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By Andrea Günter

Do we take IS-terrorists for religious, spiritual people? How can we criticize them and their relationship to religion without throwing suspicion on Muslims, or religions as a whole; but also without denying that their actions are somehow connected to religion?

The attacks in New York, Madrid, London, Paris – do they represent a new kind of politically motivated violence? Do they act on the principle of publicity, as the newspapers are telling us? And if one agrees with this idea, what is the opposing principle? Do we have to consider a struggle between the public and the private spheres? How is such a struggle connected to our western cultures? Do these cultures fail because we need new ways of connecting the public and the private?

The private is political, how can this reply by the women’s movement to the private-public-dualism be useful for the analysis of Islamist terror attacks? How can the private be a political force? In addition, what more can we understand of the connections between femininity and terrorism?

Religion as a form of communication

In order to consider these connections, I will develop an idea, which is owed to Immanuel Kant’s “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?”: Religion is not only content, faith. Religion is first of all a form of communication. Thus, young men joining terrorist formations bind themselves to “radical preachers”. With IS there is also an increasing number of young women affiliating themselves with Islamist perspectives. Preaching radically means connecting contents, human relationships and words to each other in a specific way. Following Kant’s categorization this represents a radical privatization.

Kant‘s explanations can be read as a critical theory of the relationship between politics and religion. They offer important starting points for a deeper understanding of political dynamics, symbolic dimensions of terrorism, religion and fundamentalism, the complementarity of the private and public spheres and, lastly, constructions of femininity.

The main aspect I will focus on below is Kant’s distinction between the private and the public use of reason. In Kant’s viewpoint, the private and the public do not apply to different sectors. Instead, they are different ways of acting and communicating, which can be found in every sector. This means that we have to reflect on the question of the reasoning that is being followed by terrorists. As it turns out they want to practice the private use of reason, to entrench privacy as the guiding principle of community life. They do this by attempting to increase existing tendencies for privatization.

They practice absolute secrecy in their own activities towards those closest to them, especially towards their wives and children – at least this was the case up until the London attacks in 2004/5. In this way, individual effectiveness is experienced through the retreat into Islamist micro-communities of the like-minded (in the context of the RAF this was called a “terrorist cell”). This is the point at which we need to consistently differentiate between “privacy” and “family”.

Individualized acts of terror committed by previously unknown individuals, whose own family were unsuspecting, can clearly represent the person of the perpetrator: an individual, whose unique identity and social relevance can be reconstructed in all clarity through a single act because it consistently follows an absolute norm. Terrorists (Islamist, fundamentalist, fascist) have almost perfectly adopted Kant’s model of privatization. Today, terrorist from western nations especially demonstrate that privatization is not only linked to economic factors (Europeans moving into the terrorist scene are not necessarily neglected and damaged by their environment, often they are not even poor or unemployed), but is also a political factor, a political-economic factor to be exact. Terrorists as well as fundamentalists demonstrate how privatization runs counter to the art of the political in re-connecting the private and the public over and over again. The social “isolation” of its representatives therefore has to be analyzed not economically, socially or familially but rather politically.

The Religious and the Private

Kant characterized the enlightenment as a communicative political process. In this context he qualifies the religious as a particular communicative-political dimension. However, here the religious is not important as content of faith, but it represents the embodiment of the communication practice of the private. Speaking privately means speaking in front of one’s own community, that is to say people sharing the same beliefs, or rather having to share them, requiring of them: “don’t argue – pray!”. But by talking to their own community they are deprived of the public – “private” originates from the Latin “privatus”: secluded, isolated, deprived. A terrorist insulates his thoughts by refusing to argue: by refusing contact with differing thoughts of others, particularly regarding his own ideas and their consequences as well as by evading or even disallowing the conversation about their justifications. (The other path is also relevant. To refuse arguments and the contact with differing views and interpretations, particularly of one’s own ideas and their consequences and to evade or even disallow the discussion of justified action are performances of religious speech. Terrorism and fundamentalism complete each other as political forces as part of a particular political development.)

How does one form one’s own community of speech according to Kant? One needs to attain something like a public office. One attains an office by taking a certain function. Office holders are not only those in government positions requiring proof of qualification. Those who feel a calling to be an Islamist warrior, an opponent to the “West”, or a leader and executioner to the people’s will, also see themselves as entitled to transform the existing order into a better one. They see themselves as office holders. Within the Catholic church, when someone is put in charge without having been ordained officially, this is called lay ministry. Holding an office without being specifically certified one moves between institutionalized requirements for an office holder and a directly claimed authority through the divine. This might sound trivializing, but according to Kant’s reasoning, this attribution of divine authority gives the person the right to exercise the power as an office holder. Office holders, laypeople as well as experts, are always entitled to employ measures that go beyond the powers of a mere individual. And the less this power is defined by an ordinated position, the more it can invent all conceivable means for the execution of its task.

Kant specifies, however, that any incumbent, even if he holds a public position, acts as a private person when he exercises in his office and uses the means of the office. Within the area his office, the incumbent is deprived of publicness. But as soon as he declares his own views about a new order, he is connected to the public because it affects everyone. Through the mere act of talking about a new order he opens up a public discourse. He now cannot speak as office holder anymore. By speaking out he starts to renounce the possible actions of his office. The office holder is then a citizen among citizens with an opinion among opinions about possible new orders. But if someone absolutely wants to impose his vision of a new order on others, then he has to do it without any debate and by force. To withdraw into the private and to not share one’s thoughts and actions with others is necessary especially when committing oneself to violence.

We, moreover, learn from Kant: in order to meaningfully introduce a political opinion, one has to transform oneself into a “scholar”. If an office holder wants to implement his ideas without violence, he has to initiate a public debate about the subject of contention. If instead one presents one’s views only before like-minded people, clarification about those ideas is prevented, including the evaluation of the accuracy of the ideas.

In such processes it sometimes happens that a community adapts itself to the person it has chosen as a spokesperson and his ideas. This implies that everyone subordinates their own person with all its personal accents, differentiations, ambivalences, and contradictions. By trying to create a like-minded group one runs the risk of attempting to unify differing views, even at the cost of abandoning one’s own view. For this purpose, some seek out radical preachers. Those voices may seem more powerful to them than their own, so that following the new teaching can make their ego appear larger than it is with their own voice. To gain power, these followers may be prepared to do anything.

On the other hand, community founders such as Pegida can pick up Enlightenment ideas such as “the freedom of women” for updating the beliefs of their own community. However, there is no real freedom orientated political practice combined with this. Because of Pegida’s aim to destroy plurality, relating to the freedom of women structurally implicates to suspend its liberating potential. So todays, feminist arguments have reached right-wing scenes, because these are criticizing sexist behavior. Nevertheless, from a critique of sexism, racism can result by defending emancipated images of women without acquiring the enlightening-differentiating, anti-discriminatory intention of these images. On the contrary, they are proclaimed as a protection of women and children and thus revive patriarchal traditions.

If one wants a real change that has the common good and the necessary enlightening process in mind, then one cannot speak for others. Rather, everyone needs to speak for oneself with one’s own voice and to the whole world as a “reading public” (Kant). Instead of like-minded people, different-minded people must be the co-participants. The perspective of these speeches must open up a good co-operation and a common acting together of different people with different views. Thus, it strengthens the public, the opening for difference and diversity of views and interests.

Who on the contrary remains in their position does not have more; they remain rather deprived, even if they exercise all the power that they can practice because of their own office. If they see themselves as legitimate representatives and identify the universals with their opinion, they privatize and become thieves. But they only succeed through violence and ultimately demand the total exclusion of all that. Different perspectives and lifestyles are not tolerated.

Totalitarian established relatedness demands the absolute and in that way masquerades itself as religious. This absoluteness leads to an absolute relativizing: indiscriminately killing. Thus, indiscrimate violence emerges as an attribute of religion. The destruction of everything cultural becomes necessary. Not only cultural heritage of other religions, especially mosques of the different Islamic denominations are consequently destroyed by IS. Mosques are public signs, presenting Islam in public and characterizing it as a public good. In their difference and materialized spatiality, they represent a contradiction to an Islamic absolute.

Privatization, absolute

In the past, acts of terrorism were directed against representatives of a political “system” (in Germany in former times by the RAF), their spokesmen (the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France) as well as institutions (Pentagon and Twin Towers in the US). The attacks in Paris on the 13. November 2015 show a different intention to other similar attacks.

The attacks targeted people of diverse origins and interests: young and old, atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, men, women, children, French, German, people. No matter where they come from, the main aim is to kill as many different persons as possible? Rock concert goers, football fans, people who go out for dinner on Friday night: they are not indiscriminate targets, they are people with special social relations. In Paris, people were killed during their leisure activities, which are free of all political, economic and religious aims – that is to say a functionless, casual, easy-going human coexistence. The aims of these attacks were to hinder the function of the dogma-free, enjoyable side of life, and the ability of people to live joyfully together at meals, music and games.

Do Islamist terrorists simplify human diversity by dualizing? Well, they do not even dualize. They see no individuals, when they shoot in restaurants and indiscriminately kill people. They have given up distinguishing individuals. As a consequence, they pick up the established political dimension of violence that is no longer directed against an identifiable enemy.

If these terrorists really had political concerns, they would remember that they are French, i.e. immigrant children (mostly) in the second generation, visiting French schools, etc. There is not such a thing as a pure religious state, as such there can be no such thing as a first Islamic origin.

Have “we” now to defend “us”, our “free” societies, our “values”? Following the Kantian analysis, with their actions those terrorists emulate principles of Western culture. The neoliberal agenda established privatizing individual notions of order, reducing them to private self-activity, where everyone becomes his own entrepreneur. This was an important socio-political attitude of the West in the last decades. Privatization seems to nominally concern the economy, particularly labor market integration. At the same time, public goods were privatized as well: water, electricity, rail, post office, money distribution, education, social insurance, the public welfare system, etc. But this can be further radicalized. In addition, the purpose-free and functionless, individual and historical dimension of human life can be even further reduced to an absolute private. Then, an individual must no longer publicly appear.

Privatization in an absolute sense can never be achieved though capitalism, terrorism on the other hand can fulfill this ambition. It shows us: Absolute privatization leads to the extermination of leisure which is without political, economic and religious purpose. The behavior of Islamic terrorists socialized in the Western cultures can be understood as an effect of Western privatization practices. Today, the Western privatization seems to be increasingly religiously charged. What meaning has the religious war as it is taking place between Islamic groups in the Arab world for the politic of privatization? Does it build an accidental historical framework for radicalizing privatization? How does it strengthen the religious attitude “truth of faith”?

Privatization can be increased. Young people, men, and more and more women from Western contexts that follow the so-called Islamic terrorist groups frighten Western societies. They show that the policy of the relationship between the private and the public sphere is no longer productive. For privatization policies religion can be very useful, policy can be practiced as a religion and a religion as political privatization policy. Whatever the thrust of this is, it is the wrong one. Kant suggests qualifying the qualities of political speaking and acting rather than paying attention to the dualism of religion and enlightened policy.

Femininity and Islamism

In the foregoing considerations, the awareness of the women’s movement that the personal is political was the reason for picking up the Kantian interpretation of the private-public-dualism and its alliance with religion.

As absurd as it seems at first glance, Kant’s clarification of the private and the public brings to mind that Islamic terrorism celebrates a consistently feminine side. In the Western world, the feminine was seen as the representative of the private sphere before the emancipation movement of the sixties. The feminist movement publicized the private sphere. As a result they made it public. In contrast however, Islamic fundamentalism not only privatizes the feminine sphere, but the whole public sphere. Through the practice of radical privatization the role of women has a special symbolic dimension. As such Islamists stand up for femininity. In a particular way, Islamistic warriors represent femininity. Perhaps this is the secular reason why they are in fear of meeting female warriors in their wars.

How Islamistic terrorists deal with women has to become reflected on anew. What is known about it is telling. Even women who want to engage in Islamic ideas are reduced to the function of giving birth; male children are educated militaristically as early as possible. Women of other identities are enslaved as sex- and birthing-objects. Even the family does not guarantee a minimum protection from politicization.

In a world where only the private exists, there is no longer space for the transcendence and freedom of women. On the contrary, women must be reduced to pure utility. Then, all have to become a thing, must be raped and enslaved, whereas every single thing has to be destroyed. If everything is functionalized, political capitalism and religious functionalism walk hand in hand.

Whether terrorists are religious or spiritual people, depends on how you define the religious. Following Kant’s understanding of religion as a form of communication, it is obvious that we have to respond with a yes. At the same time, this case of religiosity or spirituality is not a religion bound religiosity. However, it must be unambiguously classified as a secular religion that results from the possibilities of the coexistence and co-communication of people in the world who want to decide on the design of worldly conditions. At the same time, we must not overlook the fact, that religions are using such secular attempts of religiosity as well.

Evidently, it is the task of Democratic thinkers during these years to identify such constellations and develop alternatives. For this, it is important to differentiate the public itself and its connection with the state. As shown, it is first necessary to understand the public precisely. This includes to distinguish it from individualistic freedom, but also to protect it from privatization efforts. Therefore, it is not in the interest of a democratic government to protect the public by making concessions to increasing privatizations and connecting this with religious views. At any rate it has become clear, that an annihilation of the public sphere in society has enhanced terroristic tendencies.


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