Monday, March 13, 2006

Slavoj Zizek on Defenders of Faith, and of Susan Moller Okin and the surrender of feminism to political Islam

The humanist philosopher Slavoj Zizek (pictured) had a very good opinion piece in the New York Times yesterday arguing - quite correctly in my estimation - that Europe's Muslims should be grateful for Europe's atheists. Here at the NYT.

(Zizek once sharply objected to something I wrote, in an essay called "How Much Democracy Is Too Much?" which was widely circulated, including here - he was objecting to my essay in the New York Times Magazine from 2003, "Who Owns the Rules of War?" which can be found on SSRN, here.)

This is a good essay. But I have two difficulties with it. The first is that he, in classically European fashion, produces an elegant characterization of the issue, but then adamantly refuses to address the dangling question. What happens when Muslims in Europe are not in the least grateful to Europe's atheists, despite Zizek's telling them they should be and moreover telling them so on the pages of the New York Times opinion pages (and this, in the Sunday edition, too!) and instead simply take strategic advantage of the rather magnanimous social space that liberalism affords even to those who are and those who might well become, if remaining unassimilated, enemies of Europe's traditional liberal values even as they deploy them to their own ends? What happens if the appetite grows with the eating? What then, Zizek?

My second difficulty with Zizek's position is that when he says Europe's atheists, he really means those who actively created the atheist position (and I would include agnostic as well as anti-clerical) in the glorious period of the anti-clerical past, saw it as essentially a form of religious belief. He does not mean what Europe mostly means today - a post Christian society that is neither religious nor actively anti-religious nor actively humanist nor much of anything else. Mostly just passive and exhausted. Just keep paying my welfare and retirement and health care and vacations to southern Spain until I die. But little active interest in the kind of society that one leaves behind, whether Christian or Muslim or liberal humanist or much of anything else.

It is unsurprising that Zizek has to reach to his home town newspaper in Ljublana, Mladina, to find an example of an uncompromising, genuinely liberal newspaper that would defend a la Voltaire the right to build a mosque but also insist on publishing the Mohammed cartoons. (Mladina is a terrific newspaper - I have followed it from the time I first began visiting Slovenia in the 1980s on behalf of Human Rights Watch before the Yugoslav crackup, and continue to follow it from a distance in my work for the Media Development Loan Fund, a nonprofit venture fund that supports independent media.)

The reason Zizek has to reach so far is that by and large the newspapers, like the cultures and governments, of Western Europe, have shifted away from liberalism to multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is the attempt not to allow the free flow of ideas, but instead to manage from the top down, the acceptable range of opinion, in the interests of not giving offense to any empowered identities. Of course, it runs into grave difficulties when the ever more exquisitely offendable sensibilities of its constituent identity groups conflict - Muslims and feminists, for example - but in Western Europe, at least, the resolution of that has been a classic power move. Muslims are seen, correctly, as an indentity constituency more threatening to the social peace than feminists, who seem laughably quaint by comparison.

So power - in this case, riots and threats of riots, violence and threats of violence - wins in the attempt of multiculturalism politically to manage intergroup identity conflict. Too late will Western Europe - and quite possibly the United States - discover that liberal values, in which free expression really is free expression, and violence over expression is flatly unacceptable, and sensibilities and sensitivities simply have to adapt to a rude and crude public sphere, do a better job of accommodating identity than top down managerial multiculturalism. Too late, too late to rediscover Voltaire.

(It is, for example, more than strange to reach back a bare six or seven years to Susan Moller Okin's liberal feminist essays - to see how uncompromising they are with respect to multiculturalism and religion - so uncompromising as to make me question how 'liberal' they really are - but also how utterly antiquated. Peter Berkowitz, in a 1999 review of a major essay by Okin with responses by various intellectuals, summarizes her basic point very well:

"Okin's core argument is simple: The subjugation of women, by men or by cultures, is wrong. Liberal democracies should protect the individual rights of all women within their borders, including women whose cultures and religions sanction practices that deny women's fundamental rights. Liberal democracies should not grant minorities special group rights or privileges to assist them in preserving their culture or religion in a foreign land, as many theorists of multiculturalism wish. For individual rights are sacrosanct in a liberal democracy, oppression in all its forms is bad, and, Okin suggests, a culture or religion that deprives women of human dignity is not worthy of preservation. Compelling as this argument may be when stated in the abstract, it prompts serious questions when applied to concrete matters of law and public policy. Where does subjugation leave off and a respectable way of life different from that cherished by liberals and feminists begin? Are all forms of subjugation and oppression properly the object of state action, or do some lie beyond the ken of government in a liberal democracy? What policies and laws provide the best means of enforcing individual rights? Which individual rights are fundamental and nonnegotiable? Yet these vexing questions do not vex Okin. She categorically condemns as sexist and illiberal clitoridectomy, polygamy, arranged marriages of teenage girls, and also veiling (the practice whereby Muslim women cover their faces in public). None of these practices should be tolerated by liberal democracies, she argues, even if prohibiting them requires state intervention in religious life."

That said, in 1999, where today are the feminists who will even take on the Taliban's principal spokesman, now enrolled unrepentantly at Yale? Multiculturalism, I would say, has won the argument with feminism hands down. Feminism licks its wounds by kicking against the pricks of Catholicism. But it has surrendered ignominiously in the face of political Islam and, indeed, given the uncompromising nature of Okin's arguments (which I think, in agreement with Peter Berkowitz in his review, are indeed overly strong, indeed illiberal - but then I'm not a feminist) in the face of any version of Islam whatsoever.)

(I say, read Max Frisch's 1950s play, Biedermann und die Brandstifter.).

Excerpts from Zizek:
March 12, 2006
New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor

Defenders of the Faith


FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: "Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God." Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the "religious inheritance" of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.

Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. Consider the debate that raged in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, my home country, as the constitutional controversy simmered: should Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from the old Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political and even architectural reasons, the liberal weekly journal Mladina was consistently outspoken in its support for the mosque, in keeping with its concern for the rights of those from other former Yugoslav republics.

Not surprisingly, given its liberal attitudes, Mladina was also one of the few Slovenian publications to reprint the infamous caricatures of Muhammad. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest "understanding" for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe.
These weird alliances confront Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is the author, most recently, of "The Parallax View."


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