What should we learn from repeated attacks on Muslims around the world today? We must be critical of the way that Western secular thinking reasserts global dominance through the media (including social media) in the most cunning of ways. Against the deceptive universality of secular ethics, we should not be afraid to see within Islamic religious discourse the potential for a formation of a true universality: rather than safeguarding the particularity of a distinctive social group, and rather than elevating itself against that which it pretends to tolerate, Islamic religious ethics seeks a common point of departure among all Abrahamic faiths.
Secularism, by tolerating Islam, produces an inescapable bifurcation, concealing an unacknowledged intolerance. In this case, the secular frame eclipses possible non-secular Islamic positions. We should be very careful not to fall into the trap of presuming that the incompatibility between the two positions is based simply upon a war between secular relativism and fundamentalist universalism. It is not that secularism is inherently ‘relativist’ while Islam is inherently ‘fundamentalist.’ There can be no secular relativist discourse which does not by necessity elevate itself to the universal frame, thereby producing its own fantasmatic point of exception. Within secular discourse, it is always Islam that operates as the point of exception: the latter becomes codified as fascist, fundamentalist, totalitarian, or hegemonic.
The deception is as follows: secular relativism does not at all step outside the problems of hegemonic universality. On the contrary, it is precisely by proclaiming tolerance that it all the more secures for itself a universal position. The initial problem is thereby renewed in a purer form. When relativism is tested by confronting a universal framework, its inadequacy becomes exposed: (1) the relativist can quietly elevate his own discourse while simultaneously subsuming the competing discourse, or (2) the relativist can allow his own discourse to be subsumed by the overarching competing discourse. In either case, the final result is a new universality. This is why secularism appears to have surpassed the problem of fundamentalism, even though the truth is that the underlying fundamentalist universality has only been obscured and its problems exacerbated. Clinically speaking, we have a name for this discursive logic: perverse disavowal. At its core, so-called Islamic fundamentalism does not function according to this logic of perverse disavowal.
Christianity essentially operates according to a logic of perverse disavowal (as Slavoj Žižek argued many years ago). It is the only Abrahamic religion which distances itself from itself to achieve universal resurrection. Christians believe that Jesus died for the sins of ‘all of humanity,’ a death which moves from a particular individual to the renewed universal community of the ‘holy spirit.’ It is the golden rule, from the New Testament and the book of Leviticus, to “love thy neighbour” which bolsters for many Christians an attitude of universal tolerance. Islamic religious discourse moves in an altogether different dimension: it begins with an acceptance of universality via the notion of tawhid (oneness), exemplified in Surah Al-Imran (64): “Oh, people of the book, come to common terms between us and you!” It is a declaration of the universality of belief which in this case sustains the proliferation and intensification of sects. Finally, Judaism discovers beneath the apparently tolerant face of the neighbor a monstrous aggression and persecution. Thus, Christianity tolerates the neighbour by secretly elevating itself above him, Islam rejects the neighbour by accepting him within the a priori Umma (community of believers), and Judaism sees within the neighbour something uncanny, something unacceptable within Judaism itself.
We might even construct a simplistic ideal-type to help us navigate this trinitarian labyrinth with regards to Abraham. Jews find within the prophet the person responsible for rediscovering a G-d whose laws were previously repressed, and who, like Moses, received the commandments (e.g., Abraham’s covenant). There is a consequent rejection of idolatry only because the image obscures the essential symbolic function of the Father’s law. Psychoanalytically, we might claim that this is the introduction of the symbolic unconscious which must be interpreted and revealed. This was, then, Freud’s chief task. On the other hand, for Christians, Abraham is the father of all of those who have faith, irrespective of circumcision. We see this also in the story of Paul who proclaimed the ultimate message of universal tolerance: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For Islam, Abraham represents only one prophet in a chain of prophets whose existence is a tribute to the commonality of all religions.
Put in psychoanalytic terms, Judaism founds a symbolic Father (inscription of the law), Christianity founds an imaginary father (whose body is sacrificed and then resurrected), and Islam founds the real Father who, in the Lacanian sense, is therefore not a “Father” at all. Indeed, many Muslims refuse to use the word “Father” because this would bring to mind a gendered body existing within the current world. This is why such celebrated figures as Zakir Naik popularly refer to Allah (swt) as “uncreated.” The real G-d of Islam is represented also in Surah Qaf, aya 16: “[G-d] is closer to you than your jugular vein,” which is no doubt reminiscent of Jacques Lacan’s oft-quoted expression that the unconscious is “in you more than you.” But this time we have an additional twist: we are not dealing with the symbolic unconscious of Judaism, nor with the Imaginary unconscious of Christianity. How can we not find in this a movement from the unconscious of Freud (symbolic) to the unconscious of Lacan (imaginary; ‘be wary of the image’), toward the ‘real’ unconscious of Jacques-Alain Miller and the ‘late’ Lacan? The movement is from a Jewish Atheist named Freud, to an Atheist Christian named Lacan, and, finally, toward a new Islamic orientation.
Judaism is perhaps the only religious social bond which has accepted the law of the father. The Jewish community opted against the jouissance represented by the “thunderous roar of G-d” and so remained at a distance from it, at the base of Mount Sinai. Yet, there was at least one, Moses, who went to the top of the mountain and delivered the symbolic law to the community. The universal community required at least one in order to anchor itself. Incidentally, within the discursive structure of Judaism, atheism is permitted provided one is already a Jew. Christianity functions through subjective ambivalence: the community of Christians, gathered in the ‘holy spirit,’ exists as a residue of the convergence of the symbolic G-d with his image, and this, precisely, is what forms its trinitarian structure. Thus, the Christian subject is reducible to the objet petit a as agent. Belief is founded on the basis of a prior moment of radical doubt, a theme demonstrated clearly in the “Dark Night of the Soul” narrative where inadequate belief is confronted with radical doubt and then purifies itself. But it is also demonstrated in the atheistic moment when Jesus Christ, upon the cross, speaks: E’li, E’li, la’ma sabachtha’ni, “my G-d, my G-d, why have you forsaken me?” It is only after uttering this expression of radical doubt that he becomes resurrected in a more universal form. What we can see in the case of Christianity is that atheism is permitted chronologically as a mediator between inadequate belief and resurrected universality.
Finally, Islam functions through the foreclosure of the symbolic Father of the law, which returns, next, within the “real” of the Islamic language itself: Arabic. (Indeed, it is a requirement that one speak Arabic while praying as a Muslim.) This gives rise to the sudden intrusion of phallic signifiers within language, a certain proliferation of names. There are not only the 99 names of G-d but also the countless everyday expressions used casually within the Arabic language: “inshaAllah [G-d willing],” “alhamdulillah [praise g-d, or thank g-d],” “mashaAllah [g-d made this happen],” and so on. In this case, atheism is permitted within Islam but only if it was in the past. Thus, the shahada (lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh, or, “there is no god but G-d [Allah], and Muhammad is his messenger”) includes within the first clause a statement of atheism, followed by a statement or testimony of faith which retroactively constructs the belief. Thus, Islam is a religion of the après-coup, of what Freud named “afterwardness.” Not only is the Quran thought to be the “last chapter” in the books of the Abrahamic faiths, but it rewrites and rereads everything which came before.
The problem of the responses to the horrific incidents in New Zealand, and, also, in my home town of Peterborough, Ontario (Canada) a few years ago when a Mosque was bombed, is as follows: the ideology of secularism presents an apparent equality or symmetry of terms without properly engaging differences at the level of discourse. There are two simultaneous problems. First, the ostensibly secular and tolerant position which insists upon allowing diverse perspectives or voices appears to inflict an inherent intolerance toward Islam, since it is, by definition, non-Islamic. Structurally speaking, secularism and tolerance are Christian principles. But the problem is also that Islamic religious discourse itself is intolerant of secularism (an intolerance toward the principle of tolerance). Zakir Naik, provided the following argument:
Islam is the most secular religion in that we are the most tolerant. But our tolerance is also truthful. Many people feel that tolerance means that you should tolerate belief in any G-d. What I point out to them is that we need tolerance and truth at the same time. [Let us suppose that] one person claims that 2+2=5 while another claims that 2+2=4. Tolerance does not mean that I can say [that both are true.’ True tolerance is to say that 2+2=4. I don’t agree that 2+2=5. […] It is my duty as a Muslim to correct the misconception.
The claim, in philosophical terms, is that all forms of tolerance should be grounded in a form of universality rather than relativism. Islam presents itself in terms of a universality of belief while secularism presents itself as relativistic with regard to belief. For Islamic scholars this usually implies that there is a universality of truth, which is nonetheless tolerant toward relative misconceptions or distortions of that truth. Paradoxically, true tolerance consists of avoiding the very notion of secular tolerance.