For reasons that are complex, there has always been a morbid fascination with lost causes and the “bad guys”.
A cursory glance at what is on offer in cinemas will show that we are fascinated with mafioso gangsters, thugs, gun-slingers and ne’er-do-wells of all hues and shapes.
Today, the same macabre fascination has resulted in another development that is equally disturbing – that of young, angry and frustrated men and women who have chosen to travel across the globe to take part in what they regard as a conflict driven by causes that are higher than the law, nationhood and civic obligation.
The situation has been compounded by the fact that the foreign fighters who have gone to places like Iraq and Syria do not come from a single community, but from different nations of different backgrounds – from Muslim youth from the Muslim world to biker gangs from West European countries.
To oppose – violently – seems to be the in thing at the moment, for it is there that these individuals hope to discover their sense of identity and purpose.
These legions of angry souls feel that there is no other alternative than to resist whatever they perceive to be wrong or unjust via violent means. However, there are some simple truths that ought to be considered by those who think that social change can come about simply through violent opposition, or who feel that only violent opposition brings about any real change in the world.
For beyond the actual acts of violence that are committed in the name of change (whether for the sake of progress or a nostalgic longing to return to “another world”) lies an even more powerful, more hegemonic, order of knowledge and power that already dictates which kinds of violence are permitted and deemed sensible, and which kinds of violence will always be regarded as unethical and wrong.
States, for instance, do not beg the consent of the international community to defend themselves when they come under attack, any more than a victim of a robbery would need to ask permission to defend himself.
The hegemonic consensus that exists in the real world we live in already gives value to self-preservation under both circumstances and, thus, acts of self-defence are often accepted as understandable. The same, however, cannot be said of an individual who leaves the comfort zone of his own country to travel to another place and carry out acts of killing in the name of others.
Having lost before they left
THE foreign militants have failed to note that in this instance, their identities and status have been determined even before they left, for the wider consensus is that the violence being committed by the fighters in places like Iraq and Syria has no justification whatsoever.
Here, the consensus is wider than ever before: For starters, thousands of Muslim scholars, theologians and legal experts have opined that the movement calling itself the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” should never have associated its deeds with the religion it professes in the first place, for Muslim theological opinion is united in the view that there is nothing Islamic about beheading prisoners or attacking civilians.
Secondly, all the governments of all the countries concerned have unanimously declared that this is a violent, radical, militant organisation that is more an anti-state movement of belligerents than a group of individuals fighting for a more humane universal cause.
Thirdly, the militants have done themselves in by falling into the trap of oppositional dialectics, and by deliberately positioning themselves as a radical group that has set out to attack and destabilise the states they oppose.
As a radical militant fringe that has chosen to locate itself in opposition to its own faith community, states and governments, it seems to have lost on all counts.
Thus, while the militants of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria may claim victories on the battlefield, they have lost the war even before it began. For from the beginning, they have already been configured as the negative Other, as radical extremists, and a militant threat.
Without the consensus of the international community, and crucially of their own co-religionists whom they claim to represent, these militants speak for no one but themselves and have painted themselves into a political and epistemic corner. How on earth could they claim to be “heroes of their faith”, when the mainstream voice of their own faith community has rejected them?
Between constructive change and self-destruction
DEALING with such groups will remain a challenge for states and societies in times to come, for in the globalised world we live in today, we are likely to see more instances of trans-border causes demanding the loyalty and support of people all over the globe.
Should the flashpoints that dot the globe continue to burn, in the future we may witness the rise of even more groups of an internationalist nature, from a range of religious and ethnic communities.
But in the course of deradicalising these militants, we need to emphasise, time and again, the simple logical fact that their choice of violent opposition – spectacular though it may be in terms of its gruesome outcomes – has also doomed them from the start.
Related to this is the need to understand the psychology of those who seem to be attracted to lost causes and assuming negative subject-positions; and this is not unique to the question of religious militancy, for it has also manifested itself in non-religious conflicts in the past.
We have seen the same during the Spanish Civil War (where thousands of other Europeans joined in) and in the mujahideen struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In all these cases, there is the lingering legal-philosophical question of what to do with those who have left their countries to commit acts of violence that would otherwise not be accepted back home.
None of this denies the need to discuss and understand the process of socio-political change, nor even the necessity of change at times. But for any kind of change to happen in a constructive, meaningful and sustainable way, it has to take place along modes and routes that are civil and emancipatory, not through senseless destruction and wanton violence.
The radical militants who are fighting their proxy war in Syria and Iraq may justify their actions in the name of a higher supra-state cause or a longing for past greatness lost, but what kind of society will there be left to build if, in the course of this violence, universities, libraries and houses of knowledge – that contain books of science, philosophy and theology of great value – are destroyed in their wake?
What kind of “civilisational victory” can they hope to attain if they effectively destroy the very foundations of that civilisation themselves?
In the same way gangsta rap often reproduces and perpetuates negative stereotypes that are demeaning and dehumanising, likewise the label of “radical militant” does nothing to improve the understanding of the complexities of the Arab-Muslim world today. Both are caught in the vicious circle of oppositional dialectics and, in both cases, they were lost causes even before they began.
The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.