The Disturbing Sounds of the Turkish March

The true problem with “militaristic humanism” resides not in “militaristic,” but in “humanism,” in the way a military intervention is presented as humanitarian aid

BY Slavoj Žižek

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On September 16, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner warned the world that when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program: “We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war.”

The statement, predictably, caused great uproar, with criticism focused on what Sir John Holmes, head of the U.N. refugee agency, called the “Iraq taint.” After the scandal about Weapons of Mass Destruction as the excuse for invading Iraq, evoking such a threat forever lost its credibility. Why should we believe the United States and its allies now, when we have already been so brutally deceived?

There is, however, another aspect of Kouchner’s warning that is much more worrying. When the newly elected French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, nominated Kouchner, the great humanitarian who is politically close to the Socialists, even some of Sarkozy’s critics hailed the move as a pleasant surprise. Now the meaning of this nomination is clear: The return in force of the ideology of “militaristic humanism,” or even “militaristic pacifism.”

The problem with this label is not that it is an oxymoron, a reminder of the “War is Peace” slogans from Orwell’s 1984. The simplistic pacifist position “more bombs and killing never brings peace” is a fake, because one often has to fight for peace. Nor is the problem that, much like Iraq, the new target is chosen not out of pure moral consideration, but because of un-admitted geopolitic and economic strategic interests. No, the true problem with “militaristic humanism” resides not in “militaristic,” but in “humanism,” in the way a military intervention is presented as humanitarian aid. Justified in the name of depoliticized universal human rights, such interventions suggest that anyone who opposes them is not only taking the enemy’s side in an armed conflict, but also making a criminal choice that excludes him from the international community of civilized nations.

This is why, in the new global order, we no longer have wars in the old sense of regulated conflicts between sovereign states in which certain rules apply (the treatment of prisoners, the prohibition of certain weapons, etc.). What remains are “ethnic-religious conflicts” that violate the rules of universal human rights. They do not count as wars proper and thus demand the “humanitarian pacifist” intervention of Western powers–even more so in the case of direct attacks on the United States or other representatives of the new global order. These attackers are not considered soldiers, but rather “unlawful combatants,” criminally resisting the forces of universal order. In this conflict, it is impossible to even imagine a neutral humanitarian organization like the Red Cross mediating between the warring parties, organizing the exchange of prisoners, etc. Instead, one side in the conflict (the U.S.-dominated global force) already assumes the role of the Red Cross, perceiving itself not as one of the warring sides, but as a mediating agent of peace and global order that crushes particular rebellions and, simultaneously, provides humanitarian aid to “local populations.”

The key question is thus: Who is this “we” on behalf of whom Kouchner is speaking? Who is included in it and who is excluded from it? Is this “we” really the “world,” the apolitical community of civilized people acting on behalf of human rights? An unexpected answer (or, rather, a complication) arrived a month later, on October 17, when, in defiance of pressure from the United States, Turkey’s parliament voted by a large majority to allow its government to launch military operations into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels. Syrian President Bashar Assad, visiting Turkey, gave the final spin to this decision, when he stated that he supports Turkey’s right to fight “against terrorism and terrorist activities.”

It is as if, in this case, an intruder (and, on the top of it, an intruder without proper human rights credentials–see Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide) broke into the closed circle of the “we,” of those who hold the de facto monopoly on military humanitarianism. Our uneasiness is the same as that of a party host when an uninvited stranger arrives and acts as if he is one of the proper guests. What makes the situation unpleasant is not Turkey’s “otherness,” but their claim to sameness. It reveals the set of unwritten rules, silent prohibitions and necessary exclusion that construct the “we” of enlightened humanity.

The breathtaking irony is that the prospect of a Turkish march into Iraq already has a precedent in the official anthem of the European Union, the “Ode to Joy” from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This piece is a true “empty signifier” that can stand for anything. In France, Romain Rolland elevated it to the humanist ode to the brotherhood of all people (“the Marseillaise of humanity”). In 1938, it was performed as the highpoint of Reichsmusiktage and, later, for Hitler’s birthday. In China during the Cultural Revolution, in an atmosphere of rejecting European classics, it alone was redeemed as an exemplary piece of progressive class struggle. In the 1970s, during the time when both West and East German Olympic teams had to perform together as one German team, it was the anthem played whenever Germany won a gold medal. The Rhodesian white supremacist regime of Ian Smith, which proclaimed independence in the late 1960s in order to maintain apartheid, also proclaimed the same song as its national anthem. Even Abimael Guzman, the (now imprisoned) leader of the Peruvian Maoist terrorist group Shining Path, when asked what music he loves, mentioned the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. So we can easily imagine a fictional performance at which all the sworn enemies, from Hitler to Stalin, from Bush to Saddam, for a moment forget their adversities and participate in the same magic moment of ecstatic brotherhood.

There is, however, a peculiar imbalance in this piece of music. In the middle of the movement, after we hear the main melody (the Joy theme) in three orchestral and three vocal variations, something unexpected happens at this first climax, which has bothered critics since its first performance 180 years ago. At bar 331, the tone changes totally and, instead of the solemn hymnic progression, the same “Joy” theme is repeated in the marcia Turca (“Turkish march”) style. Borrowed from the military music for wind and percussion instruments that 18th century European armies adopted from the Turkish Janissaries, the mode becomes that of a carnivalesque popular parade, a mocking spectacle. Some critics have even compared the “absurd grunts” of the bassoons and bass drum that accompany the beginning of the marcia Turca to farts. And after this point, everything goes wrong, the simple solemn dignity of the first part of the movement is never recovered.

However, what if things do not go wrong only at bar 331, with the entrance of the marcia Turca? What if, instead, something was wrong from the very beginning? We should accept that there is something insipidly fake about the Ode to Joy, so that the chaos that enters after the bar 331 is a kind of the “return of the repressed,” a symptom of what was wrong from the very beginning. We should thus shift the entire perspective and perceive the marcia as a return to everyday normality that cuts short the display of preposterous portentousness and brings us back to earth, as if saying “you want the celebrate the brotherhood of men? Here they are, the real humanity.”

And does the same not hold for Europe today? After inviting all mankind to embrace the celebration of ecstasy, the second strophe of Schiller’s poem that is set to the music of “Ode to Joy” ominously ends: “But he who cannot rejoice, let him steal weeping away from our circle.” The main sign of today’s crisis of the European Union is precisely Turkey: According to most of the polls, the main reason of those who voted “no” at the last referendums in France and Netherlands was their opposition to Turkish membership. The “no” can be grounded in rightist-populist terms (no to the Turkish threat to our culture, no to the Turkish cheap immigrant labor), or in the liberal-multiculturalist terms (Turkey should not be allowed in because, in its treatment of the Kurds, it doesn’t display enough respect for human rights). But the opposite view, the “yes,” is as false as Beethoven’s final cadenza.

The case of today’s Turkey is crucial for the proper understanding of capitalist globalization: the political proponent of globalization is the ruling “moderate” Islamist party of the Prime Minister Erdogan. It is the ferociously nationalist secular Kemalists, partisans of the fully sovereign Nation-State, who resist full integration into the global space (and also have misgivings about Turkey joining the European Union), while the Islamists find it easy to combine their religious-cultural identity with economic globalization. Insisting on one’s particular cultural identity is no obstacle to globalization: The true obstacle is the trans-cultural nationalism.

So, should Turkey be allowed into the Union or should it be let to “steal itself weeping away” from the EU’s circle? Can Europe survive the Turkish march? And, as in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, what if the true problem is not Turkey, but the basic melody itself, the song of European unity as it is played to us from the Brussels post-political technocratic elite? What we need is a totally new main melody, a new definition of Europe itself. The problem of Turkey, the perplexity of European Union with regard to what to do with Turkey, is not about Turkey as such, but the confusion about what is Europe itself. The impasse with the European Constitution is a sign that the European project is now in search of its identity.

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between sectarianism and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main body. This is our only chance today: Only through a “sectarian split” from the standard European legacy, by cutting ourselves off from the decaying corpse of the old Europe, can we keep the renewed European legacy alive. The task is difficult. It compels us to take a great risk of stepping into the unknown. Yet its only alternative is slow decay, the gradual transformation of Europe into what Greece was for the mature Roman Empire, a destination for nostalgic cultural tourism with no effective relevance.

The conflict about Europe is usually portrayed as one between Eurocentric Christian hardliners who want to keep out countries like Turkey and liberal multiculturalists who want to open the doors of the European Union much more widely, to Turkey and beyond. What if this conflict is the wrong one? Today, Poland has the distinction of the first Western country in which the anti-modernist backlash has won, effectively emerging as a hegemonic force. Calls for the total ban on abortion, the anti-Communist “lustration,” the exclusion of Darwinian theory from primary and secondary education, up to the bizarre idea to abolish the post of the President of the Republic and proclaim Jesus Christ the eternal King of Poland–these are coming together into an all-encompassing proposal to enact a clear break and constitute a new Polish Republic unambiguously based on anti-modernist Christian values.

The lesson is thus clear: Fundamentalist populism is filling in the void created by the absence of a Leftist dream. Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous statement about the Old and the New Europe is acquiring a new unexpected reality. The emerging contours of the “new” Europe of the majority of post-Communist countries (Poland, Baltic countries, Romania, Hungary) are defined by Christian populist fundamentalism, belated anti-Communism, xenophobia and homophobia, etc. What if cases like Poland should compel us to narrow the entry, to re-define Europe in such a way that it would exclude the Polish Christian fundamentalism? Maybe it is time to apply to Poland the same criteria we are so eager to apply to Turkey.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.

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