The Politics    Monday, November 16, 2015

Ne plus ultra

By Richard Cooke

Ne plus ultra
The Eiffel Tower at sunrise. Source
The ISIS attack on Paris can’t be shoehorned into existing narratives

“And it’s absolutely incumbent on all decent people, but particularly on religious leaders, Muslim religious leaders, to say, ‘This is not part of our faith’. It never should have been and it must not be now.” That’s what Tony Abbott told the host of The Bolt Report. But this was a restrained, careful interview. Like Malcolm Fraser and Julia Gillard before him, Abbott seems to have finally risen to the occasion of office too late.

His response to Bolt’s goading also showed another truth of our time: if you’re still calling on Muslims to denounce terror, you’re not listening to them. There’s not even a need to call on media-approved moderate Muslims to speak out. Even extremists will do it unprompted. Islamic State stands ostracised not only by hundreds of fatwas and countless statements, but also by other terrorist organisations.

“People of the region of Arab and Islamic countries who are living under the brutality of ISIS are the most aware and sympathetic of what hit the French nation last night,” Hezbollah head Sayyad Nasrallah said in a speech after the Paris attack. “We offer our deep condolences, solidarity, sympathy, moral and humanitarian stand to those innocent who are invaded by [their] barbaric criminal management.”

The catalogue of critics includes even the spiritual mentor of Islamic State’s own founder. “The kidnapping and murder of relief workers and neutral journalists have distorted the image of jihad. They make the mujahedeen look like murderers who spill blood blindly.” So said Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, perhaps the world’s leading theological architect of religious terrorism. ISIS then is the ne plus ultra, extreme among extremists, condemned even by the condemned. This position has left it not isolated, but somehow more powerful.

The attraction of atrocity is new. In the 1990s, during the throes of the Algerian Civil War, the GIA Islamist militant organisation practised exactly this kind of violence. The result was not followers, but lost legitimacy. Beheadings and massacres of civilians even led to a split between comrades in arms (those who renounced the tactics would later become Al Qaeda in the Maghreb). The Algerian mujahedeen might have been poorly educated and repressed, chafing under well-earned colonial and post-colonial grievance. But they still turned away, blood-sick.

That has changed. This profane element attracts, rather than repulses, Islamic State’s adherents. The gore enlivens them. Somehow it compels even those from other societies, from other faiths. History’s most virulent ideologies have reconciled seemingly impossible contradictions through a grammar of violence. Far from being medieval, the terror group crossbreeds the malign signs of our times: the self-organising hierarchies of internet trolls, the attention-savvy of school shooters, the performance-art savagery of Mexican cartels, and the alienated, cosmopolitan and rootless identity of the Western city, tending into nihilism.

The rhetorical responses to Friday’s attack were distributed via new technology, but they felt out of date. Every kind of existing narrative was employed. It was due to a lack of Western resolve. The attackers were a kind of victim too. Media bias meant we were paying too much attention. It was Edward Snowden’s fault. It was because of refugees. It was what refugees were fleeing from. By Saturday afternoon, social media here had turned its attention to an Adam Hills gag gone wrong. The massacre couldn’t be mapped on the pre-existing matrices. It stayed outside them.

Even within the hell of mass-killings, there are lower circles. The attackers knew that. They had explosives, but didn’t combine them into a single blast, or a series of blasts. Instead they turned a concert hall into a charnel house, shooting the young attendees one by one. The venues were chosen not just because they are symbols of “decadence” (in other words, areas where people of different backgrounds meet and enjoy themselves). They are also places of performance, of spectacle. And the spectacle presented was not just violence, but a secular blasphemy, a desecration of the sanctity of human life.

From Nairobi to Brussels, Baghdad to Beirut, the whole world is now the audience to this spectacle. Some will become participants, willing or unwilling. One attendee summed up London’s memorial gathering like this: “Trafalgar Square gathering felt like a lot of young people in a total malaise about what to think or say.”

That’s as it should be. Whatever resolve they create, whatever actions they galvanise, these acts are for now somewhere else – beyond our collective faculties of comprehension.


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Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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