Gregory J. Lobo

Gregory J. Lobo

Gregory J Lobo is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

How can we explain the virulence and brutality—the gratuitous barbarity—of Islamist mass-murder terrorism? More than ideology, more than neurosis, we should consider mimesis, rivalry and mimetic contagion.

Some ten days before the attacks in Paris last November, the immortel René Girard died, bringing to an end a long and uniquely productive intellectual career. For decades, the master thinker of “mimetic desire” had tirelessly and consistently elaborated his theory—with consequences for fields as far-flung as literature, anthropology, psychology, history and political science. According to Girard, humans—like other mammals—are mimetic: We copy the desires of others, who thus become our models and—therefore, inevitably—our rivals for the object of desire. It is human to want what others want because they want it! This astonishing insight explains that what moves us is not the fabled unconscious of Sigmund Freud, nor the legendary economic self-interest of Karl Marx, but rather our metaphysical wish to be like the other—our mimetic desire.

It is quite possible that this theory does not explain everything about human conduct and interaction (I admit); nevertheless, it explains a lot (I insist). Among everybody’s first lessons in life is the fact that another child’s toy is always more interesting, attractive, and finally necessary, than one’s own—the one at hand—could ever be. Why is that? We all are familiar with sibling rivalry. But does it stop there? Beyond childhood and the family, adults tend to organize their work lives and personal priorities on the basis of comparisons not with the far-away Jobses or the impossible-to-rival Gateses, but with the nearby Joneses—their colleagues and neighbors.

And this is quite normal. As Girard says: “Being rational—functioning properly—is a matter of having objects and being busy with them,” it being understood that the objects are the objects of others.[1] In other words, we may well be driven by desires that are the desires of an other. This is not necessarily bad, and for the most part is, indeed, the way of the world. But Girard contrasts this “functioning properly” with madness: “being mad is a matter of letting oneself be taken over completely by mimetic models.”[2] And this is the key to understanding the mad political movements of our own day (or any other).

For mimesis can and does operate insidiously, producing uncontrollable, even deadly, rivalry. For example, in Bogotá, Colombia, where I live, one of the most readily observable ways this mimetic rivalry works itself out is on the road. In traffic, you might put your indicator on to signal a lane change. The nearby driver, who could be expected to let you in, will instead take this as a sign to compete rather than cooperate: they will actually speed up to deprive you access, to dominate you, to let you know that you cannot have what he (or just as likely she) has! Utterly confounding; utterly commonplace. And what does this driver really have? Nothing, really. Just your desire, just what you want.

Attention to this being taken over by the model, the result of an unstoppable fascination with what the other “has” and therefore “is”—a relationship that slips so fluidly into rivalrous hostility—can clarify both antisemitism in general and today’s Islamist terror in particular. Mimesis naturally turns into rivalry insofar as the model (I desire what my model desires) becomes the obstacle to my desire, by definition (I cannot have what I desire because my model won’t give it up). Historically, the Jews have been seen both as models and rivals. Wheresoever they found themselves, their neighbors came to want what they imagined the Jews had: authentic identity, group solidarity, power (or better, secret power), riches.

To acquire what the Jews (the others, the models) supposedly had, the gentile community would unite and turn against these surpassingly frustrating rivals, attack and expel them, so as to be able take (on) what was left. Except that nothing was ever left. Even so, neither expulsion nor local extirpation—and most certainly not the nothingness left where once there was something Jewish—was ever quite adequate, ever quite enough to calm the mimetic contagion. Even absent, the Jews were to blame—fair game, for they had a certain something, wherever they hid (it). The Nazi Holocaust was the attempt to forever abolish the Jew per se, both as model and rival.

Today Islamist terror “reasons” likewise—it surges forth from out of the same obsessive, benighted, immaculate (mis)conception and culminates in the articulation of basically the same mad and murderous project. The Jews are held to be principally, if not entirely, the Problem—they imperceptibly and all too quickly pass from being the model to being the very obstacle to the fulfillment of desire—and the rest tends to follow from there. What is being argued here, in other words, is that the ultimate source of this terror that besieges us today—this delirious contagious barbarism—is, fundamentally, mimetic desire. This terror strikes so horrifically at its models because they are imagined as not merely rivals—but as rivals for something that doesn’t actually exist (call it “fullness of being”), competitors that fatally impede the terrorist subject’s capacity to realize itself completely. As no one ever has or will.

What is the desire for the imperial caliphate, if not a copy of the model’s prior imperial desire—imagined not only to be real but manifestly fulfilled? It doesn’t matter that the model, in fact, neither has such empire nor such desire. What is the desire to build and belong to an “authentic” (homogeneous, unified) Islamic nation, if not the copy of the desire of the model—imagined to have been achieved—for such an authentic nation: Israel, France, Spain, the U.S., Britain, and so on? It is of no import that these nations are riven by disagreement, dissension, faction and so on. Likewise, the fact that there already exist several Islamic nations is of no consequence. And what is the mad desire to control the world if not a copy of the hallucinated demonic desire, seen to be satisfied, of the model—of the Jews and their allies—to control it? Never mind the fact that if the world really were under the control of anyone, things wouldn’t be so chaotic and so manifestly out of control. We are talking about desire for the unseen—don’t forget—the latent, the hidden (and so all the more precious) determinant of everything seen.

Based on a pathological misrecognition of “the Jew”—and by association the “Judaized” Western democratic citizen at large, understood to have been infected with Judaism in the modern period of Jewish emancipation and assimilation—the terrorist succumbs to what Girard identifies precisely as “madness.” Then, possessed by these demons—these phantasmatic models-cum-rivals for everything the terrorist lacks—he focuses his irrational reason on their—our—destruction.

Of course, neither the Jew nor the gentile corresponds to what the terrorist imagines. Most of us—Christians, Muslims, atheists and Jews—are just doing our best. Trying (though often failing) to make sense of things; trying (but yes, often failing) to do the right thing, all things considered. Trying not so much to get ahead as just get along. We are not all-powerful; but if we are lucky, we may happen to be members of societies based on respect for individual dignity and rights, personal freedom, a pretty good measure of democracy too. Societies that have, to a great degree, learned to deal in peaceful ways with those differences and rivalries that inevitably come up for us mammals subject to the pleasures and perils of mimetic desire. Societies, therefore, that we should recommit to, now more than ever!

The terrorist will not see that. He (or she) does not want to be what we really are: for they know on some level it’s not easy, much less perfectly satisfying. They want instead to be what we are only in their fevered imagination and fantasies, to which end we must be disappeared—in reality. The conclusion is perfectly clear: We are all Jews now.[3]


[1] Girard, René. 1987. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, p. 311.

[2] Ibid.

[3] By contrast, Judith Butler’s “transversal mourning” for all victims of terror everywhere except Israel in practice excludes Jews. See Gabriel Noah Brahm, “How Not to Grieve for the Victims of Terror: Judith Butler’s Hypocritical Response to the Paris Attacks,” Flashpoint 4,