Slavoj Žižek: The True Enemy for Islamists Is Not the West’s Neocolonialism or Military Aggression, but Our ‘Immoral’ Culture

IN FOCUS, 23 Aug 2021

Slavoj Žižek | RT - TRANSCEND Media Service

Ayatollah Khomeini. © Getty Images / Sergio Gaudenti

20 Aug 2021 – Ayatollah Khomeini once wrote: “We’re not afraid of sanctions. We’re not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is the invasion of Western immorality.” And it is this fear that fuels the Taliban.

A couple of days ago, Hamad International Airport in Qatar was proclaimed the best in the world, winning over Changi Airport in Singapore. But reports on the luxury amenities available at Hamad were totally overshadowed by what is going on at the Kabul airport: Thousands desperately trying to leave the country, individuals hanging onto planes taking off and falling from them after take-off… as if we are witnessing the latest tragic example of the ironic supplement to the old anti-colonialist motto: ‘Yankee go home!’ – ‘Yankee go home… and take me with you!’

The true enigma is in what must have been a surprise for the Taliban itself – how quickly the Afghan army’s resistance melted away. If thousands are now desperately trying to catch a flight out of the country and are ready to risk their life to escape, why didn’t they FIGHT against the Taliban? Why do they prefer dropping to their death from the sky, to death in battle? The easy answer to this is that those who crowd the Kabul airport are the corrupted minority of the American collaborators… However, what about the thousands of women who stay at home frightened? Are they also collaborators?

The fact is that the US occupation of Afghanistan gradually created some kind of secular civil society, with many women educated, employed, and aware of their rights, and also with an important independent intellectual life. When Goran Therborn visited Kabul and Herat a couple of years ago to give a talk on Western Marxism, hundreds of people turned up, to the surprise of the organizers. Yes, the Taliban are now stronger than ever, stronger than they were 20 years ago when Western powers came to Afghanistan to liberate the country from them, which clearly demonstrates the futility of the entire operation, but should we for that reason ignore the (partially, at least, unintended) progressive consequences of their intervention?

Slavoj Zizek: The real reason why the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan so quickly, which Western liberal media avoids mentioning

Yanis Varoufakis touched on this difficult point in a recent tweet: “On the day liberal-neocon imperialism was defeated once and for all, DiEM25’s thoughts are with the women of Afghanistan. Our solidarity probably means little to them but it is what we can offer – for the time being. Hang in there sisters!”

How are we to read the two parts of his tweet, i.e., why the defeat of liberal imperialism coming with the regression of women’s (and other) rights? Do we (those who count ourselves as the global Left opponents of neocolonial imperialism) have the right to ask Afghan women to sacrifice their rights so that global liberal capitalism can suffer a big defeat? When Varoufakis was accused of subordinating women’s liberation to the anti-imperialist struggle, he tweeted back: “We predicted how neocon imperialism would strengthen Misogynist Islamic Fundamentalism (MIF). It did! How did the neocons react? By blaming MIF’s triumph on… us. Cowards as well as war criminals.”

I must say that I find this putting the blame on neocons a little bit problematic: Neocons easily find a common language with the Taliban – remember that Trump invited the Taliban to Camp David and made a pact with them which opened up the path towards the US capitulation.

Plus, there already are neocon reactions to the fall of Kabul which treat it as the ultimate defeat of the Western tradition of secular enlightenment and individualist hedonism… No, it was not neocons who boosted Islamic fundamentalism, this fundamentalism grew up in a reaction to the influence of Western liberal secularism and individualism.

Official review exposes how US reconstruction of Afghanistan was built on death, fraud and lies

Decades ago, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote: “We’re not afraid of sanctions. We’re not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is the invasion of Western immorality.” The fact that Khomeini talked about fear, about what a Muslim should fear most in the West, should be taken literally: Muslim fundamentalists do not have any problems with the brutality of economic and military struggles, their true enemy is not the Western economic neocolonialism and military aggressiveness, but its “immoral” culture.

In many African and Asian countries, the gay movement is also perceived as an expression of the cultural impact of capitalist globalization and of its undermining of traditional social and cultural forms, so that, consequently, the struggle against gays appears as an aspect of the anti-colonial struggle.

Does the same not hold for, say, Boko Haram? For its members, the liberation of women appears as the most visible feature of the destructive cultural impact of capitalist modernization, so that Boko Haram (whose name can be roughly and descriptively translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’, specifically the education of women) can perceive and portray itself as an agent fighting the destructive impact of modernization, by way of imposing a hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the sexes.

The enigma is thus: Why do Muslims, who have undoubtedly been exposed to exploitation, domination, and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response what is (for us, at least) the best part of the Western legacy – our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, inclusive of a healthy dose of irony and a mocking of all authorities?

The obvious answer is that their target is well-chosen. What makes the liberal West so unbearable for them is not only that it practices exploitation and violent domination, but that, to add insult to injury, it presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: Freedom, equality, and democracy.

Britain’s delusions that it could take on the Taliban alone are ludicrous – what are our empire-nostalgic MPs smoking?

So we have to learn again Marx’s crucial lesson: True capitalism systematically violates its own rules (‘human rights and freedoms’) – just remember that, at the beginning of the modern era which celebrates human freedoms, capitalism resuscitated slavery in its colonies… But capitalism at the same time provided standards to measure its own hypocrisy, so we should not say, ‘since human rights are a mask of exploitation, let’s drop human rights’, but: ‘Let’s take human rights more seriously than those who founded the ideology of human rights!’ This is what, from the very beginning, Socialism meant.

So what should Americans have done? Yes, they messed up the situation, but after they did that, they lost the right to just run away from the mess they created. They should have stayed and started to act differently. How? Let me just conclude with a reversal of the well-known metaphor of how, when we are throwing out the dirty water from a bathtub, we should be careful not to lose the clean and healthy baby. Racists are doing this after they realize that the Western interventions destined to spread human rights and freedoms to the poor and dirty Third World countries miserably fail: OK, so let’s throw out of the bathtub of human rights and freedoms the dirty water of Third World people who are not mature enough for secular democracy, and let’s just keep in the pure white baby…

Perhaps we should do the exact opposite: Throw out the pure white baby and be careful not to lose the dirty water of the poor and exploited in the Third World who really deserve human rights and not just our sympathy and charity.


Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian cultural philosopher and psychoanalyst, is senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the 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 Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.

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2 Responses to “Slavoj Žižek: The True Enemy for Islamists Is Not the West’s Neocolonialism or Military Aggression, but Our ‘Immoral’ Culture”

  1. karen elliot says:

    I find the quote by Khomeini very revealing. Anyone familiar with the 1920 – 1940s writings of Dr Wilhelm Reich
    would understand that political reaction draws its energies from sexual repression, especially of the young and women.

  2. Jovian says:

    The Americans were not the only source of ‘freedom’ and education in Afghanistan. The author has completely ignored the preceding governments that promoted secular beliefs and education of women, including the Marxist-Leninist PDPA that fell with Najibullah in 1992. There is still a generation of educated Afghans who benefitted from the secular policies of that era that Zizek ignores. Why should the only educated class in Afghanistan be credited to the Americans, especially when massive amounts of the latter’s alleged donations to Afghan education were redirected into the pockets of local warlords? In fact, there is universal acknowledgement that America spent a tiny fraction of its $2 trillion in Afghanistan on local development that failed to create any lasting impacts (see Matt Taibbi, Jeffrey Sachs, Jonathan Cook, John Pilger, et al.).

    Zizek seems to argue that the catastrophic destruction of Afghanistan has a silver lining, which we should focus on rather than stress about the whole, you know, “illegal aggression” and violations of international law (loss of casus belli, torture at Guantanamo and other sites, bribing corrupt officials and attacking civilians with drones, etc.). This approach is incomprehensible, as if by admitting that the Americans screwed up, Zizek is demonstrating his ‘liberal’ credentials but now wants us to move on to looking at the paltry benefits that accrued from 20 years of war crimes. After all, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, et al, are still ongoing – what silver lining can Zizek offer us from those war crimes? Apparently, deterrence of future illegal invasions is not something worth considering in this article, so we might as well focus on ancillary benefits that might accrue.

    There are other bizarre and appalling comments about Muslim beliefs in this piece that are too numerous to address. Suffice it to say that focusing on Boko Haram and their ilk to understand the Muslim mindset is like focusing on Joseph Kony and David Koresh to understand the Christian psyche.

    Zizek then creates a falsely limited choice at the conclusion by asking if we should throw away human rights just because they were used to justify the American aggression in Afghanistan. He pretends that ‘nation-building’ by the Americans after their invasion would have somehow mitigated their 20 year illegal aggression after Al Qaeda was routed in December of 2001. Well, if he wants to preserve the existing human rights infrastructure, he should propose war crimes trials at the Hague for Americans and their allies. He wants us to preserve the bathtub of human rights for victims like the Afghans but doesn’t want to use its enforcement and accountability mechanisms that are used so liberally against African countries and Serbians, et al. The omissions of relevant arguments in this piece are disturbing, at best.