As I was rushing from one meeting to another this past Wednesday, my distressed office neighbor and good friend, Robin Wagner Pacifici, told me about the latest senseless mass murder in the U.S., the San Bernardino massacre. I responded with a tasteless joke, asking whether the terrorist again was a white male Christian “terrorist,” the usual profile of this all too usual type of event in America. The joke fell flat, and it turns out that this latest development was more eventful than I expected. To be honest, it was more eventful than I had hoped. This time, The New York Times reports today, it was “Do It Yourself Terrorism,” a long feared development of Homeland Security professionals.
A restless event is in the making, as Robin would put it. Not just your usual mass murder, but a new development of historic importance, a real case of self radicalized, homegrown Islamic terror. Mass shootings by racists and anti abortion fundamentalists are calmly accepted as inevitable. Extending a conservative tradition, it is assumed that not only the poor, but also the deranged will always be with us. But radical Islam is something else. Its them or us, a black and white issue if there ever was one. A clear line in the sand must be drawn. A clear and sustained counter terrorism must be developed. Thus right wing pundits, along with Republican candidates for President, are demanding resolute action, and Democrats are responding, as are the media and government agencies. The President of the United States will address the nation from the Oval Office tonight.
If we pay attention to what the arch-terrorist, Osama Bin Laden said, and what ISIS publishes, it is pretty clear that this is exactly wrong.
“The Grey Zone, a 10-page editorial in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil, the caliphate and the infidel, which the “blessed operations of September 11” brought into relief. Quoting Bin Laden it said: “The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’, with the actual ‘terrorist’ being the western crusaders.” Now, it said, “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone”.
This, from an article in The Guardian arguing that the truth about ISIS has ominous meaning, going way beyond “mindless terrorism.” Iddo Tavory, my co-author on the topic of the social condition brought my attention to the piece. It highlights the relationship between our joint project and the relevance of the gray in the aftermath of the global escalation of the Islamic State’s terrorism.
There are tensions knitted into social life, posing dilemmas for social action. Asserting that these have clear and easy, black or white answers, whether they are leftist or rightist, based on a glorified account of tradition or revolution, Zionist or anti-Zionist, or terrorist or anti-terrorist, is dangerous. This is both the basis of my appreciation of the gray and Bin Laden’s and the ISIS war against it.
At Public Seminar, I once asserted, to the dismay of some of my colleagues that Hamas and Netanyahu were collaborators. Bin Laden confirms my assertion; his quote reveals his awareness that he and George W. Bush had a similar relationship. And crucially, he understood that the gray was his most direct enemy, not the bellicose anti-terrorists, from Bush, to Trump et al.
It is tempting to despair. I have to fight against this. I desperately seek a ray of hope, and I see it in those who appreciate the beauty of the gray, against Bin Laden and ISIS, as the gray represents for me hybridity, plurality, the complications of living a decent life in a world of heterogeneity. The world beyond true belief and ideological certainty, whether it comes from religious faith (dominant these days) or ideological scientism (the problem of the 20th Century and still a problem in the academic left), is gray. Appreciating its beauty, and fighting for it, is not as easy or as pedestrian as it seems, revealed by the “events” of this week.