I published an article yesterday in Slate, analysing the possible significance of the choice of an Eagles of Death Metal concert as the site of the Daesh massacre in Paris on November 13. In it, I developed substantially the same line that I have been pushing for several months now, as for example in this essay in Harper's, in response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January.
My argument, in nuce, has been, first of all, that there is absolutely no progressive or liberatory core, nothing righteous, nothing that sparkles even faintly, in the ideology of the attackers; their idea of justice is fundamentally different from that of everyone with whom I am in conversation, even if some people with whom I am in conversation continue to try to translate the words and actions of the attackers into terms that make them come out as at least partially fair or reasonable. Second, that this difference plays some role in any adequate causal explanation of the attacks: that, that is, not everything can be explained by appeal to the distal role of US foreign policy in the radicalisation of some young men in the Middle East, of Arab immigrants to Europe, and of European converts. Third, that this ideological difference is not at all a difference between Islam and 'the West', or between Enlightened Europe and the benighted, backwards Middle East, or anything of the sort. It is a difference between narrow, provincial fundamentalism and open, flexible, tolerant cosmopolitanism, and both of these broad tendencies are part of our shared human patrimony and can be found in all regions and epochs. The National Front and Daesh are substantially on the same side: a victory for the one is a victory for the other, and they both know it. Fourth, to the extent that this is the true rift --ideological and political, and not geographical, not issuing from any difference between civilisations or religions, nor from any failure on the part of the attacked to adequately respect the religion of the other--, it is completely out of place, a total waste of time, to attempt to placate or to satisfy the attackers by demonstrating to them that we will strive harder to not do things that displease them. This was my argument after Charlie Hebdo, and my argument now, in the Slate article, is that if this was the case then, it is a fortiori and all the more obviously the case now:
After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo with which we rang in this bloody year in Paris, many deluded Westerners insisted that the assassination of these humble cartoonists was an expression, however misplaced, of righteous anger bubbling up from below. It was a sort of “punching up” while in their love of mockery the magazine’s artists had gone where satire must not go when they began to “punch down.” Is anyone going to continue to push that disgusting line after Friday night’s attacks? Is there any conceivable sense in which massacring the Eagles of Death Metal’s fans can be understood as a rising up of the oppressed?
Of course there isn’t. What the attackers hated in January, and what they continue to hate, is a sort of offense that we could not possibly promise to disown. It is the offense of happiness, of getting jokes, and loving oxymorons. This is what the attackers experience as punching, and they respond to it with Kalashnikovs and grenades.
As I see it, in January they came for the crusty old '68ers, and the younger generation basically said: Good riddance, your time was long past ('Fuck Charlie Hebdo' is how more than one twenty-something obituarist in the left Twittersphere put it). This time they came for the younger generation, and those who dismissed the old guys so crassly are still fumbling for an answer. The best they can do so far is to try to change the subject. (I haven't yet seen 'Fuck the twenty-somethings who go to Eagles of Death Metal concerts', but I'm sure it's coming soon from the nascent political consciousness of some fourteen-year-old.) I know 'they' are not exactly the same people: in January it was a personal beef, settled by some Parisian toughs with no connection to international terror networks at all; in November, it all unfolded on a vastly larger scale. It was 'military' rather than just 'criminal' (to the extent that there can be any legitimate distinction between the two). But these differences do not eliminate all shared features. Both were directed against sites that symbolised a certain vision of life, held to be incompatible with another vision of life. In the end, everything can be explained by economics, natural resources, demography. This does not mean that symbols do not matter for individual agents, nor that they are explanatorily empty when it comes to accounting for individual events.
Some perceived cultural differences are in fact very old, and one wonders to what extent it is the stereotype that sustains the reality, or vice versa. Just today there was a fairly conventional scare-post at a questionable website about ISIS's musicophobic mass burning of some drum sets. This reminded me of a passage I had read some weeks ago in Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's remarkable novel, Leg over Leg, published in Arabic in Paris in 1855 (and presented, in its original edition, as a sort of travelogue of an Arab in Europe):
The natives there [in the Levant] are fanatical about religion and warn against anything capable of causing sensual pleasure. Consequently, they do not want to learn to sing or play an instrument or to use the latter in their places of worship and their prayers, as do the Frankish shaykhs [i.e., the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church], lest this lead them into disbelief. Thus every one of the gentle arts, such as poetry and harmony, for example, or painting, is an abomination. Could they but hear the humans sung in the churches of their aforementioned shaykhs or the tunes of the organ that people are so fond of and that are played in places of entertainment, dance halls, and cafés to attract men and women, they'd find no sin in the tambour.
Now this might seem like a bit of evidence in favour of a true civilisational split, from the amateur anthropology of a 19th-century author, to the clickbait of today. But al-Shidyaq was himself, though born into the Maronite Orthodox church, a convert to Islam (as a result of the time he spent working as chief typographer for the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul). He loved drums, and organs (in all senses). When he died, he insisted on being buried in the Christian cemetery, but on having a crescent on his gravestone. Is he to be excluded from the history of Islam? He was quirky and inconsistent, but lots of people are, everywhere, and to suppose that these traits are characteristic only of some imagined Western land of individualism, while Islam is nothing but uniform piety and uprightness, is just the worst sort of stereotyping imaginable.
I never read comments on things I write in the media, but I do read messages from valued friends and critics. Many of these worried that I was saying something along the lines of Bush's notorious "They hate our freedom." My friends are in general worried that I'm having my neoliberal, Hitchensian moment, even though I've in fact been tirelessly articulating why it's not a case of that for almost a year now. Yes, I do think they hate our freedom, but 'they' are not only Daesh. They are, equally, the forces of reaction in Europe and America with whom Daesh is in witting or unwitting collusion (again, I think it's witting, but this is irrelevant to the present point). Yes, also, they hate our freedom, but to acknowledge this implies nothing whatsoever with respect to the famous Chernyshevksian question: What is to be done?
As it happens, I am anti-war, anti-imperialism, I hate the Hollande government's reaction to the attacks, and I fear and deplore the repressions that are inevitably going to happen. Nothing I have said indicates otherwise. But I don't speak on behalf of state actors, and I firmly believe that the best thing other anti-war people with whom I am in conversation can do is to engage true liberationist and progressive forces in the Islamic world, and to stop essentializing the differences between that world and 'ours', which in part means to stop declining to hold Daesh up to the same standards, or to pass the same judgments on it, that we are used to passing on far-right movements in western Europe and the US. I believe Daesh is a far-right movement, and that its victories are victories for the far right both in the broader Middle East and in Europe. I believe that the best way to oppose it is to reaffirm solidarity with progressive forces in the Middle East, and to be honest about the incompatibility of its aims with those of any plausible version of progressive politics.
There is a Palestinian socialist bookstore just down the street on the rue de Belleville. It is run down, basically empty, and it looks as if the owner is having trouble covering rent. It is filled with wonderful bilingual volumes of Mahmoud Darwish, books by Hanan Ashrawi, Emile Habibi. These are not the thinkers who are captivating the current generation. As Olivier Roy says, "le djihad est la seule cause sur le marché."
Michael Walzer is wrong to suppose that there is something intrinsic to Islam in particular that has caused the rise of jihadist ideology. The current murderousness is no more awful than, say, what Protestants and Catholics inflicted on each other in the 17th-century wars of religion. He is right however to observe that, even if all thinking people understand that the rise of the ideology is in large part a consequence of US foreign policy and the vacuum of power and of civil society this has created, particularly in Iraq, we are still perfectly within our rights to ask why it was this particular ideology that came to predominate, and not, say, Maoism or, better yet, Trotskyism. We are wrong to pretend that jihadi ideology is just some sort of confusedly expressed cousin of one of these, and to not take its proponents at their word when they insist of themselves that what they are seeking to bring about is a radically inegalitarian, repressive theocracy. They might not in fact be in any position to bring it about. They might be a bunch of bumbling losers too pumped up on violent video games to do much of anything to shape the world according to their vision. Much the same could be said of hate-driven white supremacists in the US: but we are rightly terrified of the vision of the world that drives them, and we fear the havoc that they in fact periodically unleash in the real world.
To take them seriously, and to stop glossing over such basic distinctions, is not at all to give up on the task of rigorous historical and geopolitical explanation. Such an explanation, again, will not be by appeal to innate features of Islam, but to the roles of warlords on both sides of the merely apparent civilisational boundary. These warlords are the enemies of socialism (and of poetry, and literature, and independent bookstores, and obscene rock concerts) and should be despised and criticised by thinking people, again, on both sides of the supposed boundary.
I suppose that ordinarily I take quite a bit for granted about my interlocutors and readers. I presume, for example, that we all share the same hatred of xenophobia, persecution, and injustice. Ordinarily, in self-selecting conversations in the more intimate world of social media, this is true, and it is for this reason that I tend to see the denunciation of xenophobia, persecution, and injustice there as for the most part motivated by posturing, by mindless jockeying for the acquisition of 'virtue capital'. I tend to focus my energies there on exploring the points of difference between myself and other people who share my opposition to xenophobia, persecution, and injustice. This sometimes, I realise, makes it unclear 'what side I am on'. I feel like it ought to be clear, though, and that the whole point of being on a side is to identify and to understand the nature of the fissures there. Everything else is ideology and dogmatism. It may be that I have made a mistake in extending my approach, which makes sense in social media, to a venue with as broad a readership as Slate. I gather from the few comments I have accidentally seen that the piece has stoked a lot of dismal jingoism of the "ISIS is a bunch of ba$tard$" variety. I'm sorry for that. I wish there were a way to speak openly in public without having to worry about making the wrong sort of friends.
I should also say that I am consistently amazed at the extent to which my peers, in the commentariat and in academia, seem to presume that the role of a self-appointed analyst is to make policy proposals to government leaders. I just don't think like that, and when I am attempting to understand what Daesh represents ideologically, I am simply not thinking about whether to encourage Hollande to initiate airstrikes in Syria or not. I am, rather, thinking, ultimately, about what the challenge ahead is going to be to get other visions of the world, other solutions, out there, to speak with Olivier Roy, sur le marché. I am an anarchist, and I have no faith whatsoever in state leaders or state institutions to resolve political problems. I take this for granted in everything I say, and I forget that I am in conversation with many left statists, and some right and centrist statists, who sincerely believe that the way problems are solved is by getting states to do things, or to refrain from doing them. Weird.