229. Exclusion as an incentive for terrorism
I speculated about why ISIS is so tempting to some young people, in item 227 of this blog. I granted that the usual explanation from exclusion, neglect, poverty, discrimination and resulting poor perspectives for work, prosperity and social recognition are probably correct. I added that there must be more to it. Young recruits to ISIS not only come from poor, neglected neighbourhoods such as the French ‘banlieues’ and the quarter of ‘Molenbeek’ in Brussels, but also from reasonably well-to-do, ‘ordinary’ families, and some have had a good education. I suggested two cultural reasons.
First, a thirst for absolutist, theistic religion as a source of higher meaning to one’s life, sought with special poignancy in one’s puberty (which now lasts well into the twenties of life). In Western societies such (Christian) religion has evaporated in the lightness of being, while capitalist society does not yield a replacement in some secular source of spirituality and meaning of life.
Second, I proposed that ISIS offers the opportunity to satisfy a Nietzschean will to power, in the atavistic form of master-slave domination and physical violence (rather than the sublimated form of striving to conquer oneself in transcending oneself).
I now want to add something. I granted that the usual argument from poverty and neglect probably still applies, at least to some recruits. Is there any connection between this and the other reasons? I propose the following line of thought.
Surprisingly, this will bring out the possible effect of the idea of supreme duty from the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. What irony, if part of Enlightenment thought were similar to motives for fundamentalist Muslim terrorism, while ‘we’, in ‘the West’ see that as an attack on our Enlightenment values, and mobilize ourselves to defend them.
Kant demanded that we base our ethics on an idea of supreme duty that is absolutely pure of any motives of material desire, interest, position, or even survival. One should do one’s duty even against one’s own interests, even against survival. Kant added that we need to believe in God as a warrant that satisfying this universal duty indeed constitutes the highest Good.
Kantian ethic took the empty, purely formal form of the ‘Categorical imperative’: do only what you would want to raise to a general maxim for conduct. Content concerning specific conduct was deliberately left out, because it would make the rule dependent on circumstance, while it had to be kept universal. It is as formal and empty as ‘in the will of God’ or ‘Inshallah’.
Philosophers Lacan and Zizek argued that this renunciation of all material value and interest can only work if there is a masochistic, higher-order (non-material, non-lust satisfying) love for such sacrifice of material values or even life.[i] And that is precisely what ISIS offers.
The point now is this. The lust for satisfying absolute, Kantian duty renders the material values of income and wealth immaterial, irrelevant, indecent, vile, to be despised. Now those material values were the values that some of the ISIS recruits were lacking. In joining ISIS and its promise of absolutist transcendence, that lack turns into virtue. The recruits can feel superior and relish contempt for the material values that were withheld from them, and for those who have those values, wallow in them, and who did the withholding.
For wat it is worth, the argument confirms my rejection of all forms of absolutism, in ethics or anywhere else, as a correction upon Enlightenment values.