dali warThis article on why jihadis seem willing to commit acts that appear so depraved or evil was published in the Observer under the headline ‘Why do Islamist groups in particular seem so much more sadistic, even evil?’

The day before the Paris carnage, two suicide bombers killed at least 40 people in a Shia district of Beirut. The week after, two suicide bombings of street markets in Nigeria killed 49 people.

Faced with such atrocities, we can often do little but reach for adjectives such as ‘barbarous’, ‘depraved’, or even ‘evil’. But what is it that makes people act in such depraved, evil ways?

‘The sad truth’, Hannah Arendt wrote in The Life of the Mind, ‘is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil’. Marc Sageman, once a CIA case officer in Afghanistan, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US government, makes a similar point about today’s jihadis. ‘It’s comforting to believe that these guys are different from us, because what they do is so evil’, he argues. ‘Unfortunately, they aren’t that different.’

But jihadis are different. They are, after all, jihadis. How are people ‘who aren’t that different’ from you and me able to commit the most brutal of mass murders?

When we talk of an act as ‘depraved’ or ‘evil’ we are not merely describing something particularly abhorrent. We are making a claim about the boundaries of morality itself.

People often disagree about the most fundamental of moral issues. Some, for instance, view torture as always wrong, others think it acceptable to torture a terrorist to obtain vital information. Each may view the other as immoral. Yet they are likely to agree that both are debating questions of right and wrong in a meaningful way.

If someone were to say, however, that ‘Torturing people is an unalloyed good’, few would see him as making a moral argument at all. He would be outside the defined boundaries of the moral landscape. And most people would call such a claim ‘evil’.

Evil, in other words, is not simply about defining an act as being particularly wicked. It is also about defining the space within which we can have a meaningful debate about good and bad, virtue and wickedness. What makes the actions of jihadis appear so inexplicable is that they seem to take place beyond the moral universe most of us inhabit. So, what is it that leads people ‘who aren’t that different’ to cross the normal boundaries of morality?

goya saturn devouring one of his children

People have. of course, always committed depraved and evil acts. But simply to say ‘It has always happened’ does not tell us explain what is distinctive about contemporary terrorism. Nor does it address perhaps the most incendiary question today: Why do Islamist groups in particular seem so much more sadistic, even evil?

For some the answer lies with Islam itself. The Qur’an, they argue, is particularly violent, Muslims more given to literal readings of their Holy book, and hence more willing to commit acts of savagery.

Islam is clearly important factor in understanding jihadis. Those – including David Cameron and Barack Obama – who insist that jihadis are not ‘real Muslims’ miss the point. The fact that supporters of IS practice their religion in a way that horrifies most liberals does not make it any less Islamic.

Yet, if the insistence that jihadism is disconnected from Islam makes little sense, so does the claim that Islam alone can explain why jihadis act so unconscionably. The vast majority of Muslims abhor the actions of IS, and would find their actions morally inexplicable. And from Buddhist monks in Myanmar organizing anti-Muslim pogroms to Dylann Roof shooting dead black worshippers in a Charleston church, inhumanity is widespread in the non-Muslim world too.

There appears, nevertheless, to be something especially potent about Islam in fomenting terror and persecution. Contemporary radical Islam is the religious form through which a particular kind of barbarous rage  expresses itself. So, to understand why jihadis have been drawn into a different moral universe that allows them to celebrate, brutally inhuman acts, we have to understand why political rage against the West takes such nihilistic, barbaric forms today; and why radical Islam has become the primary means through which to express such rage.

Jihadis view themselves as warriors against Western imperialism. Yet, few anti-imperialists of previous generations would recognise jihadists as ideological kin.

There is a long history of popular struggles against colonialism and empire. While such movements often used violent means to pursue their ends, they were rarely ‘anti-Western’ in any existential sense. Rather they worked within a universalist moral framework that stressed freedom and emancipation for all humanity.

Over the past few decades these old anti-imperialist traditions have unraveled. The new movements that have emerged in their place are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity, and are sectarian or separatist in form. This shift is linked to the wider decline of progressive social movements, the loss of faith in universalist values, and the replacement of ideological politics with the politics of identity. Moral norms have increasingly become tribal rather than universal. Political struggle for a better world has given way to inchoate identity-driven rage.

Why has radical Islam become the lightning rod for such rage? In part because of the conditions that have allowed Islamism to flourish; and in part because of the nature of fundamentalist faith in an age in which political ideals have eroded.

The failure of secular regimes in Muslim-majority countries, and their degeneration into brutal authoritarianism, has led many to associate secularism with repression, giving greater credibility to Islamist opposition. The cynicism of the West in backing authoritarian regimes when it suited them has inflamed anti-Western passions. Misguided military interventions have helped destroy civil society, so hollowing out the space for Islamists to flourish, while also exacerbating hostility towards the West.

It’s not just in Muslim countries that sectarian opposition movements have arisen in opposition to authoritarian rule. But in non-Muslim countries, from Myanmar to the Democratic Republic of Congo, such sectarianism rarely has purchase beyond their borders. The global character of Islam has transformed the sectarian movements into a worldwide phenomenon, linking Muslims to struggles across the world.

beksinski we are all in the hands of goliaths

If the actions of local rulers and the consequences of Western action have helped create one kind of void that Islamism has filled, the retreat of progressive politics has created another.

The demise of traditional opposition movements has led many to look for alternative forms of struggle, and created a yearning for God-given moral lines. Islamism, with its demand for a struggle to establish an alternative system governed by divinely-sanctioned rules, has for some filled the void. The illusion of divine sanction has allowed jihadis to justify their acts, however grotesque they may be.

Jihadis imagine that they are waging war against the West. But the West has become in their eyes, not a set of specific nations responsible for specific acts, but an almost mythical, all-encompassing monster, the modern version of the chimera or basilik, the source of all manner of horror and dread. And against such a monster, almost any act becomes acceptable.

Shorn of the moral framework that once guided anti-imperialists, shaped by black and white values that in their mind possess divine approval, driven by a sense of rage about non-Muslims and a belief in an existential struggle between Islam and the West, jihadis have come to inhabit a different moral universe, in which they are to commit the most inhuman of acts and view them as righteous.

None of this is to ‘excuse’ jihadis, or their actions. It is, however, to suggest that the ‘evil’ expressed in the kind of terror visited in recent days upon Paris, Beirut and Nigeria is not merely some eternal aspect of human nature, but very much the product of our times.


The paintings are, from top down, Salvador Dalí’s ‘The Face of War; Francisco Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’; Zdzislaw Beksiński’s ‘We are all in the hands of Goliath’.


  1. Adrian

    Interesting and food for thought. It does, however, not explain why the jihadis concentrate the bulk of their evil on the population of countries where the majority of the people adhere to islamic beliefs.

    • I might have some insight into that.

      About thirty years ago I spent some time as the in-house crime statistics specialist in a large American police agency, doing neighborhood level analysis.Two things stood out. The first was that criminals lived in the poorest neighborhood, not because poor people were criminals, but because being a criminal made you poor. The second is that criminals victimized their neighbors. Evidently criminals tend to be both unfocused (“unprofessional” might be apt) and lazy. Instead of carefully planning crimes against rich targets, they just hit whatever target is closest as needs arise. This is not always the case, but rather occurs more often than not. When I looked at rich neighborhoods I saw very low crime levels, and that mainly due to delinquent teenage sons whose families lived there. When these lads grew up they either matured out of criminality or sank into a poor neighborhood.

      I see the same pattern (perhaps coincidentally) in the jihadis. They most often target what’s closest and easiest, not what’s “richest”, most effective. When they do any sort of elaborate planning they still go for easy targets — restaurants and subways, not parliaments or stock exchanges. When they go for a “rich” target they fail; they aren’t that good. (9/11 is the exception to this.) Even when they plan against an easy target they usually fail; you read about someone being arrested and a lot of guns seized, and it drops from your mind.

      I suspect that if you examined my other point — that being a criminal makes you poor and leaves you living in a poor district — you might find the same thing with jihadis as well. People with severe problems controlling impulses and setting long-term goals turn to criminality without thinking much about. “I need that so I’ll take it.” I suspect jihadism appeals to these people as it gives them a means of controlling impulses and living towards a goal. Their lack of any sort of moral control does the rest.

  2. The point about secular regimes in Muslim-majority countries being associated with repression is a very helpful insight. It’s yet another irony piled on others that helps systematic rejection of democracy as a solution- what a shame.

    “The demise of traditional opposition movements” seems important, but it’s inappropriately unexplained and no examples provided. Similarly, there’s a paragraph that contains reasons for radicalizing that you’ve discussed elsewhere- identity politics, etc.- that is also prohibited from providing clarity through brevity. I didn’t think there was anything else here that I haven’t heard said rouglhly as well at parties- violent religion, western stupidity. MIght’ve saved some of that part’s real estate for the less-familiar points.

    Two smaller gripes, the first about a “similar point”: “‘The sad truth’, Hannah Arendt wrote in The Life of the Mind, ‘is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil’. Marc Sageman, once a CIA case officer in Afghanistan, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US government, makes a similar point about today’s jihadis. ‘It’s comforting to believe that these guys are different from us, because what they do is so evil’, he argues. ‘Unfortunately, they aren’t that different.’

    Those two points are not the least similar in logic or intent- in fact, in one pertinent way, they’re contrasting statements. The paragraph threw me for such a loop that I didn’t come out of it until two or three paragraphs down. Arendt famously describes the bureaucratic nature of getting most evil done, through dissembling, rationalizing people; Sageman is asserting that jihadists, who, in contrast, actually do “make up their minds to be good”, are like us psychically. Sageman’s quote is apropos to the point you’re starting to slouch toward; Arendt’s point isn’t germane or helpful.

    Finally, there’s the scare quotes around evil in the last paragraph. Evil’s a good word, a great word, especially in the context of terrorism- let’s not confuse the notion of evil, in such an appropriate setting, with an inference that it’s relativistic, or synthesized by religious types, or to be learned from, or to be derived later by experts, or something not anywhere near as bad when you fess up your culpability and dig in to what your people caused. Leftists don’t use the word nearly enough because we’re so hot on exPLAINing it, and so used to the term being abused by the right. Use it just like Arendt did, all day long, without qualification.

  3. The usual cause of rage is fear; in the case of the jihadis, this is fear of the rest of the world, which has been Westernised and hems in the Umma, percolating into it and (perhaps) undermining it.

    Fearful aggressors see themselves as defenders, thus innocent and good – the Inquisitions sought to defend humanity against heresy (and thus Hell), the Nazis sought to defend Germany against decadence and an (imaginary) international Jewish conspiracy.

    In the case of jihadis there is one deeper and more terrible cause of insecurity – religious doubt. Muslims have always regarded Islam’s expansion and triumphs as proof of its truth; many of them struggle to cope with Islam’s adversity this last three centuries. This fear – that Islam may not, after all, be true, is the more powerful for being repressed.

  4. Fayyaz

    Despite writing a great very balanced article, there was still a need to write this sentence in the last paragraph” None of this is to ‘excuse’ jihadis, or their actions.” It is very telling and I think it is because it is demanded ,in the name of morality, by everyone, including advocates of free speech, that evil actions by the terrorists should be condemned without any ifs or buts. This demand is no accident because going beyond no ifs and buts exposes the culpability of the West in the creation of this evil monster.
    West exploited Islam to recruit freedom fighters ( Jihadis) to defeat Russia in Afghanistan and in the process created Taliban and Al-Qaeda and later helped create ISIS by invading Iraq. Now Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist organizations are exploiting same Islam to produces Jihadis and go after the West. West interferes in the Muslim lands for their economic interests and in the process supports the repressive and dictatorial regimes and that has not changed. And this is the core of the problem and nothing will change unless West changes its own policies towards Muslim lands. Saudi Arabia is the source of support for most of the terrorist organizations, including 9/11, yet you will never hear a peep to go after Saudi Arabia.

    • Adrian

      Dear Fayyaz, as always everything is the fault of the “West”. People in “non-Western” countries do not bear any responsibility for what is happening in their countries. This insight is really very helpful.

      • I suggest that the narrative on the Left is that peoples of non-Western countries bear no responsibility at all, as they are like children, their child-like status making them dependent on the wisdom of the West. In the past (goes this narrative) these children were betrayed by abusive parents who exploited their children without mercy for their own selfish ends. Now, however, the children of the non-West are ready for a new sort of parent as a new and deeper wisdom emerges from the Academies of Europe and New England. So wise men (with a few women thrown in) from the academies must and have entered the political arena to bestow their gifts on a sullen and ungrateful world. Unlike the racist abusive parents of the past, the new parents welcome people of color to the ranks of the Wise, as long as they gather the Wisdom of the Western Academies and hold it to their breasts.

        In the above account of the narrative of the Left the references to Kipling are intentional. This is the new, updated version of The White Man’s Burden, made politically palatable by obscuring its thrust with Marxian rhetorical devices. I have merely stripped away the rhetoric.

    • El_Mocho

      Do you really believe the situation in muslim lands would be any better without western interventions?

      • Fayyaz

        Only way to find out is to leave them alone, let them grow up and settle their own scores. Our intervention has not made anything better anyway except pile up more innocent civilian deaths on both sides.

        • El_Mocho

          The one thing is that people do net generally leave each other alone. Nobody asked the arabs to conquer Spain and colonise it in the 8th century.

        • Fayyaz

          In response to El Mocho.
          It is true. Then it is a norm to interfere in other nations for personal interests including targeting civilians as we did in Vietnam ( spraying Agent Orange on civilians and fields), Algeria and other conflicts. Then why are we so shocked with ISIS hitting back with terrorists acts on civilians and demanding condemnation with no ifs and buts?

  5. De Te Fabula Narratur

    Europe had auto-da-fés, executions-by-butchery and judicial torture for millennia, supported by the most sophisticated thinkers and moralists. It took a long time for us to stop that kind of thing, so importing a new and more extreme set of religious, cultural and racial differences was not a good idea.

    Islam is clearly important factor in understanding jihadis. Those – including David Cameron and Barack Obama – who insist that jihadis are not ‘real Muslims’ miss the point. The fact that supporters of IS practice their religion in a way that horrifies most liberals does not make it any less Islamic.

    An excellent point that is not made often enough, especially not in the Guardian or on the BBC.

    There’s no simple explanation for barbarism, but there are biological causes among the cultural ones (not that biology and culture are entirely distinct). Jihadists often come from in-bred populations and in-breeding lowers IQ, promotes neurological disorders and makes people more ethnocentric. See consanguinity map here:

    In-bred societies are not pleasant places to live or wise places to import large numbers of people from. It’s not just jihadists who are behaving in barbarous ways:

    When Thames Valley Police was first made aware of allegations of rape and sexual assault against teenagers in August 2006 — and on at least three further occasions — it failed to pursue the investigations after the terrified victims withdrew their complaints. Seven men of Asian or North African origin were found guilty of grooming six vulnerable white girls before putting them through a “living hell” during which they were forced to commit acts of “extreme depravity”. In a case that bears harrowing similarities to the Rochdale grooming scandal, carefully chosen victims were showered with gifts and plied with alcohol and drugs before being subjected to years of terrifying abuse. […]

    Once under their control the abusers forced the girls to have sex using threats of extreme violence. Some were gang-raped, while others were prostituted to men who would travel from all parts of the country to have sex with them. If the girls did not comply, they were beaten and burned with cigarettes. One girl was even branded with her abusers’ initials. When another victim became pregnant aged 12, she was forced to undergo a dangerous backstreet abortion. Another was abused with sex toys to “prepare” her for one of the gang rapes.

    Hundreds if not thousands of men were involved in that one case, all from “communities” that are “close-knit”, i.e. people know each other’s business. Jimmy Savile was highly anomalous among the white British and he didn’t behave as badly as that. But it’s Pakistani Muslims (and Arabs, blacks) who are involved in so-called “grooming gangs” here, not Indian Muslims such as yourself, who are more like British Hindus: high achievers (but inclined to corruption). All the same, when a religion teaches that women and non-believers are inferior, it isn’t very surprising that we’ve had Oxford, Rotherham etc here. Or that France has this:

    Samira Bellil (November 24, 1972 – September 4, 2004) was a French feminist activist and a campaigner for the rights of girls and women. Bellil became famous in France with the publication of her autobiographical book Dans l’enfer des tournantes (‘In the hell of the “tournantes” (gang-rapes)) in 2002. The book discusses the violence she and other young women endured in the predominantly Muslim immigrant outskirts of Paris, where she was repeatedly gang-raped as a teenager by gangs led by people she knew, and then abandoned by her family and friends. Her book is a portrayal of the predicament of young girls in the poor, outlying suburbs (banlieue) of French cities. Samira Bellil

    Thanks to mass immigration, European history is now becoming as interesting as it was during the Reformation. Belgium used to be thought of as boring, for example.

  6. Fayyaz

    “as always everything is the fault of the “West”.” it is a throw away and back fall line used by every side with no intellectual basis.

  7. Let them grow up … ? (Kipling reference deleted. You can make it yourself if you want.)

    I would like to see a mode of discourse that doesn’t patronize non-West people.

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