Acceptable Targets: A Tale of Two Terrorist Attacks

In the past month, the world witnessed two headline-grabbing terrorist attacks. The first was a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston by a lone white male, killing 9. The second is a trio of simultaneous strikes in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, each perpetuated by one or two individuals, killing at least 54. The Charleston shooter claimed he was motivated by a desire to start a race war. The Islamic State (Daish) claimed responsibility for the attack in Tunisia, and have produced propaganda calling for terrorist attacks during Ramadan; the other two attacks may have a connection to the Tunisian strike too.

One attack generated lasting international controversy. The other has faded from social media. The latter was inspired by the world’s foremost threat to international security, whose ideology continues to inspire people to mass atrocities and whose religion is practised by over a billion people worldwide. The former was done by a mentally unbalanced individual who sought refuge in an ideology shunned by the world, even in its place of origin.

One would think the larger, deadlier attack would generate more controversy. Incredibly enough, this is not so.

The disparity is even more stunning when you look at the consequences of the attack.

The Charleston shooter generated a media firestorm concerning racism in America, with people calling for the removal of the Confederate Battle Jack. The controversy had people swarming in to defend or suppress freedom of speech, condemn the former Confederate States of America — an unrecognised country that lasted for all of four years — and tear down the Battle Jack, and creating memes expressing extreme disapproval of the flag and the South. On the political front, politicians and celebrities jumped all over themselves to push for even greater gun control measures, and to press the state government of South Carolina to take down the Battle Jack flying over the State House. Apple has removed every American Civil War game from its app store because these games have an image of the Battle Jack, while Amazon and Walmart have de-listed the flags of the Confederate States.

The latest attacks generated all of…nothing. No fiery speeches or articles about Arabic or Muslim prejudice. No calls for gun control — but then, the attacks took place in countries where guns are highly restricted or outright illegal. The flags of the Nation of Islam, Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Oman, and other Islamic organisations and nations that supported the slave trade for centuries and international jihad for decades are still sold openly. Never mind that the majority of the slave trade from 8th to the 19th century has facilitated and institutionalised by black Muslim empires in Africa and the Middle East. Games that let the player take on the role as the ruler of Islamic states which supported slavery and conquest, such as the Civilization series, Age of Empires, Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis III and IV, are still on the shelves. No calls to ban Islam or demolish mosques.

From a political perspective, it’s almost as if the second attack never happened. But then, the first attack is an acceptable target.

Politics and Narratives

These two examples are illustrative of a wider principle: that of the narrative. The ideologies of gun control, white guilt, hatred for the American South and other related ideas predominate in the Western-influenced world. When a terrorist attack happens to fall into the narrative generated by these ideas, the power brokers, politicians, influencers and supporters will hustle to dance on the future graves of the unburied dead to push their agenda. They’ve become so powerful that corporations will either bow to pressure or take pre-emptive moves to avoid offending them. The ideologues jumped on a tragedy and turned it into a political victory, as they have done for every controversial shooting and act of terror that they could twist to their ends. As long as pressure tactics and media saturation work in their favour, they will continue to press for their vision of a better world — not with guns or bombs, but with memes and words and peer pressure.

And if another tragedy occurs that does not fall into their narrative, don’t expect them to do any more than mouth words of condolences.

The deck is stacked in their favour. White on black slavery, proliferation of guns, racial tensions and conflict, these are all acceptable targets to the international media. It creates a narrative of conflict, which drives controversy and therefore eyeballs and advertising revenue. Inconvenient facts — the slave trade being driven by blacks and Muslim empires, the first gun control laws being aimed at blacks, the ties between the KKK and the Democrat Party, Islamist-inspired terrorists killing people and gaining more territory than any other cause since the 21st century — are swept under the carpet. The media will gladly support the ideologues as long as they see profit in doing so; left unchecked, they will dominate the politics of Western-influenced civilisation and turn a blind eye to such inconveniences as reality.

How Daish will Adapt

What really concerns me is what groups like Daish will do next. By now they must have noticed the relative lack of impact the triple attacks had versus the Charleston shootings, never mind that these attacks killed over six times the number of victims across a much larger area. They would adjust their strategies accordingly.

Conflict is no longer monolithic. It is not about Axis versus Allies, communism vs capitalism, it is a patchwork of violent nonstate actors and rogue regimes with shifting allegiances and alliances against literally everybody else. Case in point, America might support Saudi Arabia to guarantee the flow of Saudi oil, but members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda to attack the United States, and al-Qaeda’s successor, Daish, is now invading Saudi Arabia. In a chaotic and anarchic environment, VNSAs make their mark through propaganda of the deed, establishing legitimacy through conducting spectacular attacks that seize the attention of the world media.

Daish will learn that an attack that can be twisted to serve the narrative of gun control and white guilt will leave a far longer and lasting impression on the West than a mass terrorist attack in their name. Daish will know that their attacks won’t trigger these hot-button issues in Western minds, so they have to compete in three ways.

The first is to amplify their message. Killing over six times the number of victims isn’t enough to drown out the noise of a hot-button strike. In line with their virulent anti-Western brand of viciousness, Daish will likely develop novel ways to gruesomely kill large numbers of people, work with local partners or send infiltrators to access faraway targets, and go for symbolic and infrastructure targets — the former to amplify the brand, the latter to generate greater havoc.

The second is to choose timing. Daish will pay greater attention to the international news cycle. During Ramadan the world media will pay a little more attention to Muslim affairs, but they have learned that hot-button strike will trump this extra media attention. VNSAs have the advantage of choosing when and where to strike. Groups like Daish will step up attacks to coincide with events of major significance that tie into their brand (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, anniversary of their self-proclaimed caliphate, etc.), or delay attacks to let other messages clear from the news cycle and social media networks.

The third is to exploit the news cycle by dominating the narrative before anyone else. The Charleston shooting generated so much controversy partially because the ideologues jumped all over the event and captured so much media attention, without even waiting for the bodies to cool. Daish and VNSAs will likely study this. In future attacks, I expect terrorists to start claiming responsibility once they have confirmation that the attack is complete, and for their sympathisers to start flooding the airwaves with propaganda and activism. They will use Western notions of freedom of speech against the West, claiming that their messages of hatred is protected speech.

These strategies are not even limited to Daish. Other groups, now and in the future, will do the same thing, to different degrees. Daish simply enjoys primacy of place since it has effectively replaced al-Qaeda as the world’s number one boogeyman for the time being. But at the local level, groups will use such tactics to dominate local political spheres, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the cartels in Mexico. Terrorism will become increasingly sophisticated, and will use the technology and norms of the West against it.

What can be done?

The first step is to not reward terrorism. Terrorists, be they lunatic mass shooters or rational VNSAs, want to generate publicity through their operations. Therefore, after every strike, the media should report the facts while giving the perpetrators no attention whatsoever beyond noting which group was responsible for the hit. At the level of the individual, people need to start tuning out when the ideologues crawl out of the woodwork, or else call them out for jumping the gun when the facts are not in yet. It means refusing to play by the rules of the 24/7 news cycle, and instead waiting for days or weeks, waiting until the facts come in.

The second is to pay attention to global trends. It says much about the world when a mentally unbalanced individual who kills nine people in the name of a dead country generated much more attention than a clear and present threat to the world that aims to overthrow the weak states of the Middle East. People need to understand the real problems they are facing, and prioritise their time, attention, energy and resources accordingly. Ideologues will want to paint their pet cause as THE pressing threat to civilisation: ignore them, and look at the real problems the world faces.

The third is to pay attention. It has never been easier for individuals to sow chaos and kill people en masse in the history of mankind. People can no longer count on intelligence services to reliably intercept terrorists before they strike, and the military and police can only respond to an attack in progress. People need to start looking out for lone wolves, terrorism indicators and other threats — and those so inclined need to step up and study the skills needed for a mass casualty event.

War has changed. It is no longer fought on battlefields with clearly-defined combatants. It will be fought on the Internet and in the printing presses, by soldiers and civilians, in streets and homes everywhere in the world. There are no longer non-combatants, just people who can fight back and people who cannot, and people who believe messages and people who do not.

The Appeal of the Islamic State

Yesterday The Middle Ground published an opinion piece titled A Young Muslim on ISIS. While it approaches the Islamic State (henceforth called Daesh here) from the perspective of a Muslim, the writer makes a few generalities that don’t hold up. Crucially, he says:

“My sense is, if you add a dash of ignorance and a sprinkle of mis-education to a person with violent traits, you get a self-radicalised individual. And if you add the zest of youth and thrill to the mixture, you get the most dangerous kind of self-radicalised individuals.”

And

ISIS’ version of Islam offends my senses, just based on the fundamental principles of ethics and morality. It just feels wrong, and I am certain that for many people, that feeling outweighs any other feeling of isolation or marginalisation they may face in their current communities. Religious differences aside, there is something inherently wrong about killing and torture. There is something inherently wrong about raping women and children. There is something inherently wrong about slavery. There is something inherently wrong about stripping someone of their dignity and worth on the account that they don’t share your religious beliefs. Everything about the tenets ISIS preaches goes against the natural order. Contrary to their mission, I don’t think ISIS is more concerned about ‘saving Islam’ than it is about its own political and personal agendas.

I am aware though, that there are many who genuinely believe they are ‘saving Islam’ and to that I would ask “from what exactly?” Islam does not need any more saving than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism does. If there is anything or anyone that Islam needs saving from, it is ISIS, because I don’t think any group has been more successful at tarnishing the image of the religion in this 21st century.

While the writer’s sentiments are understandable, they are sentiments. They are feelings and they do not necessarily offer any greater insight into Daesh, its appeal, and the phenomenon it embodies. Women have joined Daesh for the express purpose of being wives — not combatants. Yet they are self-radicalised individuals who learned about Daesh over the Internet. Further, while Daesh may feel wrong to the writer and offends his sense of morality, its ideas certainly do not feel wrong to its adherents.

Daesh cannot and must not be seen in isolation. It must be seen in the context of transitional violent non-state actors and civilisations.

Violent Non-State Actors in Transition

This is an invented term I will use to describe violent non-state actors that are in transition to becoming a state or something in between, by taking on the functions of a state in part or in whole. In modern times, there are multiple examples we can look at.

Mexico’s long and bitter drug war have left the federal government weakened and local government nonexistent. Drug cartels have moved in to occupy these territories. Some rule with an iron fist, bribing authority figures and assassinating the incorruptible. Others are more benevolent, establishing welfare programmes and donating regularly to charity. As John Robb argues in Brave New War, the cartels intend to hollow out the government but not to replace it. They are seeking a space where they can conduct their business in peace, using Mexican sovereignty as a shield against foreign (read: American) military intervention.

Since 1996, the Palestinian territories have held elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. The first election went to Fatah, which was riddled with corruption and caught in a conflict with its archrival Hamas. This led to widespread poverty and chronic underdevelopment. Hamas took on the functions of state, building schools and organising drought relief missions, in the place of Fatah. Hamas won the 2006 elections, transforming from a guerilla organisation into a legitimate political authority.

Even in the West, non-state actors are undermining the authority of the state. The Shariah Project deployed Shariah patrols to East London in 2013, confronting passers-by and demanding that they conform to Shariah law. Swedish police have ceded control of 55 zones to Muslim criminal gangs. Violence from Mexico’s cartel wars are spreading to the American border regions, moving illegal immigrants into America and embedding among these immigrants a network of spies, lieutenants and other facilitators.

Seen in this context, Daesh is no different. During the Syrian civil war, the secular nationalist forces battled the remnants of the loyalist military, while radical Islamic fighters shored up their power. The Americans destroyed the central governments of Iraq and Afghanistan during their invasions, and they have not created adequate replacements, leading to a void filled with insurgent groups. The Islamic radical groups banded together, forming Daesh and its allies. Now Daesh is seeking to expand into Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and are developing the infrastructure of a state: they are minting their own currency, enforcing laws, and building schools. Daesh is becoming a true Islamic State.

As Daesh expands into Kurdish lands, they have triggered a backlash. The Kurds are a people without a nation, but in modern history they have been pushing for a state of their own. Daesh’s invasion of Kurdish lands prompted many people of Kurdish descent to travel to Kurd territory to fight Daesh. Other non-Kurdish volunteers have also volunteered to join the fight. While there is no Kurdistan per se, one outgrowth of the war in Iraq was the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is pressing for independence from Iraq, but is endangered by Daesh, and the Iraqi military seems powerless to stop Daesh. A successful defence of Iraqi Kurdistan could be the impetus for a Kurdish nationalist movement — one that encompasses Kurdish lands in Turkey and Iran.

Common to these phenomenon is the failure or nonexistence of states. By failing to provide core services to the people — security, food and water, infrastructure — they lose the loyalty of their citizens. Disenfranchised, these people turn to different identity circles that would provide a sense of community and necessities.

Civilisation, the State and the Islamic State

Using Samuel Huntington’s definitions, a civilisation is the broadest possible grouping of people along linguistic, cultural, historical, genetic or other markers. A state, by contrast, is a political entity that exercises control over a given geographical region. Therefore, a civilisation can contain multiple states, a civilisation can be a single state, and large states (as in the case of empires) may encompass different civilisations. Daesh is that strange animal of a single-state civilisation, a distinction usually held only by Japan, India and China.

Daesh is based on ultra-fundamentalist views of the Qu’ran, effectively transposing the worldview of Qu’ranic times into the 21st century. Being in the Middle East, it has a heavy Arabic cultural influence, and as it happens many Muslims are either of Arabic descent or else are familiar with Arabic. The last great Islamic civilisation, the Ottoman Empire, dissolved in 1922. Through propaganda and deed, Daesh promises a return of a golden age of Islam and the formation of a new Islamic civilisation. Its numerous military successes give sympathisers and believers hope that this dream would come true, and Daesh’s efforts to build a statea long Qu’ranic lines signal that it is serious about building both a state and a civilisation.

Contrast this promise and hope with modern society. The lynchpins of the modern economy are under fire everywhere: the Euro faces the possibility of Greece exiting the monetary union, capitalism is seen to have led to ever-expanding wealth inequalities, jobs are perceived to go to foreigners who demand lower wages than locals. Police and military personnel face heavy scrutiny, and even the slightest hint of impropriety leads to accusations of racism/sexism/prejudice, which are inevitably followed by outrage, media circuses, apologies and resignations. Identity and gender politics threaten to divide people along arbitrary identity markers, taking states with them.

To impressionable minds, Daesh promises hope and society promises victimisation. China has long suppressed Islam in Xinjiang province, and consequently many Muslims are travelling to support Daesh. Malaysia and Indonesia are nominally Muslim states, but despite their racial and religious politicking they do not promise victory and a golden age like Daesh, leading idealists who seek a ‘true’ Islamic state to the Middle East. In the West, where immigration policies are liberal and integration is optional, entire communities see themselves as Muslims but not necessarily citizens of the state they live in. When they hear of Daesh’s victories, they feel more obliged to support their fellow Muslims than the state they do not feel loyalty to.

Daesh’s appeal lies in portraying themselves as Good People. And Good People can justify any number of atrocities to themselves because they believe they are in the right. This is further compounded by Daesh’s Arabic roots and cultural influence. Being tribal based, Arab societies are sometimes described as amoral familist in nature. In effect, morality is defined by the impact on the tribe: if something supports the tribe it is good, and if it harms the tribe it is evil. Amoral familism treats everybody outside the tribe as strangers at best and enemies at worst, and since terrifying the world will increase the standing of the tribe, atrocities like beheading captives and raping slaves are not only permissible but a moral imperative.

Now the question is: what can we do about Daesh?

Daesh brands itself as an Islamic state and the inheritor of Islamic civilisation. It is therefore incumbent on the Muslims of the world to reject the brand of Islam Daesh represents, and to actively participate in civic affairs. It is not enough to shout down distasteful ideologies; people need also to build societies along their preferred ones. In the First World, this means adopting the norms of racial and religious harmony and tolerance, rejecting prejudice and working in tandem with all peoples to build a society based on common values.

For everybody else, this is a call to unity. Violent non-state actors emerge where the state is weak or nonexistent. Daesh is merely the most high-profile VNSA at this time. As states crumble, other VNSAs and transitional NSAs will emerge. To prevent this, states and civilisations have to remain strong. This means rejecting the politics of division and identity, of isolating the extremists and working together with the reasonable people along the rest of the political spectrum. It means cohering as a nation, a people, a civilisation, and to build a better world.

For people in Singapore, this means rejecting the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other model. We cannot define ourselves primarily as Buddhist, Indian, Malay-Muslim, Christian, whatever. We must define ourselves as Singaporeans. In effect, to be one people, one Singapore. Most of all, it means participating in the community of nations, rejecting the extremists and the rogue states, and to be ready to defend ourselves against those who would do us violence with as much violence as we can muster.

The National Arts Council betrays the purpose of Art

The National Arts Council has proven its irrelevance to the development of the Singapore arts scene. By revoking the publication grant it had extended to Epigram Books to publish Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan due to the graphic novel’s ‘sensitive content’, the NAC has shown that it is a bureaucracy, and bureaucrats are the antithesis of art.

Art vs bureaucracies

I approach art as the celebration, ennoblement and marriage of human technical and imaginative skills. It is the alchemisation of truth, beauty and human ingenuity. It points to greater and wider truths beyond a limited individual frame of perception, illustrating the door to that truth through the artist’s craft, and trusting the audience to exercise their intellect and find the key to walk through the open door and see what the artist saw. From this perspective, the artist’s first duty is to the truth: the truth of the world, the truth that stretches across time and space, the truth of his inner vision. From this duty comes the obligation, and hopefully the skill, to create beauty, a means of touching a wider audience through their shared humanity and communicating what the artist saw. The method can take on many forms: a combination of colour and lines, creation of depth and perspective through chipping away raw material, exquisite arrangement of words and phrases.  To do this, the artist must not give a care about pre-established norms and traditions; if anything, it is the prerogative of the artist to create new norms, to ignore the trends of the day, to understand his vision and to communicate it regardless of what others think is right and proper.

Bureaucracies, on the other hand, are interested in maintaining and expanding their levels of influence. Bureaucracies exist to execute policies of their government, and in doing so they lay down and enforce what the government believes to be acceptable norms. If it is the policy of the government to uphold its power by quashing anything that appears to be a threat to its legitimacy, as the current government seems wont to do, the bureaucrats will follow suit. To justify their budgets and positions, they will steadily expand their influence over society, becoming unelected lawmakers and invisible judges, such as the Media Development Authority and its attempts to prevent homosexual content from airing in Singapore. Consequently, a bureaucracy and an artist will always clash as long as the government’s policies towards art encompasses everything but the unhindered development of the arts.

‘Sensitive content’?

In its papers and guidelines, the National Arts Council has clearly stated where it stands along the bureaucracy/artist divide. Quoting from its Production Grant Guidelines:

While we celebrate diversity of expression and open, balanced dialogue in the arts, as a statutory body
disbursing public funds in line with Government policies, NAC has to prioritise funding to proposals which
do not:
•Advocate or lobby for lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public;
•Denigrate or debase a person, group or class of individuals on the basis of race or religion, or serve
to create conflict or misunderstanding in our multicultural and multi-religious society;
•Undermine the authority or legitimacy of the government and public institutions, or threaten the
nation’s security or stability.

Left unwritten is its newfound ability to withdraw grants after funding projects, but that is the nature of bureaucracies. They will only reveal their power when it comes time to exercise it, backed by the authority of the state. In the case of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, today’s Straits Times describes the ‘sensitive content’ as:

In the first chapter, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong face off in cartoon form. Later in the book, the 1987 Operation Spectrum, in which 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government, is turned into a plot to replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of American singer Richard Marx.

The NAC’s senior director of its literary arts sector, Khor Kok Wah, claims, “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines.”

The graphic novel tells Singapore’s 60-odd years of history through satirical comics. It is plain to see that Khor does not comprehend the shape or purpose of satire. It is equally plain to see that the NAC’s screening process is incapable of identifying works that would allegedly undermine the authority of the government. But where art is concerned, this is the nature of bureaucracies: indecisive, incapable of comprehending nuance, and if pressed will favour the government.

Also, like bureaucracies, the NAC cannot comprehend that all publicity is good publicity: by withdrawing the grant, the NAC has given Epigram Books and Liew a ringing endorsement. All copies (as of time of writing) of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye have been sold out, barely a week after printing, and there is no sign that demand is slowing. Through the withdrawal of monies, the NAC has done more to spread allegedly subversive messages than Epigram or Liew could have on their own. But that, again, is bureaucracy for you: as blunt instruments to uphold state policy, bureaucracies are incapable of understanding and exercising subtlety.

Implications for Singaporean artists

Art is incompatible with conformity. Truth is not truth if held down or muzzled by the chains of the state. For Singaporean artists whose works even dance towards the edge of controversy, it is safe to assume that the NAC will, at best, refuse to support the art. I am almost certain that the NAC will not support my next work.

In the world of the Covenanters, the major conceit is the existence of two special elements with magical properties; one is an industrial material par excellence; the other can be used to summon supernatural beings. The Greeks were the first culture to study them, and consequently they dominated much the world the way Rome did in ours. This had major repercussions on global history and the way conflicts are fought. When the story begins, Western civilisation is split into secular native societies and immigrant communities composed of highly religious Arabs. The Singapore of that world is, like this one, a major financial hub, and consequently is highly attractive to one of the main antagonist factions. The organisation uses its power and influence to build a base in Singapore and avoid criminal prosecution, forcing the protagonist to engage in illegal operations to root out and destroy a threat to humanity.

This series follows terrorists and spies, who live lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public. Many characters in the series seek to create conflict and misunderstanding in multireligious multiethnic societies on the basis of race and religion. The Singapore arc would be seen as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the government and public institutions, and threaten the nation’s stability and security.  It is safe to say that the NAC will not stand for this, and neither would the Media Development Authority.

Artists at the cutting edge must find new ways and means to develop and propagate their art, independent of gatekeepers and authority figures. They will need to be fluent with new trends and technologies. In the case of writers, self- and indie publishing allows me to produce my stories without having to worry about censorship or red tape. For people who need money to see their projects through, crowdfunding campaigns and social media may prove a viable alternative to fickle bureaucrats.

The NAC and related organisations are bureaucracies, and as bureaucracies their mandate is to uphold the interests of the government. They cannot be counted on to represent the interests of artists to the state, especially if the proposed art is not in line with the ideological or policy positions of the government. For artists at the cutting edge, they must break free of the gatekeepers and blaze their own path. If the state will not support art, then the artists need not support the state.