Why would anyone join ISIS? Why do young Europeans go off to fight in the Middle East? What attracts them to a violent and brutal terrorist organization?
Michael Ledeen answers that they do it: “because it gives meaning to life.”
Many people have found this explanation to be utterly satisfying. And yet, what does it mean to give meaning to life?
It might mean giving your life a purpose. But, why this purpose and not another one? The world is not short of purposes. It isn’t even short of causes. Why don’t these young people seek out “spiritual fulfillment” in prayer?
Unfortunately, “the meaning of life” is so vague and imprecise that you can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. Why, after all, do these aspiring young jihadis not find any meaning in British or French life? Why would they not find meaning in doing a job, making a living, having a family and contributing to community? Why do they see nothing meaningful in charity work?
How is it that the only way they can find meaning in their lives is by unleashing a reign of terror on Iraq and Syria?
Ledeen suggests that these young Muslim men (and women) run away from the comforts of home because home is too tranquil for their aggressive male spirit:
The main problem with democratic capitalism is that it’s so successful, and therefore very boring. A generation or two of European intellectuals bemoaned the great triumph of science and industry, which they portrayed as relentlessly stifling the human soul, burying us under a hill of material things.
For my part I do not think that success is boring. It might, however, be seriously alienating to be surrounded by success when you have none.
Surely these young Muslim men feel alienated from European civilization. They cannot relate to a civilization that was built on the Industrial Revolution, free enterprise and liberal democracy.
In that they are not alone.
For centuries now European artists and intellectuals have been railing and revolting against the triumph of science and industry. And they have led a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, arguing that it has stifled the creative wellsprings of authentic human being. From time to time enterprising politicians have taken up the cause.
They all hate the British inventions of the Industrial Revolution and free enterprise. They pretend that these inventions have caused human beings to lose touch with their spiritual being, but they are more concerned with way that modern life has repressed our aggressive and sexual impulses.
Whether you read this through Nietzsche or Heidegger or Freud, those who assault the Industrial Revolution, liberal democracy, rational thought and free will believe that civilizing forces have repressed the more authentically violent and depraved human instincts.
Some believe that the repressed impulses will inevitably return. Some believe that the impulses become degenerate because they are repressed.
All believe that human irrationality will out in the long run. They join the fight because, among other things, they believe that it puts them on the right side of history.
After all, what could be more authentic—in the Heideggerian sense—than the theatrical performance of murderous aggression? And let’s not forget the performance of violent sexual assault?
Like fascist movements before it ISIS seeks to undermine the foundations of Western civilization by showing that incivility is stronger than civility.Or better, it is trying to expose the fatal flaw in civility, its weakness and effeminacy.
These groups are not merely opposed to the Industrial Revolution and free enterprise. They abhor the British cult to gentility, to good manners, to propriety and decorum… to queuing up.
In the past fascist movements on the European continent believed that British gentility would make the British (and the Americans) easy targets, easy to defeat in war.
So they trained their armies in brutality and terrorism, believing that they could easily beat an army that has been trained in fastidiousness.
All fascists love war. But they do not love just any kind of war. They believe in the most brutal and violent kinds of war. They believe that they will inevitably win because they have overcome the tendency to fight by the rules. They refuse to limit themselves to fighting against armies. They extend the war into civilian population centers. They believe that limitless brutality will cow a civilian population into believing that those who can practice it will inevitably prevail.
Everyone has noticed that the junior jihadis who are signing up with ISIS have basically failed at life. In some European nations Muslims have failed to assimilate and have failed to embrace the values and the customs that define those nations.
Why did they fail to assimilate? Was it because their religion and culture did not allow it? Did they fear that they would lose their souls if they became Westernized?
Either way, some of them believe that they can overcome the humiliation that accompanies failure by showing that Western customs are corrupt or corrupting, and that the West will inevitably lose out to civilizations that are in closer touch with their more primal instincts.
In other words, the young European jihadis didn’t join ISIS in order to give meaning to their lives. They joined ISIS in order to save face.
Unfortunately, there is nothing face-saving in showing the world that you excel at savagery. Similarly, there is nothing honorable about murdering your children.
A civilization that cannot understand the concept of honor can only survive by terrorizing people.