When you call a child names what reaction does this usually elicit? An impassioned ‘don’t call me that!’, a furious ‘I’m not [x]!’, a tantrum of sorts. Certainly hostility and anger, especially if you’re in a role of authority over the child in question (a parent, a guardian, simply someone older). It is the child’s powerlessness in the face of what is essentially bullying which leads to this intense response. In a tantrum, the child asserts dominance over the only things it can (its toys, its clothes, other inanimate objects, even its own body) hurling things and itself on the ground, tearing down nearby structures like curtains and tablecloths. In a teenager, or even a young adult, such instances of failed self-actualisation take more internal forms – sulking, brooding, long periods of seclusion, angry diary writing, secret drinking, substance abuse, self-harm, sometimes even the abuse of others and those close to them. In the adult whose sense of authenticity and identity is eroded and constrained by circumstances outside her control, it is easy enough to find solace in drink, perhaps to fall into depression, or lose yourself in work and the rhythm of the everyday – keeping on keeping on. And of course, the adult, too, much like the child and teenager, exerts his anger in an attempt to escape his out-of-control-ness, on whatever he has power over, including children and teenagers.
For the thinker of ethics and politics Simon Critchley, one of the foundations of politics is the nominalisation of a political subjectivity (2012). Without a political subject, a unified identity around which to articulate political and social struggles, a body politic dissolves into inefficacy and impotence. The act of naming is the act of defining political autonomy, the act of claiming agency. In denying Daesh the name of its own choosing, what is denied is the right to exist on its own terms, it is the right to self-define, self-actualise, and remain autonomous. The threats issued by Daesh to those who use the term only serve to affirm the fragility of the group’s political subjectivity. Yet, even still, Daesh is a name, a name which unifies and designates a group and, even though it is not one of their choosing, it does reinscribe their solidity as an entity.
And it would be grievous to forget that Daesh also has a name for its enemies too, one of them being ‘The West’. This name is itself riven from within with innumerable cracks and inconsistencies making it as shattered and ineffectual a political entity as if it had not been named at all. ‘The West’ does not and never has referred to a concrete political body – its political subjectivity is segmented across Europe and the USA with wildly varying degrees of influence, not to mention each individual nation is composed of enormous swathes of heterogeneous people, many of whom would not necessarily identify with many of the others. In this light, Daesh is a much more concrete and locally well defined political entity than the lumbering, massive, and nebulous ‘The West’.
Within this nebulous ‘West’, what Daesh has succeeded unsettling well in doing, is encouraging xenophobia, racism, and discrimination, leading to an upsurge in a small yet vocal extreme rightism. Whether or not this group is representative of the vast majority of society, it speaks loudly enough that it deepens the cracks already evident within the societies of ‘The West’. Those already disenfranchised and isolated are further frightened and segregated. Those already denied a name, denied self-definition, are further imposed upon; ‘immigrant’, ‘alien’, ‘foreigner’, names which themselves may not be derogatory become burdens when imposed on the subject, a shackle rather than the freedom that naming and self-determination should confer.
When David Cameron claims that the ‘real problem’ is the ‘extremist ideology’ of Daesh and that there is a moral obligation to destroy it with airstrikes, he makes a number of distressing errors. The first is that Daesh’s ‘extremist ideology’ is not the ‘real problem’ and the second is that ideology has never been vulnerable to airstrikes (much like terror has never been harmed by wars waged against it). Radicalisation does not happen because a belief system worms its way into a subject’s brain like a parasite or a slug and transforms them into an helpless, brainwashed radical. Those who are targets of radicalisation are not unthinking, hapless victims, they are thinking and feeling human subjects. How does such a subject then, decide that murder and martyrdom is a sensible course of action?
Like the child called names but denied its own, or the youth split between belonging and not belonging, or the fully grown member of the workforce disenchantedly persisting, automatic but not autonomous, the subject which is isolated, disempowered and afraid seeks validation, seeks an environment where it can exert its selfhood, where it can claim a sense of sovereignty. The vulnerable of society are nameless, ‘the subaltern’ as Gayatri Spivak [famous postcolonial and deconstructionist writer] would call them. They have no name through which to politically articulate, and no dignity or autonomy as a sovereign subject in and of themselves. Spivak would speak of India’s caste system and the ‘untouchables’ – who really become ‘unspeakables’ – those who fall outside of a caste, outside of a group who will identify with them, and who therefore belong nowhere in society, detritus. The ‘developed’ ‘West’ has vulnerable people too, all the moreso because it fails to acknowledge their existence. When an individual looks at their life and feels as if they do not belong in their society, a society which appears to reject them at every turn, and Daesh offers an alternative which seems somehow better, which seems to give them purpose and justice and a raison d’etre at all, it is the duty of government to question how conditions have been allowed to develop which make that possible.
Daesh is like the tantruming child or moody teenager of its region. It hurls its weight around, harming everything in its way in a bitter plea for both attention and validation. Like the rebellious youth, it claims it would have its dad in a fight (an appropriate analogy, given that, father like, Euro-American intervention did provide the conditions to birth and nurture Daesh in the first place), but shrinks from open conflict, instead choosing to pick on the vulnerable and weak. The group is made of such individuals, a gang of the disempowered and disillusioned who see no place for themselves in contemporary society and instead choose to attempt to destroy it in a final bid for self-actualisation. Critchley says that a politics of fear assures the order of the political unit through appeal to the threat of an enemy. In order to end such a politics of fear which pervades both Daesh (who names ‘The West’ its enemy) and our own societies (who name Daesh) and end the conditions which make radicalisation possible, the political undertaking is to offer people dignity, self-determination, a sense of belonging, and a sense of justice in their political and social life. It is to offer the silent, deprived, and isolated a community, a commonality, a name for themselves, an identity. Like when speaking to a child, government, and society as a whole, will have to get down on its hands and knees to look the lost and found in the eyes and treat them as equals. If, as was suggested earlier, the act of naming is the act of claiming agency, the perhaps ironic truth is that what will serve as lethal anathema to Daesh is the act of giving those vulnerable whom it preys on, the chance to find a name.