The West is facing a growing crisis – one that is swarming its borders, bankrupting its economies, exploiting its welfare systems, undermining its values and terrorizing its streets. That crisis is the other: the refugee, the migrant, the Syrian, the Mexican, the Muslim. Or so goes the great drama of our day, played out on virtually every media outlet in the West, from TV stations to print to Facebook feeds.
This great drama is consistently told within a two-dimensional frame that stretches only so far: the right end of the political spectrum blankets all others (Muslims, Mexicans, etc.) as the root of all problems – absurd proposals like the Trump Wall become a rallying campaign pillar and the left goes to great efforts to apologetically distinguish the good apples from the bad apples. Thus, trends like #NotAllMuslims go viral only to perpetuate the conceding premise that the Other (albeit a more nuanced Other) is the root of all problems. At the heart of this discourse remains a modern day-demonology wherein the other must be identified, made knowledgeable, controlled and dominated.
There is no need to evaluate the accuracy of this great drama or emphasis the role of Western governments in creating its calamities. This is not because there already are voices doing so which are being drowned out by mainstream media, but because the great drama being told is not trying to be accurate. As Edward Said observed of Orientalists’ writings about the Orient, the majority of today’s western media coverage on the other within the context of the West’s refugee/migrant/Islam “crisis” aims to construct and purposefully incorporate an other into a drama whose audience and actors is the West.
What do the fictions about the other told in prominent recent headlines tell us about Western governments, policies and public sentiment? What concrete actions are made possible by these fictions? Cultures have arguably often been inclined to distinguish between an “us” and an “other” not only to make the strange and different receivable and antithetically familiar, but to solidify and make diametrically superior “our” own identity and values. What does the language used to describe the “radicalization” of Muslim shooters in the US tell us about the US mass-shooting epidemic? What do the invocation of 20th century European fascism in the call for UK airstrikes on Syria and the recent discovery of UK cluster bombs in Yemen reveal about lingering imperial power dynamics within British politics? What does the European Union’s willingness to violate its own international humanitarian laws reveal about the universalism of “Western values”?
The so-called “Islamic State’s” resistance to Western representation
To have power over a subject is to have knowledge over the subject – that is, to produce the subject as a known entity that can neatly fit into a logical order of knowledge, that can be categorized and schematized, that experts and decision-makers can observe, control and manipulate. Thus when in the summer of 1910 Arthur James Balfour was challenged in the House of Commons about Britain’s right to rule over Egypt, Balfour replied:
“We know the civilization of Egypt better than we know the civilization of any other country. We know it further back; we know it more intimately; we know more about it. It goes far beyond the petty space of the history of our race, which is lost in the prehistoric period at a time when the Egyptian civilization had already passed its prime”. (Orientalism, Said, 31)
Edward Said elaborates on Balfour’s response:
“To have such knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority here means for “us” to deny autonomy to “it” – the Oriental country – since we know it and it exists, in a sense, as we know it. British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt for Balfour”. (Said, 32)
To dominate a subject is to deny it not just the right but the capacity to represent itself. The subject is the representation fashioned, set and manipulated for it by the subjugator.
The “novel” horror of Daesh that sets it apart from other extremist organizations is its ability to project and influence the spectacle of horror surrounding it at a global level. Inseparable from the images Daesh circulates on social media which are too atrocious to be viewed by or displayed to a Western audience without being edited, pixilated, or hosted on a less reputable website, is the difficulty and confusion in naming the “so-called Islamic State”. Unbroadcastable and unlableable, Daesh puts up a limited resistance to Western discourse’s monopoly over Daesh’s representation; that is, a resistance to Western discourse’s power to dominate and rule Daesh as an epistemic entity within an ordered construction of reality.
This is not to say that Daesh presents a novel threat that escapes the comprehension and control of modern world powers. To do so would both deny the formidable growing surveillance and military capacities of contemporary states as well as concede to the belief that the non-resistant, known other is as it is known or represented. Daesh’s ability to resist, to a limited extent, complete domination over its representation on the Western stage can be seen, in part, as a result of the limited undermining of the state and capital’s control over the production and dissemination of knowledge via the advent of new and social media –a global process not initiated by Daesh and not exclusive to Daesh. The fact that Daesh has been able to capitalize on new communication technologies more successfully than other extremist organizations does not in itself make Daesh a more formidable threat than those who recently played the role of “bogeyman” on the Western stage (the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein) or those currently inflicting violence in Syria or elsewhere in the world.
Critically, Daesh is not using what limited control it has over its representation on the Western stage to break away from the mold reserved for the other which it would otherwise have been cast in without contestation: barbaric, murderous, faceless aggression. While the antithetical and fearsome qualities of the other are maintained in Daesh’s representation, by that representation serving as a contested space within mainstream Western discourse these qualities are not as easily subjugated in their diametrical construction to the West. Regardless of the material threat Daesh presents to citizens of Europe and the US (particularly when compared to other threats such as mass-shootings in the US), the fearsome and violent qualities that are usually allotted to and constrained within the dominated other are perceived to be less constrained and so more threatening and proximate in the case of Daesh –an enemy so barbaric we cannot observe and so elusive our leaders and experts cannot name. This point is particularly revealing when related to the language used to describe and distinguish the San Bernardino shootings from other shootings in the US.
The language of “radicalization”: ignoring epidemic gun violence by legitimizing the West’s fear of Islam
In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings in the US killing 475 people and wounding 1,870, according to Mass Shooting Tracker. Since 2013, there have been at least 183 school shootings –this comes to an average of nearly one school shooting a week since 2013. According to the New American Foundation, since 9/11 to 2015 there have been twice as many right-wing terrorist attacks on US soil as Jihadist terrorist attacks on US soil. During the same period, more people have been killed by right-wing terrorist attacks -48 people- than Jihadist terrorist attacks -45 people.
On 18 June 2015, Dylann Storm Roof, a white supremacist, murdered nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. About three months and a half later on 1 October 2015, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, described by authorities as having “anti-religion and white supremacist leanings”, murdered eight fellow students and a teacher at Umpqua Community College, Oregon. Two months later, on 29 November 2015, Robert Lewis Dear murdered 3 people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Three days later, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The language used to describe the shootings in San Bernardino was very different from that used to describe the other three shootings.
The issue of “radicalization” quickly set the tone for coverage of the San Bernardino shooting. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, reporters, politicians and US intelligence officials discussed the importance of determining whether, and if so how, Farook and Malik where “radicalized”. The day following the shooting, a gathering at one of Southern California’s largest mosque denounced the shootings. While Amjad Mahmood Khan, a spokesman at the gathering, cautioned against presuming the motives of the attackers were faith-driven until more information became available, he did add that the “radicalization of Muslim youth is a problem”. One week later FBI Director James Comey, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the FBI had determined that Farook and Malik “were radicalized…as early as the end of 2013”. The month of December 2015 saw a huge spike in google searches including the term “radicalized”. The term received 32,500 searches between November 2014 and November 2015. In December 2015 alone, the term received 135,000 searches.
The term “radicalized” is used to describe a process of fundamental change a person undergoes that makes them an advocate of a radical political or social project. In mainstream Western media, the term is almost exclusively used to describe Muslims. Even though the tactic of violence involved in a mass shooting, the legal and trade systems in place that make mass shootings possible and frequent in the US, and the costs to human life inflicted by mass shootings are virtually the same in both non-Jihadist driven mass shooting and Jihadist-driven mass shootings, the former and latter are ordered into completely different conceptual categories that produce very different concrete outcomes.
The actions of an individual who commits a mass shooting based on right-wing and white supremacist ideologies cannot be explained by the individual becoming “radicalized”. Their actions are usually explained to be consequences of the individual being troubled, suffering from mental health issues and acting as an anomaly. The actions of an individual who commits a mass shooting based on Jihadist ideologies, however, can only be explained by the individual being “radicalized”. That is, by metamorphosing into a specific and violent form of Islam, a form whose raison d’etre is to hate and destroy the West. The “radicalized” shooter is the true manifestation of a classical other that is always present, always dormant and always waiting to be “activated”.
The West-other dichotomy necessitates that this form of Islam be seen as an inherent trait of Islam and not as an anomaly. The dichotomy makes it seem reasonable to call on a non-homogenous, greatly diverse population of 1.6 billion Muslims to apologize for the actions of two individuals. Even knee-jerk statements regularly made in response to Jihadist-driven acts of violence against Western citizens that call for a nuanced recognition between “moderate” Islam and extremist Islam concede to the formulation of Islam as a categorical other within the West-other dichotomy, and so concede to an inherent causality between Islam and terrorism – a causality that is not drawn between right-wing US ideology and terrorism.
The ban on all Muslims and carpet-bombing Middle Eastern cities into oblivion
Returning to the earlier point about Daesh’s limited resistance to complete domination of its representation on the Western stage, the language of “radicalization” serves to make the perceived inherent violent qualities of Islam that are not completely subjugated in their diametrical construction observable, measurable and controllable. There is a parallel between Daesh’s limited resistance to complete epistemic subjugation and the always dormant, violent form of Islam that cannot be completely supressed that is alluded to by the language of “radicalization”. The recent growing prevalence of the language of “radicalization” permeating from the press to Hollywood can arguably be seen as the response to the contested, social-media dynamized spectacle of horror Daesh brought to the stage.
Through the language of “radicalization”, the Muslim other can be observed in different states like a chemistry process. The Muslim other can be removed from their context and analysed as an absolute that is inherently antithetical to the West. Agents, conditions, reactants and catalysts can be identified, introduced, controlled and balanced. Outcomes can be produced; unexpected results can be accounted for. The process can be replicated from the US to Paris to Belgium and antidotes can be scaled from the individual to Muslim neighbourhoods to the Middle East to the globe.
The language of “radicalization” serves to distinguish and categorize Jihadist-driven mass shootings into a disciplined body of knowledge that allows for a specific set of pragmatic action to be taken and new measures of control implemented. Whereas the US political system has been incapable of taking meaningful action to counter the mass-shooting epidemic, the language of “radicalization” legitimizes and pushes forward policies, law-enforcement initiatives and arms deals that stigmatize and marginalize minorities in the name of security. Beyond just the US, the language legitimizes the expansion of states’ security apparatus and the surveillance of their citizens. It makes constitutional the imposing of extended state curfews. It justifies increased orchestration and activity among the world’s unaccountable secret intelligence agencies. It rallies support for more-of-the-same foreign policies that contributed to the turmoil, grievances and power vacuums in which organizations like Daesh can foster and strive.
With a highly politicized climate surrounding the gun debate in the US, discussions about the social, economic and legal failures that are causing an epidemic of mass shootings are curtailed and drowned out in the media by a discourse that frames mass shootings as the logical manifestation of the abstract other. Despite the fact that domestic terrorism is twice as likely to be carried out by right wing extremists in the US, controlling and annihilating the Muslim body becomes the answer to ending domestic terrorism, violence and insecurity.
We are left dumbstruck as the front candidates for the position of Commander-in-chief commanding the strongest military power on the planet gain popular support by calling for a ban on all Muslims, by openly planning to murder the families and children of Muslim enemy combatants, and by repeatedly promising to indiscriminately carpet bomb cities in the Middle East. These are absurd and violent proposals to control and destroy a fictional other constructed and disciplined by Western discourse that will ultimately result in more deaths of real, innocent individuals across the world, be they victims of Western airstrikes or extremist shootings.
UK airstrikes on Syria
Of course one doesn’t have to use their imagination to picture the legal adoption of such types of proposals that set out to annihilate the body of the other based on a warped representational logic.
Debating proposals on 2 December 2015 at the House of Commons to extend the UK’s aerial campaign against Daesh into Syria, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn orated:
“I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. We are faced by fascists—not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all the people we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy—the means by which we will make our decision tonight—in contempt.
What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. That is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.”
Benn spoke amidst criticism and rift in the Labour party over its leadership. In delivering his highly-praised (“extraordinary”, “trance-like”, “truly great”) speech, Benn presented an alternative Labour Party to the one being molded underneath party leader Jeremy Corbyn. This was a Labour Party whose glory is characterized by its resistance to and victory over European fascism in the 20th century. Seeking to resurrect the image and glory of a past Labour party (and by proxy via a past Britain), Benn reconstitutes Daesh in the image of earlier European fascism. Ignoring the ocean-wide disparity in historical, social, economic, political, cultural, legal and military contexts between Franco, Hitler and Mussolini on the one hand and Daesh on the other, Benn reconstitutes Daesh as the same eternal fascist evil Labour triumphed over before and must triumph over again. Benn is not making an argument for just airstrikes on Daesh in Syria, but for airstrikes on a representation of Daesh that is constructed in such a way as to diametrically reconstitute his image of Labour in its destruction. In redressing the bodies of Daesh fighters in the clothes of dead European fascists, Benn resurrects a Frankensteinian other that can and must be destroyed to resurrect a party that is insecure with its leadership and is still reeling from the embarrassing failure of the 2015 General Elections.
The ideological power play in Benn’s speech is only heightened by the symbolic nature of the proposals to bomb Daesh in Syria. At the time of the debate, most recent records put the number of UK bombs dropped in Iraq against Daesh at about 200. The number of US airstrikes stood at 6000. The proposed aerial expansion was projected by the UK government to cost “tens of millions” of pounds. Since 8 August 2014, the campaign against Daesh had cost the US £7.4 million per day. Both financially and militarily, proposed expansion of UK airstrikes against Daesh into Syria was a symbolic gesture.
Delivering redemption with missiles as UK bombs target civilians in Yemen
It was the Brimstone missile that took centre stage in justifying the expansion, advocated by the Prime Minister himself and heralded by the Telegraph as the envy of the world. Purported to be a “smart” missile that could surgically target enemies while avoiding or reducing the murder of innocent civilians, the Brimstone missile was the moral high ground the UK could uniquely bring to the fight, the moral argument that could justify a military expansion, and the moral duty compelling the UK to stand up against timeless evil.
That Daesh’s infiltration into residential areas had already made the Brimstone missile ineffective long ago and that the Brimstone missile was already within Saudi Arabia’s arsenal had no bearing on the moral argument to bomb Syria. Three months after proposals to extend UK airstrikes into Syria were passed, a freedom of information request by the Huffington Post revealed that the Brimstone missile had been used sparingly due to its high cost. The UK air force was using Hellfire missiles and Paveway IV missiles to kill enemy combatants – both of which were already being used by the US and Saudi Arabia against Daesh.
To complicate the hollow moral gesture even further, the UK government had been regularly selling arms to countries known for committing human rights abuses and was second only to the US in weapons sales in 2014. Despite repeated calls in 2015 from Amnesty International for investigations into Coalition airstrikes in Yemen resulting in the “killing of hundreds of civilians, including scores of children”, the UK approved a £1.7 billion arms export licence for Saudi Arabia on 14 May 2015 and further arms export licences for Saudi Arabia amounting to a value of £1 billion in July 2015. On 25 November 2015 – just one week before Hilary Benn’s speech in the House of Commons- the remnants of a UK-made cruise missile where found in the rubble of a civilian factory in Yemen struck by the Coalition. In the following days Save the Children joined Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s call for an end to UK arms supplies to the Coalition, noting that nearly three-quarters of child casualties in the second quarter of 2015 were caused by Coalition bombing.
None of this made a substantial dent in the moral groundwork that was laid to portray the UK as morally entitled to intervene and that was leveraged to pass proposals to extend UK airstrikes. About a month after the debate, the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that since May 2010, and throughout the Arab Spring, the UK licensed £5.6 billion in sales of arms, fighter jets and military hardware to Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive, draconian and fascist states in the Middle East.
Last week, Amnesty International discovered a UK-made cluster bomb used by the Coalition in a series of strikes on civilians in Yemen. At least 16 civilians, including nine children, were maimed and two children killed. The discovery confirms the UK’s complicity in fuelling the types of violence it promised to fight in December 2015. The moral bankruptcy in Benn’s claim that the UK has “never and we never should walk by on the other side of the road” is even more difficult to overlook in light of the recent evidence.
Unsurprisingly, however, after making only a small splash in the media in the UK, the story of the discovery has already been dropped and forgotten from the news cycle. And it is this ability to forget that completes the picture.
The great drama’s capacity to ahistorically construct and reconstruct the other serves as a powerful war drum. In the case of the UK, the prevailing discourse leading to the vote on UK airstrikes on Syria simultaneously imposes one historical narrative onto the other while denying the other the capacity to record history. In one instance, the Muslim body becomes the embodiment of a fictional Frankensteinian other that fits neatly into Benn’s historical narrative and that must accordingly be destroyed to resurrect a past glory. In that same instance, the Muslim body also becomes a memory-less entity; an indistinguishable slate upon which the real and lethal consequences of Western foreign policies are obscured, forgotten and made unrecordable. The great drama simultaneously legitimizes violence against the other while pre-emptively nullifying the moral consequences of that violence. This war drum is beat time and time again to sway populations into supporting more-of-the-same military campaigns while the consequences and failures of recent similar military campaigns are still amounting. Once the vote is passed and the war drums rested, the electorate swiftly awakes from the “trance-like” paranoia, national fervour and collective amnesia by which it was overcome. According to YouGov, support among British voters for the airstrikes stood at 59% a few days before the vote and dropped to 44% immediately after the vote.
The EU refugee trade deal: yes, Europe is a lie
But enough about what Western media and voters think about the other. What does the EU’s “solution” mean to someone born and raised outside of the West?
The EU-Turkey refugee deal does not so much reveal as it does confirm what is already known: the universalism of the ideals and values that define the West do not apply universally. Seen as the modern culmination of Western values, human rights are defined by their universal applicability to all human beings regardless of the accident of birth. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention and the European Convention of Human Rights are all considered to be hallmarks of Western civilization’s progress and are all contradicted by the EU-Turkey refugee deal. That the deal can only operate “effectively” by violating these treaties confirms the Euro-centric privilege underlying that universalism. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has immediately criticized the deal, saying it would amount to a violation of human rights. Amnesty International has already documented cases where the implementation of the deal has resulted in violation of human rights.
It’s easy to spot the contradiction of a great drama that reifies one’s values of universalism via the exclusion, diametrical construction and subjugation of the other. It’s easy to spot mainstream Western media’s complicity in simultaneously producing the other as a specific realization of an existential threat and as an expected sufferer of regular and unrecordable violence. European politicians and pundits claim to be defending European values (which are purportedly being threatened by the swarming other) by disposing and violating those values in their actions toward the other. In so doing, the self-evident universalism of Western values which holds such colossal moral authority and which has been and is being used to justify foreign policies and imperial campaigns is confirmed to be a political tool to be applied when suitable to European interests and abandoned when otherwise. The message is clear: the promise of Europe – that is, the universal recognition of all human as equal and entitled to basic rights – is a lie.
It’s difficult to articulate how powerful such a message is to a person born and raised in a country that was colonized in the name of European values and modernized under the promise of Europe. For the third world, the first world is the original image in which it was made and to which it must, we are told, perpetually struggle to reach. That for which our cultures were abandoned and our histories trivialized, that for which our ancestors were brutalized and their traditions rejected, that for which our lands were stripped and our airs polluted, that for which our markets were liberalized and our livelihoods jeopardized, that for which our religions were demonized and our names anglicized, that for which our governments were ousted and our dictators propped, that for which we waged war amongst ourselves and committed atrocities, that for which our homes are being and will be bombed has always been, is and always will be a lie.
But the great drama goes on.
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Mark Bou Mansour works in communications in the UK charity and policy sector. He grew up in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia before moving to the UK to complete his studies on the interplay between media and politics. Twitter: @markboum
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