On Unrevolutionary Views of Revolution

Saladdin Ahmed

In an attempt to pacify Western governments’ “scepticism”, there is a common tendency among liberal Middle Easterners and North Africans to argue that Islamism is not the real motivation behind the revolutions in those regions.[1] What I dispute here is not whether there are real grounds for such Western scepticism with regard to the revolutions. Rather, I aim to critique the simplifications and reductionism that have become the model which the mainstream right and left are unreflectively applying to the Other.

Naive critics have internalized postmodern Western capitalism as the ultimate voice of justice and one therefore capable of solving all the world’s political problems, including various political despotisms. They write and speak as though all we need to do is to help the decision makers in the West understand what is really happening, and they will take care of the rest. Hence, the laughable assumption is that if the Western politicians really understood that the true motivation behind those revolutions are common values such as freedom and democracy, then the Western governments would support them, and, consequently, the revolutions would succeed in bringing down the dictatorial regimes in the region. The whole chain of assumptions is fatally wrong, regardless of the outcome of current historical events.

Ultimately, it is absurd to think the forces that run capitalism have anything to do with the familiar discourse of human rights and freedom. But there is yet an even more interesting part of this picture; namely, the Western ruling groups are crudely aware of the fact that many people in the East and the West do not know that humanist sentiments are the last factors to influence capitalist agendas in the world. Of course, that is exactly the image the Western ruling groups want the world to have of them— that the West may make mistakes but never immoral, and inhumane decisions, that the West’s intentions are always good, that human rights and democracy are the actual principles upon which the Liberal Democracies act. Thus, it is presented as though Western governments would support mass murderers and the like only in the event that they were utterly unaware of the nature of the crimes being committed. It is absolute naivety to believe that Western governments do not know the true face of their allies in the Middle East, say Saudi Arabia, as an example of religious fundamentalism, and Turkey, as an example of a secular ally. In fact, all Middle Eastern regimes are textbook examples of all kinds of human rights violations, despotism, and suppression of minorities. Arab countries in the Gulf, which all happen to be close allies of the USA, are the main hubs of religious fanaticism in the region. In addition, under the rich monarchies of this area, hundreds of thousands of poor Asian migrant workers are systematically exploited and enslaved. As for Turkey, there we can find everything that liberal democracies claim to be against. The Turkish regime has been committing various forms of ethnic cleansing of the Kurds since the establishment of the republic. In addition to that, to this day, it is officially a crime for any Turkish citizen to speak of the Armenian genocide.

China and Russia typically take the side of dictatorial and totalitarian regimes in almost every debate in the UN, which obviously shows the nature of the political regimes in China and Russia themselves. However, Western governments almost always justify their decisions with respect to the Third World conflicts by appealing to the typical liberal jargon (human rights discourse is a main model for that). Yet, when it comes to the reality, the Western governments are usually more involved in the dirty business involving despotic and fascist regimes. Only when a former ally of the West is not wanted anymore, such as Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003, is the discourse of human rights and global security brought to the front. This is Western capitalism’s favourite strategy, not just in justifying its interventions and wars, but also in representing itself as the ultimate conscience of sanity in the world.

The attempt to seek the solidarity of the progressive leftists and real pro-democracies in the West, and everywhere else, is of course legitimate and meaningful. What is absurd is the image of the West as one homogenous voice of morality and justice. This absurd reductionism resembles the reductionism of the non-West, say the so called Muslim world as one homogeneous, religiously and culturally conservative society by some Western elites. The intellectuality and, thus, the politics of half-educated elites of the intelligentsia both in the East and West are victims of such oversimplification and reductionism.

It is also not good enough to dismiss the problems of inequality, exploitation, despotism, caste societies, and national and religious fascism in the Third World in the name of respecting the Other. In fact, that form of “respect,” which is rooted in the liberal pseudo-multiculturalism, is highly dismissive of the Other. The false dualities that are presented to the world must be rejected. It is in the interest of the dominant ideologies everywhere to keep the oppressed busy with these false problems. We should not be afraid of rejecting both sides in the presented pseudo-dualities. We should not be afraid to condemn both Islamism and Islamophobia because they are actually the manifestations of similar social forces in two different geopolitical contexts. Pan-Arabism is as ugly as the old mentality of Western colonialism. Similarly, the European phobia of the Turks is fully irrational, and (not “but” because these phenomena actually belong to the same categories) Turkish Kamalism has a lot in common with Nazism. Ultra right wing European movements and Islamists actually have the same mindset and suffer from the same kind of intellectual deficiency. The conservative evangelicals in the USA and the Islamic regime in Iran perfectly feed into each other, and they belong to the same species. One side might sound more primitive or more explicit in expressing its hatred, but actually that is often a sign of less capability to carry out the aggressive enterprises, unlike the powerful side. Falling into the false dilemma of choosing between two options that are not only bad, but also belong to the same false consciousness is the first step in accepting a hopeless reality as the ultimate reality. A philosophical mind should always question the unquestioned bases of social and political phenomena. In the current state of affairs, more and more oppressed peoples are recruited against each other in wars and conflicts that only sustain the conditions of their oppression.

To go back to the topic of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, realistically speaking, there is an actual possibility of populist Islamism rising to power. This absolutely should be seen as a nightmare by any sane mind, not only for the reasons the official Western politician is concerned about, but also for the very reasons that make a sane Western individual struggle against the rise of ultra-conservatives in the West. It is time to see the Middle East not only through the lenses of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the Middle East and North Africa, believe it or not, there are complex societies, planes of conflicting and clashing social forces, strong feminist movements, and literally millions of individuals who simply want a decent, free life which certainly cannot be sustained under the rule of a dictatorship, a theocracy, or any fascist regime. The world has to understand that the strongest opposition, both in terms of quantity and quality, to the Iranian regime is in Iran itself. The same is true for the Arab world, so if as a non-Arab I have to take a position about the political issues in an Arab society, first I have to be careful to find the right side/s in that society because an Arab society is not a tribe!

Often, both the right and the left have the same reductionist image of the Middle East and North Africa, so their political positions are wrong for the wrong reasons. That is to say, both sides see the Other as a single homogeneous entity with one fixed religious-cultural identity and they develop a sense of hatred or solidarity accordingly. The best example of this is the debate on Islam and “Muslims”. Two things commonly happen in that debate among the populist right and fashionable left intellectuals: first, an imaginary homogeneous mental image has already been constructed to represent “Muslim” almost as a “race”, which is absolutely nonsensical, and second, that Muslim Other is either demonised or romanticised (depending on the bias of the hostile right wing or the sympathetic neo-humanist left wing, respectively). If we leave aside the political and the moral judgement, both sides are wrong epistemologically, so the whole debate is in vain. The terms are so distorted that if they are not deconstructed, we will repeat the same ideological deformation of the world over and over again. What does “Muslim” mean?

Being a “Muslim” entails being associated with a religion called Islam, which is made up of many variations, too numerous to be listed or even comprehended. Being a Muslim after all amounts to certain personal believes and practices. But that is exactly the problem with orientalist ideological reductionism: the Other is deprived of autonomy and individual freedom of thought. So the issue is not whether you like or hate the Muslim, the issue is that you deal with false problems when you internalize the orientalist categories. The same goes for “the Buddhist”, by the way. “The Buddhist” is almost conceived of as a distinct biological species, simple, peaceful, and anthropologically cultural. These orientalist generalizations about the Other also lead to fatal oversimplifications of the events that take place in the world of Other.

What is happening in the Middle East and North Africa is a huge shift in power relations that might lead to the domination of Islamists and/or nationalists, or hopefully some other, more rational, outcome. The point here is not to support the revolutions conditionally or to be cynical about them until it is too embarrassing not to condemn the killing of civilians by the despotic regimes. It is a complex conflict among many social forces, which always existed but is now acquiring a different momentum. After the regime changes, history is going to continue and the struggle for freedom and equality will never stop, regardless of the outcomes of these revolutions and future ones. What we are currently lacking is a sense of solidarity among progressive peoples all around the world, and as I argued in another article, perhaps the main reason for this is the absence of a true progressive ideology. In other words, what the rising masses and progressive elites are suffering from is what old Marxists used to call “false consciousness”. We need to gain a new international scope with regard to freedom and equality. We, the East and the West, need to continue smashing Idols until we free the human from her inhuman illusions. Those Idols can be traditional theological images, nationalist leaders, or any mystified and fetishised symbol for that matter. We need to be highly disrespectful of respect to the wrong things such as our own collective identities, imposed identities, imagined identities, and each and every culture equally, including the culture of reducing the Other to a culture.

[1] Here and elsewhere, I use the term “Islamism” to specifically refer to political Islam as it appeared as a reactionary and fanatic ideology in the 20th century. It is an ideology or rather a group of overlapping and conflicting ideologies, such as Wahhabism and political Shiism, that see the religion as a political means to reach political and religious ends. What all Islamists have in common is that they want to impose their political agenda on all “Muslims”, and accordingly they have their own fascist beliefs on “Islamic Nation”. Their main opponents, and often furious enemies, have been in the so called Islamic world, such as Sufis, communists, secular liberals, feminists, a huge number of minorities of all kinds, and simply the vast majority of people who do not see Islam as a political agenda, or merely as Islamic law, but rather as sets of moral, spiritual, and cultural values, which might be followed or ignored by the individual to deferent degrees depending on countless other sociohistorical, economic, cultural, geographic, and political factors.

About Saladdin Ahmed

Saladdin Ahmed is a post-nihilist philosopher who has declared full independence.
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