We common plebes are very occasionally subjected to a recurring narrative that finds fresh use during moments of “terrorist” acts carried out by extremist fan boys, who do so frequently under the banner of Islam and purportedly in defense of the Muslim faith. This narrative poses, against the values of a mythic West (of free speech, religious pluralism, democracy, etc) values of an Islamic type (theocratic, religiously intolerant, patriarchal, etc), values carried out or supported by Islamic militants and their state sponsors.
Frequently lost in this debate of a “clash of civilizations” (and in this the left as well finds itself trapped) is the exact source of the society that we tend to compare to these Islamic movements and countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Islamic Caliphate, and the like). We see our own world that embodies a particular set of values as somehow internally consistent with Western forms of government, forms that derive at least in part from a Christian historical condition, a condition lost to history but still retaining its influence in our customs and ideas. In this formulation, the earlier Christian brutalism of the Crusades and the Inquisition (and more recent Christian fundamentalist terrorism of, say, the Klu Klux Klan) was slowly relegated to historical study and Christianity as a worldview became much more “liberal” and open to the incursion of Enlightenment values, indeed fostered “cross-fertilizations”, and the Western state form, which derives much inspiration from the Church, followed suit.
What this narrative story misses is the fact that all those so called “freedoms” associated with our mythically enlightened West — freedom of speech, religious toleration, political pluralism, the very values that Western commentators trumpet and counter-pose to the values of those people over there — were not and have never been features of Western systems of power but instead were always values fought for by movements — of workers, of women, the exploited, religious minorities, the simple people, the multitude — pushing back against encroachment of state or proto-state centers of power. The mythic narrative of Western Freedom™ absorbs this basic historical fact.
The state, the historic and real concentration of power, gives nothing and takes all. Movements are countervailing forces that demand, within the structure of a relationship of antagonism. Society is free, speech is free, religion is plural (and exists) only insofar as movements of people — the Industrial Workers of the World waging street corner free speech fights of the 1910s, the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s, the clamor against the Church of England during the American Independence fight, the Abolitionist forces demanding emancipation— rise up in motion and make these ideas a reality beyond the ideas of philosophers and intellectuals, and always against the pushback from state forces and elite planners.
Western “plural” democracies only utilize the “work product” of these movements for very good purpose, the way advertisers utilize the latest zeitgeist to sell their products. Western leaders will march (or at least gather in a secured street) but the image is clear. The purpose is a photographic opportunity, for above all the maintenance of the narrative.
The left falls into the same trap by comparing the “terrorism” of the Western state — drone killings, assassinations, sponsored regime change and all out attack and occupation (all single acts certainly more barbarous and deadly than every single independent terrorist act in history combined) — to the independently franchised terrorism of religious cults and sects. “Yes these terrorists are bad but the terrorism of Cheney/Bush/Obama is far worse!” This comparison misses the crucial point that the West’s terrorism and the independent terrorism of franchise actors (like Al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) are one and the same, born of a mythic battle between two competing state forms vying for dominance over the fleshy bodies of men, women and children caught in the crossfire.
The narrative functions, then, shouldn’t be more clear.
However, we shouldn’t assume that the progress the multitude has made in scratching out spaces for tolerance and free activity is only confined to the West, and that the East has yet to travel down that road, to “catch up” to the Enlightenment values that have conditioned the states response here, but not there. This fiction covers the essential truth that the very reactionary states that support such quasi-fascist tendencies as the Islamic State and other extremist Salafist organizations are clients of the West and owe their continued life if not very existence to the states of Europe and the United States that render any real, meaningful change in the Middle East extremely difficult. The desire for a true independence and freedom is no condition of history or the development of a particular national program, but inherent in the bones of every person, every refugee, every veiled woman, every child soldier, every villager condoned to an existence of tyranny and exploitation.
We must never forget that the battle that wages between “civilizations” is a rhetorical device utilized for the purpose of gaining adherents to state projects of one type or another (as if the civilizations of the west and the east were of two distinct kind to begin with, forgetting the interconnectedness of the global imperial project that lead to the current configuration of the Middle Eastern states). Centers of concentrated power vying for the obedience of actors who will maintain or build such centers to the benefit of elites (state managers, political bosses, corporate CEOs, imams, priests, ad infinitum). This clash is fought not by those in charge but by the rabble, the jihad fighter or the Marine, roused with the narrative, charged with belief in the supreme duty to become automatons and killing machines in the name of grand myths.