Nada Moumtaz | An Ethic of Cultivation, An Ethos of Engagement

By Nada Moumtaz

I would like to think with you about a theoretical question that I encountered in my research on Islamic charitable endowments in Beirut. It is a question about how arguments are won, and specifically about the place of reason and authority in argumentation.

Authority, as Arendt reminds us, precludes both violence and persuasion. In the first place, authority precludes violence, since the use of force indicates authority’s failure to compel. And in the second place, authority precludes persuasion because persuasion assumes equal relations and argumentation, and this contradicts the assumption of hierarchy that is necessary to authority.

Authority therefore, as Arendt writes, operates at a different register, through an “inner binding.” It functions through structures of feelings and dispositions that allow one to recognize the truth of certain claims and compels a person to obey them. Given that such pre-conscious registers are always at play, they bear on how we, as scholars inhabiting the world of argumentation and debate, bring particular dispositions to our analysis, here for example to the analysis of the Arab uprisings. What makes these uprisings revolutionary or not, depends not only on how we understand revolution, but also on structures of feelings based on what appears to us as self-evident truths.

Now, in my own research, I came to think about the question of authority when I was looking at a debate among Muslim religious scholars about whether charitable endowments (waqfs) dedicated to the family of the founder were an Islamic institution or were not. At first blush, the scholars appear to be divided into traditionalists—those who deploy and appeal to reasoning deriving from sacred texts—and modernists—those who deploy and appeal to economic reasoning. However, looking closer at arguments over the question of “are family waqfs an Islamic institution?” I noticed that scholars on both sides of the debate drew their opponents into the orbit of their claims not by changing these opponents’ thinking at its root; rather, they “won” these arguments by using rhetorical devices that played on the very truths that their opponents took for granted.

For example, in one instance, a traditionalist scholar challenged his opponent on the grounds that his argument reflected an ignorance of Islamic legal methodology. This opponent, rather than claiming this challenge was irrelevant on the grounds that economic sciences were the more valid method for such a determination, responded by defending his own ability to speak authoritatively about Islamic law. In other words, despite taking a “modernist” position in this particular debate, when he responded to this challenge he cast himself as a Muslim scholar who was trained in the tradition, who recognized the truth-claim of the knowledge needed to derive law, and who recognized the methods of deriving it, thus reflecting his agreement as to the truth of the Islamic tradition, and his agreement that misuse of legal method was valid grounds for critique.

Likewise, in my research into this debate over how to characterize family waqf, I found a similar move operating in the opposite direction. Challenged by modernists on the grounds that their arguments reflected an ignorance of the terms of economic discourse, traditionalists responded not by dismissing that discourse as invalid, but rather, by crafting rebuttals in that idiom. In this manner, they expressed themselves as scholars interpellated by economic discourses, who recognized truth-claims related to those discourses.

As these examples show, both economic sciences and the Islamic tradition were authoritative for members of both camps. But, returning to Arendt, they most importantly demonstrate how authority itself figures at a certain remove from the realm of coercion or persuasion, and how, to quote Connolly, when we talk about authority we are discussing “visceral modes of appraisal” (1999:27).[1] Authority appeals to an embodied recognition of truth, to sensibilities and to affect. And thus it becomes important to examine the emotions at play in and undergirding argumentation, because they reveal deep-seated assumptions about what we recognize as true, and allow for a discussion that acknowledges the limits of rational debate.

The significance of affect and “self-evident truths” in analysis is sharply illustrated in the affective underpinnings of the discourses of analysts of the revolution in Syria, in particular in the contradictions of the discourses of the anti-imperialist left with regards to American intervention, in reactions to two distinct events: the Ghouta chemical attacks, and the ISIS siege of Kobani. As scholar Gilbert Achcar notes, while the discussion of American intervention in Syria in the aftermath of the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013 led to a strong opposition from the anti-imperialist left, the US strikes and dropping of weapons to break the ISIS siege of Kobani and its coordination with the Kurds was much less contested (Achcar 2016:49-50).

In these arguments against US intervention after Ghouta, US intervention is portrayed as fueling escalation, going to “jihadist” groups, and aiming at regime change that would benefit a wide range of American geopolitical interests, including isolating Hezbollah and Iran. The emotional charge running through this discourse is evident in the many moderated debates on the Syrian revolution that devolved into shouting matches. I myself have seen friendships break and families feud over this topic. This knee-jerk anti-imperialism encapsulates the engrained sensibilities, which arise from a long and real history of American imperialism. From the Vietnam War, to the invasion of Iraq, to the toppling of leftist regimes in Central and Latin America, the truth of US imperialism is certainly beyond a doubt. Richard Falk, for instance, invokes this history with regards to the Middle East: The US’s “role in Iraq and Syria—much less, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere in the region,” he argues, “figures into an overall strategy of dominating the region and supporting highly reactionary forces in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia.” Given that history, he continues, Kobani presents a “tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East.”[2] Anti-interventionism is not only a reasoned choice based on this conception of history, but also a visceral reaction of those who spent their lives fighting imperialism.

While this visceral anti-imperialism makes perfect sense, the arguments for anti-interventionism elide the massive disproportion of force between rebels and government forces,[3] equate the Syrian opposition with Islamic terrorism, and above all, as Yassin Hajj Saleh has argued, render American geopolitical interests the determining lens through which to assess Syrians’ actions. These arguments also highlight what anthropologist Fadi Bardawil identifies as the resurgence of “the fraught politics of internationalist solidarity between Leftists in the Metropole and revolutionaries in the peripheries,” along the lines identified by Aimé Césaire’s critique of the French Communist party. Should the Syrians abandon their revolution because the US is supporting it for its own geopolitical agenda? Does having “strange bedfellows” as Lila Abu Lughod aptly called it a sign that the project itself has been co-opted? What about then the bombing of ISIS, is that not aligning with America’s war on terror? Should the Kurds abandon their fight for an independent state because the US is supporting it?

A good point of comparison for the analysis of the Syrian revolution with regards to such choices, as Yasser Munif argues in a conversation with Fanon scholar Nigel Gibson, is Fanon’s take on Algerian liberation movement’s choice and its relation to cold war. Gibson argues that, for Fanon, the cold war was a “whirlwind sucking the independence movements into this kind of either or situation… For him, it was about Algerian liberation. That was the measure.” Even though the Syrian revolution was not undertaken under the banner of anti-colonial/ anti-imperial liberation, if one sees the national elite and the al-Assad regime as a continuation of this colonial order (through its failure to achieve liberation for most of its people and its use of colonial rhetoric in its depiction of rebels as “terrorists, fanatics, barbarians, the uncivilized” and as Bashar al-Assad termed them “germs” (jarāthīm)), Fanon’s analysis of the FLN and its relation to the cold war powers suggests that the main measure should be the liberation of the Syrian people, and that the question of imperialism should be deferred.

To come back to anti-imperialism and its affective pull, one wonders then about the reasons for very different levels of mobilizations of many on the left to American intervention in the case of the Kurds of Kobani and to that of the Syrian revolutionaries, when both these interventions are forms of American imperialism. The different reactions of many on the left seem to hinge on the kinds of projects these groups are perceived to have and the sympathies they elicit. The Kurds of Kobani, who have a distinct vision from the Iraqi Kurds, follow the leader of the PKK (the Kurdish Worker’s Party based in Eastern Turkey), Abdallah Öcalan, who has abandoned the project of a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired by the work of Murray Bookchin, he has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism,” calling for Kurds to create “free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy” (Graeber in the Guardian). In his vision, the liberation of women takes a central stage, and so do environmental concerns. After the retreat of the Syrian regime from Rojava in July 2012, there was a chance to implement this vision. Here is how an article in Dissent Magazine describes the three cantons making up Rojava:

The district commune is the building block of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level.

Such a vision certainly resonates with leftist sensibilities, mine included, and it is no surprise that leftist news outlets ran extensive reportage on Rojava. Anthropologist and anarchist political activist David Graeber brings his family history’s involvement with the Spanish revolutionaries during the 1936 civil war to rally people to the cause of Kobani. “But some of the similarities [with the Spanish revolutionaries] are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.” This is an ethical plea arising from, and expressed in, the affective language of a deeply felt identification with the Kurds of Rojava.

On the other side of the spectrum, the epithet used to critique supporters of the revolutionaries against Bashar al-Assad exemplifies the sensibilities at play in the case of the Syrian revolutionaries, who are often described as “al-Qaeda supporters.” [4] Such an appeal to the self-evident truth of the evil of Islamic “radicalism,” with its project of an Islamic state and the imposition of a patriarchal Islamic law calls for us to examine the foundations of this assumption. Before moving to the revolutionaries’ practices, I would like to turn to the other factor informing assessments of the revolution, and our understanding of revolution.

The modern concept of a revolution, as Koselleck shows, supposes the “repeated contamination of revolution and evolution” (51) and the idea that the “objective of a political revolution should be the social emancipation of all men, transforming the social structure” (52). In the case of the Arab uprisings, Asef Bayat, who has always provided us with a nuanced understanding of Islamist politics, argues that the Arab uprisings were revolutionary in their mobilization but not in outcome. They “brought little structural change… were poor in vision and strategy of transformation; … they were concerned more with democracy, human rights, and rule of law than allocation of property and distributive justice” (18). As democracy, human rights, and rule of law belong to the realm of politics, Bayat proposes then that these uprisings were not revolutionary because they did not call for social change. They were purely political revolutions.[5]

Could we nonetheless see these uprisings as revolutionary in what Simona Forti in her blogpost has described to be a minoritarian tradition based on Arendt? For Arendt, the trinity of authority, tradition, and religion, which gave political authority legitimacy since Romans, started to collapse in politics with secularization, with the separation of (religious) authority from (political) tradition. However, Arendt considered the revolutions of the 18th century a continuation of the concept of tradition because they could create new foundations based on the experience of freedom. Nonetheless, none of these revolutions could establish authority as the Romans understood it because both religion and tradition had been lost. Indeed, for Arendt, the problem is how to live together when tradition and religion do not exist, “without the religious trust in a sacred beginning and without the protection and therefore self-evident standards of behavior” (141). That is why these revolutions of the 18th century did not succeed, according to Arendt, and authority could not be re-established.

Instead, violence replaces authority. As Talal Asad argues, the foundation of modern nation-states assumes the necessity of violence because of its conception of progress and freedom. In his words: the dominant tradition of political authority today “makes the people—the nation—sacred as an eternal subject and … claims that national memory (recovering the past) and the people’s will (making the future) are functions of one and the same national subject” (183). This echoes Koselleck’s prognostic (highlighted by Forti) that the ‘progressive’ character of modern revolutions aimed at total emancipation turns the revolution into a permanent one justifying violence and thus turning into totalitarianism. Egypt’s revolution provides an especially poignant example of that descent into violence and totalitarianism, as analyzed by Talal Asad especially with regards to the Rabʿa massacres.

Distinctly from Arendt, Talal Asad locates the problem of violence within the nation-state, partly because the nation-state’s concern with the social and the economy. In the Syrian revolution, because political freedom was not coupled with the control of nation-state, it was instead exercised in a different domain. Activists got together in coordination committees, tansīqiyyāt, which divided labor based on skills from media, to mobilization, to humanitarian work and politics (Saleh 2016:154). Furthermore, Bashar al-Assad’s collective punishment of rebel towns through siege, cutting off electricity and water, in addition to air strikes, have forced people in these towns to organize and find creative solutions to continue living: from digging wells to producing fuels from plastic to mechanical contraptions to generate electricity.[6] Under these conditions, with no competition from the state to order life, Islamic tradition could form an important resource for ordering living together. The collective Friday prayers for instance provided a spontaneous mobilization (and were used in both Egypt and Syria to initiate large demonstrations). Such initiatives create conditions for new ways of doing things and for embodying new traditions, especially when they have to be maintained for many months and even years. This is not just a few weeks in a square. This is about sustaining daily life, and learning how to live with others and inhabit the world differently. It is about developing particular sensibilities and affect —despite the savagery of the regime.

Being attentive to sensibilities and affect reminds us that the success of arguments does not rest only on reason. It might help us move beyond the strong inclination to try and provide better arguments or a space of debate as a way to “convince” people (like Trump supporters). Given that such preconscious registers are always at play, I cannot but agree with Connolly, that instead of the “Habermasian ideal of a consensus between rational agents who rise above their interests and sensibilities, you might substitute that of ethically sensitive, negotiated settlements … while jointly coming to appreciate the unlikelihood of reaching rational agreement” (35), along with an ethic of cultivation (to attenuate neurophysiologically induced panic from difference) and an ethos of engagement (with others with different sensibilities).


[1] For Connolly “complex registers of persuasion, judgement, and discourse” are at play in the public sphere, the epitome of “secular reason.” Such pre-discursive, instinctive, registers of being are usually taken to be the preview of “religious faith,” but, based on neurophysiological evidence, Connolly shows that emotion dominates thinking and is not very easily deactivated. Here, Connolly extends to the domain of the secular the arguments of Talal Asad (1993). The question of secular sensibilities and the secular body has been taken up by anthropologists like Mahmood (2001), Hirschkind (2011), and Agrama (2012).

[2] Falk ends up arguing that anti-interventionism should be held even in the case of the Kobani and ISIS.

[3] As Fadi Bardawil has argued, such “balanced objectivity,” which has been a staple of the discussion on Israel and Palestine, “obscures the differences between the scale and types of violence experienced by both parties.” The regime not only has command over airspace, but can also use “subtle structural violence” from cutting off cities from the electricity grid to refusing to provide or renew passports.

[4] I am interested in the rhetorical force and use of the accusation despite its blatant inaccuracy.

[5] Bayat argues that the slogans of ʿeish and ʿadāla igtimāʿiyya were coopted by the political class and only paid lip service to it; they did not turn into an agenda (2017:175)

[6] A brilliant intervention with regards to the sustenance of such necessities has been the work of Syrian architect Khaled Malas and the collective Sigil in a series of projects titled Monuments to the Everyday. Combining art installations in various art exhibitions in Europe and the Middle East  with infrastructure projects in Syria, involving people in besieged areas, these projects have allowed the development of new kinds of alliances and collaborations between unlike people (urban/rural, expatriates/locals, bourgeoisie/workers and peasants). Whereby the result of the revolution is also the remaking.