A new narrative after Charlie Hebdo

Are we finally moving away from the ‘clash of civilisations’ master-narrative?

Neoliberal framework pushes away radical solutions to the problem of fundamentalist-terrorism, writes Khader [AFP]

Western media’s coverage of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack has been following a very familiar course. Since the attacks on September 11, 2001 on the US, the narrative of Islamist terrorism has become increasingly recognisable.

However, despite Islamophobic representations of extremists in mainstream media, there is a fundamental difference in the way politicians and the press are framing these incidents. 

An interesting twist in the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack is the deviation from the “clash of civilisations” master-narrative. However, this master-narrative has not yet lost its traction, with some of the Muslim leaders in France describing the massacre as a “deafening declaration of war”.

The current neoliberal framework pushes away any radical solution to the problem of fundamentalist terrorism.

President Francois Hollande was more cautious in his choice of words, describing the attack as a case of “exceptional barbarism”, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls used more aggressive language to describe the crisis.

Inside Story – What’s behind religious radicalism?

US Secretary of State John Kerry portrayed the massacre as a “… part of a larger confrontation, not between civilisations, but between civilisation itself and those who are opposed to a civilised world”.

Feeding violent extremism

Tariq Ramadan argued unambiguously that delivering an outlook that promotes the idea of a religion-based clash of civilisations, feeds violent extremism.

Ramadan insists that this is a war against “violent extremists, wherever they are coming from”. This shift is also accompanied by calls to abandon the US policy on the “war on terror” and the philosophy of “shoot first and ask questions later”. Ramadan pointed out that President George W Bush fell into the trap of the religious war rhetoric, even though his campaign was called the war on terror.

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins was also of a similar mind when he warned France and other European countries not to walk down the US path in the global fight against terrorism. He urged not to call this anti-terrorism campaign a “war” in order to avoid further compromise of what civil liberties are left in these already-fragile modern democracies.

Today’s French terrorists want a similarly hysterical response. They want another twist in the thumbscrew of the surveillance state. They want the media to be told to back off. They want new laws, new controls, and new additions to the agenda of illiberalism. They know that in most western nations, including Britain, there exists a burgeoning industry of illiberal bureaucrats with empires to build,” Jenkins wrote.

While commentators on the Paris tragedy acknowledge that terrorism has no easy solutions, the possibility of bringing an end to the problem of global terrorism is discussed.

However, the current neoliberal framework pushes away any radical solution to the problem of fundamentalist terrorism.

‘Forlorn hope’

For Alex Massie at the British conservative magazine The Spectator, there is “little room for hope, little reason to expect that this story will change. It is a war, of sorts, in which we trust that reason can somehow – eventually – conquer a rejection of reason. This seems a forlorn hope today”.

The only solutions that these commentators can conjure up reiterate earlier pleas to “stand for liberalism and reason” (as stated by Massie) or to “meet terrorism on its own terms” or to “refuse to be terrified … not to show fear, not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath”, Jenkins argued. This is no way to defeat terrorism.

As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued, religious fundamentalism, including Islamist terrorism, are ‘a pure product of the contradictions’ of the global capitalist system.

Underlying Massie’s pessimism and his inability to think outside the box, his understanding of Islamist terror as a “direct repudiation of modernity” is based on ideology. This interpretation puts the blame squarely on the pathological nature of Islam and its followers.

As an apologist for right-wing Islamophobic politics, Massie defends Bush, Tony Blair, and neocons because “the motivation for this barbarism long pre-dates their time in office”.

The origins of all forms of religious fundamentalism go back more than a decade, but do not precede the rise of global capitalism.

As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued, religious fundamentalism, including Islamist terrorism, are “a pure product of the contradictions” of the global capitalist system.

Zizek insists that religious fundamentalism has nothing to do with a tradition supposedly restored, “it is something entirely conditioned by the western policy”, adding that the Taliban is purely postmodern. 

Salman Rushdie made this link clear by writing: “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.”

Drawing on reinterpretation of religious fundamentalism, two solutions are considered to curb the threat of terrorism. 

First, the more radical attempt to restructure the whole mode of production through emancipatory and egalitarian projects that reverse the global trend towards more apartheid politics, exclusion, and the creation of dispossessed and disposable unemployed masses. 

Reintegration into society

This way, the young men who feel alienated and targeted can be reintegrated into society and can reject these forms of fundamentalist terrorism. This structural solution can be dismissed as impractical.

A more feasible solution, but no less radical, is to reclaim the true and positive meaning of fundamentalism and disassociate it from the destructive history of fundamentalist terrorism.

In his book on “Violence”, Zizek maintains that true fundamentalists do not harbour any feelings of envy or resentment towards other people. Indeed, they are so confident about their worldview and convictions that they are completely indifferent towards – and unthreatened by – other people’s beliefs or way of life, however perverted or obscene it may appear to them.

Zizek thus notes, “The terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated by the sinful life of non-believers”, because they are merely projecting on other people their own temptations and desires. He concludes by saying that “fundamentalists are a disgrace to true fundamentalism”.

Insofar as fundamentalist terrorism is a global issue, the international community can be served well not by criminalising faith or banning this religion but by helping to spread the true message and meaning of fundamentalism and evacuating it from any associations with violence and terrorism.

This solution may remain incomplete since it still disconnects the problem from its structural causes and roots – but it’s worth a shot.

Dr Jamil Khader is dean of research and professor of English at Bethlehem University, Palestine. He is the author of numerous articles on postcolonial feminism, popular culture, and literary theory.