2000s >> 2002 >> no-1180-december-2002

Book Reviews

Political Islam

Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion scrutinises the mindset of one of the largest and most prominent political parties in Lebanon and one of the most notorious political-religious groups in the world, tracing its emergence in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion to the present day.

The book’s seven chapters focus on many aspects of Hezbollah’s thought, from its moral basis for political violence, its Islamic state ideals and how the organisation attempts to square this with its alleged approval of democratic processes, to its anti-Zionism and demonisation of Israel and the Koranic origins of Hezbollah’s stance on Judaism.

What comes across as significant is that although emerging from the Shiite community in Lebanon, the organisation’s roots, lies in community radicalisation by Arab nationalists and left-wing groups, who fed on the same dire social and political conditions that have thrown up so many third world radical movements. Its hatred of oppression and suffering prompted the organisation to find common cause with any state or secular group deemed by them to be oppressed, with Hezbollah empathising with leaders such as Mandela and Castro and finding sympathy even with Northern Ireland’s republican community; the chief determinant being the occupation of “one’s land” by a foreign power. Championing the politically, culturally and economically subjugated of the world against Israel, the US, foreign invaders and tyrannical regimes, Hezbollah incorporates “all social classes” into the “oppressed” category. Thus, the author claims: “it follows that the Quranic notion of oppression is even more universal than the Marxist one”.

That the organisation is significantly represented in the Lebanese parliament, with an “overriding purpose . . . to serve the Islamic aim”–its politics essentially inseparable from its religious beliefs–that it has a leadership, that a prerequisite for membership of the party is a belief in the supreme authority of the Faqih (an expert in Islamic jurisprudence), that is holds such reactionary views as denouncing the Holocaust as a Jewish conspiracy, that it sees the villain of the peace to be the USA and Israel, and not the inherent nature of capitalism itself, are very much evidence that its notion of oppression is seriously distorted.

Hesbollah further adheres to a negative view of human nature, seeing “man” as “an evil creature” who “is even worse than other animals”, man’s “egotism, sloth, greed, obtuseness, domination and oppression” render him “incapable of legislating for himself”. It moreover sees the “basic weakness of democracy” as lying in “its investiture of sovereignty in the people . . . whose ‘ignorant’ and ‘capricious’ nature hinders their ability to know where their true interests lie, let alone the interests of future generations”.

With such a worldly philosophy, Hezbollah sets out to combat the greatest injustice it perceives–Israel. However, it “does not know of anything called Israel . . . It only knows of occupied Palestine”. Whilst it claims that the Israeli state is racist, Hezbollah is itself guilty of cultural stereotyping: “an ‘unparalleled’ level of ‘arrogance, superiority and depravity’ is believed to inhere in the Israeli’s unique ‘psychological make-up'”. At the same time, Hezbollah distinguishes between Zionism–which it identifies with the state of Israel–and Judaism, whose adherents are “people of the Book” and are afforded the same religious and political rights in Islam as Christians. The latter varieties of Israelis are those who lived in the region prior to 1948.

The author points out that:

“Hizbu’llah’s professed distinction between Judaism and Zionism is merely an attempt to give the benefit of the doubt to the small number of non-Israeli Jews who oppose Zionism . . . their negligible number of anti-Zionist Jews has enabled Hisbu’llah to closely identify Judaism with Zionism. It has also contributed closely to the use of the term ‘Jewish’ as an epithet for ‘Zionist’, and to the usage of both terms interchangeably . . . its claim to differentiate Judaism from Zionism becomes purely academic. Even if some Jews do not espouse Zionism, their religion is still rejected . . . their religion is held responsible”.

Hezbollah, the author insists, however, is not an anti-Semitic movement. Noting that the myth that Arabs are also supposed to be descended from Noah’s son Shem (hence the term Semite), the author continues:

“the usage of the term ‘Semite’ rather than ‘Jew’ necessarily implies that it refers to the derogation of the Jews as a race and not as a religious community. The principle factor that has contributed to the confusion between the two is that Jewish Zionists consider the Jews to be both a religion and a race and therefore equate anti-Judaism with anti-Semitism . . . Neither traditional nor contemporary Islam anathematises the Jews as a race…but as the adherents of a religion berated by Islam” .

This said, the Jews, as “People of the Book” are afforded “religious, cultural and political rights entitled to them under Islamic law . . . But what the party is not compelled to accept is close social interaction between Jews and Muslims. Legal recognition and political inclusion clearly do not translate themselves into social integration . . . the upshot of which is an enforced toleration of an anathematised people”.

Since its foundation Hezbollah has changed from a military organisation into a military-cum-political movement, gaining strength from the fusing of both politics and religion, ensuring its survival by advancing its political thought without compromising its ideals. Recent developments in the Middle East–for instance, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, save but the Shiba’ farms–far from depriving the organisation of it’s rationale, breathed new life into the movement, giving it a renewed remit to pursue its old enemy via the liberation of Palestine.

This informative, well researched and referenced book (actually a published PhD thesis), naturally jargonised and a little hard going in places, is a worthwhile contribution to the understanding of what is the complex world of Middle East affairs. However, an understanding of Middle Eastern politics would be useful before buying it. Socialists can further view it as another insight into the insane world of globo-politics in which the real winners are never the oppressed or their alleged champions, but the powerful who direct affairs from afar.
John Bissett

Freud’s new clothes

Civilization and its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud. The Penguin New Freud, 2002. £7.99

Two things can be said in Freud’s favour. First, that he was an atheist, and second, that he was amongst those who pioneered a scientific study of sex. The trouble is that his basic hypothesis–that all human activity was driven by some “psychic energy” that was essentially sexual and which could be repressed and/or diverted into other activities such as work and art–has never been scientifically validated in that no such energy has ever been found and so ought to be abandoned as a dead-end. Freud never claimed that it had been but still speculated on the basis that it had. In fact, after the first world war he virtually abandoned any research work and concentrated on speculative philosophising.

This pamphlet-length book which Penguins have just republished in a new translation falls into this category. Written in 1929 (when Freud was 73) it is essentially an attack on religion but it also advances, in what must be one of the most extreme forms ever formulated, the “human nature” argument against the possibility of socialism.

Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people”. Freud’s term was that it was a “mass delusion”. His speculations on the matter start from the (rather banal) statement that what drives humans is the search for happiness (pleasure) and the avoidance of unhappiness (pain). He goes on, however, to claim that this can never be achieved since civilisation is based on suppressing or displacing “sexual energy”, so making “happiness” impossible. That’s why religion, in promising humans happiness, is a delusion.

Freud also attacks the injunction “love they neighbour as thyself”. He says this is silly and in fact dangerous as, if you acted on it, people would take advantage of you. He is prepared to accept “love those that love you” but not love anybody and everybody. This is because, in his view, someone you don’t know is more likely to be your enemy. It is in this context that Freud launches into his extremist view of human nature:

“The reality behind all this, which many would deny, is that human beings are not gentle creatures in need of love, at most able to defend themselves if attacked; on the contrary, they can count a powerful share of aggression among their instinctual endowments. Hence, their neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him, to exploit his labour without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to take possession of his goods, to humiliate him and cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man]”.

He then turned his cynical pessismism onto socialism:

“The communists think they have found the way to redeem mankind from evil. Man is unequivocally good and well disposed to his neighbour, but his nature has been corrupted by the institution of private property. Ownership of property gives the individual the power, and so the temptation, to mistreat his neighbour; whoever is excluded from ownership is bound to be hostile to the oppressor and rebel against him. When private property is abolished, when goods are held in common and enjoyed by all, ill will and emnity among human beings will cease. Because all needs will be satisfied, no one will have any reason to see another person as his enemy; everyone will be glad to undertake whatever work is necessary. I am not concerned with economic criticisms of the communist system; I have no way of knowing whether the abolition of private property is expedient and beneficial. But I can recognise the psychological presumption behind it as a baseless illusion”.

Actually, socialists do not claim that humans are “unequivocally good” (though we might, I suppose, want to claim that they are normally well disposed to other humans). We say that humans are neither innately good nor bad, but that how they behave–and indeeed their conceptions of what is good and what is bad–depends on the sort of society they were brought up in and live in. In other words, that human behaviour is socially not biologically determined. Human behaviour does have a biological aspect but that is that humans as a species are biologically endowed with the ability to behave in a great variety of ways. Humans are biologically programmed to be adaptable and flexible in their behaviour. Hence the many different ways in which humans have behaved throughout their existence, in different places and at different times.

Freud, though by now he was just a speculative philosopher, did venture a pseudo-scientific explanation for his wild claim: that “man’s natural aggressive drive” was due to an innate “death drive” that existed alongside the “sexual energy” he had initially hypothesized existed. This was too much for most of his followers who could see that there was no way of proving empirically the existence of such a drive. They were right.

Neither biochemists, nor geneticists, nor neuroscientists have discovered such a “death drive” that Freud speculated was the basis of what he called “the constitutional propensity of human beings to mutual aggression” (any more in fact than they’ve discovered its supposed opposite, a pro-life “sexual energy”). Freud’s claim is thus just so much hot air. In fact Civilization and its Discontents ends with Freud babbling on about human life and human existence being a perpetual struggle between Good and Evil, pompously called Eros and Thanatos. It’s pathetic stuff. The trouble is, because of Freud’s reputation, many people will take it seriously. They should be advised to re-read the fairy tale about the Emperor’s New Clothes.


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