Inside the head of an IS martyr

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Jake Bilardi18 year old Melburnian Jake Bilardi is a martyr for IS. Ashley Johnson, a 28-year-old Canberra postman and former Army reservist originally from Queensland, is a martyr for the Kurdish resistance to IS.

Australian 'authorities' are concerned that the language of martyrdom is being used to recruit young Australians to brutal stateless warfare. And they are probably right. Because martyrs are morally superior to suburban burnouts.

IS propagandist Abu Ismail described Bilardi as ‘a lion on the battlefield although he was at a young age and with a weak body’.

So, Bilardi was a weak young lion and therefore ripe for battle. How obscene! Propaganda is the fine art of saying what needs to be said to convince people that human life is worth nothing.

Anthropologist David Graeber describes the appeal of the military to people outside the 'cultural elite’. They 'hate the cultural elite more than they do the economic elite,' he says, 'because they see them as a group of people who have grabbed all the jobs where one gets paid to do good in the world.'

Working in the arts, or journalism, or in social justice advocacy, there is an inherent risk. These professions require sacrifices in earning capacity alongside a high degree of education and training. Expecting to succeed in such fields usually denotes a family lineage that will support such endeavours culturally and financially.

'The only way they could get paid a decent salary to do something noble,' says Graber, 'something that’s not just for the money, is to join the army. So saying “support the troops” is a way of saying “fuck you” to the cultural elite who think you’re a bunch of knuckle-dragging cavemen, but who also make sure your kid would never be able to join their club of rich do-gooders even if he or she was twice as smart as any of them.'

The problem with the appeal of the military, in these terms, is that it does not entirely explain why middle-class, educated people like Jake Bilardi would seek martyrdom through IS. Surely there is something of profound alienation, fear, victimhood, and entitlement in Bilardi’s acts. And surely this is linked with the delusions of power contemporaneously associated with martyrdom.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini is said to have dispatched five hundred thousand 'plastic keys' to young soldiers, many of them children, before sending them to the front line for slaughter, or to the hills to be tiny human mine-sweepers. The plastic keys would open the gates of heaven for these young martyrs.

I read about these keys, this cynical construction of martyrdom by the Iranian government in the desperate end of a war of attrition, when I was at university. And while there is ample evidence of human shields, many of them children, being made into 'martyrs' for their sacrifice, there is no primary evidence of the plastic keys to the spoils of paradise actually existing.

That this story – the story of plastic keys – cannot be proven, speaks to how history is used to imagine an inhuman other. The thought of sending herds of children into a battle in which they will certainly die is actually unfathomable.

The crass addition of a plastic key denotes that the families of those children, parents who tied the keys to their children’s necks before sending them off, patently ignores the fact that people are not monsters, not usually. And that what drives people to tolerate, and sometimes to perform the unthinkable, is fear.

In Women in Dark Times, Jacqueline Rose asks, 'Why do we talk of conquering fear, as if there would be no price to pay for such brutal inner defacement?' I argue that people who are seduced by the desperate, macho language of martyrdom are not fools, at least not entirely. They are, instead, driven by a desperate set of fears: fear of shame, fear of femininity, fear of nothingness, or worse, of mediocrity.

I don’t expect any propagandist to offer an honest account of what IS really strives for: the liberation of some imaginary, primordial masculinity that has never existed, that cannot ever exist, because no ideology, however violent, can contain the possibility of new ways of being. And no-one expects any militaristic organisation to articulate how it justifies disposing young male bodies: by recasting fear as power.

IS’s fascist masculinity fails to emancipate young western Muslim men from the abjection of their imagined outsider status. Because it imagines masculinity on a binary that on one hand is occidental, capitalist, liberal, and on the other oriental, communitarian, and authoritarian. There is no scope for transformation here. Only blank rejection.


Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.

 

 

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, IS, martyrdom, Jake Bilardi, Ashley Johnson, Islam

 

 

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Existing comments

It is interesting that St. Teresa of Avila, as a child, ran out into the countryside hoping to be martyred by the 'Moors' who had invaded Spain. Later she realised it is much better, and more productive, though much harder, if given the choice, to live for a good cause rather than to die for it.
Robert Liddy | 20 March 2015


I believe that the majority of Muslim scholars of standing see suicide bombing in the same light as they see suicide and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people. They would see Jake Bilardi's self-destruction as reprehensible. I believe from what I read that he was a loner and had mental health issues. That makes the actions of his shadowy online Isis/Da'esh recruiters even more culpable. "Taking the King's shilling" or joining the Foreign Legion et sim in the immature and highly impressionable could be seen in a similar light. We do need defence forces but the often sheer and unnecessary brutal training in mindless conformity enforces the misogynistic macho image, which, at its worst, can give rise to all sorts of abuse, both in the training situation and on the battlefield.
Edward Fido | 20 March 2015


while I struggle to understand the choice of these young people the inability of a 'secular' media to even be able to think inside the appeal of martyrdom speaks to a perceptual gap. I come from a christian tradition that reflected on martyrdom - though it was in non-violent resistance to the state. The other issue is a lack of awareness of history and the appeal of apocalyptic in European history - I have in mind the range of events from the Peasants war to the siege of Muntzer.
Doug | 20 March 2015


As an 18 year old fired with ideals I was clothed in a black religious cassock, took radically vowed poverty, chastity and obedience and ordained priest later never looking back. At 71, I treasure my priesthood of 40 years experience! However, youthful idealism captured not by Christ but Isis forces [add trauma of mother's cancerous death and there is a recipe for Jakes' disaster.] These days school counsellors and seasoned mentors and teachers must keep a watch for the disturbed youth, no matter how high his IQ[ Perhaps discussion classes on Middle East.Though avoiding Islamophobic racism at any price. In these troubled times youth's powered idealism needs the gentle guiding hand of well honed mature life experience-a rare commodity in unstable adolescence.
Father John George | 20 March 2015


From Islam and the Theology of Power by Khalid el Fadl, commenting on terrorists from Muslim history: "Muslim jurists reacted sharply to these groups, considering them enemies of humankind. They were designated as muharibs (literally, those who fight society). A muharib was defined as someone who attacks defenseless victims by stealth, and spreads terror in society. They were not to be given quarter or refuge by anyone or at any place. In fact, Muslim jurists argued that any Muslim or non-Muslim territory sheltering such a group is hostile territory that may be attacked by the mainstream Islamic forces. Although the classical jurists agreed on the definition of a muharib, they disagreed about which types of criminal acts should be considered crimes of terror. Many jurists classified rape, armed robbery, assassinations, arson and murder by poisoning as crimes of terror and argued that such crimes must be punished vigorously regardless of the motivations of the criminal. Most importantly, these doctrines were asserted as religious imperatives. Regardless of the desired goals or ideological justifications, the terrorizing of the defenseless was recognized as a moral wrong and an offense against society and God. Significantly, the juristic class engaged as a rule in discussion and debate. On each point of law, there are ten different opinions and a considerable amount of debate among the various legal schools of thought. Various puritan theological movements in Islamic history resolutely rejected this juristic tradition, which reveled in indeterminacy. The hallmark of these puritan movements was an intolerant theology displaying extreme hostility not only to non-Muslims but also to Muslims who belonged to different schools of thought or even remained neutral. These movements considered opponents and indifferent Muslims to have exited the fold of Islam, and therefore legitimate targets of violence. These groups' preferred methods of violence were stealth attacks and the dissemination of terror in the general population. Muslim jurists reacted sharply to these groups, considering them enemies of humankind. They were designated as muharibs (literally, those who fight society). A muharib was defined as someone who attacks defenseless victims by stealth, and spreads terror in society. They were not to be given quarter or refuge by anyone or at any place. In fact, Muslim jurists argued that any Muslim or non-Muslim territory sheltering such a group is hostile territory that may be attacked by the mainstream Islamic forces. Although the classical jurists agreed on the definition of a muharib, they disagreed about which types of criminal acts should be considered crimes of terror. Many jurists classified rape, armed robbery, assassinations, arson and murder by poisoning as crimes of terror and argued that such crimes must be punished vigorously regardless of the motivations of the criminal. Most importantly, these doctrines were asserted as religious imperatives. Regardless of the desired goals or ideological justifications, the terrorizing of the defenseless was recognized as a moral wrong and an offense against society and God."
Bilal | 20 March 2015


The theme of proving yourself a real man and thereby redeeming yourself in some far distant place is a theme which runs through much of literature such as P C Wren's books. They were, basically, escapist nonsense. Sadly, for Jake Bilardi and Ashley Johnson this siren song proved fatal. Although Johnson died fighting for a supposedly better cause than Isis I regret he did. Fostering someone's death wish through enticement on the web is to me quite an evil thing to do. Can we not give such young men something worth living for in this country? There is, I fear, no "one size fits all" answer to this.
Edward Fido | 20 March 2015


I can't help thinking of all those bright young country boys who volunteered to fight in World War 1. They were impatient for the excitement of life to began and headed off on an adventure for which they were completely unprepared. I suspect many of these young people have much in common with those young men. Thank God my wise grandmother refused to sign the papers for my father.
Margaret McDonald | 20 March 2015


I should add the PS that no disrespect of those men and women who go out and fight our wars for us. To them we owe many of those things we value today and our prayer should be with them even if we don't agree with their being sent to war.
Margaret McDonald | 20 March 2015


Muslims were dealt 3 blows in history, one of their own making.
Initially Jews, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together as "Children of the Book" as Muslims populated the Middle East and built up an enlightened Empire.. Then 'Christians' launched the Crusades, souring relationships. Later Muslims reacted to Scientific discoveries which undermined traditional beliefs, and the Sunna reacted just as the Christians had earlier, by abandoning Science, to preserve their outdated beliefs. Finally the Muslims had the misfortune to be sitting on major oil reserves, just as the West was discovering the value of oil, and took steps to control it as much as possible. The dashed dreams of Muslims led them to frustration and efforts to recover at least heavenly glory, at whatever cost.
Robert Liddy | 20 March 2015


It is interesting to me that the three most insightful items on this thread relevant to the question "Why do young men in our society like Jake Bilardi succumb to Isis' siren song of death?" are all by women: Ellena, who wrote the original piece; Jacqueline Rose quoted by Ellena therein and Margaret McDonald. That tells me something.
Edward Fido | 22 March 2015


Very interesting article. I feel that many of the same arguments can be made for those who perpetrate mass shootings in the US. If not mentally insane, the shooters are depressed, lonely individuals who are already planning to take their own lives in many cases. They know that their names will appear in the news and everyone in the world will know their names, so they go into schools or public places to kill innocent people because somehow, that is better than dying without anyone knowing their name. It's a horrible tragedy, just as the case is with Jake Bilardi. Much can be done about it, but it seems that far too often, when the problem is discovered by the person's family and friends, it is too late.
Amy Clarke | 22 March 2015


News reports about Jake Bilardi show an I-phone clip of him being bullied at school. And ISIS describes him as having “a weak body” in its nauseatingly serpentine homage to his martyrdom. One wonders how many other youthful ISIS recruits have been made to feel equally weak and powerless at school and by their peers. This and perhaps not having much success with girls would generate very powerful urges in them to appear strong and powerful. Along comes a cause that promises them that. Waving guns around and killing people, or at least terrifying them, is very primal exercise of power. But when they reach the war zone ISIS cons them into thinking that they can make a greater contribution to the cause by being suicide bombers - after ISIS perceives them to not be of much use on the battlefield. They can instead shed their weak and contemptible self in a glorious act of martyrdom for noble cause – the creation of a world caliphate. And when they enter paradise there will be all those spunky young virgins waiting to service them. Until now most theories to explain ISIS’s appeal to young men focus on social and economic marginalization. But the sense of powerlessness that comes from lack of education, unemployment or only having low-status jobs would not apply to all youths drawn to ISIS. Others such as Bilardi were quite successful at school but clearly still felt a deep sense of inadequacy. It would explain why at least some academically bright youths from middle-class backgrounds join ISIS. It’s not always social marginalization but a more primal need to prove they are men that drove them to ISIS. Similar feelings seem to have motivated mass murderers in the US, including the Columbine killers of 1999. They too had been bullied by the “jocks” at their school and clearly felt inadequate. And on finishing their murderous rampage they too killed themselves, just like ISIS has got such misguided youths as Bilardi to do. But unlike Bilardi etc they did not require a murderous twisted religious dogma to justify their actions. Perhaps though in 2015 they would have joined ISIS.
Dennis | 23 March 2015


Another female commentator, Amy Clarke, has also confirmed my feeling that it is the women here who really get why young Western males from a convert background succumb to Isis' (to them) dreadfully enchanting, irresistible siren's song which mixes the theme of macho, self-destructive male glory with an underlying death wish. "Blow yourself to Heaven" is not a song to be commended. I would rate it Zero. Dennis, I think, is beginning to come to the sort of insight which all we Australian males need to come to so that we might be able to do something useful about this. I find this phenomenon horrifying.
Edward Fido | 23 March 2015


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