Black Friday in Paris: On the Unthinkable of Islamic Terrorism and the Self-Referential West

[This is the English translation of a post originally written in Spanish and published on this blog a few days after the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan theater in Paris, in November of 2015. While in hindsight a more nuanced and cold-headed analysis would have been more appropriate, most of the thoughts expressed therein remain valid and unfortunately apply to the context of every Islamic terrorist attack occurred since in Europe, the US and elsewhere around the Western world.]

It happened — again. I was talking with my family over Skype, denying the existence of the ocean for some instants, and joyfully letting them in on the good news about the last stretch left towards my university degree. Suddenly, my mother asked a question: “So, did you see what happened in France?”. I didn’t know what she was referring to. I immediately opened a French news portal, and there was the naked reality, like a kick to the stomach. Over forty dead, hostage situation unfolding, in a bar. No, in a concert hall as well. Sixty dead. Bombs, suicide attackers. Three, no, six. Maybe seven. A hundred dead. One hundred and forty. One hundred and fifty-eight. ‘Allahu akbar,’ God is the greatest. That’s what the attackers were screaming while they were executing and dismembering the innocent civilians that had decided to go out that night to enjoy a concert of their favorite band, and whose only sin consisted in not accepting that “Allah is the one and only God, and Muhammed is His messenger.” Nothing more.

The following evening I couldn’t sleep, I spent the whole night throwing up. “It’s psychosomatic,” some might say; “you ate something rotten,” would argue others with a more biologicist inclination. In the end, it does not matter: sometimes what is experienced by the body coincides with what is felt by the soul, one holds on to the other, and one can try and make sense of the uncanny made flesh. Again, like in the occasion of the attack against the staff of Charlie Hebdo at the beginning of the year, I felt the same repugnant sensation spreading within me, both unexpected and nauseatingly familiar since too long of a time. Its predictability never rids it of its uncanny nature, it never makes it controllable. We meet again. Who are you?

To identify with an ‘other’ that is alienated into a totalitarian, supremacist and genocidal ideology may be impossible. It implies entertaining the thought of an other that wants to destroy me—not for something I did, not even for something I thought, but for what I am. A kuffar, an infidel. Engaging in such an exercise in identification feels perverted; the raging dehumanization of the jihadis towards themselves and others becomes unthinkable. How can one identify with someone so overtaken by the death drive that he repeats, ad nauseam and with chilling clarity, that he loves death like we love life? It doesn’t matter if the assertion comes from the leadership of Hamas (the elected government of Gaza, just to be clear — Israel’s ‘partners for peace’), or in the shape of a music video produced and promoted by ISIS — in English, for the whole Western world to hear and understand without anything becoming lost in translation. In these and innumerable other cases, the message is consistently the same: the most profound loathing of earthly life, of one’s own fragile, deperible, filthy and putrid body; and the hate for all those who, by virtue of not “believing in Allah and the Last Day” and by refusing to submit to His law, stand in the way of the coming of the Reign of God:

“Fight those who believe in neither God nor the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and His apostle have forbidden, and do not embrace the Religion of Truth, […] until they render the tribute, by hand, in abject submission.” (Qur’an, 9:29)

Let there be no misunderstanding: it is to us that the one and only God, Allah, refers to when he tells Muhammad in one of his last revelations that we must be fought. Until we convert to Islam, or that we accept a social role of semi-slavery called dhimmitude,[1] the status of all Jews and Christians in the much idolized and trumpeted “golden age” of Islam, often described as an example of pluralism and diversity by apologists of various sorts. There is also a third choice: the sword. Convert, submit or die. You, me. That is God’s Word.

Perhaps in the grip of the guilt feelings that stem from the totalitarianisms to which it gave rise during the past century, the West prefers to deny the existence of the totalitarian ghost in its entirety. Didn’t totalitarianism shoot itself in the temple while chewing on a cyanide pill in a Berlin bunker back in April of 1945? No, groups and regimes bound together by an ideological constant that legitimizes itself by referring to a theological framework that deals in absolute and eternal terms, that explicitly aim at world domination; organizations that behead anyone who commits the sin of thinking  or acting in a way that is not foreseen by a legal code based on the desert-morality of 7th-century Arabia, that prescribes the death penalty for apostates and those daring to criticize the perfect doctrine and its infallible leaders — they have nothing to do with totalitarianism. They’re “cultural differences”, we’re told. We must be tolerant.

The West does not want to see, it does not want to know, it does not want to think of itself in such a place. It is easier and less anxiety-arising to project one’s own worldview into the self-declared enemy, and with the brazen arrogance that only a culture that sees itself as eternal and invincible can flaunt, attribute to it the motivations and cosmology with which we are familiar. It is easier to condescendingly dismiss the motivations professed by the enemy itself, who despite of doing so screaming at the top of its lungs is never taken seriously as such. “This is not the true Islam,” dictate people who have never seen a Qur’an up close. “It’s Yankee imperialism, it’s the guerrilla, it’s capitalism. It’s because of Israel, the Jews, European colonialism, slavery, the crusades,” claim others who wouldn’t be able to point out Saudi Arabia on a map.

Apparently, it is not necessary to make an effort in trying to get to know someone so radically different. Ethnocentrism is quite content with itself, it saturates the horizon of what is thinkable, it makes all questions superfluous. The average person, the “mass-man”, as Ortega y Gasset called him in The Rebellion of the Masses (1930), feels already fully equipped with all necessary knowledge:

“The individual finds himself already with a stock of ideas. He decides to content himself with them and to consider himself intellectually complete. As he feels the lack of nothing outside himself, he settles down definitely amid his mental furniture. […] It never occurs to the mediocre man of our days, to the New Adam, to doubt of his own plenitude. His self-confidence is, like Adam’s, paradisiacal.”

The appearance of lazy examples of such intellectual self-censorship didn’t take long—be it in the shape of conspiracy theories blaming the Jews, or with articles by that oh-so-progressive, sophisticated and politically correct Left who in this case chose to put the blame on none other than FOX news. Sometimes the cultural masochism of the West seems to know no bounds, and what is troubling is that, as Revel puts it in How Democracies Perish (1983), “a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does and thinks will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself when its existence is threatened.” It seems only fair to ask if any of those moral lighthouses ever bothered to read the publications that ISIS so generously spreads in the ether, in a number of languages for everyone to become aware of its ideology, motivations and convictions. So that those interested in understanding may grasp the theological argument of its actions and thus recognize that the problem with ISIS is not that it is too unislamic, but that its bloodthirst stems from its strict implementation of literally-interpreted Islamic doctrine. After all, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, holds a PhD in Islamic science and jurisprudence from the Islamic University of Baghdad. But it must be that his understanding of Islam can’t hold a candle to the enlightened sentences of the army of pundits who through the mass media tell people what they want to hear: there’s nothing to see here, please move along. ISIS is a perversion of a peaceful faith, the aberration of an ideology that is really about love, tolerance, and peace.

It is easier to place the origin of all evil in the known and tested enemies, rather than having to turn one’s head towards an enigmatic and indecipherable world that is radically ‘other’, with respect to which we are mostly blind, deaf, and illiterate. It spares quite a bit of anxiety to interpret metaphors where there is pure literalness, to assume preemptively that what is written is not what is really meant to be read, and that the words uttered by Islamic fundamentalists must not be taken literally but in allegorical form—regardless if their words and actions consistently reflect the opposite. But to be a fundamentalist means precisely that: to fully submit to the rigidity of text, and to struggle by any means possible to make the real world coincide with that of language. And that is why, in any theological debate, the fundamentalists will always have the sacred text on their side, and God with it as supreme voucher for their actions and thoughts.

 It is not a coincidence that Islamofascism is experiencing such an upswing in the past few years: the globalized world and its cybernetic masses fall into the same alienating dynamics of those masses who idolized the totalitarian dictators that Ortega y Gasset saw emerging at the horizon when he wrote The Rebellion of the Masses in 1930. The oceanic feeling that elevated the masses into a shared euphoria during the Nuremberg rallies has its correlative in today’s internet forums. The dynamic by which we should understand the modern jihadist phenomenon, according to a report of the Dutch Intelligence Service (AIVD), is not that of the horde, but that of a swarm in which loosely related members of an overarching ideological network move as a coordinated whole without the presence or necessity of a rigid hierarchy or a vertical chain of command.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who gets the shivers when a Supreme Leader considered to be infallible and driven by an apocalyptic ideology openly calls for genocide and is ecstatically acclaimed by a multitude of followers for it. A Supreme Leader who, with the passive complicity of the West, advances every day towards obtaining a nuclear bomb with which it wishes to bring about the coming of the “twelfth Mahdi,” the harbinger of light who will pave the way for Divine Justice to rule the earth on the day of Armageddon. I would like to be able to do it, but I can see no difference with other multitudinous gatherings of some decades ago that led to the arguably the most atrocious genocide in the history of mankind—back then, in the name not of religious, but racial supremacy. Other genocidal hates were neither racial nor religious, but of class, but the underlying dynamic is always the same: an ideology that claims to hold the key to Paradise, a charismatic leader, a text, and an enemy to blame for the fact that, inexorably, the promise of Paradise doesn’t materialize.

In Latin-America, the news of the series of terrorist attacks barely manages to squeeze itself between the analysis of a football play and a slow-motion analysis to determine if there has been an off-side or not. Europe is a far-away place. The Middle East, a fantastic place—a Narnia of sensual belly dancers and courageous turban-wearing Che Guevaras. The local media outlets, reproducing with the usual delay the news that are being published in the French and European media, hurry to declare that “ISIS is the worst enemy of Islam,” in a manic attempt to exorcize the ideological coherence of the organization that made of the reproduction of the earliest and purest Islam its primary cause. It is claimed that “It is true, Islam promotes a message of peace,” as if it were something known by everyone, a Truism that only intolerant neo-Nazis would dare to question. Only an ignorant person, however, can be satisfied with the repetition of the formulas put forward in this and other articles. Only who has not read the Qur’an—with its ‘chapters’ called, for example, “The spoils of war” (Sura 8), and its Divine commandments such as “Slay [the unbelievers] wherever you find them” (Sura 2:191)—; only someone who ignores the hierarchy of the Hadiths for Islamic exegesis; only someone who ignores the existence of a referential bibliographic corpus that describes in minute detail the massacres, enslavement, and rapes perpetrated or sanctioned by the Prophet, can let himself to be fooled in such a way. And, like a navigator complicit with the siren’s chant, be thankful in passing for having found, in the collective revalidation of his own desires elevated to the place of truth, the much longed-for relief for his anxiety. Better to ignore what the primary sources of Islam say about it, and to replace it with what we would like them to say. Ignorance is bliss. And if the jihadis behead and stone, it must without a doubt be due to a perversion of the “real message,” to an “error in interpretation” on their behalf.

But the unpleasant truth is that it is not ISIS who is the worst enemy of Islam. The worst enemy of Islam is Islam itself, a politico-religious ideology that took a social identity hostage; that presents itself as divine, eternal perfect, complete, and whose structural rigidity prevents it from undergoing the process of the Enlightenment and thereby enter modernity. The worst enemy of Islam is not ISIS. It is reality, that blasphemous reality who relentlessly humiliates its grandiose message, by refuting it time and time again, confronting its followers with the lack of correspondence between promise and reality, and with it making them clash with the impotence of a God so demanding and intransigent, yet so avaricious with reward. What comes from it is an endless vicious circle of divinely assured ambitions of grandiosity, met with a never-ending streak of humiliating disappointments by the hands of that stubborn and indifferent world that consistently defies the Law of its Creator. There can only be one possible explanation for it: the work of the Devil. Of the Jews, of the US, of the hypocrite Muslims, of the apostates. Of the Shias, of the Sunnis, of the Wahhabis, of the Sufis, of the Alawites, of the Ahmadiyya, of the Yazidis. Of the followers of this or that Imam, who did not understand the Message of God the right way, or puts it into practice without the sufficient rigor. To create an enemy, you don’t need much: with imagining him, it’s usually enough.

Friday’s events were one more example of how terrorism works: a random choice of victims, the emotional impact as a goal, the intended provocation of a political reaction — all based on actions whose impact in terms of number of victims could seem irrelevant in a national context. But France had to do something, and its entire population had to partake in the terror. Curfew, shutting down of national borders, the army taking over the streets—a climate of war. Because at least since the declaration of war to the West made by Osama Bin Laden in 1996, a war is what it is, whether the West wants to admit it or not. A war is not a game in which both participants have to agree to play: if one actor is the aggressor and the other does nothing, it’s called surrender. The unfortunate choice of words made by the G. W. Bush administration when it announced its “war on terror” contributed a fair bit in muddying the waters when it came to interpret the global events of the past 15 years. To declare war on an emotion like terror or on a tactical choice like terrorism can’t but lead to a succession of ambiguities and generalizations that limit understanding and paralyze action. It would be better to call things by their name, and to refer to the unceasing effort by the Islamic purists that aim to destroy Western civilization and impose the Law of Allah on all of mankind by the words they use to describe it: global jihad — total holy war for the propagation of Islam.

That one of the preferred means to pursue this end is the use of terror is nothing more than obedience to the pragmatism that characterizes the Quranic concept of war:

“I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers!” (Qur’an 8:12)

“Allah’s Apostle said, “I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror [cast in the hearts of the enemy].” (Sahih Bukhari 4:52:220)

As had been the case with the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, or with the case of the cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten in 2003-4, or with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, the impact of terrorism as a tactical tool of global jihad is not to be measured in the number of casualties, or in the economic value of damaged goods. Because the attack is not against the persons, but against the whole symbolic and cultural edifice that sustains a system of values and a way of life. The maimed bodies aren’t but vehicles to get to the social construct in its most intimate and primordial dimension. And so, Western publishing houses began to think twice before printing material that could offend the Ayatollah Khomeini, for fear of calling upon themselves a fatwa calling for the death of the blasphemous material’s author and of anyone else involved in its publication and distribution. From Europe to North America, in 2003-4 almost all newspapers preferred not to reproduce the satirical cartoons that dared to depict Muhammed, the ‘most perfect man that ever walked the earth’, whose portrayal couldn’t possibly convey his sublime beauty and would therefore constitute an insult. And as a consequence of the attack it suffered, even the otherwise irreverent Charlie Hebdo decided not to print any more caricatures of Muhammed, and to “stop offending Islam.” Because that is what they tell themselves, in order to hold on to the illusion of having some degree of dignity left: that the decision to indulge and accommodate the Islamists’ demands stems from our superior values of tolerance, that to murderous ideological hate we are to respond with open arms. As good Christians, we ought to turn the other cheek and love our enemy. Because the Beatles already said it: love is all you need, and boundless compassion conquers all things.

Few, indeed, almost nobody, want to admit that their self-censorship is out of fear, pure and simple. And no wonder, since there is plenty to be afraid of. What worries me most, though, is that the West, paralyzed by its compulsive political correctness, will keep prostrating to the Islamist threat, benefitted as it is by the delirious alliance between Islamofascism and the regressive Left. Nothing unites more than a common enemy, and the totalitarian nucleus of Marxism —that purifying impulse that prophesized the coming of the “New Man” once the working class had rebelled against and destroyed the bloody bourgeoisie— finds its ally in the anti-Western, apocalyptic goals of Islamist theocrats. Perhaps the Left dwells in a Leninist dream and deludes itself into thinking that the failed prophecy of Marxism may finally be realized by the uprising of the peoples of the Third World once they recognize that their plight is to be blamed on the oppressive nature of Capitalism. Little does it matter that beyond their common Utopian nature and their hate for libertarian values, Islam and Marxism could not be further apart: the atheist and ultraprogressive Left on the one hand, and a misogynist, ultra-patriarchal, homophobic, sexually repressive religio-political ideology on the other. The degree of cognitive dissonance required for the contemporaneous maintenance of two such antithetical ideological fronts under the same hat can only be described as baffling. Seen from the perspective of the Left, Arabs and Muslims in general are seen as mutated manifestations of the spontaneous uprising of the working class prophesized by Marx and never realized; oppressed peoples stripped of their agency by the Capitalist system, who try to rebel to the yoke of US-imperialism. Rarely does an analysis of the Islamist winter that followed the tragicomically-called ‘Arab Spring’ go beyond this static outlook. It is hard to even find nuances in this line of argument, to the point that it is repeated like an axiom, as the basic assumption of any line of interpretation that is morally admissible.

I worry that Islamist terror, with the patience that only ideologies with eternal and absolute aspirations can display, will keep winning the battle against the West, more due to the masochistic recklessness of the latter than to the efficacy of the former. And by it I don’t mean the vulgar values with which more than a few in Europe sabotage an otherwise strong and solid argument, basing it around petty populist and völkisch topics such as “German values”, or “Italian tradition”. Because what is at stake is infinitely more than that, and personally I couldn’t care less about some typical dish, popular songs, or national days of celebration. What is at stake is the result of over 2500 years of intellectual effort; the apex of the open debate of ideas that culminated in the democratic society that we have come to take for granted as if it were the natural order of things, as the simplest and direct expression of the human being and its inherent social organization. Used to so much abundance and to the immediate satisfaction of any vital need we have seemed to obliviate the Kulturarbeit that over the bodies of millions has made possible the Enlightenment, secularism, the separation of religion and State, democracy, the open society, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rights of women, of children, and homosexuals, the freedom of the press, of thought, of opinion — the freedom of and from religion. The position of al-Baghdadi in this respect is unequivocal, as he stated in the occasion of the declaration of the Caliphate:

“So let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, July 1st, 2014)

The opinions expressed by al-Baghdadi doesn’t come out of nowhere: it pursues a line of antidemocratic thought that has its modern origins in the credo of the Muslim Brotherhood, the original mother-organization of the Sunni jihadi movement founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, whose offspring would become the innumerable branches of Sunni jihadism in the 20th and 21st centuries. One thing is for sure: al-Baghdadi cannot be accused of not having done everything in his power to fulfill his promise.

Impregnated with homogenizing pluralism and liberal democratic values as we are, we forget how recent this extraordinary and unprecedented achievement of humanity is, and we especially do not want to admit its fragility, nor do we manage to rid ourselves of the feeling of guilt for having the incredible privilege of partaking in it. And so it is that in Europe, and elsewhere in the parts of the world that have embraced Western ethics,  it is being given up, piece by piece, as if its core values were bargaining chips in the cultural bazar-negotiations happening between the West and Islam, between modern Enlightenment and Medieval obscurantism: civil courts with a parallel legal system in the United Kingdom; halal food in Danish hospitals; the consideration of the “cultural context” as an extenuating circumstance when it comes to judging honor killings in Germany. After all, we do not want to offend. Self-censorship of the media, police forces that passively look by while mobs of Muslim youth set cars ablaze and rampage Swedish streets — because, they say, that would carry negative consequences. Pedophile networks of Muslim men living in the UK, that abused some 14’000 girls over a period of over ten years, and of which everyone with the power to do something about it seemed to know, but that nobody had the guts to denounce out of fear of incurring in the accusation of being a ‘xenophobe’ by public opinion and the politically correct elites. Because pedophilia may be bad, but being called an ‘islamophobe’, you have to understand, is much worse. Forced marriages between underage girls and older men, not in Yemen, but in Norway. Multitudinous marches held by sympathizers of the Islamic State in Denmark, with the police diligently escorting the procession of black flags and chants calling for the destruction of the West. Because, after all, this is a democracy.

The last occurrence in Paris will only be one more tightening of the screw to bring people to be afraid and identify with the aggressor, in an attempt to control him, to appease him, to calm him. That is the main lesson that the Pakistani brigadier S. K. Malik draws in his book The Quranic Concept of War (1979), considered by a number of scholars to be one of the key texts of modern-day jihadism: the way to victory over the infidel enemy is through his heart and mind, where terror ought to govern his will to the point of turning him into a willing participant in his own defeat.

“[The unbelievers] fancied that their strongholds would protect them from God. But God smote them whence they did not expect, casting such terror into their hearts that their dwellings were destroyed by their own hands as well as by the faithful. Learn from their example, you who have eyes.” (Qur’an 59:2)

The gates of Vienna are not to be kicked in by force from the outside, but opened from the inside by its own citizen and by their own volition. Its psychological dimension, that is the brilliance of the Quranic concept of war.

The night of Friday, while the Frenchmen could not get out of their homes and the emergency services were sorting through the lifeless remains at the Bataclan, I had to take a trip by taxi. The car radio’s volume was turned up high, and through the speakers echoed manly voices arguing passionately about the imminent football match between Brazil and Argentina. Curious to know his thoughts on the matter, and maybe because of my own need to talk to someone, I asked the taxi driver the same question that my mother had asked me a few hours prior: “Did you see what happened in Paris?” “Terrible, terrible,” he replied. He was a moderately overweight man in his sixties, with a white moustache and gold-framed glasses. He went on to engage in an extensive soliloquy in which he proceeded to educate me about what is really happening in the world: it’s the US, the “greatest assassins in the history of mankind.” It’s the Jews, who kill Palestinians for no reason, every day. “Children, women, they don’t care about anything.” Greece’s economic crisis, the Argentinian crisis, are all caused by the Yankees and the Jews who control the world. And no, one needn’t be an economist to understand the Greek crisis: knowing that the Jews are to blame is more than enough. The terrorist attack in Paris was almost certainly a false-flag operation, orchestrated by the CIA and the Mossad — as always. That way, the US can have an excuse to “keep all the oil.” Aware of the futility of any attempt to engage in an argument, I make a few impartial observations here and there and keep listening from backseat, asking myself about the possible reasons behind such a paradigmatic example of resentful and conspirational attitude that, far from being a marginal phenomenon, is endemic in the collective unconscious of our mass society.

As in the case of my taxi driver friend, the Western mind thinks in terms of satisfiable demands, compromises, interests. It must be something related with the GDP, with the market of capital, with natural resources, with the foreign policies of this or that country. That way, the ‘other’ becomes measurable, his ideas translate into our terms, they acquire a reason. That there might exist a value system based on the notions of the absolute, of eternity and transcendence, of prophecies and divine mandates, of a Paradise full of virgins and a hell of eternal fire and torment, is something that the West has lost the ability to contemplate, let alone to take seriously. The West killed God, and by so doing it convinced itself of having killed him for everyone, and forever. But Nietzsche had already adverted that with God out of the way, a vacant shadow would remain in its place: “God is Dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.” (The Gay Science, section 108). The jihad that undertook its globalized effort with the Iranian revolution of 1979 is a tragic reminder of this challenge. Another warning that comes from times closer to ours is voiced by Jean-François Revel, who recognized the inherent defeatism of Western liberal democracies in the face of the power of ideology:

“Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is needed to counter them. It awakens only when the danger becomes deadly, imminent, evident. By then, either there is too little time left for it to save itself, or the price for survival has become crushingly high.” (J.F. Revel, How Democracies Perish, p.4)

The price has already become staggeringly high: the West finds itself in a Zugzwang where there are no good plays left on the table, and where all available options are getting increasingly problematic and less viable as time goes by. Very difficult and unpleasant choices lie ahead. What we are left with is the hope that there still might be enough time, and that the West may save itself without sacrificing what is good and human about its soul by giving in to hate, anger, self-loathing and fear.

[1] For more information on dhimmitude, see Ye’or, Bat. (2013). Understanding Dhimmitude: Twenty-One Lectures and Talks on the Position of Non-Muslims in Islamic Societies. New York: RVP Press.

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