A mirror on the wall

Presentation in Antwerpen on the clash of civilizations, in the framework of the exhibition Don’t You know Who I am, Art After Identity Politics, 14th of June 2014.

Cultural identity has emerged as one the defining political issues of our time. Conflict has always had an essential role in shaping cultural identity. On of the more conscious and strategic ways in which that has taken shape in the last decades is the thesis of the clash of civilizations, developed by the American neoconservative Samuel Huntington.

Considering one particular instance of the artistic strategies to deal with these themes, I will look at the work of the Dutch video artist Aernout Mik, for whom community and identity is of central importance. I will pay particular attention to his film Schoolyard, which functions as an allegory for the way the clash of civilizations has played out in the Netherlands. Finally, I will dive somewhat deeper in the clash of civilizations thesis, by describing two mirroring camps that both construct identities by dividing the world in friends and enemies.


Let’s start by saying something more general about the form of the video installations of Mik. That is probably easiest by way of an altogether different type of film, the Purple Rose of Caïro by Woody Allen. In a typical example of Woody Allen’s artful blend of slapstick and surrealism, the Purple Rose of Cairo tells the story ofa fictitious movie character who walks off the screen in order to start a love affair with Cecilia, a woman in the audience. An amusing scandal ensues when the real-life actor that performed the role of the breakaway movie character is send in to sabotage the unlikely love affair. As the plot unravels, Cecilia is forced to choose between the actor, who promises to take her to Hollywood, and the movie character that wants to take her back with him to his phantasmagorical life behind the screen. In the final battle between reality and cinematic imagination, reality wins, if only by trickery and deceit.

What Woody Allen has in common with Aernout Mik, is his interest in the relation between screen and audience, and the fading boundary between real and imaginary, in a world awash with (media) imagery. Of course, for Mik it is not a technical possibility to literally make the characters on the screen step out and relate with the public, or vice versa, to invite the viewers to step into the screen. But his work does aim to evoke the semblance of such a spatial fusion, hinting continuously at the porous border between imaginary and reality. Similarly, a love affair such as that of Cecilia is not in the offing, but Mik does seek a certain rapprochement, a dissolving of boundaries between actors and audience.

In an interview given in the context of a solo-exhibition at MoMA in 2008, Mik used the opportunity to elaborate further on this theme of mirroring and ‘con-fusion’ – in the original Latin sense of the word, confundere meaning ‘pouring together’. In an interview made for the exhibition, Mik is quite explicit: ‘The special thing about the show is that we set it up that we try to mirror the movement of crowds in the pieces with the movements of the crowds in the museum.’ He then goes on to introduce Schoolyard, talking while standing in the beam of the projector:

‘what I try to do is that you are always almost inside the projection, so if I would be passing here and someone else is looking at the piece, I would become part of the piece, (…) I like the image to expand into the space, so that is why there is always an architectural dimension, the possibility of mirroring the body of the viewers with the bodies of the actors in the piece.’

In this way Mik creates his own blend of the classical play of perspectives that has been a recurrent theme in artistic production ever since Velasquez’ 17th century painting Las Meninas, a game of mirrors famously analyzed by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things. In Las Meninas, the viewer is presented with a scene in which the painter (Velasquez) is looking back at him or her: the viewer finds himself located in the exact place where the model of the painter would be sitting, shown by a mirror on the back wall to be none other than the royal couple. In Las Meninas, concludes Foucault, the painting constructs a subject position for the viewer that is at the same time that of the sovereign. In Mik’s work, there is a similar attempt to incorporate the viewer into the work, but the viewer is not engaged as an individual, rather as a collective: the mirrored crowds mentioned above.

The appearance of the crowd in the work of Mik mirrors it’s irruption on the contemporary political stage, where the renewed importance of collective identity has forcefully done away with the individualist dream that came to define so much of the culture of the nineties.



True to its title, Schoolyard depicts a schoolyard, which functions as an allegory for Dutch society. The basic scene consists of a crowd of high school students, of a very multi ethnic makeup typically found in the Dutch big cities, many of them second generation Moroccan-Dutch kids, who are often the subject of media stereotyping (the ‘street-terrorists’ mentioned below). They are locked out of the school, engaged in a conflictive choreography with security personnel and what appears to be teachers or staff. Some images – the crowd carrying lifeless bodies of schoolmates over their heads – remind one of the funeral processions of the Palestinian Intifada. Media imagery of the Middle East conflict is confused with everyday Dutch reality. Other scenes seem to point towards a more general theme of youth rebellion: a scooter race that evokes the illegal car races in American high school movies; a scene where the crowd lies immobile on the ground – a tapestry of bodies – that recalls the typical ‘die-in’ protest of the seventies.

These threads of Intifada and youth rebellion are mixed with yet other themes. A student walking out of the school in triumph, enthusiastically applauded by the crowd, recalls the typical exit scene in courtroom films. A student that is pestered and has a wastebasket overturned on him, invokes collective bullying and stigmatization. Most of these associations are fleeting and difficult to pin down. All the while Schoolyard oscillates emotionally between collective mourning, the excitement of confrontation and crisis situations, to silent anticipation or even high school boredom – a phenomenon probably familiar to all. These themes are presented to us in constant transfiguration. At one moment youthful rioters sit on cars, paper bags covering their faces. In the next, it is school staff that has taken up their position, reminding us that on this virtual schoolyard, neither roles nor rules are fixed entities.

The fusion we see happening in Schoolyard between the themes of the Middle East conflict and that of a Dutch Schoolyard, reflects the political conflation in the Dutch public debate of the theme of integration of (Muslim) immigrants and the War on Terror. Ever since the political assassination of the charismatic right wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and the religiously inspired, fatal stabbing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh two years later, the Netherlands has experienced a rapid transformation of its political culture. Those that posited the Netherlands as a forefront in the global ‘clash of civilizations’ of the enlightened Judeo-Christian West versus a backward Islamic Orient, soon came to dominate the public debate. The single most important expression of this trend has been the success of the islamophobic populism of Geert Wilders, a politician whose peroxide hairstyle has become somewhat of a cultural reference point. Inspired by far right Israeli politics, Wilders successfully imported the orientalist imaginary of the War against Terror and the Israel-Palestine conflict to the Netherlands. One of the main discursive strategies therein has been the conscious conflation of the entire Muslim population with Islamic fundamentalism. This comes to the fore most clearly in the labelling of immigrant youth as ‘street terrorists’, but a more subtle culturalist discourse, essentializing religious and cultural identities into monolithic entities, is also operative and arguably more pervasive.

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It is no surprise, that the clash of civilizations is a theme in the work of Aernout Mik. His work addresses the dynamics of community and identity formation. And one of the most productive techniques of community formation is the construction of a collective image of the enemy. The formula of the clash of civilizations has been explicitly created with such purposes in mind. In the opening chapter of the famous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington states that the cruel Weltanschauung for this new era is best expressed by a character from Michael Dibdin’s novel Dead Lagoon, a nationalist Demagogue from Venice. The Dead Lagoon character states:

‘There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not be lightly forgiven.’

Huntington drily adds to that, proclaiming that ‘the unfortunate truths in these old wisdoms cannot be ignored by statesmen and scholars. For peoples seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential, and the potentially most dangerous enmities occur across the faultlines between the world’s major civilizations.’ As a reader, one has to return to this passage various times to conclude that this book should not be taken as a warning but rather as an instruction manual: how to create enemies? In fact, what Huntington does here, is to synthesize the friend-enemy distinction formulated by the controversial legal theorist Carl Schmitt, commonly called the ‘Crown Jurist of the Third Reich’. According to Schmitt, it is part of human nature to create group identifications on the basis of the distinction between friend and enemy, us and them. In that distinction, according to Schmitt, lies the essence of the political:

‘The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy. […] This enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.’

In Schmitt’s philosophy, conflict can rapidly assume very extreme forms, which is the reason he is known as a ‘dangerous thinker’. The everyday enemy, with whom one can do business but who is simply existentially different, can easily develop into a ‘total enemy’: an absolute moral evil and an existential threat, to whom existing legal frameworks no longer apply. During the time of the Nazi’s, it referred to the communists and the Jews. In the War on Terror, terrorists came to occupy that position, most famously in the legal limbo of Guantánamo.


The power of nightmares, the famous BBC documentary series by Adam Curtis, based on the book Fitna by the French political scientist Gilles Kepel, narrates the strange simultaneous emergence of neoconservatism and political islam, which both rely on each other as enemies, to found their political projects. The neoconservatives based themselves on the ideas of Leo Strauss. Expanding on the notion of Carl Schmitt, that friend enemy distinctions are the essence of politics, he stated that the struggle against an enemy – an absolute moral evil – was a necessary condition for the creation of a national identity. This is also the central tenant of the work of Huntington. A new conservative politics, Huntington suggested at the end of the fifties, would only be possible if the conservatives could find a foreign enemy, against which they could lead the entire nation in combat. For a long time, communism provided that image of the enemy.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, conservatives argued that a ‘monster shortage’ threatened to occur. The American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote in 1926 that the entire history of the United States can be narrated as the recurring melodramatic pursuit of frightening and often imaginary monsters. Many in the American security establishment–amongst which Huntington – were convinced that a new monster had to be found.

The first impulse was given by the orientalist and neoconservative Bernard Lewis, who published the essay The Roots of Muslim Rage, in 1990, one month after the start of the first Gulf War. ‘This is no less than a clash of civilizations, — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.’ Muslim hatred towards the west, Lewis wrote, ‘goes beyond hostility to specific interests or actions or policies or even countries and becomes a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes.’

Muslims are inherent enemies of the West not because of the hostility towards western military intervention, but due to their culture, because muslims refuse western freedoms. Lewis’ thesis was soon embraced by the American military establishment as a notion that could possibly prove useful in the future. It would become a famous mantra of the Bush government after 9/11: ‘Why do they hate us? […] They hate our freedoms’, as Bush famously said in a speech on the 20th of September 2001. In 1993, Samuel Huntington took up the ideas of Lewis in a groundbreaking essay titled the clash of civilizations. Now that ideology lost salience, Huntington suggested, elites will attempt to garner support by appealing to shared religion and identity. The age-old military interaction between the Christian West and the Islamic Orient, Huntington notes, could become more virulent. As in all of Huntingtons writing, observation and instruction are difficult to distinguish. For Huntington, religion is a new instrumentum regni. In the nineties, his vision on foreign policy increasingly gains in strength. After 9/11, it manages to attain complete dominance over U.S. foreign policy.

IV Qutb and political islam

The other end of the story finds its crystallisation point in the figure of Sayyid Qutb. Born in 1906 in a traditional rural surrounding in Egypt, he would become first a teacher and then a prominent intellectual and the most important voice of political Islam. This movement has its origins in the thirties, when Hasna al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and Abul-Ala Maududi, the leader of the Indian-Pakistani Jamaat-i-Islami party, found a new political movement that aims to reinvent Islam as a political system. Qutb would follow in their footsteps, thus developing what would later be called islamism or political Islam. The paradox is that this modernisation of Islam was given legitimacy by presenting it as a return, a return to the source, to the original texts and the original inspirations of the first community of believers under the Prophet Mohammed. It is a movement that denies its historicity.

Like other Muslim intellectuals, Sayyid Qutb sought for a formula to modernise Islam, in a way that Western technological and scientific knowledge could be assimilated without the accompanying liberal values. For that to happen, Islam had to be developed into a fundamentalist and all embracing ideology. Before the 20th century, Islam was used as a verb describing a practice of personal belief and dedication. Only in the 20th century, after the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna, does the word attain the meaning that Qutb bestows on it: an integrated societal system. Islam, as Qutb saw it, could function an alternative for revolutionary Third World nationalism, communism, capitalism, and liberal democracy. The titles of Qutb’s most popular books, published around the fifties, are a good indication of the worldy character of his religious thought: Social Justice in Islam (1949), The Battle between Capitalism and Islam (1951) and Islam and World Peace (1951).

After the military coup of Nasser and the Free Officers in 1953, Qutb joins the Muslim Brotherhood. He becomes the intellectual leader of the movement, that sees changes to implement their fervently desired Islamic state in Egypt. Nasser chooses for a path of secular modernisation and soon clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime of the Free Officers decides to eliminate the Brotherhood and arrests hundreds of its most prominent members. Qutb was among them. In the years of imprisonment that follow, Qutb is subsequently tortured and his views radicalize. His writing in prison is oriented at formulating an Islamic doctrine that would legitimate a revolt against sovereign power. (as in Christian faith, obedience to God-given authority is required in Islam). He does that on the one hand by placing divine authority (hakimiyya, not existing in Quran) above state sovereignty and popular sovereignty. On the other by stating that Muslim societies in which this godly sovereignty is not recognised, in which there is no attempt to implement divine law (sharia) are in reality unbelievers. Under Western influence, a form of false consciousness has developed amongst the political elites of Muslim countries, as in society more broadly. Qutb called this jahiliyya – a state of unbelief, a term that in the Islamic tradition originally referred to the situation in the Arabic world before the arrival of Islam. Obedience to secular authorities then, implied disobedience to divine authority:

‘God (limitless is He in His glory) says that this whole issue is one of faith or unfaith, Islam and non-Islam, Divine law or human prejudice. No compromise or reconciliation can be worked out between these two sets of values. Those who judge on the basis of the law God has revealed, enforcing all parts of it and substituting nothing else for it, are the believers. By contrast, those who do not make the law God has revealed the basis of their judgement, are unbelievers, wrongdoers and transgressors.’

As a mirror of the friend enemy distinction employed by the neoconservatives, Qutb makes a comparable Manichean distinction between true Islam and the enemies of Islam, which he combined with essentialist views of Jews, communists, westernised elites, orientalists and other opponents of Islam. Thus the essentialist view of the ‘primitive’ East expounded by neoconservatives, was mirrored by the  Occidentalism of Qutb, a reductive view of the ‘hedonist’, ‘decadent’ West. The neoconservatives would adopt Qutb’s notion of an intgrated, essentialist, true Islam, and would come to reduce the Islamic faith as such to radical islamism. In the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders have been the most prominent representatives of this neoconservative position.

‘Belief and religion are the only dignified and legitimate bonds that can keep people together,’ Qutb would state, in a remark that evokes associations with the later texts of Huntington. Jihad is for Qutb an offensive expansionist struggle in the name of a universal Islamic revolution. An existential struggle between good and evil that needed to be prepared by a professional revolutionary vanguard (tali’a) that is able to extract itself from the false consciousness of depraved jahili culture. Just like the neoconservatives Qutb attributes to conflict and strife in itself an important positive formative role leading to a deeper consciousness of one’s values. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Nestor of Bin Laden and the current leader of Al Qaida, was a prominent follower of Qutb and would radicalise his ideas even further. Presently, the Egyptian revolution offers a strange repetition of Qutb’s traumatic history. The revolutionary vanguard he conceived continues to radicalize and wander through the desert, these days in quite literal ways.