Notes From the Margins…

ISIS, Trolls, and the Language of Hate

  • January 02, 2017
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In a powerful New Year’s video for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Kemal Pervanic, a Bosnian Muslim,  remembers how he ended up being interrogated and tortured in a concentration camp by his favourite teacher during the Yugoslav Wars.   Pervanic asks his viewers to learn the lessons of history, and bear in mind the possibility that such things are not unique to any particular time period:

If you speak to anyone out there right now, they’ll tell you that they’re crazy if you tell them that something like that may happen. But now after I lived through such events, I know that it can happen to anyone.

It certainly can, especially when the hateful thoughts and fantasies that people carry around in their heads individually are weaponised or become social currency.  Take the New Year’s message from ISIS claiming responsibility for the atrocious Reina nightclub massacre in Istanbul:

In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.

In some translations, ‘apostate holiday’ has been translated as ‘pagan feast’, but it doesn’t actually matter much because these are words that debase those who utter them, and which debase the name of humanity itself.

Morally-speaking this statement is on the same level of gibberish as a quote from Hannibal Lector. No one ‘blessed’ the mass murder of random 39 nightclubbers and a man who would do such a thing is no more of a ‘hero’ than the childkiller John Wayne  Gacy.

A man who has abandoned religious and secular traditions of mercy accumulated over centuries of war and conflict can never be a hero.  A nightclub is not an ‘apostate holiday’ or a ‘ pagan feast’ and no one has the ‘right’ to kill people who frequent such places.

This should be obvious, even to ISIS.  Because Daesh is not mad.  There is always a strategic purpose behind its rantings and its most vile acts.  Erdogan is probably right that ISIS wants to destabilise Turkey and demonstrate to the Turkish people that the state that is now making war on ISIS in Syria can no longer protect its own citizens within their own borders.

So on one level the act and the justifying statement is a demonstration of power.  But the ISIS message is also an expression of maledicta – words of hate – intended to render entire categories of people worthy of extermination.

It belongs to the same tradition that led Spanish clerics to describe seventeenth century Moriscos as vermin, and Hutu radio stations in Rwanda to denounce Tutsi ‘cockroaches.’

Such language is not limited to any particular ‘side’ in the 21st century’s media-drenched conflicts.  Consider these responses to a Channel 4 News report on refugees forced to sleeping in a Croatian cemetery near the Serbian border:

Hey rag head, no we hate Muslims they are cockroach’s (sic). They are evil vile and are the spawn of Satan himself. There will be no peace on earth till these savages are exterminated, just like a cockroach

Animals !! Burn theme (sic) alive , look in the eyes of this people , they animals (sic)

Some of those who posted these comments are Serbs, but others have joined from the English-speaking world:

No respect for the dead even less for the living Muslim scum

Men men Mrs Isis terrorists coming to rape the women of Europe

Disrespectful Muslim zombies

The massacres carried out by ISIS over the last two years are partly intended to incite exactly this kind of response.  ISIS regards Muslims who live in Europe and America as passive inhabitants of ‘the grey zone’.  It dreams of a civilisational conflict that will force Muslims to abandon these territories and come running to the Caliphate,  and many Muslim-haters are only too willing to oblige them.

We use the word ‘trolls’ to describe the men and women who make below-the-line comments like the ones I’ve quoted, and there are many more where they came from, and in the last few years they have also been appearing above the line.  One of them has just been elected president of the United States.  Another has just been awarded a $250,000 book contract by Simon & Schuster.

Over here we have Katie Hopkins, who calls refugees ‘cockroaches’ in a national newspaper, and has now retweeted  a neo-Nazi Twitter account  in support of her claim that she is not ‘racist’.   Hopkins has said ‘ I genuinely believe “racist” as a word has been used so much.  I’m sorry for the word racist in a way. I love language.

Nothing in Hopkins’ self-aggrandizing trolling suggests that she loves language or anything at all.

She would be just one more of the sick jokes that the 21st century keeps playing on us, were it not for the fact that she echoes in a marginally more acceptable form what trolls below the line are also saying.

That is why the mainstream media has fallen over itself to court her, not because she has anything coherent, intelligent or thoughtful to say, but because nowadays it seems to matter less and less what people actually say as long as their pronouncements attracts enough clicks or produce a minute or two of ‘good television’.

Hopkins might think that she is ‘standing up to Islam’, but people like her are the gift to ISIS that keeps on giving, and so are the hatemongers foaming over their keyboards about Muslim invasions and ‘rapefugees.’

Perhaps the single most important lesson that we can draw from history is that very few people listen to the lessons of history.

And now, in 2017, it’s incumbent upon all of us, whatever background we come from to reach back into our best traditions, and marginalise the murderers, the trolls and the haters.

Because if we don’t do this, we will never get out of the mess we’re in, and we will be laying the foundations for a future of endless war and endless violence that will make any kind of coexistence impossible.



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  1. mark

    3rd Jan 2017 - 7:52 am

    perhaps Bob Dylans With God On Our Side needs updating and re-releasing.

  2. Paul Seligman

    3rd Jan 2017 - 9:55 am

    Only this morning, I watched a video on YouTube about a lion trying to kill a zebra, which escaped. Amazingly the comments were full of hate for lions, expressed in the most extreme and vile language, none of it apparently ironic. It is worse when this is directed at other people but I think the connection is that expressing hate for anything you don’t understand seems to be such a popular pastime for millions right now.

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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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