Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"It is My Duty to Kill You" - A Look Inside the Terrorist Mind

When confronted with the task of liquidating the Jews of Europe, Heinrich Himmler, the chief of SS, adopted the heroic attitude of 'Somebody has to do the dirty job, so let's do it!': it is easy to do a noble thing for one's country, up to sacrificing one's life for it - it is much more difficult to commit a crime for one's country. In her Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt provided a precise description of this twist the Nazi executioners accomplished in order to be able to endure the horrible acts they performed. Most of them were not simply evil, they were well aware that they are doing things which bring humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, "instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was the very temptation to succumb to the elementary pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, and their "ethical" effort was directed towards the task of resisting this temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate. My violation of spontaneous ethical instincts of pity and compassion is turned into the proof of my ethical grandeur: to do my duty, I am ready to assume the heavy burden of inflicting pain on others.

The same perverse logic operates in today's religious fundamentalism. When, on November 2 2004, the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamist extremist (Mohammad Bouyeri), a letter was found stuck into a knife hole in his belly, addressed to his friend Hirshi Ali, a female Somalian member of the Dutch parliament known as a bitter fighter for the rights of Muslim women. If there ever was a "fundamentalist" document, this is one. It begins with the standard rhetorical strategy of imputing terror to the opponent:
Since your appearance in the Dutch political arena you have been constantly busy criticizing Muslims and terrorizing Islam with your statements.
In Bouyeri's view, Hirshi Ali - not himself - is the "unbelieving fundamentalist," and in fighting her, one fights fundamentalist terror. This letter demonstrates how the sadistic stance, generating suffering and terror in its addressee, is only possible after the sadist subject makes himself the instrument-object of another's will. Let us look in more detail at the key passage of the letter which focuses on death as the culmination of human life:
There is but one certainty in our entire existence, and that is that everything comes to an end. A child who comes into this world and fills the universe with his first cries of life, will finally leave this world with a death rattle. A blade of grass which can stick out of the dark earth and is touched by the sunlight and fed by falling rain, will finally rot into dust and disappear. Death, Mrs. Hirshi Ali, is a shared theme of everything in creation. You, I, and the rest of creation cannot get loose from this truth.

There will come a Day when one soul will not be able to help another soul. A Day of horrible tortures and painful tribulations which will go together with the terrible cries being pressed out of the lungs of the unjust. Cries. Mrs. Hirshi Ali, which will cause chills to run up someone's spine, and cause the hair on their head to stand straight up. People will appear to be drunk with fear even though they aren't drunk. On that Great Day the atmosphere will be filled with fear.
The passage from the first to the second part is crucial here, of course; from the general platitude on how everything passes and disintegrates, how all living ends in death, to the much more constrained, properly apocalyptic, notion of this moment of death as the moment of truth, the moment at which every creature confronts its truth and is isolated from all its links, deprived of all solidary support, absolutely alone facing the merciless judgement of its Creator - this is why the letter goes on quoting the description of the Judgment Day from the Quran: "On that day man will flee from his brother. And the mother from the father. And the woman from her children. And everyone of them on that Day shall have an occupation which is enough for them. Faces (of the unbelievers) will be covered with dust on that Day. And they will be ringed in darkness. These are the sinful unbelievers."(Quran 80:34-42) Then comes the key passage, the staging of the central confrontation:
Of course you as an unbelieving extremist don't believe in the scene which is described above. For you this is just a fictitious dramatic piece out of a Book like many. And yet, Mrs. Hirshi Ali, I would bet on my life that you will break into a sweat of fear when you read this.

You, as unbelieving fundamentalist, of course don't believe that there is a Higher Power who runs the universe. You don't believe in your heart, with which you repudiate the truth, that you must knock and ask this Higher Power for permission. You don't believe that your tongue with which you repudiate the Direction of this Higher Power is subservient to His laws. You don't believe that this Higher Power grants life and Death.

If you really believed in all of this, then you will not find the following challenge a problem. I challenge you with this letter to prove that you are right. You don't have to do much for that, Mrs. Hirshi Ali: wish death if you are really convinced that you are right. If you do not accept this challenge, you will know that my Master, the Most high, has exposed you as a bearer of lies. 'If you wish death, then you are being truthful.' But the wicked ones 'never wish to die, because of what their hands (and sins) have brought forth. And Allah is the all-knowing over the purveyors of lies.' (2:94-95). To prevent myself of having the same wish coming to me as I wish for you, I shall wish this wish for you: Master give us death to give us happiness with martyrdom.
Each of these three paragraphs is a rhetorical pearl. In the first one, it is the direct jump from the fear we humans will experience when, at the moment of death, we will face God's final judgment, to the fear the addressee of this very letter (Hirshi Ali) will experience while reading it. This short-circuit between the fear instigated by the direct confrontation with god in the moment of truth, and the fear engendered here and now by reading this letter, is a trademark of perversion: Hirshi Ali's concrete fear of being killed, aroused by Bouyeri's letter, is elevated into an embodiment of the fear a mortal human being is expected to feel when confronted with the divine gaze. The pearl in the second paragraph is the precise example used to evoke the omnipotence of god: it is not only that Hirshi Ali doesn't believe in god - what she should believe is that even her very slander of god (the tongue with which she is doing it) is also determined by god's will. The true pearl is hidden in the last paragraph, in how the challenge addressed at Hirshi Ali is formulated: in its brutal imposition of (not only the readiness to die, but) the wish to die as the proof of one's truthfulness. We get here an almost imperceptible shift which signals the presence of the perverse logic: from Bouyeri's readiness to die for the truth to his readiness to die as direct proof of his truthfulness. This is why he not only does not fear death, but actively wishes to die: from "If you are truthful, you should not fear death," a pervert passes to "if you wish death, you are truthful." This section ends in an unbelievable taking-over of another's wish: "I shall wish this wish for you." Bouyeri's underlying reasoning is complex and yet very precise: he will do what he has to do 'to prevent myself of having the same wish coming to me as I wish for you' - what can this mean? Is it not that, by wishing death, he is doing precisely what he wanted to prevent? Doesn't he accept the same wish (that of death) that he wishes for her (he wishes her dead)?

The letter does not challenge Hirshi Ali on her false beliefs; the accusation is rather that she does not really believe what she claims to believe (her secular slanders), that she doesn't have what is called "the courage of her own convictions": "If you really believe what you claim to believe, then accept my challenge, wish to die!" This brings us to Lacan's depiction of the pervert: the pervert displaces division onto the Other. Hirshi Ali is a divided subject, inconsistent with herself, lacking the courage of her own beliefs. To avoid getting caught in such a division, the letter's author will embrace the death wish, taking upon himself what she should have believed. The letter's final proclamation should then not surprise us:
This struggle which has burst forth is different then those of the past. The unbelieving fundamentalists have started it and the true believers will end it. There will be no mercy shown to the purveyors of injustice, only the sword will be lifted against them. No discussions, no demonstrations, no petitions: only DEATH will separate the Truth from the Lies.
There is no space left for symbolic mediation, for argumentation, reasoning, proclamations, preaching even - the only thing that separates Truth from Lie is death, the truthful subject's readiness and wish to die. No wonder Michel Foucault was fascinated by the Islamic political martyrdom. In it, he discerned the contours of a "regime of truth" different from the West's, a regime in which the ultimate indicators of truth are not factual adequacy, the consistency of reasoning, or the sincerity of one's confessions, but the readiness to die. The late Pope John Paul II propagated the Catholic "culture of Life" as our only hope against today's nihilist "culture of death," whose manifestations are unbridled hedonism, abortions, drug addiction and blind reliance on scientific and technological development. Religious fundamentalism (not only Muslim, but also Christian) confronts us with another morbid "culture of death" which is much closer to the very heart of the religious experience than believers are ready to admit.
Slavoj Zizek, "How to Read Lacan" (The Perverse Subject of Politics: Lacan as a Reader of Mohammad Bouyeri)


Vincentk18 said...

This was fantastic. I can't believe you have no comments yet. My only gripe, and it could be due to confusion, is this; Are you conflating "fundamentalist" with "extremist"?

It seems you are, at the end, when you say "...also Christian [fundamentalism] confronts us with another morbid "culture of death".

I would take strong issue with that statement. I am a Christian, and I am a fundamentalist in so much as I believe Jesus literally was God incarnate and died for you and me, rose from the grave, etc. The traditional Christian beliefs. How do I contribute to a morbid death culture? That seems a wild and unfair accusation and I see it a lot, it's kind of hurtful. I'm all for your free speech and your right to hurt feelings, speak your mind, I love it, I just don't think what you say there is fair. I think it is fair to say that the ONLY religion, out of THOUSANDS, in the world right now that has a morbid death culture is the despicable religion of Islam.

-FJ said...

I am not the author of the piece. The author is Slavoj Zizek (see attribution at the bottom). As for Christianity, I'm a Deist myself and not a Christian. Zizek is an atheist, but does have a soft spot for Christianity. I'm not sure what he meant to imply with the comment vis "culture of death".

-FJ said...

Maybe this will help you distinguish what Zizek perceived as how an "ordinary" Christian differed from a fundamentalist... in the amount of ironic distance the believer has towards the belief. Call it the degree of "extremism" if you will.