The struggle against Islamic extremism has been crippled by a failure of historical awareness and cultural understanding. From the very beginning, we have treated the problem of terrorism through the prism of our own assumptions and our own values. We have solipsistically assumed that people turn to extremism because they can’t get what we want, and fail to realize that they don’t want what we want but want something they think is higher.
The latest example of this is the speech that President Barack Obama gave at last week’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. It was a bad speech, but its badness is no reflection on Obama, for it was the same sort of bad speech that all U.S. presidents have been giving for the past generation.
Religious extremism exists on three levels. It grows out of economic and political dysfunction. It is fueled by perverted spiritual ardor. It is organized by theological conviction. U.S. presidents focus almost exclusively on the economic and political level because that’s what polite people in Western capitals are comfortable talking about.
At the summit meeting, Obama gave the conventional materialistic explanation for what turns people into terrorists. Terrorism spreads, he argued, where people lack economic opportunity and good schools. The way to fight terror, he concluded, is with better job-training programs, more shared wealth, more open political regimes and a general message of tolerance and pluralism.
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In short, the president took his secular domestic agenda and projected it as a way to prevent young men from joining the Islamic State and chopping off heads.
But people don’t join the Islamic State because they want better jobs with more benefits. The Islamic State is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end.
They’re not doing it because they are sexually repressed. They are doing it because they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.
On Thursday, Mona El-Naggar of The Times profiled a young Egyptian man, named Islam Yaken, who grew up in a private school but ended up fighting for the Islamic State and kneeling proudly by a beheaded corpse in Syria.
He was marginalized by society. He seems to have rejected the whole calculus of what we call self-interest for the sake of an electrifying apocalyptic worldview and what he imagines to be some illimitable heroic destiny.
People who live according to the pure code of honor are not governed by the profit motive; they are governed by the thymotic urge, the quest for recognition. They seek the sort of glory that can be won only by showing strength in confrontation with death.
This heroic urge is combined, by Islamist extremists, with a vision of End Times, a culmination to history brought about by a climactic battle and the purification of the earth.
Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.
In other times, nationalism has offered that compelling vision. We sometimes think of nationalism as a destructive force, and it can be. But nationalism tied to universal democracy has always been uplifting and ennobling. It has organized heroic lives in America, France, Britain and beyond.
Walt Whitman was inspired by the thought that his country was involved in a great project, “making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf, inaugurating largeness, culminating time.” Lincoln committed himself to the sacred truth that his country represented the “last best hope” of mankind. Millions have been inspired by an American creed that, the late great historian Sacvan Bercovitch wrote, “has succeeded in uniting nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, sacred and secular history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single transcendent ideal.”
Young Arab men are not going to walk away from extremism because they can suddenly afford a Slurpee. They will walk away when they can devote themselves to a revived Egyptian nationalism, Lebanese nationalism, Syrian nationalism, some call to serve a cause that connects nationalism to dignity and democracy and transcends a lifetime.
Extremism isn’t mostly about Islam. It is about a yearning for righteousness rendered malevolent by apocalyptic theology. Muslim clerics can fix the theology. The rest of us can help redirect the spiritual ardor toward humane and productive ends.