IS and the Sphinx

Orwa Nyrabia on how western narratives of fear and panic are supporting terrorism and why deliberateness would help us to deal with our collective responsibility.

von Orwa Nyrabia

Syria 2016. Photo: Tammam Azzam
With his artwork the Syrian artist Tammam Azzam is trying to attract our attention on the Syrian conflict and the desperate situation of the Syrian nation. Dubai 2016. Photo: (Collage)Tammam Azzam

According to Sophocles, or at least to him, the people of Thebes became isolated from the world by a Sphinx. A terrible Sphinx did not allow anybody to reach the city or to leave it as long as they failed to answer a childish riddle it was proud of devising. On the way to the city, she sees the traveller, asks them to solve the riddle or die. They fail, she brutally murders them. The riddle was about a creature that walks on four in the morning, two around noon, then on three in the evening… back then, nobody knew the answer, it was a new one. However, scared Thebians announced: whoever kills the Sphinx shall be king. Oedipus, who found himself facing the Sphinx, thought and found the answer. Hearing the right answer angered the Sphinx, so she jumped into the abyss. It killed itself and he became Oedipus, the King.

One can easily imagine how the people of Thebes were traumatized by the brutal creature with the head of a woman and the body of a lion, to an extent that they couldn’t think of the riddle. They were probably searching for the best way to kill it, to stop it and probably also to revenge all those it killed.

According to politicians and the media, or at least to them, a man drove a truck into a mass of happy human beings, mostly vacationers, in Nice, France, murdering 84 and injuring hundreds and then he, allegedly, shot at the police to make them shoot him dead. The man, as we came to learn the next day, was profoundly disturbed. He had a very complicated psychological condition that reflected in a sex addiction everybody found to be interesting to discuss. The French interior made public the information that although he was never known to be religious, that he used to drink alcohol, eat pork and had multiple sex partners, he made a last-minute decision to do what he did in the name of ISIS. French authorities announced: “He was radicalized quickly”, his radicalization was considered to be the result of using the internet.

A disturbed young member of the second generation of North African formerly French-colonized immigrants with a Muslim background, whose parents sought a better life in a postcolonial Europe decades ago, has failed to find a place and a meaning for himself in the world. Al Qaeda and ISIS systematically provide such agonized youth with a proposition to escape their hopeless lives with big impact. It provides them with a “meaning”: you die causing the highest level of pain to those you are angry at, those who seem to be a representation of all the reasons why you cannot make it better in life, and by that, you defend all of those agonized like you are and you also go to heaven. Heaven, no matter what outsiders like to think, is the smaller part of this equation. The large part is the one that says: You have no hope in this life and it is because of all these smiling faces around you… all of those who took your opportunity and are enjoying an inflation of opportunities amongst them, only them. At least that what it looks and feels like to the pariah. A man like that, with a decision to kill and die in that way, does not choose to give his “deed” to ISIS because he loves ISIS. He does that because it will amplify the impact on those he is targeting. It is not about ISIS, it is about European fear of ISIS.

Experience showed that it is not easy for the western observer to accept the narrative hereinabove. It is usually faced with skepticism, with claims that Europe have done a lot and a lot and provided the emigre with many opportunities that they did not accept or endorse. Then, it is sometimes faced by radical claims that the problem is genetic, and that people of certain culture suffer from an inherent incapability of comprehending and endorsing democracy and a deeply entrenched extremist brainwashing ideology. The problem is sometimes blamed simply on the internet; being a virtual unaccountable democratic sphere that allows radical masterminds in some bad places to remotely brainwash, radicalise and control emotionally vulnerable sons and daughters of “bad parents” of Muslim immigrant backgrounds.

Each one of these responses manifests a childish attempt to throw the “guilt” away from our own skins. It is not new to notice a European self-indulgement that resists culpability or shortcomings and turns every story to a story about a European collective “us”, no matter the pain or the pleasure of the story’s actual subjects. It is the same phenomenon that explains how the death of one European is way more relevant and painful than the death of 100 non-Europeans who died next to him or her, or how ISIS, or Assad or Putin for that matter, killing thousands of Syrians, hardly make the news in Europe anymore. After each new terrorist attack in France, French air force carried attacks on ISIS in Syria and never managed not to kill civilians on the way, by mistake, enraging people and making sense of ISIS propaganda.

The recent extremely upsetting event in Munich’s Olympia Shopping Centre show a scarier disarray that a collective European wounded ego is manifesting with connection to the ISIS dilemma. As the “depressed” and “Bullied” German youngster of Iranian descent murdered eight peaceful citizens and then himself, all the people of Munich, the people of Germany, refugees across the west, European and US people, media and governments, in addition to Putin’s media, all IS experts everywhere and the Muslim world altogether, stood on one leg for a few hours while an imaginary chase of perpetrators was on. The crime was already committed and the perpetrator was already dead when all trains were stopped, inhabitants were pushed indoors, panic was distributed hysterically across the universe and police forces were put in a condition of draining alert too. The possible nightmare that terrorists were on the loose was distributed to Germans in their beds and many failed to sleep that night. It is always better to be sure the risk is over before risking people’s lives. It would be irresponsible to take even the slightest risk in such a situation. But, what was the balance between the size of the actual risk and the level of domestic and global alert it immediately triggered? Is collective panic not an injury itself? and then, what did we feel as we found out the young man had no IS connection? Was it of any relief?

Outside the micro vision of the perpetrating individual, the object of terrorism is not to kill nor to die, it is to spread terror. The fact that an entire nation was forced into a panic attack because of a disconnected crime is already a triumph for ISIS. The wider sense that the west is a coherent and homogenous unity under the threat of one unifying enemy is an additional factor in this triumph. A small incident in progress immediately draws the attention of the entire west. Boris Johnson, with what he represents in world politics today, jumped immediately into connecting the Munich incident to Middle Eastern terrorism. The Twitter account of Munich Police suddenly tweeted in English and French, then, with a few hours delay, in Turkish too and it had almost 100 thousand new followers within a few hours. Obama offered to help and the New York Times happened to have a ISIS-specialized writer just nearby. The “internationalization” of such an incident makes controlling the panic much more difficult and consolidates a global fear and a West-West sense of solidarity, then, it brings new Twitter followers… many of them! Panic is a commodity for global corporate media and that comes at the expense of society’s well-being and of intercultural peace and understanding.

While the fear of the Munich incident got amplified beyond its actual size, the following atrocity in Ansbach did not result in casualties but still had a more serious impact. Until Ansbach, an archetypical fear of the recent flood of refugees sparked paranoia and resulted in falsely blaming refugees for terrorist actions they had nothing to do with. Ansbach was the first incident in which the perpetrator was actually a refugee. Observers fear repercussions and even budget cut downs for refugee support programs might be the result of this, as it is not a German habit to bomb Al Raqqa.

In Ansbach, a lonely and disturbed Syrian refugee who arrived about two years ago, left the war and its traumatizing fears and pains, walked all the way to Bavaria without visible radical Islamist signs, spent two years being processed in the asylum seekers’ pipeline and was denied asylum twice. After receiving his second deportation order, the man built a beginner-terrorist nail bomb. Instructions to make it can be easily found on the internet if one is angry enough. He chose a public event in which German civilians were festive and decided to take their hope away and to put an end to his own personal hopelessness with a “bang”. There is no doubt that observing the panic caused by one terrorist attack after the other has a role of appropriating the act of suicidal attack as “common” and “doable”. The deportee, armed with a smartphone and a mask covering his face, made a video announcing allegiance to ISIS’ al Baghdadi, upgrading his suicide to the level of a heroic deed in defence of deprived and murdered Muslim families and then he, as it seems, shared it with an ISIS contact. His allegiance was announced by the Bavarian authorities before ISIS media “acknowledged” him as its soldier and published his allegiance video as proof. Did the nail bomb shake Germany or was it the allegiance video?

This way of telling this story leaves us with doubt that blame maybe falls on the side of authorities, that the man’s sense of hopelessness lead him to ISIS and to his lethal end. While another way of telling it would lead us to the opinion that the authorities were right to deport him, because he was a soldier of ISIS. High political stakes are associated with the angle we look at the story from. But, what doesn’t change with any of the two views is the fact that this alleged “Soldier of ISIS” was not an expert terrorist and have actually failed to create the kind of damage he was probably aiming to create. The man’s allegiance to ISIS announced the beginning of a higher threat in Germany, spreading the fear wider and labeling it as “ISIS” and as part of the common Western fear. By that, the news turned the failure of a madman’s attack into a huge terrorist success.

In order to confront the mutant threat of radical jihadism, it is necessary to limit the level of acknowledgement ISIS gets out of every madman trying to announce allegiance to it. A first necessary step is to differentiate between two obvious modes of ISIS-connected operation, one of which can be defined by the hopeless action of the Ansbach suicidal bomber, the Wurzburg Ax terrorist or, similarly, by the Nice truck terrorist, for all of these were ISIS followers only on a last-minute decision to amplify the impact of their deeds. While the second mode is defined by the pre-planned and sufficiently-funded actions such as those of the synchronized Paris Attacks last year or by the ultimate example of 9/11. The first mode needs to be seen as it is, not as a success for ISIS. While the second requires long term policies with regards to global politics and to the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts in particular today. A certain level of vigilance is certainly necessary too, but within controls, as it will always compromise democracy and liberties. Still, a third mode that should make all of us more concerned is the one entirely created outside the world of ISIS, as in the Munich tragedy. The terror of ISIS being demonstrated, visibly massive, despite the fact that ISIS had no connection to the event. In Munich, ISIS terrorized Europe again! One deeply disturbed youngster with a gun was the subject of global panic, the imagination that his action was a continuity to a stream of terrorist actions was the subject of fear. The subject was not the unfortunate death of civilians. The panic was elevated to the level of an entire nation, together with other nations identifying with it, being under a historical existential threat.

The promotion of the fear of an uncontrollable and incomprehensible enemy like ISIS turns it into a global Sphinx that is, as a British documentarian once put it, being embedded into the nightmares of all Westerners. The fact that one madman’s crime can shake the continent and extend France’s state of emergency, then make the death of civilians in Syria seem to be an ignorable collateral damage, is exposing a high level of vulnerability at the core of both Western procedures and values. With unproportionate responses, the west is proving the theory of ISIS/AQ. It is actually pushing ISIS theory to a next level, where there is no need to risk having sleeper cells on payroll or on terrorist education anymore. In Ansbach and in Wurzburg we did not see soldiers. The perpetrators were not trained and barely had any ideological commitment. By that, it seems to be enough that ISIS relies on the snowball effect of occasional young persons going mad. This is what Europe is currently offering this enemy; a subsidy for its otherwise difficult recruitment and an alternative to a financing process that is under global scrutiny. Is the west helping ISIS without awareness? A death wish?

This Sado-Masochistic relationship with terrorism has other important implications too. Far-right approaches are getting more votes as people think that an aggressive approach is what is needed to face such enemies. As much as the people of Thebes offered whoever kills the Sphinx to become king, a similar instinct is being triggered around the world today. People seem to offer themselves as a gift to him who saves them from their nightmare, and in some cases, to him who promises that with enough arrogance.

When Oedipus answered the riddle, the Sphinx killed itself. But, far-right’s response to the similar situation resembles another Oedipus who wants to attack the Sphinx with a sword, wound it and force it into hiding in a forest nearby. A new far-right Oedipus could still become king, his rule would be overshadowed and powered by the latent danger of the Sphinx return.

This is what will happen if fear kept on being sold and the most aggressive and least smart amongst us were hailed and welcomed to defend us. The Sphinx will stay alive, the riddle will remain unsolved and the mother Oedipus will have sex with will still have a Greek name: Democratia. Mother democracy probably prefers a common sanity that answers the riddle without installing a dictatorship of emergency. The riddle is not “How can we kill the Sphinx?”. The real riddle to answer is “Why are all these people so angry and aggressive and what can we do to help them find a better path than this?”… “Why are all the huge international political actions and domestic integration programs failing and what can be done better?”… “Why can’t we understand these people? Why can’t we invite them to a negotiation table in Geneva the same way we pretend to solve all conflicts?” no Oedipus will answer these questions alone. It is a collective responsibility.

Orwa Nyrabia is a highly-acclaimed, award-winning documentary film producer, filmmaker, trainer, human rights defender and occasional writer from Syria, based in Berlin, Germany.

This text was first published in a shorter version on Zeit online, which can be read here in German.