Naming the enemy: Why Abbott has switched to saying ISIL

The Australian government has decided that Australian taxpayers should spend half a billion dollars per year fighting a war against someone.

Not so long ago we had a budget emergency. We were drowning in a debt and deficit disaster. The problem was so dire that it justified starving people under 30 to death. It justified gouging pensioners to see a doctor. It justified disinvesting in people with disabilities, disinvesting in universal education, hindering access to university for all but the wealthy. This talking down of the economy as though there is no relationship between confidence and economic growth justified gutting the most important 21st century infrastructure and productivity boost the country ever attempted, a national high speed broadband network. These appallingly brutal policies, which are terrible for business and consumer confidence and will have a negative multiplier effect, had to be installed because the government’s political opponents. That is the argument. Plus something about poor people and car ownership. Really. Leaving aside foreign minister Julie Bishop, who has stood loftily above mundane domestic issues like whether young people can eat, we have a room full of white men and one wannabe white man, a group whose combined education cost millions. Here is what they decided: hey we can kick the poor people yay because the Labor Party.

So we are dealing with a bunch of heartless economic illiterates for whom power is its own end. They do not want political power to run the country for all Australians, to invest in our future, or to make sensible fiscal decisions based on a coherent ideology and our shared, national future. They do not even have a coherent ideology. They did once, but it has been jettisoned. Cogency? Principles? Values? Nah, no need. This is the age of neoliberalism gone mad, a ramshackle outfit of nasty incompetent brutes who have their greedy hands on the levers of power and are determined to bring the rest of Australia across to their grim and destructive outlook. That way they are returned to power, and that is all they seek. Nothing more.

When domestic politics go wrong, as with the spectacular failure of this first Coalition budget since 2007, men in power look for a distraction and a common enemy. I would call this an old trick except it is something more serious than a trick. It is a tired unimaginative political ploy, but it is also stupidly expensive and globally destructive. The current Australian government has chosen ISIS. Or ISIL. Or is it Islamic State. Hard to know.

We could be spending half a billion dollars a year on foreign aid. Or combatting Ebola. Or re-building Gaza, a recurring, urgent need that will never go away, or not for as long as Israel refuses to get over itself. We could invest that money in education, or health, or infrastructure. We could just distribute it evenly across the Australian population and save millions in welfare compliance costs. It would pay for itself in the year, easily. But instead, the government is pouring massive amounts of our own money into scaring the shit out of us. For the same old shitty reason: to stay in power. That is it, that is all. Nothing more.

Putting to one side all the constructive efforts in foreign affairs we could be doing instead, here is the problem with naming the enemy. The enemy calls itself Islamic State. This is clever. It is brief and pithy and to the point. Islamic, and a state. No need to use the word caliphate, but a caliphate is clearly implied. It is the same with the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. Apart from colonial imperatives, which were numerous and powerful, Pakistan was created as the territory neighbouring India for people of the Muslim faith, and as such named its capital Islamabad. It is nigh on a teetering failed state, of course. No people can be at the whims and tides of colonial imperatives for centuries and then be expected to function democratically when the coloniser cuts and runs. It never works, and it will never work again in Iraq and Syria.

For a while, the news media went along with most Western leaders and called Islamic State Islamic State. There was an exception, however, and an important one. President Obama resolutely and consistently referred to ISIL. This is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Obama conspicuously did not refer to ISIS, the alternative acronym which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This week, the Australian Prime Minister finally got the memo and switched his language too. He had already committed the death and destruction machines, the money, and the human beings, to fighting this super terrible threatening horrific terrorist terrorist terrorist threat. Remember, it is a threat. No Australian has been harmed in any way. Then yesterday the Prime Minister also worked out what he was supposed to call the enemy. Well done, Tony.

Words matter. Words are powerful and influential and important. Using words in war is always as important as the killing machines. This is why we quote the ancient and modern iterations of that famous phrase ‘the first casualty of war is truth’. It goes to such truisms as ‘we have to win the battle for hearts and minds’. So naming the enemy is a pretty basic starting point for committing our country’s resources – human and capital resources – to an obviously poorly considered, expensive, unwinnable war.

Here’s the thinking behind the words, or the best explaination I can figure, which is not easy, because I don’t think the way these war-mongering idiots think.

Naming the enemy by its own preferred moniker is giving succour to the enemy. We can not call Islamic State Islamic State because we want to demonise its Islamicness but not credit it with statehood. It is a powerful armed group seizing territory by force, just like England and France and Spain and Portugal and all the other imperial powers have done in the past. But we must not allow this now because Islam. Or democracy. Or subjugation of women. Take your pick.

Or barbarian hoards at the gate. Aha. Here it is. Invoking barbarism is a typical appropriation by imperial powers, in this case of the Berber identity, dehumanising and demonising a whole group of people. The Greeks saw the Berber as ‘aliens’ or ‘foreigners’ as they came from across the Mediterranean, the sea at the middle of the territory. The Berber of the ancient world, from North Africa, or the Mughrabe, provide the linguistic origin of the imagery invoked by barbarism. Much the same was done to the Philistines by those who wanted their country and identity. The Philistines are the Palestinians, and thus it is a cinch to invoke notions that Palestinians are uncivilised in the western/Christian mind. Bethlehem and Nazareth are of course in Palestine, hence the desire of the Christian west to appropriate Palestinian identity and cast a whole people as deserving of subjugation, dehumanisation and, in the case of Western support for Israel, mass murder.

Whatever, just keep arming this side or that and profiteering from the sale of weapons and the deaths of human beings. This is obviously the work of violent and inept men in thrall to the military-industrial complex, but it is unfashionable to say so.

That little journey through geo-political history and nomenclature brings us to why Obama and now Abbott call the enemy ISIL and not ISIS today. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria presents a problem: it names Syria. The western intervention wants to stop at the imaginary line, drawn by colonial powers in the first place, between Iraq and Syria. As the enemy has so neatly captured in its name, the actual human beings who live there did not consent to this border, and it has been used ever since by powerful leaders for their own ends rather than for the good of local populations. Iraqis and Syrians have always had cross-border family and friendships and tribal connections and enmities and all the other relationships that humans create. But it suited Assad and other Syrian and Iraqi leaders before him to go along with the borders of a nation state. As Palestinians know only too well, it is nigh on impossible to function in the contemporary world without the rights and interests that are conferred with the existence of a nation state with borders. This is so for individuals and for groups, for societies and religions and polities. It is a relatively recent development, and it feeds all sorts of violence and problems and vested interests of rich and violent men. But there it is.

Australians tend to overlook the significance of borders and the colonial powers that created them at huge cost and heartbreak for local populations because our borders are so clearly delineated. As a great big island continent, we know where we are and who we are more clearly than possibly any other country. It is only when some minor short-lived clamour is raised, like that around our navy entering Indonesian waters to tow back asylum seekers – more human costs and misery – that we are reminded that we even have borders with other countries.

The point of writing Syria out of the story is that its regime has killed almost 200,000 of its own citizens in just three years. This mass slaughter, this crime against humanity, this revolting atrocity, is not apparently worthy of Western intervention. So if we name the enemy Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, we risk awkward questions about our failure to give two hoots about the lives of the Syrian people. And as the meme goes, awkward questions are awkward. So to spare the sensibilities of a gung-ho war mongering buffoon like Abbott, we don’t mention the war. Or not the Syrian civil war.

That leaves the final label, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This one is tricky. The ancient world was understood and labelled as Mesopotamia, the Levant, and the Mughrabe. Mesopotamia centred on modern day Iraq. Think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The starting point of Abraham’s journey. The Levant is further west. Think the twelve tribes of Israel. Hold that thought. And finally, the Mughrabe, the northern swathe of the African-Arab world. It stretches across much of the area where the Arab Spring, that moment of hope, originated.

Why on earth would we in the west choose this invocation of the Levant, with its anachronistic imagery and biblical overtones, to refer to our present-day enemy?

Easy. It triggers all the associated geo-political and religious imaginations, the clash of civilisations thesis. It implies that Israel is in danger, again. Israel is always in danger in its collective Israeli mind despite being the most heavily armed territory in the region, with the fourth biggest army in the world, on a permanent war footing and undisclosed numbers of nuclear warheads. Saying ISIL feeds this and other useful imagery. It implies the backwardness of those violent sectarian Arabs, always at war with each other. It erases the massive damage wreaked upon the region by the imperialist west, from colonial times to the 2003-09 carpet bombing of Iraq. It shifts responsibility from us, us who clearly have the most fire-power, global power, and capacity to harm. It simultaneously evokes biblical overtones while managing to imply that Muslims are sword-wielding primitives who nevertheless pose a grave terrible horrific terrorist terrorist terrorist threat to our way of life over here in wealthy, distant, peaceful Australia.

And remember, it is still a threat and a threat alone. No single Australian has been harmed by the enemy. Not one.

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7 thoughts on “Naming the enemy: Why Abbott has switched to saying ISIL

  1. Not harmed by the enemy. But harmed by Tony and his disciples. The harm caused to everyone by fermenting fear cannot be understated. Imagine today being a bearded or burka wearing person going about your business with your kids in Sydney or Brisbane.

  2. Sad, and oddly reassuring, that you as an Australian and I as a Merkin are on the same page on all this.

    I’m grateful for your thoughts. Please keep thinking, and writing about your thinking.

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