ISIS and the West


ISIS is the expression of different social and political phenomena that must be understood separately. One of them is undoubtedly the significant amount of “Western” fighters of which some elements are also at the forefront of their media campaign. By Western I mean people who have lived and were educated in Western countries (mostly Western Europe and the US) either as Muslim minorities or as recent converts (or who knows maybe just random Westerners with searching for a cause).

Most media article and think-tank papers (I haven’t come across any serious academic work on ISIS) have by now narrated the story of their success in Iraq countless time. Their alliance with Sunni tribesmen and former Baath regime establishment is what tipped the balance in their favor. This explains one particular victory but it does not really tell us more on the movement as a whole and on their different political visions and strategies. The easy answer here is that there isn’t one but many visions or strategies. Yet looking at the various media campaigns led by ISIS and the reaction to them coming from Western media outlets is revealing of the extent to which the struggle is framed along “Western” concerns and imaginaries (and subsequently somewhat alien to local Middle Eastern concerns).

I think that a lot of what ISIS represents is a war that a disgruntled minority from the West is waging against their respective host countries. The problem is that the battlefield is not theirs, it is a fantasized one that the West has imagined but could not provide for them. Moreover, these groups cannot wage this war within these liberal countries as they are tightly policed and where these types of political questions cannot be asked. Here is the dangerous dimension of ISIS: it is a movement that fantasizes about a territory (Arab world, Islamic land etc) it does not come from, using ideological toolkit that the West has provided through decades of Orientalist studies. The most scary aspect of ISIS is that it represents everything the West has stigmatized about Islam for decades, nurtured (whether consciously or not) in the suburban areas of European cities among Muslim minorities or even people in search for identities, and internalized by the Muslims themselves.

This also is proof that ISIS knows Western societies very well. It feeds it with what it fears the most: security breaches and pitiless slaughtering of human lives (something that has been already imagined in countless possible ways for decades in Hollywood movies). These members of ISIS grew up feeding on this culture of constrained violence (constrained in films and other cultural productions). Now they have a vast terrain to experiment on.

One drawback of this is that ISIS is one of the many instance that blurs the boundaries between what is Western and “Other” or even “Peripheral” in many ways. It emanates from a Center and tries to imagine a a type of living that was thought of in the center but as the latter thought of the periphery as it was exposed to a myriad of cultural material.

Thoughts from India II

Starting probably with Gandhi, but all throughout the twentieth century, it is my belief that Indian societies (not that I think India does not preserve some blatant forms of injustice) have been both judicious and clever in protecting the importance of ethics to maintain forms of social stability and power. By ethics, I mean social rules and regulations, practices and rituals, that dually constrain and open ways for the individual to act and engage levels of consciousness (I acknowledge that my definition of ethics is quite vague!).

Indians reveal how useful ethics are by demonstrating the logics behind them, their inherent “rationale”. In brief, they linked philosophy to ethics. Here I am not at all talking about a modern understanding of philosophy where people venerate and sacralize the act of Reason. Rather, I point to the use of philosophy in order to arrive at a place that goes beyond reason, namely, the practice of ethics or living harmoniously with other fellow human beings and living entities.

In other traditional societies that have witnessed this gradual mix of realities and practices, brought on by “modernity”, the original purpose of the premodern social settings was lost. Modernity came as bearer of lessons: you are backward, you need to change, and the first thing you need to do is liberate yourself from all such social obligations that seemingly did not make sense. Beginning in the nineteenth century, a huge storm swept towards the east and scrutinized social life in order to corner it as something that forced people to abide by rules that have no purpose, namely Religion, or at the very least that there existed other ready-made social recipes that would make people happier, or free.

The strategic importance of Gandhi and the reservoir in which he picked his ideas and practices was how odd he must have sounded when ethics, “truth”, and other metaphysical objectives had been discredited by a mercantile and individualistic society. These western societies had replaced these forms of “spiritual truth” by “reason”, which they thought the Greeks worshiped. Nietzsche’s critique here could not be more visionary. Alas, Nietzsche’s fell into the trap of Orientalists when he put Indian philosophy in the same bag as European enlightenment. “Truth” for Indians was not at all the self-righteous model that Nietzsche detected in Western philosophy and which morality he labeled as the one of slaves.

And so when Gandhi lays down ‘the system’, this meticulous observation of countless ethical norms and practices, which seemed odd in the beginning, it becomes highly strategic as it empowers societies and thus political systems. I explained one drawback of this in the previous post. Fighting colonialism in this case involved working on the mind, the spirit. Even though the Indian political system is still heavily indebted to colonial practices it did escape to some extent another virulent form of colonization that other societies gave into.

Indeed, unfortunately, Islamic societies of, say, the Arab world that contained the exact same potentials as Indian society, fell completely for the worshiping of new liberal secular values brought on by colonial political changes. One implication of this is that ethics as in “religion” was something “bad” precisely because it did not have any “logic” to it. One should look at what is “rational” and her lies the most important point: the irrational element within (and thus the ideology behind) the “rational” recipe did not excluded most rules and regulations that these societies followed and so most of them were abandoned.

And even today, with the so-called “Islamic resurgence” and its emphasis on the importance of ethics in regulating the life of the individual colonial schemas, especially aspects of the liberal paradigm are taken for granted. To be continued.

Thoughts from India

Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy did not mean much without in its backdrop a highly clever strategy of recapturing the means of production (silk, cotton, steel, salt, spices and so on) of the Indian economy from the hands of the British empire through large scale mobilization and ritual celebrations of all sorts. Once it was just logical (ethical) that indians should control their wealth (and that the appropriate measures were taken to do that), making this point could be done without resort to violence. The contrast with how Arabs dealt with colonial presence can’t be overstated: Arabs chose not to grab anything but to “copy the West”. They busied themselves with intellectual masturbation as the path towards “civilization” with no tangible socio-economic empowerment which could have in turn propped up their traditions-as-preservation-of-ways-of-life. That is why “colonialism of mind” in the Arab world was way more detrimental than in places like India.