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.
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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