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On recognizing our ethno-religious prejudices: a preliminary conceptual analysis

After many years of suppression, Syrians were able to bring these issues to light and engage in serious public debate. العربية

Translated by: Ahmed El-Amine

This article by Husam Eddin Darwish forms part of a special series focused on Oral Culture and Identity in Syria.

It is the outcome of an ongoing partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy’s North Africa West Asia in a bid to untangle the roots of sectarian, ethnic and other divides in Syria.

It is fashionable to talk about the existence of at least three basic taboo themes in Arab-Islamic culture, namely: religion, sex, and politics. Although political taboos (eliminating tyranny, advocating democracy, exposing the corruption and flaws of the people in power) typically expose people to more and greater risks, politically employing moral and social values related to religion and sex renders anyone who does so in direct confrontation not only with society and religious authorities, but also with the political authority.

The intersection between these three taboos, stereotypically, is manifest in the taboos related to religion, sect and ethnicity. At first glance, sectarianism appears to be primarily linked to religion and to the existence of multiple sects. However, as Joseph Daher clearly points out in his analytic essay entitled ‘Popular Oral Culture and Sectarianism, a Materialist Analysis,’ it is, in fact, a political phenomenon and an instrument used by politicians more so than being a religious phenomenon produced by religion or religiosity.

The testimonies published in this file have shown a strong link between both religious/sectarian taboos and sexual taboos. Each sect’s stereotypical image of other communities often contains negative sexual elements: this community worships the vagina, and this other community holds sexual parties where a person can have sex with his mother, sister or daughter, while in another community sheikhs have sex with their pupils and their followers, etc…

After many years of suppression — particularly in terms of sectarian, religious, ethnic, and regional discrimination —and in the context of the freedom enjoyed by the Syrians who have been displaced or have taken refuge outside of Syria and are no longer under the authority of the Assad state, Syrians were able to bring these issues to light and engage in serious public debate. On this basis, and on the basis of what Mohammad Dibo sees as a “tremendous resurgence of religious, sectarian, doctrinal, and ethnic currents that have overwhelmed the political and military landscape not only in Syria but also beyond,” we can understand why the website SyriaUntold opened the “The Oral Culture and Identity” special series “in a bid to untangle the roots of sectarian, ethnic and other divides in Syria.” 

In my reading of the texts published by the site in this regard, I will not attempt to directly address the sectarian, religious, or ethnic discrimination phenomena. Instead, I will focus on analyzing the act of addressing these phenomena in the published texts. Can we understand this act as a disclosure, recognition, confession, all of them together, or none of them at all? Does this act help us in having a greater understanding of these phenomena or does it merely highlight their negative aspects? Does this act actually transgress the prohibited? What is the prohibited specifically in this regard? What can this act hide in revealing the implicit and exposing the prohibited? Is it possible to distinguish between degrees and/or types of an act of transgression? In discussing some possible answers to such questions, I will try to express some of the most important ideas and impressions that these published texts/testimonies raised in me.

I would first like to point out that the ideas and impressions I will present are a reading of the published texts, as a whole, and not a reading of any particular text. When I point out an idea associated with a specific text, I will cite this reference, to clarify the link.

How to break the taboo?

It has become commonplace, perhaps to the point of vulgarity, to emphasize the importance of openly speaking about all forms of racism that exist in Syria and/or among Syrians in their thinking and behavior. In the current context, however, it is not very common to point out that breaking the sectarian taboo and opening up the Syrian “black box” can occur in a negative manner, leading to consequences that may be no less severe than the existence of the taboo itself. Therefore, we will pay special attention to the method by which a taboo is broken or is dealt with in texts or testimonies, the content of this taboo, and some of its significations, actual and/or possible consequences.

Racism, in this context, means not only giving priority to an organic belonging (belonging to an ethnic, religious, sectarian or tribal group, etc.), but to the theory and practice of belonging on the basis of negative discrimination against other groups. This contrast is the basis of racist thought, which transforms horizontal parallelism into a vertical hierarchy and in which the self-belonging of this thought occupies the highest rank, while the affiliations of others are cast as inferior and given lesser value.

Breaking the taboo as a confession

It can be said at first that the texts/testimonies include a "disclosure," or are mainly a disclosure. It is so because it reveals what was a secret, and what was discrete, and confesses what was muffled, and explicates what was prohibited. It is an act of venting out because it deals with what was bothering us and the reason behind us being bothered. The link between transgression and disclosure is what made Mohammad Dibo, in his introduction to the series, point out that participation is open to everyone who “finds the ability to disclose and transgress the taboo.” He did well in pointing out that, in the same context, writing, in this regard, requires transparency, clarity and honesty, as disclosure is not consistent with lying, concealment, or ambiguity.

But breaking the taboo and talking about it in the Syrian context is not limited to being a disclosure. It includes more, it includes an acknowledgement. It is a recognition of the existence of this or that negative aspect, it is a confession of what we are accustomed to denying. The confession is sincere, in terms of being a mere self-indulgence and by not denying a fact and a proven objective truth. From this perspective, it does not seem to surprise many to talk about sectarianism and its secrets, because, from their point of view, this includes a disclosure and recognition of what we generally know or expect in advance.

Breaking the taboo through disclosing and recognition is what we can call a "confession". Confession is what can perfectly combine these two things. The confession of racism does not appear to be far from those found in the symbols of texts of confession (e.g., the confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau). As with the concept of recognition, the concept of confession is used in the Arabic language when there is a disclosure of certain negatives: he confessed his crime, confesses to his mistake, confessed his guilt, etc. The funny exception, perhaps the only one, is that we usually link the expression of feelings of love and confession, saying “He confessed his love,” or as Wael Kfoury says “I confess that I love you…” This exceptional example reveals the strong connection between the concepts of confession and disclosure. Confessing love is a disclosure of feelings of love, and a recognition of the existence of such feelings is tantamount to a recognition of guilt. In a racist society, the feeling of love appears to be a full-fledged crime when it is addressed to a person belonging to “another group” in general. Confessing love then is a confession of a crime that cannot be forgiven many times. The fundamental question here is: How can we love those who hate us and we are supposed to hate them, or should we hate them?

The two discourses of transgression

If transgression through writing is an act of confession, what exactly are we confessing? We have said that confession involves a recognition of guilt or negativity. What are the negatives or sins that we admit to in our confessions that transgress racism? Who exactly has these negatives? Are all the speeches that speak of the existence of racism in Syria belong to what we called the “letter of confession?”

What we usually recognize in this regard is that racism exists and is widespread in Syria, to a great extent and at many levels. This has been the case for a long time, but it increased in the period following the revolution, to the extent that Mohammad Dibo emphasises that “religious, sectarian, doctrinal, and ethnic currents [...] overwhelmed the political and military landscape not only in Syria but also beyond.” Talking about “Syrian racism” can take two main forms: “racist discourse” and “self-critique.”

Racist discourse

The "racist" discourse is to say that there is strong racism in Syria, but it exists, in particular, or only, in the “other side” and “we” do not have it. According to this speech, on the one hand, the Sunni recognizes the existence of sectarianism in Syria, but believes that its reservoir and its main or most important source lies in other communities, the Alawite and Shiite communities in particular, and not the Sunnis. Meanwhile, the Kurdish community recognises the existence of ethnic racism in general, but does not see that it exists among Kurds, but is embodied, primarily, in the behavior, beliefs, and morals of Arabs and/or Turks, and directed towards the Kurds in particular. Similarly, the Christian points out the existence of religious racism but only sees it among Muslims. This discourse is not exclusive to any group but is shared equally by all groups, with secondary quantitative differences.

This racist discourse is at the height of its misery and degeneracy when it speaks of an essential racism in the other. The racist discourse of the “other” manifest in saying that the other’s racism is a result of their nature or the nature of their beliefs and/or culture, it is not a transient historical phenomenon that could go away but is a transhistorical part of the other’s essence. The Muslim is always fanatical and backward, and the Kurds are stupid and stubborn by nature, the Shiites are necessarily hateful and fanatic, etc., and if there are exceptions, they only confirm the rule and do not deny it.

This discourse is not a confession on the one hand, and may not be a transgression, on the other. It is not a confession, not even disclosure or a recognition. That is because recognition and confession necessarily entail that the sins the existence of which we recognize or confess are our sins. As for only talking about the racism of others, it indicates a racism in the discourse, and probably in the author as well. In this case, our words seem to expose us more than exposing others; they utter us more than we utter them, and they express us more than we express them. It may not be possible to classify this discourse as a transgression, if we know that, in principle or in practice, it is not forbidden or rare for any group to speak, among its members, of the negatives of other groups and their racism, inferiority, or oppression, while directly or indirectly emphasizing the positives, openness, progressiveness, and victimhood of their own group.

This discourse often does not play a significant (positive) role in the process of transgression. On the contrary, the racism of this discourse is often part of the taboo that needs to be critiqued, broken, transgressed and surpassed. Racism provokes racist rhetoric and, in the end, promotes the spread of racist discourse. Breaking taboos in terms of racial discourse means, the disclosure of the presence of this discourse in the stereotypical image that each group forms of the other groups. This is what the texts/testimonies tried to do, showing the extent of racism in the stereotypes of “Syrian groups” between each other.

The discourse of confession and self-critique

What is most important to us in our understanding of this “racist discourse,” in the present context, is that the transgression of taboos in this regard does not happen primarily by talking about the racism and negativity of the other, but precisely and particularly when it takes the form of confession: confessing our own racism, we who are confessing. This is precisely what appears to be generally the case in the second form of the discourse on racism, which takes the form of self-critique. But what is the meaning of self-critique, in this context? What exactly is meant by the self being critiqued?

The general meaning of critique is that it is a trial of a phenomenon, the discussion of its pros and cons, and the expression of an opinion regarding it, based on this balanced discussion, which not only focuses on positives, as in “praise or glorification,” nor on negatives as in “criticism.” In the testimonies, critique took the form of criticism for two reasons.

The first reason is that what the opening article of this “file” asks for, and the testimonies published in it, appear in the first instance, or more, to belong, not to critique, in terms of attention to the apparent concerns and negative aspects of the issue, but to criticism, i.e. to highlight the negative aspects of that phenomenon. What is required, in the testimonies/texts, is the criticism that is embodied in “exposing this” consciousness “with which we were raised.” The testimonies have responded to this direction, focusing almost entirely on denouncing racism and highlighting its negative aspects.

The second reason that rendered the critique, in the testimonies/texts of this file, take the form of criticism, is that the critique in question here is “self-critique” which by its very nature tends to be critical. Self-critique is practiced, usually or particularly, when there is a failure or the like, and the primary purpose is to look for the negatives that led to the failure, as a necessary step in trying to surpass or get rid of it or limit its influence. Self-critique often oscillates between opposite poles or perspectives: the pole of justification  and rationalization, on one end ,and the pole of self-flagellation on the other.

The perspectives of justification and rationalization

The critic, who adopts the perspective of justification and rationalization, confesses that the self has committed this or that mistake, and by having this or that negative aspect, but the confession is not but a secondary or symbolic step, intentional or not, to suggest to oneself or to others, that the critique is objective. But this confession is soon followed by a serious “but” response. The “seriousness” of this “but” comes from undoing whatever preceded it and any important meaning to it. Those who take this perspective often take the following defense mechanism: “there is some racism in our group, but it is only a contingent phenomenon that is a benign and light reaction to the racism of other groups.” Or “the Kurd has some racism towards Arabs and Turks but this racism is only a reaction to the Arab and Turkish political and cultural racism towards Kurds, and is not in line with its high morals and values.” This is an example of what a “Kurd” can say about Kurdish racism, from the perspective of justification and rationalization. It is clear that this perspective is closer to the logic of the “racist discourse” and its values and directions than to the logic, values and directions of the “self-critique discourse.”

As for the pole or perspective of self-flagellation, the logic of justification or rationalization is completely excluded, so that self-critique takes the following form: “we are very racist, and we (alone) bear the responsibility of this abhorrent racism.” It is necessary to point out here that the term “self-flagellation” is not synonymous with the term “critique or harsh criticism” since criticism can be harsh and/or strict, without being self-flagellating. What is meant by self-flagellation here is an over-exaggeration or darkness in criticism, in a way that the critique loses its objectivity and its possible positives, turning it into something like a ritual of slapping, moaning, and scolding? The criticism that takes the form of self-flagellation is a provoked act more than it is provocative. It is true that it is the nature of criticism to focus on the negatives, but that does not necessarily mean denying the existence of positives or exaggerating in describing these negatives and exaggerating the role of the self being critiqued or doing the critique. On this basis, one can say that the self-critique embodied in the formula of “self-flagellation” becomes itself a problem and an obstacle, rather than being, according to its supposed purpose, a diagnosis of a problem and an attempt at solving or moving beyond it.

Self-critique is situated between these poles or perspectives, or swings between them, without being identical to either. It is clear that these two perspectives should be avoided, on the one hand, and that it is difficult to do so, on the other. There is no clear and specific midpoint or location suitable to always be situated in, as there is a difference in the intensity of critique required or necessary or the presence of justifications between one case and another, and between a context and another. It is also clear that the emergence or appearance of any perspective or pole probably calls for the emergence of the other. In a more general sense, extremism is likely to produce counter-extremism. This is expressed physically by, “every action has a reaction that is similar in strength and opposite in direction.” The emergence of either direction is not only related to the actual emergence of the other, but to the emergence of a perspective that results from the very attempt to avoid the emergence of the other. For example, anyone who attempts to “self-critique” can easily fall into the trap of “self-effacement,” so one of their self-critiques may be to avoid falling into this trap. But this attempt may make them exaggerate the situation of justifications and rationalization, to the extent that they seem to adopt the logic of “discourse of justification and rationalization.” On the contrary, it seems natural that “self-critique” attempts to explain the existence of the phenomenon being critiqued; in the interpretation, there is often, at least, some justification, intended or not. A natural or spontaneous realization of this attempt drives many, who are engaged in the task of “self-critique,” to avoid the logic of justification and rationalization as much as possible. It is not rare that this leads them to fall into the arms of “self-flagellation.”

On the meaning of the critiqued self

A clarification of the concepts of critique and “self-critique” is not complete without a clarification of what we mean by “self” in this context. So what is the self critiqued in this context? What is the relationship of this self with the self critiquing? Attempting to answer these and similar questions can make a significant contribution to clarifying the different types and levels of acts of confession, as a breach of prohibitions and a transgression of taboos.

The self in self-critique is not, in the context of a critique of racist taboos, the same person who critiques. It is almost impossible to find someone who critiques themselves, confessing their racism. The phrase “I am a sectarian” seems to be as prohibited as saying “I am dead.” This type of confession is almost completely absent from the published testimonies/texts. And when present it is presented as something of the past and not the present or of the unconscious that the person is not responsible for. This is what we find, for example, in Mohammad Dibo’s incident where he had thought himself to have been emancipated from the inherited, only to be later surprised by his fear of a friend who belongs to another sect, just for belonging to another sect. In the present context, I will merely point out that the “confessed sectarianism,” in that text, belongs to the inherited unconscious, on the one hand, and to the past, not the present, on the other. It is thus possible to say that a person who recognizes his or her sectarianism is different from a person characterized by such sectarianism. Dibo goes on to deny his sectarianism to the point of leaving “the inheritance of the sect and of nationalities forever.” Beyond the skepticism of self-honesty here, I find it inappropriate both realistically and epistemologically to be definitive in such issues, not only in terms of the future (who knows what could happen to him, with him, and in him) but also in terms of the present. In addition, the discussion here relates to what is happening in the depths of the human soul and its delusions, and it is very difficult for one to be aware to the extent of being decisive about what is happening in the depths of his person and its delusions.

I will come back later to expand on the question of self-knowledge and judgment in relation to it. What is important, in the present context, is to emphasize once again that the self that a person critiques their self-critique, while transgressing racist taboos, is probably not the individual self. Racism and confession do not seem to intersect; the racist does not recognize their racism, and if they confess to it, they are non-racist by virtue of the confession, because they are unable to confess their own racism but the racism of others. This means that the racist does not necessarily confess, and they who confess, are not racist at all. This paradox reminds us of the Epicurean solution to the fear of death. Epicurus says: “A man should not fear his death because he never meets it.” When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not.” The paradox is that unlike the relationship between death and the self, where the impossibility of their existence together is positive, the almost complete impossibility, of the sectarian self and confession is negative, it is a very powerful and actual taboo that is very difficult to transgress.

A self that confesses its racism in self-critique is the collective self that the individual belongs to. This is what we are currently seeing in the context of any texts or symposiums dedicated to opening the Syrian racist black box, where each person focuses more on “exposing” the group to which he “belongs.” The Alawite speaks of the sectarianism of Alawites or a sect among Alawites, and the Kurd talks about the racism of the Kurds, etc. However if the critique, in the process of transgressing taboos pertaining to racism, is not directed to his person or personality as well, and only to the group that he belongs to, then to what extent would it actually be considered “self-critique”?

In the presentation of the file, transgressive writing “requires that one separates themselves from sect, ethnicity, or tribe, and provoking them for the sake of the human.” This means that the critic in this context is not self-critical. On the other hand, the presentation includes an indication to the necessity of resisting this task by “searching within themselves and within ourselves, to expose the consciousness that we were raised on, and which formed a part of our own consciousness, as an attempt to hold ourselves accountable and interrogating it. For the critic to search within themselves to hold it accountable means that the self is itself incriminated in this critique, qualifying it as “self-critique.”

Affiliation by lineage versus affiliation by enrolment

To clarify the problematic of the self and its relation with the critic, it is necessary to distinguish two types of belonging: affiliation by lineage and affiliation by enrolment. Engaging in self-critique means directing the critique to oneself or to the group to which one belongs by lineage or enrolment. By affiliation by lineage I mean involuntary affiliation, by birth and/or nature and/or society, to a group, and all of the ethno-religious and regional affiliations are within this framework: belonging to a group of males, or to an Arab nationality, a Christian religion, the Alawite sect, or the Druze sect, etc.. It is obvious that one’s affiliation with such groups is decided by birth and/or society and has nothing to do with my deliberation or will on the matter. Because the decision, in this regard, is not my decision. On the other hand, affiliation by enrolment has to do with one’s decision and free choices, at least partially and relatively. One’s voluntary affiliation to this school of thought or political or social group is not only related to their enrolment but may also be related to the groups they had previously belonged to by birth or society. The relationship between these two types of affiliation may be a relation of compatibility or a relation of difference and opposition. One’s affiliation by enrolment, however, to a group different than the one that they were affiliated with by lineage, does not undo my involuntary affiliation. Being the son or father of this or that person, and by being Syrian, Arab, and Muslim by birth, nurturing, and culture, partially and relatively, does not go away even if one rejected their father’s fatherhood, or rejected their child, and acquired another nationality, while feeling repelled by their Syrian nationality, using a different language, having a desire to forget Arabic, not believing in Islamic teachings and its foundational and collateral pillars, and enrolling in a different religious or non-religious group.

Affiliation by lineage reveals the limits of the will in this regard but also reveals the capacity of the will to take up a stance contrary to its involuntary affiliation by lineage to this or that group. Understanding the limits of the will and investing its capacity and abilities in this regard should be one of the existential, epistemological, moral, and perhaps even political foundations, upon which a self-critique that transgresses racist taboos should be built. The existential foundation representing a determined or involuntary foundation, i.e. that this affiliation by lineage is a part of the individual’s being and existence. The epistemological foundation, however, relates to the lineage often providing epistemological expertise that could be relied on in the process of confession or self-critique. This was obviously relied on in most texts/testimonies. The moral foundation is related to there being moral relations between one individual and those he is affiliated with by lineage. The political foundation emerges from any organization or political orientation based on relations of lineage (patriotism or nationalism, for example).

The aforementioned foundations do not mean that the person is inescapably condemned to their lineage, for partial and relative liberation from these relations is always possible, in principle at least. There is no doubt that transgressing racist taboos requires a certain degree of liberation, or what the opening article calls “dissociation.” But this does not mean that one can or is required to, completely dissociate. Without there being a minimal sense of affiliation and accepting or embracing this affiliation, transgression would not be able to take the form of confession or self-critique, and the formulation that it could then take oscillates, most often and probably, between a racist discourse and what could be referred to as a discourse of shaming, or their combination in one discourse. I’ve already explained what I mean by the former, and what remains is explaining the latter. 

The discourse of shaming

In the discourse of shaming, the aim is to expose the people we are accusing, and defaming them and revealing their degeneracy. This is relatively easy to do when we do it to those we do not consider ourselves to be affiliated with. Those who used this discourse do not hesitate in showing their repulsion from and innocence of those they’re shaming, or even demeaning. It is not rare for them to exaggerate their negatives and darkness when describing and evaluating them. This discourse sometimes becomes self-flagellating when they confess to belonging to the group that they are critiquing. But this is not to be considered a critique, because a critique must include some positive aspect, whether in assessing or in correcting. This positive aspect is almost completely absent in this discourse. It is sometimes built on a proclaimed theoretical affiliation with a global humanity that goes beyond narrow racism. Those who engage in this discourse are not aware of that this evacuates global humanity and morality from its meaning, because this humanity needs to be instantiated in the available contexts, otherwise it is rendered an empty notion without any integrity. This affiliation by lineage does not do away with the individuality of a person as long as they are able to voluntarily and freely affiliate themselves with other groups and/or declaring that they are not voluntarily affiliated with the groups that they had previously been affiliated with, whether by lineage or enrollment.

The discourse of confession and self-critique

In the discourse of confession and self-critique, the transgression of racist taboos is identical, partially and relatively, with the groups and phenomena the negatives of which are being confessed and are being critiqued or criticized. In this context, this identity is not contradictory with the valuable general humanist vision that should be the foundation of every transgression in theoretical practices and discourses. Transgressing the racist taboo is precisely and particularly embodied in showing the existential priority and value of the humanity of every human, as opposed to the secondary existential priority and value of their different racist affiliations (religion, sect, ethnicity, tribe, etc..). The secondary character of these latter affiliations when compared to the primal moral and existential affiliation with humanity, does not entail denying, undermining, or negatively assessing these affiliations. Affiliation by lineage still plays an important role in a person’s life, and it is necessary to humanize it morally and to make of it a road towards our moral humanity, instead of an obstacle that we necessarily need to get rid of. On this basis, we see that instead of echoing Badih al-Kasm when he says, “proper humanism is in proper nationalism,” we should say that “proper nationalism is in proper humanism.” The groups that we are involuntarily affiliated with are a part of us, and we remain a part of, even if we no longer identify with it. The discourse of confession and self-critique cannot in transgressing racist taboos, to try to make itself innocent of affiliation of lineage, or show the uniqueness of the individual engaging in this discourse, in this regard. It is paramount to emphasize, once again, that the implicit acceptance of affiliation by lineage and distancing oneself from self-flagellation, do not mean that the critique or criticism should necessarily be, in this case, mild or weak. As Sadeq Jalal al-Azm whom we mentioned before as the partial and relative model in self-critique, was very strict and radical in his critique, with his explicit or implicit recognition of his partial and relative affiliation with the culture that he critiqued, on one hand, and highlighting his general humanism and him being an international or cosmopolitan person, on the other.

There is a difference that one should be attentive to in our confession of our racism and our self-critique. At first glance, or even more, it appears to the person that they are more able to know their individual or collective selves than others. On this basis, it appears that self-knowledge is the easiest type of knowledge and is generally accessible, and the individual speaking of themselves or group or society, etc.. is confident in their judgements in general. That is because to them it appears that it is based on their life experiences or their direct or particular long history of living with others. There are many theoretical and practical reasons that compel us to challenge this false obviousness. This requires that we make several distinctions and conceptual analyses.

Information versus interpretation

We should begin making the distinction between information, information analysis, and/or understanding information, and/or interpretation. It is true that every individual often has information about themselves, their group, and their society, and this information may not be accessible to many others. Having this information, however, does not necessarily entail a larger or more accurate knowledge of its meaning or significations. Despite that some of the testimonies/texts have conflated these two things and making decisive judgements, other testimonies/texts have recognized in certain contexts the radical difference between the two, with its limited ability to make decisive judgements about the meaning of what it knows and its significations. For example, Abdallah Amin al-Hallaq pointed out that there are many possible interpretations and that there are many things that he does not know, for example, about the saying “like a Nusayris [an Alawite] beaten down in market.” The texts are full of different interpretations of the same saying. The famous saying, “lunch or dine with the Sunni/Alawite/Murshidi/Durzi/Jew, and sleep at the Christian’s,” is common among all sects. It was also mentioned in many of the texts/testimonies. It is obvious, however, that there is a large or small, difference in how different people interpret it. On this basis, it is important to be cautious of decisively settling for one analysis, understanding, or interpretation. On the other hand, the magnitude of the epistemological problematics is evident in Piroz Perik’s text ‘The Image of Arabs in Kurdish Oral Heritage’ and Muhannad al-Katea’s response to that text, at least in what is revealed by conflating between acquiring information (knowing that there is this or that saying, in certain contexts of its usage) and interpreting, understanding, or explaining it. This decisive response revealed the extent to which people may differ in understanding, interpreting, or and explaining the same saying, despite having the same information.

Not knowing the other and racism: causation?

Before proceeding to other conceptual distinctions related to this issue, it would be useful to point out the problematic of the relation between the existence of racism and the knowledge of individuals from different groups of each other. Omar Kaddour asserts that “the problem is definitely not a consequence of not knowing the otherthat it is solved by them getting to know each other, as there is a gap that is based on sufficient knowledge, awareness and determination” whereas Mohammad Dibo, as is obvious from the title of his text 'From “this Onion is Sunni’ to ‘nice sunnis like us’,' and from its content, that sectarianism is a consequence of ignorance, as the move from “this onion is Sunni” to “nice Sunnis like us” takes place through the experience that allows for knowledge of the other and by correcting or undoing the stereotypical image of the other. It seems necessary to me to warn against simply adopting one of these two contradictory perspectives. Even though people from different groups getting to know each other may reduce or undo their racism, as Mohammad Dibo’s testimony, his personal experience, and that of his grandmother’s, reveal, getting to know each other or documenting this knowledge is ultimately not enough, most often at least, to surpass racism, because this racism is not only related to not knowing the other or how strong or valid this knowledge is.

If it is generally difficult to know the other, knowing oneself is even more difficult. Since its Socratic beginning, philosophy has not raised the “know thyself” slogan not only as a consequence of the importance of this task but also because of how difficult it is. If the distance that separates us from the other is one of the reasons behind the difficulty of knowing the other, then the absence of this distance that separates us from ourselves is, as Nietzsche says, makes it all the more difficult for us to know ourselves. For this difficulty is not primarily a consequence of there being an unconscious level or dimension in the self that escapes immediate awareness or consciousness, but is precisely a consequence of the knower and known being identical and not separated. Contrary to the logic of “I think of others the way I think of myself” or “I know people from my knowledge of myself,” many philosophers, Paul Ricoeur for example, argue that knowing the other is a more successful, shorter, way of knowing ourselves.

In addition to this distinction between having information on the one hand, and interpreting and/or understanding it and/or explaining it, on the other, there is an intimate distinction that needs to be highlighted. This is the distinction between personal experience and general judgements.

The distinction between epistemological integrity and moral integrity

It is necessary to distinguish between integrity in the epistemological or logical sense and integrity in the moral sense. For if epistemological or logical integrity refers to the compatibility of what is in the mind and what is in the eyes,” moral integrity refers to the compatibility between what one says, or means to say, and what he knows in this regard. The necessity of this distinction is based on there being an implicit and common belief that the moral integrity of a person, speaking of things that they “adequately know” and have a long direct experience with, necessarily entails an epistemological integrity. It is obvious that the corruption of such a belief, not only for there always being a possibility, in principle, for one to commit an epistemological mistake but also because having information does not necessarily entail having a correct understanding of it (as we mentioned before), and because having a direct personal experience of reality does not necessarily entail that being able to make general judgements concerning this reality.

The distinction between personal experience and general judgements

It is also necessary to pay attention to the difference between a unique experience and its contextual and partial nature on the one hand, and general judgements or generalizations that could be made about the object of this experience, on the other. This is particularly true in terms of knowledge in general and knowledge of self in particular. This difference is a primary one because experience is always partial. This last distinction pushes us to be cautious before making generalizations based on our own personal experience or the stereotype that we have formed based on this experience. Concerning mixed marriages between individuals from different sects, Ahmad al-Khalil says, “the Ismaili sect has no problem with this matter.” Despite that most Ismaili individuals are less conservative in general concerning this, it is absolutely inappropriate epistemologically to make such an absolute and decisive judgement. If the personal experiences and knowledge of the author about this sect allowed him to make this generalization, others, including myself, have different experiences that allow them to be partially and relatively reserved in making such a decisive generalization. These inaccurate generalizations reveal our strong tendency to form stereotypes.

On profiling and stereotyping

Although the common stereotype about stereotyping and the stereotypical image often carry negative connotations, it is important to emphasize their necessity on the one hand and the possibility that they may be useful or positive and not harmful, on the other. We can elaborate this partial and relative necessity by emphasizing that understanding or understanding the other (as elaborated by the prominent hermeneutic philosophers) cannot start from scratch or from nothing, but almost always begins from some prior understanding. The availability of a stereotypical image is, partially and relatively, a useful starting point. This stereotypical image of the other is not always negative, and it is possible to compare how it is employed, sometimes, partially and relatively, with a stereotype of “ideal-types” that may help in understanding reality without reflecting this reality or being compatible with it. If the necessity of a stereotypical image, as a prior understanding, does not entail settling for this image epistemologically, for it is necessary to rectify and develop it, allowing a minimization of its negatives and facilitating that the positives are enhanced. This applies to the stereotypical image that we have about stereotypical images in general, and the stereotypical images that individuals belonging to different racial groups have about each other in particular. These stereotypical images that the texts/testimonies have not only include the different stereotypical images that different groups have of each other, but also include the stereotypical images that some of the authors of these texts have of the groups that they belong to, and of other groups. It is necessary to understand the different intersecting levels of stereotypical images in every analysis and understanding of texts that involve a transgression of racist taboos.

Transgression through writing

In the conclusion of a preliminary conceptual analysis of some of the concepts related to the confession of our ethno-religious racism, I would like to point out the most important aspects that embody the transgression carried out by the texts of racist taboos in our “culture” and/or “society.” It is obvious that trying to seriously and honestly discuss this topic (ethno-religious racism among Syrians) is considered a transgression of the familiar redlines in this matter. This transgression, however, has become more and more common since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. This, partial and relative, increasing commonness, changes the color of the lines that it crosses, such that it can be said that they are no longer as red as before. This does not undermine the importance of the file opened by Syria Untold. On the contrary, addressing this seriously and calmly has become more possible, after the initial conversations that were most often naturally closer to being a reaction and being superficial.

Transgressing Syrian taboos is not achieved by presenting new and shocking information that startles Syrians. Most of this information is already known in general to many Syrians. What is new in transgressing the taboo in this regard was at the level of ideas, and was embodied in presenting some analysis of this information in a manner that expresses the stereotypical image that the authors of the texts have on the one hand, and facilitates in understanding the dimensions of the stereotypical images that Syrian groups have of each other, on the other. In addition to normalizing the relations with the issue of ethno-religious Syrian racism, the most prominent formulation of transgression in this file is represented by addressing this topic in written texts and not by transient oral discourse. The testimonies consist of a serious theoretical discussion that includes some important ideas and analyses that provoke thinking. The most important, and of course unique, aspect of this file is in that it takes to write what was known and common at the level of oral discourse only. This move (of transgression) from the oral to the written is in itself a transgression of a special kind, common among non-writing cultures, cultures that sometimes object to sinning publicly more so than the sinning itself.

Finally, I would like to emphasize once more that transgression is not positive unless it is founded on values different than those it is supposed to expose, discover, and move beyond. Without accepting and embracing difference, and becoming open to the other and their differences, and adopting a real discourse of equality between people at the level of dignity, freedom, human rights, transgressive discourse will not be more than a racist discourse, directly or not. Transgressing racist taboos is not positive when it takes the form of a racist discourse that actually enhances racism, instead of exposing it in such a way that allows for it to be understood and surpassed. The discourses that attempt to expose the racism of other groups, must know the values that this discourse adopts and is grounded in, the values that it justifies and depends, so that what the discourse attacks or exposes specifically is revealed. For attacking “Kurdish racism against Arabs” and exposing it, may be grounded in Arab racism that is as bad or even worse in most cases. This is the case of many of the trending discourses at the moment that attempts to expose the racism of this or that group. Most of these discourses that want to expose the racism of the other are in fact, exposed discourses, that probably require further exposure.

About the author

Housamedden Darwish is an academic and researcher in Western philosophy and Arabo-Islamic thought.


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