Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dostoevsky & Terrorism

Adam Kirsch talks about Dostoevsky's novel "Demons" (The Possessed) in New York Sun and wonders if we will ever get anything like it for terrorists of our time. James Wood wrote about the same topic in The Guardian some time back.

It is ironical that Dostoevsky is being discussed in the context of terrorists who are motivated by fundamentalist religious belief when it is actually this religious suspension of the ethical (of course, as interpreted by them) that allows them to free themselves from personal responsibility. As Zizek says:

"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. "


puccinio said...

I'd say it's phenomenally simplistic to say that terrorists are motivated by fundamentalist religious beliefs. That's the cause they espouse and champion and I am fairly sure that they are sincere in their pursuit of that but I don't think they are actually driven by that.

Dostoyevsky's ''Crime and Punishment'' was based on his growing concerns about the Russian Nihilists and in that he presents a character who isn't driven by politics, religion and other such motives. So Dostoyevsky whatever people may call him was at least aware of the complexities of human beings and it's certainly simplistic to say his worldview is that of "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."(A line that is actually not even there in any of his books). Dostoyevsky's idea of religion was more complex than that.

In any case I find the Adam Kirsch article surprisingly colonialist. That somehow it's the responsibility of Western writers to get into the head of Islamic fundamentalists or rather that you can actually get into someone's head. The point of 20th Century Philosophy and Art is about the ambiguity and complexity of human beings and human endeavour which is why Dostoyevsky had such an influence on 20th Century Art.

And Zizek(who I dislike anyway) is equally idiotic by reducing details to such a black and white level. What else can you expect from a man who defended that film, ''300'' and criticized liberals for calling it the fascist propaganda that it is.

Alok said...

fundamentalist religious belief may not be the only cause but it provides a ready-made channel for the pent-up rage and feelings of resentments and injustice. this definitely seems to be a necessary element of the motivation if not the sufficient one.

there is also this much more serious problem of ethics in religion...that you just have to convince yourself that you are doing God's work and everything is then permitted. In fact as Zizek says about communism in that paragraph the russian nihilists were also motivated by a belief which can definitely be called quasi-religious...only in this case the God was the socialist, utopian future. In fact many critics (like Russell for example) think that Marx's philosophy of history is a coded version of the Judeo-Christian history itself.

I agree Dostoevsky's idea of religion and ethics was much more complex than that oft-repeated quote. I think he, alongwith Nietzsche, is the key ethical thinker of the modern world, someone who posed dark and difficult questions, answers to which we haven't still been able to find.

Kubla Khan said...

I agree with Puccinio....

"I'd say it's phenomenally simplistic to say that terrorists are motivated by fundamentalist religious beliefs. That's the cause they espouse and champion and I am fairly sure that they are sincere in their pursuit of that but I don't think they are actually driven by that".

any attempt say by the Palestinians to get their land back cannot be labelled as religious terrorism. the fact that there are christians amongst them is conveniently forgotten.any national struggle, whether legitimate or not( and who are we to question that)is quickly attributed to religious sensibility especially these days when it is a muslim land and so on.

Zizek reduces things to simplistic notions and tries to convey nationalism or any war for self determination to a religious ideology especially islamic when it is not so simple a case. such examples are not given for say the Kurds who are fighting on purely ethnic terms.
Zizek is not alone in this. he alongwith others have tried to reduce a faith to only an ideology for which religious ideologues are themselves responsible.

these things are not so simple and everything cannot be analysed, given over to Lacan and Hegel, because for some people Hegel does not exist.

i agree with you about the Dostoevsky issue as we have been discussing recently.

Alok said...

Hi Kubla, I think we have talked about this before on this blog too, I think in the context of The Battle of Algiers and the FLN. I do understand that often only religion can provide the spirit of solidarity and commitment to the cause that is required for any resistance movement but in the long run it only harms and delegitimizes it because religion automatically turns the oppressors into "others" and in that sense it becomes yet another ideology as imperialism which works in the same way. In fact I would say that so many post colonial societies have failed because of exactly the same reason - the resistance movements were not progressive and inclusive but rather based on blind ideologies often based on race, tribe or religion. Of course with Israel it is different and much more complex...

puccinio said...

Re: Alok

"...that you just have to convince yourself that you are doing God's work and everything is then permitted."

That's true for communism and for nationalist struggle(it's okay to kill and bomb people as long as you are doing it for love of your country). It's actually true for any ideology however serene and benevolent as it sounds. People keep talking about the values of the Enlightenment and the like but those same values were twisted and used as justifications for colonialism and the like. Even Europe's scientific advances were used as justifications for European superiority.

And then science which is dedicated for advancement and progress and helping mankind... Well the Industrial Revolution which was to help make things easier was used by capitalist businessman as excuses for rapid industrialization which caused much environmental damage and mass unemployment. I am not blaming the inventions themselves but the fact is they were used for the sake of profit rather than progress.

I don't want to make out to be an apologist or whatnot for religion. I'm not especially religious myself, it's just that I find most intellectuals today thinking of Middle-Eastern affairs and also terrorists in terms of religious fundamentalists. Especially that windbag propagandist for Bush Co. Christopher Hitchens who hates God and thinks that Islamofascists(as he calls them) are all and the same and praises the fall of Saddam Hussein(when Hussein was among other things, a secular leader who pissed off the Al Qaeda for limiting the role of religion in public life). I find this attitude amongst Hitchens and other intellectuals to be racist and even xenophobic. Many others have pointed it out themselves. Like Edward Said who broke apart from him before he died.

Of course I am against organized religion in general and all for the Church and the State staying as far away as possible. I personally think that the Catholic Church is a defunct organization well on it's way to oblivion(the number of priests joining declines yearly) and considering it's horrible and reactionary attitude recently I don't think I'd miss them much.

In any case, Islam is not an organized religion. Fundamentalist Islam have sects inside them and major differences and squabbles within it. And that's a small part of Islam in general. The mistake most of these writers do is to judge Islam on the same basis as Catholicism in the Middle Ages and thinking that religions are a vague bunch of ideas without any sense of aesthetic and philosophy of it's own. I have no problems with people thinking that religion is a waste of time and energy. That's a personal opinion that some have(similar to Valery's idea of learning history being a waste of time) but to expect that to suffice as your argument is ridiculous.

In fact many critics (like Russell for example) think that Marx's philosophy of history is a coded version of the Judeo-Christian history itself.

Maybe. The apocalyptic attitude towards society and revolution is quite Messianic but then that doesn't mean it's tainted or false. Bertrand Russell was practically a Marxist himself, he just didn't want to be called one. Russell was a genius but his arguments and oppositions and his reasons for it tend to sound pedantic.

In any case my main problem with religion is that both it's defenders and detractors tend to lack a sense of history towards it. Much of these religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism weren't intended to be seen as religions and what they mean by religion is essentially a wide catalogue of contradictory philosophical, ethical and aesthetic ideas for which a label "religion" does little justice. Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian once said that "I hate the word religion. I am very pleased that it's not there anywhere in the Bible." Classical Jewish wit there for you.

Kubla Khan said...

In the Quran, the word religion is never seen but the word used for Islam itself is "deen", which is difficult to translate into english. it conveys more than religion, its essence is that of a way, a path, a complete system in itself.

re even the means of identification, in Bosnia for eg, the muslims were always Bosnian muslims vs bosnian croats vs bosnian serbs etc, the denomination of the last two groups not mentioned on religious lines. now the same muslims are called Bosniaks.

the usage of words and terms that get stuck and become a part of general public perception are quite important.this is true these days about Islam, which perhaps is now facing a slow but definite wave of "different" treatment. it is anybody's guess in which direction it will go after a few decades in Europe. since the Arabs too are semitic, i wonder why this prejudice against them is not labelled anti-semitism?

puccinio said...

Well language conditions to a great extent how people think.

And yes anti-Arab sentiment is anti-semitic but as Jews(religious and secular) point out the basis for Jewish identity for the major part of European history since the fall of Jerusalem was based on the Jew being identified as semitic regardless of the fact that there are other semites and the like. That was part of the basis for Zionist identity.

Zionism as a concept was intented to be secular since very few Jews were able to practice their religion and as a result much of the Jewish intellectual community developed outside religon. That a Jew was one who had to live in fear of being pursued as a Jew, was actually oppressed as a Jew and as a semite regardless of not being religious or not being the only kind of semite and the like. That and your mother has to be Jewish.

The thing that I have observed reading Arabic history is that Islam like Judaism as a well, "deen" allowed for the pursuit of science and other branches of knowledge and art. Which led to many Arab scholars reading up on Ancient Greek philosophy which eventually led to it's rediscovery in Europe and their belated Renaissance. Much of the dichotomy between religion and science as seperate entities happened with Christianity.

In that sense, Christianity was the first religion. It had to go out of it's way to explain and justify itself in a manner different from Judaism and Islam and other folk religions and the like. Jesus of Nazareth was most likely a folk figure who would have been forgotten to history(being a carpenter from the poorest most oppressed part of Judea) had he not been made a religious figure. He's literally not anywhere in history yet he is everywhere. Of course eventually Saul/Paul of Tarsus compromised Christianity by Hellenizing much of it's Jewish concepts.

Alok said...

puccinio: thanks for the comments. my own views on religion and atheism have changed quite a bit in the last couple of years or so. In fact I am somewhat embarrassed by what I wrote on the blog at that time and also on old emails which sound as if written by a petulant adolescent.

I do understand now that one can't ignore religion if one is interested in intellectual history or the history of ideas because so many philosophical concepts (now considered "secular") originated first in religious debates and that one need not be a believer to appreciate the level of intellectual sophistication involved in these discussions.

I also understand now, as you said, how science and rationality, specially the technological rationality with its instrumental and utilitarian nature, contributes to human alienation and leads to ethical confusion and in worse cases to real horrors, far worse in fact than environmental catastrophes. I have read and thought a lot on these topics recently and in the last year, provoked by Musil (Young Torless, Man Without Qualities) and other readings in German intellectual history. also the book Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Baumann which is a damning critique of instrumental, so called "value-free" scientific rationality...

my problem then is not with the religion itself, in its theological or intellectual aspects but rather how religious and ethnic identities work and how they are exploited. One would think that after witnessing so many unspeakable horrors of 20th century which at the root were fuelled by these narrow ethinic and religious definitions, one would know better but it doesn't seem to be so.

Of course I know it works in a dialectical way. Imperialism and other exlusionary politics force people to choose identities which they wouldn't otherwise have done. Much of modern communal tensions in india for example are the legacy of british imperialism and partition. still i think India has done far better than other post-colonial countries precisely because the freedom movement was not based on racial, religious or ethnic ideologies but was rather a humanistic and progressive movement.

Kubla Khan said...

"i think India has done far better than other post-colonial countries precisely because the freedom movement was not based on racial, religious or ethnic ideologies but was rather a humanistic and progressive movement".

Isn't the very concept of what India has tried to be at a crossroads with a militant ideology like the Hindu nationalists claiming exclusivity and the right to be right?
from my understanding of the politics of South Asia, the Hindu dialectic has perhaps been ignored for a long time till now, it has started exploding in various ways with even the right wing dressing as brown shirts? Isn't the Hindu narrative emerging towards a radical departure from an enforced, alien Nehru-Nasser-Tito led pseudo nationalism or secularism?

the decline into fascism or what looks like it of a diverse culture and place like India is again part of a bigger post-colonial problem but one that cannot be blamed on imperialism alone.....the same is true of arabs espousing nationalism in the sixties and the "street" turning towards religious-led symbolism now?

isn't the very concept of nation states very European? and then how are the post-colonial societies to weave themselves out of a complexity.....like the berbers vs arabs in Algeria for eg?

the answers are found in the very roots of a diverse identity that everyone has for no one is only just one thing. the modern nausea of nationhood and strangely forced nation states has not helped the smaller, helpless and less powerful ethnic groups that continue to be still under duress of one kind or the other.

Alok said...

there have always been these challenges to secular and inclusive ethos of indian politics but they have always remained marginal. the closest hindu nationalist came to wielding real power was in the nineties after the demolition of Babri masjid and then the initial years of BJP rule but that seems to have fizzled out now. Both the main political parties are now mostly centrist with almost identical neo-liberal views and politics. there are isolated centres of influence like in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra but they are again very localised. It is true, Nehru is now ridiculed and criticised, specially by the urban bourgeoisie, but more because of his socialism than his secular views.

Nation-state is again a very complex topic but I do believe that nation-state need not be based on an exclusionary ethnic identity. It can be inclusive and multicultural too based on respect for the other and run as per the rule of the law. But then we have Israel which has over time defined itself more and more on the line of exclusionary ethnocentrism which has led to so much violence and injustice.

a-unsh said...

Long before the british colonized india - there was the truly shallow system of caste (which exists to this day) within the Hindus, the sensibilities of which implicitly extended towards a religious divide what with the Muslims, Buddhist, Zoroastrians, etc already present upon the arrival of the colonists. If there was anything that the british imperialism did it was to flounder the economy of its colony (and making it dependent on them - and hence the american hegemony around the world is a form of imperialism; colonisation always starts about with monetary satisfactions culminating into a regime of maintaining power); it created an environment where things came to a head on the set societal system and precipitated the fissures already present. So imperialism is a cause but its not the root cause of communal tensions.

Also perceiving the Gujarat incident as being isolated would be wrong. What is more perplexing is that the very govt. that created communal havoc in Gujarat was brought back to power by what we call "democratic representation of the people" attributing financial success over past misdeeds. This is a major jolt, much more than 1992, as the hindu fundamentalists now derive more optimism from the Gujarat examples. This can be seen by the recent blockade of the Jammu-Srinagar highway by the Hindu fundamentalists in Kashmir denying the people of Kashmir valley, with a majority of Muslim population, their source of income creating an environment of true havoc. The apathy from the lack of action from the Indian govt is truly bewildering. But this is not a new phenomenon. Kashmir was annexed to India during the partition with the agreement of autonomy. Strangely, after a few years India denied this autonomy during the Nehru reign and created out of Jammu and Kashmir a colony reminiscent of their past with the British. Moreover, the complete lack of objective coverage from the Indian media keeps an entire nation in ignorance of the crimes committed by Indian troops in Kashmir. The Indian army has been given complete freedom in Kashmir without any accountability which has created horrors that are of the nature worse than Abu Ghraib. Ofcourse, this does not pardon Pakistan in any manner - their means of influxing hardline Muslim factions into the peaceful Muslim community in Kashmir is an attrocity of another manner. But since 2 wrongs don't make a right, the attrocities commited by the Indian troops need to be highlighted to a nation of billion who are systematically hidden behind the propaganda that all things wrong in Kashmir is because of Pakistan. Open any major Indian newspaper and the coverage of Kashmir is next to null that can be called as revealing - the articles are just mouthpieces of the govt. propaganda. This helps no one but the hardliners, in this case the Hindu fundamentalists, who are misusing the blanket power assigned to the Indian army with impunity in Kashmir to their advantage resulting in killing of the Hurriyat (a largely non-violent organisation rallying for an independent Kashmir) leader recently. Things look grim and will be grimmer if people do not open to this fact.

Alok said...

what you say about caste is true. the "foreigners" were called "mlechhas" which was worse than the lowest caste in Hinduism. Contemporary debates about national identity and hindutva however derive more from partition and "the two nation theory", which was obviously a direct effect, in fact almost a handiwork of british imperialism.

I also feel more optimistic than you are about Indian politics. I agree Gujarat was the biggest challenge yet to that inclusive national identity. I said it was localised because it hasn't happened elsewhere even after so many terrorist attacks whose main aim has always been to provoke similar incidents. I have also not been following politics very closely (I rarely do) but from what I have seen BJP hasn't been doing very well and is quite confused and is very insecure ideologically. I don't even get to hear much of all those fringe lunatic groups like VHP, Bajrang Dal etc...

Kashmir is a sore spot. North east is another one and so are the Naxal infested states in the central india. But i said in my reply to kubla these are all challenges and i think and hope that the basic ethos are strong enough to meet them.

Ubermensch said...

Hmm. It is a rather interesting interaction ( it lacks the clarity or agenda to call it a discussion), in that it is atypical on an Indian blog.

Some of my thoughts-
Zizek is a joke, and so is that 9/11 book, which had no takers anywhere. I think the most clear of all the comments here is the very first by puccinio.

Zizek is undeniably and so unconsciously being christian (as in the view) as well as colonialist about a matter which to my opinion is beyond a typical western mind. Aside - make a list of all the perceptions from Naipaul to Derrida to Huntington that have/had successfully predicted or explained the last 25 years of our existence. They all fall outside mainstream legacy of 19th-20th centuries lineage. Even an average mind like Amartya sen can tell Atheism was rife in India from what 6th-7th century? Think of the violence in south Asia through all that period or inversely take teh most religious of all lands - France? Ireland? and chornicle the history of violence and try to test of zizek's ignorant theory. That's basic socrates isnt it?

Speaking of other comments, I am, with no disrespect to anyone, amazed by lack of independent analysis or observation. Pardon me for this, but the lack of awareness of history is appalling. Let me give you a simple example- from the comments it is implied or accepted, and this is not only here but in general the hindu nationalists came by after 90s or Islam became fundamental post cold war. Such statements are disgrace of analysis.
Most people think hindu movement is/was highlighted by the Babri Masjid demolition. Which was only symbolic at the most? Those hindu chaps went city by city for months, carrying almost what to me is nothing but a referendum to get rid off the mosque. It was supported and unopposed barring a voice here and there. How did a nation come to that?
That is the starter. Answer would initially led you back hundred years and then further if you are interested. Same applies to Islam- why the iranian muslims in tehran and those settled in Canada ( check the numbers or hollywood releases) less religious than say those settled in Malaysia or Kashmir?

The amazing thing about history is that if you have the ability to see it from multiple perspectives across periods and times, you would answers to most current questions. For all the reading you folks do, go back to Hegel who is basic if you seek to understand the any world at anytime.

And finally, I am totally aware how rude or incredibly blunt my comment is, but seeing from your side I can only ask you to forgive me for that, from my side, the mish of mash of exchanges only asked for it. I can see both and hope you do too.

Alok said...

Not rude at all. Nothing is rude if one sticks to ideas and arguments.

I understand this is a complex topic and that one can see the same thing from so many different perspectives, Something not really possible for a blog to do.

Two things: Zizek is just saying that atheists (the russian nihilists of 19th century) were different from the present day terrorists who are motivated by religous beliefs in their ethical thinking. He is not denying the violence those nihilists caused, just that these two can't be compared. Also by atheism he means secular humanism, belief in personal responsibility etc... obviously communism etc while not explicitly religious were still propelled by quasi-religious impulses in their messianic theories of history. I must say I am not really familiar with Zizek outside his few forays into film theory (specifically to David Lynch) and even there i get stumped because of his constant references to Lacan.

Other part about Hindutva and Indian politics this came because I mentioned that there is a link between imperialism and the divisive identity politics. nobody is denying that there were no divisions in society in pre-colonial times but colonialism makes it worse. even after that India has fared much better than other post-colonial societies in this sense and as a proof i said that the communal politics has remained rather marginal and localized, becoming a mainstream national political force only in the 90s.

lastly, i don't know what this obsession with nationality is ("Indian blog"?) . Neither Kubla, nor Puccinio are Indians. I don't know about the other commenter though.

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