One year ago an off-beat play about terrorism by Nobel-prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek premièred in Darmstadt, Germany, Wut (Rage) – at a time the country was straining both under a messy immigration often from countries who are suppliers of jihadists, and terror attacks often presented by the police as acts by disturbed individuals – not combatants’ acts. Rage on all sides, as it were. Jelinek is known for her disruptive take on social realities. Her play questions the rage that supposedly inhabits protagonists of terror events, and draws on the epoch-making Paris attacks of January 2015 (Charlie-Hebdo massacre). What is the rage, by implication, which inhabits terrorists – is it a sort of dementia? – something that poses an enigma to counter-terrorism agencies, and leads them, especially in Europe, to try and default terrorism onto some convenient socio-pathology. The lessons by two French philosophers about terror and the making of a community can help clarify the question raised by Wut and better understand radical extremism in the electronic age.
First, Jean-Paul Sartre explains, in his highly political work Critic of Dialectical Reason what are the ways and means of revolutionary actors. The expression “dialectical reason” refers to how an individual quits “dialogue” and enters “dialectics,” quits democratic debate and enters radical change, revolution. In short: the reason at work within extremism. Sartre coined a further, arresting concept, overlooked by analysts who are possibly awed by the Frenchman’s uber-Hegelian argument (spanning two large tomes): “Fraternity-Terror.”
Sartre explains how individuals linked by a revolutionary ideal form a compact of free wills that results in a friendship that is not a relationship based on emotion but a strategic mode of socialization. Thus, perfects strangers become perfect radical friends – a pattern detected among Internet jihadists. The “fraternity” they create transcends egos by linking them to terror through a will for action. The Sartrean description runs contrary to how we normally conceive social and political engagement in a community. Political or community involvement is seen usually as the public conversion of our private, inward temper into outward activism. For Sartre radical will is entirely different as it changes our concept of the individual: Fraternity-Terror transmutes psychological egos or social relations (what we call “a sense of community”), into the voluntary affirmation of radical change that creates new bounds and heralds a new political compact, and creates a new territory for political action. Terror, lest we forget, always has to do with claiming territory. What looks like a “rage” is, in reality, will at work, and is the creation of a community of a different kind.
Indeed, concerning ISIS, at its foundation the Caliphate was articulated purposefully on two territories, a material one, now torn apart by defeat and retreat, and an immaterial one – on the Internet and the Web2.0. As the material one disappears the immaterial e-territory no longer is its doppelgänger but the effective reality. Fraternity-Terror operates in this e-territory, which in turn feeds into Fraternity-Terror. Individuals seize on electronic communication to foster “fraternities” between them, individuals who have never met and need not meet, since egos, as explained, are irrelevant. Take for instance the usual debate around the truthfulness of claims after an attack: one can understand investigators need to assemble evidence as the law requires should a terrorist be brought to trial; or that intelligence services need to track operatives. But both are misguided in terms of understanding the nature of terror. Common psychology does not apply. Forensic logic neither. The odd combination of individual will and non-relational “fraternity” is a challenge. Contrary to what we read in the press, it is not the (temporary) territorial constriction of the Caliphate that results in increased, haphazard terror attacks, as so many acts of desperadoes. It is the pre-existence of the e-territory that will make the material territory consist again. Fraternity-Terror, in Sartre’s analysis, is the driving force.
There is more. As an introduction to Wut the playbill contained a substantial extract from Die Sprache des Terrors, the German edition of Words Are Weapons (which took me and my publisher by surprise in spite of a lengthy interview in Die Zeit). Quite smartly the producer brought forward another key element of understanding. The Caliphate’s combatants form a “community of discourse,” a Diskurzgemeinschaft (the German expression packs a punch). Defeat on the ground has created the conditions for an expanded and virulent “community of discourse” that enables Caliphal jihadism to deploy itself fully across the e-territory, unimpeded by the material demands of military strategy and covert operations. Fraternity-Terror has propelled onto the stage a new “community of discourse.” This concept can be traced back to another French philosopher, Michel Foucault. In Discourse on Language, he explains that a given community of discourse is defined by several factors, three of which have a direct bearing on terror. First, there is a need to keep alive a foundational text by re-activating it again and again. This foundational text need not be materially real: it is the iteration of what people think it is, that creates it. Second, there is a belief in a shared authorship of ideas, as if the community is the author of statements, speeches, and so on. Third, what he calls a “fellowship of discourse” takes shape which excludes outsiders until they learn the language, with this implication that adopting this idiom is a step toward conversion to the “fellowship.” All three put together go a long way to describe how radical groups, in the age of Web2.0, function: the repetitiousness of jihadist pronouncements and the apparent banality of statements conceal the “fellowship,” and does it in plain sight. Debates around “cyber-coaching” of terrorists fail to take all this into account.
Radical or extremist “fellowships,” be they jihadist or, closer to home and on a different scale, alt-rightist are not easy to circumscribe and to oppose, let alone disperse, because they are complex discourse formations and not mere organizations. They can be shouted at, or be shouted down, even shutout, but their “fraternity” endures.
Philippe-Joseph Salazar is Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town and past Director in Rhetoric andDemocracy at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. In 2008 he received the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, the top prize for research on the African continent. In 2015 he received the Prix Bristol des Lumières for the French edition of this book. Dorna Khazeni was a finalist for the PEN USA Translation Award. She has published her translations from French in Vanity Fair, Harper’s, Zoetrope AllStory, The Believer, and elsewhere.
Featured image of ISIS militants line up in a still from a propaganda video. Militant video via Abaca.