Can Europe Make It?

Charlie Hebdo, and being non-European

Being European is a form of life beyond ethnicity, religion, skin color, or sex; it is a peculiar ontology that is open to everybody, that is an achievement of world history. 

Firat M. Haciahmetoglu
19 April 2015
London crowd.

London crowd. Flickr/Ant Jackson. Some rights reserved.Charlie Hebdo reminds us that life is much more complicated than the simple contrast between the bad guy, “the Islamist,” vs. the good guy, “the European”.

Left and Right

The Political Left always points at something “beyond,” or more precisely, “beneath” this simple picture where the truth proves much more complicated. The power of the arguments of the Left is hidden in premises with which the great majority of European people are assumed to agree.

Thus. It is indeed a simple “postmodern fact” that those Islamists who killed eleven people were not born killers. As we all start from zero, from pure nothingness and contingency, it must be concluded that there could be no unchanging, perennial, ahistorical essence in this world. If they “could” kill those innocent people just because they depict something, for them, wrong, then something external must have made them that way.

We are all born innocent. If we agree on this point, then this massacre only raises the one question of how and why a human being reaches such an extreme point in depravity that he can commit such a barbaric crime.

These assumptions allow Slavoj Zizek, in his article on this precise issue, to claim that “those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism."

For the Left, the pure givenness has never been enough, as what is given is taken to be a material construction. Hence, if we really desire to resolve this mess that is growing day by day at the borders of Europe, we have to think more deeply, indeed “critically”.

The keyword here is “critical” which, within the European context, always-already entails a peculiar prefix, namely, “self”. Self-criticism is the glorious tenet that marks the ontology of European Leftists; it is not only the “natural disposition” of the Left towards the world, but also its selfish obsession that it cannot give up – an issue we will come back to later. 

Having discerned responsibility not in the Islamist perpetrators but in the larger picture, the Left urges us to desist from Islamophobia, fascism and any kind of essentialism about the Other; and it struggles to keep the multicultural ideal alive.

The Political Right, on the other hand, is not as “simple” as historically the Left takes it to be. It is not that they do not grasp the contingency of our beginnings. Yet, the Right still misses something that the Left so benevolently embraces. People on the Right are bereft of self-criticism; they are in love with their own image in a world where anything non-European serves only as a justification for this well-deserved narcissism. For them, if Charlie Hebdo, or any such event, raises any question at all, it can only be the one that leads directly to a reinforcement of their self-love. So, the Right will simply wonder, “Why can’t they become just like ‘us’?”

If there is no essence, or, as Sartre puts it, if existence precedes essence; and, if, consequently, you are the one who chooses what you are to be, then why would you like to be like them? Look at them, at how inferior they are, how barbaric, how ugly they are? Just be like “us”, accept “our” supremacy.

Notice how the word “us” takes on an insidious twofold sense here. You will become like “us”, but you ought not to forget the original. You ought to be grateful to “us” that “we” have accepted you into “our” community.

The Right accepts the contingency of beginnings only to the extent that this very acceptance proves the strength of their unique history which in spite of this absurd arbitrariness could built something tremendously meaningful and unique out of what it was that made “us” ‘Europeans’ and them ‘non-Europeans’.

The randomness of the singularity therefore only reinforces the unparalleled stability of western history; after all, it is Europe that epitomizes the highest peak that humanity has ever reached, not the Middle East, not China, and not India.

We have the Right and the Left with their own peculiarities; man may not have essence, but doctrines, ideologies and political positions inevitably do. This is the “general panorama” of Europe that is full of repetitions and no more reductive than any representation would be.

non-European Europeans

However, it is not my aim to discuss in this essay for or against the Left or the Right; that has been done abundantly by many authors, much more extensively and professionally than I can. What I would like to point out here, rather, is something that does not yet exist in this general panorama even though it is there. Along the lines of Gayatri Spivak’s famous question “can the subaltern speak?”, I will try to reveal something whose existence is denied not only by the Right but more arduously and surprisingly by the Left. This “something” is a concept which is not my creation, but it is already there, given, created by history. Let me call it “the non-European Europeans” and ask: “can non-European Europeans exist?”

In order to understand what this concept signifies, we must, first of all, understand how thousands of people can join IS, not only those whose lives have been shattered by the chaos American forces visited on the Middle East, but also those who were in the periphery of these events, and, therefore, in a sense, lack the direct justifications to join any radical organization, but nevertheless, choose to do so.

I refer to those hundreds of European citizens who went to Syria to join IS. But I also include those moderate people living in relatively liberal Muslim countries who one day decided to join IS. Or, let me put it in this way, I register the silence of the “innocent” Muslim people before the phenomenon fundamentalist, extremist, or jihadist – the violence that takes whatsoever form. Without noting this silence, we can neither understand the attack on Charlie Hebdo nor discern what is so crucially missing in this picture.

This silence is the restlessness of hypocrisy. It is the inquietude of hypocrisy that pushes people into the arms of IS and of any other fundamentalist groups. Precisely, it is the hypocrisy of being in the middle of modernity and tradition. The latter can be Islam or anything else; that is not what is decisive here. Rather, the problem is the unbearable split of being two different people in one, single body: it is a conscious schizophrenia. It is suffering. It is not being able to know what you are, the ultimate loss of your integrity, consistency, and self-attachment; an uprootedness that floats in the middle without finding any secure corner for itself.

Hence, there is a spectre of hypocrisy hovering above the non-western world. And one can claim that the home of this spectre is the Middle East: the counter-image of a Europe that Edward Said extensively analyzed from Aeschylus to the twentieth century. 

The ultimate force behind any fundamentalist organization in the Middle East is therefore the breakdown of this hypocrisy; the moment that the non-European man recoils: “Enough, I cannot bear this!”

This existential collapse is followed by taking shelter in the nearest form of integrity that one can find; and the crux of the problem is that there is only one choice which has integrity in the Middle East, and it is offered by fundamentalism. In other words, there is only one resolution of the conflict between tradition and modernity. The split, the subjective reflection of this conflict, is what fundamentalist groups such as IS exploit to the letter. They know that the more pressure the world exerts on Muslims, the more people will join them.

What is right or what is wrong is secondary in this dialectic; first comes the existential anguish that non-European man suffers from. And just to emphasize: it is not an anguish arising from the plenitude of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the scarcity of reality hits him hard and cracks his ontology.

Coming back to our concept of the non-European European. This is the other pole of this equation; the split resolved in favor of (post)modernity; the integrity that is found in European values. However, despite the fact that IS signifies an absolute hatred towards the West, the non-European European does not bear an unconditional love for the West, for being European does not necessarily mean self-love and narcissism. And precisely on this point, not only the Right but also the Left fails to realize what it is to be a non-European European.

Being superior to the Other

Let me begin with the political Right which, at first appearances, seems surprisingly more open to this concept than the Left is. However, behind its alleged openness hides yet another hypocrisy. The Right does not care about the Other qua Other, or, it cares insofar as the Other satisfies its own desires.

There is a predominant, almost a “natural” sense of superiority in the political Right of Europe. The Right will welcome non-European Europeans indeed, but only in order to hear the echoes of its own supremacy, to fortify its edifice.

It is not the Other here that exists; rather, it is the European ego that appraises itself by mediating itself through itself while acting like it is the Other; that is, the Other is just a means to intensify the satisfaction of being superior to the Other.

Hence, the non-European European exists insofar as it serves the desires of the “original” European. In a word, there is neither equality nor solidarity with the non-European European on the Right. There is pure submission, if you like to be like “us.”

What about the Left?

The situation is much more subtle when it comes to the Left. The hypocrisy is well hidden behind the good-will of the Leftists. This good-will takes the form of “self-criticism” here. The Left loves and rejoices in criticizing itself, i.e., the West. There is a striking similarity here with the Right: while the Right falls in love with the image of itself, the Left is seduced by the flaws in this image. The former loves the beauty of itself, the latter loves the ugliness of itself, for the beauty cannot be criticized.

This will to criticize is yet another form of European ego, but this time, it talks not only for those who claim to be European, but, for everyone around the world, from the farmer working in a rice field in Asia to the fisherman in a village in the Middle East.

The Left loves to announce: “this is all because of the West!” Notice how everything Other has been eliminated from the picture. Everything is because of the West. “How ugly we are, and yet how seductive this ugliness is that we cannot do anything but criticize.” If there is a problem in this world, it should be “our” problem. If there is a responsibility for all the evil in the World, it has to be “us.”

Discern the obsession here, the masochistic pleasure of being ugly, the same enormous European ego that has been turned upside down. It is hard to decide if the Left in fact desires a solution at all; or if it rather indulges in the problems. With its “Grand Theories” in its inventory, ingenious eclectic capabilities and superior logic, it relishes being the one who develops yet another magnificent piece of explanation of what is wrong with the world, what is wrong with “us”.

The Left is a site for one-man shows. It seems to me that the people suffering in the Middle East are received by the Left with a sly smile as yet more material that they can deconstruct, psychoanalyze; and show the world how brilliant they are in their analyses.

Just like with the Right, in this picture too one cannot encounter the Other. The Leftists would disagree here, they would claim “’we’ are the ones who support the rights of Muslims and all Others. Furthermore ‘we’ already are listening to Muslim intellectuals and the Third World.”

But notice again the twofold sense of the word “we” here. The question, on the other hand, is not if Muslims can talk. The whole world is waiting for them to talk, for them to say something, anything. And, indeed they talk. If what they say is not intelligible or does not bring any change, the problem lies somewhere else.

The subject here is not Muslims; for not all non-westerners have to be that or this. There is “more” than what Europe wants to see in the Middle East. Let me put it even more simply: not everybody who was thrown into the Middle East has to be a Muslim, or, to be crushed under European confession. The non-European European is not the Other that the Left supports and communicates with; it is the Left itself, it is Europe itself. An insidious exclusion is at play here.

Let me illustrate the problem with a metaphor. Imagine that Europe is a cottage. A small, beautiful cottage. The non-European European is doomed to hover over it. Whenever she gets too close to the door, the Leftist comes out (not the Rightist!) with a friendly smile on his face. He stands next to her, puts his arm on her shoulder and begins to tell her how ugly in fact this cottage is! How cruel, how merciless, how brutal, how savage… He explains to her one by one – and he explains quite well – why she should never ever desire to go inside. He convinces her and after ensuring that she has returned to her purposeless wandering, with a smile, he goes back inside.

Yet, she is stubborn, stubborn to exist. She comes back to the door, and in the blink of an eye, the Leftist appears next to her again. He starts repeating himself; she interrupts him and insists, “but I want to see! I belong there!”

Then things get serious. The hospitality of the Leftist suddenly turns into a restive hostility; he begins with accusations: “You are Islamophobic, you are a neo-liberal, you do not respect difference. How could you desire to be like us? Are you sick?”

The “Europeanness” of the non-European, this eagerness to be a part of the ugliness, is what the Left cannot bear. It loves to hate itself, it has dissolved so hard in its love that it cannot share the slightest part of it. If someone will hate himself, it can be no one but the European. Let the Leftist hate himself also for you, for all humanity. You should not be contaminated by the West. “We” spare you, run as fast as you can, let us tackle this enormous problem; after all, “we” created this: it is all “us.” Hence, the non-European European does not, cannot exist for the Left. In its obsession with the beauty of its ugliness, the European Left is one of the most conservative constituencies of Europe. The hypocrisy here, as with everything else the Left does, is “impressive.” It denies the existence of the Other for the sake of the Other while celebrating its own existence. This is how similar the Left and Right become in the face of the non-European Europeans.

In short, it is indeed correct that everything that happens in the world is about the West. But the West is not only about the West. Being European is no longer a geographical destiny. It is rather a form of life beyond ethnicity, religion, skin color, or sex; it is a peculiar ontology that is open to everybody, that is an achievement of world history.

The non-European Europeans are the culmination of this fact. The concept itself is a contradiction that conveys the collapse of any essentialist claim.

The non-European European is not an autonomous puppet that the “genuine European” keeps close to itself in order to remind itself of its own superiority. It is as “European” as anyone who claims to be so without feeling any obligation to show its gratitude. There is no generosity of “original Europeans” here. Nor is the non-European European a puppet who has to wait for its great European masters to cut its ropes and set it free. It can speak for itself, the whole drama unfolds around her or him; it can and must criticize itself. It also has responsibilities, freedom and morality.

Hence, the non-European Europeans exist, whether Europe likes it or not. And if Europe wants to change anything at all, it should start acknowledging this fact and recognize their existence

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