Contra the “disenchantment” thesis popularized by Max Weber, we live today in a progressively “re-enchanted” world, argues Yassin al-Haj Saleh.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 25 August, 2017. Earlier this month, it was adapted into a talk given by the author at the EUME in Berlin.]
The securitization of politics
In August 2012, a Syrian intelligence scheme was uncovered in Beirut. The chief conspirator was the former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha, and the plot sought to carry out terror attacks on Lebanese civilians and public figures which would later be attributed to Syrian Islamists.
Had the operation succeeded, it would ultimately have been blamed on some Salafist organization, known or unknown. Analyses would have been written in the newspapers highlighting the jihadist threat in Lebanon. “Experts,” no doubt including Samaha himself, would have appeared on pro-Assad TV channels to pontificate about how weakening Assad’s rule in Syria would cause the spread of Salafist-jihadism throughout the entire region. The Syrian regime’s ambassador would have been present at the funerals of those assassinated in Beirut. Perhaps Bashar al-Assad would have sent a special representative to convey his condolences, such as National Security Bureau head Ali Mamluk, or Assad’s political and media adviser Buthaina Shaaban, both of whom were aware of the conspiracy.
As for the regime’s opponents, they would have had nothing to refute the fear-mongering rhetoric invoking the threat of terrorism, let alone to make the case for the fraudulence of the entire operation and to reveal its political objectives. When notable Christian figures such as Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir are killed, as was allegedly planned, and in the context of the Syrian conflict, the national frame of which was then starting to collapse, who then, in Lebanon or elsewhere, would be willing to question the culpability of extremist jihadists? Who would be prepared to consider the possibility that the operation was carried out by Assad’s intelligence services (the sectarian character of which is known to all), and that, on top of that, the man who pulled the trigger was in fact a Lebanese Christian? If these skeptics weren’t dismissed as conspiracy theorists, their words would have been regarded as dubious at best, and couldn’t have withstood the “facts” of the terror attack and the accompanying media campaigns. Those questioning the “facts” might have been regarded as jihadist sympathizers—perhaps on sectarian grounds. There would have emerged detailed investigative reports in Al-Akhbar newspaper, revealing the secrets of the attack and the paths through which jihadists infiltrated Lebanon, highlighting the role of Hezbollah’s opponents in abetting “terrorists” in Syria. Hassan Nasrallah might even have gone out and delivered a speech about the takfiris, praising Iran and the Axis of Resistance and speaking at length about “honor.”
It isn’t unthinkable that Salafists from Syria and Lebanon, provoked by comments and statements here and there, and emboldened by their alleged actions, would then be eager to carry out actual attacks targeting similar (or different) segments of Lebanese society.
The aforementioned plot had been coordinated by Mamluk and Samaha, and with Assad’s knowledge, but it was uncovered before it materialized. Samaha was subsequently imprisoned for three and a half years, and then released on bail, only to be incarcerated yet again. Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear that anyone wished to draw any political conclusions from his case, such as that the Assadists—and Assad himself—are sponsors of terrorism, or that the regime is willing to eviscerate Lebanon and instigate a sectarian conflict without batting an eye.
I wonder, how many plots have materialized and haven’t been uncovered? Nobody knows. But there is no guarantee that a high proportion of such operations would similarly fail. Even when some of them are exposed later—as was the case with the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005—political, security, and psychosocial realities make such an exposure limited and even questionable. It seems today that the truth about Hariri’s assassination has been buried forever, or rather has lost its relevance and political value.
Assad’s mukhabarat (intelligence) are not the most competent of their kind, whether regionally or internationally. The Israelis, the Iranians, the Turks, the Americans, the Russians, the Europeans, and others also carry out operations that, even if not equivalent in brutality, cause long-lasting disinformation and leave little to no chance of knowing what actually happened. Our Middle Eastern region, where people are anecdotally regarded as susceptible to conspiracy theories, has potentially seen more covert activity than any other region in the world. Ascribing to us the label of conspiracy theorists tends to be an essentialist value judgment, referencing fixed irrational properties of mind, in contrast to the rational mind that distinguishes people in the West.
But even when it isn’t made as an essentialist claim, this disparaging value judgment fails to explain the reasonable nucleus behind the belief that lots of conspiracies take place in our region. This could be called the “conspiratorial infrastructure:” the clandestine nature of politics and decision-making processes in the region; the extreme dependence of unaccountable ruling oligarchies on foreign powers; the overbearing influence of intelligence services in the politics of states and the region; the unreasonable privileges granted to irresponsible elites; and finally the political quarantine imposed on the public and the restrictions on their access to information. The Middle East is the world’s most secretive geopolitical space in terms of its decision-making, and it’s the world’s most internationalized region; that is, its history isn’t substantially shaped by internal actions or dynamics. If belief in conspiracy is the belief in a concealed, omnipotent mastermind determining matters in our region, then the existence of uncovered intelligence operations supports this belief rather than dispels it.
The “conspiratorial infrastructure” provides sufficient basis for a theory of conspiracy theories, making it an indispensable gateway to social and political analysis in the Middle East. This concealed mastermind doesn’t have to be the Order of Freemasons, the magnificent Elders of Zion whose headquarters is still unknown, or an alleged secret global government that directs the ostensible states and governments from behind a veil. For the possibility that we live in a fabricated and manipulated world to be highly likely, it suffices that governments and various secret agencies (which aren’t fundamentally different as long as the former function with zero accountability) are active in our region, maintain the secrecy of their operations, and mislead their subjects and others about their own actions and the actions of their adversaries. It’s likely that the reality we perceive is distorted by security and media operations, which aren’t unrelated to political and financial considerations (Ali Mamluk disbursed $170,000 to Michel Samaha in exchange for transporting the explosives in his car from Damascus to Beirut) and are additionally intertwined with religious and sectarian considerations.
The realm of gods and answerable angels isn’t so vastly different from that of regimes and intelligence services, whether in our sphere or in the world at large. Disregarding substantial elements of reality as dogmatic beliefs, despite recognizing the existence of operations about which we know nothing, makes it easier to wholly dismiss reality or to feign rationality and aversion to “conspiracy theories.” If it’s true—and it certainly is—that the politics of which the Mamluk-Samaha conspiracy was a part is ongoing (and with impressive success, the foiling of the plan and the arrest of its protagonist notwithstanding), then there is no basis to dismiss other potential conspiracies as irrelevant or untenable. Not only do we know nothing about this conspiracy except for its failure, but our knowledge of most political trends between the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies remains too generalized and speculative. We know that we know little about its motives, details, funding, sponsors, secret operatives, and the bond of trust linking them. Without such information, any serious knowledge of the situation in Syria and Lebanon is unfeasible.
The lesson learned from the Mamluk-Samaha conspiracy is the high possibility that there is much that we don’t know and may never know, that much of what we think we know for certain is false, and that there are people tasked with ensuring we only see that which does not match reality. Even the most discerning among us may have constructed analyses and conceptions, and perhaps developed whole theories, based on realities which are literally staged to mislead. This is a horrifying prospect, because it questions the validity of knowledge that is constructed around the presumption that there are no undiscoverable secrets in human affairs, or that the proportion of such secrets is so limited as to be almost negligible.
It is with this reality in mind that I talk about an enchantment of the world, except that nowadays enchantment and phantoms, demons and ghosts, monsters and ghouls, and gods before all, are fashioned by those who may not themselves believe in any gods or demons. Max Weber considered the disenchantment of the world, its voiding of spirits, ghosts and invisible creatures, as the essence of modernity. Disenchantment gave way to “objectivity” and to humanities; God is no longer needed, nor is the devil, the goblin or any of the cast of mythical creatures that had once permeated our world. These have turned into art, folklore and elements of mass entertainment, just as old weapons have been pensioned off to museums.
Today’s world isn’t evenly enchanted, but transparency is in overall recession with the ever-increasing securitization of politics across the globe. The decisions of powerful elites are increasingly taken outside of public oversight, especially as they relate to foreign policy and relations with weaker states, where information remains confined to the upper echelons of political and economic elites. Even in the most advanced countries, the general population has little knowledge beyond what is provided by mass media affiliated with those elites, often distorted by ignorance, bias, and a variety of ulterior motives.
Identities and identity politics
Linked to this clandestine aspect of power is the identitarian face, which has steadily and uninterruptedly risen since the end of the Cold War. The world is defined culturally, by identities and creeds, by religions, sects and cultures, by clashing civilizations. As such, the past is the forebear of the present, and the cultural heritage of the past determines the political and social present of societies.
And what are identities? They are but particular spirits, not unlike other magical creatures such as gods or demons, differing across tribes, nations, cultures and religions. As identities (i.e., the cultural definition of societies or groups) become inexplicable descriptive premises, the realities of local and international power; of class, modes of production, and distribution of wealth; and of the formation and dissolution of identities in history (through active, lukewarm, or reverse identification processes) are all but neglected. This especially obfuscates the entanglement of identities and politics; that is, their struggles, polarizations, coalitions, and alliances, as well as their rises and falls. Also in recession are the humanities, which were once destined to explain different societies in commonly shared human logic, applying their ever-sharpening instruments and increasingly sophisticated approaches to the humanity common to all people beyond their cultures. Now, Muslims are as such, and they are as such because they are Muslims: they exercise irrational and sensual thinking (Renan); their borders are bloody (Huntington); they envy the West (Bernard Lewis); there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam and secularism (also Lewis); the Arab or Middle Eastern “democratic exception” is caused by Islam; and so on.
I speak of Muslims because I belong to the world of Islam, and because Muslims are the majority of the Middle Eastern population—the most internationalized, exposed, and secretive of regions. Furthermore, I speak of Muslims because there seems to be an “epistemological conspiracy” that has for about a quarter-century been promoted by the international information system, in terms of the media and research centers. These promoters, whose numbers are not few, and whose voices are not faint even in our societies, exclude Muslims and their societies from the universal validity of the humanities, alternatively proposing to explain their actions and conditions through their religious beliefs, through a spirit of their own which distinguishes them from others, one known as Islam. This “epistemological conspiracy” has received undue support from the assertions of Islamists, notably their claims of a non-transformable particularity of Islam and Muslims. Islamists demand to administer this particularity and exclude their religion and themselves, as well as our societies, from any universally applicable principles of understanding and good governance.
There is indeed a global Islamic question, resulting from the convergence of this “epistemological conspiracy” with that conspiratorial infrastructure, as well as the violent tendencies of the subjugated imperialists among the jihadists. Yet this epistemological conspiracy isn’t limited to the realms of Muslims, but is increasingly universalized everywhere, including in Western societies, where it’s primarily applied to immigrants and minorities.
The doctrine of cultural relativism and determinism has an enchanting effect similar to that of clandestine politics; it leaks magical objects and mysterious phantoms into social realities and practices: Islam, the Arab mind, Western civilization, Judeo-Christian culture, and so forth. Secret forces act as vengeful gods, creating destinies and facts from a world behind a shroud, not so far from identities and their conflicts and alliances—as demonstrated by the Mamluk-Samaha case. The trust required in such dealings between the phantoms of the first world of secrets (the mukhabarat) seems to require a solid foundation that can only be found in the second world of spirits (sects and identities). If terrorism is the concept in which secrecy, murder, and religion are condensed today, then it’s a more apt description of intelligence apparatuses in general, and those of the Assad regime in particular, than of any Salafist-jihadist organization.
The exclusion from the humanities, i.e., from the common “mind,” doesn’t come to pass without first establishing an exclusion from equality-based politics and notion of justice, thus adopting extermination as a political practice. If the crime committed by the Muslim stems from his Islam, as is always claimed in the Western media whenever Muslims commit crimes, then the fitting punishment of Muslims for their crimes is genocide. As such, exclusion from the humanities makes way for exclusion from humanity, and for no other politics than that of extermination.
Through the interaction between clandestine politics on the one hand, and the push towards cultural determinism and its procession of identities, souls, gods and spirits on the other, the possibility for understanding human beings across different environments and cultures is severely undermined, as are the epistemological foundations of the humanities and the social sciences. What we know is either false and untrue, and less than reassuring as a basis for our thinking and analysis, or is peculiar and outlandish, and refers to particularities that tell us nothing about the human being as such.
Post-truth and the colonization of independent facts
Those are tendencies that have been advanced in part by the intellectual climate of postmodernism and post-truth which, under the pretext of opposing the grand narratives conducive to tyranny, is hostile towards the principles of objectivity and the autonomy of truth, and is thus not interested in articulating visions for a more just world.
The essential characteristic of the post-truth era is blurring the boundaries between fact and opinion, so that each person has not only their own opinions but also their own facts. There is no criterion for distinguishing between statements, and all claims become equally valid. This goes in parallel with the transformation of the center of knowledge from the “object” (of knowledge, observation, etc.) to the “other,” with the “ego” formed in contrast to the other seeming far less substantive than the classical “subject” formed in contrast to the object.
While the rule of truth; truthocracy, so to speak (be it in the name of religion, science, or nationalism); diminishes opinion and leads to tyranny, democracy has been founded on two pillars: the right to opinion on the one hand, and the autonomy of truth on the other. If truth is subordinated to opinion, then we arrive at a fragmented, “Babelic” society whose peoples cannot reach a common understanding, and in which anything can be decided or denied with the same degree of legitimacy. The resulting chaos paves the way for tyranny, according to a classical Platonic teaching.
Post-truth was preceded by postmodernism. This decided that all we have are discourses and interpretations; there are no facts independent of discourses. This in turn opened the way to yet another jump: that different discourses reflecting on a certain set of facts—the Syrian situation today for instance—are equal, and facts are equally lacking independence in them. Thus the Assadist discourse; that of the Russians; the American one; that of Iran; the Jihadist one; and the one of those who fought for democracy in Syria are all equal. We may like this or that among them, and this is the only criterion to determine their truthfulness. We do not like the Jihadists, so their discourse is unaccepted. We like the Russians, so what they say is good. What about the grassroots and democratic groups? Well, we think that they do not really exist.
This post-truth condition is linked to the rise of narratives and the decline of history—as research, and as a dimension of thought and politics; that is, the rise of what is community-centered at the expense of what is refined, committed, and reality-oriented. Narratives are another gateway to enchantment, due to their association with groups, and hence to particular spirits, phantoms and identities. In a world of malleable spirits, contagion is transmitted more swimmingly than in the world of substantive facts. Spirits envy each other, and tend to imitate one another, which results in the expansion of all their capacities. The Arabic words ʿadwā (“contagion”), ʿaduww (“enemy”), ʿudwān (“aggression”), and taʿaddī (“transgression”) are all derived from one root. We and the enemy have the same contagious environment. For instance, identitarian rage that has long been viewed as an Islamic characteristic seems to be a global tendency nowadays, and has the potential of creating a variety of nihilist organizations and terrorist movements.
In a world enchanted by spirits, phantoms, gods, demons, and angels, the “subject” formed in contrast to the object and disciplined by it recedes, and the “ego” formed in contrast to the other and bearing its contagion progresses. It appears that the deindustrialization and the rise of service and technology sectors encourage these strained transformations. We used to emerge into society; now, after the information revolution, society reaches out to us—albeit virtually. In a world rife with isolated individuals, “alternative facts” that don’t adhere to any criterion of collective verification are easily produced.
The post-truth world undermines rational deliberation and public debate, and allows for demagogic claims to be equated with—if not preferred to—cautious perspectives on public affairs. This isn’t an appropriate atmosphere for democracy. Even the belief that it could be appropriate for individuals and small groups vis-à-vis big entities and states is rather misleading. Putin’s Russia is the most active manufacturer of alternative facts, of a whole alternative world where democracy is but a scheme for Western domination over the world.
The re-enchanted world of today is at least a partial product of the contradiction of the previous disenchantment of the world that had paved the way for secularization, objectivity, and the humanities. At the time when the social world in the capitalist West was being disenchanted, a distinctive European rationality and a modern European miracle that is heir to the ancient Greek miracle was simultaneously being preached. Weber himself introduced a culturalist approach to modernity, thus enchanting the world whose disenchantment he called for.
The disenchantment process has never been concluded at any time, and the distinctive possession of rationality has legitimized European colonial expansion, which in turn awoke identities and spirits that had been more or less dormant in many societies, including those in the world of Islam. Additionally, the disenchantment process (the objectification of the world) has led to an alarming life-threatening environmental crisis. The “subject” that was formed through increasing objectivity and disenchantment was too selfish: not only did it deal with other humans as objects, which was characteristic of colonialism and racism, but it also dealt with the planet in the same manner, which has led to the “inflammation” of the earth; a potentially fatal fever.
Objectivity has always been reductionist, neglecting or marginalizing the individual, the ephemeral, the obscene, the unknown, and the discrete. From these margins, postmodernism and post-truth burst onto the scene, accompanied by a host of repressed identities. Objectivity assumes a transparent world with no secrets. Today we’re skeptical of such a Hegelian world that was once proceeding towards its self-consciousness in the end—the end of history. Now there are things that are lost, forgotten, or in decay all the time, not appearing to be stored in any mind or intelligible as “objective knowledge.”
At the same time, this renewed enchantment appears to be an exacerbation of the crisis of disenchantment, rather than a response to redress it or a new trail that may lead to the protection of life and the living. The secret gods that murder and falsify; the identity wars, politics and cultures; and the world of antisocial alternative facts—these are evil spirits, paths of self-destruction, black magic.
The crisis is therefore twofold: the crisis of a self-contradictory disenchantment, and the crisis of a black, destructive re-enchantment.
As a general orientation, emerging from this crisis requires exorcism, the expulsion of evil spirits, while at the same time restoring good spirits into the world in a manner that protects life and the living. But this implies nothing short of a new world.