Monday, July 21, 2014

Is Another Middle East Possible? Hope, Negation, and the Rebirth of the Individual

Dr. Saladdin Ahmed
Guest  contributor, Dr. Saladdin Ahmed, received his Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa.  He taught in the Political Science and Sociology departments at the University of  Duhok during the 2013-2014 academic year.  He is working on a book entitled, "The Destruction of Aura and Totalitarian Space."

In the most hopeless of times, seeking hope becomes ever more meaningful.

Whose hope, or hope for whom? Obviously, in a world so divided, after such long histories of suppression and exploitation on racist, male chauvinist, and economic bases, one group’s dream could very well be another group’s nightmare. The unity of a nation from one perspective could translate to genocide from others, particularly for those whose existence or general will for whatever reason does not correspond to the imagined unity.

However, and regardless to the ethical plausibility or implausibility of any form of statehood, some forms of genuine peaceful co-existence must be kept alive as an Ideal to inspire a sane discourse in the midst of so many exclusionary discourses of hatred and denial. That is to say, there must be some hope for humanity as such, hope for peaceful coexistence without any specific group dominating other groups politically and economically in the name of a state, religion, sect, or nationality.

How could that hope be born? Hope should not be based on a dogmatic or psychological denial of the existing reality. Inevitably, however, in times like these, the more one, from a universalist point of view, familiarizes oneself with the reality, the less hopeful one becomes. Yet precisely because of this hopelessness and the subsequent need for hope, we need to be inspired by a philosophy of negation – as opposed to a mentality of denial.

In today’s Middle East, it is hard to find any group whose members do not feel underprivileged politically. Of course, that is not to say all groups are equally wrong or equally right in their outlooks. There are groups who have historically been on the oppressive side and other groups who have been unfortunate enough to be repeated victims of colonial borders, imperialist and nationalist enterprises, and racist or religious politics. 

Needless to say, these categories, oppressors and oppressed, are not mutually exclusive. Within each group there are oppressors and oppressed. Moreover, there cannot be a group of people who are metaphysically oppressors or oppressed. In fact, oppressors often legitimize their exploitation of Others on the basis of self-victimization drawn from some historical or mythological/religious circumstances.

After the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings of 2009, some shifts in ethnic and sectarian relations of domination took place. As a result, the superficial stability and security that had existed under the respective dictators in Iraq and Syria came to an end. 

From there, unlimited enmities that had previously been contained within the systematic violence of the state surfaced, and fanaticism fed into more fanaticism. Some found their historical opportunity for emancipation, others found their opportunity to take collective revenge, and still others tasted victimhood for the first time. The result, in short, has been something of a Hobbesian nightmare of war of all against all.

The only real way out of this climate of distrust and hatred in the Middle East does not involve borders, flags, gods, or the lack thereof.  A peaceful Middle East will only be possible when an individual’s sense of justice is not rooted in his or her sectarian identity and when each defends the rights of the Other.  Rather than submitting to collective self-victimization and demonization of the Other, individuals must learn to think autonomously and to hold themselves accountable for their own deeds.

Unless a day comes when Arabs defend the rights of Kurds, Turkmen defend the rights of Chaldo-Assyrians, and Muslims defend the rights of Christians, Jews, and other minorities, everyone will be a loser in the Middle East and barbarism will continue to thrive at the expense of the values of life and diversity.

Unless a day comes when men learn to become self-critical in terms of the male dominated present, that is a product of thousands of years of gender inequality, and to defend the rights of women precisely because they are not women, there can be no real hope even if racist and religious domination fade away.

Unless equality for all is guaranteed, there will always be an industry of collective identities to justify the economic exploitation of huge numbers of people.  As long as such exploitation continues, flags, holy books, and borders will continue to be organic parts of what sustains the current nightmarish reality.

As a mentality, the denial of the Other or her right to exist suffers from both ethical and intellectual deficiencies.  Ethically, it is based on sheer selfishness and egoism.  Intellectually, the mentality of denial strives for a one-dimensional world flattened by force, which is arguably the worst possible world for the intellect.

On the other hand, a philosophy of negation necessitates the existence of the Other as the only path to the sublimation of the self.  The Other is the mirror through which the self realizes its potentialities and its innovative role in the world.  As a mirror of the self, the Other is both the reflection and the negation of the self. By the same token, the self is the Other endlessly reflected and negated.  The result of this movement is a third entity that is neither the self nor the Other, but a more complete mode of existence capable of being a conscious creator of history, a bridge to better spaces and times.

As much as power is a cult in the Middle East, resisting its exercise, its sick creations, its culture, and its hierarchies is the essential method to demystify its cultic allure and begin imagining a freer world.  In traditions that value power in its most controlling and patriarchal versions, it is, of course, the most controlling individuals – those who fully submit to the power relations and the culture of oppression – that ultimately become the dictators of social space.  In short, bullies rule.

During my year in Iraqi Kurdistan as a university lecturer, I noticed a pragmatic bond between bullies on all levels, and with such a network of bullies in place, individuals with critical or simply autonomous personalities are systematically bullied in everyday life. These bullies use and are used by the ruling political party in each region, and these parties have therefore become the hub of individuals who seek special social privileges with minimal individual effort. As a result, the dominant social and political systems are structurally oppressive, anti-critical, and patently totalitarian.  In their normal functioning, these systems reward the worst and punish the best.    

When I started teaching at the University of Duhok, I quickly realized that the only way to avoid being a sustaining element of the existing totalitarian system was to methodically resist dominant social norms.  From day one, the bullies amongst the student body made their presence clear in their ingratiating behavior towards me as an instructor and their habit of speaking on the behalf of their classmates. 

These bullies were always male, from the ethnic and religious majority, and usually from families with ties to the ruling party accompanied by wealth and prestige. Whatever individual merits they possessed were never cultivated in their own right or for the sake of acquiring knowledge; their skills were rather reserved for playing power politics. 

Gradually, I also noticed that most of the rest of the student body sought to curry favor with the bullies in order to get by.  More disturbingly, these bullies were most of the students’ only effective communication channels to department heads and other administrators on various levels who themselves played the same games according to the same unspoken codes of domination. 

Being an uncritical educator in these circumstances simply would have led me to directly supporting a discriminatory system that was structured to punish free minds and reward bullies.  Vulgar forms of the exercise of power dictated all human interactions, so it would have been impossible to miss the structural violence the first victim of which was education itself.  As in most oppressive cases, I could not afford being hopeless.  Being hopeless would have meant being submissive to the existing reality, and giving up.

Being a Kurd and a man, in an environment where Kurdish men are the majority in terms of power relations, I found an ideal opportunity to put my philosophy of negation into practice. In spite of the historical atrocities and injustice Kurds in Iraq and elsewhere have faced, I openly criticized the shortcomings of Kurdish society, especially in terms of gender relations, refugee and minority rights, and freedom of expression. 

I rejected the common assumption that for a nation of victims, Kurds in Iraq are doing well.  By negating the common Kurdish discourse of victimhood and turning it on its head through self-critique, I was able not only to undermine dominant social norms, but also to create a space for self-reflection and creativity.  Through empowering the marginalized, including women and minorities, a different dynamic began to shape the learning space.  Fanaticism, sectarianism, male chauvinism, and racism – the plagues of today’s Middle East – gradually gave way to autonomous individual voices.

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