Islamophobia, Identity and Essentialism: The Zizek-Harman Debate

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Dr.B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, opined that `there are no castes without outcastes’. It is the absence which ultimately acquires a positive consistency and thus serves to form an `anti-foundationalist foundation’ which remains obdurate and adamant to move in a moral/ethical sense 

 Umar Nizaruddin | Clarion India

I do not think there is such a thing as a “clash of civilisations.” When I said that Muslims as Muslims cannot be represented in the West, I was being ironic, and also referring to the fact that ninety percent of the time when people talk about “the problem of Muslims” in the West, it is to complain about the fact that Muslims have not “integrated.” There is very little serious discussion about what it means to be “European,” what it means to be French, or British, or whatever, and what exactly “secularism” in Europe means for religion in general and Islam in particular. The problem is always seen as, either: We must try harder to integrate them, or: It is their fault they do not integrate, and it is because they are attached to an illiberal religion, and so to values that conflict profoundly with our secular, egalitarian society.

–Talal Asad

Slavoj Zizek, intellectual gadfly, agent provocateur and enfant terrible of contemporary philosophy, notorious for his anti-refugee stance, defines anti-semitism as essentialism. According to Zizek, anti-semitism consists not in accusing the Jewish community or its individuals of various misdeeds (including sexual indiscretions), but in positing those various misdeeds as an index of their Jewishness. Thus anti-semitism for Zizek comprises in the claim that `since so and so was a Jew, he/she committed such acts’. The same notion could be applied to the contemporary discourse of Islamophobia.

The subject is retreating, hence Trump, Erdogan, Duterte etc. The retreat of subjectivity, as Foucault has predicted, has also seen the rise of authoritarian governments all over the world. The enlightened human subject and its concomitant values have been superseded by the materialist ideologies of neo-liberal capital. Religion and the spiritual eco-system are finding it difficult to mutate themselves to meet the demands of an unprecedented collapse of virtue ethics along with normative religiosity.

Buddhism in its Western iterations, once bestowed with certain potentially emancipatory roles, finds itself unable to meet the crisis, let alone avert humanitarian disasters of its own creation such as those of the Rohingya community in Burma. Advances in science, especially in the biological sciences, are, meanwhile, heralding the rise of a new sort of human, one that sacrifices subjective depth for a universe of material richness that reaches all the way up to the planet mars.

The accelerationist paradigm promotes the exploration of outer space by non-state actors such as Elon Musk, which serves to divert attention from the immediate issues of climate change, poverty and human survival.

Peter Handke, an Austrian writer condemned for his comments on the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2020. This is but an indication of the way in which literature and the arts have failed to stop the demise of the `human’ as a category, in spite of immense innovations that might even have helped hasten that very decline.

The ethics of subjectivity demands that the `human’ be brought back into the centre of this material matrix. Gender relations and inter-sectionality and a spectrum of feminist politics are striving in that direction. In `Cyborg Manifesto’, we find Donna Haraway expanding the very scope of the category of the `human’ beyond renaissance notions of the same, so as to include machinic articulations of humanity in the form of cyborgs as well.

The authoritarian Saudi regime’s propaganda surrounding a humanoid female robot is an instance of a homeopathic defence, in the battle for religious subjectivity. Ibn Arabi, Ibn Khaldun and other Arab humanists have espoused a scientific rationality over and above the vulgar religious idealism of commonplace ethics.

It is OOO with its arch prophet in Graham Harman, who in his latest avatar as messiah, pushes the envelope of post-human possibilities of thought the furthest. In his debate with the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, Harman made this amply clear.

The debate between the Slovenian philosopher Zizek and the neo-materialist Harman (organised at the Munich Lost-Weekend Cafe, on December 1, 2018; organised and moderated by Dominik Finkelde from the Munich School of Philosophy) broaches upon the question of identity and essentialism within the context of `Orientalism’ as espoused by Edward Said and which finds its contemporary articulation in the discourse surrounding Islamophobia.

Harman sets out to attack Zizek’s earlier position on identity. He contradicts Zizek’s definition of anti-semitism by adding a cognitive knowledge claim to it. Anti-semitism for Harman lies not in positing an essential Jewishness, but in the cognitive claim to know and to have cognitive access to that `essential Jewishness’.

Here, Harman also contradicts Said, whom Harman qualifies as having the status of a sort of unquestionable deity in the elite Cairo academia Harman himself was once part of. But Orientalism also foregrounds essentialism as its bugbear. Orientalist hegemony lies in creating an essentialist `Orient’ matching its fantasies.

Harman refutes such essentialism by adding a knowledge claim to the debate, oblivious to the fact that Said himself was well aware of the politics of `power/knowledge’ having framed his entire argument in a Foucauldian vein. But Zizek chooses not to defend Said. Rather, he gives an ingenious redefinition to `essentialism’ itself. This novel notion of essentialism can be crucial to the `Islamophobia’ debate.

For Zizek, one cannot be essentialist about `essentialism’ itself. He illustrates this with the aid of a story surrounding an old Slovenian tradition which narrates that Scotland (infamous, according to Zizek, for a miserly stereotype of its inhabitants) was populated by spendthrifts exiled from Slovenia for that trait. Thus, an essentialism (of miserliness) is constructed around an exception (those exiled to Scotland).

The Slovene legend relates not an absolutely essentialist miserliness for themselves, but rather it gives evidence to a tear in the fabric of essentialism, in terms of those exiled to Scotland, a fact which only serves to amplify their own Slovene miserliness. (Zizek is also riffing on Harman’s own Scottish identity).

To borrow from Zizek’s more nuanced position on essentialism and anti-semitism, one that is postulated on a Hegelian foundation of absence and exception, present-day Islamophobia also comprises a narrative of exceptionalism.

This exceptionalist strategy has been tersely encapsulated by the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani as the `Good Muslim-Bad Muslim’ complex. The existence of the proverbial `good Muslim’ only serves to reinforce the stereotype of the pathological narrative. Just as the exiled spendthrifts serves to buttress Slovene claims to being absolute skinflints, the `normal’ narrative of everyday law-abiding Muslims only hardens the lapidary pronouncements surrounding a pathological Islam emanating from the likes of Bernard Henry Levy and the entire Intellectual Dark Web.

The entire notion of identity is constructed on the foundation of an exception. Thus, Dr.B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, opined that `there are no castes without outcastes’. It is the absence which ultimately acquires a positive consistency and thus serves to form an `anti-foundationalist foundation’ which remains obdurate and adamant to move in a moral/ethical sense.

The controversy surrounding M F Husain was thus articulated not in terms of a secular `freedom of speech and artistic expression’, but as a pathological perversity that focussed solely on the painter’s religious identity. Identity is the sole arbiter in that case. In other articulations of the same, the Islamic aversion to pictorial depictions is pathologised. Utopian defences of Islam notwithstanding (which cause more damage than good), an entire society is painted with the same brush, based on identity and the construction of that identity is enabled by exceptions to it.

So, whatever the position might be, it is the essential Islamic/Muslim identity that matters, irrespective of the position that one finds oneself in. Identity becomes the singular locus of debate. What is being problematised is how one relates to oneself, and inhabits that living self. Thus, it is made impossible to inhabit a religious, semitic self that is pathologised on the basis of identity, irrespective of political stance. Thus, liberal, left-leaning, right-thinking Muslims become the so-called exiles to Scotland, who simply serve to reinforce the stereotype of the pathologised Muslim self.

Talal Asad complicates it further when he says that, “in other words, the problem is seen as a matter of why “they” do not fit into what is thought of as “our” society, rather than: What or who are “we,” as Europe or as France or Britain, and what must we do to change aspects of ourselves in order to make it possible for Muslims (who will also need to change) to be represented in Europe as Muslims?

The problem is always seen as one of assimilating Muslims into Europe (whose structure and identity are fixed) if we are well- intentioned towards them, and if you are not well-intentioned, then making it quite clear that they do not belong with us–that they ought to “go back to where they came from.” Europe in the 16th century was not what it is like today–indeed, it was not even “Europe” but “Christendom.”

Even after the forces of secularisation, things did not remain the same–politically, economically, or culturally. This is one of my voices, by the way. I am now speaking as someone who has lived most of his life in the West’’. Here, the identity question pertains to the West in an equally complex, non-essential way. Just as the `Orient’ is a figment of our fantasy, so is the `occident’.


Umar Nizarudeen is with the University of Calicut, India. He has a PhD in Bhakti Studies from the Centre for English Studies in JNU, New Delhi. His poems have been published in Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe Journal of the British Library, Ibex Press Year’s Best Selection, and also broadcast by the All India Radio.

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