[Abdullah Azzam] Saturday, May 2nd, 2020
This pandemic reminds me of a very intriguing concept of ‘world risk society’ discussed by Ulrich Beck where he illuminates on the nature of ‘risk’ the 21st century world is facing, and how these uncontrollable risks transcends the spatial and temporal boundaries. Unlike pre-modern dangers which were attributed to demons or God etc, risk is a modern idea which implies control, decision making and colonizing the future. The belief that risks are calculable and controllable culminated into the evolution of welfare state where the nation-states were obligated to protect its citizens from all types of dangers and insecurities. Alas, the welfare state is long gone and so are the risks transformed – they do not respect the spatial fancies of nation-states.
Similarly, they defy any temporality as the risks now are going to stay indefinitely. But, above all, the actual challenge lies in the loss of language and categories to explain and comprehend the risks. For so many reasons, the world contemporaneous to our time is fundamentally transformed, and one of the most significant transformations is, as Habermas has rightly observed, the exhaustion of so-called modern utopias/utopian energies. It is important to unpack the consequentiality of such a crisis marked by loss of language and exhaustion of cherished categories.
When after 9/11, USA declared the war on terror, it was soon noted that it was not a war in conventional sense, primarily because it was decoupled from its binary i.e. peace. Also, contrary to the modern legal concept of war which implies armed hostile conflict between states, on one side there was state(s), but on the other there was a transnational network. It exposed that we don’t have a proper analytical toolkit to comprehend this phenomenon and compelled us to still call it a war. The same is the case with the climate change emergency and we don’t know who to hold accountable for this crisis. We don’t have straight answers, not only this, but when we know that it affects different regions differently, we don’t know how to regulate the causalities of this crisis. There are numerous such challenges today which fail our taken for granted frameworks and categories and upset the modern ‘grids of intelligibility’. There is no denying that scholars are genuinely labouring to grapple with these phenomena and at the interstice of our unique time, several interesting theories and works are secreting.
With due respect to all those important efforts, I want to highlight how our time has transformed our cognitive capability to a great extent. In the absence of language and neat distinctions, we got obscenely fascinated to images, data, figures and indicators. Our fascination is unrequited as data do not speak; they hide more than they tell. Every day we get numbers of how many people are found corona positive, how many succumbed to it and how many are critical. These figures have not only dehumanised the human suffering but also lack any reflex – they do not espouse compassion, care, pain or any other human emotion. Of course, we are up for charity but only if it can be translated into images, into tweets and retweets, into likes and thumbs up and into a kind of orgasmic spectacle. We wish we could problematize our crises and sufferings but, our bad, we don’t have the language for that and therefore, we again get back to images, to emoticons and to memes – trap of simulation. It implies a very deep hollowness in us and our collective cognition.
There is a dangerous virus which has turned into a global pandemic, but we don’t know who is responsible for all this? Who are the agents? How to get rid of this because we relied on welfare nation-states to solve our problems and something by that name is exhausted long ago? There are so many questions with no answers and this is causing us unbearable frustration. We need release, an orgasm to get rid of this frustration. We find this release in images, in racializing the problem. The frustration in India got projected on the already racialised and objectified- the Muslims. We are witnessing the propagandas like ‘Tablighis are deliberately spreading this virus’, ‘this is Corona Jihad’, ‘they will destroy our country’ etc., but the question is: “Who are Tablighis?” Tablighis here refer to those who are associated with Tablighi Jamat (TJ). TJ is a transnational Islamic revivalist organisation that asks its followers to orient their practice according to the core teachings of Islam and practice of Prophet and early leaders. (Stanly Johny, ‘Who are the Tablighi Jamaat?’ The Hindu (Chennai, 2 April 2020). The TJ organised a religious congregation at its headquarter in New Delhi and several people who attended it were tested positive for novel Corona virus. (Billy Perrigo, ‘It Was Already Dangerous to Be Muslim in India. Then Came the Coronavirus’ Times (3 April 2020).
They are already available images, objects and imaginations on which a substantial mass of Indian people projects its frustration. They are not recognisable human beings rather they belong to an essentialised and constructed phenotypal race. This Tablighi propaganda, sustained through fake news and consistent objectification, exposed every Muslim in India to fell prey for the release of frustration of a section of Indian mass.
This loss of language has indeed profound consequences. Aristotle, in ‘Politics’, said that the relation between human beings and all other living beings can be understood through the relation between ‘phone’ and ‘logos’ i.e. voice and language. Among all living beings, only humans have language. Voice is to express pain and pleasure, but language is to problematize, to draw distinctions, to signify ‘the just and the unjust; the fitting and the unfitting’. There are global risks that challenge the very assumptions of modern worldview and leave us with an unbearable quest for an epistemological horizon. India is no exception to all this. On the other hand, India is, as Sankaran Krishna has aptly highlighted, characterised by ‘postcolonial anxiety’. This suggests that society is indefinitely deferred in space between ‘former colony’ and ‘not yet nation’. While defining itself, the post-colonial India has constituted Muslims as the other and the periphery through a continued process marked by violence – both physical and epistemological. There has been ceaseless calling for a language/definition of Indian self which is independent from the binary of other (Muslims). Undoubtedly, there have been rigorous attempts in this direction, but the space of definition has always been discursive and contested. In one form or the other, the othering of Muslims was always there in India which suggests that, in respect of defining herself, the post-colonial India is characterised by discontent. In last few years, the phenomenon of ‘world risk society’ merged with India’s own anxiety and has ensued a colossal collective frustration among Indians. Across globe, in reaction to these crises, right wing populist politics emerged and so does in India. There is only one rule in the game – hatred. Muslims were always there, already stereotyped and represented as inhuman non-subjects, to hate. History will, anyway, write that a great civilization suffered from an absolute loss of language/framework to problematize the challenges of its time. History will, anyway, write that a great civilization was so impregnated with frustration that its people got some relief in hate and violence. If history will not, the oppressed will write and record all this to the embarrassment of the great civilization.
The Corona pandemic must teach us to learn silence. It will teach us that history of human progress, sometimes go through an eclipse – an eclipse marked by meaningful silence. It must teach us to struggle for new language, categories and utopias. It must also teach us patience, that for a horizon a long, deep and dark night must pass.
Abdullah Azzam | Oxford | May 2nd, 2020
Abdullah Azzam is a Graduate of the Transnational Law LL.M. at King’s College London, an affiliated Research Scholar with the Transnational Law Institute at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London, and a DPhil Student at the University of Oxford, Faculty of Law. firstname.lastname@example.org