I AM a horror film connoisseur. Monsters and murders speak to my understanding of the human condition. The macabre and the moribund reflect my interest in extremes. Even torture inspires me, not as a pastime (Hostel) or a punishment (Se7en), but through and beyond these and other nightmares as an analogy for mortality, for the limit both of life and of meaning.
That is why I sat through A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross with bated breath:
A quiet shore somewhere on the North African coast. A group of men are being marched to the edge of the lapping water by figures of such stature they make them look like dwarfs. As it advances the checkered line appears and disappears in flashes, cutting through a scenic frame of the sea. Their hands tied behind their backs, the condemned are orange-clad, Guantanamo-style, while the masked giants towering above them are all in black except for the one in the middle, also masked. He is the Chorus in this weird travesty of Sophocles.
Wearing a camo jacket and pointing with the tip of his knife to Rome across the blue-gray expanse — where he promises “the Crusaders” an Islamic conquest — he speaks in indeterminately accented English, his tone more smug than defiant, self-consciously performing a role. By the time he falls silent the camera has returned to the hobbits waiting on their knees, Balrogs behind them, knife handles showing in the folds of black robes. As the black-clad figures unsheathe their knives, the sound of the surf fades into an Islamist war chant.
Already, on my laptop screen, A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross — the five-minute documentary filmed, as it turns out, in Sirte — is climaxing with graphic carnage, the first spurt of blood fast-forwarded to the severed skull placed over the back, face superimposed on lifeless face, trunk after trunk flopping headless into the sand. For the final wind down, an image of the waves Photoshopped pink illustrates the gist of the whole communication: “And the sea you’ve hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”
I watched with bated breath, a Muslim-born Egyptian thinking about life’s meaning.
I noted that the video is so cinematic it comes across as make-believe. I noted that the Copts were historically against the Crusades. I noted that the ISIS fighters in the film are too herculean to be Middle Eastern, that their victims are the blue-collar breadwinners of indigent families in underdeveloped provinces of my country, guilty of nothing more than the religion of their birth. I noted that they ended up dying where they had gone to — economically — survive.
I wonder how long it would actually take to completely sever a human head using nothing but two hands and a knife. I wonder what it would sound like: the metal parting flesh, filaments snapping, bones filed through until broken, plasma gurgling out. I wonder about the smell.
Once it was over, A Message Signed with Blood felt like one more artifact in horror’s repository of “extreme metaphors waiting to be born” (as J. G. Ballard called his obsessions). Beyond the peekaboo factor, the erotic otherness of vampires, or the absolute dumbness of zombies, there is the weight of time in confinement, metal, and brimstone — life beyond the grave, slimy and six-legged nauseas, the real business of dentists, gore. Now there is also medieval mass execution sur la plage — with real human sacrifice for an authentic viewing experience.
In every blockbuster the impulse is always the same: to affirm the normal, familiar, beneficent self against an other that is alien, supernatural, and wicked. Horror films are less duplicitous because they don’t pretend to be doing otherwise. Unlike the action thriller, for example, they grant that this other is unbeatable. By the time the credits roll the monster will have been stopped, the next murder avoided. But some surprise ending will always remind us that this is only for now. Good’s match with evil is never won. By acknowledging the perpetuity of the fight having embodied evil exactly as good fears it, horror suggests that evil is nothing but the fear.
In this way it seems to admit that, rather than a truly external or unknowable encroachment, evil is an aspect of the good that purports to suffer it. Anagnorisis. Evil is a function, an instrument of good — part of the orchestra that, all along, good has been conducting — except that, in the pithy, economical framework of A Message Signed with Blood, good doesn’t get a chance to fight.
While the tale Hollywood tells is a fiction, this doesn’t stop the media from telling the same tale. But the media imparts knowledge of reality, of the world as it is assumed to be. Could it be that we live in a continuous box office hit in which our roles are preordained? Could it be that our fortunes — our salvation — depend on how convincingly we perform the script? What is indubitable is that it is always the same script: the story of some foreign, ruthless identity threatening the native, capitalist free world.
Thou shalt not impinge upon this global grossing hit, O art house cinema!
Where they exist, the media’s equivalent of indie movies testifying to complexity or individuality within the feared identity are not lucrative enough to be seen — with the result that, in 2015, to follow the news is to think the Enlightenment has barely touched the edicts of race, sect, and tribe. Morals are not individual responses to the necessity of compassion and purpose. They are whatever arbitrary commandments identity dictates, and whoever’s identity is other has no choice but to be the bad guy.
I am thinking about the plot twist in this story. It happens when you realize that, to stop fearing what you are not, you have to question what you are. But, for the archangels that judge your loyalty to religion or country, questioning who you are is a sin worthy of hell. I am thinking about the story of contemporary world affairs that the media tells, about ISIS retelling X-rated versions of that story.
I’ve been thinking about ISIS since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, declared himself caliph last June. By pledging allegiance to him, any armed militia anywhere — most recently Boko Haram in Nigeria — can become part of the organization. But with (often sectarian) civil wars raging on in the areas where this happens, anyone at all can film themselves committing an atrocity, then claim they were enacting part of ISIS’s grand plan of world dominion.
Given such fluid boundaries between fact, fiction, and role-playing, what could be the meaning of the latter-day caliphate?
¤ Is it that Islam is challenging a Western-dominated world order that has been unjust to Muslims?
Beyond a one-off outrage like Charlie Hebdo, “radical Islam” is hardly on course to conquering the West. Nor, by killing mostly Muslims and Muslim-like Arabs, is ISIS righting any historical wrongs. Like al-Qaeda before it, it is rather justifying the persecution of Muslims and reducing the scope in which they can be seen as agents of contemporary civilization.
¤ Or, that there now exists a place where Muslims — disinherited and oppressed in their own countries, unwanted in the West — can go to live in comfort and safety, where they can expect preferential treatment in the context of a modern state, comparable to Israel for the Jews?
ISIS is neither a country nor an army capable of defending a country. It exists solely in the lawless hinterlands of already failed states, and people who join it have to be both sectarian fanatics amenable to all kinds of medieval barbarism and suicidal desperados willing to live in perpetual hiding until they are killed on the battlefield.
¤ That a collective expression of Muslim identity is being formulated, drawing on the caliphates of times past?
Under ISIS, Islam is not the inclusive, Enlightenment-friendly civilization it once was or might have been. It is not even a religion or a culture, in the sense of a hereditary identity that, at best, equips people to contribute to the human community of knowledge or ethics or material wealth, and at worst, gives them a chip on their shoulders. It is rather a cultish martial code, neither sustainable in the face of the universal abhorrence it prompts, nor compatible with contemporary modes of existence.
¤ Is it that the media’s Hollywoodified tropes of Muslim discontent with the West and of Western fear of Islam are crystallizing into the ultimate audiovisual product?
Perhaps, because all we know for sure of ISIS’s existence is that someone is making films in which anonymous performers use innocent, uninvolved people to act out in reality the horrific fantasies to which the post-9/11 imagination has tended to reduce Islam.
In the multi-genre ubermovie of which the Arab Spring’s aftermath is part, Islam has played the role of scary other, not as a historical-cultural identity, but as a fundamentalist political project whose ultimate aim is the caliphate — precisely what ISIS wants us to believe it is. Whether its icon is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, such an “Islamism” is driven by the same, narrow expression of historically wounded pride. Taking the triumphant past as its starting point, it can only be a hopeless or pretend attempt to enforce theocracy on the modern state.
When they are not blowing up tourists or army conscripts, the Islamists appeal to sectarian sentiment and discontent with military power to win votes. They use Wahhabi oil money to not only buy votes but also businesses, official positions, properties. And wherever they take control, they replace indigenous and modern culture with Allah-said-the-Messenger-said ordinances and Arabian anachronisms.
Through it all they talk about resistance and renaissance, and to do so they have their own media machine (a.k.a. Al Jazeera) — striking how similar al-Hayat Media Center’s logo is to Al Jazeera’s — which tells the same genre-movie story but with the roles reversed, though in the end reversal is not what happens.
The free world is labeled an adversary of Islamism, but what Islamism is actually in conflict with turns out to be the relatively secular regimes — because they are often military-based and undemocratic, but also because the narratives they propose for the Arab-Muslim world are irreconcilable with the Western version of reality — of which the free world is eager to rid itself.
This form of Islamism stands opposed not simply to the colonial infidel or “the Western conspiracy,” after all. It is opposed to anyone, whether they be Muslim or not, who rejects politicizing religion or discredits the Wahhabi doctrine within the Muslim world. It embraces the cultish essentialization of identity, and lives out a fictional representation of Islam in deference to a Hollywoodified world.
In Egypt, sectarian sentiment has been temporarily on hold since the A Message Signed with Blood video prompted air strikes in Libya. But its doppelgänger — militarized jingoism — is taking up every last inch of space “revolution” might have opened up to civil rights since the former president Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011 promised a “second republic.”
In the West, people complain about Islamic terrorism, but they complain about the extrajudicial measures associated with controlling it in the same breath. No one is seriously confronting the dismal failure of the Arab Spring as a democratic experiment, or what that failure implies for the way the world works.
In the global media, ongoing social-political disintegration across the Arab world is translating as a self-made audiovisual caricature of Sunni dominion.
I am a horror film connoisseur, so I watch with bated breath. And I note that, in every horror film, the abrupt and abhorrent cutting short of the vital spirit is also a cutting short of the sense we make of the world. I am thinking this is not simply a matter of Old Testament morality making no concession to reason (as in all of Hollywood). I am thinking it is something worse.
There is a hypothetical point beyond words when, walking past a police station in Cairo by coincidence, you happen to be steps away from an improvised explosive contraption as it goes off. The blast unhinges the gate, which collapses, knocking out two of the three guards stationed below and breaking the leg of the third. As it detonates, what in the Egyptian-press parlance is called a primitive bomb also kills some random pedestrian and their baby — collateral damage. It all happens in front of you: the flying debris, the traffic standstill, the sirens, the shredded body parts, the disconsolate shrieks.
Hours or days later, browsing social media networks, you come across some untraceable “resistance” or “anti-coup” group taking credit for the incident. It describes what you witnessed as a drop in the ocean of victory. It describes it as a crack in the tyrant’s idol, a blow to universal inequity, an augury of renaissance. On the same timelines you also see news of Islamists and activists investigated or arrested. You know they are being tortured (possibly to death) as you scroll.
There is a point beyond words where the causal chains are crystal clear but nothing makes any sense at all. Terrorism spawns abuse spawns terrorism ad nauseam — and the only identity that has been affirmed is the third world identity of backwardness. In the meantime people suffer. They are innocent people, mostly, well meaning and uninvolved. But their suffering is what makes the film worth watching. Much like the artifacts of the horror genre of which I am a connoisseur, their suffering is a metaphor for something.
The real questions that Muslim societies are struggling with — questions of secularism, women’s empowerment, population control, economic efficiency, and political participation — do not lend themselves to short, absurd horror films. I have seen and cringed at the horror. I have seen not the fact of Islam killing Christians, but the fiction of a bloodthirsty caliphate politically or militarily contending with the Western-dominated world order.
Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian writer and photographer, and the author of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal and The Crocodiles.