‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, ‘Our Wound Is Not So Recent: Thinking the Paris Killings of 13 November’ reviewed by Eric D Meyer


In the Shadow of Mount Sinai

Polity Press, Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA, 2015. 80pp., £9.99 pb
ISBN 9780745699240


Our Wound Is Not So Recent: Thinking the Paris Killings of 13 November

Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2016. 80pp., £12.99 hb
ISBN 9781509514939

Reviewed by Eric D Meyer

About the reviewer

Eric D Meyer is the author of Questioning Martin Heidegger: On Western Metaphysics, Bhuddhist …

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Dateline: September 11th, 2016. After fifteen years of the international war on terror, it’s curious that Western intellectuals have scarcely asked what has caused this clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world. In the 1980s, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) made Western intellectuals aware that the theoretical frameworks they applied to the study of Middle Eastern cultures were still implicated in 19th Century Western colonialism. But Said’s thinking of Western colonialism is clearly dateable to the Postwar period of Pan-Arabism, Nasserism, and Third World decolonization (ca 1945-1989), and does not specifically address the clash between Western globalization and Islamist terrorism in the 21st Century war on terror. Peter Sloterdijk and Alain Badiou can then be applauded for having the courage to confront the contemporary situation directly, and attempting to see it through non-Western eyes. But one might still ask whether the theoretical frameworks they apply do not contribute to the problems they hope to solve, as it prevents them from recognizing the starkly different world-views and strangely different motivations of the Muslim holy warriors and Islamist suicide bombers, who are the stereotyped enemies of the West in the international war on terror.

In God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (hereafter GZ), Sloterdijk argued that the international war on terror is a result of the clash of monotheisms between the three Abrahamic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are characterized by a strictly exclusive covenant between their devout believers. This, in turn, engenders zealotry toward apostates and outsiders. In GZ, Sloterdijk also argues that religious zealotry is characteristic of monotheism per se, and makes no specific distinctions between the three competing monotheisms. In the Shadow of Mount Sinai (SMS) is clearly written in response to critics of ‘the clash of monotheisms’ thesis (SMS 3-7); and Sloterdijk swears he “will avoid the term ‘monotheism’ as far as possible[,] and instead focus on discussing the phenomenon” of zealotry “with reference to certain religious norms” characteristic of the three Abrahamic religions (SMS 4). But Sloteridjk still finds it difficult to resist discussing zealotry in terms of the clash-of-monotheisms thesis, or to avoid stereotyping the three monotheisms by their violent propensities. In `The Sinai Schema’ (SMS 25-41), for example, he announces that he has “finally arrive[d] at the question of how monotheism and violence are connected” (SMS 27). But he still insists he is referring, not to the “religio-theoretical construct called ‘monotheism,’” but to the “ethno-plastic systems of rules” (SMS 8) and “the covenantal singularization project” (SMS 28) characteristic of the Abrahamic religions.

‘The Sinai schema’ then refers to the covenant established among the Ancient Israelite tribes, when Moses, after meeting Yahweh on Mount Sinai, performs the Covenant sacrifice by splashing sacrificial blood upon the Israelite people (Exodus 24:1-8), although this covenant is subsequently broken when Moses brings the stone tablets down from Sinai, only to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, and, in a rage, breaks the tablets and orders a massacre of the apostates (Exodus 32:1-29). The Sinai schema consists of “the narrative triad of the sealing of the covenant” between Yahweh and the Israelites (Exodus 19:24), “the breach of the covenant” in the Golden Calf episode (Exodus 32), and “the restoration of the covenant” (Exodus 34) (SMS 33) through which the Israelite tribes become the Nation of Israel. But it is the breach of covenant which most concerns Sloterdijk, since it is the Israelites’ apostasy which brings about the outburst of zealotry, in which Moses, speaking as “‘the LORD, the God of Israel, says’” to the Levite priests: ““Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp … each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died” (Exodus 34:16-18; SMS 29). The Sinai schema then serves, Sloterdijk argues, “as the primal scene of ancient Jewish anti-miscegenation policy” (SMS 25), to constitute the Israelite tribes as “a zealous collective” (SMS 43), and to enforce conformity to its sacred blood covenant through the “phobocratic” fear (SMS 42ff) of exclusion from that zealous collectivity.

Although Sloterdijk insists that the Sinai schema can’t to be taken literally, that it “amounted to only vehement verbalisms that were not followed by any real actions” (SMS 42), he still argues that the Sinai schema can be extended to describe the ethno-genesis of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. “It would be a grave mistake,” Sloterdijk argues, “to assume that the effects of the Sinai schema were restricted to the religious constitution of Israel,” since “the basic structures of the Sinaite constitution were passed on to Judaism’s religious successors, namely Christianity and Islam” (SMS, 48-9). The Sinai schema can explain, not only the violent propensities of the three Abrahamic religions, but also the virtual obsession with “the problem of apostasy (ridda)” displayed, for example, by radical Islam, specifically by “the fatwa committee of al-Azhar University in Cairo,” which determined that “under certain circumstances, apostates must be killed as traitors to Allah” (SMS, 51). This was a fatwa implemented by the Islamic State in carrying out public executions of apostates by beheadings, firing squads, and defenestrations from high buildings and cliffs. The self-destructive violence of the war on terror can then be explained as a result of the clash of monotheisms within and between the three Abrahamic religions, because zealous believers of the three Abrahamic religions each regard each the others as apostates from the aboriginal monotheism, established by the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, and enforced by the Sinai schema.

For Sloterdijk, the self-destructive violence of the war on terror is the result of the clash of monotheisms, which engenders religious zealotry and directs its sacred violence towards apostates and unbelievers. By contrast, for Alain Badiou, in Our Wound is Not So Recent (OWNSR), international terrorist violence is an effect of the bitter class struggle between the Westernized middle classes, who make up 40% of the world’s population, and the non-Western under-classes, who constitute 50% of the world’s people, to possess whatever portion of the world’s resources (roughly 14%) is not already monopolized by the Western elites, who, while comprising only 10% of the world’s population, control 86% of the world’s resources (OWNSR 32-33). Badiou’s analysis is based upon a Marxist class schema, albeit updated to describe the conditions of the contemporary capitalist world-system. Religion, which plays a major role in Sloterdijk’s analysis, counts for nothing in Badiou’s schema. “Ah! Religion! Islam!” Badiou mocks. “But I want to say at once that religion has always been available as a pretext, a rhetorical cover, manipulable and manipulated by fascist gangs to disguise the class struggle behind a façade of holy war. ‘So it is hardly credible to lay the blame on Islam, finally’ (OWNSR 42), Badiou concludes, insisting that ‘religion is just a cover’ for ‘the omnipresence of the desire for the West’. This is regardless of whether that desire is the desire of the Westernized middle classes to possess what the Western elite monopolize for themselves, or, instead, is ‘constituted on the basis of an intimate and negative repression of desire for the West’ (OWNSR 52) characteristic of the non-Western world.

For Badiou, then, international terrorism, like the class struggle, is inevitably driven by a desire for the West. ‘[I]n the final analysis, the origins of these youths [i.e the Islamist terrorists] doesn’t matter much, their spiritual origin, their religious origin’ (OWNSR 55), since whether they admit it or not, ether they want to be Westerners, or else they want to destroy the West, in a self-destructive negative reaction against it. And so, despite his denunciations of Islamophobia (OWNSR 42), Badiou subscribes to the Islamo-fascist stereotype, which assimilates Islamist terrorists to the stereotyped barbarians of the 1930s Western European civil war between communism and fascism, thereby contributing to further misunderstanding between the West and the Muslim world. And this is unfortunate, since Badiou begins his analysis with the admirable proposition that ‘nothing that anyone does is unintelligible’ (OWNSR 9), staunchly committing himself to understanding what he later dismisses, namely the spiritual and religious origins of the Muslim holy warriors. But despite his sympathy toward the miserable, downtrodden masses of the non-Western world, whom Franz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre once referred to as “the wretched of the earth,” Badiou’s attitude is finally as uncomprehending as that of those who dismiss the Islamist terrorists as simply self-destructive nihilists and un-civilized barbarians, thereby endorsing the self-perpetuating stereotype.

Yet, Badiou is probably correct that much of the hostility of the Islamist terrorists is actually created by the West, since, as he also argues, Western violence toward the Muslim world is just as cruel, barbarous, and inhuman, as Islamist terrorism; and the West certainly can’t claim superiority to Islamist terrorism, while still carrying out bombing campaigns that kill countless women and children, along with the suspected terrorists. ‘If we call killing people for nothing “barbarian”’, Badiou argues, ‘then the West [is] barbarous every day, and we should realize this. Quite simply, in the first case of barbarism, we have a deliberate and suicidal mass murder. In the case of the barbarism of the civilized, it is a technological mass murder, dissimulated and self-satisfied’ (OWNSR, 60). Between these two barbarisms, the self-perpetuating cycle of escalating violence is perpetuated by the mutual incapacity of each side to stop reacting to the self-destructive violence of the other. In the final analysis, however, Badiou still sees the international war on terror, not simply as ‘a particularly violent and spectacular symptom’ of the class struggle within the capitalist world-system (OWNSR 10), but also as an effect of the collapse of communism as a utopian alternative to ‘the destructive, aggressive practice[s]’ of the multinational capitalism (OWNSR 18), which might have provided the Muslim terrorists with a constructive channel for their frustrated desires. Here, Badiou betrays his own specifically communist orientation.

In a recent interview, Badiou has protested that he has no ‘nostalgic longing’ for communism (Uisio Philosophy, January 13th, 2016). But it is clear Badiou still sees the contemporary world caught up in the sterile dialectics of communism versus fascism, and is therefore unable to see the self-sacrificial violence of the Muslim holy warriors as anything other than Islamo-fascism. But in the Muslim world, the collapse of communism is associated with the downfall of the Ba’athist socialist regimes, such as Nasser’s Egypt, Qaddafi’s Libya, Hussein’s Iraq, and Assad’s Syria. These regimes all provided terrorist versions of Marxist/Leninist communism, that now, after the Iranian Revolution and the Arab Spring, has been repudiated in favor of a specifically Islamic revolution. In OWNR, Badiou makes a sincere effort to understand the West’s enemies through non-Western eyes, but he is blocked by his Eurocentrism and its Islamo-fascist stereotypes. Sloterdijk and Badiou have therefore perhaps made a start at stopping the misunderstanding between the West and Islam that fuels the self-perpetuating cycle of terrorist violence. Stopping the stereotyping would be the next step, and Sloterdijk and Badiou might help us make it, even if they don’t, or cannot, make it themselves. 

16 November 2016

6 comments

  1. How about the Iranian Revolution? which probably appears much more important, and much different, in Muslim eyes than in ours. I was simply making a distinction between Western-style revolutions, like the Postwar Soviet-sponsored Marxist/Leninist-type revolutions in what used to be called ‘The Third World’ (Africa, Southeast Asian, Latin America, the Middle East), which had as a more-poor-less explicit motive the ‘Westernization’ or ‘modernization’ of the so-called underdeveloped country (e.g. the Algerian (FLN), Egyptian (Nasserite), or Turkish (Atta-Turk-ish) Revolutions), and those which were more-or-less explicitly carried out under an Islamist (theocratic) motive, like the Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iranian Revolution, or the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian revolution, or what might be called ‘the Algerian Counter-Revolution’ of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria. I’m trying to point out that much current thinking about Middle Eastern politics is still carried out under what is, I think, for Muslims, anyway, an obsolete paradigm—the Marxist/Leninist paradigm of socialist modernization (no offense to Marxists!)—which, however glamorous in our eyes, is, I believe, thought of, in the non-Western world, as a specifically ‘Westernizing’ paradigm (and therefore harshly opposed by Islamists); and that if we want to understand what motivates the Muslim mujihadeen radicals and Islamist terrorists, we need to understand the current international war on terror, at least partly, from their standpoint: as what they believe is a Western plot against Islam, designed to destroy the Muslim world, and demanding that they sacrifice themselves in defense of god, religion, country, family, and so on, to fight it.

    As far as I’m concerned, ending the self-defeating war on terror is (or should be…) the number one priority of contemporary political activism, since, until that self-defeating war is ended, I don’t believe any progressive political change can take place, whether in the West or the non-Western world, which will continue to exist in a constant terrorist state of emergency; nor, obviously, will there be a solution to the perpetual Middle East crises, which now engulf the whole Muslim Arab world. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that I agree with the Islamist radicals, since their fundamentalist (Wahabbi, Salafist, or Shiite) paradigm is obviously worse than self-defeating, not to say suicidal, and counter-productive toward social progress. I simply think we have to understand them if we ever want to stop fighting them and killing or being killed by them—not to mention stop the slaughter of innocent civilians, always the worst casualties of these stupid wars, whether carried out an Islamist or Westernist bannerhead.

    But thanks for the question, and I always welcome criticism of my views, under the good old Marxist spirit of crit.-self-crit…

  2. I thank you for your reply. I regret however that I will have to point out, in the spirit of comradely criticism, that your understanding of all these revolutions is incorrect.
    First Iran. At the time of the Iranian revolution I took a bet with an Iranian who was then and is now, a very liberal activist. My bet was that the popular revolution led by communists and social-democrats and liberal capitalists would be stolen from them by the Islamists. I won my bet. The Iranian revolution was not led or instigated by the Islamists. The Iranian revolution was instigated and led by a conscious combination of communists and social-democrats and liberals (pro-capitalist nationalists). But AFTER the downfall of the Shah, the Islamists returned to Iran from foreign countries and with the ‘benign’ aid of the imperialists, they took-over the revolution, murdered all their opponents and took over the government. The imperialists, as usual, chose the most right-wing element in the revolution for their support, not realising, as in Iraq, that they had installed those who opposed the Imperialists, but from the right.
    The imperialist press very soon began to forget the other forces in the Iranian revolution and attributed the overthrow of the Shah to the Islamists, which is quite untrue. They did this because above all, the Imperialists know that they must obscure all traces of class conflict from their stories. It can only be identity politics, never class war, as far as the imperialists are concerned.
    The same correction applies in all your other examples. Dear comrade, you must learn to make a distinction between between the form and the underlying substance of social upheavals. Also, you must put aside all notions peddled by the imperialist press. Every example that you cite, was in reality a class conflict; sometimes cloaked in nationalist rhetoric and sometimes cloaked in religious rhetoric. But the rhetoric does not define the character of these upheavals. You must look below the surface.
    In the USA currently, the imperialist press looks everywhere, except at class conflict, which is the only way to analyze social changes realistically.

  3. I’d certainly agree that the US and international press distorts the reality of what’s happening in the Muslim world, especially since the beginning of the so-called war on terror, which now gives the Western press an excuse to portray all Muslims, whether Western-friendly or Islamist, as ‘terrorists!’ But I’d disagree that it’s as simple as you suggest when you pit Lenin’s capitalist imperialists (the last stage of capitalism!) against the Marxist class struggle and the international working class. What you call “the imperialist press” can equally exploit multinationalist leftist-liberal agendas to promote Westernization of ‘Third World’ underdeveloped countries as they can so-called neo-liberal rightist agendas, just as they can also employ either Marxist/Leninist militaristic regimes or right-wing fascistic-type regimes to promote their Westernizing globalizing agenda. In Iran recently, for example, I’d say that Western interests really wanted to back the Green Movement (Mousavi and Kourubi) against the Ayatollahs, Amadinejad, and the Shiite Islamist factions, and, for a while, it looked like they might succeed, when the 2009 Iranian election led to large-scale street protests. But when it became clear that the Green Movement was supported by Western interests, a backlash against the Greens took place, and the Western multinational liberal interests. seeing the Green Movement might lead to Islamization, also dumped the Green Movement, leaving Mousavi and Kourubi under permanent house arrest. (And when’s the last time you heard anything about the Greens or Mousavi/Kourubi in the Western press, even in the Guardian?)

    You’re quite probably right that the Iranian Revolution was instigated by communists and social democrats and then taken over by Islamists, but the question would be whether the Islamists or the communists actually have the support of the majority of the population, and I’m afraid the Islamists probably have broader support than what many Muslims probably think of as the Western backed leftist factions, whether called communist, socialist, or whatever. But let’s take the Arab Spring events instead. Here again, you’re quite correct that Arab Spring (Tunisia, Egypt/Tahir Square, the Syrian Uprising etc.) were instigated by Western-friendly leftist factions, following Obama’s Cairo speech, and the West supported them, believing they’d lead to a wave of Eastern European-style “Color Revolutions” in the Muslim world that would be congenial to Westernization. But the Arab Spring revolutions also created a backlash against Westernization and a wave of support for what I clumsily called “a specifically Muslim revolution,” which the West (your imperialists) certainly did not support. And so, in Egypt, for example, the West then reverted to supporting a right-wing military dictatorship (the Abdel Fattah el-Ssi regime) to take down the Muslim Brotherhood and the democratically-elected Morsi government, forcing the Muslim Brotherhood again to resort to terrorist tactics in opposition to Sisi, who, I have to say, still appears to be supported by your Western imperialists, despite his use of right-wing strong-arm tactics. (But did you see? Morsi’s been granted a new trial. So who knows what will happen next?) Anyway, I just think it’s more complicated than Marxist class analysis, however superficially correct, can adequately explicate.

    I’m not saying, though, that Alain Badiou’s class analysis of the international capitalist system is incorrect. No, as far as it goes, it’s perfectly correct, and certainly displays more sympathy for the impoverished masses of the Muslim world and the former Third World than your imperialist press. It just doesn’t explain why, if it is correct, there’s no great international communist (working class or underclass) movement against your imperialist interests, and why the Marxist/Leninist style revolutions have failed in the Muslim world and in the former Third World generally. I think we need to take into account the deeply-rooted culture of Islamic theocracy in the Muslim world if we really want to understand what’s happening there, which might help to explain why self-destructive, suicidal groups like the Islamic State still gain support in the Muslim world, and even among Western-educated Muslims like the Sept. 11th hijackers or the Paris and Belgium terror attackers. And I do think we need to move beyond the stereotyped thinking of communist vs. fascist, socialist vs. capitalist, left vs. right, as the dialectical motor of contemporary world events if we really want to see progressive change in the international world-system. Or, heck, even in Donald Trump’s America, where the same anti-Marxist-dialectical backlash against liberal leftist policies is taking place. But that’s another story…

    Again, thanks for your feedback.

  4. I will add one more brief comment.
    One should not confuse what the working class and peasants want in any given country at any given time, with what are the true long-term interests of those classes. All the features that you highlight are the result of indoctrination or of propaganda if you prefer. When there are no effective communist parties to give guidance to the working class, then the fascists appear and they take the leadership of some part of the working classes. This has happened in numerous countries and is now again happening Western Asia (The Middle East).

  5. Yes, I’d say you are articulating Badiou’s position, which sees the contemporary situation as a drastically changed version of the 19th C. Western imperialist class system, with the Western multinational corporate elite as the dominant class, the Westernized bourgeoisie as the middle class, and the Third World masses as the revolutionary classes, albeit without revolutionary consciousness. And Badiou also denies that the Third World masses, and especially the Muslim terrorists have any real consciousness of what they’re doing, since they are simply slaves of the Western dominant system, and want to be Westerners (whether they admit it or not!); and he argues that the Islamic State is really simply a fascist-style business-gangster operation, serving the interests of the mutlinational corporate elite–And there surely must be better ways to make a fast buck than staging an Islamist terrorist revolution against the Western superpowers, at the cost of revolutionary suicide. And what interests the multinational corporate elite have in wholesale mass murder and wanton destruction, other than short-term interests in military industrial armament sales (not a negligible interest!) escapes me. I’d say the Western multinational corporate elite just wants everybody to be self-hypnotized media freaks and internet consumers, not terrorists, and just wants to make a fast buck and rule the world, like everybody else.

    But I’d agree with you that much of what passes for bourgeois, working-class, or peasant consciousness (subaltern consciousness, but also terrorist consciousness?) is really ‘false consciousness,’ dictated by what Althusser calls the ideological state apparatuses (politics, law, schools, media etc.), and imposed upon them by the repressive apparatuses (military, police, etc.), which makes them mistake (‘misrecognize’) their short-term interests (jobs, money, pleasures, etc.) for their long-term interests (socially progressive structural change). But to follow the Marxist/Leninist line that therefore the subaltern classes need a Bolshevik Party cadre (or an Islamist radical party) to tell them what their true interests are, and, if they fail to recognize their interests as the Party’s interests, to re-educate them, appears to take a dangerous position, as became obvious, not only in Stalinist Russia (Stalin’s Great Terror, the Gulag etc.) but in many instances of Third World dictatorships which, of course, portrayed their interests in party rule as the real interests of the revolutionary masses in the national liberation struggle, and enforced their interests by terror and bloodshed, when the masses failed to recognize them. And, in this respect, I’m afraid there’s not much difference between a Marxist/Leninist dictatorship of the party cadres, a fascist-style right-wing military dictatorship, or, for that matter, an Islamist revolutionary dictatorship (or the Islamic State), which all claim to represent the real interests of the subaltern classes, but all dress in the same military drag, with camos and semi-automatic weapons, and rule by terror, when it comes right down to it.

    I’d prefer to take a more Hegelian/Marxist line, which says that it is ruling class consciousness (the master consciousness) which is the real false consciousness, often imposed through by terrorist means, through propaganda and indoctrination, but also propagated through the mis-perceived self-interest of the subaltern classes, and that it is the subaltern consciousness (the slave consciousness) which is the real true consciousness, even if that subaltern consciousness often mis-recognizes its long-term interests for its short term interests and makes horrible mistakes (joining ISIS, voting for Trump, joining the Nazis etc.) in the short term, which cause suffering and death for many people. Which means that, despite all the terrors and horrors of world history (all in the dialectical process, eh?), somewhere along the way, among all the false consciousness of the subaltern classes, there’s a moment of genuine consciousness, which really does recognize its long-term interests in progressive social change toward what Marxists, Christians, and Muslims all recognize as the great goal of world history: the creation of what Marx called ‘true communism,’ that is, a state of perfectly non-repressive social equality among all peoples in a worldly community—even if Marxists, Christians, and Islamists drastically disagree about how to get there from here, and also cause enormous suffering and death to themselves and each other, in the world-histrocial process, as in the contemporary war on terror.

    Which is why I say we should try to understand even the Muslim terrorists and Islamist suicide bombers as being motivated by a terribly distorted progressive goal–the creation of a Muslim community (ummah)—even if they take horribly mistaken means–self-sacrificial martyrdom and killing of apostates in holy war—as a way of getting there. And I think that’s what Mohammed’s liberation theology was really about, before Muslim community was caught up in the (class?) struggle against the Meccan elite (the Quraysh) and adopted the mistaken concept of jihad, as a result. The only real difference here is on what are the means to get there, and, frankly, I also distrust Marxist/Leninist revolutionary means of getting there through terror and violence, and think that only non-violent means will ever really get us there. Now if we could only get the Muslim terrorists and Islamist suicide bombers to agree with that!

    Thanks again for your comments.

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