As an onlooker, the attacks in Paris were concerning for a variety of reasons. They are a symbol of a world gone hopelessly astray and not simply because of the acts carried out on that horrible day. They have encapsulated the war of supposed ‘values’, they encapsulate the various extremes set against each other, deemed incompatible and incomprehensibly different from one another. Ultimately both ‘sides’ are as off-putting and unappealing as the other and hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died and are dying for it. Pankaj Mishra suggests perfectly that ‘rigorous self-criticism’ and new narratives must be established to resolve the problems plaguing the Middle East and Europe. New narratives, new solutions, new values, new leadership and new perspectives are needed.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on free-speech and an attack on journalism ‘that mocked and satirized the far right as bigots, extremists and racists…They were satirists, and all people, systems and organisations should be open to criticism and mockery (so long as it sticks within the laws of the land). They were democratic in their ridicule and satirisation. No one was exempt.‘
However our own reaction to the attacks invited such mockery from Charlie Hebdo and exemplified the various extremes affecting societies across Europe and the Middle East.
The democratic West, a place of reason, individual autonomy, multiculturalism and freedom of speech against the rest of the world. It is a wonderful fairy tale that distorts the reality of a society plagued by instant expectations, conspicuous consumption, and mental, physical, spiritual (non-religious), financial, and environmental imbalances.
These imbalances are sold off by the many across the globe as an absolute, a universal comfort-zone, “the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence.” The reality is ‘soaring unemployment, the unresolved crisis of the euro, rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the stunning loss of a sense of possibility for young Europeans and Middle Easterns everywhere’ in an era of invisible bondholders, corruption and superficial forms of freedom, equality and harmony. These imbalances have fostered nationalism, separatism and extremism in Europe from a variety of angles. Our supposed paradise is a mirage.
This disorientation can in-part explain why thousands of European citizens have decided to rampage and die across Iraq and Syria with Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and ISIS committing humiliating and brutal acts of violence in the process. The violence while disturbing is neither ‘medieval’ or ‘barbaric’ nor an illustration of so-called ‘Islamic fascism’ as Kevin Mcdonald argues:
“Contemporary jihadism is not a return to past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology with a very significant debt to western political history and culture….When he made his speech in July at Mosul’s Great Mosque declaring the creation of an Islamic state with himself as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted at length from the Indian/Pakistani thinker Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1941 and originator of the contemporary term Islamic state. Maududi’s Islamic state is profoundly shaped by western ideas and concepts.
ISIS in some ways are our reflection, our responsibility and our creation. The video of the Jordanian pilot being incinerated, like other videos, are adorned with images of jihadists wearing replicas of U.S uniforms, orange jump-suits associated with American prisons and symbols of Western misadventures in the Middle East in the last century. Combine these images and symbols with the likes of ‘Jihadi John’ and their manipulated version of jihad and glorification of anything but a ‘caliphate’ make for quite a graphic interpretation of the war of ‘supposed values’ between radical individuals and radical groups from every corner of the spectrum in recent years.
Sensationalism and the sheer scale of the crisis hitting the region has warped the way in which policy is developed and how we should perceive the Middle Eastern revolutions unfolding. ISIS is a symptom, not the cause of the crisis and bombing them into oblivion will not solve the deeper roots and causes of the Middle Eastern crisis nor defeat the hydra that is terrorism.
Cut off one head and it will be replaced by another. ISIS, like Al-Qaeda, is not a monolithic whole, it is comprised of a variety of sub-factions which include European and Middle Eastern foreign fighters, methodical and ideological extremists, lone wolves, nationalists, aggrieved Sunnis, neo-Wahabbists, criminals, psychopaths, outcasts, students, women, adventurers and unfortunately normal people. There are always different motives amongst groups fighting and committing indefensible violence, particularly in the modern age. Motives shift and change depending on context and environment. This was a similar situation with insurgents fighting the Soviets in the Afghanistan War in the 1980s. Policies responses should reflect the diversity of the situation, motives and objectives of individuals and groups joining ISIS and other extremist factions.
At this current moment values and identities are cherished violently and the Western framework has never and should never be exempt from this volatile cycle. Joint at the hip Europe is in dire shape and the Middle East is gripped by chaos. According to the rules of history, our mutual existence dictates that what happens in one region, will invariably affect the other.
An individual’s values and beliefs, a state’s persona, an ideology and cultural and religious identities are not set in stone, they are water shifting and changing, the currents can pick up dramatically and violently or drift eloquently and peacefully, they are constant and interchangeable currents depending on the particular juncture of a particular river.
Russia has made the violent transition from imperial power to communist regime to dictatorship to kleptocracy (the latter courtesy of free-market capitalism and America’s victory in the Cold War) in the space of a century. America is frequently accused by many scholars and journalists of being a sophisticated modern-day empire and recent events in Ferguson, the Snowden Case, and misadventures abroad have brought this into sharp focus at the beginning of the 21st century. The Roman Republic was not a constant and evolved into an Empire, Germany was not always (obviously) a fascist state, and Athens like Rome, made the transition from democracy to imperial power during the Peloponnesian War and a terrorist did not simply become a terrorist on simple ideological or simplified religious lines. Nor do they, once they form these off-putting characteristics, remain so indefinitely.
Leadership is lacking at every level externally and internally, with little or no convincing credibility or new strategies being deployed to solve the problems. There is certainly plenty of populist posturing by politicians and even worse European politicians who are willing to utilise security agendas and tensions between ‘natives’ and ‘Muslim immigrants’ to attract strong political support for far-right parties. Marine Le Pen, a day after the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked offered the country a referendum on the death penalty stating that “The absolute refusal of Islamic fundamentalism must be proclaimed high and loud by whomever. Life and liberty are among the most precious values.” I shudder to think of the time when such a hypocritical person from any background or nation enters politics and obtains not only power but access to our security and surveillance systems.
A ‘Fortress Europe’ or an ‘Islamic State’, excess security or spectacular acts of terrorism, Putinism or a floundering EU, and militarized police forces roaming American and European streets that quell dissent or terrorism (however you wish to define it) surely our choices can be better than this? The use of the word ‘anti-terrorist’ operations can easily simplify events and veil ulterior motives of parties involved. These are presented as the only feasible options by leaders in our turbulent world. The simplified narratives are as equally debilitating as each other and ultimately nonconstructive. The violence is subtle or spectacular, but ultimately the same and the reactions depressingly familiar. That is the reality and these narratives can seduce all of us and I’ll admit I have fallen for many of them before as summarised by Chris Hedges.
“We fire missiles from the sky that incinerate families huddled in their houses. They incinerate a pilot cowering in a cage. We torture hostages in our black sites and choke them to death by stuffing rags down their throats. They torture hostages in squalid hovels and behead them. We organize Shiite death squads to kill Sunnis. They organize Sunni death squads to kill Shiites. We produce high-budget films such as “American Sniper” to glorify our war crimes. They produce inspirational videos to glorify their twisted version of jihad. The barbarism we condemn is the barbarism we commit. The line that separates us from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is technological, not moral. We are those we fight….Terror serves the interests of the war mongers on both sides of the divide….Terror is the engine of war. And terror is what all sides in this conflict produce in overabundance.”
Whilst I disagree with some of Chris Hedges idea’s on other topics, he highlights the increasing importance and necessity of challenging dialogue and subject matter that is too often spoon-fed to us by both mainstream media and extremists. We are as bad as each other, we merely proceed in different ways and inflict different methods of violence. ‘The clash of civilisations’, ‘the war of the worlds’, ‘us versus them’, ‘The West’s war against Islam’, ‘Islam’s War on the West’, modern-day ‘crusades’ and ‘jihads’, the all-conquering hordes of ISIS rampaging into America and likely conquering Hawaii; give it a rest. Context and perspectives are needed.
Two so-called ‘sides’ unwilling to come to terms with their own innate flaws and who claim to represent a particular way of life are destroying the very thing they claim to ‘protect’ and thus hypocrisy runs riot. They feed off each other with disastrous results. Instant news undermines necessary critical reflection and unconventional approaches to the multitude of crises across the globe are not making unconventional headlines and instant, short-term solutions seemingly and consistently fail to accommodate the necessity of long-term solutions. The result is continuous war and violence and widens the various chasms of understanding between different communities, individuals and groups and silences those trying to bridge the various islets of discontent and radicalism.
There are thousands of people fighting these damaging and poisonous assumptions across the world. They must be heard more frequently as voices of reason and they must be heard more often. That is when the pens being flourished after the Paris shootings will become mightier than the sword. That is when the brutality of human existence can be replaced by the humane expression of our diverse cultures, our diverse beliefs and our best values and ultimately determine our progress. That is a beautiful dream.