Friday, May 16, 2008

On Israel's 60th Anniversary of Statehood: Views From the Empire and the Caliphate

Sometimes, when reviewing the mountain of talk about the situation in that portion of the euphemistically described "Middle East" (understood to encompass that portion of what had been the dar al-Islam whose control has reverted to the people of Israel), one gets the sense of a certain deja vu. The contests over the control--both temporal and spiritual--of that place resemble, at least rhetorically, those of a time when the Caliph sat in Baghdad, the Byzantine Emperor sat in Constantinople, and the in the West the Pope sat in Rome and Emperor in Germany. Each asserted the right to wear the (abstract) mantle of legitimate representative of the paramount communities, for whom each spoke, the one Christendom and the other Islam. Few, of course, spoke for the Jews, a people whose time on Earth was thought to be drawing to an end. But for the others, Christians and Muslims, the Emperor, the Caliph, and at the time peripherally the Pope/Emperor combination in the West, served as the focus of religious and temporal power. See Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, God's Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam 114-116 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

The identity, or near identity, of the fundamental structure of their civilizations may have contributed in no small measure to the acrimony of their rivalry, but it preserved the basic unity of the medieval world, marking off the outsider as a barbarian even as exclusion from Greek culture had marked him off in antiquity. The antagonism of the three blocs was beyond reconciliation, but their struggle was meaningful in the sense that all combatants fought on the same plane and that, therefore, the slogans and reasoning of one party could be understood by the other. The general trend of medieval history may be described as a tendency toward the disruption of this fundamental unity of Christendom and Islam--the end of the Middle Ages marks the end of both identity of structure and equality of achievement.
Gustave E. von Grunebaum, Medieval Islam 8 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946) ("In the face of constant and bitter hostilities, Byzantines and Persians had always considered each other equals. . . . Now that the Arabs had taken the place of the Persians, it is they in conjunction with the Byzantines who constitute the pillars of civilization." Id., at 53). Among the others, a special opprobrium was accorded the barbarians scattered about the empires of the Greek/Romans and the Arabs. In a great irony, both of these pillars of medieval civilization reserved a great disdain for other peoples. "Aside from the Indians, only their nations are lettered; only they keep aloof from the brutish desires of the barbarians, such as the Turks and the Chinese." Id.

Times change but patterns of behavior tend to have a long half life. Caliph, Byzantine and Holy Roman Emperor are absent form the world today. The Papal office has undergone radical change and the Holy Roman Empire. Still, the world continues to be divided among nations that consider themselves at the forefront of civilization, and the others. We have changed the terminology but not the effect. Christendom remains fractured but aggressive in places like Africa and Asia. The definition of Arab has outgrown its historical origins.

A new conception of what an Arab is was developing in the period between the wars. By 1938, when Arab students in Europe held a conference in Brussels, it was possible to define as Arabs 'all who are Arab in their language, culture, and loyalty,' the latter term being taken to connot 'national feeling.'
W, Montgomery Watt, Islamic Surveys: Islamic Political Thought 118 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University press, 1968). Among the great empires, special opprobrium continues to be accorded smaller nations considered less civilized or otherwise unworthy. Thus, the spirit of those times--and perhaps a longing for the re-animation of those roles, also exists. It may be possible to characterize the general trend of modern history as a tendency toward the re-institution of the fundamental unity, of an identity of structure and equivalence of achievement, between fracturing and irreconcilable civilizations. This new medievalism is made possible by the leveling effects of globalization. See Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree 112 (1999). That leveling effect is one of the great glories of globalization, but, it seems, also the method by which the political cultures of the globe will change as well. I am by no means suggesting the usual--the so-called clash of civilizations popularized by scholars such as Samuel Huntington and Oswald Spengler. I refer to a much older an deeper division from which the West has not escaped entirely--that ancient conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. See Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilization (London: Penguin Books, 2007). Thus, there are substantial insights for the emerging post modern world within this observation of the medieval Mediterranean world.

If, indeed, the trend of modernity is toward a new medievalism (an ironic recasting of the strivings of so-called post modernity in the social sciences, law, culture and religion since 1945), one great spark for the metaphorical re-animation of these ancient divisions and offices has been the global religious and ethnic wars of the 20th century. Many of these conflicts conflated religion and ethnicity. In the 1980s,

however, a notable French publicist, Régis Debray, had already issued a prophetic warning. Modernity, he wrote, "will be archaic or it will not be at all. And when humanity 'in progress' is civilised by its own hand, it simultaneously becomes savage in its head and heart." This is why globalization has the seemingly paradoxical result of renewing "the escalation of tribal conflict and the resurrection of religion, not only on the periphery but at the very centre of the industrial world."
Noël O'Sullivan, Concept and Reality in Globalization Theory , in Globalization, Privatization and Free Market Economy 22 (C. P. Rao, ed., Westport, CN: Quorum Books, 1998) (quoting in part Régis Debray, Les empires contre l'Europe 27 (Paris: Gallimard, 1986)). These include the great war between religion generally and secularism in the West (a contest that has absorbed the Western Papacy , and most brilliantly so in the writings of Benedict XVI), Jewish genocide, intra-religious wars (among Christians and Muslims most spectacularly), and the traditional religious wars (for example Orthodox against Catholic against Muslim in the former Yugoslavia; Hindu versus Buddhist in Sri Lanka; Hindu against Muslim in India-Pakistan; Muslim against Bahai in Iran and on and on).

Let the music begin: Shi'ites against Sunni or Arabs against Persians, Alawites against Sunnis, Cypriot Turks against Cypriot Greeks, Druzes against Marionites, Jews against Muslims, Kurds against Arabs and Persians, Moors against Berbers, Sikhs against Hindus, Singhalese against Tamils, Germanics against Slavics, and Slavics against Turks, the Catholic against the Orthodox, the believers against the atheists, Hazaras and Pashtuns against Russian occupants, Baluchi against Punjabi, Vietnamese against Khmer Rouges and Chinese against Vietnamese or vice-versa.
O'Sullivan, supra., quoting R. Debray, Les empires contre l'Europe (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), 27-28). Though it is true enough that, in contrast to the Medieval era, the current borderlands of conflict have become far more complex, their fundamental character has not changed very much.

The boundaries of these conflicts are territorial, spiritual, cultural and economic. For all its modern complexities, one of the great flash points of these conflicts remains unchanged--Jerusalem and its environs. Except in one respect--the People of Israel now (again) control much of what, well before the medieval settlement, had been for a time the Land of Israel. The end of the great conflicts between Rome and Jerusalem, settled after the last great formal expulsion of a Jewish presence in Iudea, the imperial procuratorial province (renamed Syria Palaestina by Hadrian, and upgraded to proconsular province, has come back to enrich global conflict in its more ancient form. And it has produced a mimicking effect grounded in the great conflicts that came after. In yet another ironic twist, national aspiration has birthed its twin, both the emanations of the oppositional forces they represent. In a manner reminiscent of the failed efforts to strip the People of Israel of their national strivings, efforts continued form Roman to modern times,
Israel has, since its foundation, laboured to undermine any sense of Palestinian identity. Without most of their historic land, the relationship between Palestinians and Palestine could only exist in memory. Eventually though, memory managed to morph into a collective identity that has proved more durable than the physical existence on the land.
Ramzy Baroud, 60 Years of Denial, Al-Jazeera Magazine, May 22, 2008. But then the impossible: "Of course more than mere remembrance is necessary; Palestinians need to find a common ground for unity — Christians and Muslims, poor and rich, secularist and the religious — in order to stop Israel from eagerly exploiting their own disunity, factionalism and political tribalism." Id. Impossible precisely because Palestinian national identity itself remains contested within the greater turmoil of socio-political ordering within the dar al-Islam, a conflict that mimics, in a more intense way, perhaps, the great "conversations about religion and politics within post Reformation Europe.

And thus the conflict over control of the State of Israel is more than mere war--more than the sour grapes of a shrinking of the dar al Islam (that was reconciled well enough to the loss of the Balkans in the 19th century and Al-Andalus in the 15th century). The conflict thus now serves as a discursive, cultural, political and religious proxy for the conflicts that define our times and that simultaneously re-animate older conflicts, not just between the usual combatants of the last 1500 years, but of that older conflict between Rome and Jerusalem, between Pago-Christianity and Judeo- and post Judeo-Semitism. And because of the identity between the Christian West and the foundations of modern international law and its legal order, it is conflict in which everyone has a stake of varying degrees. See, e.g., Philip Alcott, The Health of Nations: Society and Law Beyond the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

It is a war in which there is little universal truth other than those created by facts on the ground--and the power to hold on to them. Yet it is also a conflict with an overabundance of truth, for all claim the ultimate authority of the entirety of truth in a way that is reminiscent of a different age. As the great leaders of all universalist cosmologies have long recognized--to the victor belongs the entirety. Survival is thus victory. But ultimate victory belongs to those who survive beyond their rivals. For that purpose, in this modern and increasingly medieval age, violence and dialog, properly managed, become the hall marks of law, politics and economics. The rule of law at the international level, serves as the means through which conflict is made permanent, regularized and contained, to be fought through words and bullets. This is the language of law--bureaucratic, managerial, well mannered and brutal in its own way--in which exhaustion serves as victory and the masses are kept protected (for their effective exploitation) and engaged in sensible ways. See Larry Catá Backer, ETA and the Management of Revolution in a Bureaucratic World, Law at the End of the Day, May 14, 2008.

The State of Israel is now celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding (or re-founding depending on how one understands the circularity of events. This has provided a great opportunity for illumination--not of the merits of the conflict--but of the ways in which the struggle over Israel produces meaning "in the sense that all combatants fought on the same plane and that, therefore, the slogans and reasoning of one party could be understood by the other." von Grunebaum, supra, at 8. In that context, two individuals have, each in their own way, have recently taken on themselves an authority to wear the (abstract) mantle of legitimate representative of the paramount communities, for whom each spoke, the one Christendom and the other Islam. The speeches given and statements made by President Bush and Osama bin Laden on the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel provides a great occasion for considering the modern rhetoric of an ancient divide at one of its more important borderland. For those looking for the conventional--this essay is bound to disappoint. I am uninterested in the usual framework for discourse about Israel, considering most of it fodder for the purpose of victory in the war for public opinion (though important enough in the aggregate and in effect on that point). I am interested in the representative rhetoric of individuals who seek to speak for powerful communities. And neither disappoints on that score. Both provide the more solid glimmerings of the reconstruction of a rhetorical plane in which all sides understand each other with a conflict essentially irreconcilable. If the "general trend of medieval history may be described as a tendency toward the disruption of this fundamental unity of Christendom and Islam," id., the general trend of modern history might be understood as the reconstitution of that unity of political religion in the "identity, or near identity, of the fundamental structure of their civilizations" (id.) and contribute as well "to the acrimony of their rivalry." Id.

Notice the symmetry of the approaches of each of these representative figures in constructing their rhetorical stances.
Bin Laden's 22-minute speech, posted on an Islamic militant Web site late Sunday, criticized Arab states for not waging war against Israel. "Those (Arab) kings and leaders sacrificed Palestine and Al-Aqsa to keep their crowns," bin Laden said, referring to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam's holiest sites. Israel is weak, he charged, but the Arabs have not fought "even a single serious war to get Palestine back." He even ridiculed the leader of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which fought Israel's military to a bloody draw in 2006. Bin Laden said Hezbollah didn't do enough and shouldn't have allowed the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, which he said was "to protect the Jews." He attacked Arab leaders interested in negotiating with Israel: "They have decided that peace with the Zionists is their strategic option, so damn their decision." That would include Abbas, who is holding peace talks with the Israeli government.
Mohammed Daraghmeh and Matti Friedman, Palestinians Cool to Embrace from al-Qaida leader, Associated Press, May 19, 2008. The mirror reverse came from President Bush in his address to the Israeli Knesset:
We gather to mark a momentous occasion. Sixty years ago in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel's independence, founded on the "natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate." What followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David -- a homeland for the chosen people Eretz Yisrael.
George W. Bush, Address to the Members of the Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel, May 15, 2008. A very different picture of the place is painted of the nature of the battle depicted by Osama bin Laden:
The joy of independence was tempered by the outbreak of battle, a struggle that has continued for six decades. Yet in spite of the violence, in defiance of the threats, Israel has built a thriving democracy in the heart of the Holy Land. You have welcomed immigrants from the four corners of the Earth. You have forged a free and modern society based on the love of liberty, a passion for justice, and a respect for human dignity. You have worked tirelessly for peace. You have fought valiantly for freedom.
Id. But the framework is the same: " Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before." Thus the terrible symmetry. ("Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, In the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye Courl frame thy fearful symmetry? William Blake, The Tyger).

And then the medievalism. The view from both sides reveals a great gulf at a foundational level. With an unconscious nod to Benedict XVI's notions of faith and reason (see Larry Catá Backer, Benedict XVI, Islam and the Politics of Abusive Discourse, Law at the End of the Day, September 16, 2006, discussing Benedict XVI, “Faith Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” Address Delivered at the University of Regensburg, Germany, Sept. 12, 2006). Thus President Bush powerful articulation of the nature of the conflict, and the recognition of its character:
"This struggle is waged with the technology of the 21st century, but at its core it is an ancient battle between good and evil. The killers claim the mantle of Islam, but they are not religious men. No one who prays to the God of Abraham could strap a suicide vest to an innocent child, or blow up guiltless guests at a Passover Seder, or fly planes into office buildings filled with unsuspecting workers. In truth, the men who carry out these savage acts serve no higher goal than their own desire for power. They accept no God before themselves. "
Id. Another symmetry. Who better than the American President, the representative o a secular world order, to suggest the humanism of his opponent, as well as the irrationality of that humanism. Yet, both the President and bin Laden can agree on two points. One is the importance of the struggle.
"The fight against terror and extremism is the defining challenge of our time. It is more than a clash of arms. It is a clash of visions, a great ideological struggle. On the one side are those who defend the ideals of justice and dignity with the power of reason and truth. On the other side are those who pursue a narrow vision of cruelty and control by committing murder, inciting fear, and spreading lies."
Id. But the perspectives are reversed when content is added. The other is the acknowledgment of the importance (the self perceived reality as a metaphor of truth) of the rhetoric at the foundation of the struggle:
"There are good and decent people who cannot fathom the darkness in these men and try to explain away their words. It's natural, but it is deadly wrong. As witnesses to evil in the past, we carry a solemn responsibility to take these words seriously. Jews and Americans have seen the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred. And that is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century."

At the same time, this represents a re-animation that is by no means an imitation. The fault line represented by the re-introduction of a Jewish presence in the land taken from the Canaanites adds a new element. It marks a great event in the evolution of conflict managerialism as international law. In that context, the reaction by political actors in the United States to President Bush's speech is both arrogant, silly, and self-absorbed in a pathetic sort of way. See Obama Blasts Bush, McCain Over Attacks, CNN, May 18, 2008. But that is the essence of the new managerialism, as it communicates and educates the masses to its logic. And it suggests the naturalization of medievalism within American politics as well. Yet such sad little internal American politics ought not to distract overmuch from the greater issues being framed within the rhetorical maneuvering that characterize the conflicts over Jewish Israel. Those rather than the noises coming from the American presidential campaign will be with us for quite some time to come. Sigh.

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