Islam And Violence: The Curse Of Empty Signifier – OpEd
By Mohamed Elfaki*
There are conflicting opinions among Muslims and non-Muslims regarding whether to link to “Islam” these gruesome terror acts committed in its name by individuals and groups claiming to be “Muslim” jihadists. For whenever and wherever such acts are committed (suicide bombing, beheading, stoning to death, etc.), while one group immediately points the finger at “Islam” and considers the acts a further proof that “Islam” is essentially a ‘terror-embracing’ religion ; the other group, on the other hand, often apologetically, condemns these acts, calls them non-Islamic and maintains that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’ hijacked by terror groups whose ultimate goal, as some conspiracy theorists believe, is to distort the “true” image of Islam.
As a matter of fact, debate, or rather conflict, among Muslims in particular over what is “Islamic” and what is not, is not a recent innovation nor it is limited to the current discussions on terror acts in name of Islam. Such dispute covers almost all aspects of life in the so-called Muslim World including such issues as governance, democracy, human rights, woman’s dress, etc. Moreover, although it takes different forms and shapes, sometimes such dispute becomes deadly and that one Muslim group or the other often becomes its main victim.
Apparently, many Muslims do not digest or approve the coexistence of different or conflicting understandings and interpretations of Islam in the same social or political milieu. For endorsement of such situation could be interpreted as ‘pollution’ or even blasphemy which would ultimately lead to Kufr (disbelieve). Therefore, every group believes and makes sure that its sole interpretation and understanding of Islam constitutes “true Islam”. Consequently, the other understandings and interpretations are often discredited and their bearers rendered outcast. The historical animosity between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims could be taken as a good example illustrating this situation.
This sharp dividing line between being a ‘true Muslim’ or not which is exclusively based on one’s sole understanding and interpretation of Islam, leaves little, if any, room for reconciliation of the various definitions given to Islam (or what is Islamic, for that matter) by different Muslim groups and sects. Moreover, one is also inclined to think that lack of ‘quasi-centralized’ body (such as the Pope or the Vatican) whose interpretation and understanding of the creed could be universally acceptable to the bulk of Muslims, also makes such reconciliation impossible.
This heated debate on whether some situations could be identified as “Islamic” or not, leads directly to the one million dollar ontological question of what is Islam, and whether it is possible to identify some situations or state of affairs as Islamic or not without excluding certain understandings and interpretations of the creed. And finally, what should we learn from the various competing/contradictory understandings/versions of Islam?
There are definitely no easy or final answers to the above questions. For, it is our contention that any attempt made with the aim of reaching a definition of what “Islam” is, or drawing a universally accepted line between what to be considered “Islamic” and ‘what is not’, without performing some sort of exclusion of this understanding/interpretation or that, is practically and theoretically impossible. For it is variation in Muslims’ patterns of livings, interests, historical, cultural, economic and political conditions and experiences which has necessitated the emergence of these different forms and versions of Islam.
Under these complex conditions which make harder the possibility of reaching a universal definition of what “Islam” is or what to be considered “Islamic”, we suggest that only by rendering “Islam” as an ‘empty signifier’ then would we be in a better position to make a lot of sense of what “Islam” is and why and how it has been implicated in the actions of its followers.
We learn from semiotics that meaning is arbitrary, historical, and that it is politically and socially constructed. Moreover, we also learn that meaning is attained though processes of differing and deferring and not according to any intrinsic value(s) embedded into things and situations. If we accept this thesis, then we would be left with nothing, as far as production of meaning is concerned, but a set of floating signifiers_ empty signifiers which simultaneously signify everything and nothing: call it signification under erasure!
Such designation renders the signifier an open horizon prone and ready to be impregnated by unlimited possibilities (meanings, for that matter). Such is the beauty (you are also free to call it promiscuous, instead) nature of the empty signifier. The terrifying aspect – or should we call it curse – of such beauty, however, is that once it is accepted, it immediately dissolves the solid ground on which we construct our understanding of the world, leaving us swimming in the eternally floating orbit of the signifiers! The emptiness of a signifier is what renders it an unlimited possibility. A possibility capable of housing all kind of interpretations and understandings.
As an empty signifier, Islam is deaf, mute and immobile. It does not have the will nor the reason to go to people and tell them to be violent, aggressive, full of hatred, etc., neither does it urge them to be peaceful, kind, lovely, etc. On the contrary, it is people who migrate to the kingdom of the empty signifier (Islam, in our example) and populate it with what they have and desire at that particular moment in the history of their struggle for production and acquisition of meaning/power/interest. Therefore, the idea of attributing to Islam everything a Muslim does, harbours a major fallacy which simply presumes that Muslims are 100% devoted to ‘their creed’ and that whatever they do is necessary guided by what ‘their religion’ sanctions. With the exception of prayers, fasting during Ramadhan, Pilgrimage to Mecca which are noticeably performed by the bulk of those identified with Islam, Muslims, like other people everywhere, attend to their worldly things largely motivated by the mundane logics of desire and power.
How, therefore, could a certain group of people succeed in painting (impregnating) the signifier with blood of beheaded innocent people, suicide bombing victims, etc. who would go about their businesses in places which would themselves turn to be the wrong places at the wrong time? Certainly, actions of these groups of terrorists are hardly dictated by our dead, deaf and mute signifier but rather the driving force(s) for their actions should be sought somewhere else, at a time before migration of these terrorists to the kingdom of the empty signifier!
In what follows this article will attempt to touch upon some of the areas which could be considered constituting part of the big picture of how and why Jihadists appeal to “Islam” in their struggle for the production of meanings and seek legitimacy for their actions!
Violence, domestic or political, and intolerance for the ‘other’, have always been dominant themes of life in most of the countries dwelled by ‘majority of Muslims’. At the domestic level, the patriarchal values of male domination have been carefully drafted, preserved and codified as Islamic values. Accordingly, the male member of a family is deferred to and bestowed with indisputable powers over the female, who is viewed as and is expected to represent the ultimate honor of the family, tribe and the nation. Under these circumstances, ‘violation’ or even just tampering with woman’s honor (no matter through real or imaginary extra-marital involvement) regardless of whether such violation occurs by her consent or she is forced into it (through rape, for example), is something that she always carries responsible for; and the punishment, in most of the cases, is vital: honor killing!
The rules of codes of conduct in the family are predominantly introduced and guarded by the male. These include everything from what to eat, dress, who to befriend and hang out with and even when to go to bed. Violation of these rules always results in one or other form of punishment ranging from verbal insult to slapping and, in extreme cases, even death. Punishment for challenging or questioning male authority in the family is even more traumatic, since such acts would be interpreted as attempts to damage the male’s ego and honor!
Domestic structures of power, violence and intolerance are inherited and maintained at the wider social and national levels. Struggle for power/domination, which, as a virtue, is not something to be shared peacefully. Viewed and acted upon as a divine entitlement, power is acquired through violent approaches ( e.g. coup or assassination of rivals) and kept for life by all means, including physical elimination and exclusion of those dreamers who might dare to think of challenging the absolute right to power of the chosen one(s). Such was the case in Libya’s Gadhafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein who had ruled over their people with iron fists for decades. Assad of Syria and Bashir of Sudan are struggling, as we speak now, to keep their grip on absolute power even though their countries are slipping away bit by bit over the days and nights!
Nevertheless, as expected, control of political power by these despots goes hand in hand with ultimate control of production of meanings and knowledge. Under the reign of dictatorship and totalitarianism, production of meanings and knowledge is carefully managed and maintained so that it serves the ‘absolute’ interests of the ruling group: family or tribe. In a society where only ‘Islamic’ signs are made available to the masses, and where all other signs are controlled and monopolized by state, the former become the only means through which people make sense of their existence; temporally and religiously. Moreover, the fall of the tyrant regimes has created remarkable vacuums in almost all aspects of life of people in these societies. The Islamic signs have proven that they are the only ones available and ready to fill in these vacuums. But wait a minute! What about the liberal and leftist projects of change? Why have the signs of their narratives failed to become the alternative?
For one, the liberals and the leftists have been subjected to systemic oppression, harassment, persecution and exclusion, ironically, from self-proclaimed secular regimes, most of which have been flirted and embraced by Western democratic and secular regimes for very long periods of time. Activities of the liberal and the leftist elements have often been banned and their members and leaders have been subjected to lengthy periods of detention and sometimes executions.
On the other hand, the liberal and leftist projects of change have completely failed to reach out for the masses and mobilize them in support of their perspectives of change and development. This failure could be attributed to many factors. First, these projects have been drafted and presented in language if anything but a mystery to the masses. They have totally ignored the social and cultural signs and symbols of the everyday language of the masses, in particular those of “Islam”, which act as a grand signifier and with which the majority of the population in the so-called Islamic world do identify. Second, eager to ‘party’ rather than dedicating themselves fully to the hectic project of change, which requires rigorous understanding of the nuances of the fabric of their cultural milieu, the leftists and liberals have completely ignored the far-reaching impact of religious signs in the lives of the very people whom they have promised prosperity. Instead, the leftist and liberal projects have adopted a more superficial and rootless method in presenting their agendas for change.
Abandoned by the leftist and liberal elements, the empty signifier has become a fertile sanctuary always available for the mediocre, the destitute, the angry, the oppressed, etc., who would migrate to it and take full advantage of its signs for killings, revenge, justice, rewards, etc.
Going after an abstract and an empty signifier such as “Islam” is not going to help in solving any of the problems associated to it. On the contrary, such a move might in fact exacerbate the situation by uniting many people who do not have anything in common except their identification with an empty signifier. This would, in turn, feed the terrorists who are looking for such an opportunity to carry on with their destructive project.
We need to address the root causes of violence and why religion has become an easy vehicle to transport it all over the place. Democracy and tolerance should be encouraged and taught at our schools. The liberal and leftist projects of change should find ways and means to sincerely challenge and incorporate the religious signs within their discourses for change in ways that these signs serve to promote values of tolerance an appreciation of differences. We do not see any other way around!
* Mohamed Elfaki is a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University, Department of Anthropology.
 We can also add to this group those who actually cite certain verses from Qura’n encouraging the “believers” to wage war against and fight the infidels and present these verses as indisputable evidence of the intolerable nature of Islam.