We have met the enemy, and he is us–or at least an offshoot of multiple elements of 20th century far left worldviews, as two essays making their way through the Blogosphere today argue.
First up is a remarkable piece by David Brooks (made even more remarkable for where it’s appearing–but then, this is far from the first time that the moderate Brooks has played an iconoclastic role at the house of Pinch). Brooks reminds us that terrorists are an offshoot of the 20th century modernist utopians who universally sought to immanentize the eschaton:
In the days after Sept. 11, it was commonly believed that the conflict between the jihadists and the West was a conflict between medievalism and modernism. Terrorists, it was said, emerge from cultures that are isolated from the Enlightenment ideas of the West. They feel disoriented by the pluralism of the modern age and humiliated by the relative backwardness of the Arab world. They are trapped in stagnant, dysfunctional regimes, amid mass unemployment, with little hope of leading productive lives.
Humiliated and oppressed, they lash out against America, the symbol of threatening modernity. Off they go to seek martyrdom, dreaming of virgins who await them in the afterlife.
Now we know that story line doesn’t fit the facts.
We have learned a lot about the jihadists, from Osama bin Laden down to the Europeans who attacked the London subways last month. We know, thanks to a database gathered by Marc Sageman, formerly of the C.I.A., that about 75 percent of anti-Western terrorists come from middle-class or upper-middle-class homes. An amazing 65 percent have gone to college, and three-quarters have professional or semiprofessional jobs, particularly in engineering and science.
Whether they have moved to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, England or France, these men are, far from being medieval, drawn from the ranks of the educated, the mobile and the multilingual.
The jihadists are modern psychologically as well as demographically because they are self-made men (in traditional societies there are no self-made men). Rather than deferring to custom, many of them have rebelled against local authority figures, rejecting their parents’ bourgeois striving and moderate versions of Islam, and their comfortable lives.
They have sought instead some utopian cause to give them an identity and their lives meaning. They find that cause in a brand of Salafism that is not traditional Islam but a modern fantasy version of it, an invented tradition. They give up cricket and medical school and take up jihad.
In other words, the conflict between the jihadists and the West is a conflict within the modern, globalized world. The extremists are the sort of utopian rebels modern societies have long produced.
In his book “Globalized Islam,” the French scholar Olivier Roy points out that today’s jihadists have a lot in common with the left-wing extremists of the 1930’s and 1960’s. Ideologically, Islamic neofundamentalism occupies the same militant space that was once occupied by Marxism. It draws the same sorts of recruits (educated second-generation immigrants, for example), uses some of the same symbols and vilifies some of the same enemies (imperialism and capitalism).
Roy emphasizes that the jihadists are the products of globalization, and its enemies. They are detached from any specific country or culture, he says, and take up jihad because it attaches them to something. They are generally not politically active before they take up jihad. They are looking to strike a vague blow against the system and so give their lives (and deaths) shape and meaning.
In short, the Arab world is maintaining its nearly perfect record of absorbing every bad idea coming from the West. Western ideas infuse the radicals who flood into Iraq to blow up Muslims and Americans alike.
Meanwhile, Brendan O’Neill explains that al-Qaeda deputy Al-Zawahri is simply throwing multiculturalism–which is fueled by the far left’s self-hatred for western civilization and its accomplishments–back at its creators:
Someone should have Ayman al-Zawahri, lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, done for plagiarism. There’s nothing remotely original in his statement about the London attacks. Instead he has ripped off sentiments already expressed by scaremongering politicians and in handwringing newspaper editorials here in Britain since the 7/7 attacks. He ‘s only doing what al-Qaeda bosses have consistently done since 9/11: taking the West’s own fear and loathing and throwing it back at us in a supposedly scary, finger-wagging statement to camera.
* * *
This doesn’t only suggest that al-Zawahri has not got an original thought in his head – it also reveals an essential truth about al-Qaeda. They feed off our fears. Far from being the terrible enemy we have been led to believe – who are planning a ‘holocaust’ against the West, as one particularly overexcited author has put it – al-Qaeda is a ragbag of deluded nihilists and opportunists who thrive on tapping into our doubt and uncertainty. We are scaring ourselves, and al-Qaeda bosses merely cheer along from the sidelines.
We pretty much wrote that script for al-Zawahri and he just read it back to us in a scary, shouty Middle Eastern voice, like a James Bond villain circa 1980. Come on, people, are we really scared of that?
Update: Jeff Goldstein has some very much related thoughts on al-Zawahri’s rhetoric.