227. The cultural roots of ISIS success
How can ISIS be so successful in its utter evil, attracting ever new young recruits to it?
Doubtless, the cause lies, in part, in frustration of young Muslims, also in developed Western countries, from poverty and discrimination, mobilized for indoctrination by fundamentalist Islamist zealots. But why are the latter successful in their indoctrination?
I think the deeper cause is twofold. First, the fact that in the loss of religion, secular, liberal, democratic, capitalist societies lack clear spiritual values that yield an inspiration transcending hedonistic values of consumption. ISIS competes with a stark, absolutist, transcendent, compelling, easily grasped imperative, with a clear split between the good and the bad; the faithful and the infidels. Second, ISIS offers the perspective of heroism and exuberance in risk and violence, where Nietzschean masters relish the rush of power over slaves. This combination of sense making in higher purpose and the rush of violence seems unbeatable. I expand a bit on both.
In a recent review in the New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff discussed a thesis by Michael Waltzer that in history secular revolutions have been followed by religious counter-revolutions.[i] Examples given by Walzer are Algeria, India, and Israel. Ignatieff concludes that the secularists ‘failed to create a powerful and convincing political culture that would offer what religious faith still offers …, i.e. a spiritual home.’ Salafist Islam in Algeria, Hindu fundamentalism in India, and biblical fundamentalism in Israel.
There are counterexamples, where secular revolutions did not engender fundamentalist religious counter-revolutions: France, America, Russia, and China come to mind. However, what they did offer was a secular transcendent ideology as an alternative to theistic religion: French civic virtue in ‘laicité’, American exceptionalism, and Russian and Chinese communism. Also non-theistic ideology can yield a sense of transcendence, which is religious in the sense of offering connection to something higher than the self.
Why, then, do some young people turn away from Western societies, lured by ISIS? Has the inspirational value of Western societies been eroded? By what? I suspect that it lies in the excrescence of neo-liberal market ideology, supported by economic theory that claims to be value-free. But that is precisely the problem: loss of values other than hedonism, efficiency and economic growth. It does carry the value of liberty, but mostly in the negative sense of freedom from interference, which turns into a license to exploit other people and nature, for those who gather financial and positional power. There is a lack of the positive freedom of access to resources, justice and competencies, which has been eroded in ‘reforms’ for the sake of markets. That hurts the lesser educated, the old and weak, and outsiders who are discriminated, and lacks a spirit of transcendence.
Second, the lure of heroic violence and subjugation has been nourished, I think, by a hotbed of thought fed by Nietzsche’s rejection of the ‘slave mentality’ of Christian compassion and his celebration of the ‘will to power’. In the wake of that, a shift has been going on from ethics to aesthetics, where the self or life is to be constructed as a work of art (Foucault, Onfray), stepping out of the symbolic order, in the ecstatic joy of ‘real’ life (Lacan). Some of the texts (e.g. in Onfray’s ‘sculpting he self’) are redolent of fascism.
I have been struggling with that in this blog. On the one hand I have been advocating a Levinassian philosophy of the other, and on the other hand I have tried to carve out space for a flourishing life for the creative individual. I have tried to show that they are not antithetical, that regard for the other is a source of a flourishing life. I have arrived at an ethic of reasonableness, of discourse between diverse views, with notions of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, and ‘debatable ethics’. It is a modest view of ‘imperfection on the move’.
Is this enticing, inspirational, transcendent enough to appeal to the human spirit that cries out for the vertical transcendence of theistic religion? I proposed a transcendence that is immanent, within life, and horizontal, from people to people, and is enticing in furthering a flourishing life in the best use of one’s talents, to contribute to the hereafter of what one leaves behind at death. Is this enough? Is it strong enough to resist current evil?
I think that it could be, in the Nietzschean ethic of power in the form of transcendence, transformation, reaching for the sublime even while knowing that it will never be quite achieved. That can be exhilarating. It avoids the atavistic regression to power in the form of violence that is found in ISIS.