The myth of a ‘monolithic’ Middle East

By Azeezah Kanji & Samira Kanji

Samira Kanji
Samira Kanji

In his column on the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by ISIS militants, Jonathan Kay contends that while “the West” has rejected the morbid and inhumane culture of the glorification of death, Arabs still embrace it.

According to Kay, “We Westerners had a cult of martyrdom once, until it was smothered in the trenches” of the First World War. Now, we “Western liberal rationalists” are sufficiently enlightened that we no longer engage in such destructive orgies of violence. Instead, we are compelled to “forge something positive and loving out of senseless death.”

Sadly, Kay says, the benighted Middle East remains fanatically devoted to its “cult of martyrdom.”

Kay’s sweeping generalization about the “Middle East” and the “Arab world” (which are not synonymous) presents the area as monolithic and conceals many important diversities and tensions. Kay implies that the “Hamas/ISIS worldview” is prevalent, if not typical, in the Middle East – ignoring the fact that multiple leaders and organizations across the region (including Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal) have denounced ISIS.

And the conflation of Hamas and ISIS into a single “worldview” is inaccurate: According to Daniel Byman, counter-terrorism expert at the Brookings Institute, “the Islamic State and Hamas differ widely – so widely that claims that they are similar mislead more than they enlighten.” As Larry Derfner writes in Israel’s +972 Magazine, “the decisive (difference) between Hamas and ISIS, of course, is that Hamas represents a nation under foreign rule, (while) ISIS is trying to take over a nation, or nations, that are beset by civil war.”

Moreover, the suggestion that the Middle East is simply 100 years out of date obscures the current politics behind the emergence of ISIS. As eminent philosopher John Gray pointed out, “ISIS shares more with [the] modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule … and it’s not just ideas and methods that ISIS has taken from the West. Western military intervention gave ISIS its chance of power. While Saddam was in charge, there were no jihadist movements operating in Iraq … regime change created many of the conditions for a failed state. These are the same conditions that have allowed ISIS to emerge and thrive.”

Kay’s analysis also presents a sanctified image of “the West.” While the West may no longer explicitly use the language of “martyrdom,” it is fallacious to claim that death is no longer glorified in Western civilization.

The fact that there are fewer deaths to glorify in North America than in the Middle East, is attributable to the development of more sophisticated technologies of killing – remote targeting by drones, for example – rather than the adoption of a less militaristic ethos.

Indeed, while the world wars may have “smothered” the Western appetite for using violent techniques of warfare against European and North American states, the willingness to employ such brutal means against other populations survives. American troops, for example, used chemical weapons such as napalm and white phosphorous during the recent war in Iraq.

These devastating exercises of violence have, in part, been justified by the popular portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as death-fetishizing hordes.

Such representations permit us to persist in the delusion that “their violence – being tainted by religion – is uncontrolled, absolutist, fanatical, irrational and divisive,” while “our violence – being secular – is controlled, modest, rational, beneficial, peace-making and sometimes regrettably necessary to contain their violence,” to use the words of professor William Cavanaugh, from his book, The Myth of Religious Violence.

As people who have supposedly learned the harsh lessons of two World Wars, we must reject all such dehumanizing rhetoric, wherever it arises.

Azeezah Kanji is at graduate of U of T’s Faculty of Law. Samira Kanji is president of Noor Cultural Centre.