By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In January of 1963 the 104th episode of The Twilight Zone aired. Named ‘He’s Alive’, starring Dennis Hopper as Peter Vollmer, it chronicles the life and death of a small-time Neo-Nazi in America. In its opening scene Vollmer is speaking to a crowd of people on a city street, fulminating against immigrants and African-Americans. But the crowd isn’t having any of it, they challenge him and fight with the Neo-Nazis. Rod Sterling’s narration notes that “remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.” The message is clear: Hate is not to be taken with a grain a salt, it is a constant danger and society must confront it. The idea is that Hitler may have appeared un-serious in 1922, but movements like these are deadly serious.
When ISIS emerged in 2014 and rolled across Iraq from Syria, it gained tens of thousands of supporters among Sunni Arabs in the region. It also received a flood of foreign Jihadist volunteers, numbering into the tens of thousands. Several thousand of these came from EU member states. In March 2015, after the crimes of ISIS were well known, including the mass rape and enslavement of Yazidis, beheadings and mass murder, the French foreign ministry was still warning that up to 10,000 people from Europe might join ISIS by the end of the year.
The support that ISIS received in Europe, especially in some neighborhoods populated mainly by immigrants and Muslims, was clear in 2014. There were openly pro-ISIS rallies, with ISIS flags flying proudly. In July of 2015 a man was even seen wearing an ISIS flag in central London. Even after the Brussels terror attack, as media once against converged on Molenbeek, we once again got a view into the story of why people joined ISIS and what ISIS is. The usual interviews were conducted with men who said they felt alienated by society and that racism caused people to become radicalized. They explained that ISIS is not Islamic. The BBC ran a story looking at “Molenbeek’s gangster Jihadists.” In their view these extremists who killed 30 people in a bombing at the Brussels airport and on the metro, were just wayward men. Brahim Abdeslam would walk around with “a joint in one hand and a beer in another.” Friends said he would “spout off radical statements but that no-one took him seriously.”
The “Gangster-Jihadist” story had already been run in December by the Washington Post and now it was being re-discovered. The Post claimed on March 23 that these Jihadists had “deep criminal roots.” FBI expert Ali Soufan claimed “Some of these guys are just looking for an opportunity to justify their violence and criminality.”
At the same time as the media plays up the “gangster” story, it also reminds us that what really creates ISIS-supporters, is the racism against immigrants in society. On March 22 Salon claimed that “after Brussels, far-right Islamophobes are doing exactly what ISIS wants them to do.” The Washington Post had said the same thing back in November: “Hating Muslims plays right into Islamic State’s hands.” Interviews with those who joined ISIS don’t paint a picture of men who suffered at the hands of Islamophobia, as much as a picture of men who wanted the ultimate dark male fantasy: go to a foreign country, kill people, have fun with guy-friends, maybe rape and enslave some women, and all without any laws or responsibilities, then come home and relax. Life in the ISIS Jihad, especially back in 2014 and 2015 seemed appealing.
If you try to add up the various stories about people who joined ISIS and why they join ISIS and what ISIS “really” wants, it doesn’t compute. The media tends to have a far too neat-and-clean understanding of ISIS. The Guardian’s story about how ISIS had carefully laid plans to spread chaos in Europe is contradicted by the “gangster” narrative where men who were criminals and disillusioned by integration into society, angry by racism, and slightly influenced by extremist preachers, decided to murder people primarily on their own initiative.
Another series of contradictory narratives argues over whether ISIS is “Islamic” or not. Some authors want to debate the ins and outs of ISIS own interpretations of Islam, and then, lecture ISIS on how it is wrong. Others, particularly world leaders such as Barack Obama, want to be clear: ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. The evidence for that could be the meme circulating on Twitter showing a circle representing 1.7 billion Muslims, and a little dot representing the 50,000 or so ISIS members. World leaders and the media prefer terms such as “violent extremists” and “militants” for Islamist organizations like ISIS. Hamid Dabashi argues that ISIS is actually similar to the Western “slaughter of innocent in the Islamic world,” ISIL is US and EU militarism by other means, in urban disguise. ISIL is not a response to US or EU militarism. It is a software in the hardware of its machinery of death and destruction…ISIL is the logical extension of the US militarism, not its conspiratorial invention.” Professor Richard Falk argues that “relying on reactive excessive force in distant countries that tends to spread the virus of violent extremism throughout the planet” and that “traumatized West” is being punished by the “retaliatory capacities and strategy of non-Western adversaries.”
Let’s say the story that ISIS isn’t “really Islamic” were true, then why would “Islamophobia” drive people to join a non-Muslim organization? Is ISIS some complex and carefully thought out organization using “retaliatory capacity” to confront “the West”, then why is it bombing football stadiums in Baghdad. If ISIS thrives on racism after its attacks, then why did most people join it in 2014, before it ever even attacked Europe?
The problem with all these narratives is that none of them hold the society around the extremists responsible. When there were ISIS rallies in 2014 in Europe, there were no counter rallies. When preachers spoke to young people about the need to go to Syria, no one confronted them. The stories are always that parents were “concerned”, not that the extremists were confronted.
Time to be clear: ISIS=Nazi
Consider the difference with a Neo-Nazi or KKK rally in Europe or America. When the KKK wants to have a march it needs police escorts, because the anti-racism protests are so vigorous. When Neo-Nazis want to march, they are confronted by protests far larger than the group itself. Societies have learned how to confront violence extremism, as long as it is labelled “KKK” or “Neo-Nazi” or “racist”. So why do those with the black flags shouting hatred get a pass? While the number of ISIS volunteers in Europe was around several thousand people, they came from a swamp of local supports. Around that swamp are ample streams that flow into it with daily sermons of extremism and hate. A preacher who supports an extremist in Pakistan who murdered someone for “blasphemy” is not an ISIS member, not even a member of any extremist group, but his soft-message is that extremism is acceptable. When interviewees tell people that the terrorist Brahim “said radical things but we didn’t take him seriously,” it is an example of how society is inured to these views.
Media made the same mistake when they first looked at Hitler in 1922. He had “negative ideas clothed in generalities…several well-informed sources confirm the idea that Hitler’s anti-semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded and that he was merely using anti-semitic propaganda as a bait to capture large numbers of followers.” He too was seen as a “patriot” and “economic savior.” He too preyed on the dissaffected and downtrodden, and urban poor. Perhaps the media also claimed he was not a “real German”, not a “real Christian” and that of course, disliking Germans because of Hitler would “play right into Nazi hands.” Of course the Nazi party surely combined elements of “crime” and “ideology”.
Whatever the excuse, the issue is that extremism comes from a much larger swamp. It has to be confronted where it comes from, not excused, not coddled, not blamed always on something else. So long as ISIS is always the problem only of the “security services”, or every mention of ISIS receives an excuse, like “poverty”, “racism”, “alienation” or “it’s not us”, then there is no decision to confront it.
If it was true that all of those saying “it is not Islamic” actually believed this about ISIS, then why does a non-Islamic movement have such success among Muslims? If it was a blasphemous movement, then it would be gunned down or attacked like Asad Shah was in Glasgow after posting a happy easter message. If, as Qasim Rashid wrote at Time, ISIS was against the Quran, than large numbers of believers would be out attacking anyone who dares support ISIS. But you would get a far larger protest in places like Molenbeek against controversial Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud for being “anti-Islamic”, despite the fact that he is a Muslim, because his liberal controversial views are seen as un-acceptable. You’ll get a far larger mass protest against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, than you would against an ISIS preacher. Because Hirsi Ali would be seen as a “hatemonger” and “Islamophobe”, whereas the ostensibly “non-Islamic” ISIS extremist is somehow less of a threat, less in need of confrontation.
Dabashi says that ISIS is the same side of the coin as the Western countries that bombed and slaughtered innocents in the Islamic world. If that were the mass perception in the banlieues, then one would assume the same anger against drone strikes, or Israeli attacks on Gaza, would emerge after an ISIS bombing, either one in Paris, or one in Baghdad or Yemen. But there are not large anti-ISIS rallies and there is little evidence that the preachers of violent extremism are confronted. Instead they tend to be feared. They operate with impunity, fearing only minor nuisance from the state authorities, not a counter-protest in their own areas. They are the intimidators, not the intimidated. Like the mafia in southern Italy or at one time in the US, they are the muscular ones, and despite the existence of opposition, there simply are no protests against them. They are not running scared like KKK rallies, hiding behind police cordon, rather they operate openly.
The KKK lynched several thousand people over the hundred year period where lynchings were common (1865-1965). That makes it less deadly than ISIS during just one week in 2014 in Iraq. Why do we zealously oppose the KKK? Because lynchings and killings are not the only thing it represents. It represents the swamp of racism in society, the intimidation of an entire people, on top of its terrorism campaign and murder. How can ISIS be stigmatized like the KKK or Nazis were? Hatred for Nazis, if it just exists among victims, is meaningless. Jewish people may protest Nazis and black people may protest the KKK, but as the Twilight Zone episode showed so well in 1963, it is society at large, particularly the society from which the extremists draw their members and support, that must run them out of town.
So long as the communities from which extremism comes in places like Brussels, continue to only have a knee-jerk excuse for extremism or claim that “it has nothing to do with me” and so long as media continue to placate this narrative, there will be no change. Dabashi writes that Muslims should not reply to terrorism with messages such as “Islam is a religion of peace” because the very reply accepts that Islam is implicated. This view is widespread, namely that the concept must be to totally extricate the association of Muslims from ISIS. But the problem is that merely disassociating white people from the KKK and Neo-Nazism, doesn’t make either one go away. Disassociating Italians from the Mafia, doesn’t make the mafia disappear, it just makes it so we are supposed to pretend that the mafia has nothing to do with being Italian. That doesn’t reduce the octopus stranglehold the mafia may have on communities.
Every country with widespread terror elements has to cross the bridge of how to deal with them. In general the extremists thrive through intimidation and the reluctance of society to own up to its role in aiding and abetting the swamp of intolerance from which extremism derives its strength. In many cases the reality is even more nuance. Groups from the KKK to the mafia or ISIS, may gain strength from actual support that is quiet and widespread because they are seen as “defending the poor”, and because they can exploit views such as “we are victims”. The evidence that ISIS is most defeated not by European “security” but by Muslims is clear on the battlefields of the Middle East. It has been Kurds and Shia in Iraq who have been the main defeaters of ISIS. On that battlefield there is no room for a protest. But in those places in Europe where the ISIS volunteers come from, only the decision by the community to view ISIS as one would the KKK or Nazis, will defeat it. And angry anti-ISIS protest here and there could be a good start.