Notes From the Margins…

Trapped in the Gray Zone

  • March 23, 2016
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It would be good to imagine that our descendants may look back on our savage world as a bygone tragedy that has been superseded by a more enlightened era.  Perhaps  historians will draw  lessons from our collective descent into the abyss, the way we now look back at the 1930s and the rise of fascism,    because the careful study of history can always provide salutary lessons to those disposed to look for them.

They may wonder how it came to be that human beings came to believe that it was acceptable to slaughter unarmed and defenseless civilians  in Brussels, Baghdad, Paris, Ankara and so many other cities with the casual disregard of a child stepping on an ants nest.  Our descendants may notice that these actions did not take place in a vacuum.

Looking for context and motivation, they will observe that the crimes and atrocities perpetrated by Salafist/takfiri terrorists took place in a world seething with war, militarism, religious fanaticism, racism, hatred and injustice, whose leaders generally responded with indifference, incompetence or narrow self-interest.

They may trace the more perverse forms of globalisation that connected even the most seemingly distant and disparate protagonists, whether it was petty criminals turned into ‘martyrdom bombers’ in Brussels or drone operators in Nevada surveilling targets in Waziristan or Somalia.

Our happy descendants may wonder why men with kalishnikovs and suicide belts only talked about God as a justification for war and killing; why wars fought in the name of humanitarianism carved a swathe of devastation across the Middle East and North Africa; why men, women and even children fleeing these wars were regarded as dangerous intruders; why a voracious media selectively transformed certain terror-spectacles into universal events and ignored others.

In seeking to find an ‘explanation’ for yesterday’s terror-event and so many others, they may have to consider the strategic template outlined in  an article published in ISIS’s English-language magazine Dabiq in November last year, which explained that it was necessary to destroy the ‘gray zone’ inhabited by western Muslims:

The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufar [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffar without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens… Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilafah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of ‘Islam’ before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.

Our future scholars may notice that Daesh aren’t the only ones who want to destroy this ‘gray zone’.  They may notice that yesterday’s atrocities  provoked a Twitter hashtag #StopIslam;  that hatemongers across Europe blamed refugees for these attacks before any of them even had the slightest idea who actually carried them out; that Ted Cruz talked of policing Muslim communities in the United States; that Donald Trump wants a new license to waterboard and torture terrorists; that Marine le Pen called for France to shut its borders to refugees and immigrants.

Our descendants may well ask why so many people who claimed to despise Daesh/Islamic State seemed so willing to do its work for them.   They will hopefully be asking these questions about the past, not the present, because they will inhabit a very different world from ours; a world that has rediscovered true internationalism – not the truncated or fake versions propagated by humanitarian militarists and the ‘soldiers of the caliphate’; a world in which politics is no longer the degraded and horrific nightmare that it has currently become, but a shared process by which men and women of all faiths and beliefs can work towards the greater good.

In this world the murderers who we currently fear and despise would have no constituency.  Politically-convenient notions of national security would be replaced by collective security and forms of global justice that are truly borderless.  Divisive and ineffective counterterrorism programs will have been dismantled, and geopolitical resource wars will have been replaced by a common effort to protect and preserve the planet.

You might think that imagining such a future is an act of self-indulgence or a pointless distraction, especially after yesterday’s events, but  at the moment we are being herded with frightening speed towards a very different future by the murderers who carried out yesterday’s attackers.

That future has nothing to offer us but more wars and more atrocities; more wars and ‘interventions’;  more barbed-wire fences, more militarised borders, more dead refugees, and above all more hatred and persecution.

No one can say where this will lead, but we know where some people want it to lead., and you would have to really complacent to dismiss the worst-case scenarios that are beginning to loom on the horizon.

So it’s precisely now,  faced with yet another brutal injection of horror into our mournful, dysfunctional present, that we need to hold onto what is good and even noble about our species, and imagine the future once again as a place worth living in, and figure out a way for all of us to get out of the ‘gray zone’ and work towards it.


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  1. Jdc

    23rd Mar 2016 - 11:33 am

    “Despise” not “despite” presumably.

    • Matt

      23rd Mar 2016 - 11:36 am

      Corrected! Thanks.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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