Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










Scream: July 2009

Ziauddin Sardar should study 
Harald Edelstam & forget Salman Rushdie
if he is serious about arguing for ancient justifications against individual human rights in favour of the collective needs

Ziauddin Sardar is a well respected voice of moderate Islam and works in Great Britain. He writes well and should be more widely read by anyone interested in creating artistic works. Yet most theatre practitioners have probably never heard of him. He confronts the Western and Christian intellectual and cultural traditions (including atheistic Marxism as part of that tradition) arguing they have nothing left to offer humanity. Such thinking must make all Western based artists, writers and theatre practitioners in this country stop and re-assess fundamental issues of existence. However, Sardar is flawed in his underlying approach.

Cloaked in a language of academia Sardar plays semantic games with what it is to be Western or the "Other" (traditional societies or non-Western). This is an ironic inversion of the traditional Islamic view of the "other" as being all non-Muslims. He enjoys the individualism that he detests and rails against at every opportunity while more recently beginning to use the ironic postmodern notions of society and community being a "social construction"; a concept which he initially attacked. Many examples to illustrate his propositions come from movies or western TV series. Perhaps he might have examined the proclamations of tyrannical dictatorships in order to show how his own propositions echo such ranting!

It is indeed challenging to read arguments that fundamentally oppose the essential principles of the European Enlightenment: ie.

  • condemnation of superstition

  • advocacy of tolerance
  • opposing censorship of ideas, literature and art
  • resisting tyrannical governments
  • promoting democratic ideals
  • separating church and state
  • ending state religions
  • recognizing the value of a creative imagination
  • extolling freedom of thought and expression
  • accepting equal rights for all
  • accepting the primacy of reason ...

While virtually no nation has ever fully integrated such ideals, few would openly refute the concepts. However, in reading Sardar, it becomes obvious there is a very different paradigm that has hold over large proportions of the world's population and which has in its sights those points outlined above. Most of Sardar's writing until fairly recently, has defined Islamic world views in totally oppositional terms to the Enlightenment world view.

As artists, it is no point simply applying Enlightenment values to accept the difference in cultural world views with the kind of patronizing sentiment that all world views are equal and all require the same respect. Sardar won't let us off the hook here. He argues that such "post modern" attitudes are a new form of imperialism that sets out to "appropriate" traditional cultures; commodifying them into one global tyranny. "Post modernism" is seen as an attack on tradition as a basis for interpreting the world. It substitutes "imagination" for the substance of the traditional wisdoms and practices that inform the world views of traditional and "other" societies. Post modernism attempts to fragment and obliterate culture through nihilistic focus on the individual right to subvert traditional communal experience and order. Beneath Sardar's writing seems to be an assumption of an ideal past society where the self is subjugated to the will of the political body or state. He doesn't seem to acknowledge the obvious similarity of his writing to the justifications for totalitarian states as offered in the writings of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and more recently by Ayatollah Khomeini.

This said, Sardar is a very engaging writer who challenges the basis of culture and our way of thinking about it. This is not the place to precis the breadth of what he has written. Google him for a starting point. However, the depth of his divergence from our commonly accepted understandings is frightening and overpowering.

Reading of essays on his web site suggests a witty and clever writer who is light handed in his discussions of serious subjects facing the Islamic world. He takes a strong "human rights" stand on issues. He is engaging dialogue with Westernized Muslims, Christians and the secular worlds. However, this represents a major change in his tone and sensibility from the earlier work which goes more philosophically to the essence of the contrast between the "post modern" West and traditional cultures (particularly Islam). In Sardar's earlier writing world, there is no half measure in appreciating any literature or art that does not fully integrate with the world view that he espouses (or at least world views which are opposed to dominant Western hegemony). At base, one has the sense that he would accept nothing but the total surrender of the West to traditional systems of thought and action ... which is impossible without a global catastrophe!

Zardar, Harald Edelstam and Ahmad Kasravi

Zardar identifies the "magic realism" of Latin American writers (eg. Isabel Allende) as significant instigators of post-modern thought. Isabel Allende is the niece of Salvador Allende the elected president of Chile in 1973. Augusto Pinochet (the trusted military general who led the coup against Allende) expressed sentiments that echo those of many despots who reason that their actions were in the cause of the common good. Hitler spoke eloquently of the State as the source of humanity's saving and survival. The individual means nothing except in so far as he or she functions for the advancement of the State. Ziauddin Sardar is in such company as he paradoxically speaks in the objectified academic language he equates with Western post modernism.

Sardar derides the very notion of "human rights". In what must be some kind of joke, he says:
"... traditional African systems of governance involved both participation and accountability - much more so than the modern forms of representative democracy." (Postmodernism and the Other, 1998)

This must be a joke, not because modern forms of representative democracy necessarily serve human needs and interests; but because the concepts of "accountability and participation" are part of those world views Sardar is decrying. His general tone is almost that of the romantic hermetic tradition. Without Western imperialism, somehow the past would assert its natural alchemy and see all humanity transformed into some kind of community of idealism in balance and in harmony with the universe.

Sardar further states: "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights assumes a universal human nature common to all peoples. It further assumes that this human nature is knowable and that it is known by a universal organ of knowledge: human reason." He disputes this.

Sardar seems to imply human beings in different cultural settings have different natures. Like different species! The nature of women in certain societies is different so we should apply different rules. 

The physical biology is less significant than the abstract sociology of the group. Any part can be cut off like excess hair or long finger nails or even cancers. The only accountability is to the whole and not to the individual part.

This is the fascist parallel exhibited in Ziauddin Sardar's writings. And  it does fit the resultant products of many of the societies, world views and cultures he is seeming to defend. It is the individual in the form of people like Harald Edelstam who has provided the voice of challenge to the tyranny of communal or state hegemony. It is such individuals who hold up the mirror to state and communal terror in repressive societies which claim god as their only source of power.

Harald Edelstam has not been remembered. A google search will hardly find any references to him except through the movie about him. He stood up as an individual to a number of regimes which attacked human rights and used the language of the greater good to justify the destruction of individuals and groups opposed to the dominant culture of the time. These regimes included those of Hitler in Germany and Pinochet in Chile. Lives were saved in Germany in 1941 due to Eels's actions. Hundreds were saved because of his actions in Chile. Here is an extract from 24 March 2009 The Good Swede Harald Edelstam by Marcelo Medrano (  

"That crowded Embassy, full of people and closed by Pinochet’s fascist regime, was an open door for asylum, protection and escape for many. It is thought that Edelstam’s actions saved the lives of more than 1,300 people in Chile and more than 50 Uruguayans whom he took out of the terrifying national stadium that had been converted into a centre for torture, disappearance and killings. In his life, Edelstam would have saved thousands of lives."

Had it not been for the movie, The Black Pimpernal, then Harald Edelstam and his actions might have remained virtually lost. Edelstam is an example of one person against the machine of state tyranny. However, there are countless examples of such action.

In Postmodernism And The Other (Pluto Books, London 1998) Zardar makes the point:

"Reliance on individual conscience has meaning only when individuals have a conscience. All of postmodernism's traits work towards depriving individuals of their conscience." (Chapter 1, Page 40)

Because Sardar makes his cache for postmodernism so broad, it becomes a nonsense to single out individuals from within the sphere of postmodernism as having no conscience and therefore having nothing to rely upon for ethical action. Harald Edelstam did have a conscience that made him stand out from his own community base (being an Ambassador for Sweden) and risk his life in defiance of the legal protocols that might normally protect him through diplomatic immunity.

Much of Sardar's writing is about film and Western and postmodern fiction as being the tool or weapon of choice in the conquest of the "other". The Black Pimpernal extolls the virtue of individual courage set against state cruelty at the point of the coup against the elected President, Salvador Allende. The fact that it deals with a real situation adds to its potency. It would be difficult for Sardar to apply his method and prove that its focus on the other is also an imperialist ploy ... but not impossible! Sardar could argue that the portrayal of the brutish actions of the Pinochet coup were equated with the postmodern view of primitive religious societies. The primitive Catholic Pinochet and his officers were naturally predisposed towards being barbaric while the secular, cool aesthetic represented by Edelstam, the Swedish Ambassador with no particular or obvious religious leaning, is a continuation of the propagation of postmodern imperialist design ... a trademark of Western postmodernism! By the use of his technique to construct the elements of the film as a postmodernist attack on traditional religious and social order, it would not be difficult to then dismiss the film and its hero.

As a companion piece to such a deconstruction, it might be possible to also discredit the brilliant Iranian writer, Ahmad Kasravi, whose murder in 1946 by followers of radical cleric Nawab Safavi, was possibly inspired by the young firebrand cleric, Khomeini, in his first book Secrets Unveiled. Should a major film be made about the life of Kasravi, it would no doubt draw the same line of attack from Sardar. Kasravi, a former cleric was in many ways the embodiment of the Enlightenment ideal. In spite of his passionate fight for the independence of Iran, his fight for justice, his outstanding volume of writing on a multitude of subjects; his attack on the backward looking clerics in Iran ensured that he had to be discredited and lost to the cultural fabric of the nation. His position might well be interpreted as being "postmodern" because of his rejection of the closed system of theocracy. It could be argued that any film would simply appropriate those aspects of Kasravi's life and work that suited the imperialist aims of postmodernism.

Yet Kasravi was a firm believer in the Islamic ideals of unity and justice. His level of scholarship had few peers in Iran or anywhere in the world. In some respects, Kasravi's work echoes the pattern of the Italian Geordano Bruno who was burnt at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. Both men used their intellect and life's passion to challenge the accepted wisdom and anti-intellectual paradigms of society. Both risked their lives by doing so. Both men began adult life as religious clerics. Both men sought a more open and expanded way of viewing the universe. Both men were destroyed by those who sought a diminished universe controlled by petty insight and a fearful regressive attitude of mind and spirit.

Kasravi's life and writing contrasts greatly with his mortal enemy, Khomeini. Much of Khomeini's writing focused on personal rituals of cleanliness. Religious rituals were invoked for every facet of life: eg. how to wash after urinating etc. On the political sphere, Khomani perpetuated fear myths of "three hundred years of conspiracy" against Iran. Whatever challenged even the most seemingly inconsequential matter had to be viewed as a threat and eradicated. The obsession with "purity" is a familiar obsession. While pigs, urine and semen were defined as impure, so too were "all" non-Muslim men and women. Khomani embodied a very closed system that was constantly reinforced by the invoking of fear from threats from outside ... or in Zardar's terms, the "other".

The response by hard line clerics in Iran to the protests and unrest following the recent election is also familiar. Instead of viewing the core problem as one of "alienation", they seek to eradicate the issue by changing the means for communication. They see the problem as one of technology that allowed for this aberration or uncontrolled disquiet to occur. In a strange and paradoxical reverse of Zardar's critique of postmodernism, the Clerics are attempting to control the information flow and so control everything.

Zardar's essential argument is similar to that offered by Noam Chomsky. Global corporations control the flow of information while giving the appearance of unconstrained information; while in reality, this appearance is totally deceptive and is in fact a vehicle for domination and a form of dictatorship and totalitarian control.

In Iran today, it is as if Kasravi's spirit has become manifest in masses of people. This cannot be attributed to simplistic notions of postmodern imperialism. Nor can it be equated with the overthrow of the Shah in 1978.

Sardar identifies the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, as a major villain in the construction of a postmodern world. It is then interesting to see how Foucault himself viewed the 1978 revolution in Iran. He suggested there would be "no Khomeini party, there will be no Khomeini government". He went on to say the new Islamic government would be "the most modern form of revolt". Had he read Khomeini's writings (which apparently he had) it is difficult to see how this modern form of revolt, deriving from the Koran and the Hadith could have brought about some kind of true "spiritual" awakening that Foucault seemed to suggest. Was it the end of the separation of private belief and public practice? Michel Onfray makes the most insightful observations and analysis of Foucault's and perhaps the misguided Left's support for Islamic fascism. While "God" is viewed as having ultimate logic and knowing, the thrust of Khomeini's theocracy also:

"borrows from the left a discourse of solidarity with the have-nots, it directs its words to the wretched, it verbally displays a genuine populist determination to do away forever with poverty in the world." (Onfray 2005/2007)

After one hundred and fifty years of focus on Capitalism as the source of evil, it was perhaps natural for the postmodern Left to miss the not so fine print of Khomeini's writing and blueprint; and it should not have been a shock for the Left or Sardar that Khomeini delivered the order for Muslims to murder Salman Rushdie.

Sardar and Rushdie

Sardar writes movingly of his shocking experience in reading The Satanic Verses. He makes the valid point that it is not simply "fiction"; that it is a full assault on Islam. He writes how his very being was gutted by the force of the novel: not because it was so badly written, but rather because it was so deliberately vicious in its attack on his belief system and world view. This says something for the powerful effect of literature on culture. What Sardar seems to miss is that art and literature have played a shocking role for centuries; and that because literature and art does not affirm a particular world view or culture it is not necessarily guilty of a crime. Like the conjuring act of the witch doctor, art and literature can stir up aspects of the individual and cultural psyche in ways that are transforming ... if not revolutionary.

Sardar expressed a feeling of monstrous personal attack. The face of the monster that was devouring him was Rusdie. He could feel the personal violation of his soul by the insidious twisting of the blade by someone who knew precisely where to target and how to cause maximum pain. Then as if to confirm the worst fears, Khomeini issues the fatwa! The joke of Islam!!!! Unless of course, you happen to be Salman Rushdie!

Sardar views the reading of The Satanic Verses as a key realization point for him. The tone of Postmodern and The Other is certainly influenced by this experience. Rushdie forced him out of his academic distance and into an intimate dance with his "other". Rushdie for a moment in time forced Sardar into the submissive jelly that one feels when terrified and uncertain. For Sardar The Satanic Verses shattered the protection of his Islamic womb. 

But why should Rushdie who was a total stranger cause such disruption?

An alternative reaction might have been to embrace the stridency of Rushdie to emerge from the womb; to find a kind of release from the cocoon however painful; to feel the surgeon's knife cutting away at extraneous flesh in order to allow emergence from the foetal comfort of one's own naive and pre-ordained binds of certainty; to be exhausted from this theatre of cruelty.

For all of Sardar's personal softness and wit in his more recent writings, there is a sense of an inner core that is lacking. Without confronting the core of belief, he can appear to be amongst that same rabble of discontented Islamic clerics whose sermons are littered with "death to ..." whoever needs dying! Many Westerners are confused and frightened by the sight of cleric after cleric from right across the globe calling on the followers to kill or hate or fight this or that enemy.

Islamic cultures have tended towards a closed universe that shuts out threats and challenges to its core experience. This is happening today in Iran. It has happened repeatedly over the century. Without this allowing of challenge the tendency is to withdraw and look back to golden ages of mythic perfection.

The Question For Theatre

Jerzy Grotowski writes of theatre:

"It is capable of challenging itself and its audience by violating accepted stereotypes of vision, feeling, and judgement - more jarring because it is imaged in the human organism's breath, body, and inner impulses. The defiance of taboo, this transgression, provides the shock which rips off the mask, enabling us to give ourselves nakedly to something which is impossible to define ..."

Jerzy Grotowski
Towards A Poor Theatre
Simon and Shuster, New York 1968

So what motivates practitioners in theatre today? Exhibitionism? A need to be involved with some trivial pursuit that neither matters to the creators or the receivers of some well crafted pap? Perhaps it is an a priori connection to performance that doesn't need any explanation nor purpose beyond its own existence? Perhaps it is a love of antiquated arts of the past before they were corrupted by the impinging of the present! Is it a desire for stardom? A following in the footsteps of some hero who made it big and was adulated and the way one needs to be adulated!

Why do it? What is the reason?

As writers and influential others like Zardar redefine what is acceptable and what needs trashing, the young and not-so-young purveyors of live theatre may one day be forced into the position of an Edelstam having to manoeuvre uncomfortably between the worlds of ultimate control over the individual and the world of individual rights and action. This challenges the very notion of creating and public presentation. Even in a fairly benign society as far as freedom of expression goes, the barricades are being erected all the time to dismiss and otherwise argue away the right to expression. From the Prime Minister down to the various education authorities, there are signals being given that suggest that "appropriateness" is being redefined. The intellectual source of further redefining is simply on the way ... if not already established.

When writers and presenters of artistic works need to be overly sensitive to what might and what might not offend or otherwise psychologically "gut" or maim various audience sectors, then the war of control over the human and cultural psyche is already being lost to the purveyors of social "control". The Ayatollah Khomeini's writing on sanitation rituals doesn't seem so absurd when one considers the use of "eating fish on Fridays" or only eating meals cooked "with love" in order to keep out the other from contaminating a unified cultural group. The teacher complaining of sexual harassment against a year 10 student because of subject matter written in an essay has the same effect of closing down the system of free thought and thus free enquiry.

If our expression is only to affirm cultural belief and cultural institution, then it denies itself as a means for cultural and historical movement or change. If our highest expression of art is simply creating depictions of heroic martyrs lost to the revolution and now in heaven, then we have betrayed our skill and position as privileged communicators and seers. If we simply create plays to fit the agenda of a mental health institution or some public service program or other then we have betrayed the calling. If we create without looking deeply into ourselves, our motivations and beliefs, then we have betrayed ourselves, our art and our calling.

Perhaps Ziauddin Sardar should simply forget Salman Rushdie and focus more on the individual spirit of people struggling in oppressive societies and situations rather than giving weight to systematic attack on people presenting counter points of view to one's own culturally limited one. As a final point on this, Peter Brook makes a very personal observation and one that should be considered by all writers and artists. It is felt so strongly that he has it placed prominantly on the front page of his website. It is from his book The Shifting Point:

"I have never believed in a single truth.
Neither my own, nor those of others.
I believe all schools, all theories can be useful in 
some place, at some time. But I have discovered that
one can only live by a passionate, and absolute, 
identification with a point of view.

"However, as time goes by, as we change, 
as the world changes, targets alter and the viewpoint
shifts. Looking back over many years of essays
written, ideas spoken in many places on so many
varied occasions, one thing strikes me as being
consistent. For a point of view to be of any use at
all, one must commit oneself totally to it, one must 
defend it to the very death. Yet, at the same time,
there is an inner voice that murmurs: "Don't take it
too seriously. Hold on tightly; let go lightly."

Peter Brook
The Shifting Point (Harper & Row/Methuen)



Joe Woodward
Artistic Director, Shadow House PITS
July 2009

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