Staunton, October 9 – Neither in the North Caucasus nor in Russia as a whole are people surprised by reports about the kidnapping of Muslims for thinking or dressing differently, but such popular indifference marks the appearance in Russia of homo sacer, that is, people who are deemed worthy of destruction as such, Badma Byurchiyev says.
And the appearance of such people represents a threat to all of Russia because history suggests that in a state with few well-developed institutions, it is almost impossible to prevent the powers that be from adding new groups to that category and thus visiting terror on the entire society.
In a new commentary on the Kavkazskaya politika portal, the North Caucasian commentator argues that it doesn’t matter very much whether this indifference is genuine or reflects the sense of the Russian population that it is powerless to do anything about it (kavpolit.com/articles/vlast_i_obschestvo_ubijstvennaja_chrezvychajschina-28620/).
Closing one’s eyes to such actions, he says, is “in a direct sense dangerous for life, and not only for the live of citizens inclined to protest.” That is because “to keep the use of force within the borders of the legitimate is much more difficult than to give it its head.” The first process takes centuries; the second, he says, can happen overnight.
Since the start of the school year, Byurchiiyev says, the situation in the North Caucasus has deteriorated regardless of what officials say. Ever more pupils are being persecuted for wearing hijabs. The death squads, which experts say are linked to the authorities, have stepped up their activities. And kidnappings have increased in number across the region.
None of this has generated a reaction in Russian society as a whole. Indeed, some Russians have justified these moves as necessary to protect the state and society from Islamist challenges, Byurchiyev continues. But this is “a dangerous development,” one even greater than a simple case of the violation of human rights.
“Limiting freedoms in the name of concern about security is a trick that has been unmasked long ago,” he says. Governments invoke it whenever they want to go “beyond the framework of the law and arbitrarily interfere in the personal space or even deprive the lives of their subjects.”
In the most general terms, Byurchiyev argues, “this is a path back to the archaic world, a return to the period before contemporary states arose. And he points to one aspect of those pre-modern states that Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has talked about, the “homo sacer” or an individual who can be sacrificed without any constraints.
To reduce society to this state, Agamben argues, governments introduce “extraordinary” situations, which contribute little to the security of the population but do a great deal to build up the state itself and to allow it to “stand above the law” and act as it wants regardless of what the laws say.
“The longer a society lives in [this] situation,” Byurchiyev continues, “the more of its representatives will fall under the category of homo sacers,” that is, the more people who will fall into the category of those who can be killed without a crime being committed.
But concern about building power is not the only thing driving the expansion of this category, he says, pointing to the argument of French anthropologist Rene Girard who argued in his 1972 book, “Violence and the Sacred,” that the holy is “channeled violence” and that sacrifices or scapegoats are periodically required to support it.
According to Girard, “a scapegoat is often destroyed and always driven out of the community,” and the threat he or she posed is considered to have been driven out as well. In antiquity, real human sacrifices were required; they were then replaced by animals; but now, tragically, some are returning to the period of human sacrifice.
If Girard is right, Byurchiyev says, then the silence of Russian society in the face of the repressions in the North Caucasus is understandable if not forgivable. Russians have been led to believe that the destruction of such homo sacers is necessary for “the restoration of the [proper] order of things.”
Some Russians, including human rights activists, are paying attention and criticizing what the authorities are doing; but “even those groups who are in opposition to the state secretly hope that society will in the end limit itself to these ‘scapegoats’ and that such actions won’t reach them.”
Today, Byurchiyev says, “Muslims no under the control of the official clergy are in the worst position. Having landed on ‘Wahhabi lists,’ they are not even sacred victims, the murder of which consolidated the remaining society. These Muslims … are the very homo sacers whom the authorities can destroy without committing a crime.”
“But their unenviable leadership in this regard doesn’t mean that tomorrow liberals or even supporters of the state won’t find themselves in a similar situation,” Byurchiyev says.
In the absence of effective social and political institutions, the process that has engulfed these Muslims “inevitably will ever more go out of control” because for an ineffective state, using such methods is the line of least resistance. Indeed, “already today, under the wheel of the siloviki are falling not only Muslims who think differently.”
Summing up, Byurchiyev says that “the difference between scapegoats and homo sacer is that the murder of the first does not pass unnoticed. It is significant for society, even as to the fate of the second, the masses are indifferent.” That is why, at one level at least, scapegoating works for a society, but homo sacer works only to increase the power of the state.
But that benefit to the state is only temporary, he suggests, because after a time, “when the use of force goes out of control, it eliminates the border not only between the sovereign and the law … but also between silence and quiet disappearance.” And that creates a Hobbesian world in which even the state using such techniques is at risk.