The Exile-critic in the “Age of Terror”:
Cultural Schizophrenia or Worldly Plurality of Vision?
“exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”― Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays
If resistance has collapsed into bickering nostalgism (1968 has become “tragic” for us as every other failure) – – if leftist bitchiness and fascist particularism hold such an allure for exhausted radicals etc – then it is because we have failed to articulate this one fact to ourselves: — that by proclaiming itself absolute and by constructing a world on that proclamation, Capital has called back into being its old nemesis (so disgraced by the 20th century, so dead, so dull), called it back into a whole new incarnation — as the last ditch defense of all that cannot be englobed – called back the revolution, the Jihad.
From this bitter failure of resistance to Capital, according to Hakim Bey, Jihad springs. And Jihad has come to mean terrorism in the ‘War on Terror’. Terrorism spreads like a virus as suggested by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. Terrorism is a copycat of the American Empire; it seeks to show its influence all over the globe. And terrorism seeks to destroy it from within, to strike at the heart of the empire. It strives to make the Empire fall on itself, to be paralyzed. The fall of the two towers of the World Trade Center, with only two airplanes crashing through them is a sign of the vulnerability of the Global Capital. The Global Capital seems to be hollow inside, standing on frail foundations. The crumbling of the two towers is a constant reminder. An even more expressive illustration of this disastrous symbolic event is Baudrillard’s. It goes as the following: It is as if, by collapsing on their own, by committing suicide, the towers were participating in finalizing the event”. And according to Arthur and Marilouise Kroker terrorism works as a parasite by infiltration: “it adopts the strategy of the attacking parasite” (KAM).
These two enemies are using the same “weapon of mass distraction”, the media. I’m referring here to the ‘apparitions’ of BenLaden and Alzawahiri on video tape live from some cave, and that of George Bush from the White house to answer back. They seem to be locked in some twisted form of “potlatch”, through the media, through which the terrorists and the Global Capital seek to send each other the ‘gift of rivalry’ of death. Running the race of humiliation, the tactics of the rivals seek to inflict a humiliation that would be returned with another that is more humiliating. About this 21st C. twisted “potlatch”, Baudrillard could exemplify:
It is inconsistent to see in the terrorists’ acts a purely destructive logic. It seems their own death is part of their acts (that is precisely what makes it symbolic) and not at all of the impersonal elimination of the Other. Everything is in the provocation and in the duel, i.e., a personal relation with the opposite power. It has humiliated, so it has to be humiliated (BD).
This race to humiliation has displayed itself in such a violent manner shows that “terrorism is like a virus, it spreads everywhere” (BD). There’s no more expressive landscape than the one that displays itself worldwide. From the jumble of debris of the World Trade Center to the scattered limbs of passers-by on the streets of Baghdad, the world is witnessing a “viral” terror, spreading in a vicious circle that seems to never end. The media have played the greatest role in demonizing an enemy designated as ‘Islam’. These media are nowadays hijacked by the enfant terrible of Islam: the terrorists. The failed attempts at modernization and secularization as argued by Daruysh Shayegan have bred an image of Islam as atavistic, incapable to situate itself in the real world.
Still, with the rise of global terrorism whose first targets were the symbols of globalization: the World Trade Center, the world awoke to a spiraling chain of events that have taken Islam hostage. The neurosis and islamophobia resulting from these events have fixed the Orientalists’ and political scientists’ old image of Islam as “the enemy”. Indeed, their attempts to determine and study the next enemy of the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington respectively designated that enemy as ‘Islam’; Islam pure and simple. But the myopic view of Islam as a single homogenous bloc would brand every Muslim as a potential terrorist, sworn to destroy the West. This attitude is best exemplified by Said in Covering Islam:
Americans cannot continue to believe that the most important thing about Islam is whether it is pro – or anti – American. So xenophobically reductive a view of the world would guarantee a continued confrontation between the United States, and the rest of an intransigent mankind, a policy of continuing the Cold War Huntington-style to include an unacceptably large position of the globe .
Still the prophetic call of Said seems to have fallen on barren ground, for the reason the United States is caught up in the mire of a ‘war on terror’ is its failure to go beyond the image of Islam as constructed by short-sighted strategists and scholars. Yet, the image that has been constructed by the West of Islam is seldom countered by an objective image of the different view of the Muslims themselves. Even scholars and intellectuals studying Islam nowadays are still caught up with essentialism and generalization. What is then happening to the image of Islam is its further swallowing in the quicksand of obscurantism and xenophobia.
Indeed, from the image of planes crashing head-on to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the ‘live’ slaughter of hostages in Iraq, the image of Islam has been ‘satanized’ beyond recognition. As evident in these attacks, the terrorists have hijacked the image of Islam, through the use of the live image as an efficient lethal weapon. The tools or media that the terrorists have used are what Baudrillard sees as a virus against the system. In a war that uses ‘the aesthetics of death’ as a weapon, the image creates a spectacle of terror, a horror-show played out by a global capital and its nemesis: global terrorism. According to Jean Baudrillard:
Not only do these people not fight with the same weapons, because they use their own deaths, to which there is no possible answer (“they are cowards”), but they also appropriate all the weapons of the dominant power. Money and stock speculations, computer and aeronautical technologies, the spectacular dimension and media networks- (BD)
What I am trying to show is how the tables have turned in “the war on terror”, how the image of Islam as a “resurgent atavism” has stuck home to the engineers of that image. The war on terror has degenerated into the law of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. Now this law has the addendum: an image for an image. As a matter of fact, the use of the spectacular dimension and media networks referred to above by Baudrillard is most evident in the September 11th attacks and the live killing of Westerners and other ‘collaborating infidels’. But the scandal of Abou Gharib prison in Iraq shows the dark side of a supposedly democratic world in the treatment of prisoners of war. With the images of American and British soldiers electrifying a naked hooded prisoner or dragging another on a leash, the ugly truth behind this war on terror shows its true face: its immorality. Again, Jean Baudrillard provides the explanation of this immorality in his “Spirit of Terrorism”: “Terrorism is immoral. The WTC event, this symbolic provocation is immoral, and it is an answer to a globalization that is immoral” (BD).
In this sense, what is the Arab (Islamic) prisoner at Abou Gharib suffering of humiliation is paralleled somehow in the live beheading or shooting of Westerners and “collaborating infidels”. But this war that is being waged by the Bush Administration against an invisible enemy called global terrorism is a hunt after a ghost. It is causing too much collateral damage, and side-victims used as fuel by a global superpower and a ghostly global network of terrorists. With the use of the Muslim religion by the terrorists as their ideological background, the image of Islam is being fixed and crystallized as ‘the public enemy number one’ of the Western world. With the islamaphobia creeping into the Western subconscious, Muslims stand paralyzed, gaping at the world, not able to defend their religion and behind it, the whole of Islamic culture.
Then how can the Islamic world break the spell of the “clash of civilizations” and the Islamic threat consumed in the West? What is now well known to clear-headed people is that this war is “neither a clash of civilizations, nor of religions. It goes far beyond Islam and America, over which the conflict is focused in order to give the illusion of visible confrontation and a solution through force” (BD).
After this realization, how can the image of Islam as the enemy be broken? How can the scholars of Islamic studies find an alternative to the stiff binaries underlying the dichotomy of East and West? After the war on Iraq, the Guantanamo bay prison camp and Abou Gahrib, can one still speak of the division: ‘democratic – despotic’, ‘modern – archaic’, ‘tolerant – barbaric’? With the huge gap between the Western world and Islam now widening due to islamophobia and ‘westoxication’, can the intellectuals bridge the gap?
As I try to answer this question, I intend to show that exiled intellectuals or critics can very well be the missing link between the two worlds. Exile makes the intellectual see the world differently from his/her ethnic, religious, social or national perspective. It can also differ from the place where s/he is exiled. In this war on terror, the exiled stands at the margins in a kind of aesthetic distance in which s/he tries to deconstruct the discourses and images that are packaged and later on consumed. For this purpose, I deal with two exiled intellectuals who have studied the Islamic world and its view by the West. Iranian-born Daryush Shayegan, living in exile in France after the Islamic Revolution depicts the incapacity of the Muslims in general to join the real modern world. He attempts to show how exile can correct “the mutilated outlook” or gaze of the Muslim world to itself and the world. One must accept the West and see it through the correcting lenses of the Western world. In his book Cultural Schizophrenia, Shayegan denounces the failure of the Islamic world to cope with modernity.
On the other side, Edward Said in the trio of books dealing with the image of Islam, Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism and Covering Islam, intends to show that the gaze of the West on Islam is the one mutilated and needs correction. Specifically, in the book Covering Islam, Said shows how the media construct an erroneous xenophobic image of Islam. Also, in his essay called ‘Reflections on Exile’, he attempts to study exile as a vantage point through which the exiled critic or intellectual delivers the Muslim world from the stereotype of ‘the enemy’. His concept of ‘worldliness’ is a case in point as I will examine later. Where Shayegan dwells on the further alienation from the ‘mother-culture’ that exile could cause in the intellectual, Said goes beyond this alienation to bring out ‘the worldliness’ that results from exile. As Shayegan pours his bile over “the cultural schizophrenia” evident in the Moslem societies, dwelling mostly on his country of origin, Iran, Said takes the opposite path of decoding the paranoia of the West against Islam. To Shayegan, the Islamic world has a mutilated outlook on history. Even worse it has been outside history:
For more than three centuries we, the heirs of the civilizations of Asia and Africa, have been on holiday from history. (Doubtless there are exceptions). Having cemented the last stones into place on our Gothic cathedrals of doctrine, we sat back to contemplate our handiwork. We succeeded so well in crystallizing time in space that we were able to live outside time, arms folded, safe from interrogation (CS, 12).
With the bitterness resulting from this paralysis, the exiled intellectual discovers the impossibility of modernization. To Shayegan, modernization and Westernization have seeped into the Islamic world against its will. The “unconscious Westernization” of which the Islamic revolution is the monstrous progeny has used a vulgar Marxism and Islam in an explosive cocktail on which fundamentalism suckles and grows “This modernization by osmosis, through infiltration has caused the Islamic World to be ‘trailing behind’ modernity: so that instead of being illuminated by modernity, our consciousness is clouded by it” (CS, 60). What then can exile accomplish for the intellectual living in exile? Shayegan analyses in this respect the attitude of the Iranian novelist, Gholem Hosseyn-e Sa’edi (1935-1985). As quoted by Shayegan, Sa’edi divides exiles into two categories: the émigré and the refugee. While the émigré adopts the modernist ethos and the Western way of life, the refugee on the other hand lives a life on the margins of the society in which he is exiled. The refugee has no choice but to be a “wandering vagabond”, without hope, banished, “an outcast of outcasts”. In his preference of ‘the refugee’, Sa’edi tries, according to Shayegan to sanctify ignorance, to call for resistance to the adoption of modernity. To adapt to and adopt the modernist way of life is to become an “indigenous colonist”. The indigenous colonists, according to Sa’edi, set themselves aside from the masses, from the ‘wretched of the earth’ and become the Trojan horse inside the Islamic world. These exiles, the émigrés are demonized, they are “counterfeits, dubious characters taken in by appearances” (CS, 88). It is this sanctification of ignorance that Shayegan denounces. Yet, from his own position as a subject, as exile in the West, there seems to be a wavering between his identity and his wish to join the modern world. The position of the unnamed speaker in the first chapter of his book provides the reader with a split, a schizophrenia which exile cannot cure:
I am astonished to find that my problems have not changed since I became aware of my displacement…Because you see, I am blocked somehow. A blockage as old as my soul, as tenacious as my idées fixes, as pathological as my obsession, as neurotic as this cumbersome religion I don’t know what to do with (CS, 10-11).
Then with this alienation from one’s identity caused by modernization, exile changes nothing. It even intensifies the split to make of the exile a Janus-faced hybrid stuck in a kind of limbo, unable to return to the innocent state of his culture while standing at the gates of the Modern World, and that because of his/her absence from its turbulent evolution. In this attitude, Shayegan seems to excuse the intellectual from playing an active role in the correction of the Modern, Western World’s gaze on the Islamic culture because the intellectual’s own sight is clouded, blurred by the inconsistencies and stasis of his own culture. In this sense, the ‘war on terror’ can also be excused because of the inherent atavism and integrism that have already done to Islam what the Bush administration wants for the terrorists: “beat them back into the Stone Age”. With this mind-set, the fundamentalists try to stop humanity’s evolution, and make them join the ‘Cro-Magnon Man’. In the paralysis of Muslim intellectuals and scholars of Islamic studies, the fate of their nations is decided elsewhere, mainly in the halls of the Pentagon and the White House. They stand gaping at the terrorists hijacking their place as representatives of the Muslim world.
Yet, on another note, Said tries to unmask the Orientalist (and behind it the imperialist) discourse and the media’s mutilation of the image of Islam. Said denounces the essentialist and degrading view of Islam by the West. Still, he finds another deceiving response by the Muslims:
Islam, on the other hand stands for a counterresponse to this first image of Islam as threat. Anything said about “Islam” gets more or less forced into the apologetic form of a statement about Islam’s humanism, its contribution to civilization, development and moral righteousness (CI, 55).
But this apologetic tone seems to fall on deaf ears. The reason of this dismissal is that the morality and compassion that Islam calls for are universal examples. In an illustrative example, by arguing for the inherent violence that defines Islam, George Bataille says: “In their eyes, every violent action against infidels is good”. In his critique of Emile Dermenghen’s Cahiers du Sud, Bataille brushes off the former’s study of Islam as “indicative of the perplexity of someone trying to formulate a deep attraction” (BT, 82). For Bataille, Dermenghen’s quotations from the Cor’an on freedom are unconvincing, for they belong to humanity at large: “One grants the idea of God and an unjust oppression, but this is not a Moslem trait. And one cannot fail to note the generally despotic nature of sovereignty in Islam” (BT, 82). Islam, to Bataille is a religion fashioned around war and conquest in its stress on ‘jihad’.
While the Arab and Muslim intellectuals seem to be unable to deconstruct this idea, Edward Said could provide an exit from this impasse. In his “Reflections on Exile”, Said tries to see beyond the lot of exiles and their painful “homelessness”, where they cannot belong to the host culture while irretrievably cut-off from their original homeland. To Said as to Shayegan, exile is also painful: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: it is the essential sadness that can never be surmounted” . So, as Said tries to express “the crippling sorrow of estrangement”, he tries to transcend the heavy load of exile. It is this same estrangement that constitutes a gateway to a broader world, where the exiled subject does not sit brooding on his/her alienation , paralyzed by the yawning gap between his/her inability to cope with the loss of home and the new life in the host culture. It is true that “there is also a loss of critical perspective, of intellectual reserve, of moral courage” (RE, 183).
But unlike Shayegan’s view of exile, Said’s brings exile into a compromising situation. The exile would not be paralyzed sulking and passive:
“Exile is not, after all, a matter of choice: you are born into it or it happens to you. But, provided that the exile refuses to sit on the sidelines nursing a wound, there are things to be learned: he or she must cultivate a scrupulous (not indulgent or sulky) subjectivity” (RE, 184).
As to Shayegan, so it is to Said, exile is not a matter of choice. Be you an émigré who has the choice of the host culture or an exile suffering from banishment, there is a compensatory road: the cultivation of a scrupulous subjectivity. While Said and Shayegan meet on the fact that the exile refuses to belong, Said seeks a compromise that activates that refusal to belong as a positive urge:
Anyone who is really homeless regards the habit of seeing estrangement in everything as an affectation, a display of modish attitudes. Clutching difference like a weapon to be used with stiffened will, the exile jealously insists on his or her right to refuse to belong (RE, 182).
In another context, that of the ideologue of the Islamic Revolution in Iran Ali Shari’ati, Said points out the richness of exile or migration. According to Shari’ati, the migration suffered by the Prophet Muhammad (the Hegira) becomes a symbol of “man as a choice, a struggle, a constant becoming. He is an infinite migration, a migration within himself, from clay to God; he is a migrant within his soul” (CI, 67).
In this transcendence of migration from the physical plane, a person’s migration into his/her soul entails a life on the borderline, in an interstitial space, what Said calls a “contrapuntal” existence. Far from being a mutilated gaze as Shayegan laments in his failure to communicate with the West on an equal footing, Said praises the idea of a “plurality of vision” without being tied to one culture in a dichotomy with another: “seeing “the entire world as a foreign land” makes possible originality of vision” (RE, 186).
Seeing the near-sightedness of the intellectuals from my side of the world and the Western or Westernized intellectuals locked in a cock-fight between who is “with us” and “who’s against us”, I’d like to propose that they pause and consider Said’s “originality of vision”. With the world caught up in this “Age of Terror” with no promise in the horizon in sight, intellectuals, journalists, strategists and all those who toy with words can be at rest if they try to understand Said’s message. As the major part of the Middle East lives in darkness and gnashing of teeth with the terrorist attacks on civilians, and a superpower that misses its target like a clumsy elephant turned hysterical by a mouse, can this “originality of vision” be an answer? As Ahmed S. Akbar, a Pakistani scholar living in exile in Britain argues: “the empty bluster of the leaders and the narrow-minded whining of the scholars makes them appear pitiful, like pygmies arguing among themselves while the powerful giant of an enemy is at the gate”.
Now as that “powerful giant of an enemy” has forced the gate and struck home in the heart of the Middle East by invading Iraq, can those narrow-minded intellectuals stop whining and propose an alternative? It seems to me that Said’s idea could open up new horizons in this context. By proposing to the intellectuals to be “worldly”, in which one must link “the appreciation of the aesthetic with the worldly, whether we call it history or whatever”.
Then, in order to bridge the gap, there must be a correction of the gaze from both sides of the struggle. By being worldly, intellectuals (especially those from my side of the trench) can work through an “originality of vision” to disarm the opponents of their “weapons of mass distraction”. This distraction is caused by the designation of America (and behind much of the West) and Islam as apocalyptic enemies at Armageddon, “over which the conflict is focused in order to give the illusion of a visible confrontation” (BD).
But as Said warns, exile which is “life led outside habitual order” is also “nomadic, decentered, contrapuntal; but no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts new”. So it brings constant change. It needs revision, or rather a reinterpretation. Attitudes can only change through reinterpretation. The example Said gives of reinterpretation of the Koran goes as such: “the reinterpretation of one phrase of a holy text is enough to bring an existential change and the adoption of a critical or revolutionary attitude” (CI, p.58-59).
Far from the revolutionary attitude which, according to Shayegan failed to meet the needs of the people, the critical attitude can pose as an alternative. One cannot brush away the Koran, locked behind an atavism that breeds terrorism. As the Moslems need the Koran, the Koran needs them too; for ‘there can be no Islam without the Koran; conversely there can be no Koran without Muslims reading it, interpreting it, attempting to translate it into institutions and social realities”(CI,59).
Instead of being hijacked by terrorists who begin their acts of terror by “Praise be unto God, the Merciful the Compassionate”, where God is neither merciful nor compassionate, the Koran must be returned to the true believers to be reinterpreted. It is the task of clear-headed scholars of Islam and enlightened clergy to help in this reinterpretation. One expressive perspective on this issue is that of Shayegan:
The Islam that people actually want is one which feeds their imagination and answers their needs, but which also allows them to breathe, to live in peace in a profane world where the modern viewpoint would also get a hearing (CS, 97).
On a final note, the reinterpretation of the social and historical data of the past and the present requires of the intellectuals an original outlook. The future of interpretation is a “plurality of vision” (RE, 186). To avoid the deadlock discourse of amoral Capitalist consumerism as viewed by the Islamic World and the Atavistic religiosity of a militant Islam as viewed by the West, intellectuals could open up an autonomous zone of thought. Through originality in vision, mainly like that of Said in his “terrible” experience of exile, intellectuals and critics could open up pockets of resistance to essentialism and fundamentalism. These pockets of intellectual resistance, to be disseminated in the agglomerate masses, would be nomadic, much like Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone”, nomadic so as not to be detected by the totalitarian discourse of these warring, terrorizing discourses of Capital and Terror.