"I've read of our heroes, and I wanted the same,
To play out my part in the patriot game." —Dominic Behan
Nine hundred years ago, Europe sent men to the Middle East to protect Christians there and put control of their faith's holy sites in the hands of Latin Christians. It even led to the reunion of Maronite Christians with the pope. Today, Europe sends young Muslims to the Middle East to destroy Christian churches and holy sites and to impose sharia law. America sends them too. It leads to Middle Eastern Christians fleeing in terror and crying out to the pope for help. The phenomenon is widespread enough that it has attracted the name "jihad tourism."
Matthew Schofield reports:
The Soufan group, a security consulting firm, believes there are around 700 from France, 800 from Russia, and almost 300 from Britain. But these figures relate to people analysts have been able to track, and the true numbers may be even higher. And as ISIS's onslaught in Iraq grows, there are fears even more foreigners will be drawn to fight. [McClatchy]
This shouldn't surprise us, and not because of the depredations of the French banlieues, vicious poverty in Western nations, or misspent youth in America. 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.
Fascism and communism promise more to men dissatisfied with liberalism. First of all, power. To succeed in a revolution is to step over the grubby merit system in the old regime, on which you would have been last and least in line if you were counted at all. 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.
And the West's appeal, such as it was, may be diminishing even further. Roger Scruton writes:
[T]he citizens of Western states have lost their appetite for foreign wars; they have lost the hope of scoring any but temporary victories; and they have lost confidence in their way of life. Indeed, they are no longer sure what that way of life requires of them. [Brussels Journal]
For a disaffected Sunni Muslim in the West, you can see how the Islamic State has some of the right enemies, and thus holds a certain appeal. The Assad regime in Syria has been wickedly repressive and corrupt. The regime in Iraq that was until recently headed by Nouri al-Maliki was dominated by the interests of apostate "Twelvers," and the Shi'ites of Iran, not to mention its indebtedness to the United States, who pays for and provide some of the military aid used to kill and repress Sunnis, and whose war in Iraq was hated and condemned even by many in Europe.
The Islamic State is a perfect vessel for what Orwell diagnosed as "transferred nationalism," the phenomena that allows men to be much more nationalistic and much more cruel than they ever could be on behalf of any existing nation with which they had intimate familiarity. The Islamic State also offers the chance of pillaging and raping enemies. Jihadi tourists will also find acceptance by joining the Islamic State. Some of the docu-journalism about the movement coming from Vice has subjects saying they are finally "comfortable" living in the Islamic State. The beliefs of radical jihadis unite their identity with that of the emergent state.
Finally, the Islamic State not only has the romance of revolution, and the promise of action and power, but also religious and apocalyptic appeal. Establishing the caliphate is a way for Muslims to "immanentize the eschaton," to bring about the final, God-ordained order to a political reality. This is a persistent desire in human history in Europe and the Levant. These religious impulses can be sublimated within Western liberalism, but only with great difficulty. The Islamic State holds out real appeal for some men who have difficulty believing themselves to be just another part of a long, ambiguous history of human civilization, and who long for something more than a vote, a job, and a life that will be forgotten in a generation or two. It seems every so often, Western liberalism will help produce enemies bent on destroying its all-too-human order, and replacing it with one that has the imprimatur of the volk, the verdict of History, or the laws of God.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- China's leader is telling the People's Liberation Army to prepare for war
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- How I lost all my money
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- The best books we read in 2014
- How to save money: 12 great personal finance tips
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- The religious right isn't retreating — it's reforming
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
Subscribe to the Week