Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Virtual tales, Western fantasies vs Fundamentalism

Visiting Washington D.C., Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull adopted a very Australian idea for reducing the influence of ISIS on line.  The suggested solution? Contradict, mock and disprove their ideology. 

Isil may have an archaic and barbaric ideology, but its use of technology and social media, in particular, is very sophisticated... As Isil uses social media for its propaganda, we must respond rapidly and persuasively with the facts. It was clear to me from my recent visit, that the Iraqi government and other anti-Isil forces are not reacting quickly enough to contradict Isil’s online messages, which have been used both to recruit new fighters and demoralise those who oppose them and we should help them with this. Isil claims must be mocked and disproved as soon as they are made ... the cyber sphere demands reactions as rapid as the kinetic battlefield. 

It is hard to take this analysis seriously. Presumably, this Comedy Central approach will take off in cyberspace, when ISIS fighters have some down time. Ridiculous.

The opponents of ISIS believe that rationality informs ISIS and its fighters and that a solution can be found in appealing to that rationality. Such rationality is based on western bourgeois notions of liberalism. It is blind to the way religious belief operates when it becomes fanatical. In other words it is blind to the contradictions: the Islamic faith is highly rational, until like all religions, it moves into the mystical realm, then it is no longer rational. 

As I have argued previously, the combination of religious belief and the Internet offers ideal conditions under which irrationality can operate. The countervailing forces (to quote John Kenneth Galbraith in another context) on which liberalism relies for its survival, are evacuated within fundamentalist belief, then reified (made concrete) through the Internet. Fundamentalism removes every obstacle to singular belief and action. ISIS and the Islamic State are the result of this unsurpassed alchemy.

A rational program of belief gives way to the mysticism of belief.  

The central contradiction of the Internet - social media or any virtual tool - is its ability to take and make a belief system so completely that no questions can be asked. This is nothing new. It is "ideological grooming." This idea, discussed in Uprising and in previous blogs, does not receive adequate discussion because it may be too close to home for some promoters of Internet applications. There is a blind spot among many people, in their inability to reflect on the way ideology is constructed by the Internet.   

The French academic Armand Mattelart in his 2001 book Information Society makes the point that there is "A new ideology that dare not speak its name..."(2). This idea needs much more consideration, not just in light of the way ISIS uses the Internet. 

Meanwhile, Turnbull made some helpfully nuanced comments about ISIS which suggest that the challenges of addressing a fundamentalist minority within the larger streams of Islam will require more detailed analysis. 
We should not be so delicate as to say Isil and its ilk have ‘got nothing to do with Islam’. But equally we should not tag all Muslims or their religion with responsibility for the crimes of a tiny criminal minority. That is precisely what the extremists want us to do
He immediately gets this wrong as well. Fundamentalists are not criminals. They are singular believers with a utopian ideal that is fully realized in three layers: 

  • the religious experience 
  • virtual remediation  
  • the eternal. 
This mix makes a Comedy Central solution pointless.  It requires deliberation on how to address ideology in the context of religion and in relation to ISIS, in the context of the history of the Middle East.