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Sam Hamad

Zizek on immigration and the hypocrisy of the Left

Zizek’s argument has a lot in common with the arguments of EU's far-right [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2016

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Comment: Zizek's view of the so-called refugee crisis seems to echo the thinking behind 'Fortress Europe' rather than the ideas of a leftist thinker, writes Sam Hamad.

In an interview with Channel 4 this week, renowned philosopher and Marxist intellectual Slavoj Zizek made provocative comments regarding the so-called refugee crisis in Europe. Zizek's essential message was that while the impulse to provide humanitarian asssistance to refugees is understandable, such efforts distort the bigger picture in terms of the consequences of mass Muslim migration to Europe. 

Many of Zizek's comments during this interview are troubling.  While an admission of cultural differences between Syrian refugees and many European nations is not in itself racist, Zizek's need to place these real or imagined considerations before what you might call humanitarian action is something you might expect to hear from Marine Le Pen, rather than a self-proclaimed 'radical leftist'. 

Zizek argues that "the perception of what is going on with all these refugees… it's a humanitarian crisis and we should open our hearts to them and so on… it's a terrible mistake." He goes on to say that "the images we see [of refugees]… poor refugees saved from drowning in the sea at the last moment… that's of course tragic but what we need to do in cinematic terms is… the shot begins here [with the images of the poor refugees] and slowly we withdraw the camera until what we see in old Marxist terms, we call the social totality." 

So what does Zizek mean by the 'social totality'? He means that the reflexive impulse of humanitarianism towards those fleeing genocide, ethnic cleansing and unprecedented brutality ought to be subordinated to the social impact that this will have on the countries to which these refugees are fleeing, namely, in Zizek's mind, European countries. 

Although Zizek dresses up his concern for the impact of the influx of Muslim refugees into Europe as an attempt to recognise the 'agency' of refugees (he concedes that Muslims have 'their own feminists', for example), his real reasoning becomes clear when he talks about 'extremism'. 

Zizek makes the traditionally right-wing argument that 'extremism', by which both he and the interviewer make clear they mean Islamic extremism, arises not out of a lack of integration among immigrant communities, but rather too much integration. Blaming 'multiculturalism' for the rise of Islamic extremism is a long-established argument of the anti-immigrant right, but Zizek takes it a step further.

At one point during the interview, Zizek makes the outrageous claim that Europe is "the only part of the world which at least relatively, in however limited a way, opened itself up to the refugees"


He argues that those western Muslims who have joined the Islamic State group (IS) are "fascinated by Western culture", an argument that carries the preconception that these people are somehow not part of western culture to begin with. The overwhelming majority of western Muslims who have either travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with IS or who have committed criminal acts as part of that group within Europe were born and raised in the West.

Their culture is western culture as much as Zizek's is, which is why we've seen IS recruits buying books such as "Islam for Dummies" and taking to social media to complain about cultural differences between the perceived inferior Syrian culture and the standards they are used to in their own western cultures. 

Zizek is merely expounding what is called the 'assimilation argument', a point of view that is usually the sole preserve of the political right, but which he wraps up in the language of the Left. At one point during the interview, Zizek makes the outrageous claim that Europe is "the only part of the world which at least relatively, in however limited a way, opened itself up to the refugees".

This is quite an extraordinary and very telling claim from Zizek. Why does he think that refugees need to be saved from drowning in the sea trying to get to Europe? Why are they forced to put their lives on the line trying to enter the first world? It's not because Europe has "opened itself up to the refugees" – it has in fact done the opposite.

In addition to Zizek, European leaders are also concerned with the 'social totality', and their response to the millions of refugees fleeing Syria (or for that matter Libya) has been pathetic. It has forced people into the hands of the smugglers. Zizek's critique focuses on what he sees as the misguided humanitarian impulse to help refugees, as beyond the aid groups, NGOs and volunteers, this humanitarian response scarcely exists. 

Added to the fact that it is actually Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who have done much more than any other nation to aid the Syrian refugees, Zizek's argument is completely devoid of any criticism of the cruel brutality of 'Fortress Europe'.

This is a Europe that allows migrants to die in their droves crossing the Mediterranean, including the most recent tragedy in which 500 lives were lost. It is a Europe that makes racist deals with the Turkish government to ensure that what Zizek calls the 'social totality' never gets distorted by unenlightened Syrians, dangerous vessels of cultural 'difference' that they are. And finally, it is a Europe that relies on fascist dictators to ensure that the third world subhumans remain in their place, despite such tyrants being a driving force behind the instability that causes people to flee their homes.

a coherent position against the kind of xenophobic arguments made by Zizek - arguments that the far-right are exploiting for political gain - is painfully absent, especially among the Left

Zizek's thinking has more in common with arguments in favour of Fortress Europe than with those against it; a bewildering set of conclusions for any leftist thinker.

One element of Zizek's argument that is almost plausible, is his understanding of the circumstances that have contributed to the refugee crisis. However, even here, he claims that the refugees are mostly fleeing IS and "the spread of Islam", whereas the primary cause of refugees is actually Bashar al-Assad. Zizek's assessment that the refugee crisis cannot be blamed solely on 'western neo-colonialism' is however completely correct. 

This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Syrian crisis. Most alarmingly, a coherent position against the kind of xenophobic arguments made by Zizek - arguments that the far-right are exploiting for political gain - is painfully absent, especially among the Left.

In contrast to Zizek's arguments, a significant proportion of the Left is determined to either ignore the political context of the refugees, or actively apologise for the forces that are causing them to flee.  

They have used lslamophobia to tarnish those Syrians who resist Assad as 'terrorists' and 'al-Qaeda', or they have denied Syrians of their agency by blaming nefarious western plots for the Syrian war, rather than facing up to the fact that Assad is the root cause of the chaos. The only logical progressive position is one that argues both for a more humane attitude towards Syrians fleeing violence and an end to the conditions causing people to become refugees. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.  

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