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Murad Idris, War for Peace

On April 3rd, 2019, we gathered at the Heyman Center for the Humanities to celebrate the publication of three outstanding books by Jordanna Bailkin (Unsettled), Ilana Feldman (Life Lived in Relief), and Murad Idris (War for Peace). There were a few commentaries and responses. I was in charge of responding to Murad, however, after reading the book I felt frankly overwhelmed by the beauty, the elegance and the intellectual depth of the book, and I could not write anything. So, I went to the (undisclosed) location of his current office, and I started going through his wastebasket. By happenstance, I found a discarded, unopened letter, addressed to Murad in Arabic. I took it with me and left the premises.

I did not even have to open it, because with digital humanities these days, you can do all sort of postman things. So, I presented it humbly to The Machine, and it graciously read it for me, translated it for me, and even printed it out for me, so that I could read it to the audience, and this is exactly what I did. This is the content of the letter. If you find errors, blame the machine, no machine is perfect.

New York, 19 Decade, Quartidi of Germinal of 227.

Dear Murad,

I hope this letter finds you and your family very well. I have just read your book, War for Peace, thanks for saving a copy for me. I would like to tell you what I think about it, given that you did not ask for my opinion. But, you know the saying about everybody having an opinion, that Clint Eastwood made sadly famous a lifetime ago. To give you my opinion, I need to be frank, even blunt. So, forgive me if I begin with a criticism, but I feel it is my duty to do it, and, like Frederic, the pirate apprentice in The Pirates of Penzanze, I am the slave of duty. What I cannot understand, for the life of me, is why on Earth you did not write and publish this book in 2008! You will say, “but I was 24!”, I know, but this is such a lame excuse. A good friend would have overcome this minor obstacle to save me a couple of years of embarrassment in a number of seminars and a few presentations on peace and peacemaking. Had I had this book at that time, my ideas would have been clearer, more brilliant, and indeed, I would have probably started to actually think about peace, instead of just trying to come up with some fragmentary, unfinished thoughts. You should have. And you did not.

But at least now you redeemed yourself and finally gave the book to the printing press. I can only imagine your struggle, your effort –are those good translations of the triliteral root j-h-d?—in your conversations with the copypeditor from Oxford University Press. She or he wanted you to get rid of all those diacritics on Arabic words, when, she or he said, those words have already been incorporated in the English language. But the English language only incorporates those words, those concepts, by eliminating the critique through, the dia-criticism that come with them. English language only incorporates those Araboic words from Islam by taming them, by deactivating them, by putting them in a place where they can be observed, redefined, submitted to a very basic colonial form of criticism, put on the spotlight of their otherness. So, I was moved when I read note 22 of your introduction, page 13, where you wrote the following winged words:

“Although the word “jihad” is now an English word, the roman type fails to signify that it is domesticated precisely as something foreign and that its status is a source of political controversy; in these senses, there are important distinctions between jihad and jihād, and the stakes of writing one or the other are different from other borrowings, such as algebra instead of al-jabr or coffee instead of qahwa. The italics and diacritics make the difference.”

That was smart, how you cunningly explained that the roman type was unable to keep up with the challenge of the Arabic word. The roman type, ha!, I know you mean tyopography, but the other Roman Type, the Western type is also lurking behind your words. I know that to read you, I need to read between your lines, and not just on top of them.

Otherwise, If I read only what you have written, I would have failed to see what are the stakes of your study, how this war for peace trope in its multiple iterations across a masculine history of ten thinkers, is, indeed, a contemporary call for thought and for action, and not just “genealogies”, as you claim in your subtitle. But we know that when we talk about genealogies we are not talking about the painstaking exploration Foucault considered when he said that “La généalogie est grise; elle est méticuleuse et patiemment documentaire. Elle travaille sur des parchemins embrouillés, grattés, plusieurs fois récrits.” Genealogies are the institutional paths that lead to the formation of those institutions while at the same time make us think that they are not institutions, but natural, spontaneous occurrences. And what you demonstrate is that there is nothing natural or spontaneous about peace, but rather, that this is an institution that, becoming parasitic of multiple other institutions, ends up being a problem and not a solution, ends up being an institution that is the servant of war.

And sure, you work on all that, and you insist in retranslating Greek, and Latin, and Arabic texts that are muddled, and have been scratched, and have been rewritten one thousand times, but your genealogy is not grey, it is not grey by any means. Instead, it is luminous, in the most exact concept of luminosity: it sheds light into the descriptive world of semantics, of the semantics of peace, or, as you frequently put it in your book, using one of your favorite words, into the grammar that constitutes the art, the technique whereby peace can be put in language and expand itself and its parasitic character through language and through actions. When I mean that you shed light into this grammar, or this semantic of peace, I mean it: you come up with a new concept that allows us to understand how semantic fields are formed. It is not sufficient for you to define a semantic field, to describe it, to say, here it is, there you are the semantic field of “peace” throughout history in five or six languages. On the contrary, you delve into the many different, protean ways, in which a given discourse of peace, which cannot be confused with other discourses on peace even if they claim to be commenting similar sources, insinuates other concepts that are perhaps more palatable than peace, because, unlike the idea of peace, they point to specific emotions, specific actions, specific objects of desire. Friendship is one of them. But then, friendship is not the same in all your authors, and it is at is turn a protean insinuate of peace. Al-Fārābī’s insinuates are definitely not the same that Thomas Aquinas, the rotund Dominican, set as his primal ones, as the necessary addition to concord, namely goodness, unity, and friendship (113).

And in that sense, this is also a book on friendship, and I was astonished to read that book on friendship getting its way through a book that did not claim to be dealing with friendship. How friendship is itself a concept that struggles to become a political and legal institution, that intends, in vain, to get rid of its theological load, just like peace cannot be fully extracted from theologies. If anything, I do want to know more about this, but, Murad, I want to know when are you going to write a book on friendship, so that I can blame you for not having published it before I submitted my last book for publication and saving me a lot of embarrassment as well.

There are so many books nested in this book. And also, it must be because this is a book about nesting. About how peace is nested in peace, and how the effusion of insinuates are cross-nested and inter-nested, and, well, may they nest in peace. One of the insinuates of peace that does not seem to appear often in your book is that of amnesia, or the voluntary forgetfulness that comes from amnesty, as one of the insinuates of peacemaking: forgetting the past, the foreign country where they (who are they, we don’t know) do things differently there, as Hartley wrote. Now, amnesty, and memory, and juridical memory altogether, seems to me to be a crucial insinuate. This is not a critique, it is a way to thing with you. Amnesty is a pact, and as saint Isidore said, pactus comes from pacis, from “making peace”, which is one of the forms in which peace is institutionalized –you have to make it in your image and likeness, with your own parasites and insinuates.

There is a moment, with Grotius, and with Hobbes, and with everybody writing after what some contemporaries called the invention of America –using the rhetorical word inventio, to find out– to discuss this legal-political character of peace. Peace is a political issue because it is a legal issue, because in international law there are no longer war operations –they are all peace operations. You help me thinking with you, you give me the theoretical and semantic strength to look for other insidious insinuates that pervade this constellational tradition in Arabic, Greek, Latin, and other languages, in which the discourse of war for peace has become one of the centers of attention.

Before, I said –and I was kind of a smart ass saying it, please forgive me for that—that your ten thinkers are all men. But I thank you for helping me think through some other thinkers that did not make it to your book, including Christine de Pizan and her Libre de la paix, written in the midst of civil wars, and how she analyzes the ways of peace, that is, how she develops the parasitic character of peace and what are her insinuates. I need to work on that.

I want to thank you for this. And this is my farewell for today. I would have liked to talk about how you wrote your book, about your own style. I would have liked to talk about how you redefine aesthetics. I would have liked to talk about the central importance of the “minor key” interludes, which, in fact are pieces of intense lyricism, that is, theoretical importance, actual seminars for new concepts. I would have liked to talk about all ten authors, and about ourselves. But, most of all, I wanted to celebrate this book with you.


JPS: You did not sign my copy of the book! [Update: he did sign it]

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