Interview with Gil Anidjar conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of AsiaSource.
December 31, 2005
The Muselmann in Auschwitz
Primo Levi, among other survivors of the death camps, has talked about the figure of the Muselmann, the Muslim, in Nazi concentration camps. In Levi's words, "This word, Muselmann, I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection." The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has commented that, "With a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews." How does your reading of the understanding of Islam in certain canonical/philosophical texts of the Western tradition [Kant, Montesquieu, and Hegel], help us to understand the use of this appellation in the context of the concentration camp?
Secularism and the Theologico-Political
Religion, Race and Ethnicity
The Jew, the Arab in Europe
The Muselmann in Auschwitz
The Project of Zionism
The Problem of Universalism
I started working on the Muselmann (a term I translate as 'Muslim' since that is what the German was taken to mean, according to countless testimonies) when I wrote the introduction to Derrida's Acts of Religion although at the time I was not quite sure where it was taking me. By the time I read Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz, which had just come out in French (the English translation had not yet appeared), I was really taken with the book, and thought that I would have nothing to add. Agamben is after all the first to take Levi seriously on the crucial importance of the Muslim, and to dedicate an entire book to a figure that, though well known in circles familiar with Holocaust literature, has hardly attracted attention, or indeed, any serious reflection.
I subsequently came to suspect that there might be something to add after all, and this for two reasons. The first is that Agamben reinscribes the historical obscurity of the term, 'Muslim', its opacity and its strangeness. I do not by any means wish to diminish the strangeness, quite the contrary. I just want to say that this strangeness is even more extensive because of a combination of visibility and invisibility. What I am arguing is that the use of the term in the context of the camp, has a history that can be read on the very surface of major philosophical texts. This all-too visible history is however also marked by its invisibility.
The second reason I thought I may have something to add by way of a footnote, really, to Agamben, is that as complex as Agamben's argument is - touching as it does on numerous issues and dimensions of language, of ethics, of politics, and of law - it has in this particular context very little to say about religion or about theology. This is particularly surprising to me since it is Agamben, who, after Derrida, alerted me to the importance of the theologico-political (think only of Homo Sacer, of his analyses of Schmitt and Benjamin, and so forth).
So there were these two factors: the invisible visibility of the term, 'Muslim', and of its history, the alleged obscurity of its origins, and the absence of religion and theology in the discussion of the term and the phenomenon in Agamben. Agamben suggests, quite tentatively, that maybe the use of 'Muslim' relied on a medieval stereotype. Primo Levi, on the other hand, said the term might have come into common usage because of the way in which people imagined Muslims praying, or because of bandages around the head. Like Levi, I have found none of the explanations I encountered convincing.
So I wanted to explore this double-absence, and from then on, it seemed as though I only encountered symptoms as well as potential, if partial, explanations for this absence everywhere. The first was Kant, who says in his most famous statement on the sublime, in the Critique of Judgment:
"Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, etc. This commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compared itself with other peoples, or can explain the pride that Mohammedanism inspires."
Some commentators do quote this passage in its entirety going all the way to the comment about Islam ("Mohammedanism"), but most of them actually interrupt the quote before Islam appears. They just stop, so that the whole passage becomes exclusively about Jewish law and about how Kant paradigmatically implicated the Jews in the sublime, which is one of the reasons why Kant can become 'Kant the Jew'. Peter Gordon pointed out to me that what I am showing is not that there is just 'Kant the Jew', but also 'Kant the Muslim', which I thought was a lovely remark. When you actually look at the context of the Critique of Judgment, you realize that Kant is deploying the language that will later enable Hegel, with the help of Montesquieu, to describe the "religions of the sublime," religions which, according to an overwhelming experience (if one can use the term at all), enslave their constituencies and subject individuals to their power.
In this early example of absolute subjection (as theologico-political!), such as Kant articulates it, it is impossible to ignore that Kant offers two moments, two paradigms, that are at once distinct and indissociable. The basic terms, which will then coagulate with Montesquieu - and his elaborations of the Muslim as the ultimate example of the despotic subject - and finally with Hegel, are formulated in Kant. In the book I hope I have succeeded to show this genealogy of sorts, but what I would want to do were I to write it now would be to claim that Hegel (by which I mean Hegel's time, of course) invented the Semites. He invented the Muslim, no doubt, as he provides the clearest and most thorough formulation of what will then be repeated almost verbatim in Auschwitz and in Holocaust literature. But he also invents the Semites. He is the one who basically begins the tradition whereby whatever you say about the Jews you can say about the Muslims (note that Kant does not collapse the two into a barely differentiated unity), and Hegel does this long before Ernest Renan. He also does it before the category of the Semites really gets disseminated. He is writing at the beginning of the 19th century, which is just a few decades after the very notion of a distinction between Aryans and Semites is formulated by Herder and by very few others. Hegel has perhaps not been given enough credit (or blame) for this but to my mind it is really an extraordinary moment in the history of Western thought. And again it is no accident that it is found in Hegel. You could attribute a whole lot of things to Hegel and of course he is not alone, but I think the formulations are truly momentous and revealing.
The argument then is that the "religions of the sublime" are a direct consequence of Hegel's learning from Kant, since we know that Kant and Montesquieu were the two intellectual heroes of Hegel. It is on the basis of their work that he wrote much of what he did. The moment in the Critique of Judgment quoted above complemented by the new articulation of despotism in Montesquieu and more importantly of the despotic subject - meaning the one who is subjected to the despot - and of Islam being the example, or the Muslim being the example par excellence of subjugation, all come together in Hegel. He points out that both Jews and Muslims are thoroughly submitted, they are slaves. They are slaves to their god. Aside from that, there are differences, yes. One can compare Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and there are slight differences, political here, more or less political there. But for the most part, this is what it is, and there is much more similarity between Judaism and Islam than between either and Christianity (this is something that the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig understood well and opposed explicitly). It is critical that the terms of that submission are precisely those that describe the Muslim in Auschwitz.
I presented this material at a conference in France after which a kind woman, whose name I unfortunately forget, approached me. She told me that she was French but her mother was German and had grown up and gone to school in Germany in the 1930s. This woman had called her mother after having heard my talk and, in response, her mother had read out to her the words of a song that reads roughly as follows:
trink nicht so viel kaffee!
Nicht für Kinder ist der türkentrank
schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blaß lassen und krank.
Sei doch kein Muselmann,
der ihn nicht lassen kann!
Don't drink so much coffee!
The Turk's drink is not for children,
It weakens the nerves and makes you pale and sick.
Don't be a Muslim
Who can't help it!
This is like a contines pour enfants; a children's song that people still learn, as it turns out. I have since met young German people who know that song and I am told it also appears in an opera.
The figure of the powerless, of extreme weakness and subjection, is not shrouded in mystery: coffee will make you weak, it will make you into a Muslim, a Muselmann. Here the image of Islam in the West is both that it is a political threat and a feminizing threat, a weakness. They are weak, and they make us weak. Coffee was one of the sites of that Christian anxiety, dating at least from the attempts by the Ottoman Empire ("the Turk") to invade Venice, Vienna, Europe, in short. At some point, though, Christian Europe realizes that the threat may not be as large as initially anticipated. Historians will know this better than I, but if I recall, the battle of Lepanto, and the failure of the Ottoman fleet to invade Venice signals this turn downward in the fear of "the Turk." Here, by the way, is another instance of a strange phrase concerning which I looked but could not find a history. The Ottoman Empire will, in the nineteenth century, be referred to as "the sick man of Europe." This profoundly disturbing and evocative figure, said to emerge after the War of Crimea, seems to me to resonate profoundly with the Muslim, for what is he if not the sick man of Europe? You can do a Google search on the sick man of Europe and find enormous amounts of material. It is simply everywhere. Every Ottoman specialist knows it.
There are thus numerous traces, all of which can be found and followed, read and interpreted, that suggest possible venues for a genealogy of the Muslims of Auschwitz. These traces are both visible and invisible on the surface of the modern philosophical tradition, in children's song, and in nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture. Nothing here diminishes the mystery which the Muslim is, its dreadful paradigmatic dimension. Yet, its genealogy, essentially related to Jews and Arabs as they appear at crucial moments of its articulation in and by Europe, is, it seems to me, less obscure.
The sick man of Europe is like the Muslim: there is no one who knows anything about Holocaust literature or about Holocaust history who does not know about the Muslim. That is the horrifying beauty of it all. It is the most manifest, and yet also the most invisible. Almost everybody I talked to tells me, "I have always wondered why the term Muselmann was used .". It is just everywhere, and yet there has been no explanation for it. It is, as I said, quite horrifying.
In the book I also write about how in Hebrew the term 'Muslim' is not translated but rather transliterated (something which could be rendered as muzelmann, quite distinct therefore from muslemi, i.e. 'Muslim', in modern Hebrew). I do not mention the following anecdote in the book but I had an Israeli student with whom I went over this material in a class on Holocaust literature. After I spoke to her about the Muslims of Auschwitz, she recognized the term and said to her grandfather, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, "Grandfather, you have always spoken with me about the Muselmann, but you never told me that the word Muselmann means Muslim." She later told me that her grandfather flew into a rage such that she had never seen him in before. He adamantly insisted that this was not the case, that it is not what the word meant, that it never meant that. It is both tragic and even comic, that one could claim that a word is not a word, not that word. Even in English one finds antiquated spellings of 'Mussulman' or 'Musselman' for the word 'Muslim'. But I am not making an etymological argument. I am merely saying that the way the term functioned followed from previous usage, in very different yet related contexts. In Auschwitz, it functioned repeatedly by way of pointing to a similarity between certain peoples in the camp and Arabs praying. But how was this "recognition" possible? And why the popularity, the massive dissemination of the term after the end of the war? When Primo Levi says that 'Muslim' is another term like 'Canada' or 'Mexico' (names given to certain buildings in the camp) which has absolutely no recognizable referential value, or that its connotations have nothing to do with its usage in other contexts, it is simply striking, and to my mind, mistaken.
Of course words function outside of their context but the fact is that something of the common usage remains or is reinscribed. So that when people say 'Canada,' it may be a singular name but it is also overdetermined, culturally and discursively, if you will. The building where all the belongings of the dead were gathered and where it was actually (if only relatively) better to work has nothing to do with Canada, per se, and yet it was Canada that was thereby imagined as a place of plenty, toward which one could dream and, if one survived, escape after the war. And people did. And comparable things can be said of 'Mexico', which is where they stored blankets that had stripes such that reminded people of the traditional cloth of Mexico.
This is the culture of stereotypes. If one says to a little boy, "You throw like a girl", the question is: what enables the "recognition" of a "girl" in this boy? What are the conditions that make possible such a slur? It is not because a girl "really" throws like a girl; it is because people think that they can recognize in a bad throw a girlish throw. This is all I am asking: How did that term - even if that is not what it meant to people - come to function? How did that recognition become possible? How could people say, "This looks to me like a Muslim." When you have a song that says that a Muslim is weak and pale and submissive and can't help it, and this understanding is ubiquitous in the whole discourse of modern Western philosophy, it becomes no less surprising, but perhaps less opaque.
It is not important that individual people know or endorse what its origins might be (think of the verb "to Jew" in English - would anyone claim that it is not a racial slur if used in a context where Jews are not present, not intended, not known? Or if people do not know, not consciously, that it has anything to do with Jews?). It may well be the case that my student's grandfather did not know, and still does not know, but then why fly into a rage? It is not simply because of a mistake; it is far more loaded than that. So the stakes are enormous, absolutely enormous, in denying that there could be any parallel, that the Muslim is alive, against all odds, and still dying, in Israel and Palestine. That thought, I would argue, is simply unthinkable, and more: unbearable.
Turning Jews into Muslims! The Untold Saga
By: Dr. S. Parvez Manzoor
Paradoxically, one of the most curious and distressing facts of the gruesome world of Nazi extermination camps and gas chambers that bears the Muslim's name has never been the object of the Muslim's attention and scrutiny. Further, though the wretched and the contemptible figure of the 'Muslim' that we seek to exhume in this enquiry inhabited the historical obscenity of the Holocaust, it is the racialist imagination of European Jewry that is his true home. It was here that he was born and it is here that his memory lies buried under Islamophobic myths.
More explicitly, it is the story of those unfortunate Jews who, in confronting the absolute inhumanity of the camp, lost all will to survive. They appeared like living corpses and were given by their fellow inmates the scornful epithet of die Muselmaenner (the Muslims)! Leaving aside the morally intractable issues of genocide and anti-Semitism, what this grim and disquieting tale reveals is that, alas, the human propensity for despising the other takes precedence over our capacity to love, and that to the venom of collective self-worship neither the murderer nor the murdered, neither the 'Aryan' nor the 'Semite', is immune! Oddly, in the highly prolific and fecund field of Holocaust literature, there are only a few circumspect allusions to the Muselmnner. For instance, here is it how Jean Amery, a survivors of the Holocaust who along with Primo Levi has been acclaimed as the most insightful and sensitive analyst of the camp, has to say on this: "The so-called Mussulman, as the camp language termed the prisoner who was giving up and was given up by his comrades, no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual. He was a staggering corpse, a bundle of physical functions in its last convulsions." Significantly, however, this terse remark ends with a summary dismissal: "As hard as it may be for us to do so, we must exclude him from our considerations." (Amery, Jean: At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. Schocken Books, New York, 1986. p. 9)
Levi is less laconic but equally evasive: "All the Muselmnner who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; .. Their life is short but their numbers are endless; they, the Muselmnner, the drowned from the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continuously renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty really to suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death." (Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz and the Reawakening: Two Memoirs. Summit Books, New York, 1986. p. 82.) To this, however, he adds an evasive footnote: "With the word 'Muselmann', the elders in the camp designated, for reasons unknown to me, the weak, the infirm, those who were doomed to be singled out."
Apart from these agonizing recollections by seductive stylists, there also exits a noteworthy study by Ryn and Klodzinski that remains the sole monograph on the subject. (Ryn, Zdzislaw & Klodzinski, Stanslav: "An der Grenze zwischen Leben und Tod. Ein Studie über die Erscheinung des "Muselmann" in Konzentrationslager" (At the Borderline between Life and Death: A Study of the phenomenon of the Muslemann in the Concentration Camp) in; Auschwitz-Hefte, vol. 1 (Weinheim & Basel: Beltz, 1987.) pp. 89-154.)
Their chilling observation about these unfortunate victims is that 'No one felt compassion for the Muselmann, and no one felt sympathy for him either. The other inmates, who continually feared for their lives, did not even judge him worthy of being looked at. For the prisoners who collaborated, the Muselmnner were a source of anger and worry; for the SS, they were merely useless garbage. Every group thought about eliminating them, each in its own way.' (p. 127). One section of the study, entitled Ich war ein Muselmann (I was a Muselmann) also contains personal testimonies of men who somehow pulled themselves out of the state of 'Muselmahood', and survived. According to one such testimony: 'In such a situation, without sufficient nourishment, drenched and frozen every day, death left us no way out. This was the beginning of the period in which Musulmanhood (das Muselmanntum) became more and more common . Everyone despised the Muselmnner; even the Muselmann's fellow inmates; His senses are dulled and he becomes completely indifferent to everything around him. He can no longer speak of anything; he can't even pray, since he no longer believes in heaven and hell. He no longer thinks about his home, his family, the other people in the camp.' (Ibid.)
The most challenging work on the subject, however, is a recent study by the very incisive Italian thinker, Giorgio Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. (Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen), Zone Books, New York, 1999) that is a very intense philosophical reflection on the seminal moral issues of the Nazi death camp, the signification of testimony and the nature of speech and silence at the crossroads of humanity and inhumanity.
It is the source of much information for this inquiry and may even serve for the Muslim reader as the most convenient access to the literature on this subject. It must be borne in mind, however, that Agamben is principally concerned with the most recalcitrant text of the Western ethics of our times and that his arcane reading of this text is no more than a secular refinement of the moral grammar of Judaeo-Christianity. For all the uncanny linguistic resemblance between them and the Muselmaenner, Muslims are not part of this reflection. Be that as it may, here is how Agamben's philosophical vision unmasks the Gestalt of the Muselmann: 'At times a medical figure or an ethical category, at times a political limit and an anthropological concept, the Muselmann is an indefinite being in whom not only humanity and non-humanity, but also vegetative existence and relation, physiology and ethics, medicine and politics, and life and death continuously pass through each other. This is why the Muselmann's "Third Realm" is the perfect cipher of the camp, the non-place in which all disciplinary barriers are destroyed and all embankments flooded.' (p. 48)
Without doubt, Agamben's moral reflection on Auschwitz, just as his philosophical thought in general, is worthy of the Muslim's serious attention. Nevertheless an earnest Muslim encounter with Agamben's philosophy, as with the moral-theological conundrums of Auschwitz, must await its proper moment. Here, we must continue our search for the image of the Muselmann, as found in the minds of the inmates of Auschwitz, and investigate its linguistic, semantic and cultural background. We must, in other words, carry on where Levi left off. To start with, the linguistic moorings of the term are the easiest to establish: these reproduce the German word for the Muslim, the singular form of which is der Muselmann, and the plural die Muselmaenner.
The non-Arabic form Musulman (orig. Musliman) however denotes quite simply the Persian plural of the Arabic Muslim and has been the standard term in Iran, Turkey, India and elsewhere. As such, it entered various European languages, and though it is now obsolete in English, it still denotes Muslims in German and French. An alternative suggestion, that Muselmann actually is a distortion of Muschelmann (lit. Mussel-man; a man folded and crouched, as in a shell) has not found much support among the scholars.
Obviously, the semantic significations of the word Muselmann are less certain and more conjectural, though these always abound with prejudicial and pejorative connotations. Here, for instance, is what Ryn and Koldzinski believe is the origin of this epithet: 'They (the Muselmanns) became indifferent to everything happening around them. They excluded themselves from all relations to their environment. If they could still move around, they did so in slow motion, without bending their knees. They shivered since their body temperature usually fell below 98.7 degrees. Seeing them from afar, one had the impression of seeing Arab praying.
This image was the origin of the term used at Auschwitz for people dying of malnutrition: Muselmnner.' (p. 94) (I have scrupulously avoided translating Muselmaenner with 'Muslims', or removing other emblems - italics, citation marks - that suggest the alien context and usage of the term. Unfortunately, this is far from the case and even the most conscionable of scholars, Agamben included, do not always observe this simple linguistic distinction and thus fail to accord the minimum of courtesy both to the Muselmnner and to the Muslims.)
For its part, the authoritative Encyclopaedia Judaica has this explanation under the entry Muselmann: 'Used mainly at Auschwitz, the term appears to derive from the typical attitude of certain deportees, that is, staying crouched on the ground, legs bent in the Oriental fashion, faces rigid as masks.' (S.V.) Not to be outdone, another observer associates 'the typical movements of the Muselmnner, the swaying motions of the upper part of the body, with Islamic rituals.' (Sofsky, Wolfgang: The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. (Translated by William Templer), Princeton University Press, 1997. p. 329, n.5.) Even more revealing are the synonyms which are, as if often the case with jargon, brutally forthright and non-euphemistic. Thus according to the same author: 'The expression (Muselmnner) was in common use, especially in Auschwitz, from where it spread to other camps as well. . In Majdanek, the word was unknown. The living dead there were termed 'donkeys'; in Dachau they were 'cretins', in Stutthof 'cripples', in Mauthausen 'swimmers', in Neuengamme 'camels', in Buchenwald 'tired sheiks', and in the women's camp known as Ravensbrück, Muselweiber (female Muslims) or 'trinkets'. (Ibid.)
Writing more than fifty years after the event, the most sober, knowledgeable and philosophical of the commentators, Giorgio Agamben, has to concede: 'The most likely explanation of the term can be found in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God. It is this meaning that lies at the origins of the legends concerning Islam's supposed fatalism, legends which are found in European cultures starting with the Middle Ages (this deprecatory sense of the term is present in European languages, particularly in Italian).' (p. 45). However, Agamben also notes that the particularly stark and persistent prejudices of the European soul that identify Islamic 'submission' with loss of will constitute a travesty of the Muslim's faith. He accepts that 'while the Muslims' resignation consists in the conviction that the will of Allah is at work every moment and in even the smallest events, the Muselmann of Auschwitz is defined by a loss of will and consciousness.' (Ibid.) Still, according to the accepted convention of the camp, only 'those men who had long since lost any real will to survive were called "Moslems" - men of unconditional fatalism.'
(Kogon, Eugen: The Theory and Practice of Hell:
The German Concentration Camps and the Systems Behind Them.
(Translated by Heinz Norden),
Octagon Books, New York, 1979. p. 284.)
There can be little doubt, then, that the contemptible image the fatalist Muslim predates the arrival of the pitiable figure of the Muselmann at Auschwitz. And even if at the camp if resurfaces from the netherworld of Jewish consciousness; it was the Islamophobic European imagination that gave birth to it in the first place. Be that as it may, it is disconcerting to learn that even for the inmates of the camp, the Muslim was the Untermensch, the lowest of the low. This is certainly what Agamben has in mind when he, in a moment of brutal encounter with the truth, he seeks refuge in 'the postmodern irony' and belittles the import of this realization: 'In any case, it is certain that, with a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews. (45) For others, there's no escaping the perverse logic of the Holocaust: While the Nazis killed the Jews, the Jews in turn sacrificed the 'Muslims' (die Muselmanner)!
If we dismiss the putative connection between 'fatalism' and the Muslim's faith, an enduring topos of European imagination to which we shall return later, but try to gaze upon the disquieting figure of the Muselmann, we'll discover that he is regarded as 'the true cipher of Auschwitz' and the silent, yet most compelling, witness of the Nazi evil. Levi expresses this fact quite starkly as, 'If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with heads dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.' (op.cit. p. 90) For Agamben, the discovery that being a Muselmann in the camp constituted an actual form of human existence leads to the claim that 'this knowledge has now become the touchstone by which to measure all morality and all dignity. The Muselmann, who is its most extreme expression, is the guard on the threshold of a new ethics, an ethics of a form and life that begins where dignity ends. And Levi, who bears witness to the drowned, speaking in their stead, is the cartographer of this new terra ethica, the implacable land-surveyor of Muselmannland.' (op. cit. p. 69)
Given the fact that the Muselmann is regarded by Agamben as not only the symbol of the evil of Auschwitz but also the defining characteristic of a new, post-Auschwitz, paradigm of ethics, we'll do well to listen to the same philosopher in order to learn more about the attributes and qualifications of that unfortunate being: 'The Muselmann is the non-human who obstinately appears as human; he is the human that cannot be told apart from the inhuman' (81-2); 'the Muselmann is not only or not so much a limit between life and death; rather, he marks the threshold between the human and the inhuman' (p. 55); 'to be between life and death is one the traits constantly attributed the Muselmann, the "walking corpse" par excellence. Confronted with his disfigured face, his "Oriental" agony, the survivors hesitate to attribute to him even the mere dignity of the living.' (70). In short, the Muselmann, 'a bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life' (157), symbolizes 'the inhuman capacity to survive the human.' (133).
The starting point of Agamben's reflection on the Muselmann is the rather striking realization that though all witnesses speak of him as a central experience, he is barely named in the historical studies on the destruction of European Jewry. The Muselmann remain, even some fifty years after his appearance in the camp, as the unwitnessed and the unwitnessable. Further, Auschwitz, for Agamben, before being a camp, 'is the site of an experiment that remains unthought today, an experiment beyond life and death in which the Jew is transformed into a Muselmann and the human being into a non-human. And we will not understand what Auschwitz is if we do not first understand who or what the Muselmann is.' (52). Drawing upon the insights of Carl Schmitt and Foucault, Agamben also links the entry of the Muselmann on the historical-political stage to the transformation of power that has taken place in modernity. The 'sovereign power' of traditional politics - the ancient right to kill and let live - has given way to the 'biopower' of the modern, scientific state that has the authority and means 'to make live and let die'. In the domain of biopower, people and population are merged together and the essentially political body of the state becomes coterminous with the biological body of the nation.
Given this radical transformation of power, Agamben concludes, 'it is possible to understand the decisive function of the camps in the system of Nazi biopolitics. They are not merely the place of death and extermination; they are also, and above all, the site of the production of the Muselmann, the final biopolitical substance to be isolated in the biological continuum. Beyond the Muselmann lies only the gas chamber.' (85). Little wonder that in the camp, the Muselmann 'not only shows the efficacy of biopower, but also reveals its secret cipher, so to speak its Arcanum .. In the Muselmann, biopower sought to produce its final secret; a survival separated from every possibility of testimony, a kind of absolute political substance that, in its isolation, allows for the attribution of demographic, ethnic, national, and political identity.' (156). The above remarks by a gifted philosopher may give some idea of the semantic, philosophical, and hence moral, associations that are aroused by this term that carries the Muslim's name.
Another distinguished Jewish philosopher of our times, Emil Fackenheim, has also made an attempt to express, 'in a language of "restrained outrage"', some of the pain and puzzlement that he feels at the spectacle of the Muselmaenner. Though his scattered comments do not constitute any systematic and sustained reflection in the manner of Agamben, they do deserve our attention, if for no other reason than that Fackenheim, who started his academic career as a scholar of Muslim philosophy, cannot be dismissed for being a stranger to the Islamic tradition. Remarkable then is the fact that he never feels called upon to comment on the 'Islamic connection' of the camp jargon, something for which he has both the expertise and the mandate. Whether it is because that Fackenheim feels too embarrassed to explore the dark, contingently if not intrinsically Islamophobic, recesses of the 'Jewish psyche' itself, or whether his imperious disregard of any Muslim stake at Auschwitz is part of the awesome silence that the victims of the Holocaust is always entitled to exercise, may remain unresolved.
What is certain is that for Fackenheim the Muselmann 'is the most notable, if not the sole, truly original contribution of the Third Reich to civilization. He is the true novum of New Order.' (Emil Fackenheim: To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Schocken Books, New York, 1982. p. 215). (Should one also add that, if the Muselmann is the most original, most characteristic product of the entire Nazi Reich, as Fackenheim asserts, is he not, by the same token, the most original, most characteristic product of the Jewish imagination as well?)
Fackenheim also believes that the manifestation of 'Musulmanhood' at the camp tells us something novel and extraordinary about the human condition: it reveals a truth about man in general that is universal and irrefutable. Hence, the disconcerting thought: 'who dares assert that, had he been there and then rather than here and now, he would not have been reduced to a Muselmann?' (100). Nevertheless, such an insight also generates its own paradoxes, as when he questions whether any, Kantian, belief in humanity is warranted in the age of Auschwitz? For, 'then and there, one kind of common man - the Muselmann - was made into a uniquely uncommon victim, while the other, the manufacturer of the victim was made - let himself be made - into a uniquely uncommon criminal.' (273). However, the most bizarre and pointless display of Fackenheim's philosophical dexterity concerns the following theological query: 'At Auschwitz other free persons were reduced to Muselmanner, to the living dead. This is a novum in human history and an unprecedented human scandal. We ask: Could Jesus of Nazareth have been made into a Muselmann?' (286; italics by the author.) Clearly, the Muselmann is no more than a figure, a pawn in the hands of disputing theologians and philosophers and a recent addition to the theo-political imagery of the West. But what has the Muslim to say about him, the 'walking corpse' that bears his name? In default of any authentic reflection and comment, whatever that one may presently say can only be probing and provisional. The following remarks are no exception.
To start with, the Muslim is not a partner to the interminable, and intractable, intra-biblical debate on the (original) sin and atonement, divine wrath and human sacrifice, election and retribution. Nor has s/he anything to gain from any blasphemous and sterile reflection that would circumscribe the divinity of God and the humanity of Man to the parameters of Auschwitz. Nevertheless, the Jewish 'christening' of the 'damned of the camp' as Muselmnner does implicate the Muslim in the Holocaust. And it does so, brutally and scornfully, neither in the name of the executioners, nor in that of the victims, but as the victims of the victims; it implicates them in the name of the living-dead, the non-men whose death cannot even be called death.
Indeed, the Muslim is implicated for his/her submission to the Divine will, which for the anti-Islamic spirit signifies a mere loss of will, an extinction of the human lust for living. Whatever self-gratification such a phantom Muslim may have provided to the condemned of the camp, the authentic Muslim of history could never have been his model. For, the Muslim of Islamic faith needs no apologies for acting like a Muselmann. Indeed, he need hardly go beyond the testimony of recent history, from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Chechnya to Palestine, to amply demonstrate to the world that for all the deprivations of his life, the Muslim will not accept an ignoble death. He may be destroyed but not defeated; he may be deprived of life and limb but not of humanity and dignity, and for him, the biological imperative to survive does not abrogate his submission to the will of God.
The Muslim submits to the will of God only because he may not submit in the same manner to the will of man. He does not give absolute allegiance to any earthly regime so that his humanity may not be decided by any powers-that-be. It is in affirming the dignity of his death, through struggle and jihad rather than through inaction and 'Musulmanhood', that the Muslim gives testimony to his faith. Paradoxically, the Muslim's refusal to relinquish his humanity to anyone but God leads not to a loss of will but to its affirmation, not to subservience but to recalcitrance. Against all the sanctimonious squeamishness and self-serving morality of the reigning order of the day that rails against the Muslim's jihad with unmitigated fury, we must therefore uphold it as the most inalienable of human rights. For jiahd is nothing but the struggle to maintain, in the face of the utter inhumanity of political power, one's humanity.
Little wonder that even a modern Western political analyst has to admit: 'Jihad ignores the ABC of war according to Clausewitz. .. Jihad, in fact, knows no political space, no state .; it is a symbolic space that one traces in an ascending direction . Jihad knows no borders; it has an instrumental vision of the state, which ends up being devalued. The state .. exists only in crises and is not institutionalized. The ethical model that is at the heart of the notion of jihad prohibits political structures.'
(Oliver Roy: The Failure of Political Islam. Harvard University Press, 1994. p. 154).
Even according to Jean-Paul Charnay, the source of
Roy's insights above, jihad is an affair between the believer and God and not between the
believer and his enemy. It is an act of faith and a passion of penitents which is
essentially religious and mystical and not political. (Jean-Paul
Charnay: L'Islam et la guerre. Paris, Fayard, 1986. pp. 13ff.) In short, jihad is
an act of personal piety, not a strategy for collective combat. And, it is beyond any
political calculus, beyond victory and defeat, beyond the logistics of survival and the
indignity of Muselmanntum.
No matter what great horror the Muslim may encounter at the camp, or the immeasurable pity that he may feel for its hapless victim, the Muselmann, the Muslim's own pain is not mitigated by the realization that this wretched figure, the living dead, the scorn of the condemned, has been conceived in his own image, that in suffering the inhumanity of the camp, its inmates were inflicting their own wounds on a faith community whose principal sin is its belief that subservience to the will of the Supreme Being relieves man of all obligations to obey any human Führer and his murderous henchmen - something that the Muselmnner themselves ought to have recognized. Had the camp been inhabited by the Muslim, and no the Muselmann, had the spirit of jihad been present there, its moral complexion would certainly have been quite different.
December 31, 2005