As I see itSunday, August 24, 2014
The irresistible appeal of war
For the Herald
For progressive westerners who strive to be objective and are fond of telling us that yesterday’s terrorist could well be tomorrow’s freedom fighter, the holy warriors currently slaughtering infidels, among them North American journalist James Foley who was beheaded by a man who sounded like a Londoner, are still “militants,” an innocuous word that says nothing. But the mood is changing. More and more people are beginning to fear that what is happening in Syria and Iraq could soon be repeated in Europe and the US as thousands of young jihadists return home determined to put to good use the skills they acquired in the killing fields of the Middle East. The notion that, like the leftists who went to Spain three quarters of a century ago, such individuals would be happy to settle down to a peaceful bourgeois existence after a gap year spent fighting for the one true faith was always a bit far-fetched, but many have tried to cling to it because the alternative seemed too alarming to contemplate.
The jihadists themselves have gone out of their way to deprive those prone to sympathize with them of excuses. Instead of attempting to cover up their atrocities or attributing them to a handful of homicidal maniacs, they continue to give them maximum publicity. Videos of mass “executions” of unarmed prisoners and beheadings are immediately posted on the Internet to warn unbelievers of what is in store for them unless they submit. In the early 21st century West, seeking to terrify people in this way is regarded as “medieval,” but until fairly recently it was perfectly normal. Long before the Nazis, communists and Japanese imperialists tried to demoralize their foes by butchering anyone who stood in their way, generation after generation of conquerors had done the same because it worked.
Jihadist cruelty may disgust well-meaning Westerners, but it has proved to be an effective recruiting tool. Youngish Muslims from Europe and North America, including recent converts with a grudge have been flocking to join the self-styled Islamic State which offers them something the countries they were raised in are unable to give: a chance to murder and mutilate for allegedly noble reasons. This is not as perverse as most would prefer to think; movements that provide their followers with a license to kill tend to attract large numbers of young people.
Once upon a time, left-wing and fascist organizations specialized in this. Their place has been taken by Islamist ones, with the most brutal emerging as the favourite. Unless it is dealt with very soon, “ISIS” will become even worse. Not just in countries in which millions of young men and women face a wretched future but also in the relatively prosperous but for many disappointing West, there is no shortage of people like that black-clad thug with a London accent who slit Foley’s throat and then sawed off his head.
The challenge flung down by the Islamic State would be easier to meet were it not for the understandable reluctance of Western governments to offend peaceful and law-abiding Muslims. Though it would appear that a rapidly increasing majority of Europeans are fed up with seeing their representatives bend over backwards to be nice to them, politicians are convinced that “community relations” must come first and are therefore willing to make concessions leading to what some say is the steady “islamization” of the UK and other European countries. That may be an exaggeration, but it has already produced a backlash which has been made much stronger by the carnage in the Middle East.
A few jihadists may be learned men in the Islamic tradition, but most seem to know as little about the faith they are ready to kill and die for as did most Communists about the finer points of Marxist dialectics. Though the evident ignorance of many of the “brothers” has made them the butt of jokes among sophisticates in London and Paris, it does not make their cause any less dangerous. Century after century, murderous creeds that are incomprehensible to outsiders have enjoyed the vigorous support of youthful foot soldiers happy to follow the orders, no matter how bizarre, of those who for some reason they think they are bound to obey. Most such creeds have been left to moulder on what one authoritative ideologue, Leon Trotsky, called history’s garbage heap, but Islamism, which has been around for 1400 years, is not about to join them.
Since well before Osama bin Laden’s men smashed the Twin Towers of New York and a wing of the Pentagon in Washington, experts in the field have been trying to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, between “ordinary” Muslims and what is being done in their name. It is a hopeless task. That would not be the case if Muslims could follow the overwhelming majority of Christians for whom the Bible should not be taken too literally but seen as a collection of stories that may, or may not, be relevant to modern life, with the result that few believe anything very much, but, as the jihadists point out, the Koran was dictated by Allah down to the last comma or its Arabic equivalent. That being so, what was valid when classical civilization of the Eastern Mediterranean and adjoining areas was dying and Islam was coming to life must be equally valid today, a thought that, given the extreme violence that was considered normal in the seventh century and the ones that followed, appeals all too strongly to the many young people who, like most of their forefathers, find war irresistibly attractive.