Last update: 2019-05-27 15:29:29
Review of Slavoj Žižek, Islam and modernity: blasphemous reflections, Ponte alle Grazie, Milan 2015.
It is probably not especially surprising that a radical thinker like Žižek, someone so profoundly political in his intellectual commitment, but also attentive to the question of religion, has recently started to grapple with the issue of political Islam. This text is a kind of polemical essay that consists of a short introduction, written in connection with the terrible Charlie Hebdo massacre, and two short chapters, which are intertwined but can be read as entirely separate reflections.
The first chapter is devoted more directly to the complex relationship between radical Islam and Western modernity. Žižek highlights the profound connection between religious fundamentalism and secular modernity, showing how in the opposition to Western globalisation in the name of restoring an undisturbed religious order there emerges an essential transformation of the contents of the past, conceived from a historical situation and from a horizon of an ultramodern language and concepts. The provocation that results from this implicates also liberal democracies, and their concept of tolerance in particular. Žižek, referring to Lacan, observes how tolerance has been especially put under scrutiny by ways of life that we consider to be “impossible to tolerate” when publicly manifested. In this context, the liberal West and conservative Islam face equal provocation, in particular with regard to forms of sexuality and the role of women. However, the great dividing line does not pass between two opposing forms of community life, as is typical of the relations between great religious traditions. It rather lies between a traditional way of understanding life within a community context and the liberal pretext of considering each individual “universally,” removing them from their roots and placing them in an abstract relationship of choice with their lifestyle.
The second chapter adopts a more genealogical approach towards the roots of Islamic identity and its relations with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Within this perspective, Islam is characterised by a curious ambivalence. On the one hand, it is more alien to hierarchical institutionalisation, distinguished by a concept of a more radically transcendent God, and more distant from the acceptance of the idea of the sacrifice of the son according to the father’s will. But on the other hand, it is also more subject to appropriation by a temporal power, more inclined to the emergence of the divine as a sacred and numinous idol, more willing to sacrifice the real to the inscrutable will of God. A key to understanding this ambiguity revolves around the role of women, as emerges from a Qur’anic reading of the relationship between Abraham and the slave Hagar and the relationship between Muhammad and his wife Khadija. Woman appears close to the divine and to understanding divine truth, but at the same time she also represents the embodiment of temptation and falsehood. As such, the woman becomes an element to be isolated and repressed, to be totally “veiled,” so as to obscure the ineffable and contradictory root of the relationship with the divine. Again, the West cannot fail but be implicated, with its drive to prohibit every prohibition, which denies other identities the possibility of legitimately defining themselves.
For those who are au fait with Žižek’s writings and reflections, this short text will not be a surprise, as it concisely encapsulates both the qualities and weaknesses of his work. Many insights are interesting and, even when not particularly original, they are still expressed in a lively and unpredictable way. What will leave the reader unsatisfied however is the lack of depth, of accuracy of references, and the rhapsodical nature of the inferences and conclusions. Any readers in search of fascinating insights into the difficult understanding of the relationship between Islam and Western modernity will find more than one interesting passage to dwell on attentively. However, to engage in a serious, systematic and respectful reading of the complex historical and cultural situation with which we are faced, the reader will have to look elsewhere.
To cite this article
Paolo Monti, “Sparks Between the Religious and Secular Modernity”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 136-137.
Paolo Monti, “Sparks Between the Religious and Secular Modernity”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/sparks-between-religious-and-secular-modernity.