North Africa, West Asia

Genealogies of empire: the Islamic State as a western symptom

The butcher of Foley has in a sense defied the genealogies of empire and the 'be with us or against us' mentality now once again at the forefront of politics.

Samson Bezabeh
19 September 2014

Empires come and go. The demise of an empire often bears the seed of its successor. Before American global supremacy, there was the British Empire, and before them other empires, such as the Ottoman, for the re-establishment of which, some Islamic militants are currently fighting. Empires, however, do not only produce the seed of an empire to follow, they also produce human genealogies.

The recent beheading of the American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq has brought this underpinning of genealogies to the surface. In a speech that he made following the beheading of Foley, the US president, Barack Obama, asserted that the entire world is shocked. As a leader of a country whose global power has so far been unmatched, Obama is here speaking at a meta-level. His assumption of the mantle of humanity is typical of a commander of an empire. His vision of the world is holistic and singularised. He speaks of the presence of an "entire world" that shares the same emotion, hence a single body of humanity is brought together and made whole by a single empire.

Obama's vision of humanity and of a united world, however, quickly fades once we start to look more closely at the story that surrounds the death of Foley. After the beheading of Foley, what was reported as shocking in the western media was the fact that Foley’s butcher was a British man, part of a British threesome who refer to themselves as ‘the beatles’. This was the shock - that the killer has a British accent and therefore he comes from the west. What is here demonstrated is a certain pack mentality founded on racial and civilisational dichotomies. The butcher of Foley has in a sense defied the genealogies of empire and the “ be with us or against us” mentality now once again at the forefront of politics. He did so by undermining the assumptions made by empire from within: a Briton is not supposed to act in this way, as only ‘the Barbaric others’ engage in such acts.

This mentality of ‘the enemy other’ based on the genealogical descent of the person involved is something that we saw elsewhere quite recently. When the Norwegian right wing terrorist Andre Breivik massacred innocent people in the streets of Oslo and on the island of Utoya, a similar situation was made apparent. Following the extraordinary act of violence in such a peaceful country as Norway, experts were quick to blame the matter on foreign jihadists. The affair however turned from shock to amazement and then to disbelief when it was revealed that the bomber was a blue-eyed, blond-haired, white fanatic who, if we take his plans into account, even dreamt of capturing and beheading the then Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg.

But this repeated occurrence of a certain pack mentality gestures not to the present, so much as to the past, and the fact that "our" demons of the past are still haunting us today. Paradoxically, it is this that is made apparent in the acts and discourses of organisations like IS. While leaders of the west invoke a shared, common humanity, the persons of IS speak about the formation of a caliphate in which Muslims will have the upper hand and Christians and other minorities will have to face conversion to Islam or exist by paying tax, and if not, face mass extermination. Here the IS speaks of the formation of a certain form of empire with its genealogies made explicit. It is an Islamic caliphate rooted in the teaching of the Prophet Mohamed and the history of the Islamic empire that came after. Although this discourse seems to be telling us about the nature of the group itself, the shocking violence, such as the beheading of people, reflects the symptom of the west, for the west and groups like IS are bound to each other through a series of repressive acts that run deep in our history. In short, while the current western empire tries to act as empires should act i.e. as a benevolent entity that nurtures and brings into a single unity all the places upon which shines its civilizing light,  its assailants act out the symptoms repressed by that present western empire in its role of being an empire.

The repression, however, is not total and the empire in the west as well as the states to which it brings its embrace have from time to time always acted out ‘the repressed’, as was demonstrated when the world was forced to acknowledge that the butcher of Foley was a Brit. In one fell swoop, the whole complicated history of the western relationship with Muslims and Arabs from the time of the crusades is here revealed, in the tracking of genealogies and roots to civilisation. A man with a British accent should not act like other foreigners. But the reaction to Foley’s killer’s accent simultaneously reveals the load of history built largely on viewing the Muslim Arab world as enemy number one, a world once targeted by crusaders and today again, when Arabs and Muslim have been made the subject of unwarranted surveillance as in the case of the New York police department surveillance of Muslims and their mosques, or the conditioning of specific Muslim targets to perform terrorist acts, an affair which has been categorized a humanitarian violation by the respectable human right organisation Human Rights Watch. 

These relatively lowkey affairs are the little demons that haunt the west. All the public talk of a universal humanity has not so far worked in repressing these symptoms among the enemies of empire. And unfortunate human beings such as Foley are made to pay the price. In the case of Foley the connection between western empires and their repressed symptoms as expressed among their enemies, is made visible by the orange costume that he was made to dress in, a colour immediately reminiscent of the dress forced on Muslims who were indefinitely held in Guantanamo Bay.

In his last statement Foley spoke about the responsibility of the United States for his death. A paradoxical  statement if you only consider the fact that those who killed him were not part of the American government, but of IS. Nevertheless, his statement, clearly made under duress, reminds us of the overlapping genealogies built up by contending empires. Here we find demons lurking that bring the past to the present and manifest the seemingly barbaric act of medieval society in a present-day high tech society of the twenty first century. Despite its high tech nature, the present western empire is however susceptible, and the nations which it seeks to embrace look like houses built on shifting ground as long as their concept of a shared humanity is not properly addressed and interrogated. The future is in the past as the past is in the future. So, the west is trying to repress these symptoms without much success.

At the time of writing, there is a repeated call for the bombing of IS. The former head of the British army, Lord Richard Dannat, has insisted that the UK must join the US in bombing the IS. Indeed, these bomb attacks might cripple IS, but it will hardly kill the symptom of the west which keeps generating organisations like IS. In the past, such a manifestation of western symptoms led to its repression. But as one form of manifestation is destroyed, we keep seeing the resurgence of another form. In the long run, the manifestations from Afghanistan to Syria, from Pakistan to Iraq keep growing like a lizard’s tail that is cut off only to regrow, while innocent peoples’ lives are caught and lost in the fights between empire and its own enemies as reflected in these symptoms. In view of this, the west needs to find another means to solve the deadlock rather than resort to the multiplication of human tragedy by once again bombing the area occupied by IS - as the problem lies not on the ground, but in the traumas of empires and the dreams that they have once dreamed.

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