By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer
Eagles of Death Metal are an apolitical band. They are tongue-in-cheek and parodic, and espouse no ideals or stances outside of a half-ironic reverence for the excess and hedonism of rock music. If anything, they represent pure escapism. People listen to them and go to their concerts in order to get away from their day-to-day lives; to get a bit of respite from the pressures and complexities of the modern world. They do it to dance and to be happy and to forget their troubles. Despite the bellicose and morbid tone of their name, they celebrate life. They do what they do in order to spread gaiety and glee, to provide the soundtrack for those wild and joyous nights of youth that are so fondly remembered in later life.
As I sat glued to the television on the evening of Friday, the 13th of November, the fact that this group is now fixed firmly in the annals of history as the result of horrific tragedy struck me as overwhelmingly absurd. They and their fans were not attacked for their political associations or for statements they’ve made. This is not the kind of specified and directed violence behind, for example, the murder of John Lennon, but a random and nebulous incursion of brutality into the lives of a group of people far removed from this brutality’s place of origin or sphere of operation. It’s the clash of two worlds as alien to one another as could possibly be. While the events were framed as retribution for French air strikes on Syria, this choice of target has no overt political content or meaning. (The venue does have a history of hosting pro-Israel events, but I don’t believe that this fact was the primary reason for its selection, for reasons explained later.) The perpetrators of these attacks chose not to strike at somewhere iconic like the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, or at government facilities, but at places where ordinary citizens congregate.
The horror at the Bataclan concert hall began when the band was about 20 minutes into their set. Videos from the beginning of the concert show a packed auditorium (about 1,500 people) and high spirits. People are dancing and cheering. There’s levity. There’s elation. In the middle of a song, terrorists armed with automatic rifles, explosives, and suicide vests storm the hall and begin the wholesale slaughter of the audience. Another video captures the moment when gunfire breaks out, louder by far than the music. Survivors have described a scene of absolute chaos and confusion. One young woman has said that she thought it was a prank or a stunt put on by the band, until she saw the blood and the bodies falling to the ground. By the time police entered the theater, and the attackers detonated their vests, 89 people were dead, with scores more wounded. Along with other coordinated, simultaneous attacks throughout the city, the toll now stands at 129 murdered, and 352 more injured.
Like everybody, I was greatly disturbed and affected by these attacks. This was, I believe, due to the juxtaposition of the romance and magic of a Friday night in Paris with the violence, terror, and death that it devolved into. We’ve all spent Friday nights out on the town, blowing off end-of-week steam. We’ve all enjoyed dinners with friends, sporting events, rock concerts. Therefore we can identify with the victims of these attacks, though it’s much more difficult to conceptualize the feelings they experienced as happiness and laughter morphed in an instant into chaos and panic. It’s all so bleak and unthinkable, so appalling and nonsensical.
On Saturday, ISIS released a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, and describing the intentions behind them. In this statement, they cast France, and Europe as a whole, as “crusader nations” who “boast about their war against Islam…and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets.” The attack on the Bataclan is referenced specifically, with the hall described as a place where “hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.”
I experienced a moment of clarity when I read these words, realizing that whereas an explicitly economic or political motive can be located in the sites of the 9/11 attacks and strikes against embassies and military bases, the assault on Paris is uniquely cultural. With the exception of Francois Hollande’s presence at the targeted soccer game, the locations and people attacked had no direct ties to structures of power and influence. This is precisely why they were selected: to invoke the perceived culpability of every citizen of the western world in the actions and ideologies that Islamist extremists claim to be engaged in a fight to the death against.
When I read the statement about the attack on the Bataclan, characterizing the mirth of the concert as a scene of pagan blasphemy, I was reminded of the story of Sayyid Qutb, one of the original core members of Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. In the interest of history bringing much clarity to the events of the present, this story is worth summarizing.
Sayyid Qutb was born in 1906 to a well-off family in Musha, Egypt. He grew up in an environment of intellectualism and political activism. He developed a love for art and theology, and held contempt for secular education that neglected the moral development of the individual according to the dictates of the Koran (but also disliked purely religious education that failed to encourage intellectual development). He was modest, quiet, and pious. He found individuals who didn’t exhibit those characteristics coarse and distasteful.
When Qutb was in his early 20s, he moved to Cairo to attend college, and afterward took a job teaching with the country’s Ministry of Public Instruction. He rose through the ranks on the merits of his scholarship and his excellence as an instructor and in 1948 received a grant to study the American educational system in the small Northern Colorado agricultural town of Greeley. As Mideast scholar Bernard Lewis describes in his 2003 book The Crisis of Islam, there was very little attention paid to America by the Muslim world before the post-war period, and before America’s ascendance to the position of global hegemon. What little writing there was in encyclopedias and reference books actually praised the country for its tradition of religious tolerance, and for the bravery of its fight against British colonialism. This all changed with the arrival of Sayyid Qutb.
As delineated in Adam Curtis’ remarkable 2004 documentary about the rise of Islamic extremism The Power of Nightmares, Qutb was disenchanted and disgusted by the perceived plasticity and artificiality of American culture. Underlying the prosperity and the white picket fences and the teenyboppers and the pop music and the big, shiny new cars with space-age fins, Qutb saw a dark and insidious evil. To him, the success of the American experiment in liberal free-market capitalism was satanic in origin, and he believed that the valuation of human will over the word of God in the form of secular political and legal systems was driving moral corruption and decay on a massive scale. The Muslim world, in his opinion, could not risk being contaminated by it through economic alliance or cultural exchange.
A particularly solidifying moment in the formation of these beliefs was Qutb’s attendance at a Christmas church dance held for local college students. After a brief sermon, refreshments were served, the lights were dimmed, and the phonograph needle was lowered on Frank Loesser’s 1944 big band staple “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The young and adolescently hormonal attendees grew close to one another, and began to dance to the song. While we view this scene as an endearing paragon of post-war American innocence, Qutb saw something perversely different. The profanation of a place of religious worship by popular culture, the commingling of the sexes, the expression of erotic desire that dancing, at root, represents: all swirled together in his mind and reified his belief that intense struggle was going to be required in order to preserve the sanctity of Islamic culture. This church dance in Colorado in 1948, which we see as so harmless and innocuous, even healthy and morally upright, was in actuality a turning point in world history.
Qutb returned to Egypt a radicalized man, and began a fervent involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Abdel Nasser staged a dramatic coup, overthrowing the country’s monarchy, Qutb saw the opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic State. But when Nasser’s intentions to create a secular government friendly to western economic interests emerged, Qutb classified him as an apostate, making Nasser’s death his religious duty. In 1954 he was arrested for his part in a plot to assassinate Nasser and spent the next decade in prison, subjected to torture and working constantly on a number of extraordinarily radical tracts. Released in 1964, he spent about eight months as a free man before another arrest for the same crime, and was hanged in 1966, a martyr in the Islamist struggle against secular democracy and western culture. His writings remain in print, are still widely read, and have been cited by Osama bin Laden and other members of the leadership of al-Qaeda (out of which ISIS sprung) as cornerstone texts in the formation of their ideology.
This brings us full-circle back to the recent attacks. The behavior of ISIS is a continuation and fulfillment of the ideology of Sayyid Qutb, amplified and twisted by modern technology and incredible regional instability into a hyper-extremist manifestation of Qutb’s desire for the establishment of a radical Islamist Caliphate. The attacks on Paris, and on the concert at the Bataclan in particular, are the logical extension of Qutb’s writings; a ghastly and unthinkable response to the emotions he experienced at that dance some 65 years ago.
As the world struggles to process the attacks and formulate its responses to them, it is of the utmost importance to keep these concepts in mind. Radical Islamists (and let me here reinforce the point that conflating these extremists with Islam as a whole is as valid as saying that the Westboro Baptist Church represents mainstream Christianity, the difference being that the Westboro Baptist Church has not been able to exploit a decade of chaos and destruction to gain control of a sizable territory) do not simply hate us for our freedoms, as George W. Bush’s gross oversimplification characterized it; they see every man, woman, and child living under secular democracy as being guilty and active participants in a war against their gnarled and destructive religious ideology. By simply existing, we are an affront to their principles. It’s not basic hatred that motivates them, but zealous belief in the necessity for the destruction of not just our culture, but of us.
The strongest weapon against them that we as individuals possess, regardless of the political and military actions that end up being undertaken, is the ability to respond with renewed joy and kindness and love for our fellow man. We cannot succumb to the fear and acrimony that ISIS specifically strives to create with these attacks. We cannot allow dangerous opportunists to latch onto this tragedy, and to use it in the interest of political expediency. We cannot allow these events to make us further wall off and isolate ourselves, to live our lives in ultra-securitzed and militarized paranoia. The best thing that we, as a people, can do is to keep going out on Friday nights, to keep going to rock concerts and dancing feverishly. We have to thumb our noses at them or extend a certain finger in defiance. Only by showing them that the virulence of their hatred wilts in the presence of the kind of positivity and love that our society has been able to muster time and time again may we demoralize them. If we choose to live our lives behind a shield of hatred and mistrust, if we choose to alter our habits and culture and beliefs because of what these people do, they win. We win by displaying the best that our society and culture have to offer, not the worst.
On Wednesday morning, Eagles of Death Metal released their first public statement since the attacks. It reads, in part, “Although bonded in grief with the victims, the fans, the families, the citizens of Paris, and all those affected by terrorism, we are proud to stand together, with our new family, now united by a common goal of love and compassion…Vive la musique, vive la liberté, vive la France.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.