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The best books on Maverick Political Thought

recommended by Chibli Mallat

The lawyer who prosecuted Ariel Sharon discusses the brilliance of maverick political thinkers and says: "It takes at least a generation to establish democracy." Highlights work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze above all

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Chibli Mallat

As a lawyer, Chibli Mallat is best known for legal actions on behalf of the victims of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, and for winning the case of Victims of Sabra and Shatila v Ariel Sharon et al under the law of universal jurisdiction in Belgium in February 2003, before a change in Belgian law removed the jurisdiction of the court. Now senior law adviser for the University of Utah Global Justice Project: Iraq in Baghdad, Mallat says: 'It takes at least a generation to establish democracy and the rulers in the Middle East are all ruthless dinosaurs. But we’d better start now!'

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Tell me about your first book, Robert Fossaert’s Le Monde au 21ème siècle.

This is the seventh and most accessible volume of Fossaert’s eight-volume La Société (1977-1996). A banker, economist, sociologist and historian, Fossaert is a one-man encyclopedia of coherent thought in the global world. At 82, he still writes profusely, and the current issue of my Beirut university journal, Travaux et Jours, carries what I believe is the best study of the current crisis, which he wrote for the occasion, together with an introduction by me on Fossaert’s system.

What does he say about the current crisis?

Having long exposed fiscal flaws and the mismanagement of financial fluxes by what he calls ‘the financial herd’, his main explanation of the current crisis is that there is a serious readjustment of the economic construct in the world where the US is no longer the unrivalled economic leader. It was inevitable that there would be a financial crisis as the US readjusts to this new position where it is no longer the main producer of goods. It is basic Marxist theory in the more intelligent sense, in that everything is driven by what you produce and what you market, the famous ‘Mode of Production’ (MP). With the rise of the EU, China and India each eating up on the traditional share of the US economy, that economy has to adjust downwards and this is what we are seeing as a deep crisis of the US MP. For a long time, banks relied on new money to finance old money; it could only break down as the pyramid crashed. Fossaert has talked about financial hurt for a long time, the deregulation of banks being a major threat to their very stability, but the bottom line is that the economic structure of the world has changed, structurally, fundamentally. The crisis is inevitable when the leader which controls the financial structure is in disarray because its MP has fallen behind. Everyone will suffer. Fossaert doesn’t see it as a benign crisis, but as a structural crisis.

Your next book is by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Mille Plateaux.

Yes, my interest in Deleuze started when I read his Proust et les Signes in high school in Paris in 1977. He was still relatively unknown outside France. Since then I have pillaged his extraordinary conceptual coinage – I use ‘Thousand Planes’ (my translation of Mille Plateaux) in my Introduction to Middle Eastern Law as a holding concept for 4,000 years of Middle Eastern and Islamic law. It is impossible to circumvent Deleuze as the major philosopher of the century. Foucault predicted as much in a famous quote that goes something like: the 21st century will be Deleuzian or nothing. Deleuze, who died in1995, has indeed moved from being a maverick thinker to becoming a major world political and philosophical reference.

Can you describe the basis of Deleuzian maverick political thought?

The elaborate dimension of his philosophy is in Mille Plateaux, written with Guattari, his old companion who died in 1992. There are several planes, he says, layers of what he calls ‘rhizome’ – many roads, some that go nowhere. This is a modern and lively version of Heidegger’s Holzwege [Off the Beaten Track]. Deleuze provides always a brilliant, meaningful exposition of classics in a current context: Kafka, Proust, Spinoza, Nietzsche, the cinema. The order he brings in and operates in each field I find always extremely enriching, to understand them and go beyond.

In what way?

Take my field of research, Islamic law. Islamic law is not one monolithic thing over 1,500 years or, if you take it as Middle Eastern law, over 4,000 years. It’s not just the Qur’an and some haphazard aphorisms called hadith. There are so many different layers of interaction. The metaphor in the world at large of 1,000 planes all held together is very useful in law, especially in a Mid-Eastern legal world that is looking for meaning and order, amidst the immense violence it casts on itself and on the rest of the planet.
But then Deleuze also gives a formidable understanding of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, producing art as the key to defeating the passage of time and death: art as the reproduction of memory – around Venice, the famed madeleines, Combray – in a masterpiece of fiction that talks about our inner world at large. In art Deleuze’s Proust defeats death and time, otherwise forever lost. Art is the antidote to politics.
The essence of the thousand planes is like a thousand people all describing an event and each point of view holds its own truth. He fits philosophical thought into 1,000 planes as a key to understanding the modern world. It’s the antithesis of Fossaert who has a coherent, complex but linear concept of society. Deleuze has no linearity. His central counter-concept is lignes de fuite, escape lines. This, like his machine de guerre, is a powerful key to understanding modern politics, and its immense state-driven violence.

Your next book is Pour Le Liban by Kamal Joumblatt.

This is by the Lebanese socialist leader who was assassinated in 1977 by those in power in Syria. It is not his best book. The book is posthumous, and the editor has done a poor job. But it still holds profound reflections on the deadlocks which Joumblatt fought against all his life, and which we continue to fight against 30 years later: authoritarian Arab states, the distortion and damnation of oil money, the sectarian straitjacket, the structural injustice constituted by the Israeli state, and the brutal rule of Asad’s Syria. After so many other essays on the Lebanese civil wars and Joumblatt’s fight for democracy, the book is most poignant probably in that Joumblatt failed to apply his professed Gandhi ideals in the Middle East, although he did end up assassinated like Gandhi.

What did he think about the curse of oil and about Israel?

Ah, well, of course altogether this is about people who think outside the box and eventually force the rest of the planet to listen to them. On Israel, Joumblatt had proposed that it wasn’t a democracy and that until it becomes one, integrating the Palestinians for whom it has forced an existential denial since its inception in 1948, then it can’t be dealt with as a democracy. His answer politically to the lack of democracy was to say: ‘We’ll solve the problem, the conflict, when we fight for Israel to become a democracy.’ This is true for the other ME conflicts, and this is where oil money operates as a terrible distorter: instead of freedom and participation, the Saudis and other rentier governments peddle out favours and money. The reason you can’t fight with or reason with the regimes surrounding Israel is that they are all more authoritarian than Israel, all cursed by oil, and it is this deadlock that you have to understand. Joumblatt supported a democratic solution and that is now the centre of the debate on the Middle East. Unfortunately, despite my presidential campaign, I was unable to carry this through in power, where the vision can be made effective.

Are you optimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East?

I’m not optimistic in the sense that we are dealing with horrendous violence and fanaticism and it takes at least a generation to establish democracy. The rulers in the region are all ruthless dinosaurs. But we’d better start now! The violence is staggering. I agree with Kamal Joumblatt that Israel is not a democracy until it shares power with the Palestinian as individuals and as people, and compensates those it has harmed, but I reject violent means to get there. It is in this vein I brought the case against Sharon [Decision of the Belgian Supreme Court on 12 Feb 2003 in favour of Victims of Sabra and Shatila v Ariel Sharon et al, under the law of universal jurisdiction in Belgium]. Together with Sharhabeel al-Zaeem, a leading Gaza lawyer, and Muhammad Aburdeini, a survivor of Sabra and Shatila, we recently wrote a rebuttal of Netanyahu’s demand that we should simply recognise the Jewish state. Against an exclusivist, anti-democratic separation, we need to work towards a Federal Israel, not a two-state solution, and bring that maverick Joumblatt thought on democracy in Palestine-Israel centre-stage. Mind you, I was not opposed to the Oslo process, because any progress is good, but you need wider horizons All my writings and preoccupations in the rule of law are based in a strong belief in the efficacy of non-violent solutions and that politics should be defined not by violence, but by persuasion and words.

Your next book is Democracy and Distrust by John Hart Ely.

Of the immense legal literature on US democracy and the role of the American Supreme Court, this is the one book that has most profoundly affected my understanding of the rule of law, and of the role of the judges in compensating for the failures of democracy. Since reading this I have remained under the spell of the unique quality of constitutional writing in America, especially by my colleagues at Yale like Owen Fiss, Paul Kahn, Jed Rubenfeld, and Bruce Ackerman. I put them in the ‘maverick’ category because they cast a unique light on an otherwise opaque system of government in the US. The system holds up less because of elections and political parties than thanks to the discourse in and around the US Supreme Court.

What are the failings of democracy and how does the Supreme Court correct them?

Democracy is defined by majoritarianism – you win the majority of the vote and you rule. But there are minorities who don’t have the means to counter the rule of the majority by definition, because they are a minority and don’t have enough votes. This judicial counter-majoritarianism started under Chief Justice Earl Warren, for whom Ely clerked, when the Supreme Court ruled to end bus and school segregation in 1954, sparking the Civil Rights movement which eventually led to Barack Obama becoming president.
And the Supreme Court is important in cleaning the channels of the political process. There is a natural and intrinsic drive towards corruption – if someone is in power they want to remain in power and so they block the normal processes of democracy by gerrymandering, by enhanced access to the media, by clogging the channels of change, by abusing money and power now available to them. The Supreme Court, Ely showed, must prevent this clogging of the political process by the people who, by definition, seek to stay in power.

So it does do this or it should do this?

Well, it does do it, but not sufficiently. The mistake in Bush v Gore, for example, was that the Supreme Court intervened when it should not have done, while it has generally abdicated its role in preventing money from dominating the political process. It has done better in securing gender equality and, to some extent, minorities, but even then there is much left to do. My colleague at Harvard Law School, Laurence Tribe, summed it up best: the Court has forced ‘the one person one vote’ agenda; we have yet to get to the principle of ‘one person one voice’.

Now we come to Sadr’s Iqtisaduna (Our Economics).

This book was published in 1959-61 by a young scholar who proved to be the ‘prize of the Islamic university’, as Khumaini called him when he learnt of his execution, aged 45, by Saddam Hussein in April 1980. My first serious book was on Sadr’s views on the constitution, the economic system and banking (The Renewal of Islamic Law, 1993). He was then pretty much unknown outside Shi’ite circles, and so very much a maverick on the world scene. Now Sadr City, named after him, is home to perhaps a quarter to a half of Baghdad’s population. Sadr is, in my view, the greatest Islamic thinker of the 20th century, and he reshaped the whole field of Islamic law away from the monstrous idea of it, held by Eastern and Western ignoramuses alike. Iqtisaduna is the greatest illustration of Sadr’s aggiornamento – bringing up to date – of classical Islamic law.

How did he update it and why does Islamic law get such a bad press?

Islamic law is associated with lapidating the adulteress and beheading criminals – and it is arguably this to some extent, but only if you reject all that is good in it to focus just on these, which, like slavery in American law, I call ‘acid tests’. You’ll find outrageous rules, of course, in the texts, but what Sadr did was to take out the extreme legacy of Islamic law and interpret the world with the better part of it. It’s an immense work, some 30 books, of which Iqtisaduna is the most innovative. He fails to provide a fully functioning new theory, I think. But he offers the tools for thinking about and using traditional ways to recreate a decent, forward-looking world. In the Muslim world Sadr epitomises systemic renewal and enlightenment.

Can you give an example?

Well, when land redistribution was a major problem he went back to Islamic legal textbooks to interpret how to decide the issue of land redistribution, coming up with tools from tradition to bring coherence to labour and land law from an Islamic perspective. It’s an elaborate scheme and in my 1993 book I describe how land reform was scuttled in Iran, but Sadr’s method was right. The tools of reflection and the rediscovery of the text, bring a wealth of legacy that makes it appealing. It is never decisive, but this is true of any law – it must be debated and renewed endlessly. Sadr is able to do this with Islamic law – you see it happening in Iraq today. You can see Sadr’s legacy as people enter the debate and develop a rule of law in the Muslim world now that the people have been freed from Saddam and grow increasingly proud and supportive of democracy. Helping the Iraqi government, legislators and judiciary to develop a rule of law is the aim of the Global Justice Project I am involved with. It is hard work, but the stakes are high. Imagine an Iraq devoid of violence, combining a humanistic view of Islam that is manifestly democratic. That would be the greatest legacy of Sadr. His once maverick political thought will have reshaped the planet.

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Chibli Mallat

As a lawyer, Chibli Mallat is best known for legal actions on behalf of the victims of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, and for winning the case of Victims of Sabra and Shatila v Ariel Sharon et al under the law of universal jurisdiction in Belgium in February 2003, before a change in Belgian law removed the jurisdiction of the court. Now senior law adviser for the University of Utah Global Justice Project: Iraq in Baghdad, Mallat says: 'It takes at least a generation to establish democracy and the rulers in the Middle East are all ruthless dinosaurs. But we’d better start now!'

Chibli Mallat on Wikipedia
Chibli Mallat's Homepage