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What if we are looking at the phenomenon of terrorism through the wrong lens? The vast majority of terrorism in the world today is coming from Muslims, that much is clear. But this observation must be tempered with its corollary that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. Is it right, then, to look at modern terrorism strictly through the lens of Islam? Or are there perhaps prior historical patterns and precedents that hold up a warped mirror to our own predicament? Does modern terrorism stem directly from Islam, or is modern terrorism just an Islamic spin on another expression of deeper problem of modernity, a problem whose prior manifestations we might recognize? This is just a short post as I don’t have time for a more in-depth one and would need to read this book to have a fuller response.
I ask because of an interview I recently listened to through BBC History Magazine’s podcast, History Extra. The interview was with Pankaj Mishra, who has authored a book entitled The Roots Of Modern Rage. From the book’s description at Amazon (emphasis my own):
[Pankaj] shows that as the world became modern, those who were unable to enjoy its promises―of freedom, stability, and prosperity―were increasingly susceptible to demagogues. The many who came late to this new world―or were left, or pushed, behind―reacted in horrifyingly similar ways: with intense hatred of invented enemies, attempts to re-create an imaginary golden age, and self-empowerment through spectacular violence. It was from among the ranks of the disaffected that the militants of the nineteenth century arose―angry young men who became cultural nationalists in Germany, messianic revolutionaries in Russia, bellicose chauvinists in Italy, and anarchist terrorists internationally.
Pankaj sees in modern Islamism patterns very similar to Nazi Germany, revolutionary Russia, and many other groups besides. I do not have an interview transcript to quote directly, but in the interview he declares that the Islamism that guides terrorists of Isis and Al-Qaeda is a mish-mash of 19th and 20th century socialist philosophy with Islam thrown in, and thus itself of the same family as horrible philosophical responses to modernity that drove the Nazis and the Soviets. Far from actually reaching back to historical Islam for purity, it is far more akin to the Nazi obsession with old German pantheism, inventing a philosophical and religious past that never was and steering itself towards a purity that never could have existed.
I think he’s got a point here. Germany, after centuries of division as the battleground of the European powers, united, modernized, and industrialized extraordinarily quickly, and in feelings its oats while having a massive chip on its shoulder it sparked two massive wars, the second of which was sustained by an insane pagan racial ideology. Russia, being forced to modernize in a very short order, without having the educational or cultural foundation to sustain it, devolved through revolution into a brutal industrial dictatorship that threatened the rest of the world for many decades.
I’ve not had the chance to read his book in full, though, and as I recall from the interview he doesn’t necessarily have any good solutions for the problem, save that the West must have and express more faith in itself over its successes, the Islamic world must reconcile itself to modernity, and that the rest of the world and the West must together find a new a fusion of thought that respects the past while also facing up to the fact that it’s never coming back. Near the end of the interview, the author, himself an Asian, responds rather humorously to the query of whether Eurocentrism in philosophy should be set aside by saying that not only should it not be discarded, but that it should be embraced for its strengths.
For myself it has had me wondering if perhaps we ought to be taking the longer view too that Islamism will eventually burn itself out like the Soviets if we keep a firm resolve against it, or if it will by necessity be crushed like we had to do to the Nazis. Both solutions, though, have little to say on immigration itself and a lot to say in favor of having strength in our own history and culture as being paramount. Either way, If Pankaj is correct in his diagnosis, when Islamic nations and cultures do reconcile themselves with the modern world (and they’ll have to, though the process is proving extremely painful from within and without), the phenomenon of Islamism, with its terrorism, will eventually burn out or be crushed — either way it will not sustain itself.
I have no conclusions on this myself, but it does bear pondering and questioning.