There is a school of thought among modernist and post-modernist thinkers that views knowledge and reality as a function of power. It began with Hegel’s idea of the master-slave dialectic. According to this theory, the masters are defined by their opposition to the slaves. There are many ways this opposition could be defined (moral, cultural and/or religious values, appearance, smell, status), but what you need to know is that it is usually the masters who end up creating these definitions.
Many different ideologies and social movements, such as Anarchism, Marxism (Orthodox and Revisionist), and even Fascism, have emerged from this line of thought. However, I am mainly interested in discussing the concept of power as it relates to knowledge (Foucault’s power–knowledge) and Post-colonial theory (Edward Said’s Orientalism). I would like to make clear that although these ideologies are mostly accurate in their description of society, they have begun to function as a way for some people to relinquish their agency and escape from freedom.
Escape from Freedom is an idea that has its roots in the writings of Erich Fromm. It is the idea that people’s relationship to freedom is mostly characterized by their desire to avoid it. The strive for freedom is a very burdensome affair—it requires a great degree of self-responsibility and effort—so most people try to distract themselves from the idea that they are free individuals. There are different ways to achieve this, but the one most relevant here is to become part of a collective and relinquish one’s individuality. Why try to be your own person when it is more comforting to just be part of a group? You are no longer personally responsible for your own actions. You are just a victim of circumstance or, as a Nazi soldier would have put it, just following orders.
How this relates to power and Post-Colonialism is that many groups by virtue of being “the oppressed” have collectively decided that they cannot be held responsible for their actions, and that only “the powerful” can. Agency then becomes an insult. By being personally responsible for your actions and exercising your freedom, you are “privileged”: it is a privilege to think, to know, and to act. These qualities, which would usually be considered positive, are now insults under what Nietzsche referred to as ressentiment (or slave morality).
You do not need to look very far to see how this mentality could manifest itself, especially here in the Arab world. How many religious figures (particularly Islamic clergy) have you seen refer to the concepts of individual freedom and basic human rights as “elements of the evil West”? Do you remember when Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, referred to the opposition to child marriage—or as he tried to sugarcoat it in Arabic, الزواج المبكر (early marriage)—as an act of defiance against the words of the prophet and an attempt to inject deviant Western values into our Islamic societies? Or how about those who vehemently oppose the rights of women, LGBT, and/or ethnic minorities?
This type of behavior is beyond toxic and, in many ways, discourages any kind of honest discussion of political, social, religious, philosophical, or even scientific issues. Instead of trying to properly re-examine our social and cultural values, beliefs, and systems, we just blindly reinforce them, thinking that this way we would have stuck it to the “evil West”. We must preserve our beliefs at all costs because that is the only way we can assert our identity. This is the mindset of the weak and the vengeful, which is why it is rightfully called slave morality.
When this mentality is challenged, one is met with the same tired arguments. Many of those “anti-West” people will mention colonialism and go into a lengthy diatribe about power politics and how the West is trying to force its values upon us, and other such babble. What is ironic is that this has nothing to do with Edward Said’s Orientalism. Nowhere did Edward Said mention that there is such a thing as someone being “essentially Arab/Middle Eastern”. The entire point of the book is that the mere existence of such essentialist classifications is the problem. Yet, the people who so liberally borrow his ideas neglect to mention this—and that is assuming they know anything beyond the superficial aspects of his ideas. What they choose to do instead is try to assert that there is such a thing as the essential and unchangeable Arab character.
What is worse is that this stupidity is funded by the same evil West that we are hostile to. I am, of course, referring to Saudi Arabia, which through the immense wealth that it collects from world powers was able to spread the dangerous ideology of Salafism. We have become too comfortable in our powerlessness and, in turn, have allowed such resentful and oppressive ideologies to pervade. Not only have they oppressed us, but we are now oppressing ourselves just to avoid being held accountable for our actions.
We have plotted our escape from freedom by calling freedom a Western, Americo-Zionist conspiracy. Being responsible, free, and educated is inconsistent with our Arabic or Islamic character. To be an Arab/Muslim is to become the eternal victim. No matter what you do, you will never be accepted in the دنيا (the here-and-now), so you must set your sights on the آخرة (the hereafter). This is the ultimate escape from freedom. This is what Nietzsche referred to as the greatest form of blasphemy—to neglect yourself and the pursuit of your freedom in favor of an imagined afterlife.
If there is to be any progress in the Arab world, it is time to stop using power politics and post-colonialism as a crutch and to acknowledge that our situation is not permanent. We must not allow our victimhood to define us.
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