dali war

‘The problem of evil’, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945, ‘will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe.’

The historical and moral significance of contemporary jihadism is miniscule when compared to that of the Holocaust and the Final Solution. And yet jihadism has raised again the question of evil. Not evil in the sense of genocide but as expressed through acts of barbarity so inhuman that they are difficult to comprehend.

The barbarism of Islamic State, in particular, has drawn commentators to speak of ‘evil’. How else, many ask, to explain people who seem to revel in such cruelty and barbarism, casually shooting dead tourists on a beach, throwing gays off towers and staging mass beheadings as a public spectacle?

Secularists are often uncomfortable with the notion of evil and its religious connotations. And, yet, many now look to the concept to describe the seemingly inexplicable. ‘We must not be afraid to name it for what it truly is’, as Jonathan Freedland put it recently in the Guardian.

The paradox of IS is that the more brutal and inhuman it becomes, the more it appears to attract support. And many of those whom it recruits appear to be not psychopaths but shockingly ordinary. Students, mothers, doctors, teachers. How is it possible for such people to cheer beheadings or mass killings, and indeed to take part?

‘The sad truth’, Arendt wrote, ‘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 a forensic psychologist and political sociologist and a counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, 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 jihadists are different. They are, after all, jihadis. To understand how people ‘who aren’t that different’ from you and me are nevertheless so different that they are able to commit the most brutal of mass murders, we need to think again about what we mean by ‘evil’. It is important that we mark the sheer inhumanity of jihadi acts. It is equally important, though, not to dismiss them as ‘inexplicable’, or to view evil as just an eternal part of human nature.

goya saturn devouring one of his children

When we talk of an act as ‘evil’ we are not merely describing something particularly abhorrent or inhuman. We are making a claim about the boundaries of morality itself, trying to delineate the space within which it is possible to have a debate we can meaningfully define as about morality. Some people, for instance, view torture as always wrong; others think it acceptable to torture a terrorist to obtain vital information. Each side in the debate 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 IS appear so inexplicable is that they seem to take place beyond the moral universe most of us inhabit. Jihadists can only act as they do because they have crossed the normal boundaries of morality. The question we need to ask then, is what is it that leads people ‘who aren’t that different’ beyond those boundaries?

For some the answer lies with Islam itself. ‘There’s a global jihad lurking within this religion’, the Canadian journalist Mark Steyn insists. Islam is ‘a bloodthirsty faith in which whatever’s your bag violence-wise can almost certainly be justified.’

Others have resisted the idea that jihadism is driven by Islam. David Cameron, in an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of the slaughter of tourists on Sousse beach in Tunisia, condemned those who call Islamic State ‘Islamic State’. It is ‘not an Islamic State’, he claimed because ‘Islam is a religious of peace’.

Neither argument possesses credibility. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by the ways in which believers interpret and act upon them; that is, by its practices. The fact that supporters of IS practice their religion in a way that horrifies the British Prime Minister, and most liberals, and indeed, most Muslims, does not make it any less real or Islamic. Like it or not, Islamism is an integral part of the tapestry of contemporary Islam.

And yet, while the insistence that jihadism is disconnected from Islam makes little sense, the claim that Islam can explain why jihadis act so unconscionably is equally untenable. The vast majority of Muslims, after all, abhor the actions of IS, and would find their actions morally inexplicable. Nor is it just Islamists who are drawn into such acts. From Buddhist monks in Myanmar organizing pogroms against the Rohingya to Dylann Roof shooting dead nine worshippers at the Emanuel African church in Charleston, inhumanity is widespread in the non-Muslim world too.

beksinski 1

The reasons that jihadists have been drawn into a different moral universe that allows them to justify, even celebrate, brutally inhuman acts cannot be reduced to simple explanations. We need, rather, to understand the ways in which notions of morality, identity and politics have been reshaped in recent years.

Politics, in the past, was shaped largely by attachment to particular ideologies. Today it is more often than not shaped by a sense of identity. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to establish, than by the group or tribe to which we imagine we belong.

Closely linked to this is a loss faith in progressive, humanist values. In this age of ideological exhaustion, utopian dreams have been swept away. Politics has become less about competing visions of the kinds of society people want than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system; it has been reduced to a question more of technocratic management rather than of social transformation. The result is a dessicated political sphere, with little to attract those who may feel disaffected from the mainstream, or to compete with the rich emotions evoked by religion.

The third important development is the transformation of anti-Western sentiment. Jihadists view themselves as warriors against Western imperialism. Yet, few in previous generations who called themselves ‘anti-imperialist’ 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 that old anti-imperialist tradition has unraveled. Across the world, the organizations that led struggle for freedom from colonialism, or the ideologies that claimed to represent the identity of the free nation, have become senile or corrupted. The new opposition movements that have emerged often reject the universalist aspirations of previous generations, but are rooted in religious or ethnic identity, and are sectarian or separatist in form.

bacon tryptich

We live today in more tribal, atomized societies in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions. There is a widespread yearning for identity, for meaning, for belongingness. But as the old social movements through which people used to express disaffection have disappeared, so people have increasingly understood their problems, and discovered meaning and identity, through ever-narrower lenses of culture and faith. Finding self-recognition within narrow identities has encouraged hostility to, even hatred of, those who wear other identities. Moral norms have increasingly become tribal rather than universal. Political struggle for a better world has given way to inchoate identity-driven rage.

This is the background to the ‘evil’ of contemporary jihadism, part of the reason that jihadists have come to inhabit a moral universe inexplicable to the rest of us. And not just of jihadists. When Dylann Roof shot dead nine black worshippers in a Charleston church, he was driven by a twisted moral vision shaped by a sense of identity and entitlement that had transmuted into hatred and rage.

Islamist identity is, however, distinctive. Because Islam is a global religion, so Islamists are able to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. Islamism, like all religiously-based ideologies, provides, too, the illusion of divine sanction for jihadists’ acts, however grotesque they may be.

Isolated from wider society, disembedded from social norms, shaped by black and white values which 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 are able to commit the most inhuman of acts and to view them as acceptable, even righeous.

None of this is to ‘excuse’ jihadis, or their actions. It is, however, to suggest that ‘evil’ is neither inexplicable nor 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, ‘Untitled’: Third panel of Francis Bacon’s ‘Second Version of Triptych, 1944’.


  1. Kenan I don’t think ‘evil’ is helpful; many utopian visions when put ‘into the field’ have decided that terror is crucial. Terror destabilises the contemporary realities, ‘cleanses’ the enemies, intimidates to weak, and leaves a new moral landscape. Once the terror is over (if ever?) it is possible to create a pure example of the dream, for those who would otherwise sully it are no longer there. After the deluge there is a new dawn…. Timur, Genghis Khan, the French revolutionaries, the Soviets, the Nazis, etc etc. Even the US carpet bombing of Germany and then again Vietnam. Calling all of this evil tells us little about what has happened. Is the ISIS scorching of its enemies more or less evil than Assad’s barrel bombing of his? Is the terror unleashed against the Rohingya or or less evil than the Ukrainian famine or the famines of the Maoist period? For what it’s worth, I think we need to understand the political sues of terror rather than wandering in a moral morass.

    • My point is that we need to understand what people call ‘evil’ as more than simply inexplicable. And discussing politics and morality is not either/or. The two are inextricably linked.

  2. julian

    Hi Kenan,
    That might just be a beautiful typo: ‘utopian dreams have been wept away.’ And as to your final lines, am unsure that there has ever been a time without evil as you describe it, which is perhaps why we are moved to think of it as perennial and enduring rather than contingent and situational. But a great post, thank you.

    • I wish it had been deliberate! I was tempted to keep it as it was. But I have changed it to the more conventional phrase. Thanks for spotting.

  3. The problem of “tribalism” exists in the US. I think it is what allows the Republicans to have so many seemingly crazy, ignorant politicians running from the right for president (or to be the Republican nominee). I suspect if one of them became president, he could rally his followers to do very dangerous things. But something is missing from your discussion of evil and Jihadis. I can’t quite generalize from it to other “tribes” such as those in the US. And there are more than one. And really, the “tribes” are quite varied: currently in the US there are tribes of “whites”, “blacks”, Christianists, white supremacists, and there are the historical millennialist groups, I confess that I suspect D. Trump and a number of the Republican candidates could become evil dictators without some kind of external control. Evil to me is the ability to hurt and kill especially but not only innocents without feeling remorse, rather even enjoying it. It is the ability to persuade others to follow you. I have the hardest time with the idea that all the followers are as evil as the leaders. I think rather of how people lose themselves in groups. While in the US tribes haven’t started killing en masse, that they can be swayed by the speeches of people like Trump and Ted Cruz indicates to me that in a group they give up their autonomy and their ability to stand apart when things they would, under other circumstances, disapprove of, are asked of them. I’m not being very coherent, I’m afraid. Basically it seems to me there’s a real change in people’s psyches when they come under the sway of a charismatic leader, one who also plays on their deepest fears and hatreds. I think the IS is able to impel followers to such violence is possibly partly due to the fact that the followers STAY in the group: they live in the group. The group is everything. There is no alternative voice let in.

  4. Ian

    Kenan, I want more.

    The actions of ISIS and terrorists in general don’t emerge in isolation; they are responses to and provocations of the West. The appeal of ISIS is precisely their preparedness to act outside the claimed boundaries of Western morality, which means they offer a strange hope of changing or fighting the West when no alternative reaction to the totalising forces of ‘democratic capitalism’ seems possible. But the outside of Western thinking is necessarily paradoxical because it reflects something profoundly contradictory: the ideals of freedom, progress, democracy, justice, the good, and the right side of history are championed in order to exploit and suppress. The boundaries are not coherent, so meaningful debate about good and evil cannot focus on ISIS alone. It is not only the morality of ISIS that makes no sense. The religious evil perpetuated by Islamists appears evil to the point of absurdity to the West, yet it is a reflection in a cracked mirror of Western evil and the paradoxes of Western identity. For mine, then, your conclusion makes the mistake of treating jihadists in isolation, but you should also look more closely at our own identities, morality, politics, and evils.

    Thanks for all you do,

  5. Fi

    ‘ Political struggle for a better world has given way to inchoate identity-driven rage.’

    You are spot on with this. The reasons behind the rage are complex but I think the way that the toxic end of identity politics has played it’s part in facilitating this rise of the perfect storm of miltant islamism can’t be underestimated.

    I recently rifled through Toynbee’s wonderful old ‘Mother Earth’ and pondered post-colonial studies and the way they can veer into a destructive and faulty way of fixing peoples forever in time as classes of oppressor and oppressed, good and bad. In this kind of mind-set we always get the ‘justified sinners’.

  6. If you are reaching for Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem – The Banality of Evil” might be more apt. The analysis on Wikipedia is quite good:
    “The banality of evil
    Arendt’s book introduced the expression and concept “the banality of evil”. Her thesis is that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on clichéd defenses rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional. She never denied that Eichmann was an anti-semite, nor that he was fully responsible for his actions, but argued that these characteristics were secondary to his stupidity.

    This concept has been frequently misunderstood. In his 2010 history of the Second World War, Moral Combat, British historian Michael Burleigh calls the expression a “cliché” and gives many documented examples of gratuitous acts of cruelty by those involved in the Holocaust, including Eichmann. Arendt certainly did not disagree about the fact of gratuitous cruelty, but “banality of evil” is unrelated to this question. Similarly, the first attempted rebuttal of Arendt’s thesis relied on a misreading of this phrase, claiming Arendt meant that there was nothing exceptional about the Holocaust.”

    And so I take issue with Ian, commenting above. Too many try to analyse Islam from the vantage point of a 70 year wide, Eurocentric bubble. IS and the Islamic terrorist organisations before it are not a reaction to ‘Western Imperialism.’ In fact, Islam was at the Imperialism game long before any of the ‘Western’ countries existed in their present form. The grievance against Europe is having Islamic expansion turned back at Tours, Vienna and driven from Spain. In Europe, only the UK, Scandinavia and Germany have never been attacked by an Islamic force (and I’m not counting modern terrorist attacks). The nascent USA had to form a Navy to counter attacks on its shipping from Barbary pirates from the North coast of Africa. However many self appointed George Lucasesque revisionists want to change the past, the fact remains that Mohammed shot first. The first imperative of Islam is to spread at all costs and by all means.

    This is part of the ‘identity’ offered by IS and it is woven in to Islam itself. Muslims are raised (even by peace loving parents) to believe that Islam is true, that it is the best of all possible religions, that others are inferior. That is the simple, banal beginning of it all. In those who want a quiet, peaceful life, it creates a jarring cognitive dissonance. The reasoning goes like this: “Why all that violence in the Quran? And all the violence in Islam and islamic countries? It can’t be Islam – Islam is Peaceful! Islam is perfect, right? And so is Mohammed. So there must be some mistake. It has been twisted. It’s someone els’s fault. It only applies if we are being attacked or something. So we must be under attack. Or Muslims wouldn’t be doing these things. So it’s alright…”

    Islam is a cult with a massive and entirely undeserved sense of entitlement. Early in Islamic history, significant military victories bolstered this view and appeared to corroborate claims of divine approval. The attraction of IS is a brotherhood with a shared aim, a shared grievance, Divine promise and, at present, the appearance of success. Being part of that is seen by some as a large boost in status. Sign up and you are feted. Why be a doctor, teacher or minicab driver in Bradford, when you be a hero of the Umma in Syria? There is the banality. The cruelty follows naturally. They are doing what needs to be done to achieve their goal. It is pedestrian, routine brutality of the Eichmann ilk. Certainly, they need to be desensitised to the suffering of others. As in the Nazi holocaust of the Jews, the ‘others’ need to be dehumanised. That process begins in the Quran (vilest of creatures, greatest in enmity, shall receive a severe punishment, great torment etc etc..) It is jus a matter of having the will. They have it. The West doesn’t. Crucially, those Muslims struggling with the violence in their religion and wishing it was as peaceful as is claimed lack that will to resist as well.That is why IS is winning.

    The attraction of IS is about offering a sense of entitlement, of common grievance and instant social advancement combined with the dehumanising process common to most atrocities. They can not be reasoned with. Their grievances can not be redressed. It can only be defeated militarily. Like the defeat of Nazism, it will require a brutal and decisive military response. Without it, millions will suffer and die. But will that necessary action make us evil? I’m willing to take the risk in order to preserve a society in which the point can be debated.

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