Has the role of rituals in medieval politics been exaggerated?

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And how did one notion threaten the other? I was struck, as many other observers were, by the passionate expressions of hatred against the Muslim Brothers coming from liberal and left members of the middle and upper classes. The emotional undertone of political alignments and responses tends to be ignored or underestimated in many accounts that attribute rationalistic motives to the struggling forces.

They included traditional lower-class deference toward the elite that took the initiative, as well as a desire on the part of middle-class militants to revolutionize the nation-state, and a fear on the part of those who owed their privileged position to the Mubarak regime that their lifestyle was threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood. Motives are often colored by the concealed desires and misguided views that people have of themselves. Sometimes the attempt to explain political protest takes a more sophisticated form.

Revolutionary France went through five republics before settling into the present order, and America needed a civil war to adjust its democratic path. It is not uncommon in the history of revolutions for coups to pave the way or seal the fate of popular uprisings. Those who see nothing beyond a military coup are simply blind.

And yet here we are, proving to ourselves that we write our own history and that we can depose our rulers if they do not succumb to our will. The disputes themselves make for a kind of unity. As hostility to the Mursi government mounted, the secular activists joined the state apparatuses and their business allies who had been working to unseat Mursi from at least November allowing the army to enter the political arena publicly yet again. We have escaped from a prison of politics to a prison of old books. No one sees this world with his own eyes, only with the eyes of others: this one is a Marxist, that one a Wahhabi, and a third a Sufi.


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How can Ibn Taymiyya debate with Marx? How can Hegel converse with Ibn Arabi? If disagreement is considered a source of culture and a sign of its fertility and vitality, cultural despotism and polarized thinking reign supreme over the present scene. Faced by the dominance of [social] fragmentation and splintering, the idea of eliminating the other has taken the place of accepting the other, of the relationship of neighborliness, of the interweaving [of different ideas] — all this has disappeared.

But he is right to draw attention to the significance of friendship and antipathy in exchanges between people who do not always recognize the disparity of times to which the people they draw on or dismiss belong. Heated debates across radically different traditions, he says, seem endless and fruitless because appropriate sensibilities and the exercise of imagination are both lacking. Certainly mutual distrust and hostility have been major features of political life in Egypt ever since January Especially in times of political upheaval, fear, suspicion, and misattributions of intention render trust—and therefore friendship—extremely fragile.


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But first: why is rational debate of primary importance to democracy? One answer is that it has a decisive outcome and is therefore the best way, in politics as in law and natural science, of determining the truth. This discursive move gave the market its ideological claim to being a neutral mediator for resolving conflicts over value, a claim that has since become central to the secular tradition of the modern liberal state.

The electoral process itself has adapted itself in several ways resource investment, targeting swing voters, gaining and losing seats to the idea and practice of the market. It is that, like the destructive shifts following capitalist crises, the fractious time of petty dispute and distrust overwhelms the temporality of learning discursive traditions, on recognizing how dependent one is on others, and living accordingly.

Thus much Egyptian political history since the defeat of , and especially after the death of Nasir in , is seen by the left as the unraveling of the state structure even though the military and security apparatuses retained and even enlarged their presence in it: various state functions and projects were privatized, and the so-called Islamic Current in urban society emerged as the most important organized opposition to the secularizing state. And it is the continuous dislocation effected by the logic of the market that renders tradition increasingly precarious.

The unities enabled by market-promoted lifestyles—fashions in clothes, foods, corporal appearance—are not to be confused with the embodied disciplines of tradition that Shaykh Usama talked about because fashion is ephemeral. One can take up fashion or abandon it whenever one feels like it. Over the last few decades the increasing circulation of money from rentier income has contributed to rapid social mobility that has helped undermine past solidarities and commitments, and created personal aspirations together with resentment at the failure to realize those aspirations.

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With the increasing complexity of social-economic life, relationships have a tendency to become oversimplified and crude. The space of genuine friendship, critics say, is disappearing. With the growth of consumerism deepening differences among life chances grow too; [75] continuity with the past, essential to friendship, is devalued.

To what extent these reactions reflect a sense of anxiety on the part of the older middle classes about rapid social mobility that sometimes seems to threaten them is difficult to say.

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If looked at carefully, of course the matter is complicated: People still belong to families and associations, and they claim they have friends. Nevertheless, commitment to others—and trust in them—is in considerable tension with the liberal incitement to individual autonomy. When the middle classes welcome the modernization of Egyptian society, they point to individual autonomy as the basis of economic enterprise and efficiency and to its rejection of religious group identity in politics.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century restructuring of Egyptian society and polity towards what was conceived of as modernity encouraged a new form of governmentality: subjective self-fashioning based on freedom from external constraint that has increasingly eroded the conditions for tradition in embodiment. But it is not quite correct to say that the pervasive corruption of Egyptian society that accelerated with marketization has removed any space for ethics. Working in close collaboration with the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the present Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmad at-Tayyib who supported the military coup , aspires not only to greater prominence in the public domain but also to greater collaboration with the state in the extended regulation of mosques, preachers, Islamic research centers, some university faculties, etc.

But two points need to be noted about that Islam.

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It is a force in the service of state authority, an instrument of modern sovereignty for the protection of modern sovereignty—an aim to which the Muslim Brotherhood has also been committed. I have already argued against the claim that religious disagreements are typically inconclusive and therefore should be excluded from the rational debate that democracy requires. I might add that theological disagreements are themselves resolved—which is one way that religious traditions evolve.

It is true that such resolutions presuppose certain assumptions that others may not share, but that is a problem common to all situations where opponents are unable to reconcile their fundamental values. Many Egyptians have an understandable concern at the attempts to impose an Islamic personality on a country containing diverse traditions and identities.

It is: What is there about the modern state that requires a homogeneous political identity? The modern state seeks a singular personality for itself in the exercise of sovereignty, and claims that this is necessary for the progress and modernization of its subjects. Thus a common complaint against Mursi was that he was not acting as the leader of all Egyptians. Like all heads of liberal democracies, he responds to the conflicting interests of fellow citizens by yielding to those who exert effective pressure on his government, whether through elections or financial pressures or personal allegiances.

Even the Supreme Constitutional Court is not the ultimate guardian of a unified people in Egypt. For the modern state including varieties of the liberal state is held together not by moral ideals and social contracts but by technologies of power, by instrumental knowledge—and also, importantly, by the way it requires dependence on and demonstration of truth: traitors are those who conceal the truth. This evolution emerged in and helped define modern Europe, later to be adopted, adapted, and imposed in the Middle East and elsewhere. Liberal celebrations of the modern state do not recall that its emergence involved the crushing of city freedoms by rising territorial princedoms based on modernized military force and centralized social discipline.

This identification seems to me problematic, however, for at least two reasons. As not modern but still Islamic? As not really Islamic but modern? As neither modern nor Islamic? This is not due to accident, or to some eternal human vice. Many of the reasons for such transformation are intrinsic to its liberal character—most importantly, its commitment to securing the life and property of its citizens, to making them fully safe. Popular struggle to oppose that erosion is extremely difficult because it is not simply a matter of the restoration of rights but of confronting an elaborate structure of state protection, control and secrecy that is almost impossible to dislodge.

This gives cause for worry about liberty to some citizens while offering to others an opportunity for extending state security and state power—for the sake of property if not always of life. The crucial point about the modern nation-state is precisely its mobile and contradictory character: on the one hand its commitment to defending the citizen and securing general welfare and progress, on the other hand to defending the state so that it can fulfill this commitment. Because the latter task takes priority over the former, it calls for the accumulation of secret information about the entire subject population in order to preempt any possibility of subversion by a minority within it.

In societies heavily dependent on information technology like the US this can be done by sophisticated techniques such as the National Security Agency uses. But in all revolutionary societies this has been done by recruiting as many of the ordinary population as possible into becoming secret informers on neighbors, colleagues, friends, and relatives.

In order to do so one would need to draw on older ideas that have been pushed out by the narrative of secular progress since premodern times, such as the absence of rigid territorial boundaries and the presence of overlapping authorities.

Has the role of rituals in medieval politics been exaggerated? - eBook

The primary question is how far rights and duties attaching to civil status can be negotiated just as they now are in international law without an overarching authority. In the absence of sovereignty there would be no distinction between international and domestic law. Some parties would be subsidiary to others for narrowly defined purposes and times but none would have the comprehensiveness, the final authority, and unchanging continuity claimed by the sovereign territorial state.

I stress that my concern is not with democratic relations between international units, [93] still less with a decentralized utopia in which all power is held locally. Autonomous local groups can be almost as cruel as the state, but my point is that one might try to think of ways in which no sovereign center of power, whatever its scale, can actually exist. The idea of numerous nonhierarchical domains of normativity opens up the possibility of a very different kind of politics—and policies—that would always have to address numerous overlapping bodies and territories.

Procedures to deal with differences and disagreements would include civil pressure directed against authorities, such as civil disobedience, to make office holders accountable. This sharing would be the outcome of continuous work between friends or lovers, not an expression of accomplished cultural fact. The risk of a military force being formed to create an exclusive territorial body would have to be met not merely by constitutional barriers but also by the work of tradition in the formation, maintenance, and repair of selves who are bonded to one another.

The late Neil MacCormick, legal philosopher and a Scottish member of the European Parliament, has published an interesting exploration of how aspects of such an arrangement might be made to work in the context of the European Union, [94] although the European Union remains a bounded territorial unit containing states and their subdivisions, overridden by a power center consisting primarily of the European Central Bank and the Brussels bureaucracy.

In a stateless order it would be impossible to aim at capturing state power or to impose a single identity and a single destiny. Of course, even in a world where political sovereignty no longer exists, the past would continue to be necessary to a coherent form of life, or to a life aspiring to coherence. However, whenever people quarrel about whether or not they can continue to live essentially as they do now because the world is or is no longer the way it is claimed to be, we have a more complicated relationship between tradition, time, and place.

Whether the present in Egypt is still in some significant sense part of the time of January when an attempt was made to establish a new political tradition or that time now belongs to an irretrievable past is perhaps too early to say. But certainly the project of doing away with sovereignty of state and subject is part of unfinished time—although to identify time as unfinished is not to say that there is still time enough.

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Finally: One may gesture at what one thinks of as a possible solution to the intolerable cruelties and injustices of the sovereign state but applying that solution successfully is quite another matter. The sentiment of national loyalty and pride may be fluid, unevenly distributed, and indeterminate but it is still powerful. Given the world we live in, the mere suggestion that sovereignty be dismantled therefore borders on fantasy. Today no state accepts the violation of its sovereign right—although that is precisely what happens to weak states that are unable to do much about it.

For in practice there are rights overriding the principle of sovereignty that powerful sovereign states can exercise. All modern sovereign states, including Egypt, are invested in the continuous search for global markets and investment capital, as well as dependence on military security and access to the most sophisticated weaponry.

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They are driven by an ever-present desire for increasing profit, consumption, and power, all under the auspices of financial and industrial corporations. The results, with which virtually everyone is familiar, include accelerating climate change, systematic environmental degradation, impending nuclear disasters and financial collapse, developments that cannot, so it seems, be stopped. It is this excess, expressed by continuous desire and willfulness, that traditional forms of life have sought to control—even if often they have failed to do so. But in our world the morally sovereign individual and the politically sovereign state, each reflecting the other, neither able to change this world for the better, are both trapped, gridlocked.

That is the tragedy not merely of Egypt but of our time. During the months of March, April, and May , while I was teaching in New York, Mohammed Tabishat carried out interviews for me in Cairo with a number of Egyptians, only some of whom I know personally; I thank him for this work. It is not seeking to make possible a metaphysics that has finally become a science; it is seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.

The Ancients were not totally rejected by Moderns but re-situated: they were criticized, historicized, and used for new purposes.