Summer 2009

The Geopolitics of Emotion: On Muslims and Arabs, on Fear, Hope and Humiliation

Dominique Moïsi

The tears of joy of Jesse Jackson on the night of Barack Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago evoke the images of Rostropovitch playing the cello in front of the crumbling Berlin Wall. They are tears of triumph and reconciliation, tears of harmony with the world, the living proof that Men can change History for the best, when moved by the right emotions”. Emotions are not only about the pagan masses of the Nazi régime in Nuremberg during the brief but also catastrophic fall of Germany into Barbarism” during Hitler’s time.

In November 2008, the wall of the colour of skin has fallen as surely as the wall symbolizing oppression had fallen twenty years earlier in Berlin. Hope has prevailed over fear. The reasons for Obama’s election are objective and mostly rational; a rejection of the immediate past and a strong desire for change in a time of deep economic crisis. Yet, its emotional dimension and the sense of pride felt by many Americans, for what they had achieved – i.e. transcending racial prejudices — cannot be underestimated. In the same vein, it is impossible to judge Russian military adventures in the Caucasus in the summer 2008 without introducing emotions. Imperial Russia is back. If you are scared by me,” says Putin, it is the proof that I exist again and that I am on the right track. Yesterday you despised me, today you fear me. I am transcending my humiliation to recover, through your fear, my hope.”

Hope against Fear, Hope against Humiliation, Fear to transcend Humiliation, Humiliation leading to sheer irrationality if not to the urge to destroy the other: one cannot seize the world in which we live, without introducing emotions, be they positive or negative. Negative emotions have to be contained and reversed. Positive emotions can move the world and help to change it in the right direction, if only at the margin. Emotions are crucial to understand the nature and evolution of the world. A balance of emotions exists now in the way one spoke yesterday of a balance of power. One can draw a map of emotions, as well as one can draw physical, political and demographic maps.

Humiliation is impotence. It is an emotion that stems above all from the feeling that you are no longer in control of your life, neither collectively as a people, as a nation, as a religious community, or individually as a person. The culmination of humiliation comes when you are convinced that others” have intruded in the private realm of your own individual life. Humiliation translates a sense of dispossession towards the present and even more so towards the future, a future that is in utter contrast with an often idealised, glorified past. In a vision of the world dominated by humiliation your political, economic, social, and cultural conditions are not only dictated by others, but this Other” is also responsible for the condition of global dependence” perceived or real in which you find yourself.

Humiliation exists in all cultures and societies. In fact a certain degree of humiliation can constitute an incentive to social climbing through hard work. I shall prove to you, what I am really capable of,” they cry. You have been wrong not to take me seriously”. It can be argued that the first Asian economic miracle in the 1980’s is at least in part the product of humiliated national feelings. Countries such as South Korea, or even Taiwan, wanted to prove to their former occupying power Japan that they too could do well. It has been also, at least partly, one of the motors of the Chinese renaissance”. The humiliation inflicted by the Japanese on the rest of Asia may have rendered the prospect of an Asian Union on the model of Europe a far away dream. It has nevertheless constituted the equivalent of an energising drug for the entire region. In turn, the Japanese themselves in the twenty first century have exhibited their own feeling of relative humiliation towards China, the way Asians felt towards them twenty years ago. A Japanese friend of mine told me how good it was for the Japanese to have the Chinese as neighbours. Without them we would become lazy” was her comment.

Humiliation, when it is transcended and mastered, acts on nations like it does on individuals. It reinforces the instinct of competition. It gives energy and whets the appetite. But it presupposes the existence of a perceived or real window of opportunity”, a glimmer of hope. In other words, it requires a minimum of confidence. By contrast, humiliation without hope leads to despair leading in turn to an instinct of revenge that can turn into an instinct of destruction. If you cannot reach the level of those you feel humiliated by, at least you can by your actions bring them down to your level.

One should not however overemphasize that historical dimension. The frustrations linked to the present and the perceived absence of a future are much more destabilising than any romantic nostalgia about a once glorious past which is largely ignored by the huge majority of the population. Young Muslims in the suburbs of French cities are not motivated by any evocation of Arab Glory when they start burning cars. When they resort to violence, the Middle-East conflict does not motivate them. It is a far away problem, in spite of the power of images. With the situation of near civil war between the various Palestinian factions, it has also become simply too complex. Their frustration which is real is not of a religious, historical and political nature but social-economic. What leads them to despair is their deep feeling of alienation and isolation, against a current geopolitical backdrop which found them regarded with suspicion as Arabs after the first Gulf War, as Muslims after 9/11, and as inhabitants of the poor and therefore dangerous suburbs of big cities following the explosion of violence in 2005.

Humiliation for them did not come from the contrast between the past and the future, but from a gloomy present without a future. It came above all from a difficult search for identity. The difficulty of integration as French, a relative alienation with the countries of their roots’, be it Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia, made them too often orphans of a national identify. In such a context Islam becomes their primary identity for if I am not French and I am no longer an Algerian, who am I, if not a Muslim’?

Frustration with the process of globalisation has been added to all these preceding layers of humiliation. The world of Islam can only be painfully aware, in a transparent and open world, of the growing contrast between the success of the Western and Asian world at surfing the waves of globalisation with its own incapacity to do so — at least for the large majority of them. Extremist fundamentalists may be dreaming of restoring the Greatness of the Caliphate’, their propaganda speaking of Reconquista’, the way most radical anti-globalisation forces dream of an alternative world. But only very few people take them seriously, at least within their own constituency. Their declarations, however, feed the Cassandra of the Western World, in particular those in Europe who point to demographics as the proof that Europe itself is declining’ into some sort of Eurabia’. The sense of historical decline which is at the root of the Arab-Islamic culture of humiliation has been reinforced and deepened by a succession of frustrations. These went via the Ottoman Empire from the submission to Western Imperialism to the disappointments of independence; from the creation of the State of Israel to the frustrations resulting from the use of oil as a weapon; and even more so lately to the frustration with their own leaders, a frustration which is even deeper because no outside forces imposed them.

Yet all this poses the question: why this pervasive sense of failure and impotence? Are socio-economic problems inherent to the Muslim religion? For example, can they be traced to the fact that the Koran draws no clear division between the spiritual and worldly realms? Is Islam somehow incompatible with modernity, capitalism and democracy? Or will democratic electoral processes, in the absence of a democratic culture and a strong middle class, inevitably elevate non-democratic forces, as in the victory of Hamas in Palestine or the defeat of the moderates in Iran?

From God to terrorism there is a huge gap that has been slowly filled by the increasing association between religion and nationalism. This association is at least in part the product of a culture of humiliation which has been present in the Arab-Islamic world. This humiliation has affected all the levels of society, from the poorest to the most affluent and westernised. Without that culture of humiliation how could fundamentalists manage to push young educated Britons to identify with a cause and a country they have never seen i.e. Palestine? How could young Germans converted to Islam be plotting murderous attacks on their own country without a deep sense of alienation and frustration with their own culture? Whatever the talents and the power of conviction of the recruiting agents acting in the name of a fundamentalist vision of Islam, how would they succeed otherwise? Self-destructive instincts are brought to life by a combination of psychological, cultural and socio-economic conditions, leading from humiliation to violence. But like the revolutionaries of nineteenth century Europe, the terrorists of our twenty first century global age are not recruited amongst the poorest. In fact their level of affluence and education is most of the time average if not above average. Those who are striving to survive physically have no time to engage in terrorist activities.

It does however seem clear that the relationship between Islam and politics is somehow fundamentally different from that between Christianity and Islam. This does not necessarily mean that democracy is an alien system to Islam. An increasing number of Muslim intellectuals in societies as diverse as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia are now exploring (in the words of the scholar James Piscatori) how what they regard the intrinsically Islamic values of pluralism, tolerance and civic participation can be implemented’ in their countries’ political cultures.

An important distinction needs therefore to be made between the Arab and the Islamic world. If the expression culture of humiliation’ has any meaning and reality, it applies essentially to the Arab world. It is there that the heart of the problem and the maximum of humiliation are mainly present. Rebuttal, denial of this reality of humiliation is part of the problem. I have a vivid recollection of a lecture I gave in Berlin just a few days after Nine Eleven to an audience of investment bankers including top executive women, coming from the Gulf Emirates. They were bruised by my remarks on the treatment of women by Islam. They did not feel they were the exceptions that proved the rule. They were simply in denial of a reality which they deemed humiliating.

The more humiliated you may feel the more vigorously you deny the existence of that emotion. But if the core of the problem is the Arab world, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to separate the Arab world from the world of Islam. What is Islam without the Arabs, the Arab language, the Arab culture and civilisation? Many Arabs in their identity quest may take refuge in the fact they are Muslims, it is difficult for Muslims not to be embroiled by Arab emotions. It is this encounter between Arab emotions and the existence of a strong culture of humiliation that explain the lack of popular mobilisation against the most unacceptable fundamentalist actions and declarations.

The culture of humiliation also has geopolitical’ implications. Many Arabs may feel threatened by the present growth of Iran, following the aftermath of the second war in Iraq, yet they are emotionally split between their rejection of a non-Arab and Shiite country, and their appreciation for the radicalism of a county that dares to confront the west and its creation Israel in the most forceful way. The present leadership in power in Teheran, whatever its deep internal divisions, is well aware of this emotional reality and basks in it. Of course Arabs are chagrined by the fact that their cause is defended with such brio by a non Arab nation, that the mantle of the Arab pride and honour is seized by Tehran. But better them than no one else’. The rise of radicalism in the Islamic world is in part the cause and the illustration of a phenomenon in which this emotion is giving precedence to its Moslem component over its Arab one.

Emotions do not emerge, or dominate at a given time by accident, in a cyclical vision of history; they are the product of the encounter between events, results and a sense of trust, itself the product of culture and history. One cannot fully understand the world in which we live in without trying to integrate and understand its emotions. And emotions are like cholesterol, there is the good one and the bad one. The problem is to find the right balance between them.

Dominique Moïsi was a founder of the French Institute for International Relations, and remains a special adviser there as well as Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw, and visiting Professor at Harvard. His most recent book, The Geopolitics of Emotion, is published in English by Bodley Head.