Sunday, April 12, 2015

Top Ten Ways Islamic Law forbids Terrorism

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan were from a mixed Chechen and Avar family. Dzhokhar was born in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian republic that had been part of the Communist Soviet Union. Being from a Soviet background, the Tsarnaevs were probably originally more or less atheists, whatever they said later. Even Soviet Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia who identified as “Muslims” mostly did so before the 1990s as a matter of ethnicity, not piety. Most Soviet Muslim men drank copious amounts of vodka. Few knew how to pray in the Muslim manner with prostrations. Being deracinated appears to have left the Tsarnaev boys open to the blandishments of radical Muslim cults on the internet. But there was even so not much recognizably Muslim in their style of life.

It is worthwhile reprising on this day my 2013 posting on the ways that the Tsarnaevs broke Muslim law, which I’ve very slightly revised:

1. Terrorism is above all murder. Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (i.e. murder is forbidden but the death penalty imposed by the state for a crime is permitted). 5:53 says, “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”

2. If the motive for terrorism is religious, it is impermissible in Islamic law. It is forbidden to attempt to impose Islam on other people. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right way has become distinct from error.” (-The Cow, 2:256). Note that this verse was revealed in Medina in 622 AD or after and was never abrogated by any other verse of the Quran. Islam’s holy book forbids coercing people into adopting any religion. They have to willingly choose it.

3. Islamic law forbids aggressive warfare. The Quran says, “But if the enemies incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace. And trust in God! For He is the one who hears and knows all things.” (8:61) The Quran chapter “The Cow,” 2:190, says, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.”

4. In the Islamic law of war, not just any civil engineer can declare or launch a war. It is the prerogative of the duly constituted leader of the Muslim community that engages in the war. Qur’an 4:59 says “Obey God and the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Nowadays that would be the president or prime minister of the state, as advised by the mufti or national jurisconsult.

5. The killing of innocent non-combatants is forbidden. According to Sunni tradition, ‘Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first Caliph, gave these instructions to his armies: “I instruct you in ten matters: Do not kill women, children, the old, or the infirm; do not cut down fruit-bearing trees; do not destroy any town . . . ” (Malik’s Muwatta’, “Kitab al-Jihad.”)

6. Terrorism or hirabah is forbidden in Islamic law, which groups it with brigandage, highway robbery and extortion rackets– any illicit use of fear and coercion in public spaces for money or power. The principle of forbidding the spreading of terror in the land is based on the Qur’an (Surah al-Ma’ida 5:33–34). Prominent [pdf] Muslim legal scholar Sherman Jackson writes, “The Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn `Abd al-Barr (d. 464/ 1070)) defines the agent of hiraba as ‘Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hirabah . . .”

7. Sneak attacks are forbidden. Muslim commanders must give the enemy fair warning that war is imminent. The Prophet Muhammad at one point gave 4 months notice (Q. 9:5).

8. The Prophet Muhammad counseled doing good to those who harm you and is said to have commanded, “Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong (even) if they do evil.” (Al-Tirmidhi)

9. The Qur’an demands of believers that they exercise justice toward people even where they have reason to be angry with them: “And do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.”[5:8]

10. The Qur’an assures Christians and Jews of paradise if they believe and do good works, and commends Christians as the best friends of Muslims. I wrote elsewhere, “Dangerous falsehoods are being promulgated to the American public. The Quran does not preach violence against Christians.
Quran 5:69 says (Arberry): “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabeaans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness–-their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.”
In other words, the Quran promises Christians and Jews along with Muslims that if they have faith and works, they need have no fear in the afterlife. It is not saying that non-Muslims go to hell– quite the opposite.
When speaking of the 7th-century situation in the Muslim city-state of Medina, which was at war with pagan Mecca, the Quran notes that the polytheists and some Arabian Jewish tribes were opposed to Islam, but then goes on to say:
5:82. ” . . . and you will find the nearest in love to the believers [Muslims] those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That is because amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.”
So the Quran not only does not urge Muslims to commit violence against Christians, it calls them “nearest in love” to the Muslims! The reason given is their piety, their ability to produce holy persons dedicated to God, and their lack of overweening pride.

(For a modernist, liberal interpretation, see this pdf file, “Jihad and the Islamic Law of War.”

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

Obama’s Fateful Indecision

April 6, 2015

Exclusive: With Israel and Saudi Arabia siding with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda versus Iran and its allies, President Obama faces a critical decision – whether to repudiate those old allies and cooperate with Iran or watch as Sunni terrorist groups possibly take control of a major country in the Mideast, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The foreign policy quandary facing President Barack Obama is that America’s traditional allies in the Middle East – Israel and Saudi Arabia – along with Official Washington’s powerful neocons have effectively sided with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State out of a belief that Iran represents a greater threat to Israeli and Saudi interests.

But what that means for U.S. interests is potentially catastrophic. If the Islamic State continues its penetration toward Damascus in league with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and topples the Syrian government, the resulting slaughter of Christians, Shiites and other religious minorities – as well as the risk of a major new terrorist base in the heart of the Middle East – could force the United States into a hopeless new war that could drain the U.S. Treasury and drive the nation into a chaotic and dangerous decline.

To avoid this calamity, Obama would have to throw U.S. support fully behind the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, precipitate a break with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and withstand a chorus of condemnations from influential neocon pundits, Republican politicians and hawkish Democrats. Influenced by Israeli propaganda, all have pushed for ousting Assad in a “regime change.”

But the world has already had a grim peek at what an Islamic State/Al-Qaeda victory would look like. The Islamic State has reveled in its ability to provoke Western outrage through acts of shocking brutality, such as beheadings, incinerations, stonings, burning of ancient books and destruction of religious sites that the group deems offensive to its fundamentalist version of Islam.

Over the Easter holiday, there were reports of the Islamic State destroying a Christian Church in northeastern Syria and taking scores of Christians as prisoners. An Islamic State victory in Syria would likely mean atrocities on a massive scale. And, there are signs that Al-Qaeda might bring the Islamic State back into the fold if it achieves this success, which would let Al-Qaeda resume its plotting for its own outrages through terrorist attacks on European and U.S. targets.

Though Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State have been estranged in recent months, the groups were reported to be collaborating in an assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus. United Nations spokesman Chris Gunness told the Associated Press, “The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane.”

The AP also reported that “Palestinian officials and Syrian activists say the Islamic State militants fighting in Yarmouk were working with rivals from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be cooperating in the attack on Yarmouk.”

Syria has become a frontline in the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam, with Saudi Arabia a longtime funder of the Sunni fundamentalist Wahhabism, which gave rise to Al-Qaeda under the direction of Saudi Osama bin Laden. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals, and elements of the Saudi royal family and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms have been identified as Al-Qaeda’s financiers. [See’s “The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism.”]

The Israeli-Saudi Alliance

In seeking “regime change” in Syria, Saudi Arabia has been joined by Israel whose leaders have cited Syria as the “keystone” in the pro-Iranian Shiite “strategic arc” from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut. In making that point in September 2013, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad and the Shiites.

“We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the “bad guys” were affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

In June 2014, Oren expanded on this Israeli position. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Orensaid Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State.
“From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.

On March 3, in the speech to a cheering U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also argued that the danger from Iran was much greater than from the Islamic State (or ISIS). Netanyahu dismissed ISIS as a relatively minor annoyance with its “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube” when compared to Iran, which he accused of “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East.

He claimed “Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow. … We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”

Netanyahu’s rhetoric was clearly hyperbole – Iran’s troops have not invaded any country for centuries; Iran did come to the aid of the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq in its fight with the Islamic State, but the “regime change” in Baghdad was implemented not by Iran but by President George W. Bush and the U.S. military; and it’s preposterous to say that Iran “dominates” Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa – though Iran is allied with elements in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

But hyperbole or not, Netanyahu’s claims became marching orders for the American neocons, the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party. Republicans and some Democrats denounced President Obama’s support for international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program while some prominent neocons were granted space on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and New York Times to advocate bombing Iran. [See’s “NYT Publishes Call to Bomb Iran.”]

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia – with U.S. logistical and intelligence help – began bombing the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been fighting a long civil war and had captured several major cities. The Houthis, who practice an offshoot of Shiite Islam called Zaydism, deny that they are proxies of Iran although some analysts say the Iranians have given some money and possibly some weapons to the Houthis.

However, by attacking the Houthis, the Saudis have helped Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula regain its footing, including creating an opportunity to free scores of Al-Qaeda militants in a prison break and expanding Al-Qaeda’s territory in the east.

Obama’s Choice

Increasingly, the choice facing Obama is whether to protect the old alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia – and risk victories by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – or expand on the diplomatic opening from the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program to side with Shiite forces as the primary bulwark against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

For such a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy, President Obama could use the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who assisted in brokering agreements in 2013 in which Syria’s Assad surrendered Syria’s chemical weapons and in which Iranian leaders signed an interim agreement on their nuclear program that laid the groundwork for the April 2 framework deal.

In 2013, those moves by Putin infuriated Official Washington’s neoconservatives who were quick to identify Ukraine as a possible flashpoint between the United States and Russia. With Putin and Obama both distracted by other responsibilities, neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland teamed up with neocon National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and neocon Sen. John McCain to help fund and coordinate the Feb. 22, 2014 coup that ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych. The resulting civil war and Russian intervention in Crimea drove a deep wedge between Obama and Putin.

The mainstream U.S. news media got fully behind the demonization of Putin, making a rapprochement over Ukraine nearly impossible. Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to broker a settlement of the conflict in February – known as Minsk-2 – the right-wing government in charge in Kiev, reflecting Nuland’s hard-line position, sabotaged the deal by inserting a poison pill that effectively required the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine to surrender before Kiev would conduct elections under its control. [See’s “Ukraine’s Poison Pill for Peace Talks.”]

The Kiev regime is also incorporating some of its neo-Nazi militias into the regular army while putting neo-Nazi extremists into key military advisory positions. Though the U.S. media has put on blinders so as not to notice the Swastikas and SS symbols festooning the Azov and other battalions, the reality has been that the neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists have been the fiercest fighters in killing ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. [See’s “Wretched US Journalism on Ukraine.”]

On Saturday, German Economic News reported that the Ukrainian army appointed right-wing extremist Dimitri Jarosch as an official adviser to the army leadership as the Kiev regime – now bolstered by U.S. military equipment and training and receiving billions of dollars in Western aid – prepares for renewed fighting with eastern Ukraine.

The problem with Obama has been that – although he himself may be a “closet realist” willing to work with adversarial countries like Iran and Russia – he has not consistently challenged the neocons and their junior partners, the liberal interventionists. The liberals are particularly susceptible to propaganda campaigns involving non-governmental organizations that claim to promote “human rights” or “democracy” but have their salaries paid by the congressionally financed and neocon-run National Endowment for Democracy or by self-interested billionaires like financier George Soros.

The effectiveness of these NGOs in using social media and other forums to demonize targeted governments, as happened in Ukraine during the winter of 2013-14, makes it hard for honest journalists and serious analysts to put these crises in perspective without endangering their careers and reputations. Over the past year, anyone who questioned the demonization of Putin was denounced as a “Putin apologist” or a “Putin bootlicker.” Thus, many people not wanting to face such slurs either went along with the propagandistic “group think” or kept quiet.

Obama is one person who knows better but hasn’t been willing to contest Official Washington’s narratives portraying Putin or Assad or the Iranians or the Houthis as the devils incarnate. Obama has generally gone with the flow, joining the condemnations, but then resisting at key moments and refusing to implement some of the most extreme neocon ideas – such as bombing the Syrian army or shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine’s right-wing regime or forsaking negotiations and bombing Iran.

Pandering to Israel and Saudi Arabia

In other words, Obama has invested huge amounts of time and energy in trying to maintain positive relations with Netanyahu and the Saudi royals while not fully joining in their regional war against Iran and other Shiite-related governments and movements. Obama understands the enormous risk of allowing Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State to gain firm control of a major Middle Eastern country.

Of course, if that happens in, say, Syria, Obama would be blamed for not overthrowing the Assad regime earlier, as if there actually was a “moderate opposition” that could have withstood the pressure of the Sunni extremists. Though the neocons and liberal interventionists have pretended that this “moderate” force existed, it was always marginal when it came to applying real power.

Whether one likes it or not, the only real force that can stop an Al-Qaeda or Islamic State victory is the Syrian army and the Assad regime. But Obama chose to play the game of demanding that “Assad must go” – to appease the neocons and liberal interventionists – while recognizing that the notion of a “moderate” alternative was never realistic.

As Obama told the New York Times Thomas L. Friedman in August 2014, the idea that the U.S. arming the “moderate” rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.” [See’s “Behind Obama’s Chaotic Foreign Policy.”]

But Obama may be running out of time in his halfway strategy of half-heartedly addressing the real danger that lies ahead if the Islamic State and/or Al-Qaeda ride the support of Saudi Arabia and Israel to a victory in Syria or Iraq or Yemen.

If the United States has to recommit a major military force in the Middle East, the war would have little hope of succeeding but it would drain American resources – and eviscerate what’s left of the constitutional principles that founded the American Republic.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


Slavoj Žižek does not want to be called "professor." He jokes that when people use the honorific, he looks back over his shoulder to see where the professor is. Indeed, he has seldom taught at universities. It is through his immensely prolific output of books, essays, articles and columns that Žižek, 65, has become a globally influential intellectual. His lectures and appearances around the globe have made him one of the most famous contemporary thinkers and cultural theorists in the world.
Despite his influence, it's difficult to pinpoint just where he stands philosophically and politically. Born in the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana, where he still lives today, he belonged to the Communist Party until he left it in 1988. He had a difficult relationship with official party channels because his ideas weren't considered to be sufficiently orthodox Marxist and he was never granted a professorship at the university in his hometown. He was, however, able to go to university in Paris between 1981 and 1985, where he studied the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan. Just prior to Yugoslavia's dissolution in 1990, he ran as the Slovenian Liberal Democrats' candidate for the presidency of Slovenia, despite his extremely critical position toward political liberalism, which he considered to be lacking in substance and power.
Žižek's thinking, which is oriented on German Idealism, on Hegel and Marx, focuses on the development of the autonomous subject and how it is imprisoned by ever-changing ideologies and identities. From Latin-America to Asia, he is valued for his critique of global capitalism and as an intellectual figurehead for the leftist protest movement. The shock over the terrorist attacks in Paris recently inspired him to write a polemical philosophical essay on Islam and modernism. In it, he addresses the rupture between tolerance in the Western world and the fundamental hatred of radical Islam against Western liberalism and makes a plea for the West to insist on the legacy of Enlightenment and its universal values. He argues that the true sovereignty of the people is only possible through a renewal of the Left.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Žižek, the financial and economic crisis showed just how vulnerable the free market system can be. You have made it your task to examine the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. Are you anticipating a new revolution?
Žižek: Unfortunately not.
SPIEGEL: But you would like to experience one? Are you still a communist?
Žižek: Many consider me to be a crazy Marxist who's waiting for the end of time. I may be a very eccentric, but I'm not a madman. I am a communist for lack of something better, out of despair over the situation in Europe. Six months ago, I was in South Korea to gave talks on the crisis in global capitalism, the usual you know, bla bla bla. Then the audience started to laugh and said: What are you talking about? Just look at us -- China, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam -- we're doing very well economically. So who is that has slipped into crisis? It's you in Western Europe -- or, more precisely, in parts of Western Europe.
SPIEGEL: Well, it's not quite as simple as that.
Žižek: Still, there's some truth to it. Why do we Europeans feel that our unfortunate situation is a full-fledged crisis? I think what we are feeling is not a question of yes or no to capitalism, but that of the future of our Western democracy. Something dark is forming on the horizon and the first wind storms have already reached us.
SPIEGEL: You're saying the economic crisis could lead to a political crisis?
Žižek: China, Singapore, India or -- closer to us -- recently Turkey don't augur well for the future. It's my belief that modern capitalism is developing in a direction in which it functions better without a fully developed democracy. The rise of the so-called capitalism with Asian values in the past 10 years at the very least raises doubts and questions: What if authoritarian capitalism on the Chinese model is an indication that liberal democracy as we understand it is no longer a condition for, and driving force of, economic development and instead stands in its way?
SPIEGEL: Democracy isn't there to pave the way for capitalism. It's there to counter the latent dangers of capitalism, which is what makes democracy all the more irreplaceable.
Žižek: But for that to be the case, there has to be more to it than just the principle of free elections. Freedom of choice can lead a society in every possible direction. In this sense, I am a Leninist. Lenin always asked ironically: Freedom -- yes, but for whom? To do what?
SPIEGEL: The freedom of self-determination. And, first and foremost, freedom of speech and opinion is also a part of it.
Žižek: Magnificent! I am not a Stalinist who mocks civil liberties and pronounces that the party line is the only true, real freedom. In personal and private areas, freedom of choice is increasing, even in China. I am referring to areas like sexual freedom, freedom of travel, freedom of trade and the freedom to become rich. But I wonder if that's enough and whether this kind of personal freedom of choice is actually perhaps a trap. The gains in personal freedom mask the loss of social freedom. The classic welfare state is being demolished. We are losing sight of where the societal process leads to and in what type of society we want to live in. The field of options within which we can live out our individual freedoms needs to be redefined.
SPIEGEL: In other words, you're missing a larger systemic debate. We saw one during the 1968 student revolts, but it didn't lead to any real results, with the exception of gains in liberal civic freedoms. In contrast to the desire for individual freedom, does the totalitarian temptation not lurk in the mobilization of the collective desire to overcome the existing system?
Žižek: The 20th century is over. A totalitarian regime is incapable of surviving in the long run. If we want to maintain the image of ourselves we have in the West, then we have to revisit the immense questions relating to the expansion of democratic freedoms and to the process of self-emancipation. It is here where Europe is most threatened. I am a eurocentric leftist. It has become fashionable in leftist circles to criticize eurocentrism in the name of multiculturalism. But I am convinced that we need Europe more than ever. Just imagine a world without Europe. You would only have two poles left -- the USA, with its brutal neoliberalism, and so-called Asian capitalism, with its authoritarian political structures. Between them you would have Putin's Russia, with its expansionist aspirations. You would lose the most valuable part of the European legacy, where democracy and freedom entail a collective action without which equality and fairness would not be possible.
SPIEGEL: That's the legacy of Enlightenment -- the transition from self-inflicted immaturity to that of autonomous self-determination.
Žižek: Exactly! I am not one of Jürgen Habermas' best friends, but I agree with him entirely on this point. More than ever before, we should continue to stick firmly to this project of European enlightenment. It is the only thing that will allow us to change the contours of that which appears possible or doable.
SPIEGEL: Is this aim not expecting too much of a liberal democracy?
Žižek: Yes. We should go beyond liberal democracy. Ordinary democracy works as follows: The majority of voters seem satisified with the pretence of freedom of choice. but in reality they do as they are told. It is telling that Germans' favorite choice of government is a grand coalition (Eds note: a governing coalition that pairs the country's two largest parties, the center-left Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats). Out of fear of having to make truly radical, pioneering decisions, people are acting as if decisions are made on their own, based on the circumstances, on practical constraints and on pre-determined conditions. But sometimes you also have to alter the field of meaning instead of just skillfully analyzing things and adapting to them. The development of a general will, Rousseaus' volonté générale, doesn't happen in this way. The development of will remains individualized and privatized and is ultimately apolitical. That's a great environment for capitalism because liberal democratic freedom and individualized hedonism mobilize people for its purposes by transforming them into workaholics.
SPIEGEL: What do you see as the alternative?
Žižek: There is no way back to communism. Stalinism was in a certain sense worse than fascism, especially considering that the communist ideal was for Enlightenment to ultimately result in the self-liberation of the people. But that's also the tragedy of the dialectic of Enlightenment. Stalinism still remains a puzzle to me. Fascism never had Enlightenment ambitions, it exclusively pursued conservative modernization using criminal means. To some extent, Hitler wasn't radical or violent enough.
SPIEGEL: What? You don't mean that seriously, do you?
Žižek: What I am trying to say is that fascism may have constituted a reaction to the banality and self-complacency of the bourgeois, but it also remained trapped within the horizon of bourgeois society and perpetuated precisely this self-complacency. I share Walter Benjamin's view that every rise of fascism is the product of a failed revolution. The success of fascism is the failure of the Left and it proves that there was a revolutionary potential but that the Left didn't know how to use it.
SPIEGEL: What is the current state of the basic values of liberalism: freedom, equality and fairness? Is liberal democracy strong enough to protect itself from illiberal attacks?
Žižek: I doubt that it is able to withstand the challenges. The global capitalist system is approaching a dangerous zero-point. Its four riders of the apocalypse are the climate catastrophe, the obvious consequences of biogenetic research, the lack of self-regulation on the financial markets and the growing number of people who are shut out. The more globalized markets become, the stronger the forces of social apartheid will become.
SPIEGEL: The dangers have been recognized and they have been broadly discussed. Still, do you think that we are powerlessly stumbling toward the abyss?
Žižek: The lack of a clear alternative cannot mean that we simply continue with the status quo. If the existing system continues to reproduce, then we are heading toward its implosion. The only thing that can save liberal democracy is a renewal of the Left. If Leftists miss this chance, the danger of fascism or at least a new authoritarianism will grow.
SPIEGEL: These trends can already be observed today -- in religious fundamentalism, in right-wing populism and in an aggressive nationalism.
Žižek: That's right, and the answer to that cannot be the usual Leftist reactions of tolerance and understanding. No! By doing so, liberalism would undermine itself little by little. We have a right to set limits. We feel too guilty in Europe -- our multicultural tolerance is the effluent of a bad conscience, of a guilt complex that could cause Europe to perish. The greatest threat to Europe is its inertia, its retreat into a culture of apathy and general relativism. I am dogmatic in that sense. Freedom cannot be sustained without a certain amount of dogmatism. I don't want to cast doubt on everything or question everything. Liberal dogmatism is based on what Hegel called moral substance. That's why I am also against every form of political correctness, which attempts to control something that should be a part of our moral substance with societal or legal bans.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't every culture have a pain threshold for intolerance?
Žižek: There are things that are impossible to tolerate, "l'impossible-à-supporter," as Jacques Lacan put it. What would happen if some magazine openly made fun of the Holocaust? What about jokes that are felt to be sexist or racist? The left-liberal or libertarian position on general irony or grating humor tends to go in the opposite direction -- toward increased sensitivity for the defenselessness of others. You know, obscene jokes are a good test of the tolerance threshold between many cultural groups. I love them.
SPIEGEL: I'm tempted to ask, seriously?
Žižek: In earlier Yugoslavia, each constituent republic had a joke about the others. For example, Montenegrins were considered to be lazy. Montenegro has earthquakes. So why does a Montenegrin stick his penis in every hole or crevice? He's waiting for the next trembler because he's too lazy to masturbate. Or take the Jewish joke -- they can be wonderful in their self-derision. Do you know this one? A Jewish woman of Polish origin -- they're considered to be particularly serious in nature -- stoops as she cleans a tile floor. When her husband gets home and sees her stretched backside, he pulls up her skirt in excitement and takes her from behind. When he is finished, he asks his wife if she has also been brought to climax. No, she says, I still have three more tiles to go. Without obscene exchanges like that, we don't have any real contact with each other -- just a cold respect.
SPIEGEL: I wouldn't put too much faith in the strength of tests like that.
Žižek: There are limits, certainly. It becomes an explosive problem if two ethnic or religious groups live together in close vicinity who have irreconcilable ways of life and, as such, perceive criticism of their religion or way of life as being an attack on their very identity.
SPIEGEL: Is that not precisely the explosiveness packed in a statement that has recently become popular -- namely that Islam is also a part of Europe?
Žižek: Tolerance is not a solution there. What we need is what the Germans call a Leitkultur, a higher leading culture that regulates the way in which the subcultures interact. Multiculturalism, with its mutual respect for the sensitivities of the others, no longer works when it gets to this "impossible-à-supporter" stage. Devout Muslims find it impossible to tolerate our blasphemous images and our disrespectful humor, which constitute a part of our freedom. But the West, with its liberal practices, also finds forced marriages or the segregation of women, which are a part of Muslim life, to be intolerable. That's why I, as a Leftist, argue that we need to create our own leading culture.
SPIEGEL: What could that be? What might this leading culture look like? Even the universal application of human rights is sometimes questioned in the name of cultural differences.
Žižek: The European leading culture is the universality of Enlightenment within which individuals view themselves through this universality. That means you have to be capable of dispensing with your characteristics and to ignore your particular social, religious or ethnic positions. It's not sufficient to tolerate each other. We need to have the ability to experience our own cultural identity as something contingent, something coincidental, something that can be changed.
SPIEGEL: The universal individual is an abstraction. It doesn't exist in real life. In reality, everyone belongs to a group or a community.
Žižek: The universal individual is very much a reality in our life. Apart from apples, pears and grapes, there should be a place for fruits as such. I love the beauty of this platonic idea. People belong to a specific group, but at the same time they are part of a universal dimension. I don't remain the same throughout the course of my life, but I do remain me. A community is not closed either. A person can leave one and join another. Our identity is made up of several identities that can exist successively and in parallel.
SPIEGEL: "The days go by, not I," reads a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire.
Žižek: Spoken in Christian terms: The holy ghost is in us all -- we all share him, regardless if our identity is associated with a certain community. I'm an atheist, but I admire the emancipatory core of Christian teachings: Leave your father, your mother and follow me, Christ says. Leave your community behind in order to find your way to the universality of humanity!
SPIEGEL: Emancipation is an act of violence -- a parting and an uprooting. Islam doesn't permit people to leave the community of believers.
Žižek: There is no freedom, at least no universal freedom without a moment of violence. Parting with one's roots is quite a forceful process, but this force, which doesn't have to be physical, has something redemptive about it. Mind you, it is not about destroying that which makes us special. We are attached to our idiosyncrasies. But we have to recognize that the particular is based in a contingency, a happenstance that isn't substantial to the self. Universality is the opening to a radical contingency.
SPIEGEL: What does that mean for politics?
Žižek: Iranian Revolutionary Leader Khomeini once said: We Muslims aren't afraid of Western weapons or of economic imperialism. What we fear is the West's moral corruption. The extreme form of this resistance is Islamic State or, even more so, Boko Haram. What a strange phenomenon! A social and political movement whose main objective is to keep women uneducated and relegated to their place. The old motto from the 1960s, that everything was sexual is also political, is given unexpected new meaning here: The preservation of a strict sexual hierarchy becomes the most important political imperative. And did we not experience a weaker form of the same attitude in the Russian response to the Eurovision Song Contest because a bearded Conchita Wurst won? Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky said last May, "There are no more men or women in Europe, just it." Even our Catholic Church stirs up the same panic with its resistance to same-sex marriage.
SPIEGEL: Is unbridled individual hedonism the only thing we have with which to oppose this fundamentalism?
Žižek: No, for two reasons. The first is that our opponent isn't really religion. Zivko Kusti, a Croatian Catholic nationalist priest, declared Catholicism to be a symbol of the fact that people aren't prepared to renounce their national and cultural legacy -- "the whole Croatianness." This statement makes clear that it is no longer an issue of faith and its truth, but rather a political-cultural project. Religion here is just an instrument, an indicator of our collective identity. It's about how much public one's own side controls, the amount of hegemony "our" side exerts. That's why Kusti approvingly quotes an Italian communist who claims, "I am an atheist Catholic." That's also why Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who himself is not very religious, referenced the Christian legacy as a foundation of European identity. The second reason, which is even more decisive, is that the unbridled personal freedom of choice fits in excellently with today's capitalism in the sense that the global social and economic process is becoming more and more impenetrable. Individual hedonism and fundamentalism are mutually driving each other. You can only effectively combat fundamentalism with a new collective project of radical change. And there is nothing trivially hedonistic about that.
SPIEGEL: Who determines what is contingent and what is substantial? For an orthodox Muslim, the headscarf is not contingent, it is substantial.
Žižek: Therein lays the explosive problem. The girl, the woman must decide on that in a self-determined manner. In order for her to be able to do that, she must be freed of the pressure of the family and community. And this is where the emancipatory violence applies: The only possibility for autonomy is uprooting, tearing one's self out of the community's pressure to conform. That's why one of my heroes is Malcolm X. The "X" stands for uprooting. It didn't drive him to search for his African roots. On the contrary, he saw it as a chance to attain a new universal freedom.
SPIEGEL: You welcome this violence?
Žižek: I accept this violence because it's the price for true contingency and the liberation of the self. It's like a sadomasochistic sex game. Those involved can participate in all the perversions. At any time, though, everyone has the right to say, "Stop, that's it, I'm stopping and leaving." Progress in Western democracy consists of constantly expanding the scope of universality and, by doing so, also diversifying the freedom of choice between contingent decisions. But contingency does not mean triviality. Our most valuable collective achievements are contingent -- they come out of nowhere and break with our substantial identities.
SPIEGEL: Is the tireless work of expanding public free spaces the job of public intellectuals like you? That's more reminiscent of the open society of Karl Popper than of Marx's proletariat revolution.
Žižek: My god, anything but Popper! In this sense, I am still a Marxist, because what is important to me is the infrastructure of freedom inherent in institutions. Specialists -- idiots in the original sense of the word -- take care of finding solutions to specific problems. The intellectual is concerned with asking questions in a new way and reflecting about the societal conditions for exercising personal civil liberties. In his essay "What is Enlightenment" Kant differentiates between private and public uses of reason. This is more relevant today than ever before. To Kant, public use of reason meant free thinking apart from any political or religious pressures, whereas the use of reason in the service of the state is private. Our struggle today, and this includes WikiLeaks, is to keep the public space alive.
SPIEGEL: So how can we develop an emancipatory solidarity between groups that are culturally different?
Žižek: My answer is to struggle. Empty universality is clearly not enough. The clash of cultures should not be overcome through a feeling of global humanism, but rather through overall solidarity with those struggling within every culture. Our struggle for emancipation should be coupled with the battle against India's caste system and the workers' resistance in China. Everything is dependent on this: the battle for the Palestinians and against anti-Semitism, WikiLeaks and Pussy Riot -- all are part of the same struggle. If not, then we can all just kill ourselves.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Žižek, we thank you for this interview.

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