The Terrorist Mindset The Radical Loser

By Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Part 3


In one respect, however, the Islamists are without doubt a 21st 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 they were never granted the kind of worldwide attention achieved today by a nebulous grouping like al Qaeda. Trained by television, computer technology, the Internet, and advertising, Islamist terror now achieves higher viewer ratings than any soccer World Cup. The all-important massacres are staged in Hollywood-inspired style, modeled 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 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 Algerian citizens. 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. It is clear only that reasons must be found in the history of the Arab civilization which brought forth the world religion of Islam. This civilization reached its apogee during the age of the Caliphate. At that time, it was far superior to Europe in military, economic and cultural terms. The Arab world views this period with mistyeyed 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 Flow and Ebb of Islam:

As to historians undertaking research today, whose scholarly methods are magnificent, who plumb the archives of the world and survey the surface of the Earth - the fire in their hearts was fueled by the Arabs, their quick pace 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 officers of the state nor boastful towards courtiers,

we do not earn respect through scholarship, nor do we excel in crafts or industry.

It is not easy to put oneself in the position of a collective that has experienced such a downfall extending over 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. Despite this, they have successfully faced the challenges of modernity and risen to become important players on the global stage. The question thus 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 can be credited to 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 refrigerator, every telephone, every electrical socket, every screwdriver, not to mention hi-tech products. Even the parasitic oil states, frittering away their future security, are obliged to import the requisite technology from abroad; without Western geologists, drilling experts, civil engineers, 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 telecommunications company.

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, 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 far-reaching consequences.

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 guns 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 equally 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 civilization leads to a lasting culture shock. The ostensible 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 patent, 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 nonpolitical 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 engender a general climate of fear and trigger panic reactions. 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 promulgation 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 to justify surveillance and repression. Russian domestic policy exemplifies where this leads.

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 global trade was minimal.

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 and was capable of survival in the long run.

The project of the radical losers, as currently seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, consists of organizing the suicide of an entire civilization. But the likelihood of their death cult gaining widespread currency is negligible. Their attacks represent a permanent background risk, like ordinary everyday traffic fatalities, to which we have become accustomed.

In a global society that constantly produces new losers, this is something we will have to live with.


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