheer terror behind a mask. The concept of the state – the state as an actual order – reveals itself in each of the cases in point in its dissolution and in the full scale of its horror.
Looking at these three unsettling crisis situations, I would like to mention some of the nihilistic elements existing in the ‘politics’ we see in each scenario. It is no coincidence that there are certain things common to all of these crisis areas, no matter who is doing the fighting, and behind which mask. I will mention just a few main points briefly:
Permanent state of emergency. End of proportionality. The impossibility of differentiating friend and foe, and therefore the end of differentiation as the actual, meaningful essence of politics. The problem of the irregular guerrilla fighter. The end of the idea of the sovereign state, which is being pressured from within and without into larger areas.
The question which we must ask ourselves in the light of all this is: are we really witnessing the ‘return of politics’, or rather an end-game of nihilism?
We must necessarily answer the former question in the negative, or at least we must if we consider the aim of politics to be not only to establish terror, but also the intention to establish a just order, actual morals, or sovereign power. Politics cannot return in any real sense because the none of the players involved can offer a new nomos and a basis, a subject capable of producing a new type of constructive and just politics beyond the dying state. That is the crisis which Europe must confront.
As Muslims we may neither lose sight of our vision, nor disavow our fundamental, revealed knowledge about the relationship between power and impotence. The subject of power, in a doctrine of unity, is neither the state nor the individual. Our subject must be a kind of politics far from ideology or mere power-politics.
Of key importance is the protection of our own terminology, and thus the possibility of naming things correctly. For instance, calling the Turkish president a new ‘sultan’ is about as meaningful as defining the EU as a new ‘Roman Empire’. What Muslims need to do, aside from the immediate duty to establish Zakat, is to understand Islam as a nomos which offers its economic and social institutions to free people. Part of this picture is that the ‘state Islam’ now so widespread no longer has any relationship to these original models, from the free market to the waqf.