The day after I posted about Peter Pan and the romantic, heroic vein of youth jihadism, a friend sent me an interesting article, which I recommend. Published in the New York Times, it is a profile by Danny Hakim, of a Jordanian called Suleiman Bakhit. Bakhit is fascinating because he has understood the craving for superheroes that jihad satisfies: but he didn’t just note it, he rolled up his sleeves and set about satisfying it.
He noticed that Daesh’s recruiters speak to their marks in whichever vernacular language they use, “and preach terrorism as a heroic journey. The biggest threat in the Middle East,” he goes on, “is terrorism disguised as heroism.” He suggests that the terrorist narrative is essentially a heroic journey narrative, as described and analyzed by the American Joseph Campbell: “a heroic journey is central to mythmaking.” I thought of Mohamed Tozy’s analysis of Abdallah ‘Azzam’s journey to the Panjshir in search of Ahmed Shah Masood (see my previous post), and Tozy’s insistence that this is a heroic journey deliberately cast in a non-religious, almost pre-Islamic mould. ‘Azzam told it afterwards in terms of dangers overcome, rugged landscapes, a ‘caravan’ crossing bare, steep mountain ranges and at the end a simple, hospitable, heroic fighting leader – the Lion of the Panjshir himself – whose virtues are those of a Bedouin warrior, not a Muslim saint. Bakhit sees this trope of a journey through hostile terrain as echoing not just pre-Islamic poetry and values, but also the journey of the Prophet to the cave of the revelations, picked up again by Bin Laden in his journey to Afghanistan and his own caves.
Joseph Campbell was America’s leading comparative mythographer, its very own Edward Casaubon, and his reductive approach to mythology has been very popular, not just with academics (many of whom indeed question his relentless schematic over-simplification) but with gurus of popular culture – inspiring, or helping to shape, amongst other works, Disney’s Lion King and George Lucas’s Star Wars. (Campbell has a lot to answer for in this regard, and by way of recognition Luke Skywalker appears on the cover of later editions of his Hero with a Thousand Faces). Lucas later said “Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books … It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs … so I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent … I went on to read The Masks of God and many other books.”
Lucas fastened, and Bakhit fastens after him, onto what Campbell called the Monomyth, the single heroic narrative that he took to be universal. In this monomyth, a hero is cast out and journeys in search of eternal wisdom, suffering great dangers and privations on the journey, eventually finding it and returning bearing his hard-won wisdom through more dangers to bring his own people freedom. This fits the ‘Azzam story, and it fits a great many of the luridly imagined journeys made by jihadis to Syria and Iraq: they go through great danger with purity of heart in search of wisdom, and either die on the journey or expect to return home with the virtue and the experience – not to mention the baraka – necessary to set their own people free. As Bakhit points out, it’s a win-win enterprise: “If you get killed you’re reunited with the Prophet and Allah. If you don’t, you’re still on your journey.” The purpose is sublimating self in a greater cause: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness,” as Campbell put it.
The primal monomyth fills the hole in the heart, the anomie of dislocation and deprivation, of unfulfilled expectations, sexual frustrations and frayed identities. It’s simple, it’s self-affirming and it obviates critical thought. Going to join Daesh has much in common with the quest of Luke Skywalker or Simba the lion cub, or any number of other heroes, both in its mind-numbing, trite sentimentality and in its linear chorography. A mildly interesting question is whether volunteers are following the primal pathway picked out by Campbell, or the cod-mythology of George Lucas and Walt Disney. But in the end it doesn’t matter: the monomyth is a communications tool, as George Lucas so lucratively discovered, and one which plays very well in a world saturated in American movies. This world stretches effortlessly across apparent cultural barriers, from Los Angeles to the refugee camps around ‘Amman.
Bakhit sees this clearly, and his answer is to fill the same void with heroes. He ran focus groups with Jordanian schoolchildren: “I went there and asked the kids, ‘Who are your heroes?'” he said. “‘We don’t have any heroes, but we hear a lot about Bin Laden, about Zarqawi,’ he said they told him … “I’m like, ‘What do you hear about them?’ The children replied, ‘That they defend us against the West because the West is out there to kill us.’ And this is the terrorist narrative and Propaganda 101.”
So Bakhit started producing comic books with a different kind of hero, designed to lead the young on journeys that may be no less transgressive, but lead in different directions. He learned to draw, set up a company called Aranim and started publishing comic strips – what used to be called trash-mags in my childhood – about Jordanian war heroes, followed by Element Zero (“a kind of Arabic version of Jack Bauer, the fictional counterterrorism agent in the television series 24”) and Saladin 2100 (“an apocalyptic Mad Max style comic set almost a century in the future”).
Bakhit takes no money from Western governments (though he started out with grants from the Jordanian government), understanding very well that any whiff of his being the instrument of the West would vitiate his entire enterprise. But he is clearly not the easiest of men, having gone on to run foul of the Jordanians (apparently for Saladin 2100, set in a Jordan of a hundred years hence, where it is not quite clear that the Hashemites still sit on the throne. Well I never did: someone obviously has no doubt about the power of these things).
But there is a very serious point here, and it lies in Bakhit’s remark that “The biggest threat in the Middle East is terrorism disguised as heroism.” If the recruiters of al-Qaida and now Daesh are consciously rolling out the carpet of archetypal heroic adventure, of the prophetic journey into the wilderness in search of wisdom, as a recruiting tool, then one important answering voice is clear. That heroic narrative needs to be recaptured and repopulated – the nature of the journey mercilessly examined, the hollowness of the wisdom exposed. And who better to do this than Batman? After all, (Campbell again, grammar and style apparently not his long suit), “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
Accounting for the apparently magnetic appeal of the jihad demand of us that we see it for what it substantially is – a simplistic, ethically empty adventure movie for lost children whose minds, battered by bad education, alienation and computer games, are drawn to easy black-and-white stories which don’t challenge intellect or conscience. In that case, countering such things is not so much a matter of protecting the young from bad influences (of which we hear a great deal too much) but giving them other, more challenging stories, other aspirations, other opportunities for meaningful political engagement. Helping them to grow up, in other words, educating them purposefully, as all our children should be, not in the Monomyth but in the Polymyth.
A further footnote on Abu Faraj. Like all good whimsies it turns out to be true. There really is a jihadi called Abu Faraj. This one is called Abu Faraj al-Libi, and is, we are told, a particularly nasty piece of work, captured by the CIA in 2005 and filling a bit-part in Kathryn Bigelow’s torture-porn movie Zero Dark Thirty, where he is played by the Israeli actor Yoel Levi (an irony which would no doubt please him). I’m not sure whether he favours the Happy Ending or the Exploding Sphincter etymology of his name; but in any case it is clearly important that we distinguish him carefully from Abu Faraj al-Poujadi.