Being Human: An interview with Talal Asad

Courtesy of Talal Asad

Being Human: An interview with Talal Asad

Islam, the West, and our (shared?) responsibilities

Talal Asad (b. 1932) is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Asad’s work has played a major role in the study of Islam as far as including Muslim self-understandings of what Islam is and what it means to be Muslim. In this interview, Asad discusses Eurocentric notions of “humanity” and “civilization,” growing Islamophobia in Europe and America, and the violence committed with impunity by Western states — particularly the U.S. — previously and today.

Courtesy of Talal Asad

Hasan Azad: “Humanity” is finding itself at the brink of a precipice, which is entirely of its own doing, with the threat of complete environmental collapse and the sixth mass extinction (a group of scientists published a report in June predicting that, given the unprecedented rates at which species are becoming extinct, the planet is entering the sixth mass extinction as a result of human-made disasters). Now, more so than ever before in history, the notion of difference vis-à-vis the natural world and other groups of human beings has to be turned on its head into a recognition of a fundamental unity between all of us. What are your thoughts on this?

Talal Asad: Referring to the great achievements of the modern world — I’m going back to just after World War II — people would write about the great achievements of “European civilization.” At that time, as I remember it, everyone talked about European civilization — and even “the crisis of European civilization” that the world had gone through at the defeat of European fascism. (“European civilization,” “modern civilization,” or simply “civilization” were used interchangeably.) This was how the distinction was made between the most advanced part of “humanity” and the other parts that hadn’t reached its level. This is an old, old story, of course, one which has been retold many times, and occasionally criticized. But it also had this implication: “We are able to achieve these wonderful things and defend these wonderful values, not you.”

A friend of mine long ago used to joke whenever we were confronted with something technically sophisticated, saying, “You see how clever the white man is!” And so I’ve used that phrase quite often ever since: “You see how clever the white man is!” My point is merely that this was a common posture, a serious claim in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, and even just after World War II. The idea of European racial superiority was quite commonly associated with claims to inhabiting European civilization, which was, of course, the “highest.”

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Now, over the last few decades, as the various global crises have been accumulating — climate change, the threat of nuclear war as well as the dangers of nuclear energy, the uncontrollability of the global financial system, and so on — we now hear people saying things like: “Look at what humanity has done.” Now suddenly the subject is “humanity,” whereas originally, Euro-Americans had claimed: “Look at the stunning achievements of the West.” Because if you re-read the earlier writings, you see that everybody talked endlessly — well, perhaps not everybody but intellectuals, politicians and colonial governors — about the great achievements of European civilization, of the West. And it seemed quite reasonable to talk in these terms. Even many reformers in the Third World talked that way because they too had internalized the idea that growing scientific knowledge and military prowess were signs of moral worth. My point is simply that when it comes to global disasters, then it’s all of humanity. Suddenly we hear the claim that humanity is responsible — including, no doubt, the peasants in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the urban poor!

Hasan Azad: But in actual fact, it’s typically the West — the developed world — that is responsible.

Talal Asad: Yes. Having claimed all the wonderful things — or what people thought were wonderful — for one particular part of humanity, the West (or the Christian West), the looming catastrophes can be disclaimed by that very part as uniquely attributable to it. The focus is no longer on “the West,” it’s now all of humanity. All of humanity has brought about our troubles. And yet, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States that initiated the nuclear age was one of the worst things that has ever happened. It has not received as much attention as the Nazi genocide of the Jews in Europe. And yet the latter was not as much of a break in human history as the former; although its scale of mass murder was much greater, the destruction of European Jewry depended not on a leap in scientific knowledge but on the forced concentration of large numbers of human beings who needed to be eliminated for ideological reasons. The nuclear bombing killed a mass of children, women and men — and even non-human animals — living ordinary lives in an ordinary city. All were destroyed at one stroke. And that weapon was primitive compared to what is now available. A new and more precarious age in human history was inaugurated. This was not the achievement of humanity but of particular people armed with technological and ideological weapons.

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Incidentally, the claim is still being made that this was done to save millions of American lives. But it was really done — as a number of people who were part of the decision-making apparatus conceded — not for a humanitarian reason but for a political one: to demonstrate American power to the Soviet Union. My point is simply this: It’s all very well talking about the Western achievements in science and technology, and about the West’s unique moral values. The West is responsible for scientific discoveries, for inventing the steam engine, the radio, electricity, modern medicine, democratic government and universalism. When it comes to the dreadful possibilities that are now looming, then people want to claim that they are not just Westerners but essentially part of humanity. The agent responsible for a dark future has simply changed. More significant than that, perhaps, is that there is little sense that the modern world created by the capitalist West, despite its many achievements, is itself full of horrible possibilities. And I don’t just mean climate change and the threat of nuclear war.

Hasan Azad: The Global Rally For Humanity organized (what turned out to be largely unsuccessful) 20 rallies outside mosques throughout the U.S. on October 9 and 10. One of the main people behind these rallies is Jon Ritzheimer, a former U.S. Marine who led a “Draw Muhammad Contest” outside a Phoenix mosque in May. With the 2 million strong rally in France after the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, which sociologist Emmanuel Todd has called “an odious display of middle-class domination, prejudice and Islamophobia”; with British shock jock Katie Hopkins in April calling Syrian refugees and migrants “cockroaches” that need to be wiped out; with anti-Islamic “Reclaim Australia” rallies held in Melbourne in July, it seems that Islam and Muslims have come to represent all that is not “human” in the West. In your recent article, Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism, you trace a genealogy of the notion of “humanity.” One of the things you point out is the way in which, during World War II, “humanity” became a universal synonym for “Christianity.” You also mention how “The idea of difference is built into the concept of human.” What do you think is expected of Muslims/Islam for them to be fully integrated into this Euro-American notion of “humanity”? Is it possible? Is it even desirable?

Talal Asad: The notion of European civilization as the most progressive, the most ingenious, and the most productive civilization the world has ever known, already presumes a certain kind of hierarchy. And, to the extent that many people maintained in the past (and perhaps continue to do so in the present) that much of this is owed to Christianity, we have an imaginary construction and not one that is real. But this is certainly the way people thought of “humanity” in the 19th and 20th centuries, as being represented by its best and most forward looking, the most moral part of that totality. That implies a hierarchical relationship. And there may be some kind of perverted logic to wanting to share with the whole of humanity the disasters that are threatening the world on the grounds that “we are all one.” The threat is indeed to all humans, regardless of their differences. Yet animal life too is threatened with annihilation so “humanity” is not an adequate category here. Nevertheless, the inclusion of non-human animals as objects of annihilation underlines how absurd it is to make “humanity” the agent of global disaster.

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I’m not sure how far the notion of humanity can help morally and politically. I’m not persuaded that you need a clear notion of humanity in order to be able to behave humanely. A theory or concept even of humanity doesn’t seem to me necessary — or sufficient — for people to act humanely. What acting humanely depends on is learning certain forms of behavior, acquiring certain kinds of sensibilities, within various forms of life. I think one of the troubles with academics is that they are often — we are often — deluded into thinking that expounding a concept theoretically is always necessary for ethical behavior. I don’t think it is, because I don’t think we are able to control — I don’t think we have been very good at controlling the ways things go, in war as well as in the long-term development of social life generally. Thus famously, historians have shown how World War I emerged from a series of accidents and how the war itself eventually helped to produce a world that nobody actually intended.

I don’t know that there is a single question with a single answer as to whether Muslims should or shouldn’t integrate into some notion of humanity. I think that Muslims are clearly, at the moment, in a very difficult situation — well at least many Muslims are. I can’t claim I’m in a difficult situation. I dislike what I see and hear and read, but that doesn’t mean to say that I am in the same situation as a recent Muslim migrant in Europe or the U.S. who has very few resources, who has to face discrimination, hostility and even violence. And it’s true, Islamophobia is massively present in the “advanced part of humanity.” It is far more important at present than anti-Semitism. I mean there may be corners in which anti-Semitism can be found but I don’t think it’s any longer a real threat as it was in Europe under the Nazis — or even in North America prior to World War II. Whereas Islamophobia is, and it’s not inconceivable that violence may be used against Muslims in the West in a systematic way — not just in the way that Hungary is now treating the Syrian refugees, and not just in the way that neo-Nazis are doing in different European countries.

To come back to your question: I think Muslims in different countries, in different classes, are situated in different circumstances and have different problems. An educated person will be differently placed compared to people who are not educated, and who have just recently arrived in a country whose language they can barely speak. I don’t think that everybody’s condition is the same. It makes sense to talk about Islamophobia in a general way precisely because this hostility, this animus, is directed at an imagined homogenous alien within Europe.

I used to teach courses on the Middle East when I was in England, and I usually began by pointing out that several centuries ago, in medieval times, there were all sorts of people in Europe, including people with different religions, before Christianity became dominant in the entire population. So the question one should ask oneself is: Where is this multiplicity now? It was eliminated with the emergence of the modern state. In the Middle East, you still have by and large many religions, ethnicities, customs. But we too are going down that European road — which is why I think of ISIS as a modern movement despite its invocation of the caliphate, and not typical of Islamic history. Whether and if so, to what extent the modern state can accommodate great differences is an open question.

By the way, this brings up something by which I am often irritated: One may concede that the so-called Islamic State is doing monstrous things — just as the Saudi government is doing horrible things in Yemen, and the Egyptian government has been doing in Egypt — but then the Western media tells us (or at least suggests in the way it talks about things) that they are much worse than anything in America or Europe, evil beyond compare. I don’t know if you’ve been following the fate of this poor man, Richard Glossip in Oklahoma, a man condemned to death on the word of somebody else, the real killer, who claimed that he was given money and promises of a job by Glossip if he would carry out the murder (and in this way, he himself avoided the death penalty). Glossip has been on death row awaiting execution since he was convicted nearly 20 years ago. I cite this case to make the point that the death penalty here is as cruel as public beheadings in Saudi Arabia. I don’t think cutting off people’s heads is worse than keeping them isolated in uncertainty about their execution for years on end and eventually injecting them with lethal drugs that often result in extreme agony before they die. The extreme cruelty consists in the fact that you are deliberately and ceremonially killing somebody on the grounds that the state says they have to be killed lawfully.

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In order to condemn the kinds of awful things that are happening in the Muslim world, it doesn’t follow that what happens in comparable situations in the West is more moral. It seems to me just as bad, sometimes even worse. Saudis believe in punishing murderers by killing them publicly. They have no conception of execution being brutal or inhumane if it’s done in public. Liberals in the West say they believe in being humane, even toward criminals who are to be punished. But once the idea of punishment has been accepted, I maintain you are on a slippery slope. In many U.S. states, relatives of the murdered victim are entitled to witness the murderer’s execution and to get whatever satisfaction they can from their knowledge that vengeance has been taken. Half the time, people who claim to be liberals don’t know what they believe — or at any rate, they don’t realize that what they believe doesn’t correspond to what they do or to what is done in their name. Proponents of the Islamic State believe they are entitled to do the awful things they do because non-Muslims (and that includes even people who think of themselves as Muslims) must be eliminated. But Westerners do things that are as awful. There’s not much to choose between the two. It might be worth asking whether there isn’t something schizophrenic about people who, on the one hand, proclaim their commitment to “humanity” as their distinguishing value, and on the other hand, do the most awful things to human beings in the name of humanitarianism. At least others don’t think there is anything special about killing people whom we would consider to be innocent.

As to your question about how Muslims should act, well, different Muslims will have to develop different strategies in different countries, depending on their situation. There is no single answer. There cannot be a single formula for all Muslims. And there certainly shouldn’t be any attempt at a total isolation from the rest of the population. I think that, wherever one can, one should join with other people for the sake of acting together against injustice — in other words, injustice that is experienced by non-Muslims as well as Muslims. There are non-Muslims — African Americans, for example — who suffer from all kinds of deprivation and discrimination. I think there ought to be a sense of solidarity, a sense of possibility of acting together, with the poor living in dreadful situations, workers as well as the unemployed who are oppressed. Muslims should give them as much solidarity as Muslims as they can.

In other words, it is important not to surround oneself into a kind of laager [protective camp], where you can try to make yourself safe: that is the Zionist solution. You have your own little state (secured regardless of moral cost) and since the world is against you, you can forget about it. But of course, this only works if the important, powerful parts of the world are with you, if they give you help and protection. Zionists have the fantasy that Jews will be safe in their laager. Of course being safe in this way (protected by the great powers and living near a subordinated population of untermensch [underman]) is a perfect recipe for a fascist mentality. But one has to recognize that one is living with other people with problems that require solutions that cannot be devised by one group in isolation, and which cannot be devised in and by the modern sovereign state.

Wael Hallaq [an Islamic law scholar at Columbia University] is surely right to be skeptical of the modern state, although I’m not sure that Muslim citizens can level effective moral criticism at the modern state on the basis of sharia values. I don’t think we can do that because I don’t think the modern state, being what it is, is capable of responding positively to that kind of criticism — as Hallaq himself has suggested in [his book] The Impossible State. I think the modern state is a monster inextricably tied up with a national capitalist elite and a global political economy. But the modern state does exist (however contradictory and “impossible” it is) and it’s not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. In theory, we can all imagine wonderful things, in theory, but to get to that utopia, or to specify how it will work in practice, is quite a different thing.

But the isolation of people from others only plays into the hands of people who benefit from hostilities and hatreds. It seems clear to me the isolation of Muslims from non-Muslims is a bad thing. You can’t have a simple formula for working against isolation. It’s something that people have to think through for themselves. The important thing is not to think of one’s people as supremely virtuous or as supreme victims.

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I don’t think that total assimilation is the answer either. That was the one thing I wasn’t entirely happy about in Emmanuel Todd’s excellent book on Charlie Hebdo [Who is Charlie?]. He thinks that some kind of assimilation of Muslim immigrants to “Frenchness” is the answer. Well, I’m not sure that that is so. In any case, the terms of assimilation need to be negotiated. They’re not easy to negotiate when one side has all the power. And therefore assimilation will never be simple. It could be something more sinister, as in the case of “assimilated” Jews in racist European societies in the first half of the 20th century. What is required is also a massive reform of the so-called host society. Without that there cannot be a complete answer to your question about how Muslims should try to be included in “humanity.” Another thing that is very disappointing, and I imagine it must be the case in England too, is the way in which many Muslim immigrants in the U.S. from Asia and the Middle East, or people who are of immigrant origin, relate to other excluded minorities — for example, African Americans in the U.S. I think that that is quite disgraceful.

Hasan Azad: It’s unbelievable, the racism that some Muslims have — without even realizing it sometimes — and it oftentimes comes out when a daughter will want to marry an African American, black man, who may be pious in every sense as far as Islam is concerned, but he’s black. It’s really disgusting.

Talal Asad: I agree. And I think a sustained effort has to be made to oppose this attitude. To the extent that we have the kind of states that we do have, that we are all citizens (refugees are a tragic exception in our time, vulnerable non-citizens, as [political philosopher Hannah] Arendt would say), we have also to try to work through the possibilities that are offered through the language and institutions, and relationships that exist within the states in which we live. The concept of citizenship requires that we think in terms of the responsibilities to one’s own community in relationship to other communities — and also as members of the larger community that becomes relevant to our collective life, not only the larger community within the nation state but across nation states as well. It’s very important. Even though we now have the nation state and we can’t see it disappearing, there are all sorts of relationships that transcend it.

I mean the Islamic idea of umma [community] is precisely not a bigger form of the nation, a kind of international nationalism embracing all Muslims. It is also an invitation to think ethically. In the Quran, there are several usages for the word “umma,” but none of them connects it to ideas of territory or polity. And that’s something that should push one to think further. It’s possible nowadays, with all the dangers that modern technology contains, to engage in forms of interaction — positive as well as negative — that have not been available in the past.

In other words, it’s important for Muslims to explore ways of relating in friendship among themselves as well as among non-Muslims. One way this might be done is through the Islamic notion of amr bil ma’ruf [enjoining the good] as an institution independent of the state. As a way of relating to equals and also to those in authority, amr bil ma’ruf enables reproach as well as advice. And although amr bil ma’ruf is primarily directed at other Muslims, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be extended to non-Muslims as well. The crucial thing is that it shouldn’t be an instrument of the state, a means of governance.

Hasan Azad: At the same time that Muslims and Islam are being questioned as to their humanity, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., Faisal bin Hassan Trad, was recently elected to chair the panel that oversees the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. Although the election was made in June, the story only made mainstream news in the past few weeks to a considerable degree of public outrage: How can a country that has “arguably the worst record in the world” on freedoms for minorities, women and dissidents chair the U.N.’s Human Rights Council? Commentators have called this appointment “a farce.” U.N. Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer has described it as “a victory for cheap oil over human rights.” It seems to me that the question is not whether or not Saudi Arabia beheads people (it has been pointed out that 100 people have been beheaded by the Saudi state this year alone), but whether it has the right to behead people. Of course “the State,” as [German sociologist] Max Weber teaches us, has the sole right to violence, which has accrued to it through a process of legitimation. And this is what differentiates Saudi Arabia’s beheading and lashing of dissidents from beheadings carried out by ISIS/ISIL. Saudi Arabia has the political legitimacy, while ISIS/ISIL does not. Would you care to comment on this?

Talal Asad: There are many things I don’t like about Saudi Arabia, and especially given the enormous amount of wealth that has accrued from oil. But I think, as far as politics is concerned in this world and international politics, nobody has clean hands. And when people talk about Saudi Arabia as uniquely horrid, they are being hypocritical. I mean the amount of horrible things that the United States has done for 200 years (if not longer) is at least as brutal as Saudi Arabia’s record. I don’t want to defend Saudi Arabia, but I don’t like the condemnation of Saudi Arabia to make people here feel good.

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And listen: We are a democracy. A democracy is a political organization in which its citizens are responsible for what their government does. Saudis do not live in such a state. They live in an autocracy. It’s the royal family that dominates everything, that controls national life by and large. Ordinary Saudis don’t. So ordinary Saudis are not responsible for what the Saudi state does — nor, for that matter, are all Saudis responsible for what some Saudis do. We still hear the story about most activists in the Twin Towers atrocity being Saudis, as though that told you what all Saudis were like. Do we hear the claim that all Americans are like the pathological shooters in school massacres? There are lots of ordinary people in Saudi Arabia who don’t approve of what happened on 9/11, and in any case, most of them aren’t able to do anything against their government.

I do feel horrified by what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen (supported by the U.S. and Europe). I find … this kind of ruthlessness unforgiveable, as the saying goes. Ruthlessness is not new in history, but with the use of modern weapons of mass destruction, war has become an indescribable horror. Think of land mines, cluster bombs, nuclear weapons. People who say they are liberals will not ban landmines or cluster bombs, and they won’t abolish nuclear weapons (used twice by the world’s greatest democracy). In fact, Western governments encourage the production of increasingly sophisticated killing machines and sell them to foreign governments. If you look at that alone, you must admit that we live in a horrid world. Still, there are redeeming features, even in this world: a lot of decent people who are willing to sacrifice their comfort and to risk their lives in the pursuit of justice.

So it is right to raise the question of hypocrisy regarding Saudi Arabia’s appointment to the chair of the Human Rights [Council]. It is hypocrisy, but when has hypocrisy been absent in international politics? What is the attitude of the United States towards Israel as it continually flouts international law and cruelly oppresses the Palestinians? Why is it that, except for [former Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic, every single person indicted in the International Criminal Court is either an African or an Asian, but not a European? Why are [George W.] Bush, [Dick] Cheney, [Donald] Rumsfeld and [Tony] Blair — who are responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of people and the making of millions of refugees, and the destruction of an entire country — immune from prosecution for violating human rights? Forget about [Barack] Obama, who authorizes killing by drones and assassination by Special Operations units and the continued imprisonment of innocents in Guantanamo and turning a blind eye on the use of torture. None of these politicians would ever be indicted. The United States has helped to engineer the coup against [Salvador] Allende in Chile in which thousands were killed, it has undermined the democratically elected government of [Mohammad] Mossadegh in Iran and restored the dictatorship of the Shah — and yet it would never be indicted. This is not a blame game. It’s a matter of saying: Stop pretending that the U.S. is a virtuous state, that it’s the defender of “humanity” and humane values. Stop suggesting that anyone who challenges its claim to moral superiority, its unqualified right to what it euphemistically calls “leadership of the world,” is guilty of blasphemy.

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