Jihad and Death: The Hero and the Aesthetics of Violence

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by Neil Godfrey

What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. (Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2015)

Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. (Scott Atran, … On Violent Extremism…, 2015)

To be in a revolutionary vanguard is an exciting thing. I was once part of just such a fantasy in the religious realm. We saw ourselves as pioneers, a very select few, called to witness to the coming apocalypse, to witness the destruction of society and to be exalted as glorified leaders in the new utopian world to follow. And if we died as martyrs before that transition, then our glory would be truly great.

Olivier Roy in Jihad and Death appears to concur with Atran’s perspective but with a difference. Roy stresses not so much the thrill of seeking to bring about revolution and millennial future but the black nihilism of the entire exercise.

A consistent characteristic of the jihadists, Roy says, is responding to a feeling of humiliation and being dominated by taking on the role of an “avenger” and “lone hero”. A lone hero, yes, but the group is most important, too, because it is the group that will eulogize him when he gets blown up or shot leading an assault.

Radicals’ obituaries are a succession of hagiographies, and even the body of the martyr is above the fate of the everyman: he is handsome and has a sweet smell, or he is sublimated in the explosion. (Jihad and Death, p. 49)

Roy finds most striking the “extraordinary narcissistic posturing” of these jihadists.

They broadcast themselves in self-produced videos before, during, and after their actions (posthumous videos). They pose on Facebook:

  • Salah Abdeslam posted a picture of himself holding the ISIS flag three weeks before the 13 November 2016 attacks in Paris (proof once again that the taqiyya—dissimulation—argument used to explain the normal life of the terrorists is unconvincing).
  • Coulibaly called French television stations while he was holding hostage the customers of the Hyper Cacher market on the outskirts of Paris.
  • Omar Mateen posted selfies while he was shooting his victims in Orlando.
  • Abdelhamid Abaaoud had himself filmed in Syria dragging enemy corpses. Larossi Abballa left statements on Facebook while he was still in the house of the murdered police officers,
  • and Adel Kermiche told his friends that they would be able to stream a video of the murder of Father Hamel in real time.

It is acting out the glory of the superhero in a movie or videogame.

A typical cliche is that of the future hero whose destiny is not at first clear, as he leads an empty or too-normal life. And then he receives the call (taken in its religious sense of a sudden vocation, but with reference to the popular video game “Call of Duty”) and turns into an almost supernatural, omnipotent character.

The narrative draws upon the mythical image of the first followers of Muhammad, to martyrdom and the right to sex slaves, to the conquest of deserts and cities.

A scene from film Salò

But this master narrative also fits within a very modern aesthetics of heroism and violence. Their video-editing techniques (fast cutting, succession of images, voice-over, slow motion used to dramatic effect, haunting modern music, juxtaposition of different scenes, targets plastered over faces) are those of video clips and reality television. Violence is theatricalized and scripted in sophisticated videos. Many executions are known to have been rehearsed prior to filming, which in some cases might explain the apparent passivity of the hostages.

This “barbarity” does not belong to times past: it makes use of a “Sadean” code such as that dramatized by Pier Paolo Pasolini in the film Salò (1975). A small, all-powerful group in a restricted space, united by an ideology, asserts all rights over life as well as sex. But this all-powerfulness takes on two different aspects: the law of the group and the staging of self. None of them can satisfy their desires on their own, none of them can rape at will: rape must be theatricalized and involve the group. As in the film Salò, in ISIS territory sex slaves are exhibited, exchanged, and forced into sexual behaviors that have nothing “matrimonial” about them. They are tortured and killed. But the group member who acts out of view of the others and without their approval is a transgressor and is executed in turn. Sharia, more than a legal system, is in this case a metaphor for the rules of the group, which has become a sect. (Jihad and Death, p. 50)

Thus Roy sees the ISIS as having set up a real-life “gaming space”. The heroes have a vast desert through which they can ride in their four-wheel drives, “hair and flags blowing in the wind, guns raised, fraternity exhibited by the uniform, often similar to the ninja model.”

Young losers from destitute suburbs become handsome, and plenty of young girls on Facebook go into raptures over their look. The video game turns into an epic adventure in a huge playground. (p. 51)

Since Roy’s book was published we have seen the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq. We wait to see what follows. One thing we do know from other sects whose promises of imminent apocalypse have failed to materialize: they do not go away. Some may leave, but many others, historically, see the new situation as a time of testing of the faithful. The adventure becomes even more intense. Notice, for example, what Al-Awlaki in 44 Ways to Support Jihad, at #18, writes

Those who follow the news of the mujahideen will see how Allah is protecting his servants and guiding them towards victory. They will see how the ummah is heading towards the era of Islam under the leadership of: “al Ta’ifah al Mansoorah” mentioned in the hadiths of Rasulullah (saaws). 

The bolded section is meaningless gibberish to outsiders but it contains a very powerful psychological pull for the jihadist. Ta’ifah or tayfia means tribe or community and the hadith is that the Muslim community will be divided. More particularly, it will be divided into ’73 sects’. (See, for example, 73 sects of Islam.) Only one of those 73 will be righteous in the eyes of Allah. It is an intoxicating experience to “know” one is part of an elect. All others, the entire world, will fall away, but to know you and your very few associates are the only ones left standing upright in the eyes of God is intoxicated by a drug that lifts you completely out of reality. The death of an elect loner has the power to cleanse him or her of all her sins and even entitle him or her to request the salvation of parents, family, others who had not believed, so they, too, can enter Paradise. As a member of the chosen elect, they can justify their claim to be the vanguard seeking the ultimate salvation of the ummah even while murdering them along with themselves. Death, choreographed, scripted, rehearsed, drawing on the motifs of heroic myths, movies and videogames, takes on a seductive glamour that offers rewards and meaning nothing else in this life can match.

That’s why, to return to Scott Atran and this time his address to the United Nations Security Council, solutions are not religious, but very practical, very human:

I. The first condition: offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship.

II.  The second condition: offer youth a positive personal dream, with a concrete chance of realization.

III. A third condition: offer youth the chance to create their own local initiatives.



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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Jihad and Death: The Hero and the Aesthetics of Violence”

  1. Focusing mainly on actual attackers makes about as much sense as focusing on hands, knives and guns instead of murderers behind them.

    Hypotheses trying to explain why relatively few random young freaks get rebellious are worthless, if they do nothing to explain why hundreds of millions lazy old farts support what the freaks do.

    1. Actual attackers ARE the murderers. Your analogy is askew. You are ill-informed and showing pure bigotry if you think “hundreds of millions of lazy old farts support what” people who are by no means random freaks “do”. Can you try to calm down and avoid describing people as farts and freaks and read what is written in the posts and address the arguments. Please refrain from responding with knee-jerk emotional ignorance. I am always willing to discuss questions but not with people who indicate by their language that they are not themselves serious about establishing a clear understanding and knowledge of the facts themselves.

      1. I’m perfectly calm, and you didn’t get the analogy, nevermind.

        Atran is trying to find out why they respond the call, let’s assume he’s correct.
        Where does the call come from?

        1. If you assume Atran’s argument is correct then you have your answer. I think you are so convinced that somehow Islam is a demonic force that possesses peoples minds for good or evil that you are simply unable to see what the research is telling us.

          1. Are you able to see what the research is telling us, and what it’s not?
            For a person who doesn’t understand how analogy works, who can’t understand who is the only blogger around in that rhethorical question, and who can’t extract a single logical argument from said research, you are quite confident.

            If you examine Atran’s wording, he’s careful enough to say things like “Not just Islam” or “Not so much the Quran”, and he can perfectly get away with this, nobody’s gonna argue how much is not just and not so much. It’s even quite agreeable, it’s obvious that other factors contribute as well.
            To an average person that may seem a little diference, but in your previous post you used a completely different type of quantifier, and no research supports your claim in the slightest.

            You probably correctly guessed his intentions, he does seem to be pushing a political agenda, but he’s not there yet, and probably will never be. Seems you’ve been a bit overzealous.

            1. Zeb, you are only demonstrating with each comment that you have no basic comprehension of the argument I am making, or that Atran himself makes, and are looking with hostile intent to twist what they are saying.

              I think you have had enough to say on this topic now. If you wish to continue a discussion I will ask you to actually demonstrate that you really do understand what my argument is, or what Atran’s is, by briefly restating it in your own words. When you can show us that you know what it is that I am saying or what other scholars I am quoting are saying, then your contribution may be welcome.

              I am not trying to close you off. I am trying to engage you in a discussion that is based on a clear understanding of what the other side is actually trying to say.

              1. None of your comments has been deleted or blocked. I in fact corrected one of your comments in order to remove a follow-up comment of yours stating the correction was needed.

                But your hostile attitude and persistent failure to demonstrate that you understand the arguments you think you are objecting to is bringing you very close to me putting you on the troll list.

              2. I have indeed just deleted two follow up comments of yours. One that was rude, another that was fatuous. You’re on moderation now.

    1. What a strange notion. We should never “rely on the scholarship of” ANYONE. What an anti-intellectual notion. We don’t “follow scholars” like some people like to follow movie or rock or sports stars. We study their arguments, the evidence they cite, etc.

      For example, Earl Doherty has influenced me very much, but there are are many significant areas where I find myself in disagreement with Doherty. That’s because I try to read widely and think about the questions and the arguments and the evidence, not the scholars themselves.

      It sounds like you would reject or not bother even reading the scholarship of Scott Atran based on some personal prejudice or dislike for his conclusions. That doesn’t sound like an intellectually honest approach to me.

      1. Here is an overlooked bit of scholarship I came across while looking again for something else I had once started to read:

        The original meaning of gihâd and fî sabîli llâh

        (Günter Lüling, A Challenge to Islam for Reformation…, Delhi 2003, p. 354f. in connection with p. 242)

        But there is one final aspect to consider before turning to the personal activities of the Prophet in Medina. This concerns the obvious and fundamental change in the meaning of two expressions to be met with in the Islamic Koran: The term gihâd, which in the Islamic Koran predominantly means “holy war” and the phrase fî sabîli llâh “on the path of Allah” which in the Islamic Koran practically always has the meaning “on the warpath of Allah”.

        In our reconstruction of the hymnodic fragment Sura 25,48-52 (see above p. 242 with commentary) we have already shown that the reconstructed verse 25,52 has, according to its Christian context verses 48-52, clearly the biblical meaning as expressed in 1 Tim 6,12 and 2 Tim 4,7 “fight the good fight of faith” that is, the term gihâd means not “war” or even “holy war” but intends the peaceful striving to win oneself as well as somebody else over to the good faith. This is most probably the only meaning of gihâd to be met with in the Christian hymns contained in the Koran (see also Sura 38.17; 20.130; 50.39; 73.10 which phrases are obviously hymnodic); and this peaceful meaning of gihâd is obviously also the only appropriate one if one regards its etymology, because the root g-h-d is immediately akin to the root g-w-d which means “to be good” (English “good” as well as German “gut” are quite certainly a bequest of the Semitic, legally inferior “unifiers” in neolithic and bronze age Europe).

        A similar development from a religiously peaceful meaning to a martial one has taken place with the phrase fî sabîli llâh: The Arabic word sabîl means “path” as well as “(public) well”. At first glance, one might think that these two meanings are quite unrelated. But the etymology shows that this is not the case: the root s-b-l is to be analysed as s+b-l where s is the augment to make the following biconsonantal root causative and b-l or b-w-l or b-y-l is the verbal root meaning “to piss” which is made causative “to make (someone or something) piss”. A sabîl is therefore only that kind of well where a donkey or camel or even a person is employed to draw the bucket with a rope from the depth of the well to the surface, where a waiter or a technical device will make the bucket spill its content into an irrigation-channel, pipe or something else; and by going to and fro the animal creates a path. This is the sort of well and the sort of path which is called sabîl.[38] To go or to work fî sabîli llâh means therefore originally and literally “to work in the irrigation plant of God”. There can hardly be a greater contrast to “going on the warpath of God”. And it is possibly not by chance that the above-mentioned fragment of a pre-Islamic hymn Sura 25,48-52, where we have found the clearly biblical meaning of gihâd as “the great fight of faith”, begins:

        Sura 25,48c-49 (reconstructed)

        48c “and He (God) sent him (Jesus) down from heaven as immaculate water”

        و أنزله من ١لسماء ماء طهورا

        49a “that He may vivify by him dead soil”

        ليحى به بلدة ميّتا

        49b “and make him a fresh drink to His creature,”

        و يسقيه ما خلقه

        49c “many gentle and friendly people”

        أنعاما و أناسيّا كثيرا

        (see p. 242). The phrase fî sabîli llâh belongs originally into this context.

        [38] See for the different kinds of wells in Arabia Erich Bräunlich, Der Brunnen im alten Arabien, in: Jahrbuch der Phil. Fak. Leipzig 1 (1921), 35-37 and in: Islamica 1 (1925), 41-76, 288-343 and 454-528.

        Cut-and-pasted from: http://www.christoph-heger.de/fi_sabili_llah.htm

    1. Thank you for the link to Lydia Wilson’s article. I was struck by this part of her conclusion:

      Our initial research into the motivations of those who have traveled to and fought for the Islamic State show they are not so interested in the ideology — for a start, many expressed confusion over the concepts of caliphate, jihad, and sharia — but were attracted to the sense of brotherhood.

      That so coheres with my own experience of joining a religious cult. What I loved so much, most, about becoming a member was that I felt I was part of a dream family. Doctrinal details were important but were always subject to refinement, revision, evolution, etc. But it was the “family” feeling, the “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” that was the glue that held us together. Of course, over time, cruel experiences eventually demonstrated just how “fictional” that family really was.

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