It is one of the most striking paradoxes of our age that the reactionary personalities most dedicated to the resurrection of ‘authentic values’ – whether national, like Steve Bannon, or religious, like the Wahhabi leaders – are all narcissistic transgressors. Take Vladimir Putin and Alexander Dugin, take Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and Alain de Benoist, and, of course, Donald Trump . . . If the choice in the twentieth century was between being normal and being exceptional, it seems that in our century the choice will increasingly be between ordinariness and psychopathy in the sense Norman Mailer gave to this word. Jihadists, in this context, appear merely like an extreme case. But it doesn’t make their religion less true. It could well be the other way around: to survive in the scientific-technological world, any system that pretends to authenticity must give way to psychopathy and violence, if only because it is the best way to communicate. Just think of what Islam would be in the world today without Wahhabis and political Islam, without the murder of women, homosexuals and Jews. Would anyone speak about it, or would it be in the same state as the Catholic Church in France, where churches are empty and the most dynamic of the Christians fight for the Mass in Latin?
But this leads to another, related issue: the role of communication and new technologies in the spreading of the violence.
Here is, for instance, an extract of an interview conducted by French police detectives with one of the smartest members of a cyber network of teenage girls from mixed backgrounds – some were from Muslim families, some weren’t – which was dismantled in the spring of 2014 after one of them spoke openly on her Facebook page of stealing her father’s gun in order to attack a synagogue.
police: Do you think it normal to decapitate people?
girl: I say to myself: the ones being killed that way, they probably deserved it. For instance if they didn’t respect religion as they were nicely asked to.
police: Have you ever watched decapitation scenes?
girl: This is not necessarily my cup of tea. But I am not overwhelmed by these videos. I’ve seen the one of the American journalist having his throat slit. I thought it looked like a cartoon.
police: Are you aware that this is real footage, that it does not stem from video games or films?
girl: Yes. I am well aware of that.
When, in the late nineties, the idea of ‘virtual reality’ became common, it was assumed that people would simply create avatars of themselves that they knew were fake. Because they were fake, those avatars would be able to express and act out things that their creators would never do in real life. This police interview, where images that look like cartoons are nonetheless considered real, suggests a more primal and frightening mental process in which things can be apprehended as real without being seen as true. This may explain why so many jihadists who left France inspired by films of beheadings posted by the Islamic State on the internet could argue at the same time that the images they watched were a hoax – a fabrication emanating from Western secret services. Yet these same ‘fake’ images triggered their vocation, inspired them to join ISIS in Syria. This process has been especially powerful among converts, a group that in France represents 30 to 35 per cent of jihadists and among whom the part played by social media and new technologies appears to have been central. Along with the social differences – for most converts come from a petit bourgeois environment – the most obvious difference between jihadists from Muslim backgrounds and converts lies in the way the members of each group engineer Islam in their dealings with their own parents. All the converts I have encountered present the same pattern, confirmed by their psychiatrists, of an ‘enmeshed relationship’ with at least one of their parents in the years preceding their discovery of Islam. (Enmeshment refers to attachments within a family that are so strong, a child can’t establish his or her own identity.) Where Muslim-born jihadists see religion as a way to both overcome and reconcile with a family history often marked by chaos, domestic violence, and humiliation and to reconnect with what they see as their ‘origins’ through a collective process in which the mosque and the group are essential, converts, by contrast, appear to use Islam as a disruptive element in order to break out of an enmeshed family and as a weapon to isolate themselves from their surroundings and preserve some sort of subjectivity. This isolation may explain the disproportionate role played by Islamist recruiters on social media in winning converts. The process of conversion through the internet after a series of virtual discussions with recruiters assuming fake identities seems disconcertingly simple – you take a shower to purify yourself and pronounce a vow in front of your computer. The simplicity of this has given birth to the persistent assumption that the future jihadist is an isolated, neurotic outlier who spends too much time online.
The process, however, is more complex and works only if this virtual conversion is accompanied by real encounters. Future converts who begin by searching for ‘real’ Muslims online, in the privacy of their bedrooms, always meet people in the flesh at some point.
Consider Liliane, a forty-year-old mother from Grenoble whose daughter Nathalie, seventeen, announced to her one morning at breakfast that she had just married, through text messages the previous evening, a man she had never met physically, whose name she did not know, but that as a married woman she nonetheless had to cover herself with a niqab 24/7.When I met Liliane in 2015, she explained that in order to ‘better understand’ Nathalie, she had authorized her to wear the niqab, while secretly buying an electronic chip that allowed her to hack into her daughter’s phone and follow what was going on. She then submitted herself to the torture of watching, powerless, the erotic text messages her daughter and her virtual husband exchanged for months without meeting. Finally, when Nathalie was eighteen, she simply vanished. She left to live somewhere between Syria and a Grenoble cité, and, when we met, Liliane had not been able to locate her. It is safe to assume that, without the prospect of a real, physical encounter nearby, Nathalie’s seduction and conversion would not have worked so well.
Or consider Luc, who flew to Syria on his eighteenth birthday to join the Al-Nostra group after a conversion he kept secret from his mother, who had raised him alone. Luc’s childhood friend Ali brought him to an Islamist recruiter named Omar Diaby in their hometown of Nice. Diaby was in fact a cyber preacher, one of the first in France to use the internet extensively to preach and post videos calling to jihad, and French intelligence has him sending more than a hundred recruits to Syria between 2012 and 2014. But Diaby also owned a cafe in a popular neighborhood of Nice that was used as a headquarters for Islamists, and for years before and during his conversion, Luc spent his afternoons in its basement, watching Diaby’s films and playing video games such as Assassin’s Creed.
Launched six years after 9/11 – the date matters – and conceived by the French company Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed served as a hugely successful tool for the training of would-be jihadist converts in those years. Its hero, an Ishmaelite monk, is a member of the quasi-historical sect of the Hashishin, said to have been active in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the Alamut Valley, in the Alborz Mountains of Iran, where they smoked hashish between killing missions, under the guidance of their leader, the mysterious Hassan-i Sabbah. Based on scattered historical references, the legend is a classic of the Muslim world and has fascinated writers of the twentieth century, William S. Burroughs most of all, who wrote extensively, and sometimes presciently, on them. In books like Cities of the Red Night and The Western Lands, bafflingly enough, Burroughs imagined modern Hashishin as an all-male gang of young men spiritually trained in some Muslim place and aiming to destroy the West, killing themselves in the process during orgasmic suicides. The ‘creed’ that both Burroughs and the title of the game refer to, which is supposed to have been the true rallying cry of the sect, is ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted.’ Again: the physical presence of the Islamist network appears as the necessary complement to the virtual propaganda.
That said, one may wonder whether something in the operating mode of the new technologies itself – something in the ‘nature’ of the algorithm, if such an expression makes sense – might not play a role in all this.
One definition of knowledge, after all, is one’s capacity to tell a story in a rational and understandable way: a narrative based on facts and experiences that can be rebuffed only with a better, more accurate one. Whether scientific or literary, in short, knowledge mirrors truth. An algorithm, on the other hand, does not have to mirror truth or falsity: it just needs to be repeated. Why do members of a Facebook ‘community’, for instance, identify as ‘friends’? For the sole reason that their pages exchange the same information. This is true, in particular, of militant and Islamist pages. At its core, then, data is tautological. To borrow a phrase from the father of information theory, Claude Shannon, information is entropy. Its power depends not on its veracity but on its simplicity – not on its ‘truth’ but on its being ‘real’ – and what makes it real is its capacity to be duplicated. By that standard, ‘There is no other God than God’ is information in its purest, simplest form. ‘Jews are hypocrites’ and ‘Arabs are rapists’ aren’t so far behind. These statements – these memes, as the theory calls them – are ‘real’ in the sense that they don’t need to be demonstrated in order to be considered true. They just need to be transmitted as many times as possible.
September 11 signaled the end of the global narrative that CNN had broadcast since the end of the Cold War. It is worth remembering what this narrative, sometimes called ‘neoliberalism’, said: In the wake of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and with social democracy getting ever stronger in Europe, even Russia would soon convert to free markets and free speech. The spread of liberal democracy and economic prosperity to China was only a matter of time. Through the Oslo peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a giant Silicon Valley would rise from Cairo to Amman, ensuring the creation of an Arab middle class that would put an end to the dictatorships in the region. Peace, as a result, would reign, not just in the Middle East but everywhere. And what would help to create these ‘unavoidable’ historical changes? Technology. Information. Cameras. The then exclusively American capacity to film anything on the planet ‘live’ would bring an end to political violence. No tyrant anywhere would ever dare to implement his murderous policies under the divine eye of enlightened international opinion, in the glare of television lights. Information was free now. Censorship was over. What the following years showed, however, is that censorship may not be simply a tool for dictators. Sometimes censorship may be a means by which the human imagination conceals its worst dreams and impulses. In the aftermath of 9/11, as the images of the World Trade Center falling spread through the internet, new possibilities began to grow. I do not think that Americans were entirely aware of the strange elation, the frightened joy with which these images were received in many parts of the world, central Paris included (not just the cités). It wasn’t simply the attack in itself; it was the place, New York. New York, the sanctified center of modernity, the capital city of the Diaspora Jews, the best shop window of capitalist America. Just when everybody assumed that the whole planet would follow the same boring road, something incredible had happened – something real.
Anything could follow. The implausible event was probably the first to be massively filmed by cell-phone users – the practice was still relatively new at the time. The spread of numerous eyewitness films showing the towers in flames and falling thus coincided with the progress of the internet, and was immediately accompanied by commentaries casting doubt on what was being shown: How many people had really died? Why had Jews avoided working in the towers that day? And wasn’t it obvious that the planes you saw had nothing to do with the crumbling of the towers – that explosives had done it? In other words, the images were too real to be true. This disbelief was not just the result of political propaganda; it was an effect of the images themselves. I remember that the day following the attacks, as I was waiting in the hall to be called onto the set of a TV talk show, a technician who was watching, shocked, as the constant rerun of the attack played on a screen in front of us suddenly exclaimed, ‘And they’re gonna make us believe that the Arabs did it!’ This was a completely spontaneous reaction. It meant contradictory things: one was that, even for him, al-Qaeda equated to ‘the Arabs’; two was that both were innocent, and the whole thing was a scam.
Such suspicion had already been in the air since the end of the nineties, when there was paranoia surrounding Y2K and a sense that ‘the truth was elsewhere’, as preached the trilogy of the Matrix movies, a worldwide success – excerpts of which would later be used by Islamist propagandists in France along with Assassin’s Creed. In Japan, the terrorist sect Aum Shinrikyo, whose members thought the global world was manipulated by Freemasons and Jews, launched the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing twelve and injuring more than five thousand. All this was part of a global atmosphere, as was Timothy McVeigh in the United States, who longed for a nuclear holocaust in which all Jews and nonwhites would be annihilated and, as an appetizer of sorts, blew up the Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, killing 168 that same year. This was the larger context for the episodes of the nineties: the Islamists’ attempt to drown ‘the global democracy of homosexuals and Jews’ in the blood of the miscreants in Algeria; in Europe, the manly visit the partisans of the Franco-Russian ‘redbrown’ ideology paid to Slobodan Milošević’s death squads in order to rebel against the new world order; and, in Russia, the frenetic writings of Alexander Dugin preaching – as Islamists did – that ‘all content of Modernity is Satanism and degeneration’ and that ‘its sciences, values, philosophy, art, society, modes, patterns, and truths’ should end.
After 9/11, as everyone began to turn their attention once again toward the Middle East, this mindset of apocalyptic anxieties, accumulated since the beginning of the atomic age and repressed during forty years by the balance of terror – this mindset blossomed.
Seen that way, what we call ‘Islamism’ simply appears to be the Muslim variation of the global illiberal wave. What gave it prominence – in addition to the millions that the Saudis, Qatar, and Iran spent to sponsor it – was technology.
The footage of the towers falling served as raw material for the building of a new type of counterculture that gave a new strength to conspiracy theories, a self-generated mass production of counter-knowledge on a worldwide scale.
The credibility of this counter-knowledge, with its mass audience, was strengthened two years after the attacks by the public lies told by the US administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Such a lie to the face of the world, emanating from the guarantor of the world order, could only validate the general feeling that anything labeled as the ‘official truth’ was phony. The combination of these two factors helped to build an alternate narrative of a global scale according to which things do not need to be true in order to be real.
By the beginning of the following decade, between 2012 and 2014, a whole generation across the world, born with the fall of the World Trade Center, had at its disposal the products of an industry of spectacular videos, speeches, and so-called analysis that either justified the attack or denied any implication of the Muslim world in it, blaming instead Israel or the CIA, or both.
Kate Starbird, a professor of human-centered design at the University of Washington, has conducted a three-year research program on ‘alternative narratives’, conspiracy theories and the politics of disinformation on the web in the United States between 2013 and 2016. Published in March 2017, her conclusions draw from a large galaxy of news sites where news has been overtaken by hundreds of computer-generated fake Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, some of which use real profiles and pictures stolen from real people. Whether on the left or on the right, most of the news that is thus conveyed is ‘antiglobalist’, the meaning of the word varying from denouncing a global conspiracy of the rich and powerful to the defense of Muslims against global US influence, from anti-immigration activism to anti-corporate stances and anti-European professions of faith. To quote Starbird: ‘Due to the range of different meanings employed, the sentiment of anti-globalism pulled together individuals (and ideologies) from both the right and the left of the US political spectrum. Disturbingly, much of the anti-globalist content in these alternative media domains was also anti-Semitic – echoing long-lived conspiracy theories about powerful Jewish people controlling world events.’
But why? What connects these conspiracy theories and the hate of modernity with the hate of the Jews?
The above is an excerpt from Marc Weitzmann’s Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France, which proposes that both small-scale and large-scale acts of violence in France have their roots in not one, but two very specific forms of populism: an extreme and violent ethos of hate spread among the Muslim post-colonial suburban developments on the one hand, and the deeply-rooted French ultra-conservatism of the far right.
Image © Justin Taylor / Ubisoft