«War, Terrorism and Cultural Crisis: The escalation of mimetic rivalry and re-sacralising violence in modernity This essay examines the nature of ...»
Terrorism and Contemporary Conflicts: Syria and Iraq Iraq and Syria have recently been the major focus of the non-state actors such as AlQaeda and ISIS. Extremist Islamic groups have entered the conflicts in Syria and Iraq to oppose governments who are resented or are on the opposite side to their religious ideology. Yet, more than this, these groups are attracted to an opportunity to fight wherever there is an acute political and cultural crisis, particularly in the Middle East.
As mentioned, these groups are willing to act in extreme and violent ways, e.g.
Islamic State’s public beheadings. Yet, these groups also act in conventional mimetic ways: they have rivals (the Alawhite/Baathist Syrian government or the Shiadominated Iraqi government) for power and land, and as they defeat these rivals, these groups seek to establish supremacy over territory in order to institute their brand of totalitarian or puritanical government. The difference: ISIS and Al-Qaeda seem willing to brutally destroy and subjugate their enemies through extreme uses of violence. This is, in part, a strategic move to cause the most damage and gain the most attention and fear, as is typical of small insurgency movements who feel threatened by a more powerful foe.
Yet, the way in which these terrorist groups put their violence on public display even goes beyond some guerrilla movements who become desperate in the face of defeat. They don’t try to hide the violence from the media or stay silent about their responsibility for it (like some insurgency movements), nor do they undertake their violence in secret (like many totalitarian regimes); rather, they purposefully put it on public display and happily claim responsibility. They do so to cause terror, but more than this, they are celebrating and sacralising violence in an intentional way.
Archaic cultures stumbled upon the power of violence and held it in sacred fear and reverence, but modern terrorism has taken violence to a new level by explicitly and intentionally instituting it at the centre of its activity and even celebrating and worshipping it. As discussed, this sacralisation is being done, in large part, in reaction to the undermining of the efficacy and sacredness of violence, which has had marked and widespread effect in modernity. Thus, the terrorist attempts to overcome the subversion of violence by explicitly sacralising violence. This occurs in a contrived kind of way that seeks to re-institute unanimous violence against ‘enemies’, who are seen to be less than human and who often represent the Western tradition that no longer accepts the efficacy of absolute violence.
Thus, these terrorist groups seem to take modern violence and war to its extreme: no rules except victory. Even the worst kinds of violence and abuse against ‘infidel’ women and children are justified in their ‘moral code’ of violence. On the other hand, the sign of some kind of moral code amongst these terrorist groups shows how violence is operating to re-construct cultural forms, such as rules for the conduct of violence or rape by these newly formed groups. As Girard shows, groups need rules and rituals if they are going to contain and channel violence effectively. As these extremist groups have formed and require structure to maintain themselves, they have formulated rules that aim to channel ‘good’ violence in the most effective ways (e.g., against Western infidels or minorities) and avoid ‘bad’ kinds of violence, such as violence done against a fellow combatant and/or his/her family, which could cause internal rivalries and violence. However, these cultural forms are inherently disordered as they try to explicitly build unity and order around arbitrary and petty forms of violence, giving rise to irrational prejudices and rules.
It is also important to note that in the cases of Syria and Iraq, conflict has occurred within the context of the breakdown of the wider culture and political system. This conflict could potentially have been avoided if the governments of each state had been more inclusive of their rivals. In a sense, these governments gave their rivals motivation and space to fester in injustice and resentment. The more extreme wing of their rivals has now emerged as most powerful and are willing to oppose these regimes. In both places, it seems that extremist groups have received some forms of assistance from local people because these people in some sense regard the extremists as identifying with their grievances. Based on his interpretation of On War, Girard argues that war depends on the feeling of the masses, that is, their feeling in regards to the political object of war.40 In the Iraqi case, the nature of mass feeling – at least in the case of Sunnis – turned against the government, allowing extremist groups to take advantage.
Furthermore, Girard argues that in war the defensive party has the advantage because it is supposed to be responding to aggression.41 Yet, this defensive status can hide a more aggressive intent and give moral weight to that side’s claims, especially its claims to victim-status, providing a justification for its underlying resentments against its rivals. Even aggressors generally argue for a ‘defensive’ position when they undertake acts of aggression. For example, an aggressor party often claims it is defending the rights or interests of its people by responding to the aggressive or unjust actions of others, such as Hitler did before World War II when he claimed victim status for Germany and a legitimate right to re-take the Rhineland42; or as George W.
Bush did for America after 9/11 in order to wage war. In Iraq, the ISIS fighters are claiming to defend their right to Islamic rule and the safety of their people against an unjust and sectarian government. In a similar way, the Iraqi government is claiming a defensive position against ISIS in mounting large counter-attacks against what it Girard, Battling to the End, 185-6.
Girard, Battling to the End, 15-19.
Girard, Battling to the End, 184.
brands as illegitimate extremist and terrorist groups (minimising the fact that its own sectarianism has caused violence). Similarly, in Syria, the government claims to be defending itself against terrorists and extremists who sought to unjustly usurp the government.43 Moreover, Russia justifies its acts of aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine by claiming to be defending itself against a Western takeover of its traditional lands. In these cases, the defensive claims distort real claims to victimstatus and just cause in order to justify a rivalry for power that is escalating to extremes. In this way it can be seen that modern violence is constituted by strategic moves justified by defensiveness, fuelled by (and in turn fuelling) frustrated desires, resentments and the feeling of being threatened.
Hyper-Sacralising Violence in the Name of God In summary, a global cultural crisis in modernity around the de-institutionalisation of violence has opened up a cleavage that Islamic extremists are particularly feeling and exploiting. These extremist groups have gradually developed to strategically inflict damage, particularly on the West, as the cleavage described above has widened. As Girard shows, conflicts do not necessarily occur quickly, but in fact, build-up over time, such as the rivalry between France and Germany in modern European history. 44 Moreover, these extremist groups have been strategic in their planning and operations.
This is consistent with Girard’s observation that rivalries are typically subject to strategic concerns in which resentments are left to fester and foment until one can achieve the means for victory.
As many comment, the modern world is characterised by a fundamental In the Syrian case, however, a non-violent civil protest movement preceded the war: the government sought to repress the movement, leading to armed conflict with moderate groups and later to the involvement of extremist groups.
Girard, Battling to the End, 157-93.
breakdown of difference, though this breakdown has deeper roots (as Girard shows) than most realise. The dilemma of defining difference is at the heart of modern extremism and terrorism. With the breakdown of traditional cultural institutions, which channeled violence and maintained key structural, class, gender and political differences, the construction of new identities is required. If this construction cannot be done peacefully (e.g., through solidarity amongst peoples), arbitrary points of difference are grasped at ever more violently. Because this violent grasping is characteristic of modern terrorists, they show themselves to be experiencing a particular crisis around the construction of difference and identity. The terrorists, especially those who mount attacks in Western countries like those against Charlie Hedbo in Paris, have been deeply affected by the cultural values and non-violent spirit of the West and feel threatened and displaced from their own tradition. According to Žižek, they resent the West for this ‘threat’ and displacement, especially as they
cannot find a point of differentiation to overcome their own inferiority:
“…the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation.
It is here that Yeats’ diagnosis falls short of the present predicament: the passionate intensity of the terrorists bears witness to a lack of true conviction.
How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority.”45 In reaction to this crisis, Islamic extremists seek to create a cultural system that is clearly differentiated from the West. They do this through violence in a way that seems not to have precedent: victims are clearly targeted and put on display, rather than covered up and hidden; and violence is celebrated by perpetrators in the name of ‘God’, not rationalised or explained away as the act of a supernatural force.
Girard remarks: “Suicide attacks are from this point of view a monstrous inversion of primitive sacrifices: instead of killing victims to save others, terrorists kill themselves to kill others. It is more than ever a world turned upside down.”46 Violence becomes more explicitly the heart of worship in order to re-create a sacred world (though this world is more confused, unstable and disordered than archaic cultures). Adherents willingly sacrifice themselves and others - entering into the sacred by explicitly embracing violence. These terrorist ‘rituals’ sacrifice a member of the group to kill others, in contrast to archaic sacrificial rituals that sacrifice a member to save others from chaos. Nevertheless, the logic remains sacrificial: violence is done to institute a Slavoj Žižek, “Slavoj Žižek on the Charlie Hebdo massacre: Are the worst really full of passionate intensity?”, New Statesman, 10 Jan 2015, http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdomassacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity; Cf. Slavoj Žižek, Violence (New York, NY: Picador, 2008), 72-3.
Girard, Battling to the End, 67.
larger project of sacred order. Moreover, the action of the suicide bomber entrenches the belief and imagination of the extremist group; it is, in fact, the foundation of its sacred mythology: that violence brings glory and everlasting reward to the bomber (“the martyr”) and promotes the divine will and order on earth by fulfilling the group’s aims against its enemies.
In this way, violence itself has become the defining point of the extremist’s identity (and some of the Western reaction to it). It is the willingness to execute violence in ruthless and absolute ways that defines the Islamic extremist. ISIS, alQaeda and other extremist groups publically rejoice and glory in their violence in a way that shows it to be directly constitutive of their identity.
In Battling to the End, Girard discusses the phenomenon of terrorism as a sign that violence is being uncovered and seen as futile, resulting in the resort to violence becoming more deliberate and extreme. The unconscious mendacity of the archaic systems of violence, which has been undermined by the revelation of the innocent victim, is being replaced by conscious celebration of violence, meaning the perpetrators are more honest about what they do. Thus, Girard indicates that to reconstruct a sacred order, violence must be embraced ever more explicitly and
“…once unbridled, the principle of reciprocity no longer plays the unconscious role it used to play. Do we not now destroy simply to destroy?
Violence now seems deliberate, and the escalation to extremes is served by
Is this a principle of death that will finally wear itself out and open onto something else? Or is it destiny? I do not know. However, what I can say is that we can see the growing futility of violence, which is now unable to fabricate the slightest myth to justify and hide itself.”47 Thus, while violence is being increasingly undermined and rejected in the modern consciousness (especially in the West), violence is seen by the perpetrators as their only point of differentiation and transcendence, even as it becomes more unstable by losing its justifications and supernatural character. There is a strange embrace and glorification of violence by extremists – it is not regarded as a dangerous cure to disorder (as it was in archaic cultures), but something good to be celebrated in itself as well as for the way to further the righteous and ordered reign of God. The two are in fact blended together in an inextricable mix for the Islamic extremist: violence constitutes the ordered reign of God – providing an answer to the underlying cultural crisis by becoming the object of transcendent fascination and worship.
The centrality of violence is evident in the testimony of Islamic terrorists and extremist fighters. For example, an ex-ISIS fighter, Hamza, recounted the intense military training and initiation techniques explicitly involving executions and rapes.
This fighter joined ISIS for religious reasons and rejoiced in destroying the boundary between Iraq and Syria for the Caliphate, but became disillusioned with the extreme violence and dissolute lifestyle of the ISIS fighters: “the executions, or more horribly the beheadings, as well as the raping of the non-Muslim girls. These scenes terrified me. I imagined myself being caught up in these shootings, executions, beheadings and raping, if I stayed where I was.”48 Thus, as the transcendent allure of violence – both against innocent civilians and woman – is stripped away, the reality that is left is an
ugly world of brute power, disordered desires, petty identities and evil:
Girard, Battling to the End, 20.
Patrick Cockburn, “Life under Isis: Why I deserted the 'Islamic State' rather than take part in executions, beheadings and rape - the story of a former jihadi”, The Independent, 16 March 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middleeast/life-under-isis-why-i-deserted-the-islamic-state-rather-than-take-part-inexecutions-beheadings-and-rape--the-story-of-a-former-jihadi-10111877.html “At the beginning I thought they were fighting for Allah, but later I discovered they are far from the principles of Islam. I know that some fighters were taking hallucinatory drugs; others were obsessed with sex. As for the raping,