A Dangerous Analogy: Islamic Terrorism As Reality TV

Today's terrorism is different, with a specific way of scripting the violence that echos popular culture. Of course, these aren't actors. Especially, the victims.

ISIS Fighters
ISIS Fighters
Roger-Pol Droit


PARIS — Is it shocking to compare a terrorist attack to a TV series? Of course it is, mostly because the victims aren't actors. That's not pretend, people really do die, or remain deeply wounded, in their flesh and their psyche. Those who survive suffer every day. Injuries, disabilities, trauma, loss of loved ones... It's not play-acting.

This must be made clear from the outset. Because, in spite of everything, I think this comparison can actually be legitimate — provided we specify its meaning and limits, and not forget the respect due to the dead or solidarity with the victims.

Several elements, in fact, bring together the recent history of terrorist jihadism and the devices used in television series. That's because 21st-century terrorism is different from that of previous generations. Its codes are drawn from video games, its rhetoric from blockbuster films. It claims its thread is religious, but it's also based on specific way of scripting the violence, an approach that combines symbols with elements of surprise, icons with emotions. Images rule, taking precedence over speeches, arguments, and analyses. Emotion surpasses all manifestation of reason.

Above all, the characters involved and the situations are always stereotypes. The "infidels' are enemies — all of them ungodly and deserving of punishment — while the jihad fighters are proclaimed pure and holy. The "good guys' are destined to defeat the "bad guys." Finally, the fight itself, with its tactics and twists, follows a narrative logic. And the fact that it's complete madness doesn't stop it from impacting reality and dramatizing, serializing history.

Flipping the script

It's a macabre series, in that sense, that we can break down into four separate "seasons." The first played out in the 1980s, in Afghanistan, then at war with the Soviets. That's where that the idea of a conspiracy of Jews and Westerners acting together to bring down Islam was revived. Against this conspiracy, it's no holds barred, starting with suicide assassinations.

Season 2 opened with the 9/11 attacks. It was dominated by al-Qaeda and by the CIA's actions against it, which are based on spectacular or secret operations, always involving organized cells and structured sponsors.

The third season is about ISIS, which combined local terrorism with an attempt to form a caliphate that controls land, capital flows and a military, and is destined to continue — to expand and ultimately globalize itself. Except now the season's coming to an end. ISIS is defeated, worn out, in disarray. The lands it controlled have been recaptured, its financing hampered, its troops decimated.

Obviously, though, the story is far from over. Terrorism has lost a battle, not the war. In that sense, we can say that Season 4 has, in some ways already begun — although we don't yet know what it's really about. Still, some elements are predictable. Conflicts to control territories will likely intensify in Africa (Sahel, Libya, and Somalia, in particular). As far as attacks in Europe are concerned, there could be another flare-up of local, low-cost and unpredictable initiatives.

It would be naive to believe we are out of the woods. This is a different kind of war but a war nonetheless. And it's one that can't be thought of in terms of months or even years. Those who want to destroy democracy, freedoms of expression and worship, and gender equality are thinking centuries or millennia ahead.

We mustn't make the mistake, therefore, of lowering our guard by excess of confidence. But there's also the danger of doing too much, of living obsessed with a danger that, without being imaginary, is nevertheless statistically rare. The trick is to strike a balance, however difficult that may be.

If we are neither negligent nor paranoid, perhaps we will end up making jihadism a sort of marginal horror, similar to those endemic scourges that kill, that we fight without eradicating, but that don't really affect the continuity or functioning of our societies. In that case, there wouldn't be a Season 5. Nobody would win. But terrorism would lose. It's just a possibility.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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