Let me begin with this long, but I hope the reader will agree, significant, quote from Etienne Balibar. In many ways, this work will be a conversation with the points and issues it manages to raise:
What is strikingly similar in Arendt and Foucault …, is the fact that neither of them believes that processes of mass extermination, or more generally elimination, ever were possible in history, especially in Modern history… without their victims being so to speak prepared for elimination, i.e. progressively and institutionally marked as potential, future victims, and collectively pushed into a social symbolic corner where they acquired the status of ‘living corpses’, or masses of individuals who are neither completely ‘alive’ nor yet, already ‘dead’… Both Foucault and Arendt agree that this preparation for elimination is associated in Modern Europe… with the use of the category of ‘race’… Both… write in their own manner long genealogies ‘ending’ with singular events, (but) insist on the fact that a preparation, which can be explained or at least interpreted in a causal manner, is not an acting out, an actual process of elimination, or mass elimination, which requires a political supplement, a mutation of the political. Without preparation, you cannot have elimination, but with the preparation, you still don’t have the elimination itself, only its conditions of possibility.(pp.32-33)
From Etienne Balibar, Difference, Otherness, Exclusion, in parallax, 2005, vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 19-34.
In this work, I am calling this preparatory state described above, where the other is considered exterminable but not yet subjected (and will not necessary be subjected) to extermination, a state of exterminability. I will also use variations such as culture of exterminability, or, as in the title, spectres of extermination. The latter is to denote the fact that we are talking about a state where extermination does not exist beyond being a tendency or a hovering possibility, but as such, exists enough as a socio-cultural reality to leave its imprint on our daily lives.
I will be arguing that today we, in many parts of the Western world, have moved towards such a state and such a culture, our exterminable other being an imaginary group increasingly delineated with the usage of the signifier ‘Muslim’. Being imaginary rather than empirical, the group behind this signifier encompasses both more and less than what a dictionary definition of ‘Muslim’ will yield. It is located in a space that is a meeting ground between a number of explicit or implicit others belonging to the long history of Western colonialism in the Islamic world: ‘Arab’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Middle Eastern’, ‘Sand Nigger’, ‘Third World Looking’, and many others new and old. I will deal with the haziness and perhaps also the laziness of this classification later. Suffice to say here, that though we know very well that ‘Muslim’ does not correspond empirically to any phenotype, this has not stopped the Western collective imagination from creating and imposing an ‘imaginary Muslim’ that we are all complicit in creating, sometimes the Muslims among us included. That is, regardless of how many Muslims who do not fit the imaginary stereotype we have come to know, when we read or hear the words ‘a Muslim man’ or ‘a Muslim woman’ a ‘third world looking’ (see Hage 2000) phenotypical image does come to our mind. Certainly not an image of a tall blond blue-eyed person, that’s for sure. For, empirically, tall blond blue eyed Muslims do exist. They are not even a ‘rare’ occurrence. Yet, we in the West, are no longer able to imagine their existence. This, as I will argue, is itself part of the racializing process that constitutes the culture of exterminability. We do not want to consider exterminable those who so ‘spunkily’ look like us.
I am primarily interested in how this western classification of ‘the Muslim’ as exterminable emerges both conceptually and historically. That is, I want to examine the grounds which allow for such a classification to be both logically and socio-culturally acceptable. How do we human beings generally allow ourselves to think of other human beings as exterminable, and, how do so many in the Western world, at this time in history, come to allow themselves to think of ‘Muslims’ in their imaginary particularity as exterminable?
But exterminability is not only about the preparation of those who can be exterminated to learn how to internalise their possible fate (whether to resist it or accept it), it is also about the construction of those who can become exterminators to begin thinking of extermination as possible and indeed as ‘do-able’. So I am also interested, and perhaps even more so, in how so many citizens of the Western world are being slowly prepared to consider extermination in such a way: to live with and be indifferent to it, or even to consider participating in it. These can range from a routinisation of the killing of certain Muslim others to the creation of a ‘warrior habitus’ among the citizens of Western nations. I argue that the emergence of the Western exterminator is the product of a change in the way the Western nation-state is experienced and the way it interpellates its citizens. It is a change that brings to the fore a cultural formation that was always part of Western nationalism, though in a more latent state.
Needless to say, I am aware that the idea that we in the West are laying the grounds to make the extermination of Muslims acceptable will immediately make many wise and down to earth people, who like to keep ‘a sense of proportions’, edgy and/or dismissive. They will probably consider me an ideologue and an alarmist. Like the man who sent an e-mail attacking me when I first proposed my thesis on exterminability at a public lecture at Sydney, they might say that I am being ‘way over the top’ and am ‘dangerous’, so much so that I am the only one who ‘needs to be exterminated for propagating such views’.
Perhaps I am being alarmist and ‘over the top’. I do not say this cynically, or to be dismissive of views other than my own. I seriously think that there is a possibility that I might be an alarmist. In a certain way, this possibility is grounded in the very notion of exterminability. Indeed, this possibility, according to Balibar, is precisely that which stops exterminability from being extermination… yet. After all, I am talking about us being haunted by spectres and asking people to believe in their existence. Nonetheless, I have come to feel that we have reached a state where the potentiality of exterminability has become serious enough to say: better be an alarmist than let this happen to us in silence… if it is to happen.
Given their interest in the role of intellectuals in relation to the social processes they are analysing, both Arendt and Foucault invite us to think of how an intellectual should face the possibility of extermination. Should she or he wait till it becomes actual extermination in order to be on the safe ‘empirically proven’ side of things or should they risk being ‘alarmist’ when they have grounds to smell a whiff of extermination in the air.
Well… it so happens that I smell that whiff. And perhaps it is so because I am hearing impaired, but I put a lot of trust in my nose. Perhaps also it is because I grew up as a Christian Lebanese in Beirut and have experienced the dark side of anti-Muslim enmity during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and how very ‘normal’ people can turn into exterminators literally overnight; And perhaps because I am now constantly reminded of this in the way people discuss ‘torture’ in such an easy going manner. Or perhaps because, unlike others, I have not accustomed myself to the way people have routinised listening or watching in the media about the killing of Arabs and Middle Easterners in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan – I have still not recoverd from the way the Israeli airforce got away with wiping half of Lebanon, half of a nation state that is, with relative indifference; Or perhaps because I have been stung by the incredible site of thousands of young ‘Aussies’ bashing a couple of hapless ‘Lebanese - third world looking people’ on a beach in Australia’s ‘most cosmopolitan city’; Or perhaps because I was stung again by hearing non-alarmist and very down-to-earth media commentators pontificating in the most blissfully Australo-ignorant and parochial, and yet ever so arrogant, way about how ‘understandable’ the crowds’ behaviour was and that many of these young people were not really racist at all but were just ‘making a point’. Perhaps because of all of the above I want to risk being an alarmist.