Are we like you? Paris and co-victimhood | Butcher’s Block

Dec 2015

Butcher’s Block | BLOG

The attacks in Paris were followed by the predicable deluge of commentary. Sympathetic op-eds met strident opposition from those who saw solidarity with Paris in contrast with the silence on Beirut and Kenya as Eurocentric. Just as quickly as #Paris trended on Twitter, selective empathy for the city was criticized by liberal Euro-American news outlets from The Washington Post, that reminded us of the words we use to talk about Paris and Beirut, to the Atlantic, that pondered The Empathy Gap between Paris and Beirut. A crescendo of voices from places such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Lebanon joined these outlets in reminding us of that terrorist violence also affects other corners of the globe.

Highlighting the erasure of deaths in the peripheries of American empire, the places commonly and problematically called “the Muslim world”, is urgent and needed. Its thrust is an important reminder of the global bigotry that assigns greater import to deaths in Euro-America than to those outside it.1

True for deaths; what about lives? Judith Butler’s poetic essay, Precariousness and Grievability—When Is Life Grievable?, published in the wake of the Paris attacks, considers the relationship between grief, death and life in the War on Terror. Grief at death, the loss of life, says Butler, is what creates life. The state’s control of grief, says Butler, creates Muslim lives that “do not appear as ‘lives,’ but as the threat to life.” Life is precarious; it is capable of death. To recognize this insecurity in life is to apprehend its social existence, its dependence on others: “precariousness implies living socially”. That life depends on “a social network of hands” requires us to imagine a corresponding society, a ‘we’.

Ungreivable, Muslim lives are never lives at all. They are never in interaction with the ‘we’ Euro-American lives habit; Muslim precariousness does not depend on this Euro-American ‘us’. Extinguishing them, then, does not cause Euro-America the grief that the extinguishing of Parisians lives causes. “Those we kill are not quite human, and not quite alive.”

It is a powerful piece that calls for Euro-America to not just see lives in the imperial periphery as relatable, but as being in a social relationship to lives in the imperial center. The essay remains light, however, on the politics of the violence itself.

In the popular conversation, the politics and history of the violence has been similarly absent. Here, ‘terrorism’ has become the only way to understand the bombings. And, sadly, unlike a militant’s actions, which are deeply political, the word terrorism lives in a discursive domain where politics is ejected in favor of cosmic good and evil. This is as true of Fox News as it is of the New York Times and of the United States government. Consider, for example, that influential people such as former State Department advisor Haroon Ullah can declare as a progressive statement that Muslims suffer from a lack of self, which is what leads them to terrorism. Terrorism is a pathology; there is no room for history or politics in its examination.

The explosive growth in work on ‘terrorism’ as a pathology, which now overwhelms the academic and popular conversation on violence in areas of American imperial expansion, and among which Haroon Ullah’s work may be counted, critically buttresses the construction of apolitical and ahistorical ‘terrorism’. Consider what sort of subject is imagined and subsequently created by this Pew survey of “Muslim views of ISIS”, this paper by prominent academics wondering whether poverty causes people to become terrorists and and this speech by Tony Blair on that terrorism can be defeated by education. Certainly, the emphasis is not on the subject’s historical or political formation, with the history of imperial projects being particularly absent. Instead such production focuses on the present malformation of the terrorist. Unable to participate in our political society – not a part of the ‘we’ of which Butler reminds us – it is almost as if the contemporary militant, whose mysterious reasons for existence such works probe, has magically appeared.

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Historically and politically vacant, such ‘terrorism’ can be apprehended as mad violence wherever it occurs. This plays a key role in establishing the co-victimhood of Paris and Beirut. When Paris reels from ‘terrorism’, Beirut can send condolences with a reminder that it suffers from the same affliction.

Co-victims from the Muslim world demand equal, or more stridently, commensurate recognition of their misery. Invoking the well-trod philosophical terrain that suffering is not a consequence of violence itself but of arbitrary violence, this discourse establishes the Muslim world as afflicted by identically indiscriminate explosions that similarly claim innocent lives.

Such a politics of recognition has been the mainstay of liberalism as a strategy of gaining access to power, multi-culturalism being its most frequent form. With its recourse to a universal utopia, it asks not for a reevaluation of power structures, but for one’s inclusion into the formations of power.

In an exceptionally keen essay on the withering of a politics of recognition to one of survival in contemporary Capitalism, Edgar Illas attributes this change, in part, to the “crumbling of the state’s monopoly on violence”. In the post 9-11 world, where ever-present conflict pervades peace, and spaces of life and death once maintained by the state collapse – romantic Paris transforms into a maelstrom and back within a day – individuals interiorize the sentinel functions of the state. “Inserting the work of the state into one’s subjectivity,” says Illas, “compels everyone to play a protective but also entrepreneurial role in the social field.” Hence New York abdicates this function to us: See Something, Say Something.

It can be persuasively argued that such interiorization of survival and the war-logic of GWOT is the experience of New York and London, but it is does not appear to be that the imperial periphery. In places such as Kenya and Karachi, where the relationship between empire and nation-states has been markedly different, there has not been a comparable emergence of a politics of survival in relation to the state in the War on Terror. There are, admittedly, other aspects in which citizens in the American imperial periphery assume the state’s sentinel role, but these do not engage the War on Terror in the similar way.

On the contrary, in the periphery, it has been a critical imperial interest to maintain the politics of recognition.  In the liberal ideology that underpins the War on Terror, the utopian egalitarianism promised by equal recognition is an effective tool in the imperial project to neutralize radical political movements. The repeal in the US of the ban on propaganda, and the revival of the US State Department’s Jazz tours, among a myriad of similar initiatives that employ bodies and practices marked non-Western in the imperial mission work explicitly – and sadly, effectively – to silence radical critique. The purposeful use of individuals of color, particularly Muslim ones, in US cultural diplomacy is no coincidence. As a consequence of this, we see that the overwhelming proportion of voices from the Muslim world addressing Euro-America demand recognition of co-victimhood.

To be clear, this is not to say that radical critique is unavailable in the Muslim world. Indeed, it is. But, it has, for decades, been the object of strong imperial attack, rendering it a marginal force in contemporary global conversation.

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As Foucault and others since have argued, a politics of recognition may be emotively gratifying for those seeking to be unveiled, but such unveiling is a function of power, not resistance to it.  It was from this position that, at the turn of the past century, the politics of recognition was criticized by Subalternists, who found the hegemonic terms of recognition unjust. Although Subaltern Studies has since lost much purchase, but its post-structuralist critique endures. To extend its argument, the recognition of Beirut as co-victim does little to evidence that lives in the imperial periphery are dependent on lives in the metropole.

Not able to address Butler’s astute insight that lives in the Muslim world are imagined to exist outside the social world of Euro-America, the recognition of the periphery as a co-victim of such politically vacant ‘terrorism’ has a perverse impact back in the metropole. It allows the current regulation of life in the periphery to be construed as unconnected to empire’s doing. Not responsible for contemporary misery, Euro-American intervention can now enter the Muslim world as a force for good.

To select a molehill from a mountain of examples, consider Karen Attiah’s Washington Post article misleadingly titled ‘So much for the West ‘saving’ Muslim women from terrorism’. The article’s point is summarized in this sentence from its penultimate paragraph: “The Islamic State has beheaded and stoned women in Syria. Speaking up for resettling women and children fleeing such violence should be a priority for Americans right now.” Invoking the expression popularized by Lila Abu-Lughod’s book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, the article summarily empties Abu-Lughod’s argument by claiming that not only do Muslim women need saving but also that, through the right policies, the West can indeed save them. The absence of history and politics allows Attiah to fail to place a single word in the entire article on that US imperial adventures are responsible for the brutalization of the lives she proposes to rescue. This is in stark contrast to Abu-Lughod’s book, which exposed the many ways in which imperial culture and politics construct images of suffering Muslim women to legitimate empire. “There is a moral crusade,” says Abu-Lughod disapprovingly; Attiah despairs that it is not being fought well enough.2

How, then, to recognize and value life and death in Beirut and Kenya? Judith Butler asks Euro-America to recognize that lives in the Muslim world inhabit the same social, that ‘lives over’ there are interdependent on lives ‘here.’ To draw Butler’s argument further through a recourse to Edward Said, we need to recognize not only that our lives are interdependent, but also that the subjectivities produced in the periphery and the metropole are intimately tied to each other. In other words, we need to question the construction of the liberal subject that is identical in Beirut and in Paris; we need to trace the history of the power that has produced Pakistanis who eagerly insist after the Paris attacks that “in all honesty, we are the same people as you.” Such an interrogation means to see that War on Terror policies that deny personhood to lives ‘over there’ are critically facilitated by the waving of the chimeric flag of equality that claims that lives in Karachi are the same as those in Paris, and are afflicted by the same ‘terrorism’.

Bombs and bullets surely flew in Paris. Deaths and horror were registered, as they were elsewhere where violence has visited. A violence does link Paris and Peshawar, Euro-America and the Muslim world. But it not the violence of ‘terrorism’. It is the savagery of a liberal imperial project that is violently ejecting radical critique from the imperial periphery through the promotion of the illusory liberal ideal of equality, while reducing the Euro-American condition to one of survival. It is this imperial project that co-victimizes us.

Butcher’s Block is the Tanqeed editors’ blog. It is a space for considered commentary and polemics.

  1. Of course, as movements such as Black Lives Matter evidence, there is gradation of lives inside Euro-America as well. []
  2. As an example of the vast gulf between Abu-Lughod and Karen Attiah, while Attiah underscores the veracity of Laura Bush’s claims about Afghan women on the eve of the American invasion of Afghanistan, it was precisely their suspect nature that prompted Abu-Lughod’s book. []

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