“When all the women were dead, the jihadists burned their bodies inside the houses. After they had finished with the women, the jihadists went back to …where they had locked the children. ‘They brought out the little kids – two, one and a half, three years old – they took them out holding on to each other. They took the groups and killed them with knife stabs’. The jihadists ripped open the children’s bellies with knives and tore out their intestines… ‘It was possible they killed the children like that so as not to waste their munitions, or perhaps as a game for the jihadists.’ “
I should begin by confessing to a slight untruth: although the scene above is entirely true and based on eye-witness accounts, one element of it is complete fabrication. The atrocity has nothing to do with jihadists, nor is it set in the Middle East. It took place in Guatemala, in the 1980s. I have merely subsituted the real culprits—U.S.-financed counter-insurgency troops—with the word “jihadists” each time. The real passage is taken from an Virginia Garrard-Burnett’s book on Guatemala.
By now, the word “ISIS” has become synonymous with radical evil. No longer an Egyptian goddess or a river in Oxford, the name has come to take on, within a mere eight weeks, the embodiment of pure malice. The word has absorbed like a global sponge every calorie of moral outrage our media has to offer (and it has quite a lot to offer). I remember the surprise I felt as I watched the semantics of its rapid ascendance: one day there was a group of rogue insurgents somewhere in the north of Iraq, the next world leaders were speaking of “apocalypse” and “unprecedented”. The whole global media machine (BBC World, CNN, the New York Times, etc) rallied behind the White House lead and within seven days, ISIS’s rippling black banners and masked, tank-riding Islamists were established as the new face of evil. For a world whose global political structure needs fresh, new evil every month, ISIS fitted the requirements perfectly: misogynist, anti-Western, minority-hating, violent, undemocratic, and above all energy-route-threatening.
I have no intention of writing anything in defense of ISIS; they are brutal, violent thugs. What I will write about, however, is the way we are learning to talk about ISIS, the way we are beginning to insert it into our discussions. From Fox News commentators to celebrity tweets, from editorials in USA Today to Facebook posts, there is something deeply disturbing about our whole conversation on radical Islam. It is something which suggests a powerful cowardice—intellectual, moral, historical—at the very heart of our so-called “Western” values. It is something which stinks of mendacity, a bad odour of denial which pervades every facet of our modern, Western, liberal traditions.
Talking about something as “radically evil” is never a good idea. Two deeply undesirable effects almost always happen as a result. First of all, other factors helping to produce the Evil but unrelated to the Evil are effaced or downplayed. In the case of ISIS, not simply the massive military bombardment of northern Iraq by the US/British which created the power vacuum in which this group was able to emerge; but also, as Patrick Cockburn and others have pointed out, the corrupt al-Maliki government the US installed, which has been a central factor in the spectacular failure of the Iraqi army against ISIS. Money which should have gone to the purchase of 140 helicopters (only one was seen in combat against the insurgents) is probably in Switzerland now. The monocausality of radical Evil means we never have to ask how the Evil came into being. Pushing the “Radical evil” button magically evaporates any context, in the same way our obsession with “breaking news” robs events of any history.
Secondly, the notion of “radical evil” artificially enhances our own goodness. The term “the West” in popular discourse is approaching a fantastic, almost Tolkienesque dimension of pure, unambiguous freedom and virtue. What’s worse, the effect does not merely happen in the present, but also retrospectively re-colours and re-inflects the past: the bombing of ISIS is the “good” bombing which retrospectively and absurdly justifies the “bad” bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan. To hear some Western commentators, both liberal and conservative, speak about ISIS, one might think no Western leader had ever ordered the torture of priests and intellectuals, the bombing of schools and the murder of children.
It is striking that some of the most revered and oft-quoted figures in our Western political tradition have been capable of the most vicious acts of savagery – and yet all we ever hear about is how much the Middle East has to learn from us. Winston Churchill wanted to gas more women and children than ISIS; President Obama’s various planes and drones have dropped bombs on as many schoolchildren as ISIS; President Reagan and his aides’ Central American policies disembowelled more children than ISIS; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an infamous interview, said the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were a necessary price to pay for “stability in the Middle East”; Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher happily assisted in the torture and disappearance of thousands of Chilean students and labour activists. The list is endless. We know that ISIS is evil, but why are we so good? We know that the slow beheading of human beings on video-clips is grotesque—why is the gradual electrocution of writhing human bodies in the basements of Santiago any better? We know it’s terrible to throw bombs at people—why is it any better to drop bombs on them?
I gladly concede that anger is driving me to write this; anger at people who speak in hushed tones of reverence about Churchill and Reagan, but who wish to launch moral crusades against a group of savage militants financed largely by countries we consider to be our allies. But in the end we need an ethics that thinks horizontally, not vertically; we need to see an atrocity as something which comes from many directions, and has multiple causes – not as something separate and isolated, which can only be considered through longs vertical shafts of morality, bearing down in spotlight-fashion from above. As Western intellectuals, in particular, we need to see events in time, as part of processes in time, and see where our own countries fit into the histories of those processes. Neither CNN’s ninety seconds nor Newsweek’s three columns are ever going to do that for us.
Let me end on a Lutheran note. Luther said some pretty awful things about Islam (and, for that matter, about Catholics, Turks and Jews—I have tried to analyse this elsewhere). On one point, however, he was partially correct. Between 1518 and 1540, Luther wrote a series of tracts inspired by the Turkish advance across the Danube towards Vienna – an Ottoman military campaign he (in)famously saw as “God’s rod” (“God has sent the Turk to thrash us”). At no point did Luther ever consider Germany to be morally innocent of the catastrophe which loomed upon them; the Turk may have been evil, but he was merely a consequence of our greater evil. A healthy, historically-aware dose of this self-contempt would improve our discourse on radical Islam no end. For anyone familiar with the history of both U.S. and European torture and murder over the past 150 years, it might not be all that hyperbolic to say that in ISIS, what we see more than anything else is a more expansive, explicit version of our own cruelties. In bombing ISIS and its would-be imperialism, we are really bombing a version of ourselves.
Ian Almond is Professor of World Literature at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar (Georgetown University). He is the author of four books, most recently Two Faiths, One Banner (Harvard University Press, 2009). His work has been translated into seven languages, including Arabic, Korean, Persian and Serbo-Croat.