The May 22nd bombing of Manchester Arena during a concert by Ariana Grande was a major atrocity and should be resoundingly condemned by anyone morally sane.
As ought to be the case whenever major atrocities occur on the soil of Western powers, especially when enacted by official state enemies, our anger is better to yield to our grief; since we are all in general unaccustomed to glimpsing, on our own streets or those of our friends, the violence we routinely inflict on vast portions of the world, the brisance of Monday night’s bombing should hopefully provide space for reflection. These actions cannot be forgiven or excused – but perhaps they can be understood.
Reflections are not all equally or equivalently valid or useful – to say nothing of factually sound – however. Among the latest of the “hot takes” is a theme of wearying, propagandistic moralizing and pro-Western liberal jingoism best summed up as: the Ariana Grande concert bombing was an attack against women and feminism by primitive, misogynistic Muslims.
These narratives represent nothing new; they are identical in character, if not in content, to the hardline propaganda deployed by the Bush Administration throughout the naughties – they hate our freedom. In fact, this kind of pseudo-feminist language was integral to fueling the war machine in both Iraq and Afghanistan; Laura Bush and Cherie Booth both made speeches in 2001 in order to “kick off a world-wide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network[.]” This was concomitant with State Department propaganda, including the November 17, 2001 “Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women,” which draws upon the wisdom of, among others, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and normalizes the US invasion of Afghanistan as a pro-woman mission of liberation. The public were asked to believe that the US and its Allies – including my own Canada, and Manchester’s UK – were embarking on some proto-feminist crusade to improve the lives of Afghani women, and that the best way to manage this would be, for instance, to cut off the supply of civilian food aid from Pakistan, a tactic that brought some 2.5 million additional civilians to the brink of starvation, a condition they could now share with another 5 million of their countryfolk. It should hopefully go without saying that in a society which militarizes its male population, as the Taliban did in response to the invasion, it is overwhelmingly women – mothers, wives, and their children – who bear the brunt of this suffering. Since this was known to be a likely consequence of US action – in what way did this not constitute an “attack on women and girls”?
Perhaps I digress. The fact of the matter is that the rhetoric of feminism, human rights, and liberation has a lengthy and revolting history of being co-opted into the service of violence, colonialism, exploitation, and hatred. If we are serious about learning lessons from history, we would do well to treat accusations against official enemies that use this language with skepticism.
We don’t know what motivated the Manchester Arena bomber, Salman Abedi, when he decided to murder 22 people and maim some 120 others. We don’t even know – as of this writing no evidence has been provided yet – that he was affiliated with the organization to which he is claimed to belong: the self-described Islamic State, properly known as Daesh. Still, given what we do know about his background, I propose that it is possible to make some reasonable guesses.
It was widely known by Coalition governments and intelligence services long before now that the invasion and destruction of Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq, would lead to an uptick in violence from jihadists domestically. As early as 2003, the UK’s own Joint Intelligence Committee released a report indicating that “[t]he worldwide threat from other Islamist terrorist groups and individuals will increase significantly” due to military action against Iraq. It is known further that Daesh, which has claimed (to reiterate: with thin evidence) responsibility for Manchester attack, was a direct outgrowth of the aftermath of Iraq War, a conflict which saw the use of illegal chemical weapons by US forces, the near-total decimation of the country, and the butchering of nearly 200 000 civilians; measured against these crimes, the Manchester bombing seems to wane apace.
Contrary to the standard hawkish line – that the Islamic State is huddle of violent, religious fanatics – Daesh was founded by the secular leaders of the former Iraqi Baath Party. As Der Spiegel reported in 2015, Daesh was designed from the very beginning to be a wide-reaching political force that would cynically use religion to legitimize its attempts impose itself on an unwilling population. Religious clerics would be named as the “official” leaders of the organization, while Daesh’s primary architects – particularly Haji Bakr, Saddam’s former head of intelligence – maintained control in the safety of the shadows. Though unarguably different in degree, it is not much different in kind than Bush’s invocation of Jesus Christ when he tried to provide religious cover for his own wars of aggression.
As study after inconvenient study is published indicating that suicide bombers are in fact overwhelmingly not motivated by religion, it would be wise for us to consider the political realities that may underwrite the violent and regressive ideology of the groups and people we consider “Islamist.” We know that the UK drone program, along with its American sister program, has flown thousands of missions and unleashed thousands of deadly ordinances in the Levant over the past two years and killed thousands of people. Both the US and the UK claim minimal to no civilian casualties, a lie so obvious even their most hawkish champions refuse to believe it. Even members of the US’s own air force acknowledge that the drone programs create exactly the conditions of desperation and terror that organizations like Daesh exploit in their recruiting efforts.
Salman Abedi himself is of Libyan descent, a nation torn apart in a brutal civil war which was in part fomented and exacerbated by the intervention of the imperial triumvirate, the UK, US, and France. The war displaced an estimated 400 000 people. We can all remember the children who drowned in shipwrecks as they fled their home across the Mediterranean to Italy. The UK’s own Foreign Affairs Select Committee issued a report in which it put responsibility for Libya’s post-Gaddafi chaos in the hands of the imperial powers, condemning their reckless rush to military force and refusal to meaningfully consider non-violent, political means of regime change or reform:
Political options were available if the UK Government had adhered to the spirit of Resolution 1973, implemented its original campaign plan and influenced its coalition allies to pause military action when Benghazi was secured in March 2011. Political engagement might have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at lesser cost to the UK and to Libya. If political engagement had been unsuccessful, the UK and its coalition allies would not have lost anything. Instead, the UK Government focused exclusively on military intervention.
Today, Libya is barely a nation, riven by tribal and sectarian conflict, a battle ground for innumerable and unknowable warring militias, each struggling to renew some sense of order – however bloody. This, too, is where an organized group like Daesh can find foothold, promising a dispossessed and ravaged people some manner of meaning to their lives. Vengeance and war have provided meaning to the lives of many millions of such people, since before history can recall.
The narrative that the Manchester Stadium bombing was a misogynistic “attack on girls” and “feminist music” is an overwhelmingly simplistic and reductive explanation that plays handily into the dominant neoliberal doctrine, a doctrine that wants to frame this conflict as one between an Uncomplicatedly Evil Enemy driven by primitive and inherently sexist religious fanaticism on the one hand, and a Benign and Enlightened West (which presumably has no problems with misogyny and sexism of its own?) on the other. The pretense that this attack can only be understood, or is even best understood, as a vindictive slaughter by a woman-hating religious lunatic is an erasure of Western crimes against many, many Muslims, including women, girls, and children, and an abrogation of our moral responsibility for the uptick in violence from groups like Daesh and those who find solace in it.
This is not to say that Daesh is not a misogynistic organization, or that the ideologies which underlie are not deeply regressive; they should disgust anyone with a conscience. But refusal to understand or contextualize this misogyny and these ideologies is less than lazy – it is stupid, not serious, ahistorical, and it contributes to exactly the kind of fear- and warmongering that perpetuates violence on both sides.
My heart is with those who mourn their loved ones in Manchester, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan…