ISIS Causes Bafflement: a Reasonable Response to a Barbarian Upsurge
Why do American diplomats sign their essays Anonymous whenever they have something large and upsetting to say? Why not Publius? It was Anonymous, anyway, who published a commentary on the Islamic State in the New York Review of Books of August 13—Anonymous, who is said, by the editors, to be “formerly an official of a NATO country,” which could mean Canada, of course, or Estonia. But the United States does seem probable. And Anonymous is said to be someone with “wide experience in the Middle East.” An expert, therefore, accustomed to the sobrieties of power. Anonymous, then—how does Anonymous account for the Islamic State? With what analysis? Anonymous is at a loss. Anonymous confesses to “bafflement.” This is large, and it is upsetting.
We like to suppose that known patterns of behavior dominate the world, which means that, if a big revolutionary movement has arisen, the normal and predictable causes must surely be at work; and the bigger the movement, the more normal and predictable the causes. The Islamic State consists of tens of thousands of jihadis with oil revenues and a functioning bureaucracy and a hip media, ruling vast portions of Syria and Iraq, even apart from its noncontiguous provinces in Africa, which adds up to more than big. But the normal and predictable causes that account for revolutionary movements (national grievances, experience of national humiliation, economic suffering, peasant hatred for cities, proletarian hatred for aristocrats, charismatic leaders, etc.) seem insufficient to explain these developments, or entirely inapplicable. Nor can the movement’s successes be attributed to the well-established strategies of successful military insurgencies of the past, as memorialized by Mao Zedong and the grand theorists of guerrilla war. The Islamic State and its variously-named predecessor organizations in Iraq have sometimes behaved as if entirely unaware of the doctrines of guerrilla war, and have sustained major and unnecessary losses. But losses appear to do them no harm at all.
A telling paragraph in Anonymous’ essay:
Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. At first, the large number who came from Britain were blamed on the British government having made insufficient effort to assimilate immigrant communities; then France’s were blamed on the government pushing too hard for assimilation. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar).
Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.
Maybe some points are, in fact, explicable. Anonymous discusses a number of new books about the movement, and one of those books, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, does a first-rate job of describing the Islamic State’s layers, at least in Syria and Iraq. The movement there enjoys an authentic following among Sunni Arabs in certain pockets, and the popular support conforms to a logic that we have seen among followers of other totalitarian movements over the last century—a popular support based on reasonable fears and practical calculations, admixed with a few intellectual confusions. The ordinary Sunnis in those pockets may dislike the Islamic State’s Quranic crucifixions, beheadings, lashings, and amputations, and may recoil at the mass slaughters. But the Sunnis have been terrified by the rise of Shiite power, and they see in the Islamic State a force that is willing to protect them. The Islamic State’s anti-crime policing goes down well, too. Weiss and Hassan quote a resident of the Syrian town of Deir Ezzor: “We never felt this safe for twenty years.” The Islamic State eagerly executes its own militants whenever they are accused of corrupt or criminal behavior, which counts as another grisly point in its favor, among the local Sunnis. The Islamic State sweeps the streets, protects the fisheries, controls the warlords, and regulates the economy. Oil revenues come its way because it understands the business. And it maneuvers cleverly among the tribes.
Only, where does the Islamic State acquire the military strength, police capabilities, administrative efficiency, and economic sophistication to provide those several services? Here we seem to have returned to the realm of the inexplicable. The Islamic State enjoys the support of not a single powerful institution in other parts of the world. And yet, to judge from Weiss and Hassan’s account, these several strengths are not, in fact, mysterious. The Islamic State appears to have inherited the capabilities of the old Arab Baath Socialist Party of Saddam Hussein. Weiss and Hassan remind us that, back in 2003, when the American-led occupation forces settled into Iraq, the occupiers never did entirely take over the several towns that traditionally served as Baathism’s social base. A slice of Baathism’s security and military officer corps managed to survive. The slice launched an insurgency. The insurgency prospered. And it drifted in Islamist directions.
Baathism’s Islamist drift may strike us as one more incomprehensible development, given the conventional wisdom among American journalists and regional scholars about Baathism and its “secular” outlook. Somebody ought to write a history of conventional wisdom, though. Baathism is an extremist movement that is also an adaptive movement, which means that over the decades the Baathists have known how to bask in the secular sun, in solidarity with their worldly comrades, the fascists and the communists, and have also known how to dip into the seas of Islam and breathe through their religious gills, in order to take their place among the other-worldy Islamists. And amphibiousness has been their genius. Saddam was Baathism’s greatest leader because he started out with an Islamic orientation and, even so, knew how to veer in communist directions during his years of glory; and he knew how to spin on his heels in the face of later difficulties and inscribe “Allahu Akbar” on his flag. And when he found himself under arrest and on trial in a Baghdad courtroom, he astonished the world by declaring Mussolini to be his role model.
Here was a man with options. And it has been the same with Saddam’s military and security officers in the period after his defeat. The Baathist officers began by allying with the Sunni Islamist cause in occupied Iraq, their brothers in the anti-Crusader and anti-Zionist cause. And they ended by sailing the seas of sacred jihad, where they remain. Chief among the new Baathist jihadis was Saddam’s vice president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a Sufi, who brought with him a Sufi Naqshbandi military faction of the Baath. (Conventional wisdom exclaims: “Not possible! Everyone knows that Sufis are peaceable!”) And so, the Islamic State acquired an officer corps. Also, administrative skills. Also, a security apparatus, whose sophistications you can read about in Weiss and Hassan’s pages. Which ought to catch our attention.
America’s campaign against the Baath began, after all, with a land war in Iraq, under George H.W. Bush; which led to an intermittent air war under Bill Clinton; which led to a renewed land war under George W. Bush; which led to a renewed air war under Barack Obama, this time with the Baath having taken its place within the Islamic State. And signs of collapse have yet to appear. Naturally this makes for more than an American frustration. The Arab Baath Socialist Party in its two branches, Iraqi and Syrian, has turned out to be the worst affliction the Arab people has ever endured and a still worse affliction for the Kurds. It is true that, ever flexible, Baathism’s branches have diverged over the years (although, as I learn from Weiss and Hassan, al-Douri, the non-peaceable Sufi, tried to reunite them), even aside from the plunge into Islamism. But each new adaptation has proved to be expert at slaughter.
Only, why do they slaughter people? The Islamic State in particular, with its Baatho-Islamist cadre—what is its motive? On this point, too, there is no mystery. The Islamic State has been eager to reveal its own thinking. The Islamic State slaughters for religious reasons—which is to say, for reasons that are bound to seem incomprehensible to us. It is piety that requires the efficiently organized jihadis to slaughter the poor unoffending Yazidi minority in Iraq; and to slaughter the Shia, which they have been doing for many years now, one suicide bombing after another; and to slaughter Christians; and would surely require them to slaughter the Jews, if only the Israeli Defense Force would do them the kindness of getting out of the way. Given the opportunity, the Islamic State would slaughter most of the world, if I understand the takfiri doctrine correctly. Slavery, too, is piety, in these people’s eyes. They pray before raping.
And they have prospered! Their successes bear out political theory on a few points, but mostly they are a rebuke to political theory. They are the enemy and conqueror of every doctrine that has ever supposed human behavior to be predictable. This is the bafflement. Anonymous is right. They have scored a triumph over every theory of human progress that has ever been proposed. They are not the first people to score such a victory. We have needed their reminder, though. In recent decades we have liked to tell ourselves that, after the Nazis, mankind has learned its lesson. But mankind is not a lesson-learning entity. Civilizations can learn lessons. But civilizations come and go. Impassive mankind remains uninstructable and stupid, such that, if once upon a time the barbarities of the 7th century thrilled and inspired a substantial portion of mankind, we can be confident that 7th-century barbarities will remain forevermore a viable possibility.
To read more of Paul Berman’s analysis for Tablet magazine, click here.
“Eytan, this is Freddy,” Shimon said when I met up with them on a corner outside of Madison Square Garden.
“Yo,” I said.
“What’s up, man?” said Ben, swinging his arm out to slap me ﬁve. He held a cigarette between his lips and a paper cup of coffee in his left hand. There was something sweet yet grizzled about Ben, who wore the same outﬁt he had on the day we shot hoops at school. Aside from my mom, I didn’t know anyone who drank coffee, and the cup that he held by its white plastic lid made him appear older than his years.
“S’up?” I said, our hands coming together solidly.
“So this is the guy?” Freddy asked Shimon after barely acknowledging me. I recognized him from school. He wore black Levi’s over combat boots and an extra-long, heavy-duty chain wallet suitable for locking up a fast food deliveryman’s bicycle.
“Eytan’s cool,” said Shimon after taking an awkward puff from a cigarette too large for his ﬁngers. He and Freddy wore the same black and orange Nine Inch Nails long-sleeve T-shirt.
“Oh, okay,” said Freddy, unconvinced. “You wanna smoke?”
He held out a pack of Marlboro Lights.
I looked at the slightly crumpled open package and shrugged. Freddy was testing my character. Poking at it a little to see where it was soft enough to shimmy inside and get a clear read on how cool I was.
“I’m good,” I said, waving my hand. “Thanks.”
“Well, all right then,” he said in a mock singsong voice to Shimon.
“How ya doin’?” Shimon asked me, ignoring Freddy. “Pretty good. What’s with the kippah?” I said, gesturing to the gray yarmulke in his left hand.
Ben was distracted by a group of people eating pizza nearby, but Freddy stuck his head close to our conversation as though he couldn’t believe the words coming out of our mouths.
“It’s just in case I run into someone I know,” Shimon said. I understood the instinct. If somehow a friend of my parents happened to show up at this exact time and ﬁnd me without a head covering, I would worry about it for weeks.
Eytan isn’t wearing a yarmulke these days, Ilene or Yocheved or another of my mother’s friends might say to her.
Yes, he is, my mother would reply.
Well, not when I saw him with a group of hoodlums out on the street in Manhattan, he wasn’t.
I would have to lie and tell my mother that the wind blew it off my head and into a gutter or a McDonald’s that I didn’t feel comfortable entering. It was simpler to wear a baseball cap and avoid the issue entirely.
“You really think you are going to run into someone?” I asked Shimon, sensing an opportunity to look cool at his expense.
“I told you, man,” Freddy piped up, “nobody is gonna see you.”
Shimon glumly looked to the sidewalk and slid the head covering into his pocket.
“Yo, let’s get something to eat before heading in,” said Ben, and we started down the block.
City buses and taxis honked at the concertgoers smoking along the sidewalk. They wore black tutus and combat boots that came up past their knees. I wondered how someone with a permanent drawing of a naked lady on his neck explained his decision to his parents and teachers.
In the middle of the block, Shimon, Ben, and Freddy casually strolled into a Sbarro’s pizza as if it were their own bedroom. Sbarro’s was not kosher and, since I had never eaten non-kosher food, I never had a reason to go inside one. I thought about Shimon’s yarmulke while scanning the streets for anyone who looked familiar before ducking in.
On the long counter top lay circles of pizza with mini-meatballs and shrimps poking from cheesy surfaces. There were entire servings of baked ziti on slices and polka-dot patterns of pepperoni that glistened under heat lamps. The choices at the kosher pizza store in Riverdale included cheese and cheeseless with a side of french fries or falafel. Here the creativity was astounding. What could have inspired them to put a full salad on top of a slice of pizza?
Shimon, Ben, and Freddy, each holding a different level of non-kosher, found seats at a table.
“You’re not getting anything?” Freddy asked accusingly as he took a bite of a chicken and barbecue-sauce-covered slice.
“I’m good,” I said, trying to ignore the tone in his voice that asked, Do you actually keep the laws of kosher?
“Lemme see yours?” I asked him.
He handed me the green-and-red-ringed, specially printed paper plate with the once-bitten slice on it. As I lifted up the edge of the pizza to reveal the Sbarro’s logo underneath, I felt like an aboriginal tribesman meeting contemporary man for the ﬁrst time.
Do you actually keep the laws of kosher?
“It’s just a pizza,” Freddy said, sitting with one leg bent under his butt, his wallet chain clanking against the steel chair.
“I know,” I said defensively, returning the plate and wiping my hand on a napkin.
“So what’s the problem?”
“Nothing,” I said, turning to Ben and his pepperoni slice with a side of something I’d never seen before. Freddy and his non-kosherness weighed on the back of my neck as I studied the shiny mess of dough on Ben’s plate.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to a reddish leak sneaking out from the beige baked crevasses.
“It’s pizza crust rolled around a bunch of meats,” Ben said with a mouth full of cured pork.
“Try it, man!” Freddy said.
“Yo, if he doesn’t want it, don’t force him,” said Ben as he plunged a plastic knife into the top of his evil pizza roll, forcing it into two chunks.
“Does he not want it?” Freddy asked.
“I don’t know!” Ben said, stuffing one of the pieces into his gaping mouth. “Ursk im.”
While I had always been intrigued and interested in eating non-kosher food, it had never been so readily available to me as it was right now. I didn’t like Freddy’s pushy tone, but part of me wanted to take his entire slice and shove it all in my mouth at once.
See! I eat whatever I want! I’d scream through the tomato sauce and cheese dripping down my mouth and shirt. Lay off.
“Do you eat this pizza, man?” Freddy taunted.
Across the table, Shimon furiously scarfed down a cheese slice. His eyes nervously darted this way and that, as if this were his last meal and an executioner would soon drag him off to the electric chair. Lying next to him absentmindedly on the table, his yarmulke was back out of his pocket.
“Lemme see yours,” I said to Shimon as I pulled the plate and pizza away from his face. It looked a little more vibrant than regular kosher pizza; the whites in the cheeses were whiter and the reds in the sauce, redder. It was like an artist’s rendition of what pizza should look like.
“Hullo, dude? What’s your deal?” Freddy continued jabbing. I felt their eyes all over my face as I sniffed the edge. Just do it, I told myself, and shut this guy up. I placed a half-inch of the slice in my mouth and bit down.
It tasted more rubbery than kosher pizza and I felt a mixture of regret and maturity. In the course of those few millimeters of sauce and cheese, I grew up a little. A piece of my innocence was gone. It wasn’t the most amazing food in the world, and I didn’t feel the immediate urge to burn a Torah or smash a rabbi in the face. It was a piece of food like any other, with no chance of killing me or turning me into something awful. Tasting it was like learning the rather boring explanation to a particularly astounding magic trick.
“Well, I guess that’s not it,” Freddy said, unsatisﬁed. As though had I not eaten the pizza, all the suspicions and questions he had about me would have been answered. So that’s why you’re dressed the way the you are, he might have said, and seem nervous about the concert, and keep watching me smoke my cigarette like you’ve never seen one before, and look like you need to go to the bathroom really badly. Because you don’t eat non-kosher pizza!
I stared blankly into space while chewing. There were no high-ﬁves or slaps on the back the way there would have been if I had survived a ritual hazing and was now a member of a tight-knit gang. I took a second and third, larger bite one after another without stopping to chew before tossing what remained back on Shimon’s plate.
“I do what I want,” I announced with a full mouth, to no one in particular.
After the meal was ﬁnished, Shimon and I slipped out of the restaurant and briskly speed-walked toward the Garden, worried that someone we knew might see us coming out of the non-kosher establishment.
Excerpted from High Holiday Porn. Copyright © 2015 by Eytan Bayme and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
„Es kommt in der Psychotherapie darauf an – mit temporärer Unterstützung – sein eigenes Schicksal in die Hand zu nehmen. Wer mit einem Selbstbild lebt, für das die temporär klärende Rolle des Therapeuten eine unerträgliche Kränkung ist, der muß eben versuchen, alleine zurechtzukommen.“ – Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Post-Pop-Epoche: der Sieg der Mode über die Sitten.
„Wir brauchen schadhafte Gebäude, durch deren geborstene Wände man hindurch sehen kann, um wenigstens einen Anfang zum Denken zu gewinnen.“ – Victor Tausk
„Was man in römischer Zeit das »Abendland« und später »Europa« nennen wird, ist die politische Konsequenz des individualistischen Martyriums, das ein gesprächsfreudiger Stadtstreicher auf sich nahm, um die Legitimität des im universalistischen Dialekt vorgebrachten Neuen gegen die entkräfteten lokalen Sitten zu demonstrieren.“ – Peter Sloterdijk
„Was nützt einem die Gesundheit wenn man ansonsten ein Idiot ist.“ – Theodor Adorno
„Ich bin eine Feministin. Das bedeutet, daß ich extrem stark behaart bin und daß und ich alle Männer haße, sowohl einzelne als auch alle zusammen, ohne Ausnahmen.“– Bridget Christie
„Die Tragödie isolierter persönlicher Leidenschaften ist für unsere Zeit zu fade. Aber weshalb? Weil wir in einer Epoche der sozialen Leidenschaften leben. Die Tragödie unserer Epoche ist der Zusammenstoß der Persönlichkeit mit dem Kollektiv.“ – LeoTrotzki 1923