Friends and enemies

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MANY years ago, I asked a man, a Muslim man, ‘But you’re a moderate Muslim, right?’ Today, I find the whole western world, out in protest, wearing pink hats, waving at the trumping of hate by love, carrying pretty babies and dogs and flowers, asking in principle, the same question. The main kernel of fear of the Muslim lies here. Why do they resist being like us? We like them. We will be nice to them. But they must be a little bit like us, at least, to an extent. The Muslim subject, with all the stereotypes and generalizations, piled on her back, emerges in the current world as an entity that denies the careful calibration of freedom and restraint as the key handle of modern subjectivity.

The question then arises what is the drive-force behind protest? Who is interpellated at the modern (in this case, referring to anti-Trump, anti-Islamophobia protests in North America in the past two months) protest? To my mind, the protesting subject is affirming belonging, closeness with the sovereign in a courtier-like posture. One that rebukes modern power and urges it to correct its own derailed path. The modern western protester wants modernity to be back on track, including within it environmental subjects, marginal/indigenous people and crucially, the troubled subject of Islam.

I remember Lauren Berlant here. Berlant tells a story of cruel optimism – one that surrounds us with an all-pervasive, cruel promise. We are trapped in the fantasmic economy of the promise of the ‘good life’ – all the while grappling with the time of not-enough, not-good-enough, decay, exhaustion, ruination. Never enough money, never enough love – says Lauren Berlant.1 But there is the ever-receding promise of perfect love, perfect life, tiny house with a garden, cherubic children, mild autumns and the rising dough of bread. It is the promise, however fanciful, however hegemonic, that forms the drive-force of life. Berlant unpacks the feeling of insecurity of living at the margins as the acute feeling of wanting to get inside the economy of opportunity and fantasies that drive it – they want to be exploited, she says – just so they are in the game.

This narrative of marginality being defined as the cruel optimism of wanting to be included in the promise of a liberal ‘good life’ is effectively disturbed by the subject of Islam. Of course, there are important correctives to the generalized nature of the above statement. But I see the Trump protester’s dreamworld as one of careful cultivation of courtiership to the modern state. The Trump protester is not up against capitalist modernity as much as she is against crude, rabid expressions of its extremity. Trump lies at one extremity of the capitalist modernist project. It is the protester’s wont to bring this extreme king back to the middle of the spectrum of rule – to restore the political project back to an idyllic melodic tone. Trump is a jarring note, that’s what he is.

Canada, on the other hand, expresses its projects of political and economic modernity in soft, lilting tones. Syed Hussan is a Toronto-based activist, a long time advocate for the rights of undocumented persons and migrant workers of precarious immigrant status. We come to know from the work of activists like Hussan and the generalized nature of discontent with modern states (especially, having read a bit of the work of philosophers like Foucault and Agamben) that states are not what they pretend to be. What then is the posture of the protesting subject who affirms at all points inclusion within limits of the law? This subject, to my mind is anxiously articulating her membership in the political canvas of the sovereign. The pink hats and the sunny guitars affirm a nod, a nudge at the sovereign as the current iteration of sovereign power generates a jarring note. The note must always be melodic. The melodic note must state and hide at the same time the racist, exclusionary violence it generates through the rubric of cruel optimism. The liberal protesting subject takes on the responsibility for auditory beautification of sovereign violence.

Foucault paints a picture ‘docile bodies’ in Discipline and Punish that shows direct affirmation of the logics of control.2 The liberal protester enacts a docile body insofar as she choreographs a pose of recalcitrance that is targeted at the derailed path of the democratic machine, but never at the machine of democratic capitalism itself. Good democracy. Good freedom. Good life. Humane economic relations. They all suture into a melodic movement of ethics and aesthetics. Trump is but a short jarring adage in a long and complex orchestra. The sovereign must be beautiful, graceful, merciful, giving, restorative, palliative. The violence that lies at the very core of sovereignty must be assigned a shadow.

Syed Hussan tested the limits of docility in the protesting discourse. He said ‘let us become the enemy’. At an anti-Islamophobia rally against the recent Quebec killings on February 4.

I quote:

And this way of life – the one that killed our six loved ones – needs armed enforcers whose work is death. And it needs bureaucrats, and administrators to sustain it. It needs courthouses like the one we stand in front of to turn justice into rhetoric. And it needs a public that upholds these laws, enforcing them in the smallest of ways. As teachers that check ID documents, as nurses that check health cards. This clawing way of life is Liberalism.

This, their way of life comes in all colours – the Red, the Blue and the Orange of your political parties. It comes in many flavours, the caustic bile of Trump and his cohorts that sit in the White House built by Black men and women. It comes in the saccharine sweetness of Trudeau who defends Muslims in word but then arms the bombing of Yemen, who bows and scrapes to the likes of disastrous Barrick Gold, but will not clean the five decade long mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows.

And whether they drop drones on us like Obama, ban us like Trump, or hug a few of us like Trudeau, we to them, to that way of life are enemies.

On one side is the border wall, on the other side is the enemy.

On one side is the prison, and inside is the enemy.

On one side are the police, and held down by them are enemy.

On one side are the bankers, the politricksters, the negotiators, and across from them is the enemies.

On one side is the deportation judge, on the other, the enemy.

On one side the slave ship, and inside it the enemy.

On one side the drone pilot, and on his screen, the enemy.

On one side the murderer, and on the other six men in prayer, the enemy.

So today I say to you, become the enemy.

And to become enemies, let us become the nightmare that they warn themselves about.

What he meant is less relevant than the speed and amplification the speech got across the echo chambers of the internet. Extremist. Terrorist. These words were used to describe him. And of course, Muslim. Which he happens to be by name and origin. How Muslim he is not is less relevant than the very reading of a dissenting subject as an attack on the docility of assumed pacifism in the protest landscape. The trope of attack as a protesting strategy is not unknown in the history of modernity. I will not recite Gramsci and Fanon and Malcolm X here.

To consider the backlash received by Hussan on the occasion of this speech, I wish to remember the prose of Tagore where the revolutionary is painted as a deviously charming man – Sandeep (in the novel Home and the World, set in the wake of the Bengal Swadeshi movement of the late nineteenth century). Sandeep roused revolutionary feelings in Bimola, his egalitarian landlord friend’s wife. Sandeep was not unaware of the massive destruction and violence that the Swadeshi (economic boycott of British goods) movement would bring. Sandeep, given his charm, his subtle exploitativeness, his energy, his self-importance, wills himself into a violent and destructive road to a radically different picture. Remember that this was the time of petitions and picketings by English-educated moderate gentlemen of the Indian National Congress. Nikhil, the egalitarian landlord, with whom Tagore’s sympathies lie, watches the villages of his Muslim subjects burn in the Swadeshi fire. He plunges in and dies. Bimola is the guilty wife of Nikhil. Bimola is the powerful mokkhi rani (queen bee) of Sandeep’s virulent swadeshi politics.

These are loosely sutured thoughts on watching the fragile contours of the liberal protest. The liberal protest is woven into the script of docility that Foucault gave us a vocabulary for. The protesting subject is also a disciplined subject. They align with the Nikhil shape of a beautiful, graceful sovereign dressed as humane democracy/capitalism. The moment of euphoria over liberal protest marks solidarity with difference only after softening its contours and fitting it comfortably within a status quo. There are no Sandeeps in the horizon.

Atreyee Majumder



1. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism. Duke University, Durham, NC, 2011.

2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. Vintage Books, London, UK, 1977.