Radicalization, Reform and the Heresy of Immanent Critique

The shootings in San Bernardino, California have decisively shown that the spatial logic of the War on Terror no longer holds. The figure of the so-called "terrorist" is no longer one who is an external threat, who comes or receives instructions from abroad. Rather, they are "self-radicalized" and "homegrown". This possibility, that the "enemy" can always emerge from within puts a rest to the idea that impermeable borders offer any sort of protection or security. There is no location to the war. The world, as they say in the Pentagon, is a battleground. 

The focus of this war thus is turned inwards. On one hand, the focus of Obama and the New York Times is on how to reduce access to material means of committing "terrorist" violence, largely through gun control. However, it seems salient to acknowledge that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" and that a true confrontation with violence is a confrontation with its root causes rather than merely the means by which it is committed. We cannot merely ask "how" such violence is committed, effacing the importance of thinking about violence in service of operational questions. Rather we must ask why this violence is happening, not to insist on its "unthinkability" or "senselessness" but to try and think and make sense of it.   What is left then is a confrontation with the process of of "radicalization" itself: What causes someone to identify so strongly with a cause or ideology that they are able to inflict incredible violence upon their neighbors?

I here would like to turn to Iyad El-Baghdadi, the writer and activist whose engagement with the question of radicalization has been influential for my own thought. El-Baghdadi argues that the process of radicalization relies on a set of process where individuals come to see themselves as an oppressed and victimized Other surrounded a homogenous and complicit enemy. Here are seven parts of the process he notes: 


It is here worth parenthetically noting that I don't really like the language of "radicalization" because what I see being produced by this logic is anything but "radical". I understand radicalism to be a type of thought and action which engages with "root causes". This type of "radicalization" here is precisely the opposite: it is a form of fundamentalism, a production of a homogenous Other, a belief in an absolute truth which forecloses the possibility of thinking and debate. This sort of fundamentalism, in its hostility to thought and absolutist world-view, is anything but radical.   

What is to be done in the face of this fundamentalist violence then? Iyad El-Baghdadi is again helpful, explicating a disruptive process that he refers to as "reform", an explication that I again find useful. For El-Bhaghdadi, reform is the means of confronting and dispersing this sort of fundamentalism. To fight radicalization, El-Bhaghdadi suggests not a set of military options, but a process of dialogue and critique. (Again, a parenthetical note: just as I refuse to denigrate "radicals" I also refuse to valorize "reform", which itself partakes in a totalizing liberal fundamentalism that forecloses the possibility of other worlds)

This antifundamentalist process of "reform" is one that necessarily begins from a position internal to the system being critiqued. This is perhaps the most important aspect of El-Baghdadi's conceptualization of reform: as the narrative of victimization is central to this form of fundamentalism, the critique cannot come from the outside as this will only affirm the sensation of victimization. Rather, the critique of the fundamentalist position must begin internally.

How then to characterize the type of anti-fundementalist critique that El-Baghdadi is calling for? I think the notion of immanent critique and heresy are two powerful formulations, much more appealing than the notion of reform (which itself effaces difference and relies on a fundamentalist logic of totalization). This critique is immanent because it positions itself within the object of critique itself. It is heretical because it does not disavow the object of critique but remains faithful to it. "Reform" El-Baghdadi tweets, must then be an "an internal conversation. Passionate, angry, but internal. Outsiders can at best be concerned observers." 

El-Baghdadi's take on this sort of heretical and immanent critique has two important dimensions, worth highlighting. The first is, as already mentioned, the fact that one must be an "insider", already faithful to the object being critiqued. It is a critique that is internal. This also means that one cannot stand with the (perceived) oppressor but instead must assume a vantage point critical both of the fundamentalist position and the power they imagine themselves in opposition to. For a Jew living in the West, that means my response to violence must not be critiquing Daesh or Islam as an outsider, but rather critiquing the fundamentalisms in the West, the violence committed in my name by the US and Israel. In doing so, I am acting in concrete solidarity with Muslims who are undertaking similar critiques of Daesh, but I am not making any statements about Islam, be they tokenizing or islamaphobic. 

The second aspect is that this position of heretical critique is one that, in the words of El-Baghdadi "requires both courage and love. Courage, coz you'll be attacked; love, coz you have to care enough to go on anyway." It is grounded in this love because its motivated by a sort of radical compassion which allows one to endure harsh attacks and continue to address those you are speaking to (importantly, "speaking to, not about"). I end on this note of compassion and love because it reminds me of a conversation I was having with a friend  yesterday about terror after which he sent me this quote: 

We say we want to strike against terror, we want to destroy terrorism, but do we even know where to find it? Can we locate it with a radar? Can the army find terrorism using it’s night goggles and heat sensors?
Misunderstanding, fear, anger, and hatred are the roots of terrorism. They cannot be located by the military. Bombs and missiles cannot reach them, let alone destroy them, for terrorism lies in the hearts of human beings.
To uproot terror, we need to begin by looking at our own hearts. We don’t need to destroy each other, either physically or psychologically.
Only by calming our minds and looking deeply inside ourselves will we develop the insight to identify the roots of terrorism.
With compassion and communication, terrorism can be uprooted and transformed into love.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

Now I, like many other radicals, have my own trenchant critiques of pacifism. However, I think it is important that we do not, in a fundamentalist attachment to the possibility of the tactical necessity of violence, forget the wisdom and power of compassion, empathy and love. To truly confront Terror, both those who commit it and the state who defines it as such and commits violence in the name of combating it, we must begin from this space of heretical love, this space of compassion which introduces the possibility of discord into the very heart of fundamentalism.  

If you liked this reflection, you may also want to read my piece in Roar Magazine In Defense of the Grayzone: Between ISIS and the West as well as this post about The Bordering of Grief and Suspension of ThoughtAlso, if you want to encourage me to continue writing these sorts of reflections, please share this article on your anti-social media platform of choice.