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Dandy Highwaymen

By Zaheer Kazmi.

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Refracting the exhibitionism of Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century flâneur through the gaze of today’s consumer culture, Susan Buck-Morss has observed that ‘In commodity society all of us are prostitutes, selling ourselves to strangers; all of us are collectors of things.’ The figure of the flâneur, later to be theorised by Walter Benjamin, lived on in mid-twentieth century psychogeography and assimilated the practices of Baudelaire’s rarefied urban gent to those of the lower classes. The Situationist dérive – an act of unmapped urban drifting – was intended to create an alternative cartography which transcended the panoptic confines of the late modern city’s disciplining street grid where nobody could lose themselves in the crowd. A spontaneous walk off the beaten path, rejecting state-controlled urban planning, was reimagined as a crime against bourgeois convention and a gesture towards freedom.

Hiding in plain sight, unable to ever fully escape the ubiquitous reach of the city’s watchful eye, however, the flâneur was not only spectator but spectacle, a seller as well as collector of things. Often identified with dandyism, the decadent liberty of the flâneur – embodied in flamboyant ways of deportment and sartorial choices – was also a subversive expression of art and sexuality that revealed a deeper intimacy between liberty and criminality in the Western public sphere. Indeed, not unlike religion, the categories of art and sexuality have been particularly enduring sites of transgressive behaviour which secular liberal modernity struggles to accommodate precisely because they are so often vehicles for evading its dominant modes of rationality (epitomised in Sartre’s articulation of the artist as representing a form of criminal and sexual sovereignty in his account of Genet). And, like them, religion also continues to tests the bounds of its freedom. It is perhaps no accident then that both transphobia and Islamophobia in particular have loomed large in current debates about freedom in Western media.

Today, Paris has again become the site of random acts of urban trespass, only this time in the form of indiscriminate mass shootings by Islamist militants in the name of a transcendent kind of pre-modern freedom, advertising murder. Hidden in plain sight yet intent on being noticed, the imagined aesthetic of the male urban jihadist is sometimes replicated by sympathisers on ‘inner-city’ streets dressed in faux ‘mujahideen’ fatigues, combat boots, and well-groomed hipster beards. In policy circles and the popular press, so-called ‘jihadi cool’ – the fashionable lightning rod for this most fatal of attractions – is seen as being a thoroughly martial, heavily racialized affair. From subaltern protest to haute couture (reflected, for example, in the minor media storm over the timing of Maharishi’s Autumn/Winter 2015 collection – which paraded its latest trademark militaristic line – following the Paris attacks), the figure of the urban jihadist connects racial and cultural stereotypes to violence and hyper-masculinity. But taken out of these dominant framings, what can seeing this new form of urban radicalism through the prism of aesthetics and gender also tell us about religion as a historically transgressive category in the secular liberal West? And the precarious self-image of the urban jihadist?

In many ways, religion has been aligned implicitly to criminality in the West since the American and French Revolutions and the official privileging of a secular public sphere – in theory, if not always in practice. In France today, Islam has become religion’s prime marker and, like other faiths, only highly attenuated forms of its public expression are permitted. Among other faiths, however, Islam also functions there as a cipher for latent radical subversion. In the Anglo-American world, where religion is not so overtly outlawed, Islam in particular is, nonetheless, increasingly policed as a form of potentially seditious ideology. In these ways, religion and criminality converge as believers answer not to the all-seeing state but to opaque Gods that can neither be understood nor controlled by it. Yet, if anything, studies of religion and crime have found no decisive correlation between the two or that religion may even act as a deterrent in some cases.

When not being used crudely as a way of suggesting Islam, uniquely among world religions, has inherently violent tendencies, the category of ‘religion’ is often increasingly sidelined as a factor in jihadi ‘radicalization’ reflecting anxieties among liberals who fear inadvertently implying this link in some other way. In this context, the notion of ‘jihadi cool’, which has gained scholarly and media traction as a way of explaining why young people go to fight for ISIS and other jihadi groups, can be reduced to the straightforward mimicking of the ‘macho’ and ‘virile’ aspects of Western gang or street counterculture by Muslim youth where Islam itself appears largely superfluous (for a recent example of this kind of explanation, see Simon Cottee’s piece in The Atlantic on jihadi cool’s apparent “badassery” and “warrior ethos”). Yet, religion may still be relevant to our understanding of urban crime and radicalization in Western liberal societies, only not in the ways we usually think about it.

Away from the tendency to ignore Islam, implicit in the way ‘jihadi cool’ recycles urban stereotypes about masculinity and race, or, on the other hand, Islamophobes who see faith as the fundamental cause of militancy, when viewed instead as a form of transgressive liberty alongside expressions of radical art and sexuality, its role in urban jihadism belies these characterizations. With their shared ‘criminal’ transgressions against the liberal state, might the effete radicalism of the flâneur – in both its effeminate and overly contrived sense – provide a window onto the highly controlled aesthetic and gendered world of the male urban jihadist and their respective visions of liberty? And, at the same time, might this odd juxtaposition also expose how both militant Islam and the liberal state struggle to deal not only with dissenting forms of religion and sexuality in their own ways, but with managing the artificial division between public virtues and private vices?

Having long exited the protest politics of the ‘Third World’ and its pantheon of martial demagogues from Nasser to Qaddafi, urban jihadists in the West skirt the demi-monde where the lines between vice and virtue are more opaque. Such postmodern behaviour has been enabled in part by post-Cold War globalisation which has fragmented allegiances and punctured holes in former pieties of global resistance to Western domination which ultimately led to alternative forms of oppressive liberty. More than just a metaphor for the margins of society where conventional law and morality no longer apply, however, there is evidence to suggest that some jihadists have, in fact, indulged in decadent behaviour in the face of their imminent martyrdom, including drinking alcohol and consorting with prostitutes, not least according to accounts about the last days of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 bombers. And while intoxicants may be ‘officially’ outlawed by ISIS, male promiscuity in the form of soliciting slave prostitution is positively encouraged by its Caliph and, along with it, fantasies of hedonistic pleasure and power.

Perhaps this is also why the obsession with standing out from the crowd, among urban jihadists and those who seek to emulate them in Western streets, may have as much to do with indulging in libertarian vice than with projecting authoritarian virtue. The globalised urban contexts which these metropolitan wanderers inhabit render the categories which we have conventionally come to associate with Islamist militancy, unstable. For, paradoxically, the figure of the urban jihadist as a self-consciously vain, primped male attentive to the gaze of strangers undermines the more commonly held view of his supposed hyper-virility – and the male jihadist’s own deluded self-image – by emasculating him. That urban street fashion in global cities such as London has often had its roots in outsider, working class male subcultures which have challenged gendered stereotypes to express freedom from the constraints of bourgeois society, suggests that today’s urban radicals may have assimilated as much to these renegade ‘subaltern’ practices than to ‘thuggish’, ‘ghetto’ cool or some vague notion of solidarity with the Global South.

The way in which the figure of the male urban jihadist might be considered a kind of dandy in asserting, through excessive preening and the desire to appear distinctive through surface display, his own sphere of liberty in the West, also has other more unexpected implications relating to sexuality and street walking. Arguably, he shares closer parallels with the position of the transgender individual in Muslim societies than the more macho role models of hip hop culture he may otherwise aspire to be. For, like the hijra in South Asia, for example, whose aesthetic and sartorial choices as much as sexuality in urban environments also frame his/her advocacy of liberty, he is a pervasive but powerless presence in the city and, at once, a source of both societal acceptance and repulsion on its streets.

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Surprisingly perhaps, Muslim states such as Bangladesh and Pakistan have been more accommodating to the public expression of transgender sexuality than those of the West. It is as if bringing out into the open this manifestation of dissent has neutralised its subversive magnetism. Seen in this light, if ‘jihadi cool’ is mainly a matter of macho stylistic posturing by Muslim youths just wanting to be different and hip – as some commentary on radicalization suggests – the logical corollary would be to encourage and multiply its transparency to lessen its rebellious cachet rather than drive it underground, its aesthetic appeal coming to function more like a fashion commodity saturating the open market. As well as pointing to the problems of looking at urban radicalism in such crass, implicitly racialized, ways as ‘cool’, the absurdity of filling the streets with jihadist replicates also exposes the contradictions which underlie the increasing impulse of liberal states to censure public expressions of dissent. It has, after all, also long been a plank of Western counter-extremism policy to flush out into the open the terrorists who are, it is argued, hiding in plain sight.

The idea of the urban jihadist as martial and racialized – continually reproduced by both apologists and detractors – harbours a series of paradoxes which lock this figure in a tortuous circle: having a self-image of hyper-masculinity, but engaging in effete practices (in a kind of inverted form of dysmorphic syndrome); wanting to be different and noticed, yet needing to be hidden and secretive; and identifying with global subaltern resistance, but displaying personal signs of bourgeois aspiration through careful attentiveness to public appearance. This circularity may signal a kind of cognitive dissonance but not one commonly deployed by radicalization experts to explain the mental disconnect between behaviour and beliefs in jihadist psychology. Beyond the search for the fabled ‘extremist mindset’, the management of such public/private tensions might also be better viewed via other forms of metropolitan subculture which echo flânerie such as the, now largely forgotten, street cant of Polari.

It is perhaps fitting, if only coincidental, that some genealogies of Polari – the subterranean language which came to be identified with sailors, rootless circus performers, and gay subcultures of nineteenth-century London – trace its deeper historical roots to outcast communities of piracy and criminality which may have even had contact with outlying Barbary Coast Muslims hundreds of years before. Polari was used to disguise what bourgeois society considered subversive or even criminal acts but, paradoxically, also to make public this identity as a marker of solidarity in dissidence. In the context of Victorian era morality at least, its open use could also expose the hidden, suppressed desires of conservative society and how these, often sexually charged, longings are transmuted into dissent and taken up by outliers. At the heart of the parallels between Polari and the world of the urban jihadist lie what language discloses and what it simultaneously hides and the tensions between the need for publicity and secrecy: the state of being at once both ‘out’ and outlying. At the same time, in terms of appearances to the outsider, the ‘in-crowd’ dimensions of urban jihadist street speech (including the elliptical use of Arabic terms peppered with street slang) can allude also to a coded language of violence like the argot of Burgess’s dandyish gang of Droogs in A Clockwork Orange who were equally distinguished by their striking sartorial choices.

As an archetype of dissent, the urban jihadist, like the flâneur, destabilises the contrived division in the secular liberal state between private vices and public virtues. In religion, as in art and sexuality, this binary morality collapses. It is instead often the ideal of love that trumps that of rationality and dissolves the boundaries of private and public worship and allegiance; be it of God, of an image, or of a person. Perhaps this is also why love and crime are so often intertwined as acts of transgressive passion and why it can sometimes be difficult to discern one from the other. Or that they only have truly revolutionary potency when hidden from sight, like the criminal love between Orwell’s Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty Four. On public display, the urban jihadist’s degenerate self-love reveals itself as little more than an exhibition of power parading the boulevards like an open secret. But might his, albeit unwitting, projection of an ambiguous sexuality also reflect something deeper about the atomised nature of late capitalist liberal society than personal vanity?

In liberalism’s ultimate quest for undifferentiated justice for all and capitalism’s disintegrative logic of commoditisation, the abstracted individual trumps all categories, even those of gender. To paraphrase Buck-Morss’s observation, commodity society will make us all prostitutes, but genderless ones. The ideal liberal citizen is, in effect, androgynous, unable to make any privileged claims in relation to others on the basis of its identity. Seen in this way, the ends of liberalism’s mission for universal justice become strangely radical and mystical. Like the eponymous hero(ine) and object of love in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando who transcends mortality as well as gender, they point to an eternal identity shorn of both physicality and sexuality. Indeed, the mythic dimensions of androgyny in classical Western as well as Islamic thought have often been tied to notions of purity and spirituality, notably in a belief in angels. In Islamic thought, the promise of houris as reward for the believer in the next world is also mentioned. And while it has become a commonplace to point out that the hyper-sexualised jihadist dreams of virgins in the afterlife, Islamic eschatology sees these beings as more likely otherworldly androgynous ‘ideal types’ in communion with the pristine, genderless soul. Perhaps then the mundane secular liberal world he inhabits is already fulfilling the promise of those dreams by inexorably transforming him into an ever more abstracted, symbolic and disembodied self.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zaheer Kazmi is is currently carrying out research into reframing conceptions of Muslim radicalism, including a book on Muslim anarchism, and is interested in wider themes associated with the political thought, cultural politics and intellectual history of anti-authority. He is an Associate Member of the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 15th, 2016.