July 11, 2005

Defeating the hydra


In Marvel's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics, the nefarious S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-like international crime and terror network was called H.Y.D.R.A. Its slogan was 'cut off a limb and two more shall lose its place'. In Saturday's Times, Paul Wilkinson, Chairman of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, described the 'decentralised network' of al-Qaeda as a 'true hydra'. But the lesson of the hydra myth - that to use force against certain types of enemy is not only ineffective, it is counter-productive - is one that the leaders of the War on Terror have yet to learn.

It is the absurd War on Terror itself that has fed the al Qaeda hydra and put British citizens in the frontline. The issue here is not simply a causal one - WoT has made life unsafer in the west - but a conceptual one - the very notion of a war on Terror has meant that western populations are reclassified as active combatants in a war not only to the death, but beyond death, an infinite, excitatory cycle of violence begetting violence.

Despite what the increasingly hysterical Pro-Bombing 'Left' (PBL) maintain, the causal argument is won. (A testament to this is the way in which the PBL refuse even to have the argument. As one, they have wagged their finger at anyone who has pointed out the obvious causal chain linking US and British foreign policy with Thursday's events, tut-tutting about the unseemliness of 'politicizing' the atrocity 'even before the bodies are buried', as if contempt for neo-imperialist Shock and Awe somehow equated to lack of respect for the victims of the attacks in London, as if their own columns were disinterested and neutral, and as if solemn moralising rather than political analysis were what is called for.) The claim that the bombing of Iraq has been a recruiting seargent for terrorism is uncontroversial. A Foreign Office and Home Office dossier cited in the Sunday Times today states what any intelligent observer already knows:

'It seems that a particularly strong cause of disillusionment among Muslims, including young Muslims, is a perceived "double standard" in the foreign policy of western governments, in particular Britain and the US.

The perception is that passive ‘oppression’, as demonstrated in British foreign policy, eg non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to ‘active oppression’. The war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam.'

Even the Economist grants that some of al Qaeda's 'large group of sympathizers' will have had 'extra levels of motivation since the Iraq war'. (It adds: 'George Bush has sometimes claimed that a silver lining to the cloud his forces are struggling through in Iraq is that at least the West's enemies are being fought there rather than at home. The attacks in London are a reminder that that view is as wrong as it is glib.')

But the reclassification of the struggle with al-Qaeda as 'war' is another factor that promotes, inspires and legitimates terrrorism, a factor perhaps no less significant than the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example: it used to be the case that the British government refused to accept that it was 'at war' with the IRA; it was the IRA who made that claim. The unwillingness to concede that Britain was engaged in war partly had the effect of making it possible to claim both that the IRA were terrorists (i.e. BY DEFINITION not a group with whom one could be at war) and that any attack on the civilian population was an outrage visited on innocents. But if indeed we ARE at war (as the oxy/moronic War on Terror would have us believe), and if what 'we' are fighting for is 'our values', and 'simply getting on with our lives' is an expression of those 'values' - as, since Thursday, we have endlessly been told it is - then it would follow that we are all indeed warriors co-opted into WoT. As Simon Jenkins put it (also in the Sunday Times), 'it is Blair who gave terrorism the status of war. He can hardly complain when the enemy treats it as such.'

Johann Hari observed - surely not approvingly? - that the bombings on Thursday were received in London almost as if they were a natural disater. Much of the media here has insisted, rather, that the bombings be treated as a SUPERNATURAL disaster, the act of a transcendent Evil that cannot and furthermore must not be explained. Both Blair and Bush find it expedient and congenial to use a theological language to describe a threat that would be better considered in more wordly terms. That language is dangerous for two reasons: first, because it contributes to the sublimation of the al-Qaeda threat, transforming a diffuse network into a supernatural force, and second, because it renders all analysis of the threat al-Qaeda actually poses all the more difficult.

According to an emerging orthodoxy in certain sections of the British media, just about any attempt to offer economic, political or sociological for al Qaeda's emergence is tantamount to an expression of sympathy for its aims and methods. As Savonarola has pointed out, the PBL and other reactionaries attempted in the immediate aftermath of Thursday to make the very word 'political' a slander as they desperately cast about trying to establish a period of non-reflection in which 'politics' and thought could be suspended - a period, that is to say, in which their politics and their non-thinking could be imposed as the default response.

The most facile and stupid example of this type of argument might have been Nick Cohen's piece in the Observer today, rightly excoriated by Lenin I say 'might' because the amount of shrill stupidity, sentimental nonsense and emotional pornography churned out by the hacks over the last few days has reached new levels of stupefaction, as the miserable reality of central London's rapacious Hobbesian inferno, where folk will beat you to death rather than let you get into a Tube ten seconds before them, has been magically transformed by the bombs and media fairy dust into the very essence of an underdog England in which it is WWII forever: to the sound of choruses of 'maybe it's because I'm Londahner' ringing out from the ghosts of the music halls, journos have shamelessly done themselves up as pearly kings and queens, taking on the role of celebrants of a Fantasy London which is as convincing as Dick Van Dyke's accent in Mary Poppins. The 'agalma', the special treasure, of this London resides in the status of 'heroic victim' that a disaster such as this re-confirms. A dangerous logic takes hold: we're under attack, we must be Good.

The supernaturalization of al Qaeda is crucial to this strategy. If we are the Good, it can only be the senselessly Evil, the irrationally jealous, who would want to attack us. (This mode of bewildered self-aggrandising is as crucial to a certain version of American identity as spam-eating-make-do-and-mend-what you-complaining-about-that-severed-leg-for dour fortitude is crucial to Blitz Englishness). Needless to say, the positing of an ethnic subject - We, the Good - whose innate virtue is reconfirmed by its being attacked is constitutive of both the al Qaeda and the post-911 US mindset. A military assymetry is doubled by a fantasmatic symmetry. Each is the other's Satan.


To talk of al Qaeda in theological (rather than in political, social or economic) terms is to adopt their mode of discourse in an inverted form. It is to return to a pre-Feuerbachian, pre-sociological perspective in which all the lessons of the nineteenth and twentieth century studies of the social psychology of religion - undertaken by figures as diverse as Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche and Freud - are forgotten. If a particular strain of religion is to be understood as, in Cohen's words, 'an autonomous psychopathic force' rather than as a social, economic and psychological phenonenon with complex causes, then all hope of reasoned analysis is a priori ruled out. Unreason is abjected onto the Enemy (even as it is evinced in one's own not even minimally coherent ravings), thus legitimating the idea that 'the only option' is military force.

The floating of the pseudo-concept of 'Islamofascism' has been central here. There are any number of reasons to consider the idea that there is such a thing as Islamofascism a nonsense. Here are two. First of all, fascism has always been associated with nationalism, but, like global capital, Islamism has no respect for nationality; the first loyalty of the Islamist is to the global Umma. Secondly, fascism is about the State - Islamism has no model of the State, as could be seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The only sense one can make of 'fascism' as used by the PBL is that it names anything that is really, really bad (that well-defined category) or it involves the curtailment of liberties. The brand of Islamism al Qaeda favours would certainly curtail liberties, but not necessarily the same ones that fascism would curtail, or for the same reasons.


Rather than engaging in nebulous negative sublimation - 'Behold, Satan' - it would better behove the opponents of Islamist Terrorism to consider more carefully what is specific about it. As John Stevens noted over the weekend, the typical al Qaeda terrorist is unlikely to have been parachuted in from an Afghan village. They are much more likely to have lived in the West, either as residents or as nationals. Their affiliation with al-Qaeda will, we can speculate, almost certainly serve the function of resolving a tension in themselves. Al Qaeda recruit from schools and colleges because they are astute enough to recognize that male adolescence is a time of boiling confusion that craves easy certainties. It cannot be that difficult for a fervent Jihadi to convince impressionable young men adrift in the miserable haze of Babylonic capitalism that it is not al Qaeda but their enemies who are really Evil.

After all, it is not hard to construct a convincing story that the success of the West has been achieved at the expense of Muslims. The Sunday Times reports that in Britain 'Muslims are three times more likely to be unemployed than the population as a whole; 52% of them are economically inactive (the highest of any faith group) and 16% have never worked or are long-term unemployed. This is blamed on a lack of education: 43% of Muslims have no qualifications.' But it is not just the poor themselves who flock to al Qaeda; it is also those burning with a sense of injustice on behalf of the poor.

In this context, it is worth remembering Giuliani's jaw-dropping proclamation (to which Savonarola has been assiduous in drawing our attention): "People who live in freedom always prevail over people who live in oppression." So speak the Masters, the Winners.... Who speaks for the oppressed then? The rise of Islamism must be correlated with the demise of the Left. If it has become the default repository for Muslim rage against injustice then that is partly due to the US, which, as is well-known, funded Ilamist Jihadis in a bid to defeat Communism. Since only something like Communism could absorb and re-direct the energies that are fuelling al Qaeda, I look forward to the day when the US will fund Islamic Communism, and the circle will be complete.


UPDATE: Clarifications, elaborations and extrapolations from Lenin

John Pilger on Blair's Bombs: 'Dahr Jamail, one of the best un-embedded reporters working in Iraq ... described how the hospitals of besieged Fallujah had been subjected to an American tactic of collective punishment, with US marines assaulting staff and stopping the wounded entering, and American snipers firing at the doors and windows, and medicines and emergency blood prevented from reaching them. Children, the elderly, were shot dead in front of their families, in cold blood.

Imagine for a moment the same appalling state of affairs imposed on the London hospitals that received the victims of Thursday's bombing. Unimaginable? Well, it happens, in our name, regardless of whether the BBC reports it, which is rare. When will someone ask about this at one of the staged "press conferences" at which Blair is allowed to emote for the cameras stuff about "our values outlast [ing] theirs"? Silence is not journalism. In Fallujah, they know "our values" only too well.'

Posted by mark at July 11, 2005 02:34 AM | TrackBack