In the Critics this week

Žižek on Batman, Leo Robson on McEwan and Tracey Thorn on the novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Revolt, violence and class struggle are the themes jostling to the fore of this week’s Critics pages, most explicitly in Slavoj Žižek's essay on Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise.

Žižek writes that “The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies.” “The trilogy of Batman films follows an internal logic … they show in short, how our civilisation has to be grounded in a lie – one has to break the rules in order to defend the system.” Its villain, Bane "reveals himself, as the critic Tyler O’Neil has put it, to be 'the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99 per cent to band together and over-throw societal elites’.” Yet “the occupy Wall street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent… the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies.” Just as telling is Žižek's examination of Batman’s wealth, “arms dealer and speculator – this is the secret beneath the batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian theme of a good capitalist who finances orphanages (Wayne) versus a bad, greedy capitalist.” Yet for “all the characters, Batman included, morality is relativised and becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances. It’s open class warfare – everything is permitted in defence of the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters, but with popular uprising.”

One imagines that among the 1 per cent cheering into their gold-dusted popcorn at The Dark Knight Rises are those described in Tim Burt's book, Dark Art: The Changing Face of Public Relations, which the NS's reviewer Elaine Glaser believes to be “revealing – perhaps unintentionally so – about how corporate ‘leaders’ and bankers really think.” “Burt’s despatches from the world of corporate self-justification show how precarious our poor, put-upon multi-millionare chief executives feel themselves to be.” Their answer? PR, which "treats" us to “better performances of corporate probity while the reality occurs someone else.” “While business and finance may feel under attack from public opinion and a hostile media, those institutions wield more power than ever. And if big money continues to hire clever people such as Burt, malpractise and corruption won’t even see the light of day.”

Though the messages of PR and The Dark Knight Rises may be pure fantasy, Harriet Sergeant’s book Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang examines a demographic that really did explode into violent rioting last summer. Alan White says of it: “read this book and the events of August 2011 make a whole lot more sense,” and though “not revelatory, this is still a magnificent book.” Yet the picture painted bears no resemblance to the dark masses of Batman. “Harriet Sergeant… who does most of her writing for the Daily Mail… was never going to convince us that three years she spent in the company of a south London gang was a daring foray into a hard-to-reach societal fringe. She’s just a concerned mother who befriends some very troubled young men and tries to help them.” The result is “a tale that will provoke harrumphing from both sides of the political spectrum.” “How the right will wail as she increasingly sympathises with the gang, begins to conclude that there is no option for them other than commit crime to survive." "But how the left will gripe when they see, time and again, examples of how their values have let these children down.”

Another tale of politicised violence is the IRA thriller Shadow Dancer. Ryan Gibley notes that “surprises that could have been cataclysmic tend to register here as muted tremors, which is not to say the movie isn’t powerful – only that Marsh is unfashionably interested in aftershock, rather than explosion.” As “a film that insists its characters are unknowable is in danger of relegating them to enigmatic specks in the distance but Shadow Dancer gets the balance about right, maintaining the urgency of [IRA agent] Collette’s predicament without explaining or sanitising her.” This subtlety carries through to the film’s exposition and characterisation, with “pregnant glances filling in for pages of dialogue.”

A quiet tale of conflict and espionage also forms the setting of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which follows the story of a young woman who works as a spy during the Cold War. Like much of McEwan’s recent work, Leo Robson finds that it “rewards rereading, but not reading” as “a triumph of the most negative kind, a novel  that turns out to have been tiresome for a good reason.” “Ample precedent has taught the reader not to trust McEwan’s books any further than one can throw them (the thicker ones tend to be sneakier). His every sentences seem capable of slipping its skin to expose another.” It also “follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic” and his trademark “belief in the indispensability of solid, not to say exhaustive, scene-setting.” “It is knowing without being exactly postmodern. Another way of describing it is that McEwan is trying to resolve the conflict between humanism and postmodernism.”

Amongst these stories of earth shaking conflict and social upheaval, Tracey Thorn’s eulogy to the shy and underrated writer Elizabeth Taylor is a welcome respite. She notes that, “as in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation.” “This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtly, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise.” “She finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.”

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era