In discussions about the “modernising” of things, there is always a focus on the idea of progress. Generally, this is referring to a notion where the modern world, especially the West, has moved on from supposedly primitive ways. This article examines this notion, arguing that the state violence of today has automated mass-scale atrocities in an unprecedented way.
Progress has supposedly manifested in different aspects of our social world, including the way we punish, harm and execute violence. We no longer inflict brutal modes of punishment and nor do we make a public display of torture, mutilations, beheadings, burnings at the stake and so on.
In contrast to the modern West, we have “terrorist” groups who are made out to be the complete antithesis of modernity. Their re-gressive ways are shown in that they make a gruesome public display of violence. Arguably, the nature of terror is that the public display, and the ensuing panic, are more of the intended consequence than the actual casualties of the attacks themselves. Beheadings that are recorded on camera and shared widely on social media, for example, do more than just take the life of a person. They create shock and panic by making the act of brutality and the suffering of the victim visible to all.
So it would seem NATO and friends are trying to save the world from the barbarism of such “terrorist” organisations. However, how would the world react if, say, it was the U.S. itself that carried out such barbaric acts? Try to imagine if it legalised the burying alive of female infants, as was the case in pre-Islamic Arabia, or ordered the slaughtering of male infants on a bi-annual basis as was ordered by the Pharaoh at the time of Prophet Musa? (may peace be upon him)
Of course, the U.S. does not legally allow the burying of children alive or slaughtering them. And yet, it does order military operations abroad that kill children, including its own citizens, and airstrikes that bury children under rubble. The brutality and chilling violence inflicted upon small children by U.S. forces isn’t any less catastrophic than that of the pre-Islamic Arabs or that of the Pharaoh. But somehow we still manage to maintain the idea that they believe in civility and have a concern for all human life.
This stark contrast should help to highlight the paradox that many of us carry in our minds: that it is a more humane world order that is heralded by the vanguard of modernity, as opposed to some of the cruel practices of past societies.
It’s clear that there is little substance to this idea. It is not a true reflection of the current reality of our world. Despite the fact that inflicting violence as a public ceremony is no longer fundamental to the social order in the West (hangings, stocks, the guillotine), it does not mean that violence does not take place anymore, or that it has become less gruesome and more humane.
One of the reasons for this may be the way that violence has been largely bureaucratised by modern states. Sociologist Randall Collins, who calls this sort of violence callous cruelty, says, “…callous cruelty is especially characteristic of large-scale, bureaucratic organization, the violence of the modern army and state.”
It is a de-personalised, bureaucratically administered form of violence. As opposed to torture chambers, where the torturer seeks to deform the person of the tortured, “callous violence” is more concerned with bureaucratic efficiency – maximum damage at the least cost and minimal publicity. Often the person inflicting the violence does not even have to stay around to witness the tragic demise of his own victims. High-altitude bombings developed during the Second World War, and more recently, America’s drone wars are typical examples of such forms of violence.
Citing the bureaucratic organisation of Nazi extermination camps, Collins says that, for the Nazi participants, “…the routinized following of orders, eliminated any personal sense of moral responsibility”. And in the case of the atrocities committed in Vietnam by the U.S., Collins says, “The long chain of information reporting and the very impersonality of communications categories served to keep much of the human consequences from the awareness of not only the American public, but of the soldiers themselves”. Therefore, “callous violence” is impersonal, bureaucratised, routinised, technologically efficient, and utterly destructive.
With the above in mind, it can be noted that just because the West does not hail public displays of cruelty as an ideal anymore does not mean that it has become less cruel. In fact modern warfare, with the advancement in military technology, has become more gruesome and inhumane than ever before. The Diplomat’s defence editor, Franz-Stefan Gady, writes in an article:
If you can imagine an inhuman and cruel way to die, a weapon system exists, or will soon exist, to make it a reality. Indeed, the most elemental task of a defense contractor is to design and produce weapon systems that can kill the most number of enemies in the fastest possible manner, while minimizing your own casualties.
So, when recent U.S.-led airstrikes hit a mosque in al-Jina, a school in al-Mansoura, and a neighbourhood in Mosul killing many innocent people including children, it was every bit as cruel as the infanticides carried out by the jahili Arabs or the Pharaoh. A mother who lost two of her children aged seven and four in the U.S. airstrike in Mosul had to witness the harrowing sight of her seven-year-old severed in half. In her words, “We recovered half his body. The rest is still there.”
But official government sources will hardly ever make these tragic details of human suffering known. Even media reports would usually reduce the lives lost to mere statistics (e.g. “200 civilians killed in airstrike”) and the horror and tragedy that unfolded at the scene of the attack would usually not be known by the world unless first-hand accounts of residents or activists in the area are able to make it to the news. In contrast, media reports of “terrorist” attacks in Western countries cover the attacks in their minutest detail and bring out the human suffering in full public view by individualising the victims, sharing their stories, photos, etc. thereby evoking public sympathy for the victims and outrage at the crime.
Furthermore, not only do the victims of Western bombings become faceless statistics, the bureaucratic execution of such violence, to some extent, also allows Western governments to avoid culpability while giving a false sense of accountability. For example, every time we come to know of the deaths of innocent people in such attacks, some government or military spokesperson, putting on an air of sincere concern in front of the press, would deny any wrongdoing on the part of the government or military and promise investigations into any allegations of civilian casualty. Like in the case of the Mosul airstrike, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said, “The coalition has opened a formal civilian casualty credibility assessment on this allegation, and we are currently analyzing conflicting allegations and all possible strikes in that area.”
Thus the heinousness of an attack costing so many innocent lives, which really should have caused a global outrage, is effectively covered up with the promise of some futile investigative procedures. And the conversation then starts revolving around the procedural jargon of the attacks, such as, if enough intelligence was available or if proper protocols were followed, which essentially diverts focus and criticism away from Western foreign policy in general.
However, despite such investigations, hardly anything ever comes out of them and the attacks continue unabated as routine operations. Just in 2016 alone, the US carried out 26,172 airstrikes on seven Muslim countries, which amounts to 3 strikes per hour. And these figures are conservative because reliable data is not available for airstrikes in all of these countries. And, also, a single “strike”, as per the Pentagon’s definition, can actually involve multiple airstrikes. A media release by the US government in January this year defines a “strike” in these words:
…having a single aircraft deliver a single weapon against a lone ISIL vehicle is one strike, but so is multiple aircraft delivering dozens of weapons against a group of buildings and vehicles and weapon systems in a compound, for example, having the cumulative effect of making that facility (or facilities) harder or impossible to use.
So the US did not drop 26,172 bombs on Muslim countries in 2016. It carried out 26,172 “strikes” each of which can involve multiple aircrafts dropping dozens of bombs targeting multiple sites!
Even when such deadly military operations are carried out with such staggering frequency, Western governments can still manage to hide behind official statistics, definitions and policies to mask the ugly nature of their violence. For example, despite ordering such extensive bombings as mentioned above, the Obama administration claimed it had only killed between 64 and 116 civilians during the entire 8-year period it had been in power. The U.S. dropped at least 3 bombs an hour just in 2016 alone and yet, according to official U.S. sources, there has only been a maximum of 116 civilian casualties in 8 years! How is that possible?
Well, firstly the civilian death toll they provided does not include casualties in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where most of the bombs fell. Secondly, the way the Obama administration defined a “combatant” was very broad. A New York Times report stated that the US “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”.
So, if someone is a victim of US airstrikes, he is guilty unless posthumously proven innocent i.e. after they have already killed him! With this definition in mind, let us very grimly note that the official count of “combatants” killed by U.S. airstrikes, excluding Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, is between 2,372 and 2,581! If this is the official count, one can only imagine how many more would have actually been killed in reality.
Muslims who uphold their belief in the Shari’ah often come under much criticism for trying to take the world back 1400 years. Such criticism presupposes this liberal narrative of progress in which human history reaches its peak in the civilisational form of the modern West. Yet, despite promises of a safer and “progressive” world heralded by modernity, cruelty and barbarity not only remain very much a part and parcel of the modern world, in fact they have become more catastrophic in nature and more widespread in scale. Especially, the violence carried out by the modern West has become uglier and more devastating than that of the jahili Arabs, the Pharoah, or any of the past empires. In fact, it is even infinitely more inhumane than the violence of any of the so-called “terrorist” organisations that the West claims to be fighting. Therefore, the West’s claim to progress is nothing but a myth as far as recognition of the value of human life is concerned. It would perhaps be more appropriate to describe the modern world as – in Sayyid Qutb’s terms – modern-day jahiliyyah.
Shafiul Huq is a Melbourne-based activist. He is also a student of Classical Arabic and Cultural Studies.