Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ruminations 55: Necessity and Delusion--On Radicalization and its Framing of the Charlie Hebdo Killings

 (Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

The recent killings in France--one producing more public response and angst than the other--have again exposed some perhaps substantial contradictions in Western culture, politics, law and governance.  It again reveals the deep fissures between a more or less scattered "left" (e.g., here) and a dissipated but increasingly effective "right" (e.g., here) and their collective advances against what once had been a more or less solid (if conventional and ideologically uninteresting) middle. It also suggests the contradictions among those now projecting their beliefs, in violence, into states. Yet those contradictions must also be situated on sets of wider contests across borders, between people within Islam, within European cultures, within constitutionalism, about secularism (and thus between the state and dominant religions) etc.  This does not suggest the broad view simplicity of Huntington, or of the racialized view of Oswald Spengler, but it does suggest that violation of the borders of identity, and contests among them, can produce disruptive reaction. And more importantly, that the frontiers of identity may not be effectively managed from outside.

I do not write here about the politics of the murders, or of the groups responsible for them, or for protection from them. That is best left to others.  I would take up a rather more ignored set of underlying premises that appear to bind  together all variations of argument in the West, whether from apologists for the "rage" for "insult" that drove the assailants and the "reckless racist provocation" that marked the victims, or from nationalist apologists (e.g., here) seeking greater protection against proponents of what to them appears to be the shock troops of a transnational religious war. Perhaps newer communities unengaged with conventionally ordered society evidence a different perspective.  And, indeed, these communities may be as true to their values as those they now oppose. Virtually constituted communities can be as real, and potent, as those arranged around a divinity (see, e.g., here).

Those premises revolve around notions of "radicalization" and its wider effects on discourse.  I will suggest that the radicalization premise underlying much of the discourse serves both to excuse conduct and to classify members of religious (and other) communities in ways that suggest both the hegemonic power of outsiders to define the parameters of group belief and legitimacy and the disrespect for the internal development of communities.  As a consequence, and especially in the West, radicalization is used to define the other, assert a power of legitimization, and by deploying these dismissive categories, of substantially underestimating (effectively blinding analysts) the power and the quality of the threat posed by "radicalized" communities within globalization, as well the understanding of threat that developed states, and their political and normative cultures present to them. That this is embraced by both left and right in the West, for their quite distinct internal agendas adds a layer of perversity to the exercise.

Western states, in their political and social cultures (and not unlike other great cultures in this respect), has a long history of waging ideological war as effectively as they wage physical war.  Among the most important elements of ideological warfare--one that paves the way to better manage physical warfare (in any of its manifestations)--is the power to command narrative.  Narrative--the way stories and understandings of reality (what we take for granted as the basis for discussion) is itself formed by a basic set of assumptions and premises that produce the story of stories that provides a particular way of explaining everything that happens (e.g., here, here and here).

That narrative control is usually most effectively managed within the political unit seeking to assert this power. Management has an institutional component (the deployment of rules for privileging a particular set of assumptions) and a societal component (social advancement and socialization is contingent on appearing to adhere to the master narrative framework in social interactions).  But when deployed by political culture leaders (for example the E.U. or the U.S. and their elites) it can have substantial spillover effects. Those spillovers can be formal (bleeding into the discursive framework of international organizations and their dependent non-governmental organizations).  They can be informal as well, framing the development of appropriate and not career ending discourse among academics, public intellectuals  and related actors. 

Narrative control is foundational to the construction of social and political orders.  All social orders have produced master narratives form which its institutions and identity borders van be discerned.  The political constitution, certainly after the Second World War, has come to serve as the master narrative of a political order within states.  The narrative Logos of religion has served the same purpose for religious communities.  In both cases, these normative orders, framed through their narratives, produce institutions, situate power (especially the power to discipline adherents or citizens) within representative bodies (priesthood, bureaucracy, etc.), legitimated through rule systems tied back to the authoritative narrative sources, that incarnate a collective reality that must be shared within the community of believers-citizens.  But there is no higher order that can definitely manage the number, character or form of such narratives or the communities formed in their shadow. Though political communities have sought to develop a set of transcendent rules for constitutional narratives (see e.g., here) they have succeeded only in developing a set of rules for relations among same-class narratives (constitutional states; or denominations of religions tracing back to the same sources, etc.) (e.g., here).    

In the usual course of interactions, narrative communities seek to find ways to interact.  They may well preserve the boundaries of their identity, but in the absence of threat, communication across boundaries become important.  Globalization (e.g., here for a variant) provides a concrete example of political., economic, social and religious communities  seeking to produce a communicative framework within which interaction of differing sorts may be possible without threatening identity. On a smaller scale, the late 19th century ideology of comparative law (e.g., here) reflected a similar impulse--recognition, respect for borders, communication, and the development of shared space for interaction.  Within Western constitutional orders, these notions have acquired social and normative power within the master political narrative.  This is especially the case with respect to the relations between political and religious narratives, the product of religious wars in the West stretching centuries. Though there has been much accommodation, there are still substantial points of conflict and no resolution of the question of supremacy (e.g. here). Charlie Hebdo operated at the fissure of these communities within a political master narrative tolerant but only barely so of its assertions of the implications of parts of the political narrative seemingly to undermine other parts (e.g., here and here). Where political and religious communities (or at least a dominant religious community) merge, a different result (e.g. here).

In conflict, however, the interactions of narratives change. For harmonization or communicative coherence, distinction,  and separation predominate.  That might be useful to clarify boundaries in the face of threat. It is not necessarily the soundest practice within tightly woven narrative systems. Yet that tendency has been much in evidence as the religious wars of the early 21st century has sharpened some conflicts.  And it is that interweaving among chains of narratives that pose the sort of problems that emerge from points of violence like that of Charlie Hebdo; for how doers one deal with narrative conflict that presents a contradiction within a larger political narrative? More pointedly, how does one deal with normative incompatibility backed by violence on both ends? That is an important issue that has confounded the West since the 1980s.   It is especially important because it presents the Western narrative with a fundamental problem--the simultaneously need to place blame on individuals, to avoid collective responsibility, to respect religion and its compatibility within political systems, and to protect robust speech, even speech critical of other narratives, including religion.

A set of related techniques have been developed to sidestep the contradictions presented by the violence of Charlie Hebdo, as representative of a class of individual eruption of narrative conflict.  These are represented by a cluster of ideas  perhaps best understood as the "radicalization" stance.  Radicalization suggests not merely a movement toward an extreme, but toward an un-reasonable position, one detached from proper narrative and thus illegitimate.  The actor can then be detached from any narrative from which the actor purports to serve, and to mark that narrative which was advanced to support violence as itself corrupt.  So detached, Western narrative can then be deployed to detach the actors from the body of society (both the one attacked and the one purported serving as the base of attack); such individuals are understood as also acting beyond reason, their actions are reduced to mere criminality or they are understood as acting beyond volition, as caught within a violent delusion that is the product of their illegitimate narrative norms.  

This process is clearly much in evidence in the popular press as it sought to amplify the narrative of killings, especially those justified on grounds of religion.  Thus we are reminded that the remaining Boston Marathon Bomber might have been radicalized by exposure to messages from outside.     
If media accounts are to be believed, the accused Boston marathon bombers were "radicalized" by watching American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki's YouTube sermons and reading Inspire, the al Qaeda magazine. To whatever extent it is true of the Tsarnaev brothers, this narrative follows a familiar path: one in which seemingly ordinary people are exposed to radical ideas, then adopt those ideas as their own, and then become violent. That theory was set out in a 2007 NYPD report called Radicalization in the West, which focuses exclusively on Muslims, and describes a four-stage progression – a "funnel," the report says – in which each step towards violence is intrinsically linked with increased religiosity. (John Knefel, Everything You've Been Told About Radicalization Is Wrong Despite the rhetoric, scary YouTube videos don't turn people into terrorists, Rolling Stone Magazine, May 6, 2013).
Radicalization is used to define the other, but as deviance, error or sickness.  It is meant to explain behavior in ways that do not threaten narrative, but suggest individual failing. "Just like school shooters and right-wing survivalists, people attracted to Islamic terrorism tend to be disaffected loners with a chip on their shoulder against society, experts say. But what makes the radicalization of young Muslims an increasingly worrisome trend is the ability of groups like Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) — a radical Islamist group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq — to reach out to such troubled individuals." (Marion Scott, Radicalization: Why do Western youth join extremist groups?, Montreal Gazette, Oct. 23, 2014). John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University has suggested, "Hidden behind these bigger reasons, there are also hosts of littler reasons – personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity," adds Horgan. "These lures can be very powerful, especially when you don't necessarily have a lot else going on in your life, but terrorists rarely talk about them." (John Knefel, Everything You've Been Told About Radicalization Is Wrong Despite the rhetoric, scary YouTube videos don't turn people into terrorists, Rolling Stone Magazine, May 6, 2013). Yet he also suggests that
"The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research," he says. "[First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don't necessarily hold radical beliefs." (id.).
Yet that connection between extremism and radicalization remains tightly woven into the narrative of societies facing internal violence.  (Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, The White House, Aug. 2011)
And in any case, personality defects may serve to supply that link. "Martin “Ahmed” Couture Rouleau, the 25-year-old suspect who killed a Canadian soldier in a hit-and-run and injured another before being gunned down by provincial police in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. . . .  may have “found in the kind of cultish appeal of jihadist groups answers to everything, moral certainty and ultimately a way of striking out at a world that he seems to have been quite upset with,” he said." (Marion Scott, Radicalization: Why do Western youth join extremist groups?, Montreal Gazette, Oct. 23, 2014 quoting in part Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University).  Here we construct a story of vulnerable individual not in control of themselves.  "Speaking of the causes of these phenomena, an educator, coming from a North African immigrant family, having grownup and worked in the districts, puts forward a remark that crystallizes the thoughts of the other professionals interviewed:‚ A radical, it’s like a drug addict. It’s the match of a product, an individual and an environment‛." (Chahla Beski-Chafiq, Jane Birmant, Hichem Benmerzoug, Akim Taibi, Ariane Goignard, Youth and Islamist Radicalisation, Lille, France, English Summary, Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation (CIR) Department of Political Science Aarhus University, Denmark, April 2010, pp. 22).  Or radicalization may result from amorous relationships. (e.g., here).

There is also a strong connection made, in western narratives, between criminality and radicalization.  That was highlighted in the story of the Charlie Hebdo killers (Graeme Hamilton, Attacks highlight road to radicalization: Young, disenfranchised Muslims, Leader-Post, Jan. 10, 2015). See also here (The management of Fresnes prison has isolated 20 prisoners, considered to be radical Islamists, in a separate "living unit." A source at the prison told AFP that the idea is to "prevent recruitment among prisoners."), here (radicalization through jailhouse chaplains), here (radicalization and prison gangs),  and here ("In France, the path to radical Islam often begins with a minor offence that throws a young man into an overcrowded, violent jail and produces a hardened convert ready for jihad.").

Radicalization is the proxy term through which narrative communities can liberate themselves from their own ideologies that require respect for their borders and for the integrity of the borders of other groups.  By reducing a narrative community to "cult" or "extremist" or similar fashion, they have stripped that group of any claim to narrative coherence.  Thus, radicalization works as narrative especially when tied to a power to label alternative narratives "legitimate" or not. Thus, for example' al-Qaida does not  represent religious expression (in its relations with other narrative communities, states and religions) but is instead understood as mere "ideology" that is "violent" and "hateful." (Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, The White House, Aug. 2011).  But it is not authentic religious practice or expression. The position is especially powerful when  delivered by members who might be understood as belonging to the same religious community (see, e.g., here).
"Muslim scholars responded quickly to the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which killed 12 and injured 10. Slamming the incident as un-Islamic, scholars express anger towards the perpetrators who “betrayed and tainted” Islam rather than defended it. In addition to vehemently condemning the attack, the scholars’ comments reflected a concern about the damage it causes to the image of Islam and Muslims." (What Muslim scholars have to say about the Charlie Hebdo attack, OnIslam, Jan. 8, 2015).  
That that sort of approach, while reassuring about the narratives of other Muslims, says little about the authenticity of the religious expression of these violent individuals.  Indeed, these stories, repeated throughout the West  help to detach these violent people from the mainstream strains of Islam, but that does not necessarily render the Islam of the violent radicals inauthentic. It merely suggests rifts within Islam.  Yet combined with the narrative of individual weakness and deviance, the narrative illegitimacy of this violence is deepened, and the expression reduced to the acts of the insane or of the criminal.  The detachment from legitimate religion is furthered by the turn to sociology--it has been represented that the cause of radicalization  lies as much with culture and race as it does with religion.
It is about second- or third-generation descendants of Muslim immigrants no longer feeling at home in their parents or grandparents’ culture, at the same time not being fully accepted into European societies, often having experiences of discrimination. They do not feel they belong into France, even though they were born in France, they went to school in France, they have French passports. (Transcript: What’s driving European Muslims to extremism?, Jan. 8, 2015 (PETER NEUMANN, King’s College, London)).
Together, these narrative turns produce the creation of the identity of violence as centered in individuals who are misled through the embrace of erroneous beliefs.  That view of reality, then, does not pose the great threat that a clash of narratives--an open war--would have produced.  

This approach is both rational and necessary.  It preserves the integrity of the political narrative of Western states as both fierce defenders of legitimate religion and of the right to criticize, and even mock, the theologies of those religions.  It detaches violent individuals from religion, and reduces efforts to construct a theology that requires violence as mere ideology that is failed and thus illegitimate theology.   It makes it possible to individualize violence while preserving  culturally approved discourse of religious pluralism within multicultural societies all embracing  unifying normative principles of discourse and civility. And it preserves the consensus that is the normative values and narrative context of western societies.  The preservation is as much against internal and external forces. "Neither Islam nor multiculturalism in Europe is to blame for the bloody attack two mornings ago, as some right-wing political leaders have already begun to say, the top United Nations human rights official on Friday emphasised calling for averting much violence, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, through thinking clearly and humanely to preserve the right of all to find a place in this world, protected by a right to express what they feel." (Top UN rights official: Islam, Europe's multiculturalism not to blame for Charlie Hebdo attack, Jan. 10, 2015 (citing to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, in a statement at a commemoration at Palais des Nations, Geneva)). Within this narrative framework, the Hebdo killers were neither acting in the name of Islam, nor were they undertaking political or principled violence--they were either insane or criminals. That is a context that is both less explosive and easier to fold into self conceptions. (see, e.g. here)

Yet such rational necessity poses risks as well.  By deploying these dismissive categories, states that are targets of such violence may substantially underestimate (effectively blinding analysts) the power and the quality of the threat posed by "radicalized" communities within globalization, especially those who have constructed a narrative of their own.  The Hebdo killers may not represent all of Islam, but to the extent of their community they may well represent a strain of authentic expression that, however repugnant, cannot be dismissed as merely the nexus point of large numbers of disaffected or vulnerable youth. Yet they do not represent Islam.  They represent merely themselves. To paint all of Islam with their beliefs and actions amounts to acts of bad faith--like using anger against Israel to murder randomly selected Jews in kosher markets in Paris.  And indeed there is a great irony in the Hebdo killings--the narrative of radicalization and avoidance of the connection with a strain of religious expression has also wiped out all recognition of the religious identity of one of the victims--a Muslim police officer who serves as the embodiment of the master narrative itself (e.g., . Khaled A Beydoun, Muslims in the news only when they're behind the gun, Al Jazeera, Jan. 9, 2015). Erasing the religious expression of the killers also erases the religious expression of the state and its police officials. That produces the very polarization that the erasure of religion, or its dismissal, was the object of the framing of discussion. 

This last point raises another, and one that tends to be underestimated. The narrative rationality of radicalization can blind states to the character of the threat that developed states, and their political and normative cultures, have been constructed to present to these communities. Whether the West acknowledges it as legitimate or not, a community, grounded in coherent religious beliefs, has arisen that has seen in the West and its values an narrative inconsistent with and threatening to its own vision and ordering, one which finds little space for accommodation. The Western narrative itself is incitement and provocation.  Whatever one thinks of this narrative--it is, in itself, a genuine expression of social and religious beliefs within its community of believers.  That understanding produces a clearer grounding for analysis and response, and a clearer understanding of the scope of the challenge--external (in the form of violence) and internal (in the form of pressure on the content of the cluster of Western values that serves as provocation). These ought no produce just the usual accounts of offense to religion.  Rather, it is the extent to which silence and demonization of distinct and sometimes violently intolerant (to communities with incompatible practices and habits) expressions of religious beliefs tends to obliterate all other strains, and in so doing strains the ties of  the non-radicalized community to the greater political community. Thus the killers may not reflect substantial, perhaps overwhelmingly important strains of Islam, but that does not make their expression any less authentic (within the belief community) or any less coherent (to them). To paint adherents as pathological and to reduce their belief systems to ideology or error, both avoids understanding of points of conflict and conflates widely disparate groups.

There is enough of an element of strategy to go around here. an element of hat this is embraced by both left and right in the West, for their quite distinct internal agendas adds a layer of perversity to the exercise.  The left  encourages greater sensitivity to provocation and restraint, sometimes willing to suppress the freedom of some to allay the sensitivities of others based on the privileging of the source of sensitivity into favored and disfavored categories. The right pushes for greater socialization and assimilation, sometimes touched with exclusion. Religions are neither monolithic, nor are they static.  Authentic expressions of religions may be threatening within the body of other communities with which it cannot share space. The same applies to other great narrative systems--states, especially. Every great narrative system contains contradictions and tensions.  Those must be managed but they may not be overcome.  Western states will continue to have to navigate the contradictions of unity within pluralism, of respect within systems that value mockery, of the supremacy of the collective represented by the state and the right to avoid the state in the service of religion. One should, in this context, take greater care about the use of radicalization and terror. These are great discursive techniques for marginalization and de-legitimation.  But they do not reflect the realities of belief of their adherents and they permit a sloppiness of analysis that may not serve those confronted by  the dangers of the agendas of these groups.

The current techniques, though plausible, also carry with it consequences that may well make the objectives of its use harder to attain.  Threats are threats. A society must determine the extent to which it is willing to define and protect its values--and to act to protect them in accordance with their dictates. That requires an avoidance of discursive narrative--and especially the narrative of radicalization and legitimacy--and a collective effort to understand threats for what they are, not for what we want them to be, or worse, for how society can make them fit within the rules that define their own community.  Yet the latter is precisely what society does when it engages in these elaborate narrative reconstructions grounded in a false scientism (radicalization is pathology) or a conscious defamation campaign (legitimate and illegitimate expressions of religion or other value sets).  It might, then, be more useful, then, to accept them for precisely what they claim to be. To that end, one ought not to disconnect action from reaction whichy acquire significance only in the context of the nature of the reaction generated. And that all too quickly is what tends to be lost as people protect their agendas in the face of contradiction As for consequences; well, that ought to depend on our values and the strength of our commitment to their preservation, even in new circumstances.  And that, in turn, is the space within which social narratives--the basic premises that define society, ought to be given pride of place.  Society can shape itself.

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