Pandaemonium

RADICAL ISLAM AND THE RAGE AGAINST MODERNITY

bacon tryptich

This is the full version of the article on ‘Radical Islam, Nihilist Rage’ published last month in the New York Times.


Faced with a horror such as the slaughter of 148 schoolchildren and staff by the Taliban in Pakistan, it is tempting to describe the act as ‘inhuman’ or ‘medieval’. What made the massacre particularly chilling, though, is that it was neither. The killings were all too human and of our time. The Peshawar massacre may have been particularly abhorrent, but the Taliban has attacked at least 1000 schools over the past five years. It has butchered hundreds through suicide bombings of churches and mosques. And beyond Pakistan lies the brutality of groups such as Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab.

If such horrors are neither inhuman nor medieval, there is something else that seems to bind these acts together. All were carried out in the name of Islam. Why is it, many ask, that so many of today’s most monstrous conflicts appear to involve Islam? And why do Islamist groups seem so much more vicious, sadistic, even evil?

Muslims are not the only religious group involved in perpetrating horrors. From Christian militias in the Central African Republic reportedly eating their foes to Buddhist monks organizing anti-Muslim pogroms in Myanmar, there is cruelty aplenty in the world. Nor are religious believers alone in committing grotesque acts. Yet, critics argue, there appears to be something particularly potent about Islam in fomenting violence, terror and persecution.

These are explosive issues and need addressing carefully. The trouble is, the debate around them remains trapped between bigotry and fear. For many, the actions of groups such as IS or the Taliban merely provide ammunition to promote anti-Muslim hatred. Many liberals, on the other hand, close their eyes and fearful of asking dangerous questions. They often sidestep the issue by suggesting that the Taliban or IS do not represent the ‘real Islam’ – a claim made recently, in so many words, by both US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Many argue, too, that the actions of such groups are driven by politics not religion.

Neither claim is credible. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by how believers interpret those texts; that is, by its practices. The many ways in which believers live out their faith define that faith at any one time. The fact that Islamists practice their religion in a manner that is abhorrent to liberals does not make it any less real, though neither does it make it any more real. Each constitutes a specific strand of contemporary Islam.

Nor does it make sense to think of the Taliban or IS or Boko Haram as motivated simply by politics any more than it does to imagine them as purely religious groups. Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and Nigeria have complex social and political roots, as groups vying for political power have exploited religion and religious identities to exercise power, impose control and win support. But to acknowledge the social and political roots of these conflicts does not require us to ignore the role of religion in shaping the actions of the Taliban or IS or Boko Haram.

Contemporary radical Islam is the religious form through which a particular kind of barbarous political rage expresses itself. So rather than debate ‘Is Islam good or evil?’ or ‘Are jihadis motivated by politics or religion?’, we need to ask different kinds of questions, about both religion and politics. Why does political rage against the West take such nihilistic, barbaric forms today? And why has radical Islam become the principal means of expressing such nihilistic, barbaric rage? I will deal primarily with the first question here, and return to the second another time.

The character of anti-Western sentiment has changed strikingly in recent decades. There is a long history of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements stretching from the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s to the independence movements of the 1960s and 70s in Africa and Asia. While such movements challenged Western power and often used violent means to pursue their ends, they were rarely ‘anti-Western’ in any existential sense. Indeed, their leaders often embraced revolutionary ideas that came out of the West, self-consciously locating themselves in the tradition of the European Enlightenment.

Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian nationalist, was one of the most important twentieth-century thinkers about imperialism. The aim, he suggested, was not to reject ‘Western’ ideas but to reclaim them for all of humanity. ‘All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought’, he wrote. ‘But Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission that fell to them.’

toussaint louvertureAnti-imperialists of the past saw themselves as part of a wider political project that sought to modernize the non-Western world, politically and economically. Today however, that wider political project is itself seen as the problem. There is considerable disenchantment with many aspects of ‘modernity’ from individualism to globalization, from the breakdown of traditional cultures to the fragmentation of societies, from the blurring of moral boundaries to the seeming spiritual soullessness of the contemporary world.

In the past racists often viewed modernity as the property of the West and regarded the non-Western world as incapable of modernizing. Today, it is ‘radicals’ who often regard modernity as a Western product and reject both it and the West as tainted goods.

The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage about modernity. Many strands of contemporary thought, from the deep greens to the radical left, express aspects of such discontent. But it is radical Islam that has come act as the real lightning rod for this fury.

There are many forms of Islamism from the Taliban to Hamas, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Boko Haram. What they have in common is a capacity to fuse hostility to the West with hatred for modernity and seemingly to provide an alternative to both. Islamists marry political ‘radicalism’ with a deeply conservative social sensibility, a hostility to globalization with the embrace of a global ummah. In so doing, they turn the contradictory aspects of the rage against modernity into a strength.

At the same time jihadism provides Islamist ideology with a military form and seemingly creates a global social movement, at a time when other such movements have collapsed. What jihadism does not possess is the moral framework that guided anti-imperialist movements. Shorn of that guiding framework, and reduced to raging at the world, jihadists have turned terror to an end in itself. And in so doing, they have made the inhuman all too conceivable.

The slaughter in Peshawar, just like the mass beheading by the IS, tell us something about the character of contemporary Islam and of Islamism. It tells us even more about the state of contemporary politics, and especially of radical politics.

 

The paintings are from Francis Bacon’s Triptych and a portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, by an unknown artist.

8 comments

  1. damon

    To the people who keep saying ” it’s got nothing to do with Islam” you could also ask whether Saudi Arabia has anything to do with Islam either.
    With Islamic fundamentalism, you don’t have to be actually right about anything, all you need is some people who think the same as you. That makes you right.

    Slightly off the wall, but I think people like Kenan should try to engage a bit with some people on the right wing of these arguments. People they might not normally feel they really have much in common with.
    Like Douglas Murray for example. I know they’ve disagreed quite strongly in the past, but I’m somewhere in the middle and see valid points of view on both sides.

  2. Jørgen Laursen

    I kind of like both Murray and Malik, too. I know they’ve had their tiffs, for instance on “The Moral Maze,” but it seems to me they have more in common than sets them apart. I certainly don’t see Murray as the big, bad, islamophobic bogieman that he’s sometimes made out to be by certain people on the left, or by a lot of British Muslims. Rather, I’d call him a principled advocate of free speech and an eloquent critic of British Multiculturalism, who perhaps sometimes waxes a bit too enthusiastic about the state of Israel. Then again, I’d say the same about Kenan – except that in his case, it seems to me that he sometimes overdoes the significance of “other-fication” when analyzing why many European Muslims increasingly segregate themselves from the societies in which they live.

    After all, we all swim in the same malignant soup of identity politics – but it seems especially tasty to traditionalist Muslims who want to live apart.

  3. damon

    I think that Murray has actually crossed a line sometimes and gone too far.
    But that doesn’t mean I think he should be treated as tainted in all regards.
    I know that on the left there is this tradition of breaking off contact with people who are deemed too right wing, or have said things considered very wrong. But I don’t agree with doing that myself.
    You end up with Unite Against Fascism and ultra pious lefties looking down their noses at too many people. And the left is riven with people like that today. They are judge and jury and will hear no arguments against their view. There’s a blogger on twitter (who maybe I shouldnt name – but he has 51,000 followers) who is typical of that sort of leftism. He even helped prevent Rod Liddle becoming the editor of the Independent newspaper by running a ”Stop Liddle” campaign.
    I also think Liddle should be engaged in debate on issues like this, because even if it seems improbable, his too is a legitimate view – from a certain part of society.
    It’s the part of society that Liddle seems to feel comfortable in when he goes to watch matches at Millwall FC, but many of his fiercest critics would be entirely outside of their comfort zones if they were to go to such a place. Because they completely ”don’t get” that part of society.
    They’re actually horrified by it – and quickly label it as fascist, like they did the EDL.
    The EDL was certainly unpleasant, but calling it fascist and Nazi showed that the people using those kinds of labels just didn’t understand that particular part of the working class.

  4. It’s not just strands of the left in the West that reflect a hatred of modernity. I’d add much of the right, where there are revivalist fantasies around immigration, imperialism, human rights, global warming, and imposing laws that enforce religious views. But more broadly and more importantly, much of the on-the-street talk of westerners is couched in the framework of modernity’s degradations and ills, with virtually no recognition of how modernity has worked miracles for humanity. That attitude is a broad-based disease, with a large statistical tail of victims caught in a logic loop that dictates revolution. Steven Pinker’s work on violence and happiness reveals modernity as a rather fantastic thing, even if alloyed with failures and delays. I’m involved in a lot of activism, and the lack of optimism and general sense of malaise among my partners often springs from this broad-based mistrust of modernity. That attitude is like a dragging anchor on the work with the public, who are already steeped in a melange of resentment of modernity, lack of appreciation of its accomplishments, and a concomitant sense of ineffectuality. We need to maintain a vision of modern history that continually enacts a sense of the value of the large decreases in wars and disease, and the increases in democracy and incomes that delineate modernity. Even a medium-term perspective reveals modernity in its true garb. The lack of it allows resentment of modernity to find purchase almost everywhere, with a ubiquitous acceptance of the fantasy that things get worse, that little good comes of dialogue, or reason, or compromise, or civil disobedience, or any other effort. In the West, I’d submit that this cynicism is why we have continued beyond rational consumption into an unequal and consumerist version of capitalism, in a kind of blindness around what’s possible. In turn, that cynicism or lack of vision is much of the western accoutrement that enlivens radical Islam, which generally exists in environments excluded from economic success. The strong academic work of Atran and others shows that terrorism is essentially engendered and spreads through poverty and education problems- that radical Islam should be thought of as a conduit. In a sense, we’re synthesizing the problem of jihad through our own distorted attitude on modernity.

  5. “Neither claim is credible. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by how believers interpret those texts; that is, by its practices. The many ways in which believers live out their faith define that faith at any one time. The fact that Islamists practice their religion in a manner that is abhorrent to liberals does not make it any less real, though neither does it make it any more real. Each constitutes a specific strand of contemporary Islam.”

    I’m respectfully at odds with this statement. Surely this argument would require a religious expert to make it. My reasoning is that there are basic premises which allows a religion to become a religion. However when certain individuals commit certain acts, in the name of that religion, but which technically sit outside the parameters of said religion, I don’t believe we can say it is a recognisable strand of that religion. Because it has contradicted the basic principles. This would then lead to a discussion on the legal philosophy and jurisprudence of Islam, which has already been done countless times. Thus, to change or add to the definition of Islam without an understanding of its fundamental governing principles would be a job best left to religious experts.

  6. De Te Fabula Narratur

    Neither claim is credible. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by how believers interpret those texts — that is, by its practices. The ways in which believers act out their faith define that faith. The fact that Islamist extremists practice their religion in a manner abhorrent to liberals does not make that practice less real.

    Good point. Unfortunately, it’s not being made often or loudly enough.

    The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage about modernity. Many strands of contemporary thought, from the deep greens to the radical left, express aspects of such discontent. But it is radical Islam that has come act as the real lightning rod for this fury.

    I don’t think the metaphor works. Lightning rods allow lightning to discharge without harm. Radical Islam is the vehicle for the fury. Or embodiment of the fury. Or centrifuge.

    The slaughter in Peshawar, like the mass beheadings by the Islamic State, tells us something about the character of contemporary Islam and of Islamism. It tells us even more about the state of contemporary politics, and especially of radical politics.

    It tells us that we live in interesting times.

  7. Big Bear

    We ignored you after 22 – 30 million died
    in World War II. Favored China, reliably
    corrupt, into having a Feudal class, but you lacked
    the prowess to extract your own oil, we could still
    do oil business with you, Big Bear, but the rest
    went to China: the shipping, manufacturing, even
    new mergers wherein Chinese firms now own Volvo
    and the PC division of IBM! So Sochi was to be
    Putin’s horse, so someone burned Kiev right then!
    (CIA?) Distressed, due to the viciousness of events
    Around the globe, neighborhood, we divert attention
    from our own digression at home to a potential
    (yet again) war in a third party’s country, Ukraine,
    which NATO is willing to exterminate in order to lure
    today’s tanks into a larger skirmish in case the ISIS
    crisis flames out. Gotta have back up wars and back
    them up in case the main wars sputter. It’s a new
    Pentagon directive, as witnessed by the annual troop
    and ship movements every March on the North/South
    Korean border. Tom “Obama-Hawk Missile” flies again.

    • Jørgen Laursen

      Dude, poetry and conspiracy theories don’t mix. Also, you might want to cut down on the pretentiousness. And the weed …😉

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