So the New Year arrived with a new face for ISIS, though, strictly speaking, it wasn’t so much ‘a new face’ as a different set of eyes behind a replacement balaclava.
As connoisseurs of the balaclava will know, last year’s model was eviscerated in the drone attack that ended the broadcasting career of Mohammed Emwazi, known to many as ‘Jihadi John’. The important question now is what we should call this new balaclava before it too meets the cold nose of a Brimstone missile. Will it be Jihadi James? Johnson? Jim? So far it looks as though the media will adopt the Doctor Who strategy of attaching the old name to a different actor. Exit stage right the still smouldering boots of John 1. Enter stage left John Mark 2 with the cocky swagger of a trader selling electric kettles on Camden market.
Keeping the old name makes a great deal of sense. This way, we ensure it’s business as usual. We treat the new unknown as the old known, though given the speed with which the security services managed to identity both the previous and (possibly) the current John, it does beg the question: why does he even bother to hide his face?
That question is not trivial, though the answer could be more simple than I’ll go on to suggest. Like John 1 before him, John 2 perhaps thinks it protects him from retribution from those security services out to reduce the numbers of balaclavas in the world by one. It might also ease whatever burden of humanity remains, the mask becoming a mental breakwater between his psyche and his brutish actions. Hooded figures have also been a staple of terrorism over the past half century. The perpetrators of the Munich massacre in 1972 were famously photographed wearing balaclavas as did the IRA. By wearing a mask, Jihadi John reuses the familiar tropes and techniques of terror organisations.
All of that feels obvious and even, dare I say, blindingly obvious. Yet a slightly more complicated answer would try to explain our psychological response to anonymity and how ISIS present fear as choreographed spectacle in which not knowing the agents involved plays a very specific role.
Unlike pseudonymity and the act of disguise, both of which riddle our history, anonymity appears to be a relatively modern concept. The word itself emerged into English around the sixteenth century, derived from the Greek ‘anonymia’ which means ‘without a name’. That it emerged late is probably due to anonymity requiring a medium through which the absence of identification can be presented as a deliberate act. For much of our history, artists did not sign their art because the act of creation had nothing to do with the individual and everything to do with the glory of God. Signing works of art as a matter of routine probably started around the Renaissance, when humanism placed a new focus on the individual. The individualised ‘self’ became even more defined as well as prevalent with the growth of Protestantism, which attempted to know God through the individual’s interpretation of the Bible, rather than through the teachings of the Church.
Today, Western nations have very clear notions of the identified individual. America’s Declaration of Independence was signed by the hands of its authors and so too the Constitution. That is significant. It highlights the distinction that neither are religious texts, though they are often wrongly treated as such.
By extension, modern society is largely governed by the primacy of self-identity. We talk glibly of the ‘me generation’ but the concept strikes to the heart of what we are and how we think of ourselves. ‘You’ is probably the most used word in advertising and that ‘you culture’ is the primogenitor to the tattoo culture, which is all about individuals individualising themselves. Meanwhile, the great antithesis to anonymity is fame and, of course, our culture has done much to deify it. I would struggle to name a more modern invention that the so-called ‘selfie-stick’, a strange invention that is the very opposite of the mask, allowing a person to write their identity upon the world rather than erase it entirely.
Anonymity, by contrast, sits closer to religious habits of mind than it does to the secular. It admits a kind of transcendence in the form of mystery, itself perhaps the oldest form of religion. From the sacred caves of Delphi to the Catholic Mass, things hidden and then revealed are important to our religious rituals. It is there in the traditional wedding ceremonies of many cultures where the veil is the symbolic manifestation of the bride’s virginity. The veil persists, of course, especially in many Islamic cultures and its place in Western secular societies is an ongoing point of conflict.
It’s that conflict that brings us back to ISIS and their concept of anonymity. It seems paradoxical that Jihadi John hides his identity when everything about the so-called caliphate is about standing separate and proud. ISIS fighters seem particularly unconcerned about hiding their faces when posing for Facebook.
ISIS seek to instil fear in a Western audience who, in reality, have little to fear. ISIS may have taken land across the Middle East but, really, this is not such a rare occurrence in human history. Grabbing land through violence followed by strict implementation of ideology is hardly new. The only difference between ISIS any other conquering forces is that we have the first group that fully understands the power of social media in fetishising our fears. The covered face is, perhaps, then, part of the deliberate provocation of the unspoken taboos within western cultures. We do not cover our faces except for reasons of protection or warmth. To do otherwise not only transgresses the rules of polite society but confirms that the person thus concealed will not be bound by our cultural norms.
For our part, the only way to defeat it is to remove the mask and that is what we are slowly doing. Knowing that the new Jihadi John might actually be an ex-salesman of bouncy castles is of no practical help but it is precisely the kind of absurd identification that we need. It’s the kind of pathetic detail that puts flesh on the actor and decreases the potency of his actions. As the ancients knew, the moment you name a demon then you take away that demon’s power. In fact, quite aptly, it was Isis, the Egyptian goddess, who poisoned the sun god Ra and tricked him into revealing his true name. Knowing Ra’s true name Isis to have dominion over him.
That, ultimately, is what this battle is about. It’s a fight for the individualised self and our right to an identity. Masks are liberating but they also represent actions without consequences. They permit the terrible corollaries which are anarchy, despotism, and the negation of everything positive that modernity brings. They are ultimately a remnant of darker times, when we barely even knew ourselves.