George Orwell was famously puzzled by a ‘what’ and a ‘why’. It was 1944 and he was contemplating the troubling genius of Salvador Dali:
‘The question is not so much what he is as why he is like that. It ought not to be in doubt that he is a diseased intelligence […] He is a symptom of the world’s illness.’
(Orwell, ‘Benefit of Clergy’)
What Orwell asked of Dali we must ask of Isis. Orwell’s concern was that we should not dismiss the painter’s obsessions, but that we properly attribute them to the source of the artist’s sickness.
Similarly, the ‘what’ of Isis and the ‘why’ of Isis are not two distinct questions demanding particularly unique answers. We need to ask questions about the pathology of Isis.
It is relevant to ask ‘why’ because we are currently experiencing a strange spasm of moral indignation across the media and within the corridors of power.
Post Snowden, the security services were seen to be invading our privacy too much. Post Isis, they are accused of being too lenient. At the same time, the Western response to Isis remains poorly defined, as if governments are containing the threat in the not unreasonable belief that the virulence of Isis will ensure that this most radical of viruses doesn’t live much beyond its initial outbreak.
The problem with this view is that Isis is more than the newest incarnation of radicalism that has troubled the world since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Isis represents something new that has emerged from our culture as much as it is a response to our values.
It is difficult to make an argument that counters the proposition that Western actions in Iraq led to the emergence of Isis. Patrick Cockburn outlines as much in his excellent book, ‘The Rise of the Islamic State’:
‘There was always something fantastical about the US and its Western allies teaming up with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and hence human rights in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.’
Similarly fantastical is the way we demonise Isis whilst largely glossing over the thousands of fighters who originate in Western nations. Political rhetoric is predictable and lacking insight. David Cameron says that Isis ‘are not Muslims, they are monsters’ and that their acts are ‘pure evil’. At the same time, certain national papers seem to covertly revel in the excesses of ‘Jihadi John’, reposting images and videos of the latest atrocities in the name of moral outrage but, in truth, treating them more like the newest comic cat meme.
Recently, Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian cogently suggested that ‘The greatest threat to British values just now is from hysteria. […] It encourages reckless responses and feeds the greed of the security industry.’ It is true the brutality of Isis’s actions produce a response that is often unthinking.
The question of what we mean by Western values is one I suspect lies muddled somewhere at the roots of the Isis enigma. Whilst there is certainly a quick, easy but less-than-useful identification of Isis with the Muslim world, the values we’re defending are as increasingly uncertain as those the jihadists are supposedly extolling.
From the point of view of the West, the Isis problem seems to be much closer to what Cockburn describes as ‘politics of the last atrocity’, where ‘hatred and fear are too deep for anybody to risk being seen making concessions’. In other words, things seem so bad that they must be a ‘Muslim problem’. Yet Isis is also a manifestation of a cultural nihilism that nobody has yet managed to explain.
They are a brutal expression of a generational neuralgia; a severing of the old beliefs in moderation, freedom, and decency. In the space of a few generations, many Western societies have gone from being broadly liberal conservative democracies to being dominated by the free market which reaches into every aspect of our lives. Generations are growing up with notions of sexuality that are remote from anything experienced by even their most liberal parents. Violence too is being transformed into a happy spectacle. Injury and death are glibly presented as novelties to behold. Life as lived through social media turns the most horrific experiences into something robbed of their stench, their human quality, or what Dali would have said was their ‘shit and arseholes’.
Citing an MI5 report on the profile of Isis fighters, Johnson colourfully described them as ‘wankers’ due to their obsession with porn. Had the remark been uttered by somebody with less of a track record of providing glib sound bites, perhaps the incongruity between the devoted jihadists and the ‘severe onanists’ wouldn’t have been treated so lightly. Isis’s propaganda machine is rooted in a twisted kind of action-packed voyeurism. Cockburn reports that one of Isis’s slogans reads ‘Half of Jihad is Media’ and it’s a slogan which owes more to Marshall McLuhan than it does to Wahhabism.
So perhaps the reason so many people become hysterical when discussing Isis is not simply because they represent a foreign other which we fail to understand. It is because Isis is fundamentally about our own modernity. Isis might have found its form in the wasteland of battle torn Syria and Iraq but much of their psychology is Western in origin.
Laws trail technology by years.
There will come a time when the first terrorist act will be committed using drone technology that governments have been so far slow to understand. Indeed, the technological gulf between the two sides is remarkably apparent. On the one side, we have extremely computer literate activists fighting a social media war. On the other side we have leaders taking popular positions on subjects about which they barely seem qualified to speak. Is it really all that surprising that two of the biggest stories of the last half a century are the result of true computer experts with backgrounds in encryption and internet security? Yet compare the technological credentials of men like Snowden and Assange with the response that David Cameron made to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Cameron said: ‘The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to [listen in]? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.”
That is a rhetorical position taken by a leader concerned that an existential threat exists at (and even within) his nation’s border. However, it is vague to the point of being meaningless about the hard science. Encryption technology no longer comes in the form of hardware requiring export licenses. It can be as simple as a mathematical formula that any programmer can turn into a functioning means of communication with the aid of a simple laptop.
I suspect that the coming years will see ever more radical changes in the ways governments treat our access to information. At the moment, there’s a degree of government inertia. Isis have had the momentum because of the open nature of Twitter, Facebook, Ask.fm, and Instagram. It’s hard to see both how that can continue, but also how it can be stopped.
The problem of Isis is one that goes beyond debates about the rise of Wahhabism. Perhaps they should be perceived less as a organisation with roots in medieval texts and instead as a forefront of the information revolution; as radical in their way as Google, as persuasive as Apple, more intent on evil than the worst denizens of the so-called ‘dark internet’. The threat posed by Isis is the threat posed by a unique form of modernity. It is jihad by and for the Jackass generation. To a great extent, it is the Jackass Jihad.