When the Far Enemy becomes Near

Reflections on the Charlie Hebdo killings

The heinous killing of 12 journalists and staff from Charlie Hebdo needs to be interpreted with at least two different focal lenses. There is a French (or French-European) dimension, which mobilizes a sense of belonging or exclusion within the French (and possibly European) level. But there is also an international dimension of these killings, one that connects the spread of ISIS with the strategy of the two killers, currently suspected to be the brothers Kouachi.

To start briefly with the first dimension, it should be made clear that the two killers were not shooting random people in France: by attacking Charlie Hebdo‘s staff they had a clear strategy of exacerbating tensions, creating new general feelings of us versus them, and splitting French people on what should count as “legitimate” criticism. As horrible as it may sound, the two killers succeeded: blanket statements and judgments against all Muslims will follow (and violent reactions have already emerged against Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe); other people at a loss might believe that taking arms will be a way to “defend” Islam, generating a new cycle of violence (as seems to be happening at the moment of writing with the hostage crisis), while the Left is at least temporarily marginalized in its fight against Islamophobia.

Cinzia Arruzza focuses on the French dimension of this tragedy. She reminds us that all these emotional reactions risk forgetting that Charlie Hebdo was not your average satirical weekly. There is something uncomfortable in the mass of statements typified by “Je suis Charlie” because in reality not so many people would have given a blank check to the magazine a week ago. (At least, I suspect that the few real supporters of Charlie Hebdo whom I know would find this blind support to the idea[l]s of this magazine somewhat superficial and cynical.) If people want to use a hashtag to express solidarity, they should at least use a compound version of it: “#JeSuisAhmedEtCharlie,” i.e. “I am Ahmed” (from Ahmed Merabet, the name of the Muslim policeman shot down by one of the two killers thought to be a Muslim), and “I am Charlie.” That would be a more accurate reminder of the diversity of France and a way to prevent spreading the myth of a clash between “Islam” and the “West”.

The second focal lens to make sense of this event (and as I write, the event is becoming a series of events, with the taking of hostages in two different locations, one of which is a kosher supermarket, completing the triad of religious hatred between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), is to connect the Parisian developments with the spread of ISIS since last June. Al-Qaeda has been around for two decades now, but when Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph and leader of the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), organized a truly military campaign to establish a foothold in the north of Iraq and in the East of Syria, he did so by outflanking the other franchises of al-Qaeda, most notably Jubhat al-Nusra, the recognized arm of al-Qaeda in Syria. ISIS has used the most extreme forms of violence, not fearing to kill Sunni Muslims who would not actively support the jihadi group, something that al-Nusra Front, or Al-Qaeda in Iraq under Zarqawi, in the past did not do.

Thus, ISIS and its followers have taken to another level the long and gradual transformation and re-invention of the concept of jihad. Jihad, for Muslims, means two things. First, it is a spiritual struggle, an internal commitment to respect the principles set in the Quran and in the tradition of the Prophet. This is referred to as  the greater jihad. The lesser jihad is what most people in Europe or in the West thinks jihad to be, namely the holy war and the use of violence to defend the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam). This second meaning of the jihad was picked up and lionized by Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he literally reinvented the meaning of concepts such as jihadjahiliyya (the “age of ignorance,” to speak of the pre-Islamic times), and hakimiyyat (“government of God”). (For more on Sayyid Qutb’s bricolage, I recommend reading Yvonne Haddad and her excellent chapter “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival” in John Esposito’s Voices of Resurgent Islam.) Qutb was the ideologue of the radical fringes of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and made jihad a personal duty of each Muslim to fight against the spread of materialist ways of life, be they capitalist or communist, in a violent manner, rather than in a spiritual manner as the greater jihad would ask Muslims to do.

Fawaz Gerges, in The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, shows how Qutb’s ideas were picked up by a couple of radical Islamist activists who went on to establish al-Qaeda. Unlike Islamist nationalists, namely groups like the FIS in 1990s Algeria or Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, who killed President Sadat in 1981 and who were fighting against a local corrupt government, the jihadi transnational Islamists shifted gears and decided it was not enough to attack the near enemy. The near enemy is the term used by radical Islamist groups to speak of the government acting in Muslim-majority countries and seen as illegitimate because it is hostile to the propagation of Islam within state structures. For decades, Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood at the front of the line, have been targeting their own national political leaders and tried, mostly in vain, to take power on a national level.

The gradual evolution of Islamist ideologies (often in competition with each other) yielded in the 1990s a shift of strategy targeting now the far enemy, namely the international supporters and sponsors of corrupt Arab or Muslim-majority regimes — read: America. It was time, for people like al-Qaeda’s Bin Ladin or his second-in-command Zawahiri, to target the USA and its allies. The tragic outcomes of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States and the subsequent attacks in London and Madrid must be understood within this framework.

The killings of Charlie Hebdo‘s staff are more than a replication of this strategy of attacking a far enemy. The attacks of 9/11 were aimed at symbols of power (Twin Towers, New York), with one of the hijacked planes crashing just off the Pentagon. So the 9/11 targets were embodiments of this far enemy, more or less identified with the US government. The January 7th killings in Paris was not just a random attack against the freedom of expression or intellectuals, but must be understood as targeting a “far enemy” that is now portrayed as “near” to each and every single Muslim wherever he or she lives. It was a deliberate and strategic move to show that the far enemy is no longer a sufficient target, but that a clash must go on within every society where Muslims live. This is the novelty brought about by ISIS and their blind followers in Paris: for this new breed of jihadi extremists, attacks on the far enemy need to be part of a fight against all sources of illegitimate orders: the near enemy, carrier of political order in the Middle East, and the far enemy, carrier of not only political or economic power but also of a symbolic one that is partly in the hands of journals such as Charlie Hebdo: no criticism towards the version of Islam professed by ISIS is for them acceptable. The Parisian killers want to connect the “far” with the “near” enemy, thereby inviting Muslims to act (violently) against a protean mythical enemy, one that can take many different forms, be it the decadent moral order of the “West” or even the vitriolic cartoons of Charlie Hebdo.

In this way, the killers will further contribute to spreading the idea that a clash between Islam and the West is underway, fomenting further spirals of Islamophobia, on the one hand, and Occidentalist hate, on the other. In 2010, when the book on The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations that I co-authored with Chiara Bottici appeared, we thought it might have arrived like the Owl of Minerva, beginning its flight at dusk, when reality has already done its course. Now I fear it might have been just the beginning.

Benoit Challand

  • Marc

    Very intersting and informative post. But what do you mean by far and near? Can we speak of near and far if the jihad is global?

    • Benoit

      Sure you are right: the fight that organizations such as ISIS / Daesh lead is taking place at a global level, so near and far have become almost meaningless, since the justifications for attacking these two types of enemies used to be different. The new worrying development is that current attacks or justifications for attacks are not targeting formal institutions of power, but anyone at the society’s level. This is another dangerous evolution.

  • I think this is an extremely important contribution. It analyzes the deep significance of the attack on Charlie Hebdoe, showing
    that it is a profound escalation of extremists, highlighting how it may
    support those who hope for a clash of civilizations. My fear is that by
    acting as if the clash is real, it will be real in its consequences, as W.I. Thomas might have put it.

  • Siobhan Kattago

    Both Benoit’s post and that of Cinzia’s broaden the debate beyond what seems to be an increasingly violent clash of civilisations. Thanks to Jeff and Naomi for posting.

  • lucas

    i wonder whether the jihadists have ever read huntington’s book..

    • Benoit

      They might have not read the book, but the notion of clash of civilizations (siraa3 al-hadaraat) is so wide spread in Arabic parlance that I am confident they master these ideas (of course, they reverse the alleged civilizational origins of violence: the ‘imperialist’ or ‘impious’ ‘west’ and America are responsable for the attacks ON Muslim-majority societies). Many in the Arab world have also criticized Huntington’s book by calling for a dialogue of civlizations (hiwar al-hadaraat). If we check the book i co-authored on “The Myth of the clash of civilizations” (Routledge, 2010), you will find more information about these questions, in particular in chapter 4.

  • chiara bottici

    i think jeff is totally right: it is by acting AS IF a clash between civilizations was taking place that it is made real, whatever one can mean by “real”, even if it is pretty clear that, on the contrary, what is at stake is just the action of a few people.

  • Marc

    Maybe near and far must then be understood in cultural terms: I think globalization eliminates distance but not cultural differences

    • Benoit

      In part. I would be cautions about the idea that cultural differences are there. Some have been erased as well by different waves of globalization. We could say there is a staging of cultural differences. (at the heart remains attempts at obtaining power, and ruling)

  • Lisa Bridges

    This is a very academic debate focusing on details: outside there a clash of civilizations is taking place. And as you keep discussing in your universities, people are being killed!

    • Zachary Sunderman

      While I understand your frustration, you’ve directed it to the wrong people. We’re actually discussing on the Internet, open for all to read, free of charge. That’s why we do this website–to take what happens in the academy and make it public. We do that under the assumption that the intensive work we do to make sense of social issues (which is literally our job!) can make an important contribution to public thought. Yes, people are being killed, and it’s awful, and that’s all the more reason why these situations should be carefully examined, because otherwise they just produce knee-jerk reactions that do nothing to solve the problem: the “clash of civilizations” myth being one of them; others being war, anti-terrorist terrorism, xenophobia, and so on.

      Your compassion for the victims of this dreadful situation is noble, but we do what we do because the reaction can’t stop there. I hope you’ll read the very informative and illuminating contributions some of our authors have made about this issue and consider what implications they have for how you proceed through coping with and responding to issues such as this.

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