The recent attacks by ISIS on Western targets call into serious question the assumptions stated publicly by the leaders of the Western liberal democracies.
Anyone concerned about the events in Paris, for instance, should check out this truly alarming report in The New York Review of Books on the spread of the Islamic State ideology within Europe:
Here are some highlights.
7-8% of the population of France is Muslim, but somewhere in the vicinity of 70% of its prison population is Muslim. That is an excellent breeding-ground for this ideology!
One opinion poll reports that in excess of 25% of French youth between the ages of 18 and 24 say their opinion of ISIS is “favorable” or “very favorable.”
Constant surveillance of a single individual demands the involvement of twenty security agents.
80% of European jihadis are from non-religious families. 20% of the French foreign fighters in Syria are converts to Islam.
Nearly 50,000 Twitter accounts support ISIS with an average following of a thousand each.
The main attraction to ISIS on the basis of interviews these researchers have done with youth in France is the idea of self-sacrifice in the role of a holy warrior.
Clearly, a significant number of those who convert to jihadi ideals see it as a liberating exit from a meaningless life of delinquency and petty crime. But the authors also point out that many high-level jihadis “have had access to considerable education – especially in scientific fields such as engineering and medicine that require great discipline and a willingness to delay gratification.” They have before them a conscious choice between the familiar goods of a bourgeois life and the (for liberals) much less familiar prospect of heroic self-sacrifice for a transcendent cause, and they concertedly opt for the latter.
Pointing out the bloodletting wrought by ISIS is not a way of negating its appeal. It is on the contrary part of its appeal. As Atran and Hamid point out, “What many in the international community regard as acts of senseless, horrific violence are to ISIS’s followers part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation.” Cleansing through the profuse shedding of blood: those who have read Joseph de Maistre know that such notions have always had tremendous resonance – in Christianity as well as other religions, as I point out in my book Civil Religion.
Thus the Islamic State strikes its deepest chords not by contriving ideological innovations but by connecting with impulses with ancient roots in human nature.
Part of what we need to understand in this context is that this violent backlash against liberal individualism – and the whole encompassing view of life that it presupposes such toleration, a secularist concept of the state, the embrace of cultural diversity, the privileging of pacific purposes over martial ones, and so on) – is in no way restricted to radical Islam.
What we are witnessing, I fear, is a new (or old) form of politics far beyond the liberal-individualist horizon that we take for granted, and jihadi movements are merely one species of this larger phenomenon.
In a recent essay I have sketched the scary outlines of another militantly illiberal contemporary ideology, namely Russian neo-Eurasianism, as spearheaded by the frenetic intellectual/ideological activities of the Russian reactionary ideologue Aleksandr Dugin.
Here too we have a kind of perverse nostalgia for the age of empire and for the rule of czars, or caliphs for that matter. Here too we have the faith that human beings are truly tested by their yearning for a heroic stance towards death, a test that anyone reared within a liberal social world is automatically guaranteed to fail.
Here too we have the willingness to anathematize whole classes of human beings on account of their religion or nationality. Here too we have the lust for an apocalyptic war to the death against liberal secularism; here too we have the promise to “re-conquer Constantinople” in the name of the true religion.
One of the things that distinguishes Islam as a world religion is its historical emergence with the creation of a world empire through the power of the sword. It would be strange if this was not at least part of the allure drawing young middle-class men from Brussels and Paris to martyr themselves on behalf of the cause of medieval piety.
The soldiers of the new caliphate, starting with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, their self-proclaimed caliph, aspire to an empire stretching from Morocco to India. It is crucial to their conception of their own mission that this is an intentional reclamation of past glory, not merely a newly invented ideological vision.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is not just a furtive gang of terrorists but an army of conquest on the march (hence closer to earning the label of “Islamo-fascism” controversially applied by writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, and Bernard-Henri Lévy to an earlier generation of jihadi Islam).
Submissive piety represents one ideal of life outside the liberal horizon and the lust for glory represents another; and arguably this ideological movement potently combines both. It remains to be seen how far the caliphate will march, or how long it will endure, especially now that the international coalition committed to engaging it militarily seems anxious to redouble its efforts.
But in the meantime, this odious theocracy has at least done us the service of reminding all of us that there will probably always be human beings for whom modernity presents itself as inherently slavish and degrading.
It is so easy to take for granted that life within liberal post-Enlightenment horizons is self-evidently more attractive than its alternatives. Yet our own welfare and security may hang on whether we are able to make progress in penetrating the riddle of the jihadis. That is precisely why we need especially to exert ourselves to keep asking the questions that liberals rarely ask, namely: why do there continue to be human beings for whom a society geared towards treating its citizens simply according to a standard of decency and mutual respect isn’t good enough?
And why are theocratic enemies of liberal society so convinced that a society oriented to secular freedom and equality fundamentally impoverishes human beings? In other words: What human longings are left unfulfilled in liberal society?
The English philosopher John Gray a year ago published (in the October 2014 issue of Prospect a powerful piece on “the liberal delusion” – the presumption that history favors liberalism (that is, favors the normative ideal of each individual, of whatever class, race, culture, religion, or gender, having in principle equal status). As Gray rightly pointed out, that presumption is unwarranted.
We have no way today of guaranteeing that liberal modernity will not be overturned in some vociferously anti-liberal, anti-modern future dispensation. Indeed, we now realize that there are significant contemporary ideologies in play that aspire precisely to this fearful revolutionary outcome, which is why the stakes are so high in correctly grasping the sources of their appeal.
I agree with Bernard-Henri Lévy that ISIS presents us with a version of fascism under a new guise. And we are learning anew – or need to learn it – that fascia, including its theocratic versions, with its brown uniforms and black flags, has a romance that we liberals underestimate at our peril. Similar wisdom can be drawn from George Orwell as quoted in an influential essay on the rise of ISIS published by Graeme Wood in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic: fascism is “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”
Socialism and capitalism convey the message: “I offer you a good time”. Hitler’s message, by contrast, is: “I offer you struggle, danger, and death.” “We ought not to underrate [the latter’s] emotional appeal.” In short: what we should brace for is the possibility that the Paris attacks are not an aberration but just the beginnings of a “new normal.”
What is worse, this Islamist fascism helps spur the European far right, which in turn again generates more of this jihadi fascism. It is a vicious spiral – one that clearly delights the ideologues in Raqqa, but a remedy for which is scarcely visible.
Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His most recent books are Civil Religion: A Dialogue in the History of Political Philosophy (2011) and Political Philosophy: What It Is and Why It Matters (2014), both published by Cambridge University Press