In the absence of ideology
Brenden O'Neill's Spiked article, Iraq: the world's first Suicide State, is worth a read.
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Iraq looks like a country committing suicide rather than aspiring to independence and liberty. It is striking, for example, that the bombers seem always to lash out against Iraqi civilians, including civilians who have signed up for Iraq’s ragbag police force, rather than against America and Britain’s occupying armies. Iraq takes today’s ‘cult of the suicide bomber’ a stage further: we could say that Iraq is the world’s first Suicide State, responding to war and occupation not by mobilising the masses in opposition or organising resistance armies, but rather by destroying itself, by committing suicide in front of the world’s cameras. As strange and unsettling as this may seem, it requires an explanation. It strikes me that the new Suicide State of Iraq is not quite as foreign or ‘evil’ as commentators and officials would have us believe. Rather, it seems to have been shaped by some very contemporary political trends, and by the denigration of international politics over the past decade.
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The insurgency’s lack of political ideology is often also remarked upon. Steven Metz of the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute says ‘it is really significant’ that three years into the insurgency ‘there hasn’t been anything like any kind of ideology’. ‘If you look at twentieth-century insurgencies, they all tend to be fairly coherent in terms of their ideology. Most of the serious insurgencies, you could sit down and say, “Here’s what they want”’, says Metz (10). Not so with the Iraqis. They seem to be a new breed of post-ideological insurgents. At a time when political ideology is derided, and when fighting or agitating for a clear self-interest is looked upon with suspicion, we seem to have an insurgency fighting for nothing in particular: one that expresses itself almost emotionally rather than politically, in suicide bombings that can be seen as individuated expressions of frustration rather than part of a collective strategy to expel Coalition forces and take the reins of power in Iraq. The demise of the old ideologies of left and right, or West vs East, has given rise to seemingly aimless and unwieldy movements, especially in more volatile parts of the world such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
In present-day Iraq, we can glimpse what violent struggle looks like in the absence of politics. Without the old structures, or any new ones to take their place, the Iraqi insurgents express no distinct political interest or ideology, show no interest in winning mass support or strength, and focus their efforts, like many others today, on making an impact through the media. The insurgents’ separation from the masses and from any clear political goals goes some way to explaining why they seem so much more unrestrained and brutal than earlier militant movements. Freed from responsibility to a distinct community, and with few ties to national territory or political principles, they have fewer constraints on their actions. It is because the insurgents are really free-floating agents rather than rooted political actors, reflecting the broader demise of politics in recent years, that they can execute what appear to be unthinkable acts. In the absence of conventional political structures that might define and direct a violent campaign, they have little compunction about killing or injuring scores of innocent people. As Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Affairs has argued, because contemporary violent movements are often ‘not motivated by political ideology on the far left or right’, they are more likely to be ‘extremists…with an apocalyptic mindset’ (11).