Monday, 15 December 2014

Man Haron Monis: It's Not About Islam

What a sad end to the Sydney cafe siege. The gunman, one Man Haron Monis lies dead, but not before he murdered two others. Thankfully, incidents like this are quite rare in Western societies and when hostage taking does happen, it tends to either be a spur of the moment thing in the commission of a crime or an awful episode in a pattern of dysfunctional family relationships. When people are held to highlight a cause or make political points then it tends to get written off - as this is already being - as the work of a lone oddball. To explain the motives of someone like Monis, one need not be concerned beyond the peculiarities of his own personality. He's one in a million, a fluke, a statistical anomaly. Folks need not lose any sleep.

Really? Human beings are social creatures. More than that, from even before our births and regardless of culture, we are constituted by and through social relations. We might make our history, albeit not under circumstances of our choosing, but more deeply what we build of ourselves is a process of working on social stuff assembled by countless interactions. We are legion, for we are many. For that reason, given the irreducibly social (and sociable) character of our being, I am unwilling to accept that people just "flip out" and commit extreme crimes for no reason. People choose to do these things, and choice never occurs in a vacuum.

Going by material available on Monis, here was someone determined to court notoriety and assert himself against the world. Following a protracted trial, he was convicted and sentenced to community service for sending "offensive letters" to the widows of Australian service personnel killed in Afghanistan. Like many cyber jihadis, he used social media to disseminate Islamist propaganda and post up shock images of dead children. He also styled himself as a cleric, albeit seemingly without any tie to an established mosque. In his life before declaring himself Muslim, he was a self-styled spiritualist guru with expert knowledge of all-things hocus pocus. From this period dates 47 outstanding charges of sexual assault and impropriety, allegations Monis maintained were proof of the state's campaign to discredit and defame him. Likewise the allegations facing his about his involvement in the murder of his former wife.

There are interesting continuities between him, rampage murderers, and pathological Narcissism. First things first, in unpeeling Monis one needs to look beyond the imam's garb, his professed conversion from Shia to Sunni Islam, and indeed Islam itself. The hostage-taking was not about being a Muslim, nor even ISIS. They are but foils for the real star of the show: him. Consider the evidence: the cloyingly desperate attempt to make like an Australian Anjem Choudary, albeit more extreme and tasteless. The framing of impending criminal cases as political persecution and comparing himself with that other self-styled fugitive from justice, Julian Assange. The assumption of a clerical persona can be read as him conferring some kind of Islamic authority upon himself, and the latter - unasked for - association with ISIS another wheeze to accumulate look-at-me points.

There are some parallels between Monis and the narcissism of the disgraced child abusing rock star, Ian Watkins. Revealed telephone recordings in court showed the latter to be an amoral thrill-seeker almost devoid of internal life save the desire to repeatedly break every sexual taboo. The public persona fronting a relatively successful rock outfit fed an increasingly reckless and criminal private life in which people and children were foils for his perverted appetite. His celebrity status established him. The narcissism was exercised in his crimes. With Monis, the situation was different. He had no celebrity. He was a nobody who wanted to be a somebody, and it did not matter what the content of his fame was. His self was his political (and religious) object, and he set about a journey into notoriety with a sense of its inflated importance as the destination. Grief, shock, ridiculous claims, and finally a protracted siege were moments of his passage through life.

To go from no one to someone in this manner, doing anything and everything to get noticed means matters can quickly run away with themselves. Looking at shooting sprees, a core motivational component is asserting one's self against an indifferent, if not conspiratorial world, by commanding a situation. Too often rampage shooters in America especially plan their killings in advance, leave pre-recorded messages and/or rambling justifications, and commit suicide at the end - either by cop or turning their gun on themselves. From start to finish, the perpetrator is in control. The question of life and death is theirs to determine. The spree begins and ends at the killer's discretion. Monis's seizure of the Lindt Cafe took place in a context where his "celebrity", such as it was, was careening out of control. The sex assault and accessory to murder charges would, in all likelihood, have placed him behind bars. Criminal notoriety is but a fleeting form of fame, unless one is a prolific serial murderer. Taking hostages and flashing a few flags similar to the sort sported by ISIS allowed him, in his mind, to impose his desired narrative on the situation. Challenging Tony Abbott to a live debate and asking for more ISIS paraphernalia to be delivered to the cafe was a desperate go at rewriting his script. Had he survived, the outstanding charges could again be threaded into a narrative of persecution. Perhaps his "heroic" example would have attracted the attention of admirers and maybe a nod from actual jihadis themselves. From prison he could have played the Islamist/terrorist prisoner, as a dangerous somebody official society fears, and crucially an authority for those inspired by the death-laden vision of ISIS and friends. But he has not. The murder of two of his captives however ensures he lives on as a self-styled martyr and a case who will be picked over first by the media, and then as twilight as a case study for academics. As the life ebbed out of him, I have no doubt he felt gratified.

Monis is a product of the pathologically narcissistic end of our cultural spectrum. His bedfellows are Anders Breivik, Elliot Rodger, and pretty much every lone gunman-type you can mention. He wasn't forced to take hostages and commit murder. But his actions are consistent with a trajectory he had been pursuing, a trajectory craving recognition and standing. Man Haron Monis is not an outcome of a terrorist/Islamist subculture. He's a culmination of ours.


Anonymous said...

"his professed conversion from Sunni to Shia Islam' actually it was the other way around. Which kindof makes me wonder how thorough your inquiry into his background was. I'll let it slip. You can obviously write a sentence or two. He probably did suffer from a very desperate, low-rent subset of Narcissim, amongst other pathologies. Though i can't help wondering if i read a bundle of your posts you would attribute most of our modern wretchedness to that condition.

Anon said...

I look forward to your deep psychological/sociological study of why British or US troops commit heinous acts. Or is Stalin’s old adage that one death is a tragedy while a million are a statistic true?

I simply view this as blowback for the crimes committed by the West. You have to say, given what we have done to the Middle East, they are remarkably tolerant of Westerners. ISIS seems like an appropriate response to the crimes of the West, but they are a minority. You have to conclude this is about Islam and Islam creates remarkably tolerant people.

I mean when look at the injury and injustice suffered by the people of the Middle East and then look at the injury suffered by the USA, you have to say the US reaction was far more extreme. Even Germany needed 20 million dead in a war, hyperinflation and a ruinous treaty to go crazy. The US doesn’t need much to set them off.

Maybe someone could do a study about this? Meanwhile give us the study that explains why there are not more of these incidents, rather than pathologising about the ‘enemy’.

asquith said...

And I'm sure be sure he wasted no time in polishing off the shop's stock! One perk of the lifestyle.

Now Stalin's bank heists, THAT was a crime done in the aid of an evil ideology! This is just the act of a publicity-seeking tit.

pinkie said...

"I simply view this as blowback for the crimes committed by the West. You have to say, given what we have done to the Middle East, they are remarkably tolerant of Westerners. ISIS seems like an appropriate response to the crimes of the West, but they are a minority. You have to conclude this is about Islam and Islam creates remarkably tolerant people."

I really don't know what to say to that. It seems to deny moral responsibility. ISIS are slaughtering people for ignorant reasons. I don't think they are on my side.

asquith said...

I missed that anon comment. What a piece of work. You want me to believe that slaughtered Christians (none of whom have the faintest connection to the west: Christianity is actually an eastern religion by origin and they've lived peacefully for centuries), Yezidi (likewise) and anyone being deemed un-Islamic is acceptable in any possible sense?

As for Arab and Islamic tolerance, that'll come as news to religious minorities in Muslim countries (not to mention atheists), and the Jews who were forced out of every Middle Eastern and North African community en masse after 1948. Being Palestinian is a pretty grim life, but it's actually still not as bad as that.

You can slag off American actions and I won't deny it, but I don't see why any wholly innocent people should be attacked for that.

Anon said...

When I think of the mountain of corpses, the number of people displaced by Western actions, primarily the USA, Britain along with its partners, I am extremely surprised that we haven't faced more blowback. I think this says much for the tolerance of the people of that part of the world, certainly more so then the USA. I think Islam deserves some credit for this. And a more appropriate study would be to understand why the West are so easy to commit mass murder and why its population is so easy to ignore that mass murder and what really amounts to support of it (see comments by Pinkie and asquith).

If you can't recognise the criminality of your own culture then you have no any right to judge others, that is a fact and I won't be moved on that point.

ISIS to me seem to be a product of centuries of imperialist meddling and criminality. When they target Westerners this seems perfectly understandable to me, given what we have done.

This is what I mean by the fact that ISIS is not some psychological /sociological anomaly but a perfectly rational response to an irrational situation.

That shouldn't be taken as support for ISIS, I believe they have to be fought and it is inevitable they will be. But for us the first battle is against imperialism itself, i.e. we as Westerners need to take some responsibility and instead of decrying ISIS we need to fight those who commit crimes in our name.

You lot don't want to know that important task, you are simply partisan supporters of this criminality, and are part of the problem, and on reflection are far worse than ISIS. Even though in your own mind you are the very embodiment of all that is decent in this world.