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Living With Daesh

by | November 23, 2015

What is your solution, then? Or, to put it another way, what if there is no solution to the Daesh massacres?

There was a moment, in the declension of the late Hitchens, when he scandalised his audience by suggesting that they were too soft, too susceptible, too easily impressed by jihadist massacres.  You should expect this, he said.  A hospital, an airplane, a government building, once a week at least.  This is war.  This is what you are signed up to.  Get ready for it.  And — implicitly — don’t feel so damned sorry for yourselves.

This sort of bravado is as exciting as it is ineffectual, but in its favour one could say that for a brief moment it at least lacks the usual hypocrisy and self-pity of the belligerati who, bellowing for war, are both more surprised and more impressed than they have any right to be when this war comes to Europe. We are not speaking here of grief, of sadness, of despair, or of solidarity — but of mauvais-foi. How many times does this type of event have to happen before the familiar pattern — of testerical clucking and frantic, hopelessly inadequate piss-streams of punditry, followed by the augmentation of racist security apparatuses and briefly renewed martial vigour — is broken?  How long before self-pitying drivel about European ‘values’ and the narcissistic solidarity with ‘people like us’ that comes in its wake is broken?  How many times must we experience the familiar libidinised exhalations about the moral degeneracy of the Left — Corbyn doesn’t even have the decency to be angry about the massacres, we hear — and the flaky, pitiably obvious ‘transgressions’ of courtiers paying lip service to ‘Europe’, much as a dead pig services Cameron’s addendum, before we stop to think that all of this might just be implicated in the phenomenon it is supposedly incited in opposition to?  

Imagine, for a minute, that the ritual evocation of disembodied and historically evacuated ‘values’, the exasperated demands from journalists (of all people) that we discover a level of moral seriousness and purpose that has hitherto eluded us, the beautiful souls enjoining us to substitute one abstract noun for another (love, not hate; peace, not war etc), the “it-could-have-been-me” panhandling for moral credit from the likes of Ian McEwan and Bono (yes, it could have been you, but wasn’t, so shut the fuck up), and the brief media exultation in some sanguinary retribution, is all in some way in place to ensure that everything stays exactly as it is.  What is at least implicit in much of this discourse, where it does not descend into the simple reiteration and policing of approved sentiments, is that it is assumed that somewhere there is a fix. If we do, say, or believe the right things, the bloodshed will end. There is a pill, a bomb, a herbal remedy, one weird trick, that will end Daesh and its confederates for good. Analysis might be better served by starting from the prospect, never admitted in official discourse, that there is no solution.

What is Daesh? An ultra-reactionary guerilla campaign, a right-wing social movement, a theocratic state, a franchise, or a brand? It is, of course, all of the above. Jihadists in Afghanistan prepare the young for combat under the rubric of ISIS. Regional religious uprisings in Nigeria and Kenya, declare fealty to the khilafah, and pay tribute with astonishing cruelty. Takfiris in Syria, released by the Assad regime to sew chaos for the opposition by opening new fronts and new sectarian schisms, occupy and govern territory to the east, where they are known for spectacular sadism. International combat tourists filter into training camps, attracted by the prospect of restituting the humiliations of empire by enslaving Yazidi women and mutilating infidels. And at the centre of it all, the ‘Islamic State’ holds firm in what it calls the ‘liberated’ territories of northern Iraq.

Much of the administrative work after conquest is breezily and lavishly dealt with in glossy, brochure-like publications called ‘Islamic State Report’, published by an outfit calling itself the Al Hayat Media Centre. The iconography is triumphant. In ‘liberated’ Mosul, the Daesh conquerors hand out sweets in celebration, and convoys bearing the black flag hum slowly down wide streets. But the business of governing is quickly de-sublimating. In Raqqah, the harvests are taken over and zakat administered by Daesh bureaucrats, while ‘Islamic Police’ explain their practice according to Sharia law in the most banal rational-legal language of modern states — breaking up disputes, arbitrating, restoring property and rights to individuals, treating everyone “equally, like the teeth of a comb, with no difference between rich and poor, strong and weak”. In a way, the bathos of such procedural minutiae this is what one would expect — the ideal state sought by Daesh is, in Freudian terms, nothing but an obessional-neurotic representation of Law.

But at the core of all these strikingly bland representations is a fervent dedication to bringing down the “oppressive Tawaghit” — and this is where the tone shifts markedly. Suddenly, the portrait of pacific and just administration of affairs is displaced by chaotic images of young men being rounded up, as the headlines braggingly affirm, “For The Slaughter”. “The Lions of The Islamic State Slaughter 1700 Rafidi Soldiers”, they hurrah, and supply graphic images of the mass executions. The khilafah, the Daesh propagandists complain, had been made by imperialism to seem “more and more as an exotic fantasy and less and less as an attainable goal”. Now, over mounds of corpses, it is being constructed. Yet it is difficult to escape the mirage-like quality of their own representations, which have the look and feel of Orientalist tourism literature. Indeed, considering that Daesh recruits are often at best religious novices (the well-known story of a Daesh recruit ordering Islam for Dummies does not appear to be an outlier), if not even cheerfully flouting the most basic of religious prohibitions (Hasna Aitboulahcen was reportedly far more into Whatsapp and booze than the Quran), it is tempting to regard the performative religiosity of Daesh recruits as a kind of self-Orientalising adventurism. Come to the sunny Wilaya of Raqqah, and experience survivalist nirvana. Put down the chicken wings and come to jihad, bro.

Once again, it is not useful to be too impressed by all this. Daesh’s particular barbarism has its novelties, and much to fuel the morbid fascination with its daily rituals, but it is a recognisable political and social phenomenon, with evident origins in a particularly degenerate phase of empire.  Daesh was forged in the cauldron of Iraq, its hard core of suave, media-savvy sadists moulded in the brutalities of the civil war, whereof the jihadist snuff video was a cultural emblem to rival popular television shows modelled on twentieth century show trials, and then effectively trained in the US-run prison system where torture and trauma was routine.  It gained its foothold in the north of Iraq through an alliance with the remnants of the old Ba’athist units and other secular outfits, wherein the forces of a sectarian and repressive Iraqi government were expelled.  Years of civil war, massacres, disappearances, drilled and burned bodies turning up in mortuaries thanks to death squads trained under General Petraeus and deployed from the Interior Ministry, ultimately provided the ground in which this movement could recruit and thrive, and ultimately take power.  Whereas in Syria, ISIS has hijacked a civil war it is not central to, in Iraq it is at the centre of the sectarian dynamic instigated as part of the post-invasion management of the country.  It has developed the rudiments of state power, and claimed considerable resources from its capture of oil supplies.  While the coalition sustaining ISIS in power is hardly without its fractiousness, the multi-faceted military campaign against it has seemingly only consolidated it. The UN, in its report on ISIS, described Iraq and Syria as having become “a veritable international finishing school for extremists”. So, there is an arc of imperialist policy which is creating the bloody foundries in which Daesh confects its bizarrely Orientalist fantasies of Islamist revival.

Yet this would not by itself explain the global nature of the phenomenon. It would not explain the curious fascination that Daesh has for a number of would-be combatants from small towns in Wales, Swedish teenagers, or the racially oppressed from the suburbs of the ile-de-France. It would not explain how it can be that the Pentagon reported 19,000 new global recruits to Daesh in the first six months of the US-led bombing campaign. It may help explain the theatrically gruelling assaults on soft targets from Beirut to Bataclan, but would not explain the surprising availability of recruits. It would not explain the poll findings that ISIS has stronger support in Europe than in the Middle East — nor the apparent implication of such polls that a very large proportion of that support, if not the majority, comes from non-Muslims.1

In a way, Daesh seems to function fantasmatically in much the same way as Nazi or Satanic fixations do for ostracised and bullied teenagers in the US, by incarnating the apparent antithesis of everything that the social order seems to stand for. This allure is undoubtedly fortified by the mystique about Daesh that is assiduously cultivated by its own ideologists as well as European and American media outlets. This is not to dismiss its appeal as merely a sort of jihadi-inflected goth culture for the disillusioned. The politics of Daesh as a form of globalised insurgency need to be taken more seriously than that; but they also need to be grasped in their intersection with social antagonisms in the societies they recruit from, and also assault.

For example, France’s racist criminal justice system (where 65% of prisoners are Muslim, and 80% in the ile-de-France) and racist banlieue system (where the reviled French Arab minority is kept at the bottom of every known pile and blamed for being there) — each system rooted in a colonial age that the republic has never fully reckoned with — can certainly be credited with forging jihadist recruits.  The French state had begun to identify migrants from North Africa as scapegoats for social disturbances and protests in the right-wing turn of the late Seventies, but first decisively pivoted to scapegoating Islam for its social distress and disorder back in 1983, during a car workersstrike (which Muslims, in an industry where more than half the workforce were North African migrants had supposedly incited in their inscrutable, wily fashion), ratcheted up the discourse during the battle to suppress Algeria’s Islamists in the 1990s, and has whipped it up into repeated crescendos since the banlieue riots of 2005, with repeated assaults on the civil liberties of the Muslim population. It would be missing the point to say that such conduct had failed to prevent attacks like that in Paris; Islamophobic repression is not intended to achieve any such goal. It responds to, and organises, other social antagonisms; it consolidates right-wing political coalitions, binds diverse constituencies to the state, organises and stratifies social classes by ‘culturalising’ every social question, and provides a language for neoliberal retrenchment and immiseration. But in isolating, and piling all manner of misery onto, the French Muslim minority, in castigating them and inoculating the social body against their presence, official racism has provided the fertile bed on which jihadis thrive.

This underlines the futility of supposing that any securitarian response could prevent such attacks.  France’s current three-month ‘state of emergency’, in which the iron heel of the state will undoubtedly be felt on the necks of the beurs, may as well be designed to divert more people into the training camps.  The French state can certainly persecute school pupils who decline to say ‘Je Suis Charlie’, or arrest Muslim women who wear a headscarf. But meanwhile, those who want to burst in on a magazine’s headquarters, or storm a rock concert, or attack other such soft targets, are generally going to be able to do so just as effectively as before.

But is there in fact any solution to the nightmare of Daesh? In principle, of course there is. What would have to change if the goal were truly to disarm the murdering desperados of the jihadi ultra-right? Imperialism out of the Middle East. An end to bombs from both Obama and Putin. Down with the sectarian Iraqi government, and the murdering regime of Assad. Break the regime of racist repression, and the austerian offensive with which it is linked, in Europe. Yet, put like this, the supposed ‘solution’ appears as a list of abstract desiderata, totally unworldly, worthy of the Weekly Spart. What social forces are going to achieve any of these? It might be added, moreover, that whatever the aetiology of the Daesh pathology, it now has a life of its own. It has insinuated itself into too many struggles, too many lines of antagonism, and too many imaginaries — national, local and global. There is no guarantee that even if every one of the above demands were realised, the fire wouldn’t continue to rage for many years.

Since, in fact, we lack the ability to realise even a single one of these demands in the foreseeable future, and since all other apparent solutions are unavailing, the unwelcome thought begins to insinuate itself — we are going to live in a world with Daesh and its massacres no matter what we do. All successes we could conceivably achieve are incremental, and indirect, little shifts in a glacial war of position. These are worthwhile successes, no doubt, but relatively to the audacity of the jihadis, they will always seem too little. When we are asked, as we inevitably are, “what’s your solution, then?”, the only honest answer is that in the sense usually intended, there simply isn’t one. There is no comprehensive fix available, only many usually small advances and retreats possible in the struggle toward a just world.

1 For example, the 7% of British citizens or 16% of French citizens who supposedly respond favourably to ISIS, greatly outnumber the Muslim population in each society.