“One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffār [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah.” Dabiq Magazine – ISIS Publication.
The Islamic State is not as novel and as contemporary a phenomenon as we would like to imagine. The flames that fuel it have been around, in some form or another, embedded in the human psyche, for many centuries.
The human mind is designed to seek patterns. Just this morning I was driving down a verdant road lined with shady trees and saw a tree shaped oddly like a crucifix. Beneath its indifferent trunk were laid flowers, candles and prayers. One plus one may often make two but that misleading two is still more desirable than no answer at all. In evolutionary times patterns helped us spot a predator in the tall grass; seeing a spotted coat in the monotone grass may not signify a leopard, but best assume so, just in case. And we are the offspring of that ‘just-in-case’ ancestral ape.
Thus we are primed for uniformity: a break in the natural order of things may mean danger, stalkers, death. So, if any group, body or organization can offer us a guarantee of uniformity, we are ready to surrender our liberty in return for plain-sailing stability.
The concept of freedom, rights and liberty is a relatively modern one. No serf living in the distant fields of a Tsar would dream of owning his own land – or even himself. Being free is not an automated desire. It is one that has been nurtured by generations of democratic, egalitarian thinking. So the question ‘why would people be so willing to surrender their freedom to a fundamentalist regime such as ISIS?’ ought not be asked in such surprised, gawking tones.
Before ISIS there were the Crusaders, the church, the Roman Empire, Nazism, Stalinism, Communism, religion itself: all these demand full submission. The flock must be completely faithful. Blind. Unquestioning. What do they get in return for such a robotic existence? Security. Uniformity. Guarantee against unwanted change. Stability. Things the human mind, raised on the perilous savannah, always craved – and will always crave. And if the regime that owns you asks for your life, then it is a small price to pay to help maintain the status quo.
Most of us – and I say most of us knowingly – would jump at the chance of being offered a thirty-year contract with our favourite employer. And even those who would turn it down would still be stressed by the possibility of having to find somewhere new. And who wouldn’t jump at the chance of being offered a free house on the one condition that they spend their whole life in that same house? And what if you were a youth with little prospects, marginalized, disinterested in a long, arduous career, raised in hostility: what wouldn’t you give for an open-armed family that embraces you whole-heartedly, gives you meaning and, more importantly, makes you promises you can’t refuse.
“The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly. There are natures too, to whose sense of justice the price exacted looms up monstrously enormous, odious, oppressive, worrying, humiliating, extortionate, intolerable. Those are the fanatics. The remaining portion of social rebels is accounted for by vanity, the mother of all noble and vile illusions, the companion of poets, reformers, charlatans, prophets, and incendiaries.” Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent.
Terrorists are masochists, as Conrad points out at other points in The Secret Agent, but they are also vain and lazy. There can be no other judgment. “…By which the vanity of power is soothed, and the vulgar love of domination over our fellow-creatures is flattered as worthily as it deserves.” This will to dominate, embarrass, torture, destroy others ought not surprise us either. It is in us all. It is genetically primed. Oh but a true man is one who is powerful enough to rise above his outdated instincts and become truly civilized.
“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, …kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.” This quote, taken from an IS website, demonstrates the thrill these vainglorious fundamentalists take in inflicting brutality upon those that they claim had so long oppressed them. This is the vindictive tone of the bullied child growing up to overpower his past bully. There are no limits to the sadism enjoyed by the scolded, vain child. IS, just as Nazism did before, is a flag that draws to it the emasculated narcissists of the world, promising vindication and, as an added prize, glorified immortality. For, really, who wouldn’t laud the promise of an eternal good-life over those, he believes, are damned to eternal ruination?
And vanity is not the only magnetic force at work here. IS, and other terrorist organizations, promise the emasculated not only power and vindication, but quick power and vindication. This is take-away dreams-come-true. Fast-dreams. A stronger mind might wish to overcome adversity by struggling, working, studying, patiently building his way to the top of his chosen field.
But we live in a culture – both Westerners and the Middle-East – where hard-work, sweat, toil, hard-graft are as marginalized as a Jew in a Medieval Christian township. Why work so hard to get something you can get through a myriad of readily available shortcuts?
Teenagers in our schools don’t want to study because they can go sing on X-Factor, or model on some Next Top Model, and become instant millionaires.
People don’t want to be scientists, that takes too much effort and intellectual energy: they would rather go viral with some made-to-order video or invention. It may only be fifteen minutes of fame but it sure is damn well better than years of effort and strain.
And why would you spend years developing your literary gift when you can write an instant bondage-cum-vampire bestseller.
This is the culture built on sloth and vanity. Is it any wonder IS are such a big craze? IS is a symptom of a particularly Western malady conscripted into an Islamic civil war. Fundamentalism is idleness. You need not think for yourself. All you have to do is take orders. Even the sexual positions you must use are pre-written for you. Fundamentalism is pampering on a twisted scale. And so is our obsession with the celebrity cults of our generation. Don’t dress yourself, let the Hiltons dress you. Don’t think for yourself, get an agent or a BFF. Don’t be what you want to be, be what Rihanna is.
Of course, there is no comparison between the evil of IS and Rihanna. It would be a foolish claim to make. And it is not being made. But the difference is one of gradation not category. And of course, without MTV-land, the Islamic State would still stand. But both tap into a long-seated human urge for domination and superiority. Both make us obsessed with our primal lust for power. One makes us masochistic the other pugilists. To be obsessed with power, lust, dominance and superiority may be fine if you’re an archaic homo sapiens trying to survive in a rapidly changing, harsh world. But if you want to be something higher, a risen ape, ought you not be ready to roll up your sleeves and becoming something worthwhile: a scientist, an artist, a doctor-without-borders, a conservationist? These are roles that do not bring instant celebrity, if indeed they bring with them any fame. But stick to it. Perhaps one day, our priorities will shift and then, maybe then, IS will not be such a magnetic force stealing away bright pseudo-Western minds from under our noses.