Who's Afraid of Islamic Fundamentalism?

02/23/2015 11:35 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
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Graeme Wood's article in The Atlantic last week charging that ISIL is the natural expression of Islam has created quite a stir. Overwrought and poorly informed in its claim that the roots of violent extremism are in Mohammed and the Koran, and that Bakr al-Baghdadi is a theologian-prophet, it has given a boost to the Islamophobes.

Wood's most radical assertion is that ISIL's dogma is the truest representation of Islam's foundation texts. At its core, the article is little more than an intellectualized Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Yet, the interplay of politics and religion is at the heart of the matter. All messianic movements mix profane and sacred elements -- at least as regards motivation/psychology. There always is a political and social context that leaves an enduring impression on the movement and shapes its message. Going back to early Christianity, we cannot explain either the prophetic driven religious turbulence among the Hebrews at the time or the receptivity to Christ's vision without looking at the Roman occupation and the growing revulsion to it. No religion has an identifiable core essence which validates or prescribes certain political behaviors as opposed to others. Is the purest Judaism expressed in Deuteronomy wherein Yahweh instructs the Israelites to liquidate the Canaanites -- including the massacre of babies? As for Christianity, its hallmark is the near total lack of correspondence between Scripture (the teachings of Christ) and the actions of Christian polities. Ask the Cathars about that.

So, there is a persuasive case to be made that fundamentalism in today's world is largely a political cum cultural phenomenon. The revival of religious righteousness in a self-conscious dedication to restoration of a faith's supposedly purest expressions is religious in content and aspiration. But its causes and instigation normally have little or anything to do with an individual's or a small community's thirst for the meaning of life and/or for Salvation.

Two forms of genuine religious passion are notably absent from contemporary movements: piety and ecstasy. The pious spend their time in devotion and prayer -- not attending rallies, fighting wars or engaging in manipulative politics. False piety, of course, is another matter (whether we think of Houston/Los Angeles evangelical preachers of mega-churches, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Bakr al-Baghdadi, or phony Hindu swamis on the make). Ecstasy is trickier since the experience of transcendent states of mind and emotion do occur in group settings of various kinds. The ecstasy of Sufis or Bakhti ceremonies or holy-rollers, however, is meant to be revelatory and to lead to a higher state of consciousness marked by spiritual awareness. The endorphins of battle maintained through a constant stoking of rage and passion for exalted sacrifice is quite a different matter.

Fundamentalist groups like ISIL have discipline and obedience as their hallmarks. It is neither prayerful, mystical nor metaphysical. It is more hormonal and draws on more primitive levels of the psyche. The disposition to go down that path, to accept the lure, emerges from a condition of dissociation. That is to say, weak ties to family, to community, to the larger and more abstract cultural entity that affords a sense of collective identity reinforcing more personal bonds. Alienation. Certain persons with a poorly developed sense of self find that vacuum intolerable. Fundamentalist groups are there to fill the void. Oddly, the farther away they are, the greater the attraction since the vision is undiluted by harsh realities. That may help ISIL's magnetic pull on Muslims living in locations remote from where the main action is. Locals adherents likely are experiencing a similar psychology but with a hard core of tangible grievance -- as in Iraq and Syria.

So Islamic fundamentalism nowadays seems to have a double appeal. It provides an extraordinary high for persons desperately seeking to experience something more consuming than their unsatisfying lives. It also casts a mantle of sacredness over their search. That sacred quality, moreover, endows them with a lost narrative about a people that have suffered from both feeling themselves losers by modern criteria and humiliated in multiple ways by others who have proven superior by those measures. Islamic fundamentalism offers an alternative measure while explaining that they fared so poorly in the great civilizational competition because they have been led astray from the true path by the impure and those seduced by the deceptive materialistic world. Finally, the answer provided requires little in the way of individual initiative other than the initial decision to efface oneself for the sake of the cause, i.e. the True Believer. After that decisive action, all personal responsibility is shed -- a perverted form of liberation from life and society.

Can external parties do anything to break this pattern or to channel these feelings along less violent avenues? President Obama believes that the United States is in a position to do so. Last Thursday, he gave the keynote to an assemblage of sixty foreign ministers and representatives of American organizations to showcase a newly reinvigorated program to fight religious intolerance and violence: Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). There are good reasons to be skeptical about the project. The main one is that America is the very cynosure of those values, that way of life, from which the disaffected are estranged. In addition, the "war on terror" has led to the deeply felt abuses of Muslims and Islam that inflame fundamentalist passions. Everything that emanates from the United States is tainted in the mind of the intended audience. Bearing the stamp of the U.S. is the kiss of death.

What the United States can do is to change its behavior. It is its actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine that have deeply offended and alienated swathes of the world's Islamic population, thereby creating a pool of potential recruits for ISIl and their ilk. There's the rub. That should encompass the following:

  • Minimize the use of military force in Islamic counties*Condemn Israeli abuses of the Palestinians and take an even-handed approach to the conflict
  • Pressure the House of Saud and other Gulf potentates to cease their funding and encouragement -- direct and indirect -- of movements that promote a narrow, xenophobic version of fundamentalist Islam
  • Fashion a modus vivendi with Iran that goes beyond a nuclear agreement
  • Bear in mind the desirability of muting the Sunni-Shi'ite antagonism

Unless these foreign policy changes are made, the United States will remain a principal cause of the rise in Islamic fundamentalism. In any circumstances, the envisaged role of America as a protagonist in the great contest to define Islam and to shape Islamic societies in the 21st century is a dangerous fantasy. In the end, the contest will be decided within the Islamic world by Muslims.

What Wood has succeeded in doing is to set the terms of the debate in a way that can bear only bitter fruit -- intellectual or political. At best, it is a distraction; at worst, a pernicious encouragement to the haters, the escapists, and those thrill seekers who thirst for a vicarious crusade of some sort. An America already hyper-ventilating from the pulp fiction of The Sniper needs something closer to reality.