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Interview with Nicholas De Genova: The “European” Question after Charlie Hebdo

by Nicholas De Genova and Martina Tazzioli
5 Oct 2015 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Border Struggles [12] | Commons

Martina Tazzioli: Thank you for accepting to do this interview for this Special Issue of darkmatter on ‘Border Struggles: Epistemologies, Ontologies, and Politics’. Let’s start from your ongoing research project about what you call “The ‘European’ Question.” Could you explain your current project and how it links to your previous work on migration?

Nicholas De Genova: My current project on “the ‘European’ Question” is meant to be a provocation. The “European” Question, as I call it, is modeled on “the Jewish Question” or “the Negro Question.” That is to say, the European Question is meant, in a concise way, to formulate Europe and Europeanness as a problem: as a problem that presents itself in unprecedented ways, first and foremost for Europeans themselves, but also as a problem that is fundamentally configured as a postcolonial condition.

And so, my approach to the European Question can be understood as 2 questions: What is Europe? and Who is European?  My approach to the European Question comes first and foremost through an engagement with migration and borders in the European context. And nonetheless it is principally preoccupied with the ways in which questions of migration in Europe today are always fundamentally racial questions and the incapacitation of much of European discourse, including discourse on the Left, to engage substantially with the questions of race and racialization and racism.

On the one hand, there’s a facile way that people embrace an anti-racist politics, even in a way that’s the official dogma of most European states. Racism is understood to be anathema, but in a way that refuses to examine the historical and ongoing socio-political production of race, so it is an anti-racism without race, without recourse to race as a critical analytical category; hence, it systematically undermines the possibility of thinking about the fact of racial subjugation and inequality in the contemporary European context–first and foremost for migrants, their children and grandchildren but also in relationship to the legacies of colonialism as the material and practical foundation for Europe itself. Those are the concerns that I bring to this. My approach begins from migration and borders because that’s where much of my work is situated, but it is essentially about insisting on the link between those topics with an overt and explicit engagement around questions of race and postcoloniality.

Tazzioli: And so what do you mean, specifically, by postcolonial Europe? What is your specific understanding and meaning of this label in your project? How do you use it?

De Genova: To me, the most elementary insight of postcolonial critique is that of the interconnection that is indispensable for understanding the constitution of the places and spaces that define our global present. And so in the same way that it is impossible to talk about formerly colonized places without a deep understanding of the historical interconnections with various kinds of European colonial projects (or for that matter, US colonial or imperial projects), I think it’s fundamentally impossible to understand anything about Europe, and most evidently the former colonial powers of Europe, without a deep understanding of that historical legacy, which of course constituted centuries of European projects of colonization at a global scale and which is the real foundation of our “modernity”. You can’t understand global capitalism–or anything that might be called modernity–without understanding the global reach of European colonial projects and the deep interconnection of Europe to all of these other places. This kind of postcolonial emphasis on interconnection starts, in the first place, from the fundamental material and practical foundations of European wealth, power, and prestige, which are inseparable from a longer story about colonialism. And I think that there is a kind of will on the part of European political elites to silence that history, to bracket that history, to treat that history as though it is no longer pertinent, to be able to relegate that to the past and pretend to get past it. And I think that sometimes the Left, as well, is interested in getting past that past. But it seems to me that that past is not the past. It is indeed very much constitutive of our present in the European context: the whole variety of recent conflicts around migration; around racial inequalities; around the disaffection of youth of color in Europe who are themselves born and raised in European contexts but are treated as permanent foreigners or classed officially as (so-called “second generation”) “immigrants”. These are people who have never migrated, who are classed as people “of immigrant background”, sometimes officially classified as “foreigners” and produced as noncitizens of the very same places where they are born and raised all their lives. We have a variety of different regimes of immigration and citizenship that pertain here, in different ways, in different countries.  But fundamentally, the heart of the matter is the production of people of color in the European context as—in a fundamental sense—“not European”.

Tazzioli: And when in your project you talk about the borders of Europe, what are the borders of Europe that you have in mind and that you assume as the borders of Europe or that you problematize as the borders of Europe, since I imagine that you don’t narrow the analysis to the borders of the European Union.

De Genova: Well, I think that this raises in the first place an important problem, which is that we ought not to fall into the trap of talking about Europe as if it refers to the European Union, a kind of gesture of methodological EU-ropeanism. That’s the first problem. Indeed, Europe has always been a kind of project, an unstable one with unstable boundaries, but a project over centuries, long preceding the EU; and it shouldn’t be reducible to that. And today in a variety of uneven, complicated ways, the EU itself is an unfinished project and one that has important kinds of gaps.

So we could think of examples like Norway or Switzerland, on the one hand, which are countries that are not in the EU, but are part of a continuous engagement with the larger structures of the EU; and a whole variety of harmonizations that link up countries that are not part of the EU formally to various kinds of projects of the EU. On the other hand, there is the bigger question of European countries that have not yet been admitted to the EU. Indeed, it’s possible to see the EU as a kind of restless, amoeba-like configuration that has continually changed its shape over the last several years, and that continually presents new kinds of prospects and foreclosures of opportunity for European neighbors. So in the first place we can’t possibly think about Europe in a way that’s reducible to the EU, to say nothing of the fact that the EU itself is increasingly a sort of fragile institutional, political, and juridical framework in its own right.

But then the bigger point is that it becomes difficult to discern where are the boundaries of Europe? Where are the limits of Europe? Where does Europe begin and where does it end? and What are the places that become disqualified from the prospect of inclusion within something called Europe? I think that question can be historicized in many ways and it’s important to do that. There has been an accumulated and sedimented series of conceptions of what is Europe and what is not Europe, conceptions which are in no way natural, self-evident geographical facts. But, I think that the continuous expansion of the EU has been a good occasion with which to understand a renewed project of the bordering of Europe, a renewed project of safeguarding relative privilege in relationship to a variety of indeterminate frontiers, first of all with respect to other Europeans who may not be considered to qualify as legitimately European, who may be considered to be not-yet, or not-quite, “European”.

In that sense, we see a kind of civilizational project, where there is a politics of assimilation at stake that plays itself out in relationship to whole states and governments, but which is really also about the constitution of European subjects on a mass scale.

But then the other problem raised by the bordering of the EU is that Europe has been extraordinarily innovative in improvising new forms of externalized and virtualized bordering that subcontract a whole series of junior partners in the peripheries of Europe to do the work of policing the borders of Europe, to the point where the borders of Europe extend not only into North Africa, but into sub-Saharan Africa; where the borders of Europe are now being maintained in Turkey as well as Eastern European borderlands. And in that sense, to begin to understand what the production of Europe is about, you have to look in places far removed from any conventional imagination of what Europe is.

So, again, to come back to the larger postcolonial problematic: we can’t adequately understand new forms of the policing of human mobility in places like Senegal or Mali without understanding the different ramifications of European bordering playing out there. In the same way, we can’t really comprehend ‘Where is Europe?’ without looking also to places in northern, western, or central Africa, as well as Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. In that sense, the point is not to stipulate where the limits or boundaries or borders of Europe are, but to see the ongoing production of those limits as precisely part of the problematic of asking “European questions”, repeatedly, and in a way that continually reposes the question of “Europe” from different angles, questions that ask what is at stake in the production of a more stable reification called Europe.

Tazzioli: On a more political level, what do you think about the European project that so many activist groups have today? Europe seems to be the only possible spatial referent of our struggles. Do you think that this European question could provoke some problematic questions about whether or not we should maintain Europe as the only political space of our political imagination?

De Genova: I can understand how the politics around the debate over the constitution of Europe going back to the 1990s would have been presented as a potentially exhilarating prospect for breaking out of constraints of epistemological and methodological nationalism that had previously confined various kinds of left political projects. Within the borders of various nation-states, the European project opened up a larger scale in which to think about new political identifications, affinities, horizons, and practical endeavors. But I think that there is something deeply problematic, nonetheless, about the ease with which the Left has been arguably seduced by an identification with Europe, as such, because indeed one of the most important political lessons of the 20th century comes from the struggles of decolonization famously formulated by Fanon, who said ‘forget Europe’. We’re reminded in those blunt terms of the necessity to disavow and repudiate Europe. That must be now the most pressing urgent concern, first of all for people in Europe. We have to be able, in an open-ended fashion, to radically imagine a different world. We need to not be morbidly attached to the geopolitical configurations of the world that we’ve inherited. We have to begin to be able to imagine different kinds of spatial interconnection that allow our politics to not be re-ordered and re-entrenched around a European problematic. So, I think there’s been a kind of treacherous seduction to the European project that now has to be assessed in a sober fashion. Any illusions entertained about European citizenship as an emancipatory formation ought by now to be exposed as having been precisely that—illusions. And many of the ways that people might have wanted to animate or infuse a different kind of radical possibility into those struggles by now must be made to reckon with the fact that this sort of Europeanness has become a new kind of color line that has been drawn with the borders of a European socio-political formation. The re-ordering of Europe has effectively produced a new kind of color line that makes access to Europe into an almost insurmountable kind of barrier for people coming as migrants or refugees from the formerly colonized countries. And that’s directly productive of new kinds of racialized differences within the space of Europe itself.

Tazzioli: Let’s focus now on Charlie Hebdo, which I think is very close to what you already said about the problematic dimension of the European project. So it was, for me, both an attempt to rebuild the national unity of France and also an attempt to find the political energy for refreshing the European project. But both the national French project and the refreshing of the European project are for me quite problematic because they are based on the idea that at the core of ‘our’ Europe, there are supposed universal values like free speech. What is your account of, not necessarily the events in Paris, but the reaction to these events, specifically on the part of the Left, beyond the racist reaction of the right wing?

De Genova: The most remarkable thing about the celebration of Charlie Hebdo and the cartoons and free speech, and the construction of the spectacle of the shootings as an attack on free speech, was that the immediate aftermath of the events was one that was all about foreclosing free speech. So then it became possible to speak freely only if everyone said the same thing: je suis Charlie. It required an obligatory identification with Charlie Hebdo and specifically with the victims of the shootings. This kind of mandatory identification of ‘the French Nation’ with the victims of the shooting was, in my mind, a very, very crude operation, but one that was nevertheless very insidious because of its capacity to hegemonize so much of the discourse around these events, and so much of the discussion or critique or attempt to understand what was at stake here.

So immediately, in the aftermath, there were all sorts of attacks on free speech perpetrated by the state precisely because people were objecting to this kind of new consensus. One of the most important anti-racist movements in France, the PIR (Parti des Indigènes de la République), came under attack very quickly, within the first days, from important figures within the French establishment, as having in some sense aided and abetted the attackers by the mere fact of having systematically produced a critique of Islamophobia. So then, suddenly, to be critical of Islamophobia, specifically the Islamophobia of the cartoons that had been published by Charlie Hebdo, means that you then are constructed to be complicit with grotesque acts of violence against those cartoonists.

Now, the next thing to say is that there is a spectacular character to those events that we should not be seduced by. In a way, we’ve seen a proliferation of these kinds of events. Attacks in Australia, attacks in Canada, the attacks in Paris, the attacks in Copenhagen. We’ve seen a proliferation of these kinds of events, that all are effectively staged as a kind of repetition of each country’s respective iteration of the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in the United States. And that of course became the authorizing, spectacular foundation for the proclamation of a Global War on Terror. It had a kind of excessive and grotesque neoconservative character as articulated by George W. Bush that many sophisticated European leftists might have readily dismissed, and yet today we see that many people on the left are themselves coopted or enlisted into the service of the very same kind of rationalities, rhetoric and discourse. What we’ve seen, indeed, is the routinization and banalization of the War on Terror into a whole variety of institutionalized forms that now are about the making mundane of a national security state. And so immediately in the aftermath of any of these kinds of events, we see new forms of attacks against civil liberties and a veritable undermining of the possibilities for free speech, and new kinds of securitization and so forth.

The real productivity of an event like this is precisely that, whatever we may know or not know—and I choose remain agnostic about what we can really know about events that are presented to us through mainstream media on the virtually exclusive basis of the representations of the police— whatever we may know about the reality of these events and who the perpetrators really are and how these things have been orchestrated, in fact, the official representation of the events produces an enormous spectacle whereby only one message, one script, is promulgated, endlessly and relentlessly in repetitive fashion, across the whole spectrum of different media. And so we are barraged, we are completely bombarded with one message, and the sad reality is that many people on the left relinquished their critical capacities in favor of a certain kind of recapitulation of the same kind of message: that somehow there are democratic values, such as the freedom of speech, that are indispensable to any self-understanding as European, and therefore, that to defend freedom also requires an affirmation of some presumed European heritage.

European colonial powers have been the violent perpetrators of incredibly undemocratic social and political arrangements all over the world, historically, and even in Europe today we have a whole variety of new kinds of securitarianism, new kinds of security state measures that are precisely about undermining various democratic liberties. So, we have this continuous production of a spectacle about the defense of democracy as some kind of culturalised or civilizational value that can be called European or Western, and at the same time in practice we have a foreclosure of the real possibilities for substantive political activity, dialogue, debate, and struggle.

Of course, those events in Paris— that spectacle produced around those events, whatever we may be able to know of the truth of those events — nevertheless are enormously productive. And of course the main product of those events was this great National Unity consensus that was promulgated and celebrated in a way that was deeply alienating for a lot of people who are produced as the racial “minorities” of that “nation”, a lot of the people who belong to the communities that were indeed subjected to the various kinds of Islamophobic cartoons and rhetorics that can be associated with the Charlie Hebdo project. So, we need to understand this as a kind of depoliticisation of the freedom of speech:  the kind of speech that needs for its freedom to be protected is precisely the kind of speech that challenges state power, not the kind of speech that flatters state power, not the kind of speech that contributes to the denigration and dehumanization and persecution of the people who are already the most dispossessed and disenfranchised in French society and the wider European context.

So what we have is the systematic exaltation of things that are inherently racist kinds of speech, on the grounds that they are expressions of free speech. Indeed what we’ve seen is the manipulation and the exploitation of the idea of free speech for the ends of advancing various kinds of projects that are really about oppression and exploitation. For the great majority of people who are Muslims in Europe, it is in no way necessary to be self-identified with any kind of “fundamentalist” or “jihadist” project to be offended by these transparently anti-Muslim, racist kinds of interventions.

I think that this raises another important point. We have to distinguish between Islamophobia and what I would call anti-Muslim racism. I am reluctant to use the term Islamophobia because it has a psychologistic character. Undoubtedly, there may indeed sometimes be an irrational fear, a phobia, of Muslim difference. But what’s much more systematic, much more predictable, much more evident in my mind is that this is about a racism against Muslims. And of course this is perfectly in concert with the wider prominence of formations of a culturalist or differentialist racism that dissimulates race, that doesn’t need to refer specifically to an anachronistic and old-fashioned notion of race as somehow associated with skin color or any distinct kinds of biological, phenotypic features, but is instead about the production of a racialized difference that is manifested first and foremost in terms of things that are otherwise apprehensible as “cultural,” or in this instance, religious.

And in that sense, today’s anti-Muslim racism provides fundamental insight into the transformations of racism in the post-war period, particularly going back to the 1980s and 90s, and the whole idea (introduced by Etienne Balibar, among others, notably Paul Gilroy) of “neo-racisms” that manifested themselves in various forms as culturalist racisms.  These insights are very instructive for us to understand what is at stake today, and to appreciate that any kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric or action in Europe today is fundamentally a racial question. Part of what’s particularly productive of the racialization of the category Muslim is that people who are Muslim can look many different ways, so again it systematically undermines the possibility of naming race as race because it appears to only produce a culturalist discourse of difference, thereby reproducing the old-fashioned idea that you’re supposed to be able to read race off the face, that you’re supposed to read race off the body, that somehow race is a knowable fact of biology, that it is phenotypical and self-evident and transparent. In fact, decades of scholarship, critical scholarship on race and racialization, have systematically sought to refute exactly that misguided conception of race.

What we need to recognize is that the production of Muslims as a category predicated on a notion of their shared ancestry and common kinship is always-already a specifically racialized configuration of Muslim-ness. And it has very little to do with specific religious doctrinal or dogmatic differences, as such. It may have very little to do with religion at all. It is about the production of a difference that appears to be religious, or may appear in other instances to be related to other constructions of difference—national origin, for example—but which is fundamentally about the production of a racialized distinction. Hence, in the end, this is about the production of European-ness as a postcolonial formation of whiteness. And so, in each national context we see a politics, an anti-immigrant racist politics, that usually goes by its overtly national name. We have the French National Front, for example, that is predicated first and foremost on the proposition that it is about nationhood and the authentic, true people of France, who are the nation. And it need not explicitly speak the language of race, but it is fundamentally a racist construction that produces certain kinds of people, including certain kinds of French people, as not really French, as not genuinely French, as not authentically French. And of course the premier group who are targeted for that racism are Muslims. So we need to not fall into the complacencies of a discourse of Islamophobia, and we must instead recognize an anti-Muslim racism that is being actively propagated in all kinds of ways, including by the kinds of anti-Muslim cartoons with which Charlie Hebdo is associated.

So, as someone who has personally been the object of repression and violence or threats of violence because of my own free speech (see De Genova 2014), I have a much more critical and cautious conception of what free speech is really about.  Therefore, I reject the notion that people who are aligned to some of the most mainstream viewpoints, who uncritically uphold the conceits of nationalism and state power, and who dedicate their energies to humiliating or insulting the people who are systematically denigrated by racism, can somehow be constructed to be champions of free speech, under threat from a handful of extremists. That to me is a trivialization of what it means to think about free speech.

Tazzioli: For me you raised a very important point about the necessity to reconceptualise critique as such. Today critique is in fact an unquestioned value: we all have the right to criticize and to produce critical thought. But in some way you have stressed that we should rethink critique in the light of inequalities and of asymmetries in the world. And the paradox is that satirical vignettes address today those who are the targets of racist politics. The other two important points that emerge from what you said are, firstly, the limits of freedom. Indeed, according to the liberal tradition we are supposed to be allowed to do whatever we want to the extent that we do not infringe upon the freedoms of others; but the “encounter” of European Muslims with European non-Muslims raises the point of how we can judge what infringes on the freedom of others. And so the limits of freedom should be the object of a real discussion today. In fact, the assumption that free speech and satirical cartoons do not produce injury is something that has become at least open to debate. The second point is about “whose freedom?”; so, it is not only a question of the value and the content of freedom – namely, of challenging the unquestioned assumption that freedom of speech represents the essence of freedom – but also of critically interrogating who is supposed to be in the position of critically exercising freedom. For instance, it is very hard to say something that is an effective critique of Israel, without being the object of public attack.

De Genova: Yes, and we see today a huge variety of attempts for constructing Europe as a place that is in danger of returning to the early days of fascism. And so there has been a big proliferation in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo of the contention that Jewish people in Europe are in danger and under repression. And of course the only half-implicit insinuation is that the danger to Jewish people today, the spectral danger of a certain recurrence of fascism, are Muslims. This, of course, is the most preposterous disavowal of what the real history of European fascism is, and indeed, what the real legacy of Europe is. The real history of Europe is about the mass murder of Jews precisely by a variety of fascistic projects that were affiliated first and foremost to European nationalisms and European racial projects of whiteness. And indeed one of the first and most important repercussions beyond France of the Charlie Hebdo events was this sort of further energizing of the neofascist movement in Germany, specifically, the organization that tellingly calls itself ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,’ Pegida for short (see De Genova 2015). Having only come into existence two and a half months prior, thanks to the catalysing effect of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Pegida achieved its largest weekly march to date with 25,000 supporters in the German city of Dresden on January 12.  This was the most important large-scale rally to date of Pegida supporters, people mobilizing for bluntly racist and anti-immigrant politics in Germany, precisely in solidarity with the victims of the Paris shootings. So, you have this circulation of new kinds of perversions of historical truths and historical knowledge in the name of producing the figure of “Muslims” as an enemy, producing the spectre of a kind of Muslim threat that manifests itself in this kind of elementary way as a purported danger of fascism. And meanwhile what this does is it reenergizes real fascism. Precisely those people who sought to capitalise on that momentum in Dresden were associated with a large-scale physical assault against asylum seekers and their supporters, and several violent attacks against migrants and people of colour in public places in Germany. So, there is indeed a danger of fascism in Europe today, but this is not the danger that mainstream media are talking about.

Of course it’s a perfectly real and meaningful fact of the contemporary scene that the disaffection and the alienation of many youth of colour in the European context, especially those with one or another variety of Muslim background, might find a politically appealing message in various Islamist politics. But I think we have also to be alert to the exaggerated bombastic discourse about the threat of the so-called “home-grown” (Muslim) “terrorist”; this ideological figure has to be problematized especially insofar as it almost exclusively concerns the children and grandchildren of migrants. And we have to be very sceptical about the production of a spectacle of terror, because this is about the persistent production of the permanent insecurity that comes with the discourses of Homeland Security and of an “enemy within,” especially inasmuch as the putative “enemies within” are almost always people of colour who are the most exploited and oppressed. The conventional politics of the white Left have simply not succeeded in adequately addressing the social and political predicaments of these kinds of people, or providing them with any viable alternatives for radical critique and meaningful action.

Tazzioli: As you said, Muslims are the targets of racist attacks and of processes of racialization. But at the same time it is true the same attention is not paid to events that happen outside of Europe as those that happen in Europe. So it is not only a question of racism against Muslims within Europe, but also of a geographical identity that we feel and sustain as Europeans.  By saying this, I have in mind the recent terrorist attacks in Tunis (18th March 2015) that have been quite underplayed in the British media. But what is even more astonishing is that French people who reacted in such an energetic way against the attacks in Paris finally have not supported the Tunisian people: the events and the deaths in Tunis have not received the same consideration as the events in Paris. And the day after the attacks in Tunis, the French newspaper Libération published the headline: “Tunisia is over”. This is probably in part true from an economic point of view and, in part, also on a political level, to the extent that the attacks have in some way undermined the “Tunisian political laboratory”, but at the same time that title contributed to the discrediting of Tunisia. What do you think about such a comparison?

De Genova: I think it is a very important comparison. Of course there could be many others. Because fundamentally I see this as the difference between the evaluation of those whose lives really matter, of those whose are truly human, of those whose death is really tragic in comparison to the deaths of people in any variety of formerly colonized places, where there is a kind of cynical politics of disregard towards bodies and lives who seem to not count in the calculus that dominates the postcolonial Eurocentric imagination of what is supposed to be apprehensible as a genuine tragedy. This is what the abundant monumentalization and sacralisation of Charlie Hebdo showed. And so it is an instructive example, and Tunisia is quite close to Europe, and quite close to France, and the attacks there indeed produced more deaths than the attacks in Paris. But it is not simply a question of numbers, it is a question of magnitude, of invisibilization, of legibility and of the production of the non-legibility of the event. To put it differently, this is about the production of Europe as a space where Europeans are supposed to be safe, to be at ease, to feel protected, as opposed to the ‘chaotic’ places throughout the rest of the world where Europe used to be the colonizer, on the premise that “those people” were never capable of governing themselves in the first place.  The aftermaths of colonialism are presented through the reification of the idea that these are people who never could govern themselves and never could be properly secularized. So, when Libération says “Tunisia is over”, we are reminded, in a way as your own work has demonstrated, that there was a dominant construction of the so-called Arab Spring, and in particular of the Tunisian revolution of 2011, through a kind of enthusiasm about the prospective refashioning of countries like Tunisia according to the putative European model. And the revolution manifested itself in a variety of ways that worked in excess of the assumptions of that model. For instance, the expression of freedom by Tunisians in the aftermath of the revolution radically disregarded the border regime of Europe, in favour of a claim to space on the “European” side of the Mediterranean; and that was indeed a manifestation of the Tunisian revolution for democracy, but it manifested a democratic desire that didn’t correspond to the procedures that Europe presumes to enforce. The freedom of movement claimed by Tunisians was already a violation of what the Tunisian revolution should properly be about, according to the conventional European political ideology about democracy. Thus, we see the predictable recourse to cynical postcolonial discourses in the present, according to which even if Tunisians aspired to something that is democratic, this has inevitably degenerated and has been affiliated to a kind of barbaric or pre-modern condition. Indeed, since the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, there has been an abundant variety of civilizational discourse that revolves around the alleged incapacity of Arabs for democracy. And this is a derivation of the classically colonial contention that “they” are not capable of governing themselves, not capable of civilization.

On the other hand, however, I want also to say that there is a sort of distortion involved when people invoke the discourse of the “clash of civilisations” as the dominant rationale that guides much of this anti-Muslim racism in the European context.  I’ve analysed this to a greater extent in work that I’ve published about the United States (De Genova 2010), but I think that it is not a question of a competition between civilizations. Instead, the dominant metaphysics of the so-called war on terrorism is a commitment to the idea that there is finally only one Civilization, and anybody who stands against or outside it, is disqualified. And in this sense, antiterrorism is a discourse of savagery. Those who are against the one only Civilization are therefore disqualified from any inclusion within the larger framework of “humanity” altogether. Repeatedly, we see that the dominant anti-terrorist discourse is not about the mere existence of ‘Muslims’ as fundamentally different, incompatible, and inimical, as part of a different ‘civilization’, but rather, it is primarily about discerning who is the “good” Muslim and who is the “bad” one. Thus, the war on terrorism was promulgated in terms of a declaration to the world: “Are you with us or against us?” Thus, the antiterrorist logic is an eminently assimilationist one; it doesn’t produce a pluralistic conception of civilizations that are in competition. It proclaims, in effect, that Muslims have to subordinate themselves to the one and only Civilization; anybody who refuses is effectively outside the equation of humanity as such, in fact, a savage, and eligible for extermination.

Tazzioli: This is more or less what Obama said after the attacks in Paris, declaring that we should fight against radical Muslims, at the same time extending an opening to the “moderate” Muslims.

De Genova: Yes, absolutely, and this is really about a kind of disciplinary politics. Because Muslims are required to show that they can live in a properly “civilized” way and commit to so-called democratic values. And this entails an essentialization of purportedly European values or Western values that are conceived as the only worthy values, on a global scale.

Tazzioli: I think that there is a tendency to transpose and translate our contents and meanings of “freedom” onto others’ will to freedom. By saying this, I have in mind the fact that radical intellectuals support the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israel, but then when some of the same people may become terrorists, or jihadists, this provokes a completely different reaction. And the same happens regarding migrants: some of the migrants are considered by radical scholars as subjects who fight for their own freedom – as in the case of Tunisian migrants who came to Europe in 2011 soon after the revolution – without considering that their idea of freedom might also include something else of which we do not approve. And this brings about an immediate disqualification of those same persons as potential jihadists. Indeed, among the Tunisians who came to Europe, certainly there could be someone who has later decided to go to Syria to join the Islamic State.

De Genova: Yes, I think that there is a great deal of responsibility on the part of the Left for projecting onto the struggles of others a grid of intelligibility that reconstructs those struggles in a reductive way and according to a politics that fits into established conventions. So, instead of effectively engaging in understanding the actual politics of real open-ended struggles, there is a tendency to take those struggles as merely an example of something else that is already knowable, something else that has already taken place and fits into a ready-made grammar.

Tazzioli: Is there an under-theorization of the reality of the Islamic State and of the political engagement of many people in Europe in that political project? European intellectuals tend to underplay it.

De Genova: I persist in my insistence that it is important to be cautious and skeptical about any of the things we are told about these so-called terrorist enemies. And of course the construction of the menace of the Islamic State is related to the spectacular construction of Al-Qaeda. So we have a succession of names attached to these spectral figures that are supposed to be mobile transnational configurations of obscure political threats, precisely because of a global geopolitical context in which there really is no longer any credible Enemy. There is no longer, from the point of view of US military power, any kind of real threat that is credible; so, now there is this proliferation of unpredictable, elusive, and highly mobile “transnational actors” — alleged terrorist networks — that emerge as a virtually unfathomable kind of new threat and new enemy. And it is interesting that there is an ongoing propaganda to keep veifying that ISIS is “even worse than Al-Qaeda”. So, after constructing Al-Qaeda as the most monstrous (and therefore perfect) enemy of humanity that legitimized war and neo-colonial military occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, alongside numerous other forms of military intervention elsewhere, a new and still more monstrous enemy has emerged.

Of course, we really know very little about the truth of any of these things. For this reason, I’m cautious about how much we can accept to believe, and what we do or do not say about them. Nonetheless, to whatever extent this political formation may present a kind of appeal for a few European Muslims, I think there is indeed a question of an under-theorization on the part of radical intellectuals of the Left regarding the appeal of this politics in Europe, much like in the US as well, particularly for young people, ordinarily the children and the grandchildren of migrants, who are themselves native-born Europeans and who have spent all their lives in European countries, but who are perpetually produced as outsiders, as suspects, as culprits.  These people are systematically racialized and denigrated in public discourse.  They are systematically subjected to racist police abuse. There is this kind of construction of the “home-grown terrorist,” which I mentioned earlier, which may indeed correspond in some small measure to the real appeal for some real people of a politics that appears to present the possibility of making war against the whole racialized social order of Europe, which has already made war against them, all their lives. There surely must be many youth of color in Europe who feel that everything in society is effectively at war with them, and so it is a quite predictable phenomenon – especially in the absence of other political alternatives — that some of them would embrace the so-called “jihadist” proposition that the only option is to find a way to immediately and directly make war against that society.

Therefore, the real question for the Left should be: why has the Left been so weak in generating a real political alternative that is meaningful for those who have been made to live the experience of racism in Europe?  This is precisely the issue that is at the core of the vital critique put forward in France by the PIR, the Parti des Indigeènes de la République, who have first and foremost directed their criticisms against the white Left. Is the European Left prepared to deal with its own complacency and complicity with the hegemonic projects of the various European nationalisms and the larger postcolonial formation of Europeanness? Is the Left in Europe prepared to examine the degree to which it has been uncritical in embracing a normalized racial whiteness as its own presumptive identity? This is abundantly manifest in the case of the French Left, for much of which there is a sort of leftist republicanism that is deeply compromised with the hegemonic discourses that have been recently mobilized in the post-Charlie Hebdo frenzy for a National Unity consensus.


N. De Genova (2014) “Within and Against the Imperial University: Reflections on ‘Crossing the Line’.” Pp. 301-28 in Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (eds.), The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

N. De Genova (2015) “In the Land of the Setting Sun: Reflections on ‘Islamization’ and ‘Patriotic Europeanism’.” In Press, in movements: Journal für kritische Migrations- und Grenzregimeforschung [Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Research], Number 2.

M. Tazzioli (2015) Spaces of Governmentality. Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings, (London: Rowman and Littlefield).

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Nicholas De Genova is Reader in Urban Geography and Director of the Spatial Politics Research Group at King’s College London. He is the author of Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and "Illegality" in Mexican Chicago (2005), co-author of Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship (2003), editor of Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States (2006), and co-editor of The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement (2010). He is currently writing two new books — one on The Migrant Metropolis and another on The “European” Question: Migration, Race and Postcoloniality — and also editing a new book on The Borders of “Europe”: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering.
All posts by: Nicholas De Genova | Email | Website

Martina Tazzioli has a PhD in Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. After being postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oulu, she is currently at University of Aix-Marseille, LAMES, LabexMed and Queen Mary, University of London. She is in the editorial board of the journal Materialifoucaultiani and she is the author of Spaces of Governmentality. Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015) and co-editor of Foucault and the History of our Present (2015) and of Spaces in Migration. Postcards of a Revolution, (2013). She is member of Materialifoucaultiani editorial board (
All posts by: Martina Tazzioli | Email

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