What is at stake is the very meaning of Western political subjectivity, and this cannot be understood without underscoring its intersection with the varied discourses of Islamophobia.
The intentional downing of the Germanwings aircraft on 24 March 2015 triggered an urgent media inquiry into the identity and motivations of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. Armed with not much more than a grainy photograph of an unassuming man posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, journalists pressed Marseille prosecutor Brian Robin for a positive identification of first Lubitz’s ‘ethnicity’ and then his ‘religion’ to which came Robin’s reply: ‘he is not listed as a terrorist, if that is what you are insinuating.’
With the media and the authorities scrambling to locate Lubitz’s hypothesised Muslim-ness, I was reminded of the events in Sydney last year. When a Lindt cafe was stormed and besieged by Man Haron Monis, our Prime Minister soberly announced that Australia had suffered its very own ‘brush with terrorism.’ Monis was a questionable character with a violent forensic history, an unstable sense of self and an overt, if undiagnosed, mental illness. But he had, in a most spectacular and incompetent fashion, executed a sixteen-hour hold-up which ended in his death, and the deaths of two of his hostages. His demands bordered on the bizarre: an Islamic State flag (which he had not brought along himself), and a live radio interview with the Prime Minister. With the end of the siege, we witnessed the wholesale inscription of Monis’s disorganised and desperate actions into the narrative of Islamic terror. A bearded criminal, without the requisite black flag, was transformed into an author of terrorism. But psychiatric wards rumble with a cacophony of distressed flirtations with quasi-political and quasi-religious fragmentary thinking. Is it so inconceivable that this mentally ill Iranian refugee would be so immanentised into the oppressive discourses of Islamophobia and the interpellations of political Islamism, that in his confused expression of mental illness he would incorporate the signifiers of Islamic terror most closely available to him? This is not to say that political violence and mental illness are mutually exclusive, but we are forced to wonder whether his haphazard and confused actions were ever able to support the grave cognitive objectives that they were purported to convey.
Meanwhile, it seemed clear in the days following the Germanwings crash, that the incident would not be earning the title of ‘terrorist act’. Numerous political commentators, however, were not entirely comfortable with this verdict. Some, like Elsa Buchanan categorically interpreted the act as one of terror. Meanwhile, others like Annalisa Merelli remained unconvinced about the existence of an ideological or political motive required for the label of terrorism, citing instead the automaticity with which the charge of terrorism was dismissed as evidence of Islamophobic prejudice. Others still, like Middle East commentator Juan Cole, needed to invent new genera by which to classify the event, differentiating between ‘political terrorism’ and ‘terroristic act of killing.’ Nonetheless, Lubitz, we know, said to his girlfriend that one day he would do something to change the whole system, that everyone will know his name and remember. Yet even the brother of Australian Carol Friday, the latter who was killed alongside her son, vowed to conceive of the crash as an accident in order to ‘deny the perpetrator his wishes,’ in other words, to refuse to politicise the crash. Amidst all this confusion, one thing seems obvious: what is at stake is the very meaning of Western political subjectivity, and this cannot be understood without underscoring its intersection with the varied discourses of Islamophobia.
When it comes to Muslims in the Western imaginary, the metaphors are always metaphors of the vertical. Invoking Islam induces a temporary amnesia about the tectonics of power as a diffuse function of multiple logics, operating at disparate sites, through discrete technologies. Too often, the real diversity of life is sacrificed to the grammar of Islamophobia. The self-organising Western phantasy of the Islamic threat is revealed time and again through the astonishing metonymic slippage of signifiers, which makes for some truly bewitching public incidents. For example, consider this staggering definition of Islamic sharia from renegade senator Jacqui Lambie — ‘it obviously has to do with terrorism,’ or the proudly anti-Muslim West Australian MP Luke Simpkins who mistook the black and white logo of a Perth nightclub for ‘shahada symbols.’ Islam too often becomes the singular arterial, an oppressive and transhistorical political agency whose only dimension is the vertical. The obscene fascination with the throwing of gays from the tallest of buildings; the abyssal menace of Hamas’s subterranean labyrinths. Even the subjugation of Muslim women, despite Western feminism’s dynamic understanding of patriarchy, remains conceptualised as a unitary, downward vector. It is perhaps, then, understandable — if in no way forgivable — that when a plane tragically falls out of the sky, it is this metaphor of the vertical that is activated, with all its terrible promises.
The Muslim is the West’s ultimate other. But even as other, Islam is not absolute alterity; it is not an alien thing that resists entry into intelligibility. The other is the double, the fraud, the one who lurks close by. As Homi K. Bhabha reminds us, the other provokes the feeling of the uncanny, a collapsing of strangeness and familiarity. Uncanniness — unheimlichkeit — the other makes us feel as though we are not at home. Even a well-contained otherness remains contagious. Phenomenologically speaking, it is this threat of contagion — a concentrically spreading sense of dislocation — that is the drain hole around which Western Islamophobia orbits. If I am a Muslim and an Australian, these two identifications are held in tension and in conflict. What I am not is Muslim-Australian (optimistically hyphenated), a feel-good bromide about a centred subjectivity, dialectically resolved. And, for Islamophobes, the threat Muslims pose to their vision of society lies precisely in this failure of resolution. Like me, they too reject this sanguine hyphen. In detecting a whiff of W.E.B. du Bois’s double consciousness, the Islamophobe cultivates a sort of obsessive overinvestment in the vanishingly small possibility that being intercepted by one particular Muslim or another may cause them to lose their sense of safety.
Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, we witnessed a gratuitous public spectacle as thousands took to the streets in brazen affirmation of particular ‘rights’. What was hailed as a unification of the voice of the free world to me represented its terrifying, antipodean inversion. For it seemed fairly self-evident that the attack was never a threat to the right of free speech, but an instance of its violation. To my mind, people took to the streets to affirm a very different statement. It is probably not too difficult to infer, from the pattern of which instances of rights violations provoke outrage (Copenhagen, Paris, Sydney,…) and which do not (Gaza), that the affirmation ‘we have a right to draw cartoons and not be killed for it’ actually means ‘only we have a right to draw cartoons and not be killed for it.’ The loudest of protestations were about the loss of the West’s unique claim to these universals, as universals. It is at this point that #JeSuisCharlie intersects with Islamophobia as I read it: ‘we’ in the West understand the otherness of Muslims, ‘we’ get how much suffering and violence there is in the Middle East, ‘we’ really do. ‘We’ just don’t wish to experience it ourselves. A multitude of otherwise political-savvy groups were enfolded into this frenzy, including Australia’s progressive political party the Greens, which participated in Melbourne’s own solidarity #JeSuisCharlie vigil.
Through speaking in universals, the specificity of the political moment is lost, and retires into a self-givenness. The primacy of the political (le politique; which theorists like Jean-Luc Nancy present as analytically inflected and distinct from la politique, the daily practice of politics) becomes impossible to articulate. What Nancy identifies as the retreat of the political, represents an obliteration of the ontological dimension of being-political, the Aristotelian discovery of the zoon politikon. Instead, through the disappearance of the political, Nancy identifies a new ‘soft totalitarianism’ that he traces genealogically back to a totalising impulse common to all the fascisms, a colonised and colonising thinking that forgets the oppressive structures of the liberal state, the imperial wars (past and present) waged in the name of the free world, and the very essence of what being political means. Within this expanding horizon of soft totalitarianism, what becomes inarticulable is the very horizontality of the moment of coming-together of political beings. This horizontality is all but unintelligible to politics’ contemporary formulation as the preeminence of, in this instance, the vertical forces of state oppression, militarism and Islamic terror. The horizontal dimension of politics has been replaced by the flat (anti-political) surface of globalised capital and its populus of docile consumers, parliamentarianism and its associated pomp, and governance and bureaucracy.
Armed with this framework, by juxtaposing Monis and Lubitz the absurd nature of the state of politics is thrown into stark relief. The superposition of the metaphors of verticality that operate in both the conception of politics and the conception of Islam has made the Muslim subject the political subject par excellence. In contradistinction to other formulations of Islamophobia that suggest the Muslim as an infiltrator to be cleansed from the body of society, cellularised forms of power and surveillance constitute a Muslim agency that becomes over-invested with significance. The Muslim becomes a political subject hyperpoliticised. In Lubitz’s case, in the absence of any of the phallic signifiers associated with political acts (beards, flags, dark skin, or a manifesto,…), we become incapable of apprehending an act of mass murder motivated by a desire to change ‘the system’ as an act of terror. It seems we can barely conceive of it as political.
Without reifying any sort of hierarchy of bigotry and racism, contemporary Islamophobia is unique in its convergence — even identity — with raw forms of militarism and violence. The logics of war, enmity and empire are simply the logic of Islamophobia redressed. Because every Western political regime maintains a sensible demarcation between two non-contiguous spaces: the inner space of capital, democracy, freedom and rights, and the outer space of war. Sensible, here, in both meanings of the word: reasonable, civilised, moderate and mindful, the feigned reluctance to engage in the making of warfare; and sensible as stark demarcation. On the far side of the demarcation, the Muslim is earmarked for liquidation by unbridled state violence, whose primary logic is the logic of war.
In the operation to end the siege, Monis was ultimately killed (along with two of his hostages). While it may or may not have been a judicious decision in the moment of storming the cafe, I am not positioned to comment on that. However, his killing does also come to stand for something else: the carriage of justice. Monis was dealt a particular military — or militarised — form of justice for his act. Others have argued that, if the ‘bad’ Muslim must necessarily be extra-judicially executed, the ‘good’ Muslim is ultimately the martyr, who dies for the cause of the liberal West. In contrast to the wars of the twentieth century in which, at least within the frame of those who won them, ‘we’ were enlisted to die for universal rights of freedom and whatever else, since the inauguration of the war on terror, the equation has mutated. Whereas once we remembered those who made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ to protect our rights, now a new discourse has emerged. The militarism enshrined in the dictum ‘we must die for our rights’ has given way to its sinister counterpart: ‘they (Muslims) must die for our rights.’
With Lubitz, however, the amputation of the political dimension of the Western subject gives rise to a particular form of bewilderment: we ask ourselves, what would drive a man to commit such an atrocity? We are invited into his rich inner world; invited to grapple with the horrors of depression and suicide; invited to absorb the wisdoms of psychologists and psychiatrists. We are (parenthetically, and with considerable critical distance) even invited to empathise with Lubitz’s suffering and torment, and to contemplate the riddle of a ‘normal’ man in a troubled relationship with a pregnant girlfriend, driven to such an act of destructiveness.
A plane transmogrified into a missile filled with innocent civilians and smashed into the French alps becomes a simple — albeit ‘serious’ — case of depression; while a psychotic stick-’em-up at a franchise chocolatier becomes a chilling act of Islamic terror that threatens the entire edifice of Western civilisation. Whatever his grievances, and it is too soon to reflect on what they might have been, Lubitz’s act is shunted into the discursive field of psychiatry because of the failure to apprehend its political dimension. From some perspectives, it would seem that what Lubitz has done is little more than create a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ for Lufthansa (if you’ll excuse the callousness of this phrase) which is already being asked to justify admitting an individual with serious depression to its fleet, and which has already flagged with its insurers more than twice the expected amount in insurance payouts for an aviation accident of this scale. In contrast, and despite all the particularities of the case (there are many), Monis’s life, his final act, and his death are ultimately disassembled and incorporated into the Western narrative of Islamic terrorism, his fractured and disoriented behaviour scaffolded by a false political coherence.
In the face of the mass destruction of human life in the Germanwings incident, it seems somewhat brutish to contemplate this metaphor, but I think it’s one worth pondering: the impregnable cockpit door. It seems a tragic irony that, were it not for the fear of terrorism and the standards to which cockpit doors are now built post-9/11, the Germanwings crash could likely have been avoided. A barrier to keep the Muslim and his/her political subjectivity out, without even a capacity to articulate the sorts of political subjectivities that are contained within. At this point more than ever, it seems critical to stop and consider the meaning of politics, political acts, and their relation to the interlocking discursive prisms of Islamophobia, terrorism, and insanity.
Nader Ruhayel is an Australian Palestinian based in Melbourne; he has an interest in political theory, Islamophobia and political Islam.