Sunday, July 13, 2014

dominance without hegemony

Syrian wars of domination without hegemony[1]

The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham[2] began as the Iraqi affiliate of al-Qaida during the American occupation of the country (2003–2011), then managed to expand in the Syrian north and east since 2012. It split off with the other “Islamist” (predominantly Syrian) groups, in particular its chief rival the Nusra Front, when Isis leader, operating under the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, demanded in summer 2013 the bayʿa from Nusra’s chief Abu Muhammad Jūlānī, another one of those war-machines pseudonyms. Had Jūlānī given his bayʿa (“endorsement”) it would have meant the end of the Nusra as an autonomous military unit; but having refused “endorsing” his rival, Isis marginalized itself, in one of its rare military setbacks, in the Aleppo region. There was a time until the end of 2013 when Isis controlled even some of the northern predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods in Aleppo (e.g. Bustān al-Bāsha), and the crucial “gateway” (mamarr) of Bustān al-Qaṣr, but ultimately withdrew when facing mounting pressures. Unconfirmed press reports claim that Isis has become a “wealthy revolution,” with tons of cash at its disposal, operating with a monthly budget of $50 million, and paying its militiamen, which happen to be from very diverse nationalities (including Europeans), a hefty $400 a month, which is at least twice what the others are paying. Here the “other” could mean anything from the Nusra Front, the main rival, or other Islamist groups, or the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for that matter. But while the latter, in all their conflicting configurations, religious or secular, are mostly Syrian, in the sense that were born and raised on Syrian territory, with a wide majority of Syrians into them, Isis by contrast saw its inception in Iraq during the American occupation, and Baghdadi himself was in jail until probably 2010. Its “Syrian” component is barely half of its military force. When Baghdadi declared the caliphate in the first day of Ramadan in early July 2014, he appointed himself as caliph Ibrahim, gave a public sermon in a prestigious Mosul mosque in a defiant gesture to the world-at-large, which marked his first public appearance ever (previous unconfirmed photographs of him during his captivity years were circulated by Iraqi intelligence; the Americans have set a $10-million reward over his head). A week later, as the head of the new “Islamic State,” which is now a “territorial reality,” in addition to being an act of the “imagination,” Baghdadi appointed “governors” (wulāt; s. wālī) over the newly gained ghanīmas (“booty”) of the central “Iraqi provinces.” What is striking here is that he proceeded with appointments that were not “local,” that is to say, were not “Iraqi,” as if the new “caliphate” has a de facto pan-Arab if not “universal” pan-Islamic mission. For example, the Libyan Abu Usama al-Miṣrāṭa (from Miṣrāṭ, Qadhdhāfi’s hometown and tribal area) was appointed as “governor” (wālī) to the Iraqi nāḥiya of Saʿdiyya in the province of Diyāla. But he was ambushed and killed four days later when his convoy was hit by a side bomb in Saʿdiyya, which has been under Isis’s rule for a month. The incident has probably to do with the refusal of the other Sunni militias, which have benefited from Isis’s expansion in June from giving their bayʿa to the self-appointed caliph. Among those groups are “the Naqshabandi group” of ʿIzzat al-Dūrī, who was Saddam’s ex-vice president, and which the Americans had failed to capture; in addition the Army of Anṣār al-Sunna; and the Islamic Army (al-Hayat, Beirut, 10 July 2014). (It was known that the Ottomans appointed administrators and governors in provinces that were not those of their origins, shifting them every few years, in an attempt not to have those governors intermingle more than they should with the local populace.)

What is important here, in the newly established caliphate whose territory stretches over northern Syria and central Iraq, is how a group like Isis, not to mention the other groups which are not to be reduced to their “Islamist” components, “govern” the populations, neighborhoods, towns, villages, tribal areas, which they seem to have “seized” “with ease.” The seizure of entire territories in central “Sunni” Iraq on June 10th comes to mind first in this respect: is such seizure an outcome of military prowess, the tactics of “guerilla” war which faces a much more equipped and organized army than its own (be it Iraqi, Syrian, or American), or has it more to do with a populace which initially suffers from poor systems of representations, has been ruled by “external” forces, including the “national state,” hence is not even a “society” in the first place.

To elaborate, what needs to be questioned is the ability of small militarized groups (experts assume that Isis controls parts of Syria and Iraq with no more than 10,000 to 15,000 well-trained but modestly armed men) to “govern” and “subdue” populations and territories (including tribal areas) which could be even “alien” to them, and with a minimal force which would be no more than 2 to 5 percent of the populations of the conquered territories. This is, in our view, the fundamental aspect of the Syrian wars, which have become since June joined Iraqi–Syrian wars led by militias whose organization is not much in sync with the populations.

Large portions of Syria and Iraq are now controlled by heterogeneous military groups, which in sheer number and equipment seem far below what the Syrian and Iraqi “national” armies have now or had for decades. Such groups come in sorts: some claim to be liberal democratic, like the Free Syrian Army, while the majority are jihadic, with Isis pioneering in this regard. For the most part, however, they do not seem to have anything that even comes close to a political or social “program” to “govern” the territories, tribes, villages, towns, cities and neighborhoods under their control. Their tactics are rather one of pure survival. First of all, in the conquest, withdrawal, and re-conquest, they would never adopt a style of frontal attacks, as regular armies would normally do. (T.E. Lawrence’s art of guerilla tactics against the Turkish soldiers and garrisons in the Hijaz come to mind here as a source of inspiration for understanding such methods; but also the “failures” of the Americans in Vietnam and later in Iraq to “subdue” or “kill” guerilla groups, from the Vietcong to the jihadists.) Second of all, once an area is conquered, they may or may not adopt a harsh style (arrest and torture of “opponents”), but even if they do they tend to be “friendly” with the population at large, not requesting much, as the sources of income tend often, though not always, to originate “from elsewhere.” That’s an important point: controlling a territory which would not de facto generate much income to the conquering group, at least not in the early phase. Thus, some of the resources used in Syria, say, in the northern-central areas of Minbij and Raqqa may come from other regions, for instance, the oil-wealthy region of Dayr al-Zor, or, indeed, from neighboring Iraq (the take over of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was particularly lucrative, bringing close to $500 million in a single day from the city’s banks).

Thirdly, we need to compare and contrast modes of “domination,” “governance,” control—in short, governmentality—between “the state” and “the rebel militias.” What stands as “the state” has been a steady evolution of modes of dominance, at least since the 1960s, which initially consisted of a takeover of the resources of the state by force. At the time, Syria, in spite of a brief but unfortunate union with Egypt, “society” was still fairly liberal and democratic, hence the forced seizure of power by the Baath has ended decades of liberalism. In Iraq, the liberal bourgeois state of the old classes went down with the coup of Abdul-Karim Qasim in 1958, hence the Baath brought a permanent, if not everlasting blow, to that liberalism.

Now that Isis is gone from Aleppo since January 2014, the “opposition” has come under a conglomerate of groups known as the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition dominant in the city and much of northern Syria. The Islamic Front is a fierce and effective opponent of Isis but also, in its Islamist platform and indirect connections with al-Qaida is a different beast than the Free Syrian Army. The FSA, surrendered as it is now in the southern neighborhoods of Salah-u-ddin and Sukkari and Sayf al-Dawla, among others, which had inaugurated the battle for Aleppo back in July 2012 (in the first year of the insurgency, the city remained totally “silent,” as it did in the “great revolt” of 1925), without water, food, and ammunition, is allegedly negotiating with the Asad régime its surrender and withdrawal à la Hama (May 2014), that is, without punishment or retribution. We’ll come later for an explanation as to why the city was taken over by “outside” elements, which negotiated their way by force through the southern neighborhoods, prior to moving east. It remains uncertain how much “local” elements of the popular neighborhoods have “contributed” to the uprising, which adds to that problematic that we have been following regarding the lack of “political autonomy.” I want, for now at least, to underscore that element of “externality” in the war process, and pose the question as to how “local” elements “articulate” with “external” ones coming from the “outside.” Let’s assume for now that, as we’ve witnessed it until the winter of 2011, there were more or less peaceful movements (from Damascus to Hims and Hama) which, facing the military brutality of the state apparatuses, were hijacked by militarized elements outside them, some of which, like Isis, were not even Syrian. Moreover, those peaceful demonstrations, which at some point in summer 2011 in Hama reached the million mark, had no particular organization. Their aim was punctual in the sense that they vaguely aimed at the presidency, even though the popular motto was no less than a “régime change.” For this very reason, the “opposition”-held areas in Aleppo and elsewhere cannot be said to be “opposed” to “the state” as such. There is an ambiguity to those militarized “oppositions” in their relations to the neighborhoods and the other localities which they have seized by force, on the one hand, and their relation to the state on the other; an ambiguity that we need to keep track of in its unraveling.

Isis’s abandoned headquarters in Aleppo are just across from another large building that serves as the base for Tawhid Brigade, one of the largest of the seven rebel groups that joined ranks together in November to form the Islamic Front. Isis had been present in opposition-held Aleppo since the beginning of 2013, but by the end of the year tensions with rebel groups had reached a crisis. Considering itself a sovereign state, Isis was refusing to accept meditation for any dispute, and it had taken to kidnapping those it considered to be critics or enemies, including people who worked with foreign journalists. Reporters found in its Aleppo abandoned building signs of prisoners being tortured and summarily executed (Matthieu Aikins, The International New York Times, July 8, 2014).

On January 7, Isis carried out a surprise attack on Tawhid Brigade’s headquarters. It was held off. The next day, Tawhid Brigade forces from around the city counterattacked and surrounded the hospital. “We cut them off and prevented them from bringing any support,” said the commander who led the offensive and who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Assad.

At around 3 a.m., the Isis fighters trapped inside the hospital asked to be allowed to leave the city, and Abu Assad, not wanting further bloodshed, agreed. When he and his men searched the hospital at first light, they discovered that Isis had massacred its captives. “We found a group of bodies every ten meters,” said Abu Assad. Most of them had been shot in the head while bound. Not long after the battle, the rebels had recorded a footage of the liberation of the hospital and its aftermath which was posted on YouTube.

The battle against Isis in Aleppo is part of a larger conflict that started at the beginning of this year, as rebel groups across the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo—including the powerful Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra—fought a pitched battle to expel Isis. The face-off left the Islamic Front pre-eminent. It controls the key border crossing with Turkey at Azaz and, with its estimated 50,000 to 60,000 fighters, is thought to be the largest and most potent rebel alliance in Syria.

The Islamic Front is entirely Syrian in leadership, and its central goal is to overthrow the Asad régime. Many of the group’s most powerful members—including the Tawhid Brigade and one of the largest factions fighting in the Damascus suburbs, Jaysh al-Islam—are not particularly ideological, and were once allied with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

But they are far from secular. The Islamic Front draws on support from pre-war Islamist resistance networks, including wealthy, religious donors across the Muslim world and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and exiled Islamist group, who turned underground in 1982, amid the massacres and destruction of Hama, which pitted at the time the régime of Asad-père against the Brotherhood. (The mini-civil war was initiated in 1979 when allegedly members of the Brotherhood killed dozens of Alawi officers at the Artillery School in Aleppo, turning many of the city’s popular neighborhoods unsafe in their fight against the régime.)

One of the coalition’s key members, Aḥrār al-Shām, has links to al-Qaida’s core leadership, and the Islamic Front as a whole closely coordinates operations with Jabhat al-Nusra.

By the summer of 2014, the Islamic Front, together with Jabhat al-Nusra, and the FSA, are fighting a battle of survival in Aleppo, which has been cleared out of Isis. The régime’s armed forces, which look more and more like a popular militia, with 10,000 plus Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen on their side, not to mention Iranian military “experts,” Russian support and so on, are preparing for a major offensive against Aleppo this winter. That would entail a complete takeover of the eastern and southern popular neighborhoods, and the expulsion of the Islamist militias. Already, we are told, the FSA, which controls its own neighborhoods in the south, where the battle has originally started in 2012, is in negotiation mode with the régime: to surrender with our lives and equipment intact. If such an offensive turns out a “success,” the régime will be left with Isis in the east, its main opponent, and various rebel groups in the Idlib and Hama provinces, not to mention the Damascus–Hims countryside, and the border with Israel.

For its part Isis controls territories in the central north and the north-east, which since June it has “opened” to Iraq by seizing most of the Iraqi border crossings. What is important for our purposes, from the perspective we have been following, is to document how Isis has tightened its grip on the territories it has controlled in the Syrian north and east: what are the procedures, and how this control is negotiated on the ground with tribes, villages, neighborhoods and cities. A Lebanese reporter, writing from Amman, Jordan, has noted that Isis uses different modes of domination between Syria and Iraq, where the movement had originated during the American occupation. In Iraq negotiations with the tribes and the underground Sunni militias are more “subtle,” in the sense that they take into consideration the latter’s “interests,” not to mention the Sunni–Shiʿi divide which is inexistent in Syria. Thus, the Iraqi Isis takes the others as “partners,” while managing the overall operation. It has adopted, in some ways, the policies that Saddam Hussein, the Americans, and the government of Nuri al-Maliki had opted with those same groups.

In Syria things are a bit different. In light of its June successes at expanding in central “Sunni” Iraq, Isis (now “the Islamic State” pure and simple since the first day of Ramadan) decided to tighten its grip on the Dayr al-Zor region (which has been renamed “wilāyat al-khayr,” the province of goodness, upon the declaration of the caliphate on the first of Ramadan). For one thing, the region is the only oil-producing area in Syria, and Isis managed to control the majority of the oil wells for at least a year, even selling its services to the Asad régime. For another, it wants to establish in every locality a long-term mode of domination: how that is achieved is our concern in this section.

The eastern town of al-Shaḥīl is mostly tribal in its composition, known to have been a stronghold of the Nusra front, for the simple reason that its leader Abu Muhammad Jūlānī comes from there, hence his nom de guerre is supposed to divert attention, while manifesting sympathy for the occupied Golan Heights. In July 2014 Isis forced more than 30,000 inhabitants of Shaḥīl to leave their homes, having already tortured and mutilated Kurdish fighters in the north, and executed opponents in those same areas (al-Hayat, Beirut, July 7, 2014). The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the only agency to have documented such executions and the forcing out of populations since 2011, claimed that an additional 30,000 were forced to leave (hijra) in the area of Dayr al-Zor in the towns of Khushām (at least 15,500 inhabitants) and Ṭābiyeh (15,000). Many of the Islamist groups mentioned above gave their bayʿa to “caliph Ibrahim” in the first week of Ramadan upon the latter declaring himself the amīr al muʾminīn, as did the two towns in the second of July. But Isis would nevertheless not permit the inhabitants back until they’ve been “forgiven” (tawbah) for what they did, that is, for having sided with Nusra and fought the Islamic State. To the inhabitants the sine qua non condition of “forgiveness” is only an excuse for a permanent hijra.

On the other hand, having seized all oil fields in Day al-Zor, except for the one located at Ward, which has only one well producing 200 barrels a day, Isis began selling crude oil for SP2,000 a barrel or $12, but it forces those same merchants for selling it at no more than $18 in order to accommodate more popular support in its own areas. However, such prices are much lower than when the oil fields were controlled by various Islamic militias, including Isis, at which time, back in 2013, the militants used to sell the oil at the high price of $30 to $50 a barrel. Isis is also planning to sell gas demijohns in the areas under its control, sprawling from Dayr al-Zor to the eastern suburbs of Aleppo, the Turkish–Syrian frontier, and ʿAyn al-ʿArab, with the exception of areas under Kurdish domination, in addition to the eastern countryside of Hims and Hama, and other areas, the total of which (excluding Iraq) is five times the Republic of Lebanon.

Nor is the management of crony capitalism the only talent that Isis has developed in the larges stretches that it has seized between Syria and Iraq. In early July, in the south of Hasakeh, a city in the north-east with a majority of Kurdish population (together with Assyrians and other Christian minorities), Isis fighters have mutilated the bodies of Kurdish militiamen from “the Units for the protection of the Kurdish people” which were killed in action when Isis attacked villages in the area west of ʿAyn al-ʿArab. The bodies were hanged in public on podiums in the presence of small kids, after exposing the bodies in the Jrāblus area.

A pattern has therefore emerged which consists in the following: (1) seizure of a territory by force through military might; (2) the territory could be as small as a single neighborhood, a village, a town, a countryside, or as big as Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city; (3) the technique of warfare consists of guerrilla warfare in small numbers, not frontal attacks (cf. T.E. Lawrence on guerrilla warfare against the Turkish army in the Hijaz); (4) Isis would “share” those conquered territorial units with its “opponents” (Kurds, Nusra Front, FSA, the Islamic Front, all of which have shared territories against their absolute enemy, the Asad régime; however, allegations that Isis is an “offshoot” of the Asad régime seem unfounded; the régime, until recently, with Isis’s expansion in central Iraq has been more “lenient” with the Islamic State, probably because it served as a tool to simultaneously weaken the FSA and Islamic Front; Jūlānī has been released from the jail of Ṣadnāyā at the end of 2011, so that the régime would point fingers at “Islamic terrorism” among opposition ranks) but only if it finds itself in a “weak” position, that is, unable to dominate the others; (5) Isis is more at ease when it is in full control of a territory, rather than sharing it; (6) when it is in a full-control mode, Isis would accept no less than the full “subjugation” of the populations under its control; if the latter had fought against Isis they should ask for repentance (tawbah) and openly give their mubāyaʿa or bayʿa to the new caliph (and the institution of the caliphate); (7) Isis would then establish an “economy of war” in the conquered territories, whereby it would control the most lucrative resources available, beginning with the oil fields, trade routes and businesses. Isis would impose itself as a complete monopoly in a “marginal” capitalist economy where the common people would not be allowed to compete with the master. It would allow anything that would give it the income it needs (its estimated budget allegedly stands at $50 million a month). For example, a member of the Majādhmah tribe in the Minbij area told me that a Turkish cell company decided to plant a reception tower near their village, considering that the only two Syrian cell companies have been for the most part cut off in the north. Isis agrees, only because it receives commissions from the Turks, and the more Syrian consumers buy minutes from the Turkish cell company, the better.

The main point is this: the mode of “domination” remains fairly superficial—at the surface—which only involves “allegiance,” but no new social bonds, no hegemony, class alliances and the like. In short, it is dominance by force but without hegemony. We need to question whether such mode of dominance is in any way different from that that has been instituted by the Baathist state for over half a century, or whether there is anything unique to it.

Let us take as example of the process of negotiation and the economy of war in the province of Dayr al-Zor which is almost fully under Isis’s control.

In early July the people of the town of al-Qūriyyah took to the streets at night to demonstrate their unwillingness to let Isis rule their small town (al-Hayat, 9 July 2014). As reported in al-Hayat, from the London-based Marṣad of Human Rights, negotiations were soon initiated between the elders of the tribes of the western countryside (Khaṭṭ al-Shāmiyyah), and the leaders of the Islamic Brigades, on the one hand, with Isis on the other side. The purpose was to achieve an end to war and settle peace between all parties.

What is interesting here were the conditions (shurūṭ) set by the tribes and the Islamic Brigades—as a single party—for a settlement.

1.     The Islamic Brigades would keep their infrastructure intact in all the western countryside of Dayr al-Zor, but would nevertheless declare their bayʿa to Isis and uphold its banner (rāyah).
2.     The Brigades would not deliver their armaments, heavy or small, to Isis.
3.     Isis would only enter the western countryside in small numbers, to be limited to the “immigrants” (muhājirīn) only, that is to say, from non-Syrian citizenships; thus, Syrian citizens are not welcomed at all.
4.     No one that Isis has on its lists of wanted persons would be arrested.
5.     All parties would agree to fight the [Asad] régime.
6.     The formation of a sharʿi board (hayʾa sharʿiyya) that would be common to Isis and the other parties.

The Marṣad’s “witness” on the ground added that Isis’s prime response was that “there is no negotiation unless the other parties give up all their arms.”

Whatever the outcome of such negotiations, what is interesting here are the conditions set by the tribes and their militias on the ground, that is, the original populations of the western countryside in Dayr al-Zor. What is revealing in the list of the six “conditions” above is that the tribes and their affiliated militias would declare the bayʿa on the proviso that they keep their arms and military infrastructure intact. The bayʿa therefore seems like a minor event, which could be negotiated and exchanged at face value, practically bearing no importance in relation to any essence, which is the military economy of those tribes and their sense of autonomy. Moreover, the insistence on “immigrants”—that is, strangers, which could be Arab, African, Asians, or Europeans—over Syrians points to the fact that the main problem resides in the allocation of power relations among “Syrian” tribes. The bayʿa, therefore, provides that institutional umbrella through which the likes of Isis operate: subjugate groups to Isis’s dominance by giving them rewards which were initially withdrawn from them. In some ways, Isis’s “politics” borrows similar mottos from the Baathist state, not to mention French colonial rule or the Ottomans.

The bayʿa is a sign of loyalty that takes place on a one-to-one basis: not only a specific tribe, but every faction of the tribe (ʿashīra) must specifically declare its loyalty; and so would each faction of the fighting brigades. Which makes the bayʿa a quintessential speech act: an act of declaration where the loyalty of the tribe and its affiliated brigade is openly declared in public. Thus, based on the above report (al-Hayat, 9 July 2014), the “majority” of the “forces on the ground” have openly declared “their bayʿa to the Islamic State and the caliph of all Muslims Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [a.k.a. Khalifa Ibrahim].” Those “powers” (jihāt, “directive forces”) on the ground are then enumerated one-by-one: the people of the town of Ṣubaykhān, Dablān, Ghuraybah, al-Kashmah, Duwayr; then follows the enumeration of the Jund al-Sham Brigades, a total of 12, whose names include common male or female heroic personalities in Islamic history, locations, or metaphors: al-Muʿtaṣim bi-l-llāh, Nūr al-Islām, Jund Allāh, al-Ḥārith, Khālid ibn al-Walīd, ʿAysha umm al-Muʾminīn, etc. The naming is here important because it is inscribed within the logic of speech act: the point of honor of the party that declares the bayʿa to the caliph and caliphate—and to itself—and that would do everything that it takes to remain “loyal.” But then the bayʿa is characterized by a logic of domination which practically leaves intact the structure of the groups that have “subjugated” themselves to the conquering group, or other tribes or tribal factions, or “the state” for that matter, or in the not-so-remote-past local “administrations” which worked on behalf of the far away Ottoman state.

One should note here that if the tribes and tribal factions (ʿashāyir) have manifested some resistance to Isis, setting at times conditions for their “surrender,” it is because the tribes of the east are better structured and “harder” than the ones in the central-north in the region of Raqqa, which has become Isis’s official headquarters since 2013. In this instance, the fragility and tenuousness of tribal structures makes them vulnerable to the likes of Isis (and to the other Islamic Brigades as well), a vulnerability that was already manifest under the Baathist state for over half a century.

Mustafa al-Burayji, an astute observer located in the city of Raqqa, told al-Hayat (July 11, 2014): “Once Isis has entered the city as a faction, it rushed at finding a partner (rāfid) among the society of tribes in the province, in which it found an easy prey, considering the fragility and tenuousness of those tribes. Which gave the latter the opportunity to look for easy money and status. Isis was in the meantime using a combination of force and promises through its armed men which were kidnapping (abducting) and beheading their opponents at the sight of the shaykhs of the tribes, helped in this by young members of the tribe of Burayj which had given their bayʿa to the organization. That was the beginning of a bayʿa process that took one tribe after another, beginning with Burayj and ending with ʿUjayl, Bu Jāber, Subkhah, ʿAfādilah, Bu ʿAssāf, Hunādah, al-Shibl, al-Sakhānī, al-Ḥuwaywāt, and Zurashmar… That was completed with the tribes east of Aleppo, represented by the Bubnah in Minbij, and the Khaffājah in Maskanah, in addition to the tribal factions of al-Barri, the Ḥadīdiyyīn, and the Nuʿaymāt… The leaders of those tribes and tribal factions were led in the past to manifest their loyalty to then-president Hafiz al-Asad for the sake of some money and racketeering (ṣuṭwa) which his Baathist governments[3] had deprived them of.”

Note how an observer who is resident of the city knows for sure how to name the tribes one by one (the naming of their “affiliated” brigades, however, is quite different), because naming in relation to the bayʿa only happens on a one-to-one basis. That is to say: tribes would not give their “allegiance” collectively, that would be a meaningless act pure and simple. To understand why this is the case, we need to understand that for each bayʿa with one of the tribes or the tribal factions (ʿashāyir) comes an individual “reward” for the tribe in question. The “reward” would invariably give the tribe “privileges” over an area, like the collection of fees, dues, and racketeering schemes. Such “privileges” would be “on behalf” of Isis, or any other group. But what distinguishes Isis from the other military groups is their systematic requirement of the bayʿa, as the sine qua non condition for the survival of the organization in its newly conquered milieus.

Considering that the tribes and tribal factions have not for the most part invested themselves in men and equipment in the civil war, the bayʿa comes as the closest “investment” in the war effort. However, the bayʿa would neither entail much submission to the “strong” party, nor an “ideological” commitment of sorts. In effect, the bayʿa entails submission to the party which happens to have controlled the area in question, which in this instance is no one else but Isis; other areas which are controlled by the Nuṣra Front manifest their allegiance to al-Qaida’s leader Ẓawāhiri and his “affiliate” Jūlānī (the latter had already given his bayʿa to the former). In all such instances, however, there is no ideological commitment, but only an organization of power relations whereby the “subjugated” party would receive a modicum of “economic” privileges, but not much in the order of the political and ideological. All of this does not so much point in the direction of Isis’s strength, but more in the direction of the fragmentation of tribal formations, in particular in the central north of the country, more specifically, the territories located between the east of Aleppo up to ʿAyn al-ʿArab. But even where the tribes are stronger, as in the Dayr al-Zor region, along the border with Iraq, the process is in the final analysis not much different. For their part, the likes of Isis and Nuṣra behave as if the tribal structure would not matter much to their own internal organizations, as they approach them from the “outside”—domination without hegemony. To wit, whenever Isis imposes its well famed “Islamic norms,” based on its own self-appointed marjaʿiyya, on a territory, such “norms” leave intact tribal structure, neighborhoods, towns and villages. In short, there is no attempt to “integrate” through newly imposed norms: they only are imposed norms without processes of normalization. Thus, for example, because in the process of the bayʿa what matters first and foremost are the “trusted authorities” (al-thiqāt), Isis has set in Dayr al-Zor an office which is presided by a man from the Burayj tribal faction, which handles more security issues rather than administrative ones.

At times, a tribe’s “strength” might give it additional privileges. For example, the bādiya of Dayr al-Zor hosts some of the most powerful tribes, such as the ʿUqaydāt and Baqqārah, which in turn are composed of several tribal factions (ʿashāyir), and which have not “urbanized” as the Raqqa tribes did. Thus, the “integrity” of the ʿUqaydāt has pushed the Asad-père régime to strengthen its ties with it for 40 years, to the point that the eastern town of al-Muḥsin became known as “the treasury of the officers of the Syrian army.” For his part, Asad-père had crowned his associations with the eastern tribes by marrying his son Maher to the daughter of the chief of the tribal faction of al-Judʿān.

The various bayʿas and counter-bayʿas to either Isis or the Nuṣra did not quell the competition among tribes and their factions, in particular in the presence of oil in the eastern regions, and the advantage that Isis has manifested in its thorough organization across “national” territories and in its control of the Iraqi–Syrian border on both sides. As the tribal chief of the Bū Sarāya noted, “Isis knows how to give the best offer when it comes to oil, which drives competition and fitna among the tribes, which in turn drives some tribes outside the competition because they bear no interest on the matter, such as ours” (al-Hayat, July 11, 2014).

Such “allocations” of revenues, oil or otherwise, which are the property of the Syrian state in the first place, could turn violent. The Dayr al-Zor region thus enflamed when Amer Rafdan, a leading tribesman from the ʿUqaydāt, was shot to death, having turned against Jūlānī for the sake of Baghdādī, endorsing the latter with his full bayʿa. The leader of Isis had in effect approached Rafdan with a lucrative deal apropos oil revenues. The new deal—and bayʿa—gave Isis unprecedented control over the oil wells of Jafrah, Koniko, Khashshām and Jadīd ʿUqaydāt, while leaving tribal equilibrium in limbo, with continuous warfare between the Bū Jāmel, on the Nuṣra side, and the Bakīr, on the Isis side. The “deal” seems to work, therefore, on both sides. Isis (or the Nuṣra for that matter) is unable to exploit the oil resources on its own, without the protection that the tribes could furnish to the wells, and the latter have proven unable to organize on their own to exploit the oil wells.

Such divisions came in conjunction with rifts within the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) whose Dayr al-Zor military decided to give its bayʿa to Isis, which led the latter to take more oil wells in addition to gas pipelines worth billions of dollars, leading also, out of fear, to more bayʿa among tribes that have thus far been “neutral,” such as the Bū ʿIzz al-Dīn and the Baqqārah. In sum, Isis is now in nearly full control of Dayr al-Zor, its countryside and desert, having subdued to it the Nuṣra, the FSA, and the tribal factions, all through lucrative oil and gas deal, which involve protection of the well and pipelines on one side, and the commercialization of the products on the other. However, with all kind of rifts among the tribes and the militias, and the oil wells nearby, the “eternal peace” is not there yet.

[1] The title borrows from Ranajit Guha’s concepts of “domination” and “hegemony.”
[2] Both the terms of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, are inappropriate, as both the Levant and Syria denote meanings that are incongruent with what Sham implies for the purported dawla islāmiyya: the Levant would look like a colonial reality in line with Sykes-Picot, which means “artificial” borders created from the “outside,” through colonial administrators in Paris, London, and elsewhere; while Syria gives the impression of a postcolonial “national” state. Al-Sham by contrast should be understood in its “prophetic” meaning: that of a religious territory which is not fragmented along clearly demarcated borderlines, and which comes “next” to the holy Ḥijāz area. Isis is known as “Dāʿish” in Arabic, for the acronym of al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi-l-ʿIrāq wa-l-Shām, but if an unfortunate would utter such a word in public in an Isis-controlled area, he could be punished with 80 whips.
[3] Of the so-called “corrective movement,” ḥaraka taṣḥīḥiyya, which “corrected” and acted upon the early Baath of the 1960s.

le "monde" méditerranéen

This year my birthday happily coincided with the end of Ramadan and the coming of the Fitr. Otherwise, it’s Hiroshima as usual, one more time, like a burden. I will miss Ramadan, which, like Christmas, has something secular into it. That it shifts two weeks backwards every year makes it even better, as it desperately associates itself with the four seasons. In Beirut, a lousy city in every respect, streets are quiet by 7:00 in the evening, which is one of Ramadan’s blessings for a city filled with noise, extra noise, more noise for nothing, noise like garbage. I’ve developed so much hatred to this place that I’m beginning to think that my liking it in the last few years must be related to teaching: I hate teaching more than I hate Beirut, therefore I tolerate this damned city. On the positive side, I need castration to work, hence the toleration. The real pleasure is at the beach, with a nearly empty swimming pool all for myself in Ramadan. What would happen to me when in few years Ramadan shifts back to winter? But the real blessing is this deep blue Mediterranean, and all those young women tanning themselves endlessly, who seem “possessed” for life by men who are notoriously absent, as if they’re having their moment of “fun” elsewhere. (Freud would say there’s no “sexual liberation,” because it’s all in that damned oedipal unconscious; hence we repeat ourselves indefinitely; we score well or poorly; at best there’s pleasure, if we can find it, but no jouissance.) It’s those couple of hours every afternoon at the beach that I’ll miss once in Chicago—moments of relaxation and serenity which have no equivalent elsewhere—certainly not on “Lake Eerie”—or its cozy apartment. I can forget myself and my failures: something uncanny in the heat of a Mediterranean sun that would urge such forgetting. I am by temperament not much of a social animal, hence the solitude of loneliness is all what it takes to get hold of that elusive “self.” At least it gives me the energy to write few hours a day, with that feeling of accumulation and achievement, in spite of all failures. Writing about the eastern Mediterranean, this world where I grew up, is a frustrating experience, as there is so little that “comes together” through the symbolisms of language. As I read Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France, with his elaborate genealogies that connect socio-historical layers of discourses and practices, I realize that all my life I’ve been struggling precisely with that desire of continuity, of things and phenomena connecting together through their most obscure layers. I then decided to drop every “about” I could think of: not to write about an about is a great blessing; not to write with a thesis in mind and proofs for that damned thesis; hence all writing and teaching became more confusing, for the better. Difficult not to think of Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean “world” and its three archeological cultural layers: the Greco-Roman and Latin Christianity, the Islamicate, and the Greek-Orthodox, in relation to their temporalities. There is a layer, says Braudel, that never moves, completely immobile, like those mountains on the Mediterranean; on the top of it sits the layer of institutions, which are slow moving; still on the top is what we are instinctively attracted to: the events on the surface which give us that wonderful illusion that so much is happening, so much is going on, to the point that change is all over the place. Yet, we remain the same, no matter what. Had you known me at twenty, you would have realized that “I” was back then exactly as “I” am now, at fifty-seven, but with less gray hair. Time and age only bring forth that element of consciousness that was not present before: I know now why I made such a decision at twenty. Only time brings that satisfaction: I haven’t changed because that’s how I always wanted to be in the first place; but I only understand it now. Freud used to compare the unconscious to archeological layers, deep down into our consciousness, which we know nothing about (that is, “it” cannot be formulated in the symbolisms of language; hence the “violence” “it” inevitably holds from within our libidinal impulses) until a contingent event accidentally hits on one of those layers. The event which looks like an innocuous accident would be perceived through the lens of analysis and therapy as situated within a broader traumatic structure, which could be discovered by connecting what seems at face value disconnected events. For Freud Rome was the quintessential metaphor of the unconscious, sitting as it has been for thousands of years on archeological layers, some of which are visible all at once at its center—the Forum. The Mediterranean is just like that—unconscious archeological layers which are open to be associated with one another into infinite temporalities. Like any unconscious, it is neither egalitarian, nor democratic, nor ready to be reeducated. That’s my fate and destiny. That’s why I find myself useless as a teacher—and lover. Needless to say, I’ve got no urge for icy Chicago!

Friday, July 4, 2014

egyptian secularism?

Agrama, Hussein Ali. Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt. University of Chicago Press, 2012. ISBN 0226010694. $27.50.

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press, 2003.

Asad, Talal, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood. Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. 2nd Revised edition. Fordham University Press, 2013.

Yavuz, M. Hakan. Islamic Political Identity in Turkey. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principles of the Islamic sharia are the main source of law.” The Syrian constitution carries a similar clause, except that the sharia is substituted for fiqh, the various law schools (madhāhib) which represent different interpretations of the holy sharia, based on the Qur’an and hadith (the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad). The clause in the Syrian constitution on the sources of law may be historically and hermeneutically more accurate, as we are dealing more with interpretations of the sharia than with the holy law itself, which stands as divine, hence could only be approached hermeneutically: the corpus of the fiqh, in its various Sunni and Shi‘i law schools, does indeed assume a principle of contingency, as each interpretation would be contingent on both the school that carries it and the jurist that has propounded it.

The question, however, as raised by Hussein Ali Agrama’s Questioning Secularism, is, would such constitutional clauses make a country like Egypt more “religious” than “secular”? Does Egypt have a “secular” future? The anthropologist Talal Asad, Agrama’s mentor, has differentiated between the concepts of the “secular” and “secularism,” tracing the genealogy of the former to medieval Christianity, in its attempt to delineate a “profane” discursive field that would stand outside religion proper, while the latter is a nineteenth-century phenomenon on a par with nationalism and the nation-state, both of which require an ideology of integration into a “society” of autonomous individuals. Various European nations could thus be described as having gone through a process of secularization, which would imply implementing the doctrine of secularism as a discursive practice that would separate the domain of the modern state from that of the religious proper. For example, a newly formed nation like Turkey, which, in the wake of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, proclaimed the secular nature of its state apparatuses since its 1923–27 constitution, had to go through a process of secularization whereby the Turkish élite, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, disbanded many of the most famed religious institutions of Sunni Islam, beginning with the venerable caliphate and the position of Shaykh ul-Islam.

Agrama is frank that when he started his research on the Egyptian judiciary in the 1990s, he wasn’t much interested in secularism per se. What seems to have changed his mind was the Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd case, the University of Cairo professor who was accused of apostasy in his views regarding the interpretation of the Qur’an and scriptures, and was ultimately forced to divorce his Muslim wife through an order that originated from a personal status court. When the Cairo Appeals Court declared Abu Zayd an apostate, it wrote in its judgment that

The Court notes that there is a difference between apostasy, which is a material action with its basic elements and conditions…and belief (i‘tiqād). Apostasy is necessarily comprised of material acts that have an external being. Such acts must make manifest, in a manner undeniable and without dissent, that one has called God Most High a liar, and the Prophet, peace be upon him, a liar by denying what he has brought to Islam….Belief, however, differs clearly from apostasy. For apostasy is a crime whose basic material elements are presented before a judge to decide whether it exists or not…but belief concerns what is in the interior of a human’s being self, belonging to his domain of secrecy. (Agrama 50)

Here Agrama seems to be missing the point in his rush to interpret the Court’s judgment:

Thus freedom of belief was not defined as freedom to believe what one wants; it was not solely a matter of being able to choose one’s own opinion or views. Rather, freedom of belief also consisted in a protection from those actions and practices that would corrupt religious belief and obstruct the conditions needed for its proper maintenance and practice. Belief therefore required investigation when obstructions to it were manifest. (Agrama 51)

Agrama’s interpretation misses completely the distinction, clearly demarcated by the Court, between the internality of belief, on the one hand, and the externality of apostasy on the other. It is therefore not (at least primarily) a question of “freedom” to believe or not believe for the subject, but in the externalization of acts (including speech) which may or may not signal and internal belief. What the Court clearly stated was that as long as belief, being a purely internal phenomenon without any external manifestation, it has no legal consequence. No judge could judge me on my belief for the simple reason that it is internal, hence invisible in the eyes of justice and other mortals. I could get in trouble for stating—which in itself is an act of externalization related to speech—a religious opinion, not because it necessarily reflects an internal belief of mine, but simply because it is, in the language of the Court, a “material act” or an “external being,” which could be the subject of a counter-opinion, a judgment, or a lawsuit. In other words, the Court would not care less about my internal beliefs, and whether there is a “correlation” between my core beliefs and my external acts, for the simple reason that we only have knowledge of and can only judge the latter. Put simply, the expression “freedom of belief” is meaningless, as belief is internal, and there is no one to judge me on it. It is therefore neither free nor restricted.

The problem, however, in the Abu Zayd case, is not simply that he did externalize—in the form of written texts—what he may or may not have believed in regarding his interpretations of the Qur’an and scriptures. Abu Zayd could have made the rightful claim for his right of ijtihād, that of personal interpretation and reasoning, but, here again, the Court of Cassation, which has sustained the decision of the lower Appeals Court, made it clear that the entire text of the Qur’an is not to be subjected to personal reasoning, except for verses that are not straight-forward and clear enough, or have no other verses to support them (Agrama 52). So, once more, the crucial matter, in the case of apostasy, is not one of “freedom of belief,” but its externalization in an act (speech act or otherwise) that could be assessed and judged. Once externalized in publications, as Abu Zayd did in his numerous academic writings, the various courts found it legitimate to intervene, not, however, on the basis of freedom of belief. Belief is simply, for those secular-religious courts, the noumenal unknown, about which nothing could be stated, and regarding which the courts have nothing to say or judge.

Here we need to address a couple of related issues. First of all, where does this separation between the internality of belief and externalization of apostasy come from? Is it Islamic (established in the fiqh, philosophy, or theology)? Or is it unrelated to Islam? What are its repercussions on the debate between religion and secularism? In my view, the importance of this matter stems from the fact that such position would point at broader differences with Christianity, and for that very reason, the religious–secularist debate cannot be solely addressed in terms of a contextualization of a particular religion based on its practices, for instance, court practices. What needs to be addressed are the broader issues of truth, belief, and the externalization of belief across religious experiences.

Talal Asad, an astute genealogist in line with the likes of Nietzsche and Foucault, and Agrama’s mentor, noted the following regarding the Abu Zayd case:

Disbelief incurs no legal punishment; even the Qur’an stipulates no worldly punishment for disbelief. In the classical law, punishment for apostasy is justified on the grounds of its political and social consequences, not of entertaining false doctrine itself. Put another way, insofar as the law concerns itself with disbelief, it is not a matter of its propositional untruth but of a solemn social relationship being openly repudiated (“being unfaithful”). Legally, apostasy (ridda, kufr) can therefore be established only on the basis of the functioning of external signs (including public speech or writing, publicly visible behavior), never on the basis of inferred or forcibly extracted internal belief. (Asad et al. 36–7)

From Max Weber to Marcel Gauchet, up to Asad’s own Genealogies of Religion, it has often been pointed out that since medieval Christendom it has become customary to question this internal invisible motivation precisely “on the basis of inferred or forcibly extracted internal belief.” In his groundbreaking Genealogies, Asad documents at great length how in medieval Christendom pain and truth came hand-in-hand in the inquisitorial institution of judicial torture in order to extract a truthful confession. What this means is that, unlike in Islamdom, it mattered to know what the internal motivations and beliefs of a subject were. They had to be extracted by force and externalized. Which to put it bluntly, Christianity demarcates itself from Islam and other systems of belief in placing the burden of proof and socialization on the individual and his or her individual consciousness. Which makes Christianity more universal in that the requirements for social and religious requirements into the community (communitas) are more demanding to say the least. The difference between the secular and sacred, since medieval Christianity, may be seen in the notion of a communitas whereby there is an intense community spirit propelled by a common ritual, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness. Communitas is therefore the experience of people experiencing liminality together. The secular by contrast focuses more on structure, on what needs to be done together for the sake of the survival of the community. When Europe moved to modernity, this common structure implied the nation, nationalism, and the nation-state. What is important for our purposes, however, is that this transition from the religious to the secular not only needs to be historically contextualized, but more importantly, it is itself set within religious parameters which are determined by the essence of the system of religious beliefs to which a community belongs. In short, an Islamicate society like Egypt, in process of secularization, would experience the spirit of a secular community differently from any European community, due precisely to Islamicate principles.

This internality–subjectivity of belief versus the externality–objectivity of a religious behavior (e.g. blasphemy) operates perfectly well even within the strict confines of a secularist space of an Islamicate society like Turkey. Turkey went secular in 1924 during the formative period of the Turkish Republic, modeling its “laic” law, which separated state institutions from various religious powers, more after French laïcité (officially established in the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State) than American secularism per se. If laïque in its original Greek meaning is that which “belongs to the people,” hence, in its later post-Revolution meaning, would refer to that common political good, the body politic of the nation which should not be monopolized by clerical power, then to “laicize” would entail more radical measures than secularization proper. In effect, to laicize would not be limited to the removal of clerical power and symbols only, or the secularization of the state, as it would be more radical than that: namely, the banning of religious symbols (and symbolisms) from public institutions and public life. Hence a cross, which would symbolize Christian values, would be banned from the person who is wearing it in public, or at least within the confines of a public institution that preaches laïcité.

The point here, at least in relation to Egyptian secularism, is what happens when the political space of a modern nation-state officially declared secular, or better still, laïque, with all the French connotations of that term, which the Turkish Kemalist Republican élite had wholeheartedly assumed and staunchly protected (even if that implied in the post-World War II era one military coup after another in order to protect Turkish Kemalist secularism). Does such a situation imply a complete reversal to Egyptian secularism, which is not openly declared, but only negotiated piecemeal on every occasion, whether implying a judicial verdict or not?

Consider, for example, what happened in Turkey in 1998, amid the 1997 military coup that banned “Islamist” parties of the likes of the Refah and Fazilet, which brought down the successful government of the Refah leader Necmettin Erbakan. In 1998 the Constitutional Court (CC) took aim at redefining secularism in theory and practice in light of what it saw as “serious transgressions” from the practitioners of the banned Islamist parties. Before handing down its decision, the CC redefined secularism as “the way of life,” as the only officially sanctioned “regulator of political, social and cultural life of the society.” The central goal of Kemalism was defined as being a political, social, and cultural system “free of any religious influence or presence. Religion, for the CC, only can be tolerated in the private conscience of an individual, and any externalization or reflection of religiosity in the public domain is defined as an antisecular act against the principles of Kemalist secularism. The CC decision also alludes to “the different nature of secularism in Turkey on the basis of the unique characteristics of Islam and the sociohistorical context of Turkey.” Indeed, the court defines religion in opposition to secularism and argues that “religion regulates the inner aspect of the individual whereas secularism regulates the outer aspect of the individual.” (Yavuz 247)

What is remarkable here is that between Egypt which would not adopt an open secularist stance, and Turkey where secularism is staunchly protected in the constitution, there is that common view that belief in Islam rests on the duality between an internalized–subjective attitude which could always be tolerated as such by the official state authorities—precisely because it remains a Kantian noumenal invisible—versus a parallel attitude of belief which is externalized and rendered visible by the practicers themselves. As belief remains subjective and internalized, hence unknown to state and judicial authorities, as long as the actor-individual-subject would not publicly externalize it, the externalization of religious belief, however, once open to the public, could be subjected to state and judicial scrutiny. That’s at least the logic behind the decisions taken by both the Egyptian supreme court in the case of Abu Zayd’s alleged apostasy, and, roughly the same time, in the late 1990s, by the Turkish CC regarding the practices of members of Islamist parties. What is remarkable in both instances is, whether the system is openly based on sharia law or secularist, it still operates within the duality of internality and externality of belief. As the likes of Talal Asad, Michel Foucault, and Marcel Gauchet have argued, such an attitude is not that of Christianity, which beginning in medieval times, extracted and objectified internal belief, even if that meant judicial torture. One could argue in favor of a principle of universality in Christianity in that the practices of integration achieve a disciplinary status, whereby the individual is integrated within the community of believers based on internal acceptance of the faith, which runs deep and is not to be limited to externalized rituals of admission or otherwise. In Islamdom by contrast, allegiance to the faith and umma is left to the observance of externalized rituals, which, if not in conformity to the principles of Islam, could be subject to punishment and persecution. Thus, when the Turkish CC claims that “religion regulates the inner aspect of the individual,” one should cautiously add as a remainder that for a religion like Christianity such regulation of the inner life must be externalized, controlled, and disciplined, otherwise adherence to the faith would be meaningless. And when the same CC adds that “secularism regulates the outer aspect of the individual,” it is Islamdom that regulates faith in terms of an internality that cannot be monitored and an externality that could be subject to judicial sanctions. As such, Turkish secularism is an outcome of Islamic belief in the way it demarcates the internal from the external.

Which leads us to an uncanny position when it comes to comparing Egyptian with Turkish secularism. In both instances, Islamic faith has to be externalized in order to be subject to judicial consequences. Without that awry process of externalization, the judiciary would be at a loss, as it would be unable to “read” what is in the mind of the believer. A case in point was when the CC used statements by the Refah Party as examples of antisecular activities: “the headscarf must be free in the universities” and “the right to choose your own legal system, including the sharia,” as examples set to deconstruct the true nature of Kemalist secularism. (Yavuz 247)

How do we then study secularism when, as is the case in Egypt, not only it is not overtly declared as a state policy, but the Constitution openly acknowledges its debt to sharia law? Should we read secularism in between the lines, pretending that we see it operating under certain circumstances—e.g. the Abu Zayd case—even though it remains without official declaration? Agrama’s solution to this methodological impasse is to object to any reading that would place Egypt either on one side or the other. His stance is that, of course, Egypt is a modern nation-state, which means subjecting individual citizens to an allegiance to political power on a national scale, and to disciplinary normative power. Does it therefore make sense to declare Egypt religious simply on the basis that its constitution openly declares the sharia as the source for modern law? Agrama’s démarche, by refusing to take a stance on this, seems set within a modernist paradigm that modernization is no simple matter and that “things are not what they appear on the surface.” He therefore misses the opportunity to explore the difference between an open declaration of secularism, as is the case in Turkey, and one where it is not openly declared, leaving sharia law—at least in principle—the source of all law. Here it is not enough, as Agrama does, to claim that even though sharia law remains the source, Egyptian law is by and large historically Napoleonic, and that even sharia law must subject itself to secularism. Such claim would, indeed, not free us from raising the issue as to why Egypt did not openly adopt secularism as Turkey did. And would that have made any difference in the practices of law? To wit, if secularism is such an important component of the modern nation-state, why isn’t openly declared and practiced as such?

Maybe what is needed here is more than a smart postmodernist playfulness. Class configuration and antagonism, the possibility of a hegemonic élite (in the sense of Gramsci) that governs civil society, and the stability of the hegemonic formation, are all factors that would play in favor of secularism. Thus, in the case of Turkey for example, what became the Turkish Republic in the wake of dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire was composed of an élitist configuration, composed of men in the military, landowners, industrialists and financiers, intellectuals and independents, with much stronger ties than any other country on the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the Turkish élite was beefed up by all kinds of officials, civil or military, who had to abandon their posts in the multi-ethnic peripheries to join the new Republic upon the Empire’s demise. The point here is that what ultimately became “Turkey” as nation-state was already in the very heart of the Mediterranean as the Empire’s center. The Turkish élites were for centuries debating major issues on the future of their Empire, and that pattern was inherited when the Republic came into being. The Kemalist hegemonic ruling group was composed, in its early phase, of militaries, intellectuals, landowners, industrialists and financiers. As such, it was not limited to a single dominating class or group, but it was an assortment of groups (or fractions of classes) and individuals that made their domination over civil society possible. Here the ideology of secularism was primarily destined to weaken the bonds between the religious establishment and society, attempting to render them obsolete by neutralizing them through a secularist public space, which precisely would not have been possible were it not for the hegemonic structure.

Egypt, by contrast, lacked such hegemonic structure. Historically, the Wafd party, instituted in 1919 in the wake of the Versailles Peace Conference, created a “corporatist” culture that would absorb diverse groups, including representatives of the working class and trade unions. The corporatist culture implied a loose assortment of societal elements that would weaken even further with the British gradual withdrawal from the political scene. That was already visible amid the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936, and by the 1940s the old establishment was in full crisis mode, divided between a weakened Wafd,  workers and trade unionists attempting to create their own autonomous working class system of representation, and an unpopular monarchy. The 1952 Free Officers’ revolution only capitalized on such crisis by instituting its own corporatist and populist political space, which is still present, in spite of the fall of the Mubarak régime in early 2011. In sum, at no point in Egyptian history of the last century was there a stable class configuration that would have opted for secularism as an official state policy. Unstable class configurations in Europe and developing countries would invariably lead to a mixture of corporatism, populism, and fascism, which tend to harness on the existing cultures rather than challenge them with anything “alien.”

As Agrama seems uninterested in raising the issue as to why Egypt opted for a “bargaining with secularism” rather than secularism as an official policy, his Questioning Secularism hinges on a defensive apologetic mode of reasoning whenever the Islamists seem on the lead. Take for example the Abu Zayd case, which, simply on procedural matters, would have been unthinkable in Turkey. The principle that the petitioners had employed was dubbed as the ḥisba, defined within Islam as “the commanding of the good when it is manifestly neglected, and the forbidding of the evil when its practice is manifest.” It goes without saying that the principle of ḥisba is historically determined, and when used in different historical contexts, could lead to a variation of meanings and interpretations based on how the users at a specific juncture want to operate with such principle. In the context of modern Egypt, therefore, Agrama argues, “the principle and practice of ḥisba acquires a distinctive thrust and import through and within the Egyptian law. While ḥisba, in its classical sharia elaborations, was part of a form of reasoning and practice connected to the cultivation of selves, in the courts it became focused on the maintenance and defense of interests aimed at protecting public order.” (Agrama 20) So in order to bypass the manifest contradictions between secular law and sharia, Agrama’s argument “liberalizes” the ḥisba in the context of Egyptian liberalism and secularism. The ḥisba is no more an “irrational aberration” (Agrama 19) that would not match with its classical Islamic precepts. Instead, it becomes an operative concept in relation to Egyptian secular law. The truth, however, is no matter how we contextualize ḥisba, the fact remains that a professor at Cairo University in the 1990s has been declared apostate by the Appeals Court, estranging him from his wife, declaring his marriage null and void, and wrecking apart his private and public life. First of all, Agrama is here wrong at characterizing the ḥisba in its classical premodern connotations as a “cultivation of the self,” which genealogically is more a medieval Christian concept that involves an interiorizing of belief than an Islamic one, while in modern times it is meant at “protecting the public order.” In both instances, the classical and modern interpretations of ḥisba, both operate, as the higher court argued, on the externalization of belief as manifested in visible acts. In both instances, therefore, the judicial authorities were concerned at “protecting public order.” What is at stake here is that a classical Islamic concept, even when interpreted in the liberal context of a modern nation-state, still operates under the assumption of externalization of belief in relation to a statist public order that needs to be protected. Without such externalization there would be no perjury, no court decision.

The second aspect of the debate concerns the “What if?” question: What if Egypt’s constitution had been fully secular? Obviously, the whole logic of the ḥisba logic would have been inoperative. The point not to be missed here is that the ḥisba logic would not ascribe itself as a Universal in Egyptian law, as it remains a Particular that the petitioners employed—as a legal procedure of its moment—in order to prosecute Abu Zayd. Agrama’s interpretation of the case would not even offer the possibility that it could be routinized for uses in other circumstances. That is to say, it remains a Particular that works for a particular case, but which, to use a Hegelian jargon, cannot be “sublated” for a higher more abstract Universal. Secularism as a Universal that applies itself under all conditions would have by contrast rendered such particular cases inoperative.

The modernization of Egyptian law, which begins in earnest under Mehmed Ali in the early nineteenth century, implied the introduction of Napoleonic codes in civil, penal, and commercial laws. The Ottomans did something similar with the Tanzimat once the nizami courts became operative; the new courts, following a Napoleonic model, introduced a diversity and identical hierarchy for all courts with the right to appeal to a higher court. The new Tanzimat system, both the Egyptian and Ottoman, instituted a split between modern secular codes and courts, on the one hand, and the sharia based courts of personal status on the other, a split that is still operative in the majority of Arab countries. The wager here is that the sharia courts themselves have become since the nizami courts a member of the court hierarchy, that is to say, having lost their prime role as the only operative courts that would handle anything from contracts and obligations, up to tort and crime, the sharia courts have been relegated to personal status only, operating within a hierarchy of courts. They thus have de facto been liberalized, in congruence with modern civil law. The Egyptians for their part integrated the personal status courts within the civil system in 1954, though the entire legal system takes the sharia as its “source,” as required by the constitution. But even the personal status code and courts, which would apply the sharia in matters of “obligations” (farā ͗iḍ), have implemented a liberalized version of the sharia, one that reasons in terms of secular codes, whereby the various religious groups would keep their own obligations operative in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. That this blurs the lines between the religious and secular is fairly obvious, though this should not prevent us as to why secularism was never adopted as an ideological and juridical stance in the first place.

Besides that Agrama fails to question seriously the possibility of an “openly stated” secularism, one that would have to be explicitly stated in the constitution, he also fails to acknowledge how such “lack” of an explicit secularism is probably linked to a military–one–party “corporatist” dominance without hegemony, as Ranajit Guha would say. For example, on p. 221, a claim is made that “Egypt is often described as a repressive, authoritarian state, and many studies of it proceeded on that premise. Its extended space of emergency, numerous presidential decrees, apparent abuses of constitutional powers, use of torture, and flouting of international conventions are all seen to provide ample evidence for this… And yet there is now a large body of literature, some of it decades old, that documents how Western democratic states have increasingly relied on emergency powers to conduct their affairs even since before World War II. Western European states used emergency powers for state reconstruction and the maintenance of colonial control. In the United States emergency powers began to be increasingly invoked since Roosevelt’s attempts to counter the Great Depression of the 1930s. Since a long time, according to this literature, the exception has become the norm.” First of all, let’s note here that “the state of exception,” following Carl Schmitt, is the very condition of the existence of law, hence of the state as such. That is to say, state-law only validates itself through itself as the exception to all norms pervading in society (Derrida’s force du droit). Second of all, beyond the fact that “the state of exception” is validated differently from one society to another and under different historical junctures, there is a big difference between liberal laissez-faire societies and authoritarian states like Egypt. For one thing, authoritarian states reason in terms of the Party that defeats the adversary, the enemy-figure, maintains the route to socialism, thus providing with a Grand Narrative that the liberal state clearly fails to provide. In the latter, abusive situations, such as torture, are secretly managed for narrow purposes, which remain “loose” on their own, outside a grand narrative.

In its stead, Agrama pursues “Egyptian secularism” as if it is already there, that is, explicitly stated in some constitutional text: “How then does secularism, as a form of power, work? And what work does it do upon the behaviors, attitudes, and ways of knowing that constitute our ways of life?” (p. 2)

Can we pose such questions in the context of societies which are Islamic but with no historical tradition of secularism? One can here allude directly to a decision of the Turkish Constitutional Court (CC) in January 1998, amid a decision to outlaw “Islamist” parties, regarding “the different nature of secularism in Turkey on the basis of the unique characteristics of Islam and the sociohistorical context of Turkey” (Yavuz 247). Indeed, the court confines religion in opposition to secularism and argues that “religion regulates the inner aspect of the individual whereas secularism regulates the outer aspect of the individual.” Thus, Turkish secularism can be seen as different from democratic forms of secularism in terms of its “Jacobin,” “militant and militarized,” and “antireligious” features that impose a top-down Western lifestyle. Secularism in the Turkish context is a state ideology and an instrument of othering and criminalizing opposition. (ibid.)

Hence the special nature of Turkish society, which historically was an Empire-driven Islam, where qānūn-mindedness (not the sharia per se) was the political norm (Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, v. 3), implied, upon the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923–27, an explicit policy of adopting “secularism,” understood as a top-down “Jacobin” approach to society, whereby the state would take a militant and militarized, if not antireligious, attitude, openly declaring “Islam” as “unfit” as religion of the state; even “unfit,” in some respects, as religion “of the people.” The point here is that the newly born republican state took an aggressive stance, much more than French laicism on the eve of the First World War, to “fashion” a secular state and society. That is to say: considering that secularism did not historically grow as discourse and practice within the Empire, it was an outcome of the new policies of the nation-state. The latter, however, is not, at least for colonial societies, a “prime representation,” but a representation of a representation; a representation that emanates from the prime representation that the west made of the nation-state for itself. The beginning is therefore the nation-state itself, which prompted a policy of secularism as a concept, and secularization as a practice. Which is precisely the problem: the nation-state in this instance is a western representation, which historically evolved out of the European history of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The “secular” was already a doctrine of the middle ages whose purpose was to separate the profane from the religious. Secularism comes through as a nineteenth-century representation of the secular within the context of the nation-state. The nation-state primarily implies an “imagined community” whose roots emanate from a print-capitalism of the vernacular; which implies centuries of “coming together” for religious beliefs, regional differences, groups and ethnicities; it implies a “society of the individuals” who come together not simply endowed with political and civil rights, but of common forms of life (Wittgenstein). When a newly founded society like “Turkey” adopts secularism in conjunction with the nation-state, one must remember here that it is always the nation-state that comes first as a historical necessity, because Empire as a form of polity is obsolete; secularism is a byproduct of the nation-state, a second necessity out of the first. But, in the Turkish case, the nation-state did not mature out of the history of Empire; it was rather a bastard byproduct (opération césarienne) which was imposed by colonialism and whose concepts were borrowed from Europe. Consequently, the parts that make this nation-state are only parts; they’re a non-All, whose Oneness and Wholeness remains imaginary. In Europe, critical literature deconstructs the nation-state as a non-All which fails meeting its ideal of democracy, fairness, and cohesiveness. Such non-All deconstructionism, however, always assumes the overbearing existence of the nation-state as historical reality whose evolution was witnessed in Europe itself. Deconstructionism therefore primarily aims at a deepening of democracy, which always hides exclusionist policies of the non-All: to accept l’étranger, l’intrus, in me, not as alien foreigner, but as an other.

What happens in states like Egypt where there is no open declaration for secularism? The book tackles the “blurs” in Egyptian law and society between the religious and the secular. In the end, it keeps telling us that things are so blurred that Egypt cannot be described as a religious state, in spite of the constitution naming the sharia as the main source of law. For example, the sources of Egyptian civil law are French, hence “many fundamental provisions of the sharia are patently ignored and unimplemented” (2). The lesson here is that many things exist formally on paper, which in principle would prescribe religious law, but in practice have no value. But then, if that’s the case, then why doesn’t Egypt officially declare secularism? And would that make any difference? Was the Turkish declaration of secularism only in relation to an open-minded élite, or was it fostered through a particular combination of class hegemony? In any case, the non-declaration of secularism is in itself revealing, even if de facto most of Egyptian civil, commercial, penal laws are indeed secular, unaffected by the precepts of the sharia and fiqh. Moreover, the fact that personal status law regulates kinship, marriage, divorce, alimony, and inheritance, means that it controls significant chunks of social relations, even for non-Muslims. Finally, the absence of official secularism means that “minorities” are treated as minorities, as dhimmis, rather than as citizens under a universal civil law. To wit, the status of dhimmis, in particular the Copts, is not limited to personal status, as it affects their religious and political rights. In this regard, even Turkish secularism is “incomplete,” as it forbids “minorities” to form political parties, build religious sites, places of worship and cemeteries. In sum, whether secularism is officially declared as policy or not, there are always “hidden” and overt attitudes towards the religious that regulate that dividing line between the declared and undeclared. The question then becomes not so much whether Egypt is religious or secular (Agrama 3), but the declared versus the undeclared: each enunciation opens up for the graded areas of language.

Considering that every religious phenomenon, be it legal, ritualistic, political, is inscribed into the modernity of civil law, capitalism, the nation-state, the mass-media, and receives its raison d’être from such institutions, it is then fairly obvious that borderlines between the religious and the secular are fairly blurred. What then is the point of asking what is religious and what is secular? What we can do, as historians, sociologists, and anthropologists is document how such transformations take place; how in the inscription of traditional non-modern non-western phenomena in modern lifeworlds specific to them, they receive new meanings. The meanings could be varied: the personal in relation to the collective (community, society, state, mass-media); the inscription into modernity; the structure of labor and capital in society.

Agrama distinguishes between a modern state and a modernizing state (p. 5). The distinction stems from the difficulty of categorizing Egypt in terms of oppositions: modern versus non-modern, religious versus secular. Still, there is a problem: “It doesn’t tell us how we define and distinguish fully secular states from incomplete ones; it doesn’t tell us about the processes by which secularism is implemented; it doesn’t tell us how practices of defining full from incomplete secularity might be an integral part of these very processes. Such reasoning therefore begs the question not only of Egypt’s secularity or religiosity but also of secularity and religiosity more generally.”

Do we need, however, to make such rigid distinction? Doesn’t such line of questioning fall in the same trap that it pretends to avoid? The book is full of events and practices of the religious being inscribed in the modern meanings of civil law, the nation-state, capitalism, and the mass-media. (The book addresses in particular two sets of records: the al-Azhar Mosque Fatwa Council, and the personal status court records.) If the secular is the universal, then particulars receive their particular meanings from the lifeworlds they are inscribed into from the universal. (In the same way that universal capitalist labor, based on profit and capital accumulation, inscribes itself in Egyptian labor based on small family enterprise, and corrupt crony capitalism. The point here is not to declare that the case of Egyptian labor would not fit with the universal, because it is “incomplete” capitalist labor, etc. Universal labor itself, as analyzed by Marx, only makes sense as universal in the particular concrete situations of lifeworlds labors, which vary in time and space. In sum, when it comes to universal entities like the state, the secular, law, labor and capital, which receive their universal meanings from European history, they produce concrete meanings out of the concrete situations they are inscribed into.)

Consider, for example, the institution of the fatwa to which the author devotes a chapter (“What is a Fatwa?”). The fatwa is surprisingly conceptualized under the Foucauldian notion of “the care of the self” as souci de soi, which Foucault in his late years, within his multi-volume Histoire de la sexualité, had worked out for the Greeks and Romans: “I suggest that the practice of the fatwa be understood as a mode of the care of the self, as a practice by which selves, in the multiplicity of their affairs, are maintained and advanced as part of Islamic tradition. In this, the authority of the mufti is that of a guide.” (Agrama 180) Besides the fact that this is a farfetched “care of the self,” the fatwa, even if mufti and questioner are into uncertainties, remains a submission to an external judicial authority; in many respects, it is not that dissimilar to a judge’s authority (which may rely on that of the mufti) in that the applicant to a fatwa or legal case only obeys. Muftis, judges, administrative and upper courts, do not even have to demonstrate their line of reasoning. That is to say: their enunciations are meant to be performative, to be obeyed and followed. To elaborate, there is no mode of subjectivation per se for the simple reason that the questioner is there only to follow, not to argue. Moreover, the questioner is invariably restrained by the legal language and its procedures.

“Although the personal status courts and the Fatwa Council are both outcomes of modern reform, and thus represent entirely modern possibilities, their structures of authority could not be more different.” (Agrama 184) They are, indeed, different, but it is also a question of whether such differences matter to the point that the fatwa could be associated with the notion of “the care of the self.” A social actor may endlessly debate things with a mufti or judge, but in the final analysis, in both instances, she is submitting herself to a judicial authority. The care of the self assumes processes of subjectivization which legal systems cannot accommodate.

One of the virtues of postmodernity, assuming there is one, is that there is not only one modernity; even European modernity has become one among several, or has been “provincialized,” though it assumes the role of a privileged universal modernity, out of which the other modernities and postmodernities have erupted. Which means that every modernity, be it Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, is relative to the culture that produced it. Each modernity borrows from and adapts from others. Besides that each culture and civilization proceeds with its modernity operating with restrictions from its own past, present, and future. The wager for Islam is not simply its politicization, as the modernization of Islam touches on every aspect of the lifeworld. For example, when it comes to the family, sexuality, privacy, and personal status, it is difficult to picture an American court ordering a university professor to divorce his wife on the accusation of blasphemy. And the wager here is not to be limited to religion and secularism, as it touches on all kinds of sensibilities related to the “social.” So when an Egyptian court, based on an archaic reinterpreted (if not over-interpreted) notion of ḥisba, commands Abu Zayd to divorce his wife, this in itself is a form of “modernity” related specifically to Egypt; other courts in the Islamic world may, indeed, “borrow” from the Egyptian interpretation, or take the Abu Zayd case as precedent; but even in such instances, we are not “outside” the modernities of the modern.

But then within this postmodernist relativism western civilization has its special status: it is the civilization, which since the Greeks, Romans, and Christians, has provided the roots of modernity for the world at large. When Agrama states that issues of family, marriage, divorce, sexuality, personal status, are problematic in Egypt as they are in western societies (Agrama 184–5), he forgets to mention that in the secular west such problematizations become normative for the word at large, that is, they become the universal, “sublating” the particulars of other civilizations. The error would be to portray Egypt in a situation of “catch up” with the west and the rest, as it is difficult to argue in terms of a “stageable” historicism, an evolutionist history across societies and civilizations where certain prerequisites must be met, prior to more mature ones eventually showing up.

Zouhair Ghazzal
Professor of historical and social sciences
Loyola University, Chicago