Jihad is propelled not merely by religion but its own and different moral universe, writes Andrew L. Urban.
“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.”
So begins an essay by David Brooks in the New York Times (Feb. 20, 2015)
which identifies a practical, profound difference between the extremes of Islam and the West’s traditional Judeochristian morality and socio-political systems. It helps explains, for example, why the West is given lots of video lectures by Jihadists about the absence of morals in our way of life, before turning to a captive to behead him or her on camera.
As Brooks points out in his article, “people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS 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.”
Brooks observes that religious extremism “grows out of economic and political dysfunction. It is fuelled by perverted spiritual ardour. It is organized by theological conviction”.
Leaving aside his first point about economic and political dysfunction for a later discussion, it is the second and third points that stand out as the insurmountable obstacles to change – unless all of (non-violent) Islam joins the public discourse. Perverted spiritual ardour will not be ‘normalised’ without the reform of theological conviction. It’s at best a very long process; at worst it will never happen.
The fact that ISIS militants and their fellow travellers are riddled with morally reprehensible behaviours (from rape to torture and murder) is the only leverage we have against their moral view of the world. Constantly pointing to their own moral degeneration and – importantly, crucially – having those acts denounced by leading Muslims, is the slow but only way to erode the appeal of these fanatical groups and drain them of recruits as well as claims to moral legitimacy.
It is their own lack of a moral compass that needs to be announced and denounced at every opportunity – but not by Western or Jewish leaders: by their fellow Muslims of all stripes. While we are experiencing a ‘clash of cultures’, it is not a clash that either culture can win without the active involvement of those whose deeply felt faith is at stake. Islam, too, is under attack, and it will not survive on its current, self destructive trajectory.