Why exactly did the Columbine killers decide to murder in cold blood their school mates? Or what are the motivations in any of the other cases of school shootings? How do kids from a suburban family, with all the trappings of a normal existence decide to become deadly packages of terror? I ask because the biggest question on my mind is why did the Leeds 3 [not 4, as I originally thought] did what they did? They were all British. They were all of Pakistani descent. They were all Muslims. Is it ordained that only in those indices of identities an answer must be found? So, let’s question what it means to be British. Let’s figure out what destructive gene is carried by Pakistanis and let’s identify the virus that is Islam [let me guess, salafi, wahabi, sunni craze?]. My point is not that terrorism is akin to random violence in the school or workplace but that we need to cast a wider glance at the instances of social violence, if we are to try and figure out the Leeds 4. We have to question the assumptions that we are making about the terrorists and their actions. We have to question the narrative that is dominating policy and public.

Let me try this columnist trick of pop-culture philosophy: One movie about terrorism that gives us hints towards understanding the Leeds 4 is 1999’s The Matrix. Its protagonist, Anderson, has a pretty ordinary existence. He lives just below the radar, quietly. He has a disquieting feeling that the majority world-view is somehow off-kilter; that there is something wrong with the world; that he doesn’t really belong. He has heard of this terrorist who preaches some terrible truth. He is curious. Eventually, the terrorist, Morpheus, makes contact with Anderson and offers to tell him the truth. He offers him the red pill which frees his body/mind from the lies around him. He becomes one of the chosen few who have the capacity to see, and fight, the world. What about the innocent people who live in this world? he asks. They cannot be saved, he is told. “That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Business people, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy.” Anderson buys the whole argument. It makes sense to him. He is part of the select few, the cell, the chosen one. He belongs, finally. No one can harass him anymore. He can, and does, kill indiscriminately because everyone is, after all, the enemy.

Jihadists tell a similar narrative. They convince the foot-soldiers that reality is a cryptic illusion and that it is their narrative red pill which unpacks the hidden meaning [and hidden atrocities] in this reality. This jihadist narrative has its pivotal moments – the 1967 war, the Afghanistan struggle, Kashmir, and now, the Iraq War. This narrative is driven by the language of faith and religion but that is almost incidental. This narrative uses two primary techniques of manipulation: shame and helplessness. Shame from subjugation, from moral decadence, from a fall from grace. Helplessness from lack of access to real power, from secrets and groups who control all events. It is a cyclical and highly repetitive narrative that continously stresses the victories of Israel or the US. It proves those feelings of disquiet were right. That the racism had a reason. That the powerlessness came from a source. And it says that the destruction of those responsible – the Zionists and the Imperialists – can only come by annihilation of the self while engaged in a war – an asymmetrical war that targets innocent civilians, who are the enemy. This narrative concerns itself with a particular and peculiar historical past – a specific teleology. The Islam it presents is fundamentally and intentionally flawed. The structures it uses to propogate – madrasas or mosques or communes – are blindingly hierarchical so that no one can ever ask for information not deemed necessary. As to their objectives – they are concrete and designed towards political hegemony. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all equally invalid. Remember, they are all enemies.

Olivier Roy or Nazih Ayubi’s work has consistently pointed out that the jihadists [Roy’s neofundamentalists] come from middle class families and are almost always under the age of 30. They point towards disenfranchisment, sexualization of society, and alienation as pivotal factors in their initial attraction of these young men and women towards the jihadists. The Leeds 4 – “normal” kids all – bought the narrative because maybe they were all susceptible in those ways. Maybe the pitch was made in a local mosque or in a kebab house or on the cricket ground. Maybe they got further training in a madrasa. The question we have to ask is why? Why did they buy that particular narrative? Why not any of the many other narratives that would explain their lives? What are those alternative narratives?

The flip-coin of my question is why isn’t every British Muslim of Pakistani descent in Leeds not a suicide bomber? Obviously because there is no magical seduction in the jihadist narrative. Yet, it remains a challenge for all of us who believe in the liberal ideals to seriously engage with it. It should not be dissmissed as ahistorical or unmodern. The liberal response of secularization or modernization is not only pat and inadequate but wrong. The WH response of Gitmo or Abu Gharib or Fallujah is just more grist for the mill. The jihadist narrative can easily be shown to lack basic structures of truth and logic and built on expoitation – yet, the flashpoints of Palestine or Kashmir still need tangible justice; dictatorships still need unbuttressing. We have to address the selling-pitch points squarely. No way around it. Still, it can be effectively countered by other narratives of Islamic, South Asian or diasporic pasts. But, we have to highlight those narratives – we have to fill the vending machines of history with them. We have to have answers based on justice when asked what is wrong with this world. The “we” is not just the Muslim community but all who construct and consume daily narratives – from No. 10 Downing Street to BBC to Friday Imams. Above all, we cannot dismiss religion – we have to take the believers, and their faith, seriously. How? Later, maybe.

Also see this. And this.

31 thoughts on “That Terror Thing II

  1. Olivier Roy on the “narrative”
    “Ideology plays little role in the radicalization of the jihadist internationalist youth. They are attracted by a narrative not an ideology: that of a global, indistinct suffering ummah. And that of the lonely avenger, the hero, who can redeem a life he is not happy with by achieving fame while escaping a world where he finds no room.”
    http://www.digitalnpq.org/articles/global/426/01-08-2010/olivier_roy

  2. Salman: Haven’t read the book but Asad is always worth reading.

  3. I hope that my comments at older posts don’t annoy readers/writer. Actually, I came upon this site a week ago and am going through the articles mentioned in the CM tour.

    Has anyone read Talal Asad’s book “On Suicide Bombing”? Is it worth a read? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/talal-asad/thinking-about-just-war_b_56605.html
    “It is often claimed that particular wars may be unjustly declared, that wars may sometimes use immoral means and be concluded in a vindictive way but that in itself war — even brutal war — is sometimes necessary. “Necessity” makes us look for ways of justifying it. Terrorism, on the other hand, is always and in principle evil — even though terrorists also claim that the atrocities they commit are sometimes necessary. Interpreting the motives of fighters is a tricky business but it is central to arguments about the distinction between the conduct of state armies and that of non-state gangs. Thus it is argued that the motives of military commanders are complex: they kill non-combatants but wouldn’t if they didn’t have to. Yet couldn’t the same be said of the terrorist whose killing of civilians is at once deliberate and coerced? He has reached the limit, he has no other option left — or so he claims, when he says that in order to try to defend his people’s freedom he must carry out immoral killings. If he kills enough civilians (so he reasons) perhaps those who are politically responsible will respond in the desired way.”

  4. ‘Let’s figure out what destructive gene is carried by Pakistanis and let’s identify the
    virus that is Islam….
    He offers him the red pill’
    i revisit that terror thing 11 because i find parts of it tantalising..the term virus
    etc.,takes me back to the time, certainly not when the whole thing started, but when
    it broke out into boils on 9/11. the reaction that followed resembled a kind of medical regimen,
    a treatment plan: isolate the infected, quarantine them, counsel and advise the neighbours,
    caution everyone and keep the ambulances and the pills ready, cauterize the affected area.
    it made a crude kind of sense. then iraq happened and we realized the doctors carried
    a strain of the virus themselves, a more virulent one perhaps.

  5. Oh. Ummm. Oh. OK.

    Sure, that makes perfect sense.

  6. It translates roughly to “smurf,” or “smurfy.”

  7. Fair enough, Farangi. Um, what’s a Shibrum?

  8. Jonathan: You would be correct about II implying only I, and I would in any other case sit quietly and corrected. But this is Sepoy we’re talking about. When he gets going, he’s difficult to stop. The wise men tell us that what has happened twice will happen a third time. I offer the Shibrum plate special he served up today, and dare say that III implies four. But here only.

  9. ‘But even if all the “selling points” are inflated beyond resemblance to fact by psuedo-religious hyperbole, isn’t it still reasonable to figure out what those selling points are, and why they are so compelling to some, so as to counter their appeal, and cut off the supply of suicide bombers?’

    conscientious objectorship be damned, you have to participate in this debate to be counted among the conscientious. you have to accept our rules, our grounds and our conclusions- all grievances in the world are by definition muslim.

    ‘But the “displacement” they share with Muslim Palestinians is still a huge grievance with many Muslims,’

    all displacements too are, by definition, muslim displacements. by the way, have you interviewed many muslims gerry? are you many muslims gerry?

    ‘ Muslim Kashmiri militants and various non-Kashmiri allied militants themselves say they the political status quo in Kashmir is a grievance.’

    all non-kashmiri allied militants are as good as
    muslim kashmiri militants who are as good as any
    muslim militants who are as good as ….because all good causes, nay, all causes, by definition, are muslim.

    ‘You imply some familiarity with the recent history of Islamic societies….. so that their corrupt structures might collapse under their own weight.’

    you imply some recent knowledge of islamic societies gerry..exactly which dictatorship collapsed under its own weight, corrupt or otherwise ? corruption, by definition, is …

    ‘You’re right that “the same questions” should be asked of Islamic societies ‘
    why bother ? all answers..

    about analogies, wouldn’t ‘hatim tai’ be a good enough analogy? or ‘dil hi to hai’, or ‘sangam’ or…
    or if it has to be ‘matrix’ why not view the militants as the agents? they would never have to take any pill because all pills …

  10. wow, gerry. that’s the most articulate RTFA i’ve ever seen. big up.

  11. Farangi: As much as I’d like to see Sepoy go on and on about this, “II” implies “I” and only “I”. Now, if it said “II of IX” or something like that…

    The metaphor is indeed interesting. Until we start thinking about ideologies and identities in more than single-dimensional forms, and address the self-reinforcing nature of truly radical and dehumanizing theories, we won’t really understand or have a chance against these overweening totalities.

  12. Don:

    Doesn’t Sepoy’s analogy & discussion of narratives apply to any organization that uses its internaly mythology to justify the killing of civilians, innocents, etc.? Also, re: this post generally, I noticed a II in the header, which implies, I hope, a III. I’m going to reserve judgement until Sepoy gets back from the movies, and rounds this thing out.

  13. They were not all of Pakistani descent. One was West Indian.

    Any theories you come up with have to explain IRA terrorism too.

  14. what seperates terrorism from resistance and freedom fighting?
    Is this the first time that voilence is used as a political tool in the history?
    and how can you expect the mightiest army of all time and bunch of jihadies following the same code of conduct?

  15. As for a later comment which echoes the charge of sophistry,

    I agree with the first comment by Luke. This is nothing but refined sophistry.

    I am surprised that a second critic has had the grace to call the supposed “sophistry” of sepoy’s post “refined”. I assume it’s just a pat phrase. But it is still the case that the mere use of a pop-culture analogy does not invalidate the ideas that lie behind it. krisv, at least, does sepoy the courtesy of engaging with his ideas.

    I notice that you are implying the prescription is to address the “selling points” i.e the root causes. And so you legitimize the very same “selling points”.

    You are right to imply that there is a risk that in our attempt to understand what motivates contemporary jihad, we may lend legitimacy to some of the grievances of jihadists. We would presumably also agree that no grievance can justify the offhand slaughter of civilians. But even if all the “selling points” are inflated beyond resemblance to fact by psuedo-religious hyperbole, isn’t it still reasonable to figure out what those selling points are, and why they are so compelling to some, so as to counter their appeal, and cut off the supply of suicide bombers? And in any case, is it not possible that some of the grievances have a grain truth? If so, isn’t it not only right and proper that the West do what it can to alleviate them, but also thoroughly wise – in the interest of undermining our opponents’ appeal – for it to do so? And how are we to know truth from falsehood, unless we examine the claims? Now, I can’t provide a convenient list of all the possible religious, political, psychololgical, and cultural factors that might fuel jihadists’ fury, but it’s reasonable to start by looking at situations which the jihadists themselves say motivate them, social and political situations in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and, yes, Kashmir and Palestine, and Iraq.

    You imply the issue of injustice in “Palestine and Kashmir”. I wonder how the issue of Palestine has anything to do with Muslims or Islam. After all this is all about land and displacement of a group from land, and this group includes non-muslims.

    Of course, there are, for example, Christian Palestinans. But the “displacement” they share with Muslim Palestinians is still a huge grievance with many Muslims, and, at least, a convenient pretext for governments throughout the Middle East to avoid cooperation with the West. Whatever you think of the justice of the Palestinian and Israeli causes, whatever arrangement an impossibly clear-eyed justice might bring to a riven land, I don’t know how you can sincerely deny that the disposal of Palestine has become a central issue in the politics of Muslim countries, and central to the way very many Muslims view themselves, Israel, and the West.

    You refer to the injustice in Kashmir, in the same context of the muslim community. What about the injustice resulting from the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmir valley by these jihadists with the same idea of “injustice”?

    To reiterate: sepoy was describing grievances used by militant jihadists to motivate themselves and others. Muslim Kashmiri militants and various non-Kashmiri allied militants themselves say they the political status quo in Kashmir is a grievance. To examine their claims is not to ignore the injustices they themselves inflict on others. Of course, their violence is horrible. But by trying to understand what they think, we’ll strengthen our abilities to undermine their wrongheaded beliefs, and to defeat their violence.

    You conveniently ignore the terrible injustices perpetrated in most of the “muslim world” including (I gather your home country Pakistan) to the minorities, both muslim and non muslim, living in these countries, as well as to their womenfolk, not to speak of the genocides (remember Bangladesh, 1971?) that they have gotten away with. If you expect all the communities to address the “selling points” of the jihadists, you better be prepared for the same questions to be asked of the societies the jihadists come from. It is a coward’s way to blame the rest of the world for the problems they face, without ever taking a look at themselves.

    You imply some familiarity with the recent history of Islamic societies, and with the history of the subcontinent. I wish you showed similar familiarity with the blog you criticize. This site routinely speaks out both against violence against minorities and against the inequities and systematic political repression common in some Muslim countries, and particularly in Pakistan. Read the blogs on Mukhtar Mai for a clear-cut opposition to rape and honor-killing. Look at CM’s recent thoughts on Musharraf, and indeed virtually anything that sepoy writes about Pakistani politics. In fact, in this very post, sepoy writes that “the flashpoints of Palestine or Kashmir still need tangible justice,” but he also states that “dictatorships still need unbuttressing,” so that their corrupt structures might collapse under their own weight.

    A little attention to what sepoy actually wrote in this post doesn’t hurt. Of the ideology of the madrassas that urges young men to violence, he writes

    The Islam it presents is fundamentally and intentionally flawed. The structures it uses to propogate – madrasas or mosques or communes – are blindingly hierarchical so that no one can ever ask for information not deemed necessary. As to their objectives – they are concrete and designed towards political hegemony.

    You’re right that “the same questions” should be asked of Islamic societies that some ask about Anglo-American policy in our confrontation with Islamic militants. Looks like sepoy agrees with you.

  16. Lionel Baptista

    July 16, 2005 — 4:03 pm

    Reductio ad absurdum

  17. It’s worthwhile to consider some of the criticism that’s been made of this post.

    Luke wrote:

    Refined sophistry, congratulations. Just what I expected you would come up with. I shall be referring friends to your analysis for further insight into how fascism incubates in various intellectual guises and atmospheres.

    While I can understand why some might find the very idea of a Matrix analogy a little glib for such a serious subject, I don’t believe that the substantive points that sepoy makes about the nature of contemporary jihad are at all sophistical. As the secular West confronts those would would negate it, we have to learn about those who hate, both to prevent their ideology from flourishing, and to use knowledge to undermine and defeat them. Sepoy is hardly the only observer to remark on the intellectual and doctrinal bankruptcy of contemporary militant jihad and the “shame and helplessness” which may be felt by potential militants in a world increasingly dominated by Western secular and Judeo-Christian cultural values. These are descriptions and explanations for violence, not excuses or justifications for violence. Perhaps, we may not agree with the description of the roots of jihad that sepoy presents. But if we disagree with his ideas, it is worthwhile to engage with them. Why do you disagree with the diagnosis he makes?

    And, “fascism”? Surely you didn’t mean that literally. At the very worst, sepoy’s post is a little slick with an analogy. It does not defend jihad, and certainly does not advocate fascism, a right-wing, undemocratic, nationalistic, racist ideology. Do you intend “fascism” here to mean “any liberal humanism I dislike”? Do you disagree that we ought to try to figure out what makes jihadists tick?

  18. Zia, Caleb’s got it right. The point here is to see that romanticisation is ocurring. There are people who might consider UBL The One; I don’t know. What the analogy with The Matrix does is show that there is something about the “Jihadist” narrative that is universally familiar. People don’t become terrorists because they’re pre-programmed at birth to be “evil.” Something specific happens—they are offered a red pill/narrative and take it.

    The language of the War on Terror, couched in absolute, universal terms like “Evil,” suggests that there is no possible way of winning short of extermination. People are pre-programmed as evil, for whatever reason, and there’s no way of defeating that through structural change—only execution and “freedom,” which is a red pill narrative of its own.

    Let those who wish confuse the issue and blame sepoy for sophistry. No one is excusing or justifying anything (that I see), rather exposing underlying structures and ways in which there are similarities. Not all “terrorists” are Muslims, are Arabs, are brown, are whatever. But they are all human. So you tell me: can we learn nothing from Tim McVeigh?

  19. It is a coward’s way to blame the rest of the world for the problems they face, without ever taking a look at themselves.

    Then Sepoy’s post is evidently not cowardly, because he’s asking us to take a look at ourselves. Looking at ourselves and holding terrorists morally culpable for their murders are not mutually exclusive.

    Nothing in this post suggests that the “red pill” is good medicine; on the contrary, the jihadists’ “red pill” is poisonous, distorted, wrong. The question is: Why do terrorists buy the pill, or the story that it tells, and how do we get them to stop? One view is that we get them to stop by putting those who have taken the pill into Gitmo, by actually using their story to terrorize them (we figure out, for instance, that their narrative laments the sexualization of the West, so we put women’s underwear on their heads), or by putting more troops on the ground in the Middle East. But those policies only feed the story, and make what is clearly a poisonous pill more palatable to more people.

    To question those policies is not to say that the jihadists’ narrative is right. It’s just to say that by altering our policies–by courageously looking at ourselves–we may have the means to make the wrong narrative less widespread.

    Thanks for a great post, sepoy.

  20. What’s next, bin Laden as the One? Sepoy, this kind of analogy risks romanticizing the terrorists and frankly seems a little irresponsible.

  21. I will get the logs ready for the pire! We shall barbecue Sepoy!

  22. Fight Club is really weird, since, though it masquerades as an anti-technology, reclaim your effeminatised body regression to the cavepeople treatise, it’s actually far more interested in returning to the cavepeople only since that’s an era before private property. Who knew?

  23. Reminding me the movie Fight Club. Probably that would be a very good analogy to explain all of them.

  24. I agree with the first comment by Luke. This is nothing but refined sophistry. I notice that you are implying the prescription is to address the “selling points” i.e the root causes. And so you legitimize the very same “selling points”. You imply the issue of injustice in “Palestine and Kashmir”. I wonder how the issue of Palestine has anything to do with Muslims or Islam. After all this is all about land and displacement of a group from land, and this group includes non-muslims. You refer to the injustice in Kashmir, in the same context of the muslim community. What about the injustice resulting from the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmir valley by these jihadists with the same idea of “injustice”? You conveniently ignore the terrible injustices perpetrated in most of the “muslim world” including (I gather your home country Pakistan) to the minorities, both muslim and non muslim, living in these countries, as well as to their womenfolk, not to speak of the genocides (remember Bangladesh, 1971?) that they have gotten away with. If you expect all the communities to address the “selling points” of the jihadists, you better be prepared for the same questions to be asked of the societies the jihadists come from. It is a coward’s way to blame the rest of the world for the problems they face, without ever taking a look at themselves.

  25. As the comments of Partha and tsk make clear, a film analogy of the kind sepoy produces is eminently nit-pickable. Nevertheless, I think it is an effective strategy for making a point. The film The Matrix is put together in such a way that it is nearly impossible to view the scenario from the perspective of those who ‘manage’ the matrix (agents, architects, robots etc) – viewers come to see the matrix as a polity (if we can call it that) which sustains itself by subjugating and anesthetizing in a rather severe manner the vast bulk of humanity. Cinemagoers by design sympathize with the ‘terrorists’ (cast here as freedom fighters) and we realize along with Keanu/Anderson that the matrix represents an incredibly oppressive world system that must be stopped for the good of humanity (the whole bodhisattva bit comes in here).

    The reporting on the series of bombings over the last few years (US, Spain, UK) in much of the global mainstream media does the exact opposite – the conditions and ideologies that make people like the Leeds 4 see themselves as freedom fighters are as inconceivable as it would be to view all of the identical agents named Smith in The Matrix as legitimate law enforcement officers doing counter-terrorism work. This is a problem the ‘they hate us because we are free’ approach and the ‘nothing we can do can stop them, so why bother thinking about other ways of dealing with this than war’ interpretation do absolutely noting to resolve. Perhaps a bit of sci fi can help us be a little more imaginative in assessing and addressing radical militant Islamist responses to the domestic and international policies of the allies in the so-called ‘war on terror’. The point, however, is most certainly not to test it all out and see if these are perfect analogies.

  26. heck, you don’t even have to wait for the lobby scene. how many pigs did Trinity waste in the opening 5 minutes? or the shootout when Morpheus was taken?

    just to nitpick the Matrix analogy even more — there were a lot of scenes of Agents and the heroes blowing shit up or missing each other with bullets. how many civilians were injured or killed from that?

  27. Partha: Anderson kills the security guards in the hotel lobby scene as well as the gazillion troops in that sequence. The first killing of the security guard is unprovoked.

  28. //He can, and does, kill indiscriminately because everyone is, after all, the enemy.//

    Hmm, if I remember correctly, Anderson kills the “Agents” not the people and that too to defend himself when he was attacked while in the Matrix. So this is a very wrong example.

    That said, you have done a good analysis. When one goes to war, he should accept that there will be “collateral damages” – till now those who were waging the war talked of ‘collateral damages’ in Afghan and Iraq. Now what we are seeing is the same in Madrid and London

  29. I appreciate all the posts you’ve done on this subject. Thanks

  30. In fact, it’s believed that the fourth bomber was a Jamaican-born convert to Islam.

  31. Refined sophistry, congratulations. Just what I expected you would come up with. I shall be referring friends to your analysis for further insight into how fascism incubates in various intellectual guises and atmospheres.

Comments are closed.