III. The spectacle
In one respect, however, the Islamists are without doubt a
twenty-first-century phenomenon: where their understanding of the media is
concerned, they leave their predecessors far behind. Earlier disciples of
terror also relied on "propaganda through action", but the kind
of worldwide attention achieved today by a nebulous grouping like Al Qaida
was not granted to them. Trained by television, computer technology, the
Internet and advertising, Islamist terror now gets higher viewer ratings
than any football World Cup. The all-important massacres are staged in
Hollywood-inspired style, modelled on disaster films, splatter movies and
science fiction thrillers. This too is evidence of a dependency on the
hated West. In the media output of terrorism, the Society of the Spectacle
as described by the Situationists comes into its own.
More momentous still, however, is the strategic use of suicide attacks, an
invincible weapon that cannot be seen by surveillance satellites and which
can be deployed practically anywhere. It is also extremely cheap. In
addition to these advantages, this form of terror also exerts an
irresistible attraction on the radical loser. It allows him to combine
destruction and self-destruction at the same time as acting out both his
megalomaniac fantasies and his self-hate. Cowardice is the last thing he
can be accused of. The courage that is his hallmark is the courage of
despair. His triumph consists in the fact that he can be neither fought
nor punished, since he takes care of that himself.
Contrary to what the West appears to believe, the destructive energy of
Islamist actions is directed mainly against Muslims. This is not a
tactical error, not a case of "collateral damage". In Algeria
alone, Islamist terror has cost the lives of at least 50,000 fellow
Algerians. Other sources speak of as many as 150,000 murders, although the
military and the secret services were also involved. In Iraq and
Afghanistan, too, the number of Muslim victims far outstrips the death
toll among foreigners. Furthermore, terrorism has been highly detrimental
not only to the image of Islam but also to the living conditions of
Muslims around the world.
The Islamists are as unconcerned about this as the Nazis were about the
downfall of Germany. As the avant-garde of death, they have no regard for
the lives of their fellow believers. In the eyes of the Islamists, the
fact that most Muslims have no desire to blow themselves and others sky
high only goes to show that they deserve no better than to be liquidated
themselves. After all, the aim of the radical loser is to make as many
other people into losers as possible. As the Islamists see it, the fact
that they are in the minority can only be because they are the chosen few.
Experts around the world are not the only ones wondering how the Islamist
movement has been able to recruit so many activists with its promises, far
outdoing its secular rivals. No clear answer is in sight. All that is
clear is that there must be explanations in the history of the Arab
civilization that brought forth the world religion of Islam. This
civilization reached its apogee at the time of the Caliphate. At this
time, it was far superior to Europe in military, economic and cultural
terms. The Arab world views this period with misty-eyed nostalgia; even
today, 800 years later, it plays a central role in the consciousness of
the region. In the intervening period, the power, the prestige, the
cultural and economic weight of the Arab world has been in continual
decline. Such an unparalleled demise is a puzzle and a sore point,
generating an acute sense of loss. The Indian-born Muslim poet Hussain
Hali (1837-1914) expressed this in his epic poem The Ebb and Flow of
"The historians doing research today
whose scientific methods are magnificent,
who plumb the archives of the world
and explore the surface of the earth –
the Arabs fuelled the fire in their hearts,
their rapid gait was learned from the Arabs."
Looking down from this high ground, Hali describes the decline over time,
in several stanzas, the last of which reads:
"We are neither trustworthy government officials
nor proud towards courtiers,
we do not earn respect in the sciences,
nor do we excel in crafts and industry."
It is not easy to put oneself in the position of a collective that has
experienced such a downfall extending over a period of hundreds of years.
No wonder the blame is put on a hostile outside world in the form of the
Spaniards, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the European colonial
powers and the American empire. But other societies such as India, China
and Korea have suffered no less under the rule of invaders and from the
attacks and raids of foreign powers. But in spite of this, they have
successfully faced the challenges of modernity and risen to become
important players on a global scale. The question therefore inevitably
poses itself as to the endogenous causes of the downfall of the Arab
world. As long as this question remains unanswered, the Arab world's
enormous scientific, technical and industrial deficit will remain
unexplained and inexplicable.
The Arab world's sense of pride is hurt not only by military inferiority
to the West. Far worse is the impact of intellectual and material
dependency. In the last 400 years, not a single noteworthy invention was
made by the Arabs. Rudolph Chimelli quotes one Iraqi author as saying:
"If an Arab had invented the steam engine in the 18th century, it
would not have been built." No historian would contradict him. This
means that for any Arab who cares to think about it, the very objects on
which everyday life in the Maghreb and the Middle East depends represent
an unspoken humiliation – every fridge, every telephone, every power
socket, every screwdriver, not to mention hi-tech products. Even the
parasitic oil states, frittering away their future security, are obliged
to import the technology from abroad; without Western geologists, drilling
experts and civil engineers, fleets of tankers and refineries they would
not even be capable of exploiting their own resources. In this light, even
their wealth is a curse that constantly reminds them of their dependency.
Not including the revenue from crude oil, the economic performance of the
entire Arab world today counts for less than that of a single Finnish
The Arab world has proved similarly unproductive where its political
institutions are concerned. Imported forms of nationalism and socialism
have failed everywhere, and democratic stirrings are routinely nipped in
the bud. Of course, blanket statements of this kind can only aim to say
something about the state of the whole. They tell us nothing about
individual capabilities, that are subject the world over to the genetic
normal distribution. But in many Arab countries, anyone who expresses
independent ideas puts their own life at risk. Which is why many of the
best scientists, engineers, writers and political thinkers live in exile,
a brain drain that can certainly be compared with the exodus of Jewish
elites from Germany in the 1930s, and which is likely to have similarly
Although the methods of repression that are customary in Arab countries
refer back to the traditions of oriental despotism, in this field too, the
unbelievers have proved indispensable as teachers. From machine pistols
through to poison gas, they invented and exported all of the weapons that
have been used in the Arab-Islamic world. Arab rulers also studied and
adopted the methods of the GPU and the Gestapo. And of course, Islamist
terrorism is also unable to do without such borrowings. Its entire
technical arsenal, from explosives to satellite telephones, from aircraft
to television cameras, comes from the hated West.
That such an all-encompassing dependency should be experienced as
unbearable makes perfect sense. Especially among displaced migrants,
regardless of their economic situation, the confrontation with Western
civilisation leads to a lasting culture shock. The apparent superabundance
of products, opinions, economic and sexual options leads to a double bind
of attraction and revulsion, and the abiding memory of the backwardness of
one's own culture becomes intolerable. The consequences for one's own
sense of self-esteem are clear, as is the urge to compensate by means of
conspiracy theories and acts of vengeance. In this situation, many people
cannot resist the temptation of the Islamists' offer to punish others for
their own failings.
Solutions to the dilemma of the Arab world are of no interest to Islamism,
which does not go beyond negation. Strictly speaking, it is a
non-political movement, since it makes no negotiable demands. Put bluntly,
it would like the majority of the planet's inhabitants, all the
unbelievers and apostates, to capitulate or be killed.
This burning desire cannot be fulfilled. The destructive energy of the
radical losers is doubtless sufficient to kill thousands, maybe hundreds
of thousands of innocent civilians and to cause lasting damage to the
civilization on which they have declared war. One indication of the
potential impact of a few dozen human bombs is the level of day-to-day
controls that has come to be the norm.
But this is actually the least of the losses to civilization resulting
from terrorism. It can create a general atmosphere of fear and trigger
counter-reactions based on panic. It boosts the power and influence of the
political police, of the secret services, of the arms industry and of
private security operatives; it encourages the passing of increasingly
repressive laws and leads to the loss of hard-won freedoms. No conspiracy
theories are required to understand that there are people who welcome
these consequences of terror. There is nothing better than an external
enemy with which to justify surveillance and repression. Where this leads
is shown by the example of Russian domestic policy.
The Islamists can consider all this a success. But it makes no difference
to the actual power relations. Even the spectacular attack on the World
Trade Center was not able to shake the supremacy of the United States. The
New York Stock Exchange reopened the Monday after the attacks, and the
long-term impact on the international financial system and world trade was
The consequences for Arab societies, on the other hand, are fatal. For the
most devastating long-term effects will be born not by the West, but by
the religion in whose name the Islamists act. Not just refugees, asylum
seekers and migrants will suffer as a result. Beyond any sense of justice,
entire peoples will have to pay a huge price for the actions of their
self-appointed representatives. The idea that their prospects, which are
bad enough as it is, could be improved through terrorism is absurd.
History offers no example of a regressive society that stifled its own
productive potential being capable of survival in the long term.
The project of the radical loser, as currently seen in Iraq and
Afghanistan, consists of organizing the suicide of an entire civilisation.
But the likelihood of their succeeding in an unlimited generalization of
their death cult is negligible. Their attacks represent a permanent
background risk, like ordinary everyday deaths by accident on the streets,
to which we have become accustomed.
In a global society that constantly produces new losers, this is something
we will have to live with.
The article originally appeared in German in Der Spiegel on
November 7, 2005.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of modern Germany's most
interesting and celebrated writers. Among his books of poetry are
"The Sinking of the Titanic" and "Mausoleum". His
prose works include "Europe, Europe" and "Civil Wars".
Translation: Nicholas Grindell.
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