By Carl Raschke
I've been sifting through the text of President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo calling for a "new beginning" in relations between Muslims and the West. I've been looking for those portions of the text that would truly seem inaugural, if I may be permitted a little piece of "pomo-speak". I have to say that I am impressed, and that there is almost nothing in the address that comes across as hackneyed, platitudinous, or downright fulsome, as one would expect of any "political" speech, even though this one is political to the core. Is it inaugural? Yes, truly, and the reason has to do with far more than what the White House itself is saying.
There were concerns voiced by Obama's critics in the run-up to his "historic" talk before a sometimes approving, sometimes demuring (especially when he criticized violence against Israeli citizens in Palestine) audience of largely Egyptian students. The critics predicted he would spend a lot of time "apologizing" for America and its historical sins. He didn't. They also warned that he might end up pandering to his Islamic audience. He didn't do that either. Obama defied in this instance the effort of many of his critics to brand him as one who kowtows to enemies simply by "making nice."
Every nuance of his carefully crafted rhetoric was strategically designed to affirm many classic American foreign policy objectives while scotching any hint of we-stand-for-right-and-truth bravado or you-have-a-right-to-be-mad-at-us grovelling. In essence, it was an effort to sound in his own way Kennedyesque by carefully articulating many familiar and venerable strains of democratic internationalism and idealism while repudiating the post-911 "clash of civilizations" idea. If Muslims are so much like us, while implicitly sharing our peaceful goals, there's no reason we can't all get along, Obama seemed to be saying.
The Los Angeles Times summed it up: "Obama's style has been to cast himself as ready to lead the nation past the entrenched battles of the Clinton and Bush years and to ask Americans to look beyond old fault lines and accept a new politics of pragmatism and compromise." He was attempting to do the same with Muslims. But if one takes a look at the wording of the actual speech, a more grandiose vision seems to emerge. The key statements occur in the fifth paragraph. "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
Obama's "new beginning", therefore, was to enunciate the lofty principles of the European Enlightenment, out of which America was birthed, and to invite present day Muslims of all stripes in all nations to re-define themselves within that shining episteme. It was perhaps a rare meld of Kennedyism minus the "pay any price" polemics as well as Wilsonianism minus any kind of "make the world safe for democracy" rant. It even smacked of Kantian cosmopolitanism, summoning the rational-minded from all cultures and all faiths to step forward as one toward the global city on the hill.
Obama of course didn't mention Immanuel Kant, nor the Kantian "categorical imperative" on which all cosmopolitanism through the principle of a universal "rational faith" must be forged. But he came as close as any politician could come in describing the true "religion without religion" of the eighteenth century Aufklärung. "There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples."
Obama, in effect, challenged the West as much as the Muslim world to forsake the "postmodernism" of the last forty years with its emphasis on the philosophy as well as the politics of cultural, religious, and personal identity. In a sweeping gesture that could only be made by someone with his wealth of symbolic capital for today's international leadership - African roots, racial "hybridity", American president, Harvard-educated apostle of global inclusivism - Obama called on the most "identitarian" of peoples to embrace a world vision that is far more European than Muslim.
Although Obama, unlike previous American presidents, acknowledged the painful legacy of a "colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims", he challenged those resentful of that legacy to let go of it and embrace a set of values and ideals that "post-colonialists" frequently blame for the legacy in the first place. The historical causal nexus linking the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and colonialism has been fairly well explored in the scholarship of the past century.
But there is another factor that is almost routinely overlooked - the events of 1683 that not only sewed the seeds for the rise of post-Reformation and industrial Europe, but also for what has been called the "great Muslim humiliation" before modern Western military might that has shaped the last almost three and half hundred years. We are talking about the Battle of Vienna between the allied armies of Central Europe and the Ottoman empire, seat of the last caliphate and champion of the dar al-Islam ("house of Islam"), that commenced on September 11, 1683 and concluded a day later.
Like the legendary Battle of Tours in 732 A.D., which halted the first century of Islamic expansion and laid the groundwork for the rise of Charlemagne and the very idea of Europe, the Battle of Vienna set in motion the events that have configured the present conflicts. A respected Muslim colleague of mine some years back confirmed the historical significance of the date September 11 for many in his community, which was not in any way "randomly" selected by Osama bin Laden for his strategic attack on America by hitting New York's Twin Towers. It was a commemoration by certain Muslims with long memories of what Westerners have either forgotten, or are for the most part ignorant of.
A Muslim chronicler wrote of the defeat at Vienna: "this was a calamitous defeat, so great that there has never been its like since the first appearance of the Ottoman state." That "calamitous" turning of tables, according to later historians, both weakened fatefully Ottoman power at its apogee and emboldened the nation states of Europe, including Russia, to put deliberate and relentless military pressure on the once mighty Ottomans until they became a ghost of themselves and collapsed in 1918 after their last gasp attempt to save themselves by first seeking to adopt Western ways and finally allying with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
In the introduction to his blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Vienna entitled Vienna Anno 1683, Austrian historian Johannes Sachslehner writes that the year 1683 "has become a profound mirror of the history of early modern Europe." It also tipped the balance in the minds of Europeans between the ultimate importance of faith and religion versus "materialistic, technical, and military thinking" in the definition of a people's historical goals. In other words, it sparked the Enlightenment.
The "clash of civilizations" (regardless of whether it is understood in the way Samuel Huntington originally presented the thesis), which Obama acknowledged in passing as an historical reality, turns out to be something much deeper than any renewed Enlightenment-driven, pomo-Kantian, globalist internationalism can overcome. Kant himself was all about advancing the gospel of reason, including a nod even to the necessity of military conflict, in his own quasi-messianic anticipation of the coming of a commonwealth of the world's rational-minded. "Today Europe, tomorrow the world" is the implicit message of his famous essay Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.
This "universal cosmopolitan condition," according to Kant, is the "last" to be achieved. It can only be achieved, as the Enlightenment itself was achieved, after the exhaustion of endless religious particularist conflicts. "The greatest problem for the human race, to the solution of which Nature drives man, is the achievement of a universal civic society which administers law among men", Kant wrote in 1784.
That was virtually Obama's message in Cairo.
However, such an "inauguration" today poses many deep, theoretical dilemmas that take us well beyond such familiar (Enlightenment) concerns as intolerance, historical victimization, and the persistence of old, combative habits. The dilemmas - perhaps we should use the proper philosophical term and say "aporias" - were not only trenchantly recognized, but "deconstructed" in context by Jacques Derrida in his famously opaque, but decidably epochal 1995 essay entitled ""Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of 'Religion' at the Limits of Reason Alone".
Derrida takes up where Kant left off. Derrida recognizes the "singularity" of the religious as that which both "responds to" ("religion is the response") and internalizes according to what he calls its "logic of autoimmunity" the Kantian exceptionality of radical evil.
Kant argued late in life throughout his "historical" essays that this singularity, or exceptionality, seems to proscribe the dream of Enlightenment. Yet, Kant insisted in an argument that anticipates Hegel's own "cunning of reason" (List der Vernuft) that the refractory exceptionality of radical evil, manifest in seemingly endless human conflict, propels the calculus of rational expediency and the quest for peace among sovereign states, and in the end (yes, the Enlightenment did have its own curious "eschatology") the universal commonwealth of all rational beings. Again, something similar seems to be the gist of Obama's foreign policy.
Derrida, however, has his own prophetic insight into the impossibility of a dialectical resolution of history, of any List. The Enlightenment, like the 18th century concept of "religion" on which the notion of the universal "right" of religious freedom is based, is a Graeco-Roman (and by derivation European) artifact. It is the cornerstone of what he much earlier named our "white mythology". More difficult to think than the Kantian "idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view" is the "return of religion," which is what 911 was all about.
The extensions of the Enlightenment are the ideas of economic and scientific progress, the ideology by which colonialism was always justified, as well as what Derrida terms "globo-latinization", hence "globalization" in the neo-liberal sense. Religion has an entirely different genealogy. Its genealogy is not the globo-Latin, but the "world" in Jean-Luc Nancy's sense of that which is shared intimately as a Mitsein within the space of particularity, that is beyond any kind of conceptual or universal "representation."
This Mitsein is constituted by what Levinas called the "otherwise than being" of revelation itself. It is not subject to any Kantian axiomatic of "reason alone." As the Qur'an itself says in the sura known as "The Spirits": "knowing the unseen: God does not reveal the unseen mystery divine to anyone at all, except a Messengers with whom God is pleased; and God sends forth observers before and behind him." The singularity of the religious, the "sacred testimony," resists fiercely all globo-Latinization, according to Derrida. It is not radical evil - though it can become "evil" - so much as radical exceptionality.
Radical exceptionality is exactly what the world is up against, and any summons for a "return of Enlightenment" to counter the "return of religion" is prone to disaster. As Derrida says in "Faith and Knowledge" the coming of this exceptionality, constituted not only as a "return" but as an "event", "ought to puncture every horizon of expectation."
911 was such a "puncture." There are more to come. The Enlightenment brooks no aporias, which was Kant's project.
But history - and the God of history if one wants to theologize about it - is a stern teacher, even for a rudderless West that desperately desires a Renaissance of its once glorious secular imperium, that wants a new Enlightenment.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.