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.’
Anti-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.