The Novelty of Extremism

Another week, another attack attributed to ‘extremism’.  At least in the West – the rest of the world expects these things far more frequently, to the point where the lack of coverage by the (Western-owned) news media is actually kind of logical: news is defined by novelty.  In this sense, it’s not ‘news’ that another car bomb, attack on a rival sect, or the like , has occurred in Iraq or much of the surrounding region.  Of course it’s pretty fucking important to the people living there, but as far as the West is concerned, this is awful business as usual.

ISIS (or IS, ISIL, etc.) and their ilk have apparently broken through this apathy by apparently raising the brutality to another level.  I’m not entirely convinced by this notion, not least because it’s pretty much impossible to come up with something to do to another human being that hasn’t been done before.  Burning alive?  While not perhaps as common as certain tales about witchfinders might suggest, the practice dates back millennia, was in the playbook of the Catholic church – and others – for centuries, and was still on the statute book of European nations well into the 19th century.  Of course we don’t do it now (at least not as a directly-mandated method of execution – incendiary weapons are still in use), but when you’re in a state of war – something that various of the involved parties seem to agree on, if not the implications of this – you don’t get to choose exactly what methods and techniques are permissible to your opponent.

Rather, the outrage seems to be at the particularly public nature of the crimes.  This again is not, in itself, a novelty: every historical nation appreciated the (apparent) value of making executions public.  The difference here is the nature of publicity.  Rather than making everybody head off to the town square to watch a hanging, we can now sit at home, click on a few links, and be exposed to the horror.  And the nature of the web is such that it is ISIS who are largely in control of this process.  Of course it is the choice of an individual to watch, or to decide that being aware of the crime is sufficient without requiring first-hand viewing.  But the role of the formal media, literally to mediate between the public and the world, has been reduced.

This presents a problem for the media establishment, and thus for the state, of which it is a part.  This is not to suggest that the mainstream media is under direct control in the Soviet style, or even in the more subtle fashion of the BBC (I am not attacking the BBC here , as I think it’s fantastic for all sort of reasons, but the nature of the licence-fee funded system is such that it works under certain constraints).  Nor is this to confuse the state with the government of the day.  But the variations between the press in different countries show how each nation tailors its own media.  In the greatest part this is determined, if unconsciously, by the public, but the powerful are able to steer more deliberately.

Given the fact that they (and by ‘they’ I mean both the mainstream media and the wider state) can’t control the release of these videos, of the wider news of atrocities and killings, they are seemingly left with two options.  Either to ignore them, to try and distract by focussing on other events elsewhere, to make their own bigger, better news.  Or to try and make more out of these horrors in an effort to regain control of the narrative.  You might think of it like their being the driver of a vehicle that has been forced out of control and is skidding.  either they try and fight against it and return to the normal course, or they turn further into the skid (which is apparently what one should do in the actual situation, although I guess it requires a certain level of cool and concentration).  And in the most part it looks like they’ve chosen the latter; these atrocities are a ‘new thing’, and worse than anything we have seen before (and therefore require an equally unprecedented response).

One of the problems with this tactic of escalation is that it’s never enough.  Each new act needs to be (or be seen to be) worse than the last, just to require our attention.  Once one expects novelty, the same just won’t do.  So the tag of extremist needs to be attached to ever more items.  If terrorists are threatening our very way of life, why should the police be bothered about environmentalist activists?  Perhaps these people are also extremists, albeit of a less immediately frightening ilk.  Soon, any person or organisation outside the mainstream risks being branded as extremist.  And this is not entirely inaccurate, if extremism is only ever defined against a notion of the ‘moderate’ that is hyper-conservative.  Which is what seems to be happening over the last few years, with the result that the label of ‘extremist’ has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Placing the blame

The nature of the term extremist is such that it requires more specification.  One could be an extremist knitter, or stamp collector, but this is unlikely to make one a threat to the public.  However an extremist Muslim, or even atheist – as belatedly reported by some in the case of the Chapel Hill shootings – is a different matter.  This could expand to political and other ideologies.  However the effect in all these cases is to definitely locate the individual within a particular group.  Muslims have long been aware of this – the way that every attack is followed by the demands for ‘moderate’ Islam to express its regrets, to apologise, and above all to own the crimes of its extremist adherents.  Much of the response (at least on Twitter, as the mainstream media initially saw a non-event) to the Chapel Hill shootings was to turn this expectation onto atheism.  I entirely understand why this happened, but I’m afraid that two wrongs do not make a right.  There may be cases when a wider group needs to be held responsible for the actions of one of its members, but to cast the net so widely is not only a mistake, but is ultimately extremely negative.

Most obviously this is a Bad Thing in that large numbers who are entirely innocent of the original crime are drawn into its wake.  And this can lead to waves of retaliation and escalation.  One of the saddest aspects of the Charlie Hebdo attack was the moment I realised that not only was the response seemingly inevitable, but that it would only lead to further innocent deaths.  As many in the West, including its leaders (seeing obvious political capital, if you’re feeling cynical) praised the idea of a new issue collecting yet more offensive images related to Islam.  Now I’m not questioning their right to publish these, or weighing it against the offence felt by many Muslims entirely innocent of the shootings, but I knew that this was going to lead to more deaths.  I’m not sure of how these numbered, not least because they didn’t fit the narrative, but at least ten people were reported killed in Niger at protests against the new edition.  Without wanting to go into further detail on this matter, I’d note that the reason I’m broadly against the likes of Charlie Hebdo is that it seems so indiscriminate in its targets: for me, satire is meant to be directed solely at the powerful; kicking those worse off than you is bullying, not free speech.

Anyway, returning from that tangent, I’d suggest the other problem with locating specific extremisms is that it leads to looking for the causes – and hence the place to begin preventative activity – in the wrong place.  If Islamic extremists are responsible for x, then we must go to the mosques.  If an atheist extremist shoots some believers, we must demand that Richard Dawkins explain himself.  And so on.  And this means that we miss, possibly wilfully, any possible common causes, and also significant differences.

We ignore the fact that, even if we do pretend that the Chapel Hill shootings were over a ‘simple’ parking dispute, Craig Hicks appears to have been a singularly angry man in a country that permits such people easy access to lethal weaponry.  And we ignore the backgrounds of those involved involved in attacks such as those in Paris this year, London in 2005, and even 9/11, beyond that they were extremist Muslims.  We may think that we are exculpating other ‘moderate’ Muslims, but in fact we are further locating the blame within their community.  And I’d like to look more closely at this.

In describing someone as an Islamic extremist, we don’t question their belonging to the religion.  Other Muslims may be quick to point out that they can’t be ‘real’ Muslims and commit such crimes, but we all too easily brush this aside as a formula, and one that is really just a variation on No True Scotsman (an informal fallacy, where one modifies an assertion on an ad hoc basis to suit emerging data or claims).  But this is to, crucially, miss the importance of the assertion.  To put it bluntly: many of those involved in ‘Islamic’ terrorist acts are rubbish Muslims.  Plenty of accounts have noted that, contrary to what one has been led to expect, they don’t become especially devout, start attending mosque more frequently, or studying the Koran.  Rather, they drink alcohol, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex.  Now I might regard it as possible to be a Muslim while failing to adhere to every requirement (I’m afraid my knowledge of the specifics is lacking), but I’d be hard pushed to describe these people as devout.

Rather, these behaviours have more in common with gangs and drug dealers.  And wouldn’t you know it, it appears that quite a few of those involved have exactly this sort of history.  A little reading around suggests that it’s far easier to find people already on the edge of society, already engaged in criminal activity, give them a dose of a highly distorted version Islam, and persuade them to focus their already extant rage at disenfranchisement, than it is to get ordinary Muslims to attack anybody.

To cut a long argument short, focussing on Islam (or atheism, or any other broad ideology) in the wake of a terrorist attack by those claiming affiliation is not only counterproductive in various other ways, but it is a complete waste of time as regards trying to identify the cause.  And we won’t prevent further attacks by treating Islam (even if we tip-toe around our point by attempting to differentiate ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ varieties) as the root cause.  Terrorist attacks, for all of the scale and horror, are criminal acts, and share the same broad source: poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, exclusion, and the rage that results from these.  The fact that religion or ideology may help to direct, to choose targets, is to misunderstand its role.

And on that note, I return to the Chapel Hill shootings.  Craig Hicks may have shot three people because they were Muslims.  He may even have done it over a parking dispute (although I would be extremely suspicious of anybody who tried to claim that there was nothing more to it).  But to attribute his actions simply to his professed ideology is to miss the point as much as it is to blame the Charlie Hebdo shootings on Islam; he was as far as we can tell, an angry, angry man with a gun.  And one of those is just waiting for a reason to kill somebody.  Any reason.


Having laid out in my usual roundabout fashion, I guess I’ll offer my idea of a ‘solution’.  Firstly, terrorism is a criminal act or acts.  Nothing more.  The moment we treat it as such, not only do we cede power directly to the terrorists, but we degrade our ability to prevent it happening further.  Secondly, you don’t deal with crime without dealing with the causes of crime.  Of course this sounds worryingly like an early Blair soundbite.  But for me this means, most simply, trying to reduce inequality, and lack of employment, education, and political engagement.


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