Terrorism and the crisis of Western culture
Islamic terrorism has no positive meaning or drive in itself. Instead, it is merely a negative, shadow form, an externalisation of the vacuum within Western culture and societies.
The defining feature of Western jihadis is their complete disdain for the places they are from: for their families, neighbourhood, country. They see their country as a nowhere place, somewhere they stand completely outside of and hold only in contempt. Their radicalisation is an activation of this negative orientation towards their home, a definitive cutting of ties. The attacker of the Paris Kosher supermarket branded his nine sisters ‘infidels’, and said that ‘for me, religion comes first, I don’t give a damn about family’.
This is not a religion in any classical sense of a practising community. There was a radical Islamic mosque network in the 90s, but today’s jihadis are deracinated and individualised, existing outside of community or institutional forms. As the Islam expert Giles Kepel says: ‘They situate themselves in rupture with society and shut themselves away…they fabricate their own beliefs and practices’.
This, then is the basis of the jihadist identity: not Islam as a thing in itself, but only an Islam held in a pose of hostile conflict with Western culture and society. Islamic observances are an adjunct to the attack, and not the other way around. Two of the Paris attackers only started to pray and stopped smoking dope in the weeks when they began to prepare for the attack. The cousin of the organiser of the Paris attacks was shown in a headscarf flashing V’s at the camera: the headscalf is the accompaniment to the V’s and not a sign of religious devotion.
To be in the state of jihad, of oppositional identity, becomes their new ‘place’ and their new grounding. ‘Since I began with religion that has always been in jihad and I knew that this was my place here’, said one of the other attackers.
This process is suggestive not so much of exclusion, but of the lack of a positive pole into which they might be included or excluded. The Conservative French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said that he had been assimilated as a young Polish Jew through an education that ‘introduced me to a world older than myself’, to a philosophical and cultural tradition (1). This inheritance was not specifically French but European or civilisation-culture: you had to really know your Plato.
Now, says Finkielkraut, there is a turn against ‘old school’ culture, the self-dismantling of a cultural inheritance. The teaching of French language and literature is reduced in favour of ‘preachy eco-citizen and practical interdisciplinary assignments’. The position of the teacher is ‘de-intellectualised’ and seen as a facilitator rather than a transmitter of knowledge. To assimilate is to maintain the connection with a cultural tradition, says Finkielkraut: ‘today we break it, and the same dissaggregation strikes native French as new arrivals’.
The self-negation of Western culture is not a genuine New School. The left-wing philosopher Alain Badiou laments the equal loss of the ‘revolutionary tradition’ in France, which was first republican, then socialist, anarcho-socialist, communist and leftist. The new order is not radical or libertarian, instead it has a nothing quality, illiberal but devoid of values or content. It amounts to a cultivated non-attachment to values and a particular self-distancing from the works and history of Western civilisation.
It is only in relation to the non-place of Western culture that the jihad is something and attains the status of an obligation. One jihadi’s phone had an image of the Eiffel tower up in smoke, and the message: ‘Oh France! We are coming, prepare yourself for bombs and assassinations on your territories’. It is now ‘we’ against ‘you’ and ‘your country’. They plant their feet in a war-torn desert and point to say they will kill kuffirs ‘over there’. The owners of a Brussels bar return to Europe to shoot at people sitting in bars.
The form taken by Islamic terrorism has become increasingly arbitrary and fragmented over time. The attacks of 9/11 were the structured negation of the West, an attack on the military, political and economic centres of American power. The attackers were highly trained and disciplined, part of a hierachical organisation and following orders. It was the organisation that sent their plane tickets and paid for their flight training.
By contrast, as Giles Kepel observes, the attackers on the Jewish supermarket and the Bataclan behaved like ‘wicked adolescents’ playing video games (2). They have the moeurs of criminals or hoodlums, without ‘ideology or grand doctrine’. The terrorist act has become arbitrary, DIY: any act of violence or destruction can be pinned with the flag of jihad. They source and pay for their own weapons and plan their own attacks, often badly.
Much had been made of the ‘professionalism’ of the Paris attackers, but this should not be overstated. They apparently under-specced their suicide belts such that they failed to kill anyone in blowing themselves up: the ‘attacks’ at the Stade de France basically amounted to a series of Islamic extremist suicides. One would-be bomber bauked and abandoned his suicide vest in a Paris suburb, while the ‘mastermind’ allowed himself to be found by police at the same flat the team had used to hide out.
If 9/11 was the structured negation of Western culture, contemporary terrorism is the immediate negation, the arbitrary and nihilistic turn against Western culture and society. It is less and less distinguishable from plain gangsterism or events such as the American school shootings. One European Isis fighter announced that European Muslims should ‘kill anyone’ they can get their hands on back at home. Two of the Paris attackers independently used the same phrase to describe their actions – to ‘make everything explode’ – suggesting the undirected nihilistic impulse.
The black flag is used to give a universal and historic guise to lone operators acting on impulse against the things they do not like (such as Jews), or acting out petty resentments, such as the US Christmas dinner shootings or the Muslim employee who decapitated his boss. Workplace disputes are transmuted into the terms of some grand religious clash, whereas they in fact remain in all their banality as a workplace dispute. The abstraction of an ‘IS attack’ is stuck like an afterthought on violence of the basest particularity.
In this context, there is an equal inutility to repressive and appeasing measures targeting Muslim communities. The French government is currently preoccupied with an effort to strip French nationality from dual-nationals convicted of terrorist offences. Do they really think that terrorists care about their carte d’identité? He who wants the Eiffel tower up in smoke would gladly add his ID card to the bonfire, and indeed this is perhaps what the bonfire is about.
Meanwhile, the appeasing measures are even worse. There is a pedagogical discussion about ‘having the conversation’ with Muslim students after terrorist attacks – i.e., how to tell them that the attacks were wrong. If you cannot tell them that then you cannot tell them very much. Education experts are developing methods of ‘engaging’ Muslim students, for example teaching them to critique the conspiracy theories that are common in their ranks. One exercise involved setting the students a conspiracy theory assignment, designing a world-wide plot linking their French teachers and the CIA. This ‘engagement’ is only an encouragement down their disintegrative lines of thought. What is actually required with Muslim students is to have something to bear before them, something bigger than themselves.
Islamic terrorism is the self-negation of Western culture appearing in an external form: as a hostile, foreign force existing in a state of war against it. Their strength, their belief, is only the inverse of our lack of belief.
This situation makes clear the sacrifice that has been made: when a civilisation gives up on its values there are consequences. It doesn’t seem that serious, day to day, when the curriculum is being dismantled or cultural non-attachment is being cultivated. Discussions occur in smart conference halls with coffee breaks. It doesn’t seem that serious when museum officials judge that dusty old objects are ‘irrelevant’. But now we can see what it means: it means Palmyra in ruins, machine guns in concert halls.
Who dies now defending civilisation? The archaeologist who died defending Palmyra, perhaps he is the only one. The different aspects of civilised life should be pursued again with the status of an obligation. We should replace the self-negation of Western culture with its self-affirmation – not as an anti-terrorist strategy but because this is what is of value and true.
(1) Le Un, No 88, 6 January
(2) Le Un, No 84, 25 November