Here’s the scenario: a welfare state brings in a massive influx of immigrants who hold to a belief system that tells them they have a responsibility to wage war against and subjugate those who don’t believe in that belief system, and that the non-believers have the responsibility to pay them tribute. Many of these immigrants thus happily go on welfare in that welfare state, and spend their time working on ways to wage war against unbelievers both abroad and at home. When the situation approaches crisis point, the welfare state’s learned analysts, anxious to cover for the immigrant’s belief system, which they do not accept but nevertheless believe must be protected at all costs, decide that that couldn’t be what is motivating them to fight. It must be because, in that welfare state that provides for all their needs, they have nothing to do, and the devil finds work for idle hands.
Indeed so, and the work that the devil has found for Tim Stanley of the Telegraph is the task of writing a serious piece about a risible idea, as part of his publication’s attempt, and British society’s attempt, to perpetuate the willful ignorance that blankets British society, and to pretend that the source of their problem is anything — anything! — other than what it really is.
“Isil’s Western converts are not motivated by Islam. They are motivated by boredom,” by Tim Stanley, the Telegraph, September 4, 2014 (thanks to Joeb):
The devil makes work for idle hands – and it’s striking how much support Jihad finds among idle Westerners. According to one poll, more people in France support Isil than people in Gaza do and, according to the Daily Beast, identification with fundamentalism is fuelled by middle-class ennui. In a fascinating portrait of Aqsa Mahmood, a public school girl who is believed to have volunteered to become a Jihad bride, journalist Jamie Dettmer makes the following observation:
Mahmood is one of at least 50 British women and girls who are thought by security experts to have joined ISIS in Syria, although some argue the number maybe higher. Her parents, through their lawyer, insist that as a middle-class woman and at one time a successful student she is not a “stereotypical” case. But many male and female Western ISIS and al Qaeda recruits come from middle-income backgrounds and are often fairly well educated—the 9/11 hijackers were.
Middle-class, well educated, tech-savvy. We are often led to believe that fundamentalism is the product of social marginalisation caused by globalisation. Economic change probably does explain some of it, but it doesn’t begin to explain why grade-A students raised in mock-Tudor mansions join the Jihad.
Study after study has shown that neither poverty nor social marginalization causes terrorism. CNS News noted in September 2013 that “according to a Rand Corporation report on counterterrorism, prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2009, ‘Terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease. Demographically, their most important characteristic is normalcy (within their environment). Terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.’ One of the authors of the RAND report, Darcy Noricks, also found that according to a number of academic studies, ‘Terrorists turn out to be more rather than less educated than the general population.’”
Aqsa Mahmood is just another example of this, and she leaves Tim Stanley scratching his head: why would “grade-A students raised in mock-Tudor mansions join the Jihad”? It couldn’t be because they have a belief system that tells them that their god wants them to wage war against those who don’t hold the belief system. No, it couldn’t be that. And it isn’t poverty. So what is it? Stanley goes hunting.
A more psychologically compelling answer might be alienation: Jihad as the symptom of an existential crisis. A number of smart American conservatives have been exploring the theme, starting with the very smart Michael Brendan Dougherty:
As long as Western liberalism has existed, it has been found charmless or contemptible by some men. Western liberalism asks men to be governed by laws made by mere men and their politicking. It demands of most men that they be mere citizens. It urges thrift, prudence, and industry. This is not for everyone.
The way Michael describes it, it’s probably not for me either. But then it takes a traditionalist conservative to see the flaws in liberalism to understand why some men (note to Michael, they’re not all men – Jihad is a surprisingly equal opportunities employer) might reject a way of life that is so grindingly materialist and empty. Yes, I’m afraid it is. A system that rejects transcendental values, that seeks to solve all conflict through a mix of negotiation and therapy, and which always tries to satisfy the lowest common denominator is not a system that poets would die for – and, so, it can be a struggle to live in if you have a low tolerance for mundanity. Charles Cooke (a libertarian) notes with sadness: “One reason that liberty can be difficult to preserve is that it so often lacks the romance, the heroism, and the sense of involvement that so many appear to crave.” Matt K Lewis adds: “Going back to ancient times, young men have craved honor and glory. But when there’s no communal higher calling, and no Wild West frontier for those afflicted with wanderlust to conquer, they’re left empty. Playing video games isn’t enough.” So where do you turn when liberal democracy no longer intrigues? I’ll let Michael answer that one:
Revolutionary movements also offer visions of justice that are larger and deeper than some dirty court system. And the struggle in establishing them holds out prizes that are extremely rare for men of the West: glory, martyrdom, and heroism. Revolution beats a life of traffic tickets, creditors, bosses, and — if you’re especially lucky — angst about real-estate.
It’s true: life as a modern Western consumerist is spiritually vacuous, “grindingly materialist and empty.” People do go searching for something to give meaning to it all. Some of these searchers become Islamic jihad terrorists. Others join the evangelical Christians, or the Krishna movement, or the Democratic Party, or the gardening club, or the local theater group, or any number of other things. The people who become evangelical Christians or Hare Krishnas or political activists or gardeners or amateur thespians don’t generally also become traitors who take up arms against the military forces or citizens of their native land. An alarming number of converts to Islam, however, do just that. So the likelihood that what led to the conversion to Islam in the first place was a spiritual restlessness that others feel, and responded to in different ways, does nothing to ameliorate the fact that converts to Islam all too often imbibe a highly literalist understanding of its teachings, and those teachings, at literalist face value, are filled with hatred and violence.
To this collage of conservative thought, I’d add two observations. First, alienation from Western materialism being expressed through revolution is far from new. It demands comparison with the urban guerilla movements of the 1970s – all of which were predominantly drawn from middle-class kids who saw their parents’ success as a form of collaboration with capitalism and fascism. Is there any real difference between, on the one hand, Mahmood allegedly abandoning professional achievement and the life of a liberated Western woman for Jihad, and, on the other hand, Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army Faction abandoning her children and sparkling literary career for a life of assassinations and bombings in the 1970s German terrorist underground? None, except the contrasting ideological manifestations of their malaise. And, aside from bourgeois angst, Seventies Marxism and contemporary Jihad are linked by a) an obsession with America/Israel as a nexus of capital and military power that is responsible for everything wrong with the world and b) an unrealistic sense of their ability to do anything about it. They are, in reality, grubby little criminals poking at the system with a blunt dagger. But they believe they are heralds of a New Order. They all suffer from the arrogance of youth.
Tim Stanley, by contrast, suffers from the arrogance of an educated man’s refusal to admit the obvious. He is looking at this thing the wrong way around. His article’s headline promised to exonerate Islam of responsibility for its violent adherents. Now he says that Aqsa Mahmood and Ulrike Meinhof are the same except for “the contrasting ideological manifestations of their malaise.” Very well. So they’re the same. But would Tim Stanley have written, back when Ulrike Meinhof was an active Marxist terrorist, that the problem wasn’t Marxism, it was boredom? Would he have been so anxious to try to prove to his readers that Marxism was really just fine, benign and non-violent and chummy, but when seized upon by bored Western materialists, could become something lethal? Or would he have acknowledged what he cannot admit in the present case: that the belief system Meinhof seized upon justified hatred and violence in ways that for whatever reason resonated with her, and that therefore the belief system itself had to be confronted and reformed, its adherents challenged to remove or reinterpret the aspects of it that appealed to hateful, violent people and encouraged their worst impulses?
Second, revolutions rooted in alienation from consumerism have a habit of becoming the thing they profess to hate. The Red Army Faction was so anti-materialist that it set fire to department stores. Yet its leaders resembled tropes of Hollywood cinema (Ulrike was Bonnie to Andreas Baader’s Clyde) and their descent into grubby theft and extortion rendered them as criminal as the capitalist elite they bombed and kidnapped. Likewise, Isil’s image-consciousness is very unIslamic and very Hollywood. Take the hipster Jihadi (another middle-class boy gone wrong). The photo of Islam Yaken that went viral doesn’t suggest a man who has submitted to the will of Allah but a boy who likes posing with kick-ass swords – with an effeminate little satchel which probably cost most people’s annual salary to buy. It’s quite obvious, isn’t it, that he thinks he’s cool? He’s the Islamist James Dean – the rebel with a cause.
Tim Stanley doesn’t explain why he thinks being image-conscious is un-Islamic. It is probably because he comes from a Christian background and thinks that Islam is a Religion of Peace essentially like Christianity, and that in Islam, as in Christianity, humility is a virtue and self-infatuation a vice. He is doubtless unaware that the Qur’an tells Muslims that they are the “best of people” (3:110), while unbelievers are “the most vile of created beings” (98:6), and that this dichotomy inculcates a pride and arrogance which has no problem with self-aggrandizement. The 20th-century Pakistani Islamic scholar and politician Maulana Maududi once wrote about entering a cafe in a non-Muslim country and determining that a stranger sitting in it was Muslim simply because of his bearing and the attitude he projected. Look at the exaggerated turban of Suleiman the Magnificent and tell me that image-consciousness and a sense of cool is un-Islamic.
This existential explanation of why some Westerners turn to Jihad helps us to draw a thick line of separation between legitimate Islam and Islamism – between an ancient faith practised by millions and something motored by the unhappiness of individuals. One MI5 report stated that:
Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts.
This assertion is wholly counter-factual. In every case — every case — Islamic jihadists turn out to be devout, observant Muslims. This MI5 assessment comes from ignorance of Islam leading to a misinterpretation of the data at hand: for instance, analysts concluded that the 9/11 hijackers were not devout because they frequented strip clubs just before the attacks. The analysts were ignorant of the fact that in Islam, one is admitted to Paradise if one’s good deeds outweigh one’s bad deeds (cf. Qur’an 21:47, etc.), and consequently the hijackers knew that they were about to do a great deed for Allah — their jihad hijacking — and so essentially had a free pass to indulge themselves before that. What’s more, the strippers were Infidels: Tim Stanley, being in a Britain beset by a pandemic of Muslim rape gangs, should know how Islamic supremacists tend to regard Infidel girls.
In other words, radical Islam may well be the way that these individuals choose to express their angst but it is by no means the catalyst to their alienation – and nor do they necessarily understand the thought system they have embraced as an alternative to liberalism. The MI5 report concluded that terror suspects are: “are a diverse collection of individuals, fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism.”
If they are invisible, what can be done about the gestating Jihadi? I started with conservatives defining the problem, so here’s one providing a solution. Dan Hannan:
Let’s stop teaching the children of immigrants to despise the British state. Let’s stop deriding and traducing our values. Let’s stop presenting our history as a hateful chronicle of racism and exploitation. Let’s be proud of our achievements – not least the defence of liberty in two world wars in which, respectively, 400,000 and nearly a million Muslims served in British uniforms. The best way to defeat a bad idea is with a better one. Few ideas are as wretched as the theocracy favoured by IS; few as attractive as Anglosphere freedom.
Yes, let’s stop “teaching the children of immigrants to despise the British state.” But that is being done not just by British Leftists. It is being done in mosques. Is Dan Hannan recommending that British authorities monitor mosques for seditious preaching? Somehow I doubt it.
I’m not convinced. Aside from the terrible idea of turning history classes into propaganda about how wonderful the Whigs were, I also don’t believe that alienation is generally reduced by attempts at indoctrination. And while theocracy is a wretched idea, it’s pretty self-evident that the undoubted appeal of Anglosphere freedom is limited. That would be – to return to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s observations – because it offers material rewards but little in the way of spiritual sustenance. Mahmood was perfectly aware of the benefits of Anglosphere liberty (Magna Carta, kangaroos and apple pie?) because she had the privilege of growing up in the midst of its wealth and freedom. Yet, still, her family say that she has rejected it. Perhaps because it was not enough. And that’s the challenge that the West faces when fighting for the souls of narcissistic revolutionaries. What we have to offer as an alternative is, for many of them, not enough.
Indeed. The West has lost its spiritual moorings, and for all too many seekers the toughness and adamantine certainties of Islam will be attractive. But Stanley only worsens the problem when he adds willful ignorance and dissembling about the nature of the problem into the mix. Islamic jihadists who might read his piece will regard it, and him, with amused contempt. So would any individual with the courage to be honest about this problem at a time when honesty comes at such a premium. Here’s an alternative solution: let’s not only teach our children the genuine good and value of our own culture. Let’s also teach them that ideas have consequences, and that not all belief systems are equally benign or equally capable of inspiring either magnanimity or hatefulness and arrogance. Does Tim Stanley have the courage to do that? Do the British in general? I doubt it.
(And as if he is aware of what nonsense he is purveying, Stanley has closed comments on his article.)