The Destruction of the Gray Zone

by Katrin Trüstedt

160115-world-germany-refugees-pegida-leipzig-10a-jpg-1015_f33818f11bc4f656e3789cb6c637ef29.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Faced with a looming terrorist threat from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, attempts throughout Europe are being made to reclaim one's 'own identity.' While the conception of war between equal nation states is questioned by the structure of international terrorism, the dynamic of national identity experiences a comeback. A desire for given group identities is growing all over, regarding nation states with their supposed German, French or Polish identity, alliances of states such as Europe, or even more extended coalitions such as 'the West' or 'the Occident.' This desire is situated within a struggle for the dominance of one's own given 'values' and 'identities' against an antagonist: 'We' defend our way of life against those who attack it. Such claims become especially prevalent in the aftermath of attacks like the ones in Paris and Brussels. But what this form of self-assertion serves, is above all the goals of ISIS. Their terror seems not to be directed primarily at an opponent whose identity is already fixed, and who must be overwhelmed because of it. Instead, the specific form of ISIS terror should be understood as one of provocation, intended to prompt the formation of opposing identities, to evoke antagonism. From this perspective, the highly staged terrorist acts are the attempt to force a complex and diverse world into a framework of unambiguously opposed fronts.

Even before the proclamation of an “Islamic State,” a textbook was published with the telling title The Management of Savagery/Chaos, which openly stated its political objective: to force America, or 'the West,' out of its latent opposition to Islam and into the position of an active and identifiable foe (“Force America to abandon its war against Islam by proxy and force it to attack directly.”) The strategic management of chaos was aimed initially at the immediate sphere of influence of ISIS, the 'Muslim gray zone' in the Middle East, whose shattered condition was to provide the basis for a progressive polarization by violence (“dragging the masses into battle such that polarization is created between all of the people.”) Invoking the alleged original battle of the pioneers for the establishment of Islam, violence is conceived as a means of creating opposing fronts (“This was the policy of battle for the pioneers: to transform society into two opposing groups, igniting a violent battle.”) The particular brutality of such acts of terror thus should be attributed less to an existing antagonism and more to forcing and creating enmity. The violence aims at tearing apart a murky gray zone by establishing a front line across which two warring parties can confront each other. The supposed 'hardliners' who promote a 'relentless crackdown' on ISIS are actually following ISIS' script in executing the role ascribed to them.

The wave of refugees fleeing to Europe initially presented a defeat for ISIS, since Muslims were leaving the alleged 'Islamic paradise' in mass migrations to make their way to the 'decadent West,' while an 'Islamophobic Europe' openly welcomed them. (This moment did not last long.) The French journalist Nicolas Hénin, a former prisoner of ISIS, sees the Paris attacks of November 2015 as a reaction to this initial defeat. Against this background, it seems no accident that Europe has recently become a special focus of ISIS. In 2015 the ISIS online magazine Dabiq devoted a twelve-page editorial to the “Extinction of the Grayzone,” now dealing specifically with attacks across Europe, especially that on Charlie Hebdo. The “Extinction of the Grayzone” was said to have begun “with the blessed operations of September 11th, as these operations manifested two camps before the world for mankind to choose between, a camp of Islam – without the body of Khilāfah to represent it at the time – and a camp of kufr – the crusader coalition.” Terrorist attacks like that against Charlie Hebdo should now also deliberately polarize Europe's gray zone into a domain of conflict, “to bring further division to the world and destroy the grayzone everywhere.” The mere existence of ISIS should serve to amplify the impact of the Paris terror attacks, even if these had not been directly planned by ISIS. The proclamation of the “Islamic State” was in this sense a performative act that was supposed to lend additional support to remote acts of terror by relating them to this center and the fronts it established. The performative impact of terror should aim to force the “crusaders” (of 'the West') into destroying their own gray zone. “The presence of the Khilāfah also magnifies the political, social, economic, and emotional impact of any operation. … This magnified impact compels the crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves.” ISIS sees itself as an agent of the final struggle in an apocalyptic scenario, a struggle that it actively seeks to further. For this apocalyptic war, ISIS needs a suitable enemy; and so Dabiq cites George W. Bush's doctrine that, reacting to 9/11, exactly followed this script: “Bush spoke the truth when he said, 'Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.' Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.” Europe must be divided into two camps; that is the beginning of its 'end' and its 'truth': “the option to stand on the sidelines as a mere observer is being lost.”

Polarization through the “destruction of the gray zone” now seems to be well under way in Europe. Not only questions of 'national security' and foreign policy are at stake, but, and more fundamentally, the dynamic of the construction of (national) identity itself. Such a dynamic can be seen in populist right-wing organizations like Pegida or Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Front National in France, or the Congress of the New Right in Poland. The German Pegida manifests the twisted logic of identity politics already in its name, an acronym for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident.” The fact that the conceptions linked together here are contradictory (a national sentiment like patriotism is applied to extra-national unities like Europe and 'the Occident') doesn't defeat their purpose, but rather shows what that purpose is. The linkage serves to create a general antagonism in which Germany, Europe and the Occident can then stand in for each other. The identity of a 'we' is created solely through an antagonism to Islam, Occident becomes the other to Orient, and remains entirely dependent on this opposition to its declared other. The supposed threat – the “Islamization of the Occident” – legitimates and engenders retrospectively the “patriotism” founded upon the gesture of defending one's identity which is itself a product of the opposition that has been posited. Pegida cites attacks like those against Charlie Hebdo to support its claims, thereby fulfilling the declared aim of such attacks (“destroying the gray zone”). A majority of Germans, as polls reported early on, shared the worries about a prospect of 'Islamization.' This tendency corresponds to the general shift to the right in Europe, the emergence of self-styled organizations of 'citizens' defense' and an increase in right-wing terror against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Such antagonistic dynamics play directly into the hands of ISIS, with the rising Islamophobia of 'the West' generating new recruits, which in turn increases the level of anxiety and reinforces the polarization that ISIS seeks. In this polarized context 'Western values' become something that have to be defended, but which are articulated as a means of demarcating an 'other' which in turn becomes the condition of existence of these values. ISIS, which here marks the most extreme pole of this declared 'other,' defines itself in opposition to 'crusaders' and 'unbelievers' in the 'decadent West,' and so shows in turn its own identity as not grounded in itself but as relying on what it rejects.

The recent attacks in Europe are not simply the outcome of an existing confrontation between radicalized Islamists on the one side, and hedonistic, secularized Europeans on the other. It was not 'the West' as an established foe that was the prime target. Instead, it was the gray zone itself that was targeted, so that Europe would be divided into two clearly-identified camps. From what we know of the Paris attackers, most of them initially belonged neither unambiguously to 'the West', nor to 'Islam'. According to France's Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam, 90% of “radical Islamists” have French grandparents; 80% come from non-religious families. In this sense, they seem to originate precisely in the gray zone that Dabiq had described earlier in the same year and identified as a target. Growing up in complex circumstances marked by the violence of colonial history, nation-building and its failures, the attackers emerged from a gray zone that is constitutive of a Europe with many languages, migration histories and so-called minorities. In this context, the act of a suicide attack seems like the ultimate attempt to destroy the gray zone within one's own existence by ending this very existence; employing an impossible act to turn oneself retroactively into a martyr and the victim into the enemy that justifies such an act in the first place.

If it is true of every cultural identity that it remains reliant on its precarious relation to an other, then this has a special significance for Europe. Given the catastrophic history of European nation states, Europe was supposed to overcome the disastrous “trinity of people-territory-state” (Hannah Arendt). The mythical figure Europa, who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull and taken to Crete, originally stemmed from Phoenicia, sited on the Mediterranean coast of today's Lebanon and Syria. According to this myth of migration and alterity, Europa lent her 'alien' name to her place of involuntary exile. Faced with the challenges of the present, Europe should resist being sucked into a spiral of polarization, and uphold the paradoxes of a gray zone, for which any division into opposing identities constitutes an act of violence.