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In defense of the Grayzone: between ISIS and the West

  • November 23, 2015

Conflict & Combat

The targets of the Paris attacks were not primarily the civilians killed but the world they inhabited — one not yet divided into two civilizations.

At this moment of closing borders and of politicians calling for surveillance of Muslims and deportations of refugees—with thought suspended and grief draped in the French flag—I hear whispers of the worst horrors of the last century. However, the document to which I turn to make sense of it all is a contemporary one. ‘The Extinction of the Grayzone’, an article published in the official ISIS magazine Dābiq, is a slick PDF that deftly binds together theology, politics and history in service of the so-called “caliphate.”

Reading Dābiq, I am struck by its reflection of the transnational, heterogeneous background of ISIS—demonstrating an impressive knowledge of contemporary graphic design, it is written in erudite English by those well-versed in ISIS’s theology. In its graphic depictions of violence, it is a document of barbarism, but then—as Walter Benjamin reminds us—so is every other document of civilization.

A world divided into two camps

Scrolling past images of militants brandishing kalashnikovs, knives held against bare necks, and graphic scenes of decapitations, I arrive at the issue’s eponymous article, ‘The Extinction of the Grayzone.’ While “counter-terrorism experts” have argued that exploring the motives of the Paris attackers is futile, I believe this article demonstrates the importance of doing precisely that.

Through an examination of the establishment of their “Islamic Caliphate” and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the article clearly explains the goals of the Paris Attacks. In a tweet, the author and activist Iyad El-Baghdadi captured the main thrust of the article:

This world imagined by ISIS is one in which difference is contained, sterilized, and homogenized. It is a world of stark contrast where belief adheres to one of two strict orthodoxies and there is no middle ground.

Confounding those who argue ISIS is merely the product of blind adherence to an antiquated tradition, the author cites a distinctly modern figure as ISIS’ inspiration. This figure is none other than one of the most horrendous and violent individuals of this millennium: George W. Bush. The article cites Osama Bin Laden:

The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.

The only thing standing in the way of this world of two clearly opposed camps is the “Grayzone,” the messy zone of coexistence. As Iyad El-Baghdadi suggests, the grayness of the Grayzone contaminates the purity of ISIS’ clean division. As much for ISIS as for the “West,” the trouble with the Grayzone is that it ruptures and renders absurd the binary logic which forces a choice between us or them, between friend or enemy, the camp of Islam or that of the Crusaders.

In this sense, the Grayzone is what philosopher Giorgio Agamben refers to as a “zone of indistinction,” a zone which renders impossible the ability to determine inclusion and exclusion. Furthermore, in its contaminated grayness, it is an opaque blot that clouds the panoptic gaze of a regime of legibility, a gaze which forces the world to appear as a collection of discrete, uncontaminated wholes. Hidden from this gaze, the Grayzone is home to all those who live messy, entangled and irreducibly complex lives.

Planting one’s feet in the Grayzone and looking at the forces arrayed against it, the attacks of ISIS and subsequent jingoistic and military maneuvers of the West appear not as skirmishes in an almighty Clash of Civilizations but rather as different moments of a single strategy carried out by a Janus-faced power, a strategy intent on bringing about the extinction of the Grayzone. This is to say, the targets of the Paris attacks were not primarily the civilians killed but the world they inhabited, one not yet divided into two civilizations on the brink of total war.

Yet, the Grayzone offers more than a perspective to make sense of unfolding events. It also provides a footing to ward off the spectral presence of creeping fascisms and resurgent nationalisms. In these dark times, it is of the utmost importance to see the world from the Grayzone, to make common cause with those who inhabit it and to struggle for its defense.

Living in the twilight of the Grayzone

Created and inhabited through living messy lives that cross borders and don’t neatly correspond to fixed identities, the Grayzone is something we all experience, but some more viscerally than others. There are those who live entirely in the crepuscular light of this entangled indeterminacy. For these people, the experience of the Grayzone is not an abstraction, but their home in this world—a visceral texture of their day to day lives.

Dābiq’s ‘Extinction’ depicts the Grayzone as inhabited by “hypocrites” and “deviant innovators.” It encompasses, for Dābiq, the parties which “claim to be independent of both opposing camps.” I count three signs that mark these denizens of the Grayzone:

  1. those with a heretical relationship to orthodoxy;
  2. refugees, migrants and all the others living a life straddling two worlds; and,
  3. those fighting a war on two fronts and being “independent” of both ISIS and the West.

Being branded a so-called “heretic” or “hypocrite” is the first mark that you are a denizen of the Grayzone. However, this “heresy” is not an empirical reality that exists in-and-of itself but a question of judgment. For the “heretic”, their beliefs are not blasphemous but faithful to their own interpretation. Indeed, the “heretic” is only named as such by the particular orthodoxy or prevailing systems of norms which marks their beliefs or behaviors as deviant.

The “heretic” thus establishes the Grayzone by arriving at an alternative (marked as “deviant”, “heretical” or “blasphemous”) interpretation of a common code and living their life accordingly. In so doing, they demonstrate the contingency of any interpretation, threatening to topple the orthodoxy and turn the fictive homogeneity of one camp into a heterogeneous space of discussion and disagreement.

Dābiq’s main focus is this form of “heresy.” Indeed, the magazine’s cover displays the “hypocrites” who reacted against the attacks last January on Charlie Hebdo. This danger of these “heretics” or “hypocrites” lay in the fact that their disloyalty does not take the form of a desertion, renouncing Islam, or moving to the camp of the crusader. Instead, by retaining their allegiances to Islam but deriving different interpretations, they fundamentally challenged the so-called “Islamic State” as the univocal enunciator of religious truth.

This is the exact strategy of the ISIS #NotInMyName campaign in which Muslims reject ISIS’ ability to act in the name of Muslims. For ISIS, the task of eliminating the threat these heretical interpretations pose lies in convincing the “heretics” to move “from Hypocrisy to Apostasy.” In other words, ISIS wants to eliminate the heretics by leading them to renounce their faith, to abandon the camp.

This call for apostasy is echoed by the other camp as well. It finds its purest expression in the Islamaphobic proselytization of secularism. Last Spring, in his thinly-veiled call for Western military occupation of Iraq and Syria entitled, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graham Woode embraces ISIS’ hegemonic grasp on the interpretation of Islam. Arguing that Islam is a fundamentally “backward” religion and that the only principled thing for Muslims to do is to renounce Islam altogether, Woode leaves no room for faithful Muslims to live according to the example of the prophet and the Koran:

The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,’ Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

Here again, the Grayzone is under siege not just by ISIS but also by the opposing camp. The West, especially in its most fervent defenses of the “enlightenment,” “western values” and “secularism” cannot step outside of the Clash of Civilizations narrative. The only choice they offer Muslims is apostasy or desertion to ISIS’s camp—the Crusader’s choice of conversion or exodus at the barrel of a gun.

To destabilize this notion of a singular fixed truth — this destructive certainty upon which wars are waged and spaces of thought and discussion are closed — we must renounce the idea that there are “true” or “false” notions of concepts like Jihad or freedom. Instead, we must recognize that truth itself is the result of a struggle over interpretation.

In the wake of the Paris Attacks, a widely-circulated story celebrated the actions of Zouheir, the Muslim security guard who allegedly turned away bombers from a crowded soccer stadium. The popularity of the story depended on the “exceptional” character of Zouheir’s “selfless” and “heroic” actions, a framing which assumes all Muslims are aligned with ISIS.

Yet, if the Paris attacks are understood as a strategy of destroying the Grayzone—the space in which Muslims who do not accept ISIS’ interpretation of Islam reside—this story becomes one not of “selfless heroism” but of self-defense, defending the possibility of Muslim life outside the orthodoxy of ISIS.

But we must not tokenize these acts of self-defense; we must stand in solidarity. To do this means to assert the value of Muslim life and, like Zouheir, to defend the Grayzone which fosters and supports it. For non-Muslims, to not tokenize Muslims means to avoid claims about the “truth” of various interpretations of Islam. Such statements not only efface the diversity of Islamic interpretation but also risks furthering ISIS’s claims that the “heretics” are nothing more than “western puppets.” Yet, solidarity with Muslims undermining the authority of ISIS is not enough. The bombings, police raids, calls for ID cards, detentions and deportations in the West must also be met by cries of “#NotInMyName”.

The Grayzone is also a home for those who straddle different worlds. They cannot be neatly sorted into either camp. In this sense, the Grayzone is also a space inhabited by migrants and refugees. Forming a thread which entangles the fate of remote locales, they are a living testament to the porosity of borders.

Once more, we see ISIS and the West unified in their strategy to destroy the Grayzone, both undertaking measures to sterilize and purify their camps. In the West, this sterilization targets the bodies of migrants and refugees: restricting their movement, turning them away at borders, surveilling, containing, detaining and deporting them. For ISIS, the refugees fleeing violence are also heretics and apostates, blasphemously failing to heed the call to move to the so-called Caliphate. Yet, in Dābiq, ISIS envisions the outcome of these attacks as the production of a West so hostile to Muslims that they will have to choose between the “Caliphate” and renouncing Islam entirely.

Reflections and ghostly shadows

In this moment of widespread xenophobia cloaked in the language of security, I see reflections and ghostly shadows. ISIS’s desire for a West hostile to Muslims mirrors the xenophobic nationalists’ fantasy of Muslim self-deportation. And in the logic of immobilization, containment and sterilization, I see the specter of the unthinking bureaucratic administration of bodies—that specter which recalls some of the most horrific memories of the past century.

Our collective memory is crucial as we formulate responses to calls like those of Donald Trump for databases and identification cards for the two million Muslims living in America or by Slavoj Zizek for coordinated military detention and transportation of refugees. To honor this memory, we must reject attempts like those of Trump and Zizek to transform migrants and refugees into numbers in an administrative database or bodies in heavily guarded camps and instead forcefully affirm their freedom of movement that marks them as denizens of the Grayzone.

A final sign that marks someone as a denizen of the Grayzone is being targeted by or otherwise being at war on two fronts. Here, Dābiq gives significant attention to the “grayish calls and movements” of the “independent” Islamic parties in the Syrian Civil War.

To this account of “grayish” factions of the Syrian Civil War, it would be remiss not mention the Kurdish fighters of Rojava who are attacked regularly by both ISIS and the West—in the guise of NATO-ally Turkey. In their struggle for neither a nation-state nor a caliphate but a large territory of autonomous self-governed communities the Rojavan Kurds offer a powerful articulation of the Grayzone and the ethical and political possibilities that exists beyond the two choices proffered by ISIS and the West.

It is, however, not necessary to look as far afield as the Syrian civil war to find examples of those targeted by both ISIS and the West. As I have already discussed, this is also the case for Muslims in the West who face the daily threat of Islamophobic violence but would just as likely face violence at the hands of ISIS. So too is it the case with the refugees, who find themselves trapped between two hostile worlds and are thus forced to inhabit the Grayzone between them.

Facing this many-headed hydra intent on the destruction of the Grayzone, we cannot stand idly by.

Instead, heeding the grayish call, we must resist any attempt to divide the world into “us versus them” and rupture the fictive unity of these two camp by refusing to allow violent acts to be perpetrated in our name.

To defend the Grayzone means to call out Islamophobia and make sure that Muslim communities are safe. It means to counter an isolationist border policy by welcoming the stranger, the migrant and the refugee into our midst. And it means to refuse to let our grief to be draped in a flag, responding with the same outrage and grief to the airstrikes of the West as we did to the attacks in Paris.

Rejecting the narrative of an inevitable Clash of Civilizations, we must instead insist on coexistence. In the face of calls for its extinction, we must celebrate the entangled life that flourishes in the messy indeterminacy of the Grayzone.

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Sam Law

Sam Law is a delivery boy in Brooklyn, NY. When not delivering bagels, he writes about and participates in struggles for autonomy, life and the commons. He blogs at The Counter Apparatus.

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