Blog post

Egypt, Žižek, Glenn Beck and cultural relativism

Tamar Shlaim16 February 2011

Slavoj Žižek's commentary on recent events in Egypt and Tunisia highlights what much of the mainstream western press, and especially statements by US and UK politicians, have ignored—the universal nature of the protests, and the popular will for freedom. Speaking on Al Jazeera last week, he said: 

Where we are fighting a tyrant, we are all universalists. We are immediately in solidarity with each other. That's how you build universal solidarity ... it's the struggle for freedom. Here we have a direct proof that a) freedom is universal and b) especially proof against the cynical idea that Muslim crowds prefer some kind of religiously fundamentalist dictatorship or whatever, no! What happened in Tunisia, what happens now in Egypt, it's precisely this universal revolution for dignity, human rights, economic justice. This is universalism at work. 

Žižek reiterated this universalist tendency in the recent uprisings in an article for the Guardian

The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran's Khomeini revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.

The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Coptic Christians engaged in common prayer on Cairo's Tahrir Square, chanting "We are one!"—providing the best answer to the sectarian religious violence. Those neocons who criticise multiculturalism on behalf of the universal values of freedom and democracy are now confronting their moment of truth: you want universal freedom and democracy? This is what people demand in Egypt, so why are the neocons uneasy? Is it because the protesters in Egypt mention freedom and dignity in the same breath as social and economic justice?

Glenn Beck, unsurprisingly, provided a perfect example of this right-wing cultural relativism on his February 7th show. As transcribed on the ("über-left"!) Guardian website, he explains why the Egyptian revolution could never have a similar outcome to America's: 

The regular people in Egypt—I'm sorry they might be nice people, but they are not the people of the American Revolution—and I have been trying to make this point that you have to be much different, even than we are, to be able to have revolution and to have it end the way it ended here. Their concept of freedom is different than yours. Let's not be judgmental and say that it's ... No, I'm going to be judgmental—it sucks compared to our idea of freedom!

Watch the full Riz Khan show with Žižek and Tariq Ramadan.

Visit the Guardian to read the full article by Žižek  on the Egyptian revolution. 

Also on the Guardian website are selected transcribed quotes from the Glenn Beck show. Masochists can watch the entire thing on YouTube