10/08/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

The 'Bent Twig' of Arabia: A Note on the Origins of Jihadism

JM LOPEZ via Getty Images

The Champs Elysées might be an odd place to consider the rapid metastasis of jihad, but on a recent visit viewing the grandeur of the Arc de Triomphe at one end and the Place de la Concorde visible down the bustling boulevard did bring to mind an abiding lesson. The French, at the height of their power, lorded over much of Europe not only militarily but socially, the "social" in this sense being the very definition of what society's relationships should ideally be -- relations to art and culture, to each other, to conquest and imperialism, to the colonized people's aspirations. The stereotype today of French attitudes of superiority stem from this, mainly Cartesian to Napoleonic era, and Paris is its stone-and-gilt manifestation.

What do Descartes and Bonaparte and social arrogance have to do with ISIL or al Qaeda or Wahabbism? Apart from Napoleon's occupation of Egypt, a signal event in the Arab narrative of Western intervention, the lesson springs not from the Middle East but from Germany. The German principalities were long subservient to the French Empire, a subservience that was all the more galling for a small intellectual movement there because those German princes were so eager to please Versailles. The humiliation visited upon the Germans (among many others in Europe) for being peasants or backwards soaked into German culture over many decades, finally giving rise, among other forces, to what came to be called Romanticism.

The great British intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin detailed this rise in several books and articles as a way of tracing the origins of Nazism. The leading lights of German Romanticism and related movements -- Johann Gottfried Herder, particularly, and later, Fichte, Goethe, Schelling, even Immanuel Kant -- were bothered by the French claim to universalism, that all men and women were alike in their nature and should be subjects of natural law, reason, and a certain kind of orderliness that followed from these precepts. The Romantics chafed at this, not least because this "universalism" was shaped in Parisian salons. Instead, Herder et al posited a specific morality based on ethnic or national characteristics and found in manners and habits and music and crafts, et cetera, unique to each culture. This, Berlin brilliantly explains, was the spark of nationalism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Romanticism then, and later, was an embrace not only of one's own culture, but a rant against rationalism itself and all that it implied -- to borrow a phrase, one-dimensional man.

Romanticism (which had exponents in many societies) was not merely a matter of distinguishing one culture from another and holding up one's own as equal (or superior) to the French: it was also a reaction to French imperialism -- political, social, and cultural. And, in this, the Romantics and their later disciples were in effect evolving a political program, one spun from anti-rationalism and specifically national prerogative or privilege. Hence came postulates about racial superiority, the essential goodness and destiny of Die Volk, and the glorious past that somehow had been debased by the French (and, for that matter, British empiricists). Perhaps most important, this nationalism was borne not only of a sense of uniqueness, but from a sense of inferiority.

"Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness," Berlin explains in his 1972 essay, "The Bent Twig":

"It usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation. It may be that this happened in German lands because they had remained on the edges of the great renaissance of Western Europe ... To be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors is one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer. The response, as often as not, is pathological exaggeration of one's real or imagined virtues, and resentment and hostility toward the proud, the happy, the successful."

Many accounts of the rise and nature of nationalism include some unifying, even defining, trauma to the "imagined community" of the nation. It may simply be the failure of all that came before -- divine right, esotericism, traditional authority, and the like -- sundered by capitalism, modernity, the age of disbelief. More specific jolts -- Barbara Tuchman speaks of the Turkish incursions to the gates of Vienna as providing Europeans with a self-identity it had not known before -- are often military in nature, genocides, capitulations. It is not for nothing that one of the most insightful theorists of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, regards the rise of the imagined communities of nationalism as akin to the great, totalizing religions that preceded them, promising the individual kinship, a place in the cosmos, and a form of destiny and immortality. And, in the West, religion is rooted deeply in a sense of trauma, the ultimate trauma of betrayal and the cross.

Berlin weaves the history of Romanticism in its more virulent political forms in "The Counter-Enlightenment" and other essays to show how the anti-rationalist, essentialist and racist nationalisms germinated into what became the Nazi horror. What began as a cri de coeur against overbearing imperialists and a search for a separate identity and dignity morphed into a septic, ultra violent ideology. Of course, not all Germans, not all "Romantics," not all nationalists follow this tragic path, but it doesn't always take many to wreak havoc.

Nowadays the notion of humiliation as a social and proximate cause for nationalist and religiously based rebellion is commonplace, and it has been explored exhaustively -- there is even a genre of academic life called Humiliation Studies. The results of this research are inconclusive. But it appears to be at least part of the mix of the impetus for rebellion in the contemporary Middle East. Too much glib reference is made to it, often overlooking the sources of outrage, particularly the occupation of Palestine. The U.S. wars and their astonishing and callous carnage, the pandering to Arab authoritarians, the anything-for-oil policies are all part of this package. The question is not merely that humiliation and denial of dignity have persisted, however, but how and to what extent they fuel the fire this time.

Americans' commonplace view of ISIL, al Qaeda, and similar groups is one of irrational, hateful savages wreaking havoc as they bomb, rape, and pillage. This view is not wholly mistaken, but it overlooks the causes of this poisonous ideology of Jihadism. "Jihad" is a sacred obligation of Muslims to struggle for moral perfection; it need not be and typically is not violent. In contrast, Jihadism channels all energy into the punishment of apostasy, deviation, and disbelief. It is, like its ideological cousin, salafism, a claim to go back to the purity and virtue of The Prophet. The contamination of Arab lands by the West and its willing collaborators among sheiks and dictators has stirred this powerful yearning for authenticity. The British, French, and Russians particularly colonized great swaths of Muslim societies, imposing their own version of Enlightenment values, but in a highly oppressive manner -- exploitative, superior, and, yes, humiliating. Generations of Arabs, Persians, and Turks have reacted in a variety of ways, but each reaction at its core involved a rejection of the West and an embrace of various forms of nationalism.

Jihadism also was and is a rejection of Muslim leaders who are beholden to Western styles of governing, and here the virulence is even more pronounced. The Johann Gottfried Herder of Muslim thought is Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual and activist who was executed for participating in a plot against President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. Qutb's writings, far and away the most widely read in the genre of political Islam, took aim against those Muslims who steered their societies away from the true path of Sharia law and righteousness. He was an advocate of violent jihad against those rulers. His view of the West, and especially the United States (where he studied for several years), was disparaging, believing it to be a sinkhole of depraved behavior and sensibilities. He contrasted such decadence with the glory of Islam in the Middle Ages, and felt the humiliation of how Arab countries had become subservient to the West. His admirers, including al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, have similarly excoriated the current rulers of Muslim states. In many respects, this uncannily mirrors Herder et al's rejection of the French Enlightenment and those who adopted its values.

But whereas Qutb and many of his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and a few other groups that promote a political Islam are ready and willing to participate in non-violent competition for political power, the more extreme offshoots are not. They are, as my colleague Huss Banai points out, avengers of apostasy and Western domination -- destroyers rather than builders.

ISIL is the latest in this long line of avengers-cum-rejectionists, and a particularly raw one at that. Like salafism, this Jihadism insists on a return to early Muslim values and practices, although their ideological commitment to this is highly suspect, as their brutality is forbidden by Islamic strictures. The group's terrifying violence is a direct challenge to the orderliness, or rationality, of modern warfare, with its UN resolutions and diplomatic conventions and technical apotheoses in cruise missiles and satellite reconnaissance. ISIL's warmaking does have, in practice, the scent of bloodthirsty revenge. (Of course, saying that the American way of war is rational, even if calculated by rational and empirical methods, is highly doubtful.) Yet the notion that Jihadism is an outright rebuff to Enlightenment "values" makes sense only if speaking of social organization and human rights.

Arab nationalists and jihadists do not reject all of the Western achievements of science and technology -- far from it. One of the distinguishing features of ISIL is its embrace of communications technologies, including social media, to recruit and crow. They have adroitly exploited U.S. weapons technology captured in their sweep of Anbar. They are fueling their rebellion with oil exports and other stolen financial assets. In fact, the durability of the Enlightenment is manifested much more in economic and technological life than in political and social -- i.e., the consumer society, the organization of which is highly rational (excepting its impact on the natural environment) and enormously successful worldwide. The penetration of this rationality into Arab societies and "Jihadism" is scarcely resisted, except on those social questions of personal -- mainly sexual -- behavior, and even then mainly of women.

They reject, as Berlin would easily recognize, the West's emphasis on universal values, and those that the international community cares most about: economic rationality (market values), security rationales, and, less compellingly, human rights. Notably, ISIL's social mandate -- ferocious repression of Shi'ites, minorities, women, etc. -- which concedes no ground to any of those standards, bears a striking resemblance to the social attitudes of Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other U.S. allies.

So the "rejection" of Western values is attenuated by its own narrowness, essentially, its insistence on social (largely sexual) control. In that, are those allies and their terrorist progeny acting out of humiliation? The growth of Wahhabism -- the central religious dogma of Sunnis -- on the Arabian Peninsula was a reaction to the irreligious ways of Muslim elites dating back to the eighteenth century, and is in many respects the grandfather of Jihadism. Politically, the sheiks of the Gulf have no greater claim to legitimacy than does Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIL "caliph," apart from a certain longevity and international recognition, both purchased commodities. One really could not attribute the growth of Wahhabism to the whip hand of humiliation, however much European and American imperialism has scarred the Muslim nation.

In fact, the sudden and largely unpredicted rise of ISIL is explicable not only to the supposed attractions of Jihadism but to the void left by functional Iraqi and Syrian states. ISIL even conceives of itself as a "state," however unorthodox. The devastation of Iraq through sanctions and war has left it terribly vulnerable. As Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group has explained in a widely circulated post, ISIL "can be perceived simply as an ally of necessity, essential for responding to the aggressions of a sectarian government perceived as an Iranian- backed occupation force. [ISIL] also expresses diverse and profound frustrations regarding the existing order, at a point when there is no existing alternative: secular elites are impotent, 'mainstream' Islamic trends have failed and fragile government structures have been ripped apart by predatory behaviors serving individual or nepotistic interests."

Remarkably, this is similar to the conditions giving rise to fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s. The appeal of the rancid residues of Romanticism substituted for other possibilities, but the desperate conditions were shaped by local political rivalries and the predations of the global economic system. Under such circumstances, the "pathological exaggeration of one's real or imagined virtues" -- namely, racial superiority -- became politically potent.

In Iraq and Syria, and indeed in other marginalized parts of the Arab world, the British, French, Russian, and American attempts to dominate and exploit have certainly nourished a humiliation narrative that is politically resilient and useful, if inadequate to understand the rampages now occurring in Anbar, Kurdistan, and Syria. Neoliberalism, the economic globalization that has promised to lift all boats, has left too many stranded on barren shoals, and this failed promise fuels dislocation and dashed hopes, too. But what may be vastly more central to the current crisis occasioned by ISIL's rise is the weakness of the target states -- both a moral/political weakness of discredited governance and ideologies, and a disabled security apparatus. Both are partially a consequence of the wars in Iraq, the failure of Arab nationalism, and the consequences of the Ottoman Empire's collapse. But it's also a failure of Arab politics, which has swung from one extreme to another for at least a half century, ever seeming to mire in autocracy and corruption. For this, the humiliation meme is no guide to action, and, particularly, American bombs are no remedy.