Slavoj Zizek and Tariq Ramadan on Aljazeera

By presenting left as the only viable alternative to a polar choice between ‘Western liberalism’ and the so-called “Islamic Extremism,” isn’t Zizek foreclosing all other ways of thinking about change in both the so-called Western and Islamic worlds? Isn’t the language being used continues to be a captive of the terms such as ‘liberalism, fundamentalism, and left.’  Isn’t the term ‘left’ just as awkward as ‘extremism’ or ‘fundamentalism’? Ah, and we can try out various combinations and permutations of these labels. So what about such combinations of terms as ‘leftist extremism,’ ‘liberal fundamentalism,’ and ‘Islamic Liberalism?’
Isn’t this language keeping us trapped in the given ways of knowing and articulating our social and political environments?  Do watch if you have about half an hour to spare, or read the transcript of this conversation:

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

5 Responses to “Slavoj Zizek and Tariq Ramadan on Aljazeera”

  1. Words can set us free but they can also bind us. I agree with you there.
    The effort to achieve human dignity and freedom is neither secular nor fundamentalist. It is essential to the human experience irrespective of left and right.

  2. I am not sure. Thinking and action require categories. And effort is also aimed at specific and usually through a vehicle that is specific also. So we want freedom. But freedom, as Kant and many others have argued is set in a framework. It is not the lack of frame that is freedom. But what frame is it going to be? How do we think about the basic questions of freedom or human dignity…it will take us to issue of what our take/approach and assumptions are about some of the questions on which religion, secular thought, liberals, leftists have already talked about. Are there alternatives…sure. Can there be new things…always. But Zizek and Ramadan come with their own frames and putting it from that perspective is not necessarily limiting…for them it is liberating. For others it can be limiting if we want to stand outside a particular frame…but you cannot be outside all frames. Sometimes the demand for no frame or new frames, without doing that work, is a desire for sitting on the wall…that is a desire I have little empathy for…this is no time to be on the wall. I am rambling…but where I agree about the possibility of strait jackets…i do not want it to be used as a means of non commitment…which it is sometimes used as.

  3. Kenneth Burke, the American teacher of rhetoric, used the metaphor of a ‘card game’ to describe the play of history. History, he argued, dealt us a hand. So whether I am a liberal or a conservative, depends on which of these ‘historically prepared’ subject position I wish to occupy or am pushed/positioned to occupy by others. History would come to a stand still if we were not able to add or subtract from the hand it dealt us. New subject positions are created in the midst of political struggles, and they become hardened and ossified categories ultimately framing our ‘thought and action.’ The terms are remembered, but the specific politics which formed them is forgotten.
    The terms ‘liberal,’ ‘fundamentalist,’ ‘Marxist,’ ‘leftist,’ are, to use Burke’s metaphor, the cards dealt us by the history. So, unquestionably they do frame our thinking and action. My objection to this particular Zizek’s interview is that he is playing with the same hand that is dealt us by the specific events of the late 20th century, and that is hardly liberating. The terms liberalism and fundamentalism are assuming their new meaning in the tumultuous larger middle east in the midst of those events. There, terms like Liberalism etc. perhaps do not even carry the same meaning as the ones that ran through, for instance, the rhetoric of folks like Hayek and other liberal and neo-liberal philosophers. Western references to the terms liberal and fundamentalist to label and frame Egyptian politics are likely to ignore that this ain’t the same pack of cards in the middle east and further east and south, even if it looks and feels the same from distance because of similar sounds and syllables. When the West celebrates the revolution in Egypt, it does so on the basis of a different image of what a revolution is all about, and that image is very particular and historically specific, not universal.

  4. Rather interesting to revisit this conversation after four months: I don’t think language (the meaning of words, specifically) is ever as fixed as we imagine, it is precisely because it is an approximate and often transitory frame for our ideas that makes context, current use and argument crucial for meaning. We need to look more closely at what Zizek means by “change” as well as what he means by “left”, I think he presents the choice between Western liberalism and Islamic extremism precisely as a false dilemma, rejecting the premises of both these ideas and what they signify.

    Zizek embraces uncertainty as prerequisite for change, I would be surprised if he has a fast food hot-dogma to thrust into this hungry void. Now is the cauldron for reinventing and redefining words: four months later, Egypt is still reminding the West of how the democracy was won, and what it is. Our so-called liberal freedoms (and Western democracy itself) are born of the left’s long struggle against the bourgeois elites, these had to be wrenched from their greedy grasp. It’s an ironical misperception and a historical accident that human rights and civil liberties are seen as Western ideas at all. Egypt is not embracing the West, it is precisely the non-Western currency and appeal of these ideas that is so threatening to Israel, narrow Western interests in the region and the likes of Tony Blair.

    The word “left”, in political terms, has come to mean many often conflicting things. I don’t see it as a set of dogmas, although some do. For me it implies a commitment to concious collective action to win freedom, justice and dignity for all people in a society: muslims and copts in Egypt, migrants in Europe, Tamils in Sri-lanka… What change looks like has to be shaped in struggle, if it succeeds in any of these contexts, my hunch is the result will share much in common with what we believe to be Western democracy. It won’t be, it will be an expression of a striving for a just society that is more universal and more permanent. Western democracies themselves have a long way to travel still along this road.


  1. The Salafi Moment | Just questions! - 14/09/2012

    […] and Revolutions! I don’t know what these terms mean either. In my own comment on a previous post, I wrote: Western references to the terms liberal and fundamentalist to label and frame Egyptian […]

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