Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Romance of ISIS

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 

The Romance of ISIS
(written and re-written from the end of August when ISIS swept close toward the Kurdish region and the first reports of large numbers of international fighters joining their ranks appeared in the press.)

It is a mantra of politicians the world over that when confronting a group like ISIS, military and political intervention isn’t enough and that the root causes of extremism need to be addressed. People cite the alienation, disenfranchisement, and lack of economic opportunity for young Muslims in the West, and suggest that if their futures were only more secure they wouldn’t be so easily “radicalized.” It would seem that the world’s leaders have an incomplete grasp of the desires and interests of many young people. For every earnest teenager concerned with their economic future and career, there are plenty of brooding Hamlets or dissolute but passionate Prince Hals, eagerly looking for some cause to give their life meaning in the present with little thought for the morrow: the more extreme, radical, and seemingly noble the better. What too many Westerners, obsessed as we are with comfort and security, fail to notice is that one of the most attractive elements of the Jihadist path is its romantic appeal.

ISIS has invited young Muslims around the world to personally participate in a sanguinary romance, a sublime reckoning, using a vocabulary of honor, glory, and martyrdom of which the West has become wary and cynical. They promise hardship, danger, violence, and, consequently, meaning. If these recruits look for a counter-offer from the West they’ll likely see, first and foremost, the material comforts, lack of faith, and supposedly selfish pursuits that their leaders identify as symptoms of the very malaise they’ve been called to cure.

ISIS-produced videos like “The Flames of War” lure young men to fight with images of Hollywood-style violence, and blogs like “Diary of aTraveller,” a Tumblr run by an insufferable Malaysian girl in Syria who manages to be simultaneously nihilistic and twee (a photo of a Kalashnikov in one post, a still from the Disney film “Frozen” in another, and plenty or rants combining equal parts sentimentality and hatred,) coax women to the cause with talk of divinely-sanctioned true love and marriage to would-be martyrs (who will presumably occupy themselves with their celestial virgins until their terrestrial wives are martyred too.) Such romantic expressions are crude, often juvenile, and suggest people who are deeply retarded emotionally and intellectually - their dogmatic hatred of most art, music, and culture is further proof if any was needed.

Unlike foreign armies of the past, ISIS’ western recruits aren’t mere mercenaries; they’re a hideous mutation of the soldier of conscience, who joins a foreign war on principle. One can’t help but wonder why, in the face of this nakedly savage and brutal threat, there are no foreign nationals (apart from a few hundred brave Kurdish ex-pats and one or two American veterans,) joining the fight on the ground against ISIS.

In the 1930’s politically-engaged intellectuals voluntarily took up arms to fight Fascism in Spain. The International Brigade included the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, George Orwell, Esmond Romilly and Jessica Mitford, and Stephen Spender. Europeans and Americans of various political stripes fought an enemy which they recognized as a deadly threat to the values in which they believed. And they wrote poetry, novels, and memoirs about it. Today the only cause which seems to be inspiring people to leave their countries, fight, and possibly die, is an ideology which crows of its beheadings, rapes, genocide, and theocracy - and the poetry on “Diary of a Traveller” is execrable.

Part of the problem is the bureaucratic distance on this side – an institutional insistence on proper channels. Want to fight terrorists? Join the army - although it’ll take a while and you’ll have to fight whomever we tell you to. Want to help suffering people? Donate to any number of worthy charities and volunteer locally. My generation and subsequent ones, so used to instant communication and instant results on a global level, are unsurprisingly more attracted to the mirror image of the secret agent’s tap on the shoulder - the man in the mosque saying he’ll put you on the next flight to eternal glory.

A bigger problem is our poor symbolism; for people who get so violently bent out of shape about representative art, ISIS is good with imagery. They gloat over photos of two smoldering towers to which our uninspiring memorial is two square craters (the remarkable thing about the buildings wasn’t their girth.) They have a stark white-on-black flag bearing the shahada, we have a smirking man in a flight jacket standing in front of a painfully ironic “Mission Accomplished” banner. They wipe out the border between two countries, claiming it as a repudiation of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and our version of “never forget” includes a 9/11 terror attacks cheese plate.

It’s easy to say that ISIS is evil and that evil must be fought, but in the name of what? Good is vague and God both vague and divisive. The spasms of nationalism and patriotism felt in the wakes of attacks on Western countries or their citizens abroad aren’t enough to counter a threat that recognizes no borders. The destruction or theft of land or property doesn’t stack up to the heady romance of holy war as a reason for people to leave their homes and go fight - if it did there would be far more young Muslims trying to get into Gaza to join Hamas.

There’s no shortage of causes around which we can rally: the rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and apostates, and the right of children of both sexes to education. But that’s a lot to fit on one flag. These concepts reside under the umbrella of “liberty;” as good a banner to march under as one can hope for, but a weakly defined and advocated concept these days. When a group that forces female populations into vertical body bags and anybody who resists it into horizontal ones can claim, as it does, that it is an army of liberation, partly from western “decadence” - a word with which we’ve become so unfamiliar now we primarily use it in reference to chocolate - the battle of language isn’t going in our favor.

If tomorrow five thousand young foreigners from around the world, funded by people impassioned by their cause, flew to Erbil to form international brigades alongside the Pesh Merga, devoting themselves to defending the people, libraries, shrines, and museums of Iraq and Syria in the absence of ground troops from capable but hesitant nations, it would be difficult to ever doubt the resolve to fight Islamic extremism again. It could also be pure folly, and possibly a military disaster, so those fighting ISIS need to find another way to strike as effective a blow to the ideological and romantic morale of young Jihadists, to convince them that there are people on the other side just as willing to fight for ideas, who are animated not by a threat to land, lives, and property, but to concepts which they hold inviolable.

During the Greek War of Independence a Turkish regiment controlled the Acropolis, garrisoning troops on the monument-covered hill. As the Greeks’ siege entered its second year the Turks, running out of ammunition, began to smash the ancient stones of the Parthenon and the other monuments in order to melt down for bullets the lead clamps which held the walls together. When the Greeks heard this, they hurriedly sent an emissary to the Turkish commander. He implored them not to damage the buildings anymore, going so far as to offer the Greeks’ own bullets for the Turks to use against them instead. The Turks may have been surprised at such a suicidal offer, but the logic was clear to the Greeks: what are we fighting and dying for, they reasoned, if not for this? It was this kind of inspiring resolve, combined with a Philhellenic love of Greek antiquity that led Lord Byron to abandon the comfortable and indolent life of a hugely successful poet, his yacht, and his endless stream of seductees, and go to personally fight (and eventually die,) for the cause of Greek independence. It would seem that today, the people most willing to abandon comfort and fight for a cause they truly believe in are the same ones who’ve created the neatest symbol for their movement’s goal in the form of the serial beheadings they commit and broadcast: a world as brainless as them.