‘We need a model that transcends all the bitter history. Something enormous and commanding. A figure of absolute being… In societies struggling to remake themselves, total politics, total authority, total being.’
George Haddad, a spokesman for a Lebanese militant group, explains his movement to American author Bill Gray in Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II (1991).
No civilization can survive without the means of defending itself, and those means include an expeditionary capacity. Diplomacy, foreign policy and trade have to be backed up by the ability to project force across the world to support our allies and confront our enemies.
Charles Moore, writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph in the wake of the Paris attacks.
As I type these words it is not at all clear whether the spasm of violence that began in Paris on 13 November has run its course, or indeed whether that spasm is not part of a larger campaign, stretching back to the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula and beyond to Mali and points as yet unknown.
The smoke did not have to clear, however, before this carnage could be proclaimed an assault on Western values, on the idea of liberty, on secularism and perhaps even on champagne, high fashion and the Folies Bergère.
Within days of the attacks, at the G20 summit in Turkey, much was made of a tête-à-tête between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, which signalled that Moscow would concentrate its firepower on Islamic State or that Washington would learn to live with Bashar al-Assad, or both, depending on your point of view. Talk of values receded and pragmatism filled the air.
The Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh from which the Russian airliner made its doomed journey was itself once the venue for a summit at which Middle Eastern leaders joined the American and Russian presidents to declare their determination to vanquish terrorism. In 1996, Bill Clinton sat next to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and Boris Yeltsin and said that this ‘Summit of the Peacemakers’ was ‘proof and promise that this region has changed for good’.
What had not changed was the position that the Arab people of ‘this region’ occupied in relation to the grand statements of Sharm el-Sheikh: that of spectators. Years earlier, the exiled Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani had compared the world of the Arabs to a ‘furnished apartment’, where no one could say ‘no’ to their landlord, a general he gave the name of the legendary Arab hero Antara:
The first piece of news is about Antara
The third piece of news, the fifth, the ninth and the tenth…
There are no stars on television
Except for Antara
With his graceful figure
Or his expressive laugh
One day as a duke and a prince
One day as a poor labourer
One day on a Russian tank
One day on an armoured carrier
And one day on our crushed ribs
To Qabbani—and to many others in the Arabic-speaking world—the Summit of the Peacemakers seemed not so much about peace as it was about affixing the label of ‘terrorism’ to any opposition to the power of Antaras and making sure that the state’s artillery was the only legitimate weapon, whether its shells fell in Chechnya or the Gaza Strip, Sinai or southern Lebanon. In the months that followed, Qabbani penned ‘I Am With Terrorism’, in which he again lamented that ‘no one is left to say no’, before throwing open Pandora’s box:
I am with terrorism
If it can liberate the people
From tyranny and the tyrant
And save man from the inhumanity of man
And return the lemon, the olive and the goldfinch
To the south of Lebanon
And the smile back to the Golan
A decade later, perhaps the most eccentric and volatile of all the region’s Antaras, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was allowed to pitch his tent—literally—in the gardens of the Hôtel de Marigny, next door to the Elysée Palace, ahead of his meeting with French president Nicolas Sarkozy to sign contracts worth an estimated ten billion euros.
At the time, France’s secretary of state for human rights was Ramatoulaye Yade, a Muslim woman of West African parentage appointed by Sarkozy in the hope that France’s government might at least begin to reflect the diversity of France’s people.
Reminding her countrymen that Gaddafi arrived on World Human Rights Day, Yade added: ‘People disappear in this country (Libya), and no one knows what has become of them. The press is not free. Prisoners are tortured’.
Sarkozy responded that ‘I am also here to fight at the side of French businesses and factories’, and took aim at his critics: ‘It is rather beautiful the principle that consists in not getting yourself wet, not taking risks…(and) being so certain of everything you think while you’re having your latte on the Boulevard Saint-Germain’.
In the week that je suis en terrasse became a slogan of defiance for many Parisians, I was reminded of this moment, when a discussion over coffee was portrayed not as a symbol of French fortitude and joie de vivre but as self-righteous dilettantism.
* * *
Civilian deaths peaked between September 2006 and January 2007, with between 2700 and 3800 civilians killed per month, every month. In December 2006…killings peaked at around 125 per night, more than half of whom were people killed inside Baghdad city limits.
David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla (Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2009)
‘It’s such a simple idea. Terrorize the innocent. The more heartless they are, the better we see their rage…This is also the slogan of Western media. You are nonpersons for the moment, victims without an audience. Get killed and maybe they will notice you.’
George Haddad to Bill Gray and his publisher Charlie Everson, Mao II
Thanks to the transmission of its ideology by global communications networks, its recruitment of young people from every corner of the world and its striking intervention in the Syrian conflict, it can be hard to recall that Islamic State is at base an Iraqi phenomenon, driven by the reaction of Iraqi Sunnis to the myriad ways in which society was remade around them after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003.
At the same time that Gaddafi was camping in Paris in late 2007, the US military was doing its best to convince Iraqi Sunnis that there would be a meaningful space for them in the nation’s political life. Discussion of that effort’s successes and failures has filled many books, but there is no question that for many Sunnis the catastrophic violence Kilcullen describes—a Paris a night for a month, with months of comparable bloodshed either side—was a Rubicon, beyond which lay a profound contempt for politics as usual, whether in Paris, Vienna, Baghdad, Sharm el-Sheikh or Antalya.
Qabbani’s poem about Antara appeared in a compilation entitled simply No, which also included a poem about waiting for a saviour entitled ‘Intithar Ghodo’ (Waiting for Godot). After the Summit of the Peacemakers, Qabbani returned to what seemed even to him a fruitless quest:
I search in the books of history
For Osama bin Munqith
And Uqba bin Nafi
For Omar…for Hamza
For Khalid marching to al-Sham
I search for Muatasim Billah
Saving women from monstrous abuse
I search for men of the latter days
From an Arab nationalist who had alluded to Beckett, we receive a litany of Islamic heroes. Muslim children all over the world are told the story of the Caliph al-Muatasim: hearing of a raid on his territory by Byzantine soldiers in which a captive Muslim woman being manhandled cried out, ‘Where are you, O Muatasim?’, he left a glass of water he was drinking unfinished to raise an army—Islamic chivalry meets the ‘responsibility to protect’.
For Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and then for those around the world who watched their ordeal in countless YouTube clips, with every town and militia seeming to have its own badged broadcasting network, the appeal of Islamic State was in essence the appeal Qabbani had made: to change from spectators into actors and to build an ideal world.
Much has been made in the Western media of IS propaganda’s references to the end times. But for believers the apocalypse is never simply a matter of destruction and ending, but of the day of judgement—perfect justice, not imperfect earthly tribunals—and a new world where those who have been first are last, and last first: Year Zero.
The grotesque violence of IS hostage videos is thus understood by those carrying it out both as commanding spectacle and a final confirmation of sanctified statehood. The orange jumpsuits are meant to remind us of Guantanamo Bay—not as an indictment, but as a proof that they too can claim the power to place people beyond the reach of help in the name of justice.
Of course another hallmark of the state, as Charles Moore reminds us, is the ability to project violence outward. In rejecting the furnished apartment, the Arab Spring may not have immediately created a new model of popular participation, but it has certainly activated the expeditionary tendency among the region’s states. Iran has sent its Quds Force into Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah has ventured beyond Lebanon, Egypt has bombarded Libya and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent troops into Bahrain and Yemen to restore ‘order’.
When Islamic State strikes at Russian targets, as we now believe it has, and at the Saudi-financed Egyptian regime, it is hardly credible to say that it does so because it despises their attachment to liberty or Western values. These are political attacks, not cultural or civilisational ones. But it is certainly worth noting that attacking Europe is also an expeditionary action—once again, IS mimics the behaviour of those entities it claims to transcend.
The absence of participation and the presence of violence is a driver in all the region’s conflicts. This means that approaches that rely on reinforcing existing state structures will not lead to peace. The alternative proposed by Islamic State—in which participation is violence—is the product of a society smashed by war upon war, as Cambodia was in the 1970s and Afghanistan in the 1990s. Islam is not the source of such a vision but simply another medium for its transmission, like YouTube or IS’s online magazine or expeditionary acts of terror. But replacing Qabbani’s litany of historical saviours with page after page of young male martyrs is quite literally a dead end. What hope there is for Iraqis and Syrians remains in the box, obscured from sight.
Maher Mughrabi’s essay ‘Hunting Leviathan in the Middle East’ is currently available in Arena Journal No. 43/44, Making Modernity from the Mashriq to the Maghreb
Maher Mughrabi is the Foreign Editor of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He has worked for Fairfax Media for twelve years and in journalism for twenty years, editing newspapers including The Independent in London, The Scotsman in Edinburgh and the Khaleej Times in Dubai. He has lectured on politics, history and culture at the University of Melbourne and Monash University.