The media demonisation of terrorists and our Western preconception of Eastern societies do not bode well for giving Muslims born and reared in Europe a sense of belonging
Many public statements condemning the recent attacks in Barcelona—which saw a van trample over people in La Ramblas on a crowded summer evening—aim to disregard the terrorists by classifying them as “mere murderers”, “crude criminals” or other similar insults. The following analogy may sound harsh, however it seems to me that this strategy is as mistaken. And it is equally dangerous to one that brands a man who murders his wife as someone mentally disturbed. In both cases the goal is to reduce the perpetrator to a condition of irrationality. And in doing so refusing to comprehend the complex structure of radicalisation.
The manner in which certain media corporations have utilised the images and videos related to the attacks has had a similar effect. Furthermore, in my opinion, even more worrying than the controversy generated by the photographs of corpses and bodies, is the use of CCTV images–such as the ones captured in the bank branch or a shop adjacent to the Ramblas–to recreate the scene of the tragedy.
Most of the time, those images have no informative value: for example, they show a group of people running, people taking their hands to their heads or a couple pointing to the escape route. We have seen them on the TV specials dedicated to the attacks. They were accompanied by a soundtrack that could have been taken from a Hollywood scene in which Bruce Willis saves humanity from an imminent disaster. The images on their own do not say so, but the context in which they appear leads one to believe that a greater evil beyond what we can imagine is at work.
This also applies to the images published by newspapers showing Younes Abouyaaqoub escaping down la Boquería. They do not provide any additional information about the events. Yet they provoke the perverse morbidity of catching a glimpse of an evasive radical evil.
Societal response to extremism
Some would argue that that the goal of such media products is to generate a cohesive response of opposition towards a clearly defined enemy. I understand this argument. However, this is precisely what I object to: a society that is united by the feeling of being the rational side against those who are irrational, of being “the good guys” fighting “the bad guys”, is a weak one.
As political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca explained in a recent article, Western countries have established political and social routines in face of jihadist attacks. No better proof is the string of TV specials, demonstrations of compassion, harshening of security protocols, praise given to institutions, etc. They give a ritualistic atmosphere, a sense of routine, thus changing the perception and turning them as ordinary and obvious. They are portrayed as savages committing atrocities, whose behaviour excludes them from the human condition. After various vicissitudes, they are ultimately shot down (or abatidos, the official term used in Spanish reports regarding the attacks) by the police.
This portrayal of the terrorists as savages is a part of our cultural archetype, as Edward Said and Roger Pol-Droit have demonstrated: to the Christian world, the Middle East is a space of brutality. But not just any kind of brutality: a brutality that is especially cruel, sophisticated and fanaticised, and exact antonym, a worthy rival.
This is the tale produced by the media treatment of the attacks and the previously mentioned ritualised reaction of the public. In fact, this is an inadequate portrayal of the Ripoll group. They were not savages alien to our reality, but citizens formed by our educational institutions, assisted by our health care since their youth, and who took part in leisure activities enjoyed by ordinary citizens. Moreover, they spoke two of Spain’s official languages: Spanish and Catalan, the latter reportedly with a very local accent. They did not come from a sophisticated Middle-Eastern culture. Their social media profiles reflected tastes and interests typical of any average European youth. They did not even appear to be religious fanatics. They had only recently begun to pray and their knowledge of Islam was limited.
They were not savages, nor were they ultraorthodox fanatics or the devil’s reincarnation: they were 12 of our own. And they chose the path that took them furthest away from us. To understand what motivated them, a strategy of demonisation is the worst option. As Javier Lesaca has demonstrated in his valuable investigation, Daesh gathers followers by creating aspirational models through western cultural codes. Amongst other resources, they employ videos showing other young men explaining why they joined Daesh, or massacre scenes clearly inspired by popular videogames and films. By contrast to Al-Qaeda and Osama Ben-Laden’s archaism, whose Afghan elegance embodied the middle-eastern topic of sophisticated evil, Daech videos do not even feature their leader, Al Baghdadi, whose priest-like appearance would not gain a lot of followers.
Obviously, playing Grand Theft Auto–a videogame in which the player runs over fleeing pedestrians –is not a sufficient trigger to incite the desire to commit a massive ramming attack in las Ramblas. What I want to make clear is that reducing the cultural and psychological complexity of the radicalisation processes to an opaque Islamic savagery is a self-satisfying mistake.
In Europe, we have not made any effort to get to know European Muslims, despite the fact that they will soon be several millions. This is most likely due to a Christian-centred prejudice, or to that Voltairian attitude that condemns all religions for being potentially fanatic. We must not deny Islam’s existence, nor ignore it.
Instead, we must help to establish the conditions under which Saudi-Wahhabism is unable to infiltrate even the most hidden garages, where our fellow citizens install their domestic chapels; in Catalunya, for example, one in every three is of Salafist tendencies. These continues to replace more tolerant Islamic cultures like the Maghrebi. We must consolidate aspirational models allowing Muslim people living in Europe to be proud to be simultaneously Muslim and European, Spanish and Catalan. We must create a dialogue based on knowledge and mutual respect, not on the underlying cultural prejudice surrounding Middle-Eastern culture.
Reducing the jihadist attacks to radical evil will not help us become a society up to the task of solving such a complex problem. From all the videos of hope and solace that have been circulated, my favourite is one showing images of the Ramblas full of life and flowers with John Lennon’s Imagine as a soundtrack .
Just as the terrorists would play video games, they also listened to the Beatles. Let’s not forget, they were twelve of our own kind.
Gonzalo is professor of Philosophy at the University Camilo José Cela, Madrid, Spain.
This opinion was originally publish in El Huffington Post under the title ‘Eran doce de los nuestros’ and is reproduced here with the permission from the author.
This text has been translated into English by Alia Cachafeiro Maiz and Tomas Bensadon (students at UCL, UK).
Featured image credit: EFE