The terrorist attacks in Paris were immediately described by President Obama as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share.” This confirms the enemy image: they are not motivated by political objectives, but by violence for its own sake. They are against bonhomie and freedom, so they are pure evil and, in Obama’s words, “only understand the language of force.”
For its side, ISIS also creates an enemy image that justifies its violence. They say the West is attacking Islamic values and these need to be defended in the same way they are being attacked – by war.
The Islamic State’s moral order
Islamists have decided that all the wars being waged for control of the Middle East, all the conflicts which have destroyed one country after another and made survival impossible for millions of people, is an attack on their religion. They do not regard imperialism as economic plunder by political control, but an offense to the peaceful god-loving community of Islam and the righteous rule of Sharia.
Islamists do not distinguish between Presidents and fans of Eagles of Death Metal because they blame the “west” for having collectively humiliated Muslims, so they all need to be punished. ISIS calls itself a “crusade for revenge” against the arrogance of the sinful west with its overwhelming power.
Obama denies that the Islamic State is a state, but in the areas of IS rule they are setting up all the institutions of a state: borders, money, taxes, and a people. It takes a lot of work to convince people that they are part of a nation and that this is the best thing to ever happen to them. This forming a people is similar to the way the French (or any nationality) see themselves as French because they are all under the same roof of a state authority. In the case of Islam, it is an imagined roof.
For the Islamic State, the people is the ummah, the world community of believers. They are sparing no effort inviting the whole world of Islam to join their cause with all their social media propaganda. They recognize that members of the ummah are divided by the imperialist division of the world into states, but they form a united people by their adherence to Islam. Shiites, however, are regarded as traitors to the cause, whereas Christians are not because they never joined the cause. Converting to Islam may be voluntary, but since obedience to God’s will is a commitment of loyalty, if you stray from the fold, it is not just changing your mind but treachery. It’s a one-way voluntary street: you can join but you can’t leave.
The Islamic State is waging an unending war, but they have some definition of victory: all Muslims can live a righteous life under Islamic rule as they determine it. In a widely quoted speech after the conquest of Mosul, Al Baghdadi preached that this earthly life is not the real one and real life begins after death. Of course, he isn’t the first to preach that his followers must face the enemy willing to die. In this too, there is no difference between IS and any other country in regard to its armed forces.
The starting point of the Islamists is that the west has ruined the Islamic world, but they never talk about a new internal economic life for their subjects. They just take economic life as they find it, ignoring the whole question of dependency on the west for the use of the world market to sell oil. ISIS has no qualms about taking over oil depots and smuggling oil to make money. But because the Koran is not an economic manual and says nothing about property or the reproduction of society, it never occurs to them that you have to eat and drink before you can live a moral life. In other words: they promise their followers more war and poverty, but in a morally exalted version.
The free west
When western leaders make an image of the Islamist enemy, they also never say the real thing they are opposing: ISIS is interfering in our region which we need so that our capitalists have a chance to make money. Western leaders know damn well they are not fighting for a free press, rock ‘n’ roll, or schools for girls. ISIS is creating a state that is a political challenge to their control.
The west’s appeal to values is parallel to the way ISIS appeals to religion: we are all about freedom, the rule of law, the rights of man. This is deliberately making up a reason of state. It’s not so fundamental because these are the first thing to go whenever the state feels itself in danger.
There was always something absurd about the elevation of Charlie Hebdo to a pan-western icon. It sounds funny if you say it directly: the enlightened western community of values is defined by the right to insult Islam. Of course, nobody says it like that. Instead they say: “I am defending their right to say something I don’t stand for.” This shows the distance one must take from one’s own interest in order to participate in the public sphere.
It may be that most French people think Charlie Hebdo went too far, disagree with it, or would be happy if it went out of business. But a free press is one of the crowning points of democracy, and in a free democracy you can say whatever you want as long as you don’t put it into practice; you can criticize as long as there is no consequence. Of course, they don’t say it that way. Instead they say: this proves how noble and good we are that we allow people to have opinions. It’s an amazing admission: we allow opinions as long as you don’t take them seriously and act on them.
Why do Islamists consider blasphemy worthy of a death sentence? Why don’t they enter into debate, which they could? They can’t regard insulting Islam as just cultural entertainment; they take it as an attack on the very basis of their movement. Islamists are opposed to democratic procedures because Allah dictated a book to the prophet and those are his words. They don’t even recognize the legitimacy of debate within Islam, though like all great religions it has a lively history of clerical debate.
The will to debate in a democratic way means you don’t take it seriously that the other side is so wrong. In France, even far right groups don’t form militias for a new France. They just say: this is the wrong France. But it can’t be that wrong, because they do not see French citizens who disagree with them as enemies; they may be misguided, but they are still part of the nation. It’s just that an opinion doesn’t really count in a democracy until it wins an election and takes power; that’s the legitimation of an opinion.
The French population is getting a confused message: on the one hand, the French state is going out of its way to emphasize that France was attacked not by Islam, but by deranged terrorists acting in name of Islam. At the same time, everyone knows that the French state has Muslims under surveillance as a security threat.
The western democracies don’t want to suppress Islam, but to integrate it into the mix of religions. From the point of view of a ruling state, the more diverse the interests of the people, the easier it is to rule them because they will never get together on any one issue. It’s always a question when there are suddenly a lot of new citizens with a different religion: do they fit in? Are they going to be loyal?
The is why there are always idiots who say: Muslims can’t fit in, there’s something wrong with this religion. On the face of it, Islam is just a normal religion. It preaches “do good and you will go to heaven.” It provides a moral backbone for people as they go about their daily lives. In the main, religion teaches that there is a higher power you submit to. “Be humble” is the message. This is great for any state because rule can only occur if it is accepted.
In France, Germany and England, Islamic councils have been formed to act as liaisons with the political power. These religious bodies all agree that religion is a moral voice, a personal thing. For a religion to fit into the modern world, it has to “mature,” meaning: acknowledge that it is not a political entity, but a matter for weekends. By recognizing and promoting religion in general, the democratic state puts itself above religion. It is not a political body for religion, but the other way around: religion supports the political process.
The Pope, for example, might say that we need peace in the Middle East, but he would never say: the western powers should give up their ambitions and get out. He knows his place. This is what Islamists don’t do. They don’t subordinate themselves to the secular authorities. It may be that Islam is the last major religion to be depoliticized.
For most Muslims, this is already done. In France, there are millions of Muslims of various orthodoxies from working class people up to finance capitalists. They are part of economic life and integrated into society. For them, religion is one area, politics is another; religion is not to interfere in the business of the state. The radical Islamists who claim to represent true Islam are helping to make life hell for them.
The French right-wing regards the Muslim population in France as an attack on the true values of the Christian west. They feel their national existence is threatened not by violence, but by cultural dissolution: European is not Muslim. They do not regard Christianity as another religion, but as the essence of the west – as if the west is defined by its cultural aspects, and not by the political economy of capitalism with all its class antagonisms.
Solidarity with “France”? Big mistake!
The average French person sees their interest in living a secure life as attacked by the terrorists. The French state is wasting no time posing as the defender of this interest. But this is a lie.
Nobody should accept the equation made by the state which says: we have to go after the terrorists because they are attacking us. This gets the real relation backwards. The state does not protect its citizens, but its own worldwide interests in wealth and power. These interests have generated a lot of hostility abroad and at home.
Ordinary French citizens are getting it from both sides: treated by the French state as its human resources and the same way by the terrorists. Before uniting with their rulers in war, the ruled should think about this relation, which doesn’t do anybody any good.