Jihad, exclamation point optional

Cast your mind back to 1987, before Gulf War I. Here are the first two issues of Suicide Squad, which absolutely needed a villainous antagonist evil enough to  justify the dark-and-edgy premise of the U.S. government using supervillain felons for black ops. Need darker-and-edgier to fight! OK … communism terrorism … got it … needs a sinister name – let’s see, fanatics, evil, unreasonable, foreign, basically crazy, even more willing to kill whomever than the jerks comprising half of the good guys, not white, trading in new members as old ones get waxed … shoot, “Hydra’s” taken, so … oh! Got it.

Back then, jihad was a vague term in U.S. media and pop culture. I remember it being known and associated with Islam, sort of “in the crazy ones,” but looking back, that association can’t have been too strong if they could define the villain group as mercenaries, hiring out to whoever, which pretty much obviates the term.

What does it mean now? Drawing on at least Fawad Gerges’ Journey of the Jihadist and The Far Enemy, Giles Keppel’s Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, and David Cook’s Understanding Jihad:

  • Irredentist = resistance to occupation
  • Nationalist = reform or overthrow of a current native regime
  • Transnational = attacking into/against another nation

People everywhere couch any of these in nativist, religious, and moral terms  – that’s par for the course, no matter what religion we’re talking about. The U.S. itself is no stranger to nationalist efforts phrased as deeply-religious, morally-righteous recovery of the “real” America, including violent ‘wings.’ There’s no false equivalence between, say, Pat Robertson, Sayyid Qtub, and for that matter, Tzi Yehuda Kook – it is equivalence. What all three lacked, though, is transnationalism. Staying with the second name in that list, Qtub wanted to reform Egypt, not to attack the U.S. “Jihad-ist” as we say it now didn’t exist, or barely, much less “Islamist,” because transnational action in the name of Islam wasn’t part of the perceived scene. Although it certainly was under construction in Afghanistan, the implications were unknown to U.S. media and discourse.

More generally, all sorts of terms were different or undergoing substantive changes then – for example, until the 1970s, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula were the Near East, and the Middle was Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan; the modern construction that uses the term as a synonym for “Arab and/or Islam except Indonesia” didn’t get really solid until the late 1980s. About the same time that “terrorist” was hard-cast into its modern usage mainly in the cauldron of Lebanon.

The villain group perfectly illustrates this vague or transitional state. First-and-foremost, they’re mercenaries. The group’s bankroller and manager is the oddly-named Marlo, dictator or leader or whatever of the fictional nation “Qurac,” which lacks oil and other resources, and seems to be Arabian in some places but Persian in others when snowy mountains are needed. Such as Jihad HQ, which features zero (0) mosque space and in fact is a Nazi leftover. Same for the members, whose nod toward Arabian stuff is walled-off from anything recognizably political: Rustam, the modernized-Crusades Arab with a flaming scimitar; Jaculi and the Djinn, both very classic Arabian terms and geographic references but bereft of personality; and nary a Palestinian nor Iranian nor Lebanese in sight. There is one notably ideological and religious member, but Ravan is Indian and into Kali, basically a “crazy Hindoo” composed from British caricature, which steps past India’s own hard-core, nationalist, reactionary strain of Islam called Deobandi.

The Arab, Muslim, anti-American, terrorist supervillain who never, ever mentions any such thing.

The Arab, Muslim, anti-American, terrorist supervillain who never, ever mentions any such thing.

So this is kind of interesting, right? On the one hand, it’s very insightful in anticipating transnationalist violence directed toward the U.S., with just a hint of actual political weight (e.g. the Manticore being Greek, invoking the Revolutionary Organization 17N at least to this reader). On the other, it’s almost bizarre in its absence of Muslim ideology, e.g., although Rustam just reeks of authentic intent, he never lets us know what it is. Furthermore, “terror” is, evidently, a marketed service and the motivations concern individual reasons to buy in, not goals. They do it because that’s what “you people” do, with at most a non-specific animus toward the U.S. which seems borrowed from the Khomeini government of Iran at that time.

The net effect is remarkably sanitized, in not one, but two ways. First, it’s both edgy and safe in religious terms because Islam is so absent yet banking on the term’s resonance. Second, it’s both edgy and safe in political terms, tagging the whole thing with foreign/Arab/exotic enemies-of-America but, again, omitting the obvious hot-buttons of Palestine (First Intifada, 1988-89) and the Lebanese Civil War (then heating up into the Aoun Rebellion). Just to orient you a bit too, naming either of those hot-buttons “jihad” would make no sense either. Palestinian is not a religious term, and the most extreme groups like the PFLP were Christian-led (shoot, even Yassir Arafat had a Christian wife); the most notorious butchers of the Lebanese Civil War were Maronite Catholics.

The group returned in #17-19, marginally a bit more “eastern,” with Ifrit replacing the Djinn, adding Agni for a little Hindu spice, and replacing Jaculi and Manticore with lookalikes who remained uninteresting. This is when Ravan switches sides, to become a long-running Squad member as I wrote about in A thousand years more, O Kali. Crucially, it’s represented with more motivated ideology: they’re attacking actual New York instead of a mock-up back in Qurac, and they’re not doing it for money. And they included a very interesting new member, indeed politically and religiously grounded in reality, expressed as “fierce, exultant hate” for “the entire world.” I’m talking about the Badb.

badbShe comes from Northern Ireland and all her family died in “The Troubles.”

You do know there’s more than one Ireland, right? There’s one island by that name, but two nation-states: Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the larger Republic of Ireland, which is decidedly not. The former is more-or-less the same, geographically, as the historical region called Ulster; its majority population is derived as much from centuries of Scottish arrivals as native Irish, and its majority religion is Presbyterian, allied to the Anglican Church, or in local parlance, “the Prods.” (To connect a bit to several of my other posts, Ulster Scots, a.k.a. Scots-Irish, provided the ethnic and cultural foundation for America’s Greater Appalachia.)

What was that about

What was that about “charity donations funding terrorism abroad?” Ask a friend.

This was real political meat when this issue was published, known as “The Troubles.” To examine the immediate roots back in the Home Rule controversy and the Easter Rising is too much for this column; suffice to say that in 1919-1921, the island was “temporarily” partitioned in the inimitable British fashion, as many Afghans, Palestinians, Germans, and so forth might attest – and that the southern partition went “all the way” and fought a war to establish the Free Irish State instead.

But the Troubles are, I believe, currently designated as 1969-2003, with the relevant part of my post concerning the Irish Republican Army, a hard-core irredentist resistance group likely supported by the Sinn Féin party in the Republic of Ireland, vs. the Ulster Volunteers, a similarly hard-core nationalist militia covertly supported by the Northern Ireland government and soon, by the occupying troops of the British Army. No one likes to admit it when a modern European region absolutely identified with “the west” undergoes a hard-core, grass-roots civil war, nor that both sides corresponded nicely to any meaningful definition of terrorism including multiple mutually-retaliatory bombings and murders, but that’s what it was. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Badb isn’t wearing a villain costume. That’s a green dress, and green socks. She’s Roman Catholic and her family was murdered by the Volunteers.

At the time, the Troubles also underlay one of American culture’s little things not to say out loud, that although government policy staunchly supported the BFF between Reagan and Thatcher, and therefore the UK occupation in support of the Northern government, the common opinion among Irish-Americans supported the IRA, and not just verbally either. (Greater Appalachians are notably disconnected from their continent of origin, identifying strictly as “American,” and therefore countervailing popular support for the Northern Republic did not occur.) What goes unspoken becomes taboo among those with ties there and unknown among everyone else. When people “visit Ireland” or say “my family’s from Ireland,” I advise even today that you refrain from asking, “Which one?”

It may seem very odd at present that the villain group called Jihad never included an explicit Arabic, Muslim, self-designated jihadist, or to use Gerges’ formation, Salafi acting transnationally. It makes sense historically, though, as such action in the name of Islam had not touched the U.S. or Europe yet and indeed was lauded as one of our chief foreign-policy assets; thus the villain group’s name could be thought of as evocative or edgy without being taken literally, either by readers or in-fiction by its own members. Therefore the only member who perfectly matched the most-common modern meaning of jihad (transnational, religious, political violence), was a white, red-headed, Catholic Irish girl. Which is pretty damn edgy and fascinating on its own, in that John was calling attention to retaliatory sentiments “out there ” in the world, as Rustam says:

America. Your wars have come home.

We are the Jihad. Each of our members represents a people whose homeland has been turned into a battleground thanks in part to the support of your government.

Tonight, you will taste the fear and destruction our homelands have known.

… and explicitly touched on what was probably the most relevant hot-button to the readers, at least to the subset who was paying attention.

The story of issues #59-62 provides more policy content, which I discussed in Ollie ollie oxen free, featuring a mix of masked, not-so-masked, and re-matched components: Marlo doing sort of a post-Gulf War I Saddam Hussein impression as both Jihad and Hayoth attempt, respectively, to free/extract him from U.S. custody. Superman does his standard bit in the early-mid 1990s of being completely naive, as he’s shocked at the Badb and whatever made her so evil. But actual-Islam is still absent, just as it was in the news, and this would be the high-and-ending point of the group’s grounding in reality. In its 1994 appearance in The Outsiders written by Mike Barr, the Badb is absent (and never seen since), and the group’s general foreign schtick is looking pretty tired, including Aztec and Persian motifs dripping with blood and evil but no discernible politics or point.

Post 9/11, for which see the date of this post if you hadn’t already, things got a bit strange. Terrorist villainy was already really hard to write: if you swerve even within shouting distance of real-world tie-ins, then you run the risk of articulating what they, the real people, are mad about. The solution is to swerve the other way entirely: provide the international equivalent of the multi-racial 1980s Hollywood street gang instead and make them simply kill-crazy nutbars. It’s a pretty clear case of the issues I discussed in Bootin’ the pooch.

But now there’s no way to escape the resonance; the issue is simply not at arms’ length. After 2003, comics have wriggled hard in the attempt to reconstruct the necessary dog-kicking for their villains – simply ignoring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is not credible, but nearly anything you do carries too much weight in policy terms. Including lines like Jaculi’s in #16 – “Taste, America. Taste what you did to my country” – instead of casting her as a weird-and-crazy killer, it’d represent opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But depicting Afghans, Iraqis, Arabs, or Muslims into slavering murderous idiots would represent support and escalation for the invasion and occupation, and furthermore, support for Blackwater and the events at Abu Ghraib.

It makes a lot more sense when you quit pointing fingers at “their” motivations and start looking at ours.

Remember how I said both “terrorist” and “middle east” had become more concrete in U.S. media by this point. Now they became tied to Islam, in classic construction familiar to American black people and to Germans – you got your “good ones” and your “bad ones.” It’s most evident in the claims and counter-claims about essential evil (violence, fanaticism) in Islam, specifically in what “jihad” actually means. Unfortunately that public dialogue is pretty shallow.

There’s some good work on it though, rising above pointing fingers and “means this / means that.” Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft draws a sharp distinction between puritan, reactionary Islam and a broader, “like any religion” one. This view is contested by Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, which points out that such a distinction is typically co-opted, or even originally constructed, as a loyalty test for uncritical assimilation into and obedience toward U.S. policy. For pointed debate on that matter, see Mohammed Ayoob’s The Many Faces of Political Islam and Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms; also, consider whether an American Muslim is supposed to buy his or her family’s legitimacy as citizens via military service, and why nearly anyone else doesn’t have to.

In this context, you can see DC had a choice in the rebooted Suicide Squad of 2002 regarding the re-appearance of the villain group in #10: either turn it up to 11 with hashish-addled scimitar + suicide-vest screaming-meemie “bad Muslims,” or bag it, dropping the newly-problematic term entirely. That would be Door #2, Alex, and hence they are now called Onslaught and entirely scrubbed of anything except untethered callbacks and villain balls. Goin’ out on a limb here, but I really doubt that decision was left entirely up to Keith Giffen; it may have been a pretty direct mandate from the home office. There’s also an obvious internet effort to revise the Wikia and other reference pages into the new name as far back as they can.

Links: On St. Patricks’ Day, why do some people wear orange instead of green? with the unintended insight of what this article does not say, including the term “orangemen”

Next comics: Sword of God, “The Edge,” p. 8 (September 13); One Plus One, editorial for “I Want In” (September 15)

Next column: Everyday religion (September 18)


About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on September 11, 2016, in Lesser is still great, Politics dammit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. As a person who will probably go through his entire life without ever meeting an irish American face to face, I’m curious to ask, what kind of things would happen if one were to ask “Which one?”?

    (It’s me, Santiago Verón, I seem to be finally logged on)


    • Hi Santiago! My brief experience with it resulted in instant, brief silence from everyone present, and then the swift resumption of social talk as if nothing whatsoever had been said.

      I’d be interested in anyone else’s experience or contact with the issue.

      I’m convinced that the “modern state” age is largely defined by the dynamics of people across borders vs. borders across people.

      Liked by 1 person

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