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Essay
8 November 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

The cultural heritage of suicide bombers
The London bombers' pedigree owes more to Western culture than the Koran.

by Andrew Calcutt

Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto

The Roman playwright Terence observed that nothing human was foreign to him. According to this principle, the actions of suicide bombers in London, however terrible, are nonetheless explicable in terms of our common humanity.

In the aftermath of the suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005, many ascribed the actions of the perpetrators to an indecipherable alien culture which has taken root within the geographical boundaries of the UK while remaining foreign to the British way of life and to the human condition in general. Senior Tory Lord Tebbit, with his comments about alienated Muslims failing the 'cricket test', was only a case in point.

As the bells of St Paul's cathedral toll for the victims of 7/7, instead of Tebbit's cricket test, I will take the Terence test. I will attempt to show that underlying London's suicide bombers is a sensibility that is in substantial part patterned by Western culture - that it was rooted more in 'Creative Britain' and its domestic discontents than in the distant Arabian deserts of a foreign, Oriental past. Furthermore, even as their actions were exceptional and in all likelihood extremely isolated, the sensibility of London's suicide bombers is in accordance with the general characteristics of Western culture in its alienation from itself. Those elements in their thought and action with formal origins in the East, can only be accorded secondary status.

According to my reading, precedents for London's bombers were set by the likes of the Unabomber - the lone, American terrorist who sent mail bombs to prominent technologists in a deranged 'revolution' against both industry and politics. The London suicide bombings are further from nineteenth-century Russia or late twentieth-century Palestine than from the Columbine High School killings in the USA on 20 April 1999, when, after the bombs they had planted failed to explode, two teenagers shot dead 13 people before committing suicide.

The events of 7/7 are explicable in terms of a Western psyche which is informed as much by icons of self-alienation such as Joy Division's Ian Curtis, who hanged himself, and Kurt Cobain, who shot himself, as by the prophet Mohammed; or, rather, insofar as the prophet appears as a necessary element in the attempt to understand this horrific story, he does so as an icon within self-alienated popular culture, just as Marilyn Manson may have figured in the Goth subculture which informed the Columbine High School killings. By the same token, if I focus on what might be described as the 'soul' of the suicide bombers, in doing so I show that this 'soul' is not a spectral phenomenon but an attribute derived from the specific, historical conditions of Western capitalism early in the twenty-first century. Others have commented on the political economy of recent terrorism, locating it in 'the network society' and comparing it to the operations of a 'virtual corporation'. On spiked, Brendan O'Neill has established the social composition of those identified with al-Qaeda, identifying the privileged, metropolitan background which many experienced and only subsequently spurned (see British-born bombers: not so shocking).

UK prime minister Tony Blair, on the other hand, in describing suicide bombing as a product of 'evil ideology', has attempted to locate it in 'another country' of times past, alien to the post-ideological, anti-political, multicultural nation of Britain today. He wants us to distinguish between politics (bad) and culture, which is sometimes expressed as religious faith (good). But the London bombs of 7/7 were themselves anti-political; and, as in the ethos of Blair's own government, 'culture' is the key idea in the sensibility informing such actions. As with New Labour so in the terrorist mindset, the cultural becomes the only mode of thinking available. And if life is reducible to meaning, as in today's orthodoxy, then it is reasonable that for some - thankfully, only a few - it can only acquire meaning through death and destruction.

In my drawing of it, there is a line of cultural logic, though neither straight nor inevitable, linking the Absolute Beginners of Colin MacInnes eponymous novel (1959) of the emerging metropolitan teenager in his alienation from Western adulthood, with the Absolutist Beginners of 7/7 in their dual alienation both from 'Western civilisation' and the established - with 'Cool Britannia' it became establishment - teenage rejection of it.

The Outsiders

The essential connection between them is the status which both accord to 'the outsider': in Soho on the cusp of the 1960s, the sacred texts were Colin Wilson's The Outsider, and The Outsider by Albert Camus, which offered, respectively, biographical and fictional role models of alienation; half a century later, in the same sort of way the Koran is worn as a badge of alienation from, to paraphrase Blur, the rubbish that is modern life.

All these texts are articles of faithlessness in 'the modern world' and its associated values. Each offers a fantastic form of alienation, which is nonetheless rooted in real circumstances: among Islamists, the performance of reverence for the virtuous life and teachings of Mohammed offers a virtual reality comparable to that of coffee-bar 'existentialism' nearly 50 years ago.

The cult status of the outsider is common to both. There are also differences between them, however, and some of these are prompted by the growing difficulty of achieving the nirvana of alienation. Half a century ago, gyrating Elvis Presley was hip enough to alienate Mum and Dad and thereby identify his fans as 'alienated youth'. Nowadays, when even the prime minister identifies himself as 'of the rock'n'roll generation', in this role rock and all related music is dead.

Then and now, the mistake is to take protestations of alienation at face value. Here, theorists of youth culture have made the same kind of error as Norman Tebbit. Of course, if someone says they are rebelling against 'waddya got?', as Marlon Brando said in The Wild One and as is being said by young Britons in their adoption of Islam, then they clearly see themselves as being outside the society in which we all necessarily participate. What remains unclear both to 'rebellious youth', whether in leather jackets or religious garb, and to most of those observing them, is that the desire to be an outsider is not itself external to society but immanent within contradictory social relations. Moreover, this contradiction and the increasing difficulty of managing it, has been discernible not only in domestic teenage culture throughout the second half of the twentieth century but, well before that, in the culture of the Western elite since the First World War.

TE Lawrence

In the early 1920s there came to prominence a generation of British writers, for some of whom the contradiction between individual and society was not only unavoidable but increasingly unliveable. In the life and work of TE Lawrence, for example, there is an unmanageable contradiction between the concrete particulars of imperial office politics - Me, Me, Me in gold braid and top hats - and the denial of self in the abstract, impersonal Not-I which Lawrence sought in the sands of the Arabian desert.

Having been centrally involved in British efforts to mobilise Arab opposition to Turkish rule during the First World War, having taken a prominent part in the blood-letting that followed, and having spiritualised this mission in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence withdrew from elite circles and reinvented himself as an enlisted man named Ross. But even this self-denial proved insufficient. 'Ross' took to riding a motorbike at high speeds and met his death in a road accident. In the saga of Lawrence's life is written the incompatibility of day-to-day particulars (agent of British imperial interests with concomitant personal attributes) and the desire to divest self of such particulars and enter into the abstract space of the desert. Indeed Lawrence found these demands not only incompatible but in direct competition and mutual opposition, hence his two withdrawals from the theatre of this internal conflict: first by 'downshifting', and secondly in death.

TE Lawrence was an undeniably British subject who rejected many elements of British society, who in rejecting his own particular kind of Britishness sought self-effacement in desert spaces sparsely inhabited by Muslims; who became accustomed to killing and maiming in the attempt to realise this abstraction in the form of an Arab uprising; and who subsequently took actions - the way he rode his motorbike, the speed at which he rode it - which contributed to his death.

There is much in this account of Lawrence that is reminiscent of suicide bombers in Britain 80 years later; and it is notable that in this reconstruction of Lawrence's psychosocial disequilibrium there has been little recourse to factors originating outside the Western culture. His crisis, and theirs, was made in Britain. Indeed there are more correspondences between Lawrence and the suicide bombers of London, than between the latter and their centuries old Muslim ancestors. Whereas the suicide bombers of London were acting according to the logic of cultural crisis in an advanced capitalist country, Islam of a thousand years ago was an appropriate response to the needs of a primitive society. The fact that both groups refer to the same text is secondary.

In the 1920s, TE Lawrence was exceptional: though derived from the essential contradiction in social relations, his febrile response was almost as marginal as it was personal. The bulk of the British elite was too busy fighting off threats such as organised labour and foreign competition, to collapse into existential angst. But throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, just as the interpersonal consequences of contradictory social relations have become harder to accept, so it has become more acceptable to dramatise this difficulty in the form of personal 'identity crisis'.

I and Not-I

Thus the contradiction between self-effacement in the most abstract of the arts, music (Not-I = 'the music takes me over'), and the personal peccadilloes of singers and musicians, is the mainstay of angst-ridden, self-alienated pop personae from early Elvis to The Libertines' Pete Doherty. More recently, and especially since a new generation of pop-inflected politicians occupied the corridors of power in the 1990s, the difficulty of managing the historically specific conflict between I and Not-I has become part of institutional life.

'I' is the officially recognised default position. Just think of any meeting you have recently attended. The round of introductions at the start is supposed to get everyone together; in reality it pulls the common ground from under our feet before we have even set foot on it. The rest of the meeting can only occur in terms of the narrow self-interests of however many 'I's there are sitting round the table. This is the institutionalisation of the 'culture of narcissism' observed in embryo by the US sociologist Christopher Lasch more than 30 years ago.

From Reality TV to 'personalised education', examples are legion of a narrowing emphasis on me, me and me. An increasingly personalised practice of everyday life is mirrored in the development - degeneration, perhaps - of social thought. Rare indeed nowadays is the use of abstraction to deconstruct the phenomenal form of social relations in order to identify their internal logic and thereby reconstruct them; what's prevalent is the imitation of life, where thought takes phenomena as found objects and curates them.

It is as if we have taken a step down from the cognitive equivalent of digital communications technology, which communicates by stripping information down into abstract codes of 0 and 1 before reassembling it as concrete data once more, back to a mode of thought which resembles analogue communication. The latter can only take an impression of its object - a 'thick description', to borrow an influential phrase from anthropology - and seeks to retain as great a girth as possible. In thought as in institutional and personal practice, the recent tendency is to limit human activity to this literal level.

This tendency itself tends to be negated, however; and necessarily so, for the social relations from which our interpersonal relations are derived are not uniformly concrete, but exist in the historically specific duality of abstract and concrete. Thus, in an institutional world that lays excessive emphasis on the personal, particular and concrete, the abstract finds expression in occasional, extreme eruptions.

In educational institutions, for example, emphasis on the particular characteristics of individual students and staff is intermittently interrupted by the untrammelled generality of audit, an orgy of Not-I in which all is negated except process. The subtraction of subject matter from process makes the latter into an absurd abstraction, which nonetheless takes a commanding position over staff, students and even academic disciplines, if only until the auditors have left the building.

In this and many similar instances, it is notable that even abstraction takes on the predominantly literal character of our times: in its explicit separation from subject matter, its negation of particular content, it becomes self-caricature, an overtly literal or fundamental rendition of abstraction. Thus outright abstraction from particular subjects as in educational audit, is marked by the tendency towards literalism or fundamentalism.

Outside the gates of the institution, whenever the abstract escapes the pressures to privatise, personalise and concretise, it runs amok; but it also acquires something of this literal character. As a national phenomenon, this was apparent in what spiked editor Mick Hume dubbed 'mourning sickness' following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when the desire for the negation of our narrow selves in an improvised communion, found expression around a single, self - Diana - only in the moment of her literal death.

More recently, a similar pattern has been discernible in opposition to the war in Iraq, where the war itself is Not-I ('not in my name), but the opposition to it is particular to me ('not in my name').

The combination of abstraction from one's own context and a literal representation of this abstraction in the particulars of a religious text, is also characteristic of the modern embrace of what is widely described as 'fundamentalism'. And this is where Islam comes in; or, rather, since no god exists except in the minds, practices and institutions of those who believe in him, this is where the idea of Islam corresponds to the psychosocial needs of many mainly non-white young people in Britain, who thereby come to be Muslims.

Islam made in the West

To many among the young, educated, British middle classes of Asian extraction, one of the attractions of Islam is that it is not who they are already, and how they were brought up, since they often turn out to be more oriented towards religion than their parents or grandparents once were. Rather, Islam offers something impersonal and abstract that they can become (in this it is better than the DIY religions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which never went beyond the individual and could therefore only reinforce the narrowing sense of self); and in so doing, it provides the means of un-becoming the non-descript individual they might otherwise be. The fact that Islam is of historical significance among particular ethnic groups, and hence is readily available to them and their progeny, is significant but only secondarily so.

For the young who take it up, Islam serves to negate the narrow sense of selfhood that is both dominant and insufficient. The Koran is an abstraction, a subtraction of self, which is also taken literally as a series of religious instructions.

This is to suggest that Islam exists in Britain today as a timely form of British popular culture. Indeed, I have observed young British people crossing over from Muslim culture to its Bling-Bling counterpart, and vice versa. As one aspect of indigenous popular culture, Islam in Britain is called upon to offer a version of the abstract that can be concretised and taken literally. How literally is a matter of discretion: hence not only the range of theological positions among Muslim clerics in Britain, but, more importantly, the sliding scale of piety and profanity among young 'Muslims'.

At the far end of this far-out abstraction, where Not-I is taken both literally and fantastically as the word of god, the latter comes, in exceptional cases, to be acted out in suicide bombing. This is not an aberration, but the culmination of the logic of self-alienated popular culture. For, insofar as the abstract implies the negation of self, the world with selfhood subtracted, then, true to form, suicide bombing is its literal expression, the ultimate Not-I among a series of mutant abstractions that disrupt and at the same time confirm the narcissistic tendencies of the day.

In all these aspects, the spectrum of British Islam is made in the West. The fact that it has textual origins in the East only makes it more appropriate to today's Western context. The negative object of the culture of narcissism has always been the public life of Western politics, which is now all but extinguished as well as discredited. But the further negation of the culture of narcissism does not spontaneously tend towards the reconstruction of a Western-style political realm, for this would require a coherent account of its exhaustion as a precondition for reclamation - and sadly, no such account yet exists, or if it does it has been unable to make a significant social impact.

Rather, in today's context, narcissism is represented, but negatively, in a combination of self-obsession, alienation and contempt for humanity, and this combination, though made in the West, is clothed in Eastern superstitions. Further salience is afforded by the occasional role of religion in anti-imperialism, at least in the days when anti-imperialism existed as a coherent force. The combination of Not-I and Non-West carries high status, and for those sections of the young British population with appropriate family connections, it is readily accessible (to them) while retaining appropriately narcissistic exclusivity (from others) via Islam.

If Islam is here a strand of popular culture, why then is it gaining popularity compared to the pop culture that in many respects it resembles? Why is Islam the new rock'n'roll? First, it isn't, in that it has not taken hold among young people throughout the nation; rather it is enjoying an apparent revival - in fact, largely a new construction - in areas where the form of Islam was already available. But such localised significance should not be seen so much as a continuation of ancient religious tradition, but more in the recent context of the fragmentation of pop culture and the rise of niche markets.

Furthermore, the demand in this newly established niche market is for a cultural form which is not only against the degraded public life that pop culture originally rebelled against, but which is also anti-pop, now that pop culture has entered the corridors of power in the guise Cool Britannia and Creative Britain, while politics through the agency of New Labour has been re-imagined in the image of pop culture's iconography. Since Blair inscribed it with his New Britain circa 1997, the lure of the abstract in pop culture - Joy Division's wall of sound, Liam Gallagher's stare - has been irretrievably compromised.

Thus Islam functions in part as an imaginary, a frame of mind and a style of life which has been inflated by the exhaustion of politics and, recently, the faltering status of pop culture following its overt politicisation. Yet from being an imaginary, for some, if only a tiny minority, it has become life-and-death reality. How come?

While I am not qualified to comment on the personal, psychological traits of individual suicide bombers, it is clear to me that they are not part of a wider social movement. Of course they may have connections with other terrorists who are equally isolated from surrounding populations; and a few of these globally networked terrorists may have connections to the legacy of decaying popular movements in the Middle East or elsewhere. But typically, today's cohort of terrorists is characterised by disconnection from the rest of humanity. They may be the logical outcome of a general religiosity which is even more general than recognised religion, but they have come exceptionally far along the line of this cultural logic - so far as to lose sight of the distinction between fantasy and reality. They are the equivalent of what British film censors used to refer to as 'eggshell skulls'.

Thankfully the capacity to discriminate between fantasy and reality is not lost on the rest of us, and neither is it likely to be. But if perhaps there is a slight increase in the tiny probability of isolated individuals losing sight of this distinction, this development cannot but be connected to the blurring of it by Western intellectuals and policymakers.

In academic circles 'realism' is often taken as a sign of naivety: you think there is a real world out there that you can grasp in your mind? How quaint! Haven't you realised that reality is constructed by the meanings that people bring to it, and meaning is all we can hope to take away from it?

The same sort of incredulity is now prevalent among policymakers, although where academics are oriented to social thought, their reference points are social order and/or transformation. Thus: you want to fix/transform the fabric of society? How quaint! Haven't you heard of the chaos effect of globalisation, which renders such expectations obsolete? Values, meaning, self-esteem, these are the fields amenable to intervention, and all policy should be directed towards them.

This ethos of limitations is not only an ethos; there is now a whole industry designed to advance it. Self-esteem has become institutionalised as the 'learning outcome' of education. With the watchword 'creativity', industry has burdened itself not only with the theory of management as 'the management of meaning', but with policies, practices and personnel to match. And if a few, thankfully aberrant, young men can only make life meaningful by bringing about the death of themselves and others, we should note that authority for the supreme being of meaning now comes from mainstream institutions who share with terrorists the willingness to give logical priority to culture.

Suicide bombers are a thankfully exceptional instance of the cultural logic which is both an expression of Western crisis, and a factor which contributes to its current intensity.

Andrew Calcutt lectures in cultural studies at the University of East London.


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