Catastrophe Affect & Human Values (Responding to the Middle East Today)


I’m not sure about these confessional remarks. On the one hand, the thoughts reflected here cut what is probably too wide a swath through a highly reified and mediated conceptualizations of “Islam” and “the Middle East,” while reflecting my own relatively privileged position in society during what is widely understood to be a moment of catastrophic crisis. As a non-specialist in either the fields of Islam or Middle East Studies, my only access to information, much less insight, is through a limited set of personal contacts, but most of all through books as well as (for the most part) liberal mainstream and online media.  Having said that, it would be untrue to say that I haven’t been assiduously following developments in the region, reading a lot and thinking a lot for more years already than I want to count, especially in relation to my own professional interests and responsibilities as a scholar of modern religion and modern Judaism. While I do not want to make a spectacle out of the suffering of other people, we are all of us nonetheless confronted morally and politically by the impact of that very spectacle on a daily or ongoing basis.


If I were two identify two primary emotions, I’ll confess that it is, in fact, with “alarm” and “pity” that I find myself responding in relation to unfolding events in the Middle East and now Europe —not just “after Paris,” but after Beirut, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Somalia, and Nigeria; alarm at the violence, and pity for the people who suffer it. I would like to think that I have learned to bracket somewhat the more crude expressions of moral solidarity and outrage that betray an overly reactive and self-righteous sense of right and wrong common at the far corners of the right and left in the United States. To be sure, my own sense of right and wrong just as emotional; it is even sentimental in response to the stories and analyses that one can follow on a regular basis, especially when roiling around big breaking news stories like the civil war in Syria, the stabbing intifadah in Israel, the refugee crisis in Europe, the attacks in Paris, and so on and so on.

What I would call “alarm” comes from the critical sense that what ails the Middle East today does not boil down simply to colonialism and neocolonialism, on the one hand, or to “radical Islam” much less “Islam itself,” on the other hand. This position puts me, I think, in the liberal center.

To follow the violence inundating the region, especially the violence now driving people and potentially populations out of the region and into Europe, is to follow the systematic collapse and splintering of entire state systems and social structures. The Middle East has been ripped apart by short and long histories of war (foreign intervention, civil war, sectarian war, proxy war), terrorism, petro dollars, petro politics, petro geo-politics, regional and international meddling, military coup, military occupation, the denial of political rights, incompetent government, autocratic rule, aggressive minority rule, reactionary religion, state sponsored religious radicalism, fragile economies and underdevelopment, limited opportunity, weak civil society institutions, the failure to create binding social contracts, the collapse of robust and supporting international frameworks.

What does “Islam” have to do with these cycles of catastrophic death, the destruction of cities, the uprooting of entire populations, waves of refugees, and to what a sympathetic but critical outsider can only seem to be a pervasive sense of dread, humiliation, and stigma attached to that religious formation? About Islam, my thoughts are perhaps too simple. But I’m not sure how else to grasp or comprehend the sectarian bloodshed in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria, in particular the formal and casual incitement to hatred based on religion, sect, and sex, apocalyptic fantasy, and the slaughter of people in mosques and religious processions, at schools and in markets. Understanding religion and religious ideology as a cultural reflex based on social dynamics, one would have to presume that violence based on religion and religious pretexts forms a part of that reaction, in part as a contributing factor, but mostly as a sickening symptom of something gone fundamentally wrong in the larger social structure.

But why invoke pity when pity, identified with liberal Christian cant, is precisely that emotion that allows one to pretend to a position of distant superiority from “over here” vis-a-vis a putative object “over there,” as if one had nothing to do with the other? Pity that “we” in the west feel for people “over there” in the Middle East might well be part of the problem, not the solution. And yet I’m not sure how else honestly to gauge my own response to this ongoing violence as I follow that carnage from “over here,” mostly at a safe distance, or what seems to be a safe distance. Aware that pity hides a lot of cultural baggage, I nonetheless do not know how else to express the sympathy and sorrow one can feel for people, for the suffering of men, women, and children caught directly in these situations, especially as this sympathy is bound up at the same time with a strong sense of alarm that would otherwise discomfit the sense of that perceived sense of personal safety.

Both self-inflicted and inflicted upon by others, the violence is alarming, while “we” look with pity to its direct victims, the overwhelming majority of whom are, in fact, Muslims, not Christians and not Jews. For Muslims I cannot and would not dare to speak as to the felt range, depth, and pain of that lived human experience. What is it like to find oneself hopeless and helpless, to be disempowered vis-à-vis limited economic prospects and the all-pervasive power of state authority? What is it like to lose one’s home, one’s city, or one’s country when the state falls apart? What happens when one’s religion is caught up in a maelstrom? To flip a phrase, “Nous ne sommes pas tous les réfugiés syriens” At a distance, the distance that I enjoy, as it were, I am left to trust those whom I trust know better than I do as I try to listen for the human voice in this death and destruction. In my particular case, I can only speak for myself as a liberal Jew, a professor of religion and Jewish Studies, someone who cares deeply and worries about Israel, particularly about its own hard lurch to the radical right, and as a citizen of this country, the United States, where discourse about “Islam” and “Arabs” is polarized by ideological posturing on the left and race-baiting on the right.


What then about human obligations? I would like to believe that alarm and pity have an analytic component insofar as they check the full-on rage and performance of an uncritical solidarity that are so common on the right and the left. All the same, these emotions are, for all that, only starting points that are specific to this one moment of historical time. While emotions like alarm and pity might indicate an object, they are emotions that themselves need to be checked in turn.

In the face of what appears as all that human and social rot in the region as a whole, one has to shut one’s eye, as it were. Regardless of what’s wrong in the world, it remains imperative that all of “us” seek out and see what’s good, true, and beautiful in Islam and Islamic cultures, in Islamic art, history, and religion, to make human connections. Ultimately, there is no clear “we” or “us.” One should resist the friend/enemy distinction, the impulse to react to events with hate in order to create social and political realignments that require agreement and consensus, genuine give and take. Not uncritical, this includes the rigorous testing of ideas and theories, the sounding out of arguments predicated on the form of free and open inquiry. I would like to pose the question about equality, but undergirding that essential value lies something more “primitive,” namely the principle of mutual need. This would be particularly true for Jews and Muslims who today depend on each other in ways that are not yet fully understood or realized.

Reflecting on the Middle East, my own liberalism is based on the modern idea that the values that we cherish, or should cherish,.are human ones, not bound by nation or creed, but not oblivious to them either. Interpersonally, those are the values that allow one to take individual people as one encounters them, as individuals, for good and for bad, not as types, and not as threats. Against racist and progressive-postcolonial caricatures alike, I would resist the tendency to look at people as symbols, be they emblems of “evil” or icons of “resistance.” Bracketing pity, I think it makes more sense to respond to the catastrophe suffered by other people, not in order to “grieve,” but in order to encounter ordinary and fallible human beings, fully culpable and morally autonomous while at the same time determined historically and politically by structures, the destruction of structures, and the reconstruction of structures, including religious ones, all of us in relation to each other.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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