Talal Asad at EASA, Maynooth

For liberalism the readiness to multiply death – ours and theirs, but especially theirs – is a condition of freedom, a readiness to shift nonviolent politics into the politics of force.

– Asad 2009, Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

The European Association of Social Anthropologists is holding their biennial congress at Maynooth this week. It is Maynooth’s biggest hosted conference ever with almost 1,300 on the register over a three day period. The opening keynote lecture was given by Talal Asad, author of Formations of the Secular, a book which I greatly admire. I am not attending the conference (it would have been an excessive fourth this year), but I could not miss the opportunity of seeing Asad speak on home turf, albeit transmitted across the corridor from JH1 to JH2. He based the lecture on his 2009 paper for the Cambridge Review and as the theme of the conference is Crisis and Imagination, he spoke to both our sense of crisis and our imaginations.

As far as I can tell, the lecture laid out the ground for a new anthropology of terrorism and human rights, seeing each one as part of a liberal dialectic. Asking the question: legal or not what made the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq a necessity? Asad mapped out the economy of liberal human rights where the reorientation of the concept of ‘just war’ made certain peoples’ deaths necessary to safeguard the lives of others. If the killing of non-combatants is now central to ‘new’ forms of war, in what ways do we see this “etiquette of death” playing itself out in the West? His response to this question unpacked notions of our distinction between what makes up terrorism and counterinsurgency.

The central point for Asad in this analytical and deeply important process of unpacking is the notion of sovereignty. If some people can be made part of political entities that are less than sovereign, the law of ‘just war’ is suspended. It is worth quoting some of the 2009 paper at length to illustrate this point:

…‘just war’ claims to follow clear legal and moral rules but belligerent nations do not agree on how these are to be applied in concrete cases; it seeks to humanize war but accommodates the massive killing of civilians and it cannot hold powerful states accountable for atrocities; it refuses the terror threatened by insurgents but accepts the terror of a nuclear option by the state. Although theorists seek to present liberalism as consistent, unified and universal, and polemicists seek to separate it clearly from doctrines and attitudes that are illiberal, the ways in which self-styled liberals deal with questions of military violence are not so easily classifiable. (2009, 16)

This lack of classifiable questions on the use of military violence forms a contradiction within what we believe to be violence in the first place. Traditionally, wars were between armies, often legitimated (but not forgiven) by religion, and the general populace was said to be bound by the outcome of these wars. The subjects and citizens of warring states and territories were seen to be external to this moral economy. (In passing, Asad references Hauerwas as a notable exception to the justification for ‘just war’.) A nation’s army fought for the freedom, lives, peace of those it served. What is different about a War on Terror is that it blurs the distinction between citizen/subject and military personnel to the extent that the very idea of sovereignty is questionable. The adoption by the US regime in Iraq of a Callwell Small Wars doctrine exemplifies this blurring to denuded sovereignty, according to Asad.

Courtesy: Deadspin

For Afghanistan to be dubbed, along with Syria and Iraq, a failed state allowed the US and its allies to move beyond the internationally agreed moral economy of war and thus ‘their’ sovereignty. The US military is now negotiating locally to advance its global interests. It is consciously jumping scales. Hence, the designation of non-combatants, the use of of torture in other states,  the hiring of mercenaries (and corporations) from places formerly thought of as enemy and the eventual negotiation with local leaders using money as medium.

The playing out of the US state’s will to exterminate some in order to save others is the very essence of terror for Asad. In this sense, the liberal justification for war in far away places for ‘peace at home’ and the reasons for suicide bombing are closely related. Both are equally heroic / facile, they both involve ‘sacrifice’ for a greater cause. In Obama’s words says Asad, we see medieval theological underpinnings of politics: an imperfect humanity which must be exorcised of its evil through further destruction. This is vision as political theology, not as transcendental; it is “the socialisation of atrocity”:

This is especially the case since the late 19th century, when liberalism (the word itself was coined in that period) combined parliamentary democracy, national reform and international law. And this is also the period when liberalism advocated civic republicanism at home and colonial rule abroad—that is, when it identified itself closely with imperial projects.

In these senses, Asad did not introduce anything terribly novel into the broader discussion (of which there was none after the lecture) but his method allowed this field to open up. It brought with it a space from which to overcome the liberal aporia of justifying violence abroad to protect the rights of ‘us all’. Humanitarian intervention, seen in this mould, is the re-establishment of the citizenry’s actions during and after the cessation of formal hostilities brought about by the military. It is the failure of democracy that requires ‘us’ to intervene; it is the charity of ‘our’ aid workers that will stabilise the crisis. (We see broadly similar language used in bank bailouts.) The lecture made me think that Wikileaks’ recent release of data breaks down this home and away dichotomy and brings the war right back into the  liberal mind when s/he opens her newspaper in rural Vermont and east London. A combination of compassion and cruelty forms the current response to state-instituted terror.

What does this have to do with religion and secularism? Consider the following:

Today, because there is no mechanism for penance, secular liberals can only offer regret for killing ‘innocents’ in war—and a bad conscience if the killing was ‘unnecessary or disproportionate’. (2009,10)

‘Our’ regret and humility when seeming innocents die in combat operations is but the performance of a secular ritual. The theological notions in me say that our regrets are flat and purely political if not justified in the transcendental; the social geographer in me says it is power unfolding across spaces that at first may seem disconnected but are centrifugally proximate.