On Responsibility: Critique and Colonization After October 7th


فَلَمْ تَقْتُلُوهُمْ وَلَـٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ قَتَلَهُمْ ۚ وَمَا رَمَيْتَ إِذْ رَمَيْتَ وَلَـٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ رَمَىٰ ۚ وَلِيُبْلِىَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْهُ بَلَآءً حَسَنًا ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌۭ

And you do not kill them, but it was Allah who killed them. And you threw not [Oh, Muhammad], when you threw, but it was Allah who threw, that he might test the believers with a good test. Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing. –Qur’an 8:17


Judith Butler recently wrote, “I quarreled with the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee in my LRB essay for claiming that ‘the apartheid regime is the only one to blame’ for the deadly attacks by Hamas on Israeli targets. I thought it was ‘wrong to apportion responsibility in that way, and nothing should exonerate Hamas from responsibility for the hideous killings they have perpetrated.’” Butler, while defending the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee’s position favoring the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation, sets the stage for the committee’s analysis of the situation in Gaza against the background of the question of freedom of speech. Butler’s intervention showed that freedom of speech primarily implies the freedom to critique—which necessarily means the freedom to identify responsibility and culpability. If responsibility is a narrative (as I see it), freedom of speech means to subscribe to a particular narrative of responsibility. The freedom to critique, central to freedom of speech, comes to be imagined here as a form of apportioning responsibility for actions that are deemed violent. In short: to critique means to call out responsibility, rendering responsibility central to any conversation on violence and its conditions.

The obsession with responsibility is not unique to this article that Butler wrote, but endemic to several commentaries made about the ongoing Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. For example, Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor to Israel and a scholar of security policy, argued that Hamas’s attack was responsible for derailing the prospect of a two-state solution in the near future (67). This argument echoes the public sentiments in the West after October 7th that any possible resolution to the conflict has now been halted because of Hamas. Self-described supporters of Palestinian statehood expressed this sentiment as well as those who unilaterally support Zionism. In short, the question of responsibility centrally informs the policies, politics, and polemics about the Israeli colonization of Palestinian territories. The purpose of this article is not to contribute yet another response to Butler’s intervention. It is rather to tease out and question the problem of responsibility that dominates the discourse about the Palestinian confrontation with Israeli colonization. In my approach, the notion of responsibility is not a self-evident expression of the causal relationship between act and actor, but rather a particular narrative enacted in certain discourse. That is, the question of responsibility tends to be viewed as an instantly available category of explanation for any act, as it helps to locate the relationship between the act and the actor. My point is that one must take a step back and understand that responsibility is primarily a narrative produced by certain actors (scholars, commentators, lawyers, and so on) either for legal, political, or moral purposes. This narrative is used by scholars, policymakers, and politicians from a dominant discursive location that sustains the colonial relationship of power between Israel and Palestine in order to justify certain actions as opposed to others. The latter half of the essay also includes a brief foray into how action and responsibility were narrated in relation to each other in the Islamic tradition of resistance in Gaza.

Condemnation and Responsibility

Talal Asad, in his brilliant treatise on Palestinian suicide bombings, advances an arresting critique of the existing analyses of Palestinian resistance operations in which he identifies and isolates the problem of motive. Asad argues that the idea of motive that is consistently sought in the analyses of Palestinian suicide bombings by Western political theorists is the wrong object of inquiry. This is because what analysts imagine to be the motive behind such operations is usually an analytical fiction projected onto the suicide bombers (3). In addition, analysts’ anxiety about motive may stem from their inability to digest the actions themselves. Asad explains, “Not everything that is done has a motive, by which I mean that we ask for an explanation in terms of motive only we are suspicious of what the action means” (64). The problem with seeking to unveil a motive behind an action is that, as Asad teaches us, it presupposes the motive is lucidly available for analysis rather than invested with emotions and perhaps unclear even to the actor (64). The analytical thirst for the forensic construction of a motive is linked to a public desire—such as Butler’s—for locating responsibility and culpability. People attempt to identify culpability “through the reconstruction of a particular type of motive” (45).

In other words, if the motive were crystalized, the responsible would be identified. Thus, the consistent desire to find culpability and responsibility becomes more about a particular discourse in play, rather than by how Palestinians traditionally perform these concepts. What is noticeable about this discourse, as Samera Esmeir reminds us, is that in it the Palestinians are “inherently blameworthy” to begin with. Esmeir suggests that this discourse that holds Palestinians blameworthy is not directed to specific actions that Palestinians undertake, but rather to their “very being” as Palestinians. But from where does the discourse of culpability and responsibility emerge in the conversations about Palestinians? To ask this question rather differently, why does the first enunciation about Palestinians always carry with it a sense that Palestinians are blameworthy? And for what?

Here one might want to pursue this question through the relationship between rehabilitation and debilitation, which Jasbir Puar advanced in her book The Right to Maim (2017). The book demonstrates how the right to maim the Palestinian population became a sovereign prerogative of the state of Israel. Puar constantly reminds us, throughout this text, of how the rehabilitation of the Israeli population was intrinsically related to the debilitation of the Palestinian population. This relationship, constructed through remapping Jewish debility (or famously, the Jewish question) onto the Palestinian geographies in order to seek rehabilitation (101), ends up rendering Palestinians responsible for the perceived persistence of the debility of the Jews. Subsequently, Israel legitimizes itself as a state (of the liberal European model) by exercising its biopolitical control, which crucially entails its sovereign right to maim Palestinian populations (102-103). Following Esmeir and Puar, I want to suggest that Palestinians became blameworthy precisely because they have been forced to occupy this particular relationship in which they are responsible for any potential harm to the maintenance of Jewish rehabilitation.

I want to further point out, in light of Puar’s argument about the relationship between Jewish rehabilitation and Palestinian debilitation, that the immediate eruption of conversations about anti-Semitism in the West whenever a Palestinian group decides to resist their conditions of debility only functions to reinforce the relationship I am describing by reproducing the problem of responsibility. In other words, the consistent production of the discourse about anti-Semitism in the wake of Palestinian resistance is only symptomatic of how Jewish rehabilitation has been widely premised on Palestinian debilitation, rendering Palestinian resistance responsible for the harm to the Jewish project of rehabilitation. Do the acts of condemnation and critique, central to freedom of speech for Butler, surpass the power of this first order of discourse in which Palestinians have already been captured as responsible for the maintenance of Jewish rehabilitation?

This question seems to animate Butler’s worry of whether one needs a knowledge of the ground or not in order to morally condemn violence. They write, “When and where does our condemnation begin and end? Do we not need a critical and informed assessment of the situation to accompany moral and political condemnation, without fearing that to become knowledgeable will turn us, in the eyes of others, into moral failures complicitous in hideous crimes?” In asking these questions, Butler seems to bypass the fact that any condemnation requires a narrative of responsibility and conclude that moral condemnation is the purest form of the expression of human conscience. In addition, Butler also implies that condemnation must primarily be concerned about the “knowledge of the ground,” as though the real activity on the ground was isolated from the colonial condition of its production.

Trying to find an answer to these questions, Butler goes on to argue that, “when, however, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee issues a statement claiming that ‘the apartheid regime is the only one to blame’ for the deadly attacks by Hamas on Israeli targets, it makes an error. It is wrong to apportion responsibility in that way, and nothing should exonerate Hamas from responsibility for the hideous killings they have perpetrated.” By contesting the statement issued by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee in this way, Butler looks again for a fairer distribution of responsibility for acts of violence. By further justifying this argument in their next essay published by The Boston Review, they reveal a more affirmative dimension of responsibility, which is agency. They write, “I do not think it makes sense to say that Israeli violence is the name for the violence that Hamas commits since Hamas has its own plan, and the decision to launch an armed struggle is one for which it assumes responsibility. One could even say that claiming Hamas’s violence is only Israeli violence turned back on the Israelis undermines the agency of those Palestinians who have taken up the position in favor of armed struggle.” Thus, according to Butler, culpability and agency become equal and intelligible through a fairer distribution of responsibility and, therefore, what a moral condemnation and thus a critique itself demands, as Butler tells us, is an intelligible deployment of responsibility. In advancing this liberal conception of agency and responsibility, what Butler misses is precisely the order of discourse that Esmeir pointed out, in which Palestinians were already made to exist in a particular relationship of power and time.

If “it does not make sense to say that Israeli violence is the name for the violence that Hamas commits since Hamas has its own plan for armed resistance,” a critique of Israeli violence, according to Butler, is thus only a critique of a particular kind of violence attributable to the IDF, not of the condition of violence produced by the colonial relations of power that demand Israeli rehabilitation be premised upon Palestinian debilitation. The problem of responsibility, therefore, demands forensic transparency of the relationship between action and actor for a critique, presupposing actors as freely positioned on equal terrains to exercise their actions.

The problem of the critique here is not only that it reduces critique to the condemnation of a particular act squarely attributable to a particular agent, but also that it ignores the colonial temporality of power in which the relationship between action and agent can often be the production of the first order of discourse. This is exemplified in the widespread allegation of Hamas beheading forty children, which was repeated in an emotional speech by the president of the United States despite being debunked by the same media that first reported it. The critique of beheading, or the so-called “horrific violence perpetrated by Hamas” on October 7th, therefore becomes generally ignorant of the fact that the causal relationship between an action and an agent, the coherence of which is a prerequisite for understanding responsibility, is a narrative steeped in colonial discourse, in this case, specifically in the logic that Esmeir pointed out when she referred to the “order of discourse.” The critique of responsibility, consistently demanded by Butler, Freilich, and others, by way of ignoring the colonial order of discourse in which subjects have already been unequally conditioned, thus becoming unmindful of the first order of discourse.


The Narratives of Responsibility: Religious and Secular

Abdaljawad Omar, in his forthcoming essay, proposes to think about the difference between the ongoing operation of Al-Aqsa Flood and the previous intifadas in terms of the notion of decision. Whereas the intifadas “were ignited as affective outbursts of subversive rhythm,” the operation of October 7th “can be traced back to a singular, albeit non-sovereign, decision” (11). The notion of decision also entails the idea of responsibility, with intifadas marking responsibility’s diffusion by generating confusion (385) and October 7th showcasing its clear source. But what is instructive for us is that Omar calls this decision “non-sovereign,” complicating the relationship between Hobbesian decisionism and Schmittian sovereignty. The decision is non-sovereign precisely because it was already “predetermined by forces that exceed the decider” (12). In other words, if the decision signified a sense of responsibility, that means that it did not come from the solitude of the action or actors marking their abundance of choices and actions transcending the material condition of colonialism; rather, the decision (thus responsibility) only signals the material inevitability of actions. This is contrary to how the concept of responsibility has been conceptualized by various Western scholars and policymakers in their “moral” critiques and condemnation of the “actions of Hamas.”

At this point, one might wonder how to understand the grammar of action performed by the resistance groups, if not through the narrative of responsibility proposed by Western scholars. This leads us to the Qur’anic epigraph to this article, which teaches the prophet Muhammad and his companions about the meaning of their actions during their battle against the tribe of Quraish. Those who follow the videos coming out of the resistance groups in Gaza might find this Qur’anic verse quite familiar since the verse is frequently uttered by the resistance fighters when they fire RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) from the ruins of Gaza at the oncoming Israeli Merkava tanks. The verse implies that when a fighter fires a grenade, it is not himself, but God who does it. The fighters authorize the act of firing a grenade through the Qur’an—but not by asserting power in the sense of the liberal conception of agency, but by solemnizing their submission to God. In other words, perhaps the most insurrectionary invocations of the Qur’an in recent times signify submission and renouncement of responsibility, rather than agency. Why is uttering this verse not symbolic, but something that profoundly informs the fighters’ acts of warfare?

In a literalist approach, one may find it plausible to argue that the verse says that it is God who is responsible for one’s action, not the actor himself, defying the power of the actor as well as the causal relationship between the actor, the act, and the result. This, in a way, also implies that the existing idea of responsibility is a narrative that is secular because of the givenness of the relationship between act, actors, and outcome—and therefore the narrative is unfounded in Islam.

My interest here, however, is animated by Asad’s approach to learning and uttering Islamic lessons. For Asad, the act of uttering the Qur’anic verse not only signifies the verse’s direct meaning but also how the verse relates to specific modes of being in the world (168). In other words, the function of uttering the Qur’anic verse is not to detach the actor from the act, but quite the contrary: one utters the Qur’anic verse to authorize the act through the Qur’an by repeating the verse, thereby establishing the act as a particular mode of performing the verse. The act of submission in the colonial condition necessarily requires the confrontation with the colonizer, attesting to the specific grammar of the act of confrontation, its inevitability, and responsibility. This should not be misconstrued as suggesting that the tradition of insurgency with specific modes of acting is fully untouched by the colonial relationship of power. In fact, it is the colonial relationship of power, in which Palestinian debilitation is continuously required by the particular project of Jewish rehabilitation, that necessitates certain modes of action instead of others. This demonstrates that action and responsibility are not always divested from each other, but instead that they make sense together in particular discourses and are cohered through particular traditions such as liberal or Islamic, signaling the fact that the idea of responsibility is a narrative told and performed in specific discursive traditions. In other words, one must look at the discourses, traditions, and historical conditions to ascertain the exercise of responsibility, rather than universalizing it. Therefore, a Western secular critique of responsibility for the act of violence/resistance does not imply moral culpability of the actor; rather, it suggests only the existence of a particular order of discourse in which the Palestinians have been condemned and figured as blameworthy at the level of their existence due to the colonial demand of Jewish rehabilitation in the Palestinian territories.

Furthermore, one can see that the practice of critique, popular as well as academic, seeks to construct responsibility mostly in the context of violence. This is not only because violence is capable of overwhelming its own conditions (i.e., colonialism) with its spectacular nature, but also because violence was deemed in the Western liberal tradition to be excluded from the domain of politics, as pointed out by Asad (3). Asad’s argument is that such a presupposition that violence is excluded from liberal doctrine in fact entails ignoring the ways in which violence becomes necessary for the maintenance of liberal life (59). And it is the state that is supposed to maintain liberal life, answering the question of who has the right to exercise legitimate violence.

My point, following Asad, is not only that violence must be understood to be integral to the maintenance of liberal life. It is also that the prevailing assumption that liberal life does not produce the condition for violence is patently false. The claim that Israel is a liberal democracy is founded on the false assumption that liberal life is far from producing any condition for violence. Most importantly, the very idea of the Israeli state as a liberal democracy is a translation of the project of rehabilitation that Puar has highlighted. Both rehabilitation and liberal democracy are terms that seem conciliating and reassuring, but in fact these terms incorporate the right to maim Palestinians as well as to violently exterminate them into the very fabric of this liberal democratic rehabilitation of the Jewish question.


Civilians and Militants in Gaza

Esmeir brilliantly unpacks the historical trajectory of the construction of civilian normalcy in Israel in her essay. The production and stabilization of Israeli civilians are constitutively conditioned by the settler-colonial project of conquest that sustains the extermination and deracination of Palestinians. Palestinian claims to civilian normalcy, as Esmeir demonstrates, are often met with violence, or at times, demand an extraordinary passivity in the face of the violence. Following Esmeir, the question I want to ask is: What function does the recurrent invocation of the civilian-militant distinction in Gaza that is made by scholars, analysts, and commentators in the wake of October the 7th fulfill in relation to the problem of responsibility?

The divide between civilians and militants often informs the contrast between the so-called secular liberal position and the right-wing extreme position in the West concerning Palestine. Insofar as the critique of violence requires the construction of responsibility, the responsibility requires identifying a responsible agent. The critique of responsibility therefore constantly needs to discern the responsible (agent), either claiming or contesting the distinction between civilians and militants. After October 7th, commentaries, official policy discussions, media reports, and military policy discussions were often preoccupied with the concern for differentiating between civilians and militants in order to clarify the moral and political ground for the conduct of the war against Hamas—as though the war has had a legitimacy outside its colonial condition.

In other words, it has been widely assumed that the war against Hamas in response to the events of October 7th is legitimate as long as it targets the militants, not the civilians. The moral and political reasoning of the war and its critiques thus has presupposed acts of war as the legitimate conduct of a state insofar as the militants are demarcated as responsible agents of violence. For instance, the official IDF website published an editorial piece listing strategies to minimize harm to civilians. The category of responsibility thus helps Israel reinforce its image as a liberal democratic state. Nevertheless, this is not specific to the events that have unfolded since the October 7th incident. The academic scholarship on Gaza and its resistance even before has also operated on this previously established and seemingly axiomatic distinction between militants and civilians. Against this secular liberal account of the conflict, the extreme Zionist position, often voiced through television channel discussions, sought to redistribute responsibility to Gazan civilians so that the aggression against civilians could be justified. This was most clearly exemplified in a statement made by the president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, on October 12th: “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible.” The debate waged has been between these two positions—only militants are responsible, according to the one side, and both militants and civilians are equally responsible, according to the other.

The critique of responsibility thus was built on identifying this prior distinction between militants and civilians—which was taken to be axiomatic by all parties in this conversation—by disregarding the condition within which this distinction was variously negotiated and often collapsed. One cannot ignore the empirical possibility that such a distinction between militants and civilians may be nonexistent in a colonized and therefore constantly debilitating terrain. Puar considers the policy of debilitating Palestinian bodies as crucial to Israel’s deployment of biopolitical control over the occupied population. Since the rehabilitation of the Israeli settler population is inextricably linked to the debilitation of the Palestinian population, constituting a distinct temporality of colonial power, the intelligibility of the divide between militants and civilians becomes nothing but a production of Israeli military policy. In other words, the subject in Gaza, as Puar reminds us, is primarily the one that was debilitated and thus denied civilian normalcy by the colonial condition imposed by Israel (108) rather than either a combatant as opposed to civilian or civilian as opposed to combatant. This observation should not be misconstrued as a call to designate the entire population in Gaza responsible for acts of violence. My suggestion, rather, is that the critique of responsibility upon which the entire infrastructure of the Western understanding of Gazan resistance against Israeli colonization was built is simply misguided. That is to say, the creation of subjects through policies and debates based on how they respond to their condition of debilitation is violently ignorant of the prior condition of debility fundamental to the formation of a subject in Gaza. In short, the distinction between militants and civilians in a colonized, and thus constantly debilitating form of life, is in continuous circulation due to the ongoing reproduction of the problem of responsibility enabled by scholars, policy experts, political leaders, and media commentators of the Western critical heritage. In the discourse about the ongoing episode in Gaza, what a narrative of responsibility performs is simply an evasion of the relationship between rehabilitation and debilitation that Israel established through the conquest, extermination, and displacement of the Palestinian population in the Nakba.



Acknowledgment: I am indebted to Ahmed Bin Qasim from Kashmir for the initial provocation to think about the so-called distinction between militants and civilians in occupied lands. I am thankful to Maria Siddiqui for reading the draft and offering comments. Thanks also to the editors of Social Text for their careful review of the draft.


Cover image: Victorgrigas, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Muhammed Shah Shajahan

Muhammed Shah Shajahan is a PhD candidate in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) program at Virginia Tech, with a concentration on political and cultural thought. He teaches courses on the history of modernity in the Department of Religion and Culture and centers the questions of exchange (capitalist and otherwise), religion, and race. Shah is particularly interested the political history of caste, Islam in South Asia, and moral and theological problems in political economy. His work is broadly situated in historical and political anthropology. He can be reached at muhammedshahs@vt.edu.