By Yassir Morsi
10 APR 2015
One of the more preposterous rumours circulating at the height of last year's bio-terror-security hysteria claimed that Islamic State had devised a twisted variation on the suicide bomber.
Terrorists, it was reported, were planning to infect themselves with Ebola and travel to the West to spread the disease.
Such fantastic nonsense reveals the extent to which Islamists have become the perfect carrier for our anxiety about death. They are the face of pure difference, the inner dimension of the Freudian "death-drive." They are, in other words, the polar opposite of the life-affirming values of the West; their sole motivation is to kill, to ruin, to bring civilisation to an end.
This same anxiety can be discerned behind last weekend's Reclaim Australia rallies. Ordinary people readily imagine the erosion of their familiar social surroundings in terms of the existential struggle between us and them, West and East, democratic freedom and religious oppression. This embattled "community" is then increasingly defined by those age-old fantasies of the Muslim as enemy, who brings death to an entire way of life.
This spectre of the Muslim as folk devil, as enemy, has a long history in the Christian West. The earliest depictions of the prophet Muhammad crudely cast him as either an arch-heretic or the anti-Christ: a deviant impostor who betrayed the church. In this view, he becomes the archetype of all Muslims: spiritually deficient, anti-Christian, unable to contain his sexual desires, a violent predator who united disparate nomadic hoards by teaching them to hold a scimitar aloft and Europe to ransom.
By the seventeenth century, Europe had constructed a somewhat more sophisticated, Janus-like alternative. The Muslim became an Other, an exotic face used to express familiar fears. So, to take a famous example, Montesquieu wrote a withering critique of the absolutism of eighteenth-century French society, its despotism and misogyny, in the form of letters exchanged between two fictional Persians, Usbek and Rica.
Today, we ought to ask how many crude and far less talented "Montesquieus" are similarly at work stoking the deadly threat posed by Islamists? How many exploit the fear created by the external Islamic State to pen their own paranoid commentary on the internal health of Australia? More anti-terror laws, less social harmony, stronger borders, less tolerance, more "Team Australia" - these are all symptoms of a heightened sense of our loss of security before the threat of this Islamist Other, a sense which itself has derived from a fantasmic depiction of the Islamic Other.
In other words, to get to the heart of the matter, we must examine the extent to which fact and fiction mingle in the "war against terror."
For example, in February 2006, security agents at Luton airport detained and questioned four actors who starred in the film The Road to Guantanamo. Rizwan Ahmed and Farhad Harun were returning from a film festival and found themselves in a position strikingly similar to that of the characters they played in the film.
The Western idea of the Muslim is half-Hollywood, and most often resembles some kind of mythical creature - like a centaur, or a zombie: half life, half death; half figment, half fact. Naturally perhaps, a scene from another Rizwan Ahmed film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, perfectly captures this centaur-like figure.
The 2012 film tells the story of a Pakistani-born Changez Khan, played by Ahmed himself. Khan narrates his experiences of living in America before and after 11 September 2001. When Khan returns to New York, the day after the attacks, security officials detain and strip-search him at the airport.
In the scene, we see Khan humiliated, standing in the interrogation room. As he sombrely buttons his shirt, recovering his lost dignity, he stares through the interrogation room's window at a television that shows a footage of two planes flying into the World Trade Center. Khan's reflection in the window merges with the television images. We see projected onto his Asiatic face the iconic footage of the second plane flying, across the bridge of his nose and into his eye, into the North tower, which collapses down his cheek. Is this collage not precisely the psychic image we have of terror?
In our mixture of fiction and fact, Muslims and violence have merged, have come to share the same facial features. In current debates, the more invested "viewer" projects their own fantasies onto the figure of Islam, which is commonly used as a blank screen, similarly denuded and emptied of all nobility that might resist the projections of a Europe afraid of losing her culture in an increasing global and multicultural world.
Just consider the way commentators typically speak about Muslims in terms of a series of Western lacks: the lack of freedom, of democracy, of rights for women, of Christian love for neighbour. Has not Muslim today become little more than the antithesis of the West, or what is left when what is deemed typically "Western" is subtracted: a "negation" rather like death?
We should not be surprised, then, that the threat of Islamic State should be conflated with the threat of Ebola. After all, many in the West have been speaking about Islam as though it was a deadly pathogen for a long time.
What, then, about the cure? Why have Australian politicians made the rhetorical connection between "Team Australia" and a war against Islamic State? And what does the desperate call to "reclaim Australia" reflect but the belief that Western culture is a kind of quarantine, and that we must monitor foreigners who are genetically disposed to ideological diseases?
On 11 September 2001, when a group of survivors walked out of the giant cloud of debris that resulted from the collapse of the twin towers, they were completely covered in its dust. There is a famous image of one survivor named Ed Fine who holds a napkin to his mouth while clutching his briefcase. The cloud drenched him in its debris and turned his suit and face entirely gray. He looks like a statue. He has a human form, but evokes the eerie image of a ghost. 9/11, and the "war on terror" it initiated, similarly turned the figure of the Muslim into a kind of spectre, a being no longer of this world. As Salman Sayyid argues, Muslims are seen as remnants of the past, echoes of earlier religious times. Like the Freudian "return of the repressed," they represent the past that comes back to haunt us, the symbol of our anxiety about death.
Perhaps this is why race theorist David Theo Goldberg argues that "the Muslim" in Europe - not individual Muslims, nor even Muslim communities, but the idea of the Muslim himself - has come to represent death. The leering, conniving buccaneer, knife tucked in a belt, hidden within the folds of his Shalwar, was the one-time hijacker of planes, and now the beastly beheader of innocents. Even in her passivity, the Muslim woman who strolls through European streets draped in a black chador or "Burqa" has become a symbol of the walking dead. The Burqa snuffs life; it suffocates and, like a tomb, it buries its wearer.
Goldberg furthermore describes how the "Muselmann" became the name for those Jews in the Holocaust camps who "had left life, but had not yet given in to death." Jewish inmates in the camps used the term Muselmann to describe those who now only existed in death's wake. Their lives were prostate like a Muslim praying. They were just surviving in the moment prior to death's throes. Emaciated, they move only for scraps to eat. They care about nothing. They are men of pure fatalism, with no remaining lust for life.
How much of Islam today has come to represent the renunciation of the vitality of the political spirit: democracy, rights, humanism and liberty? To what extent do these values shape the way we see today's anomic Muslim youths-turned-terrorists? If the Muselmann in the camps was the figure of the walking dead, today the image of the Muslim youth embodies the West's internal anxieties about her cultural "death" - death dressed in the garb of otherness, the grim reaper in Burqa or beard.
A conspicuous feature of the Western narrative concerning Islam is the way it strings together fictional versions of our past and a selection of demons from theirs. Islam thus acts as an external as much as an internal signifier. The figure of death is the displaced inner figure, expressing our collective anxieties and fears. While the folk devils of history - blacks, Jews, Asians, Muslims - in turn express, albeit in negative form, a kind of cultural fantasy, the dream of a pure "us" under threat from without or undermined from within.
If we are to understand the vexed times in which we now live, perhaps a good place to begin is by identifying these two aspects of the Western narrative: about life and death, about fact and fiction, about self and other, about Islam and the West. Telling a story about who we are more honestly may help us tell the story of others more justly.
Yassir Morsi is a Researcher at the International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia. Morsi has a PhD in liberal theory and has a background in Western political thought. He was a former president of Victoria's Muslim student association.