Obama, Hüseyin, and the Impossibility of Justice

The man sitting next to me in my Ottoman class caught a glimpse of the Turkish daily paper sticking out of my bag. The top banner was a report from Connecticut, 27 people murdered. "How can something like this happen?" Words fail even in English, so I just responded in simpler terms, "Anlayabilmiş bir insan değilim," I'm not someone who can understand. He surprised me, then, with a question: "Is Obama going to be Hüseyin?" I've known him know for over a year now, and he's often struck me as one of the more outwardly pious –– he cultivates a beard, wears loose baggy pants, speaks a language deeply inflected with religious phrases, will occasionally voice critiques of the day's news in religious terms. So I think he's asking me, "Is Obama going to become Muslim?" playing with Obama's middle name, the way that many converts will take a second name to mark their conversation, and understanding that, I respond, "No, he won't be, it doesn't look like he will be."

"No, no," he says, "maybe you didn't understand me." He hasn't asked me about whether Obama will convert but about whether Obama will fill the role of Hüseyin, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Ali. It is Hüseyin, following the death of Ali and the poisoning of his brother Hasan by the Umayyads, who declares a rightful war against Yazid. His death at Karbala is a signal moment in the history of Islam, in the history of the community of believers. Had Hüseyin chosen not to fight against Yazid, he likely would have lived; but then, of course, he would not have been Hüseyin. In other words, it is in realizing his rightful character that Hüseyin dooms himself.

This is what my companion was trying to ask me when he asked, "Is Obama going to be Hüseyin?" Is Obama, in other words, going to realize the figure of the just ruler, the true ruler, the ruler through him the (possible) perfection of the community is realized? Yet this isn't simply a utopic promise; to be Hüseyin is also to be martyred, necessarily so. In rebelling against Yazid, Hüseyin both realizes his own place within the community of believers and dooms himself. Phrased differently, Hüseyin's martyrdom at Karbala is less a story about the achievement of a rightly guided community as it is a story about the impossibility of that community. Were Obama to become Hüseyin, he would consign himself to martyrdom too.

What we hope from the future is in part a function of what we draw from our pasts.


Jordan M said…
What would he have to martyr himself for? He's already President. He could try and be more radical than pragmatic but he'll probably keep a steady course, with incremental changes, instead of trying to really fight the fights that he was nominated for so many years ago. He's a smart leader of a ship full of paranoid schizophrenics.
Timur Hammond said…
I think the point of the comparison with Huseyin is something like Plato's notion of the good -- the good is something that by definition can't be realized in this world. Or rather, to fully realize the just rule that Huseyin represents is impossible; in the kind of pragmatic, limited sense that you're talking about, Obama can be good; but the kind of divinely sanctioned (or Platonic, depending on your perspective) good is something that Obama cannot realize. Anyways, I think that's what my interlocutor meant.

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