ISIS and Mimesis: Why the Islamic State really isn't 'Savage' at all
Time and again, we see the horrors of religious extremism. Even before Sept. 11, the maladies of radicalism have deliberately attacked Western culture in an attempt to instill a new world paradigm. Lately, this extremism has taken the face of the Islamic State. The mainstream media tries the best it can to define this constant threat. They report on the atrocities of beheading and rape. They provide as much information as possible and genuinely want to get a handle on what this evil looks like in modern times. But the problem lays in their designation of the word ‘Savage’. We constantly hear the word Savage by anchors and correspondents when trying to describe the behavior and motivations of the Islamic State. And that’s understandable. Their actions are unspeakably cruel and more often than not debris from an era of the past.
But they’re not Savage.
The Savage ideal comes with a set of assumptions that make it a legitimate form of reality. Usually, there is a set of circulating references that connect the Savage with more modernized value systems. Michael Taussig touched upon this in his exploration of Colonial State and native Indians of the Cauca River in 1931. He describes how the Indians would create imitations of the Nation State’s Army and through mimesis have healing power amongst their people. The fetish-like power increased their social status. In addition, the Indians would ingest a medicine having hallucinogenic properties thought to ensorcel and ultimately provide a supernatural healing. The healing would come through a “painting” or vision through which the recipient was granted the power to heal.
But the colonists also made use of the same method of “painting” to evoke power as well. Although in their case, the vision cured sorcery by other colonists. In addition, the colonial “painting” portrayed the Indian as a devil; which is no surprise really. Given the context and agenda of the colonists, it’s feasible that a “painting” of the native as something Other would be within the realm of possibilities. The point to take away here is that the mysterious power that the Indians used to gain supernatural entry was also utilized by Colonists who feared they had a need for supernatural intervention in their lives. As Taussig remarked, “If the Indian gains healing power by virtue of the “painting” of the Nation State’s Golden Army, and the poor Colonist, emergent from that State, gains healing power through the “painting” of the Indian as Devil, then we must be sensitive to the crucial circulation of imageric power between these sorts of selves and these sorts of anti-selves, their ominous need for and their feeding off each other’s correspondence- interlocking dream-images guiding the reproduction of social life no less than the production of sacred powers.” The magic of the Savage way of thinking was given legitimacy and credence as a proven and trusted avenue for curing methods. The network between the Indians and Colonists a reciprocal checks and balances wherein both were established entities and parts of a greater whole. The mechanisms of social life dependent on these cogs in order to function.
It’s not hard to discern the implications of designating the Savage title to ISIS. In the consented reality of a socio-cultural and at least partly, symbiotic correspondence between the Indian and Colonial worldview, the Savage or Primitive way of thinking is given ontological relevancy. It bursts into Being by way of the society created in its wake. Do we really want to bestow this same kind of legitimacy and supernatural agency to the ISIS idolaters? And that’s just one example. Think for a moment on the array of cultures through time that make use of this Savage line of thought.
In reality, ISIS is more reminiscent of Nazi behavior. Yet they too hopelessly used mimetic qualities in an attempt to achieve world domination. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, “The purpose of the Fascist formula, the ritual discipline, the uniforms, and the whole apparatus, which is at first irrational, is to allow mimetic behavior. The carefully thought out symbols, the skulls and disguises, the barbaric drum beats, the monotonous repetition of words and gestures, are simply the organized imitation of magic practices, the mimesis of mimesis.”  It’s common knowledge that Hitler and Goebbels attempted occult practices during World War Two. Although the numinous ones ignored them, they absolutely strived to imitate the magic of the Savage. And in their perversions of occult interaction they ultimately sealed their own fate.
ISIS isn’t even that original. Their actions, in fact, are a mimesis of mimesis of mimesis. As they imitate the behavior and worldview of the Third Reich, who themselves were a festering perversion of the Savage perspective, they illegitimize themselves even further. The Islamic State is a mimetic caricature of a religio-politic entity and more idolater of Islam than anything else. One thing they certainly are not is Savage. The mere idea of gifting them the reciprocal interaction of deitic correspondence does a terrible disservice to every cultural group that successfully integrates the supernatural into their reality. The only thing we should be calling ISIS is ‘terrorist’ and preferably they should be referred to in the past tense. As in a blight or toxic eyesore that we stomped out long ago.