I was reading my local rag this [Tuesday] morning, when I came across a very small item buried somewhere between an ad for a for-profit college and a story about the acquittal of yet another police officer in the death of Freddie Gray. The three-paragraph article had the following headline: “Bastille Day attacker had interest in jihad.”
I thought to myself: No sh*t, Sherlock!
The piece informs us that “Mohamed Lahouaiyej Bouhlel drank, ate pork, and had an ‘unbridled sex life.’But his computer and phone showed online searches relating to IS and other jihadi groups.”
Recall the initial reactions in the media to the Bastille Day horror, once the identity of the truck-terrorist was known and details about his life began to come out: there were plenty of doubts about his motives. After all, those who knew him said he wasn’t at all religious: he was a “loner” who often exhibited the telltale signs of being somewhat sociopathic. He beat his ex-wife. He did un-Islamic things. He hooked up with men as well as women! How could he be a Muslim, never mind a devout one, let alone part of some jihadist group intent on establishing Sharia law?
And yet it turns out that his phone yielded messages at least strongly implying that he had confederates who were part of some organized jhadist group. And the Islamic State dutifully claimed him as one of their own.
We went through the same exculpatory process with the Orlando shooter, who was said to have sexual “issues”: his attack on a gay nightclub was depicted as “homophobia,” albeit of the internalized variety, and his decidedly un-Islamic habits and lifestyle were characterized as evidence that he was just another “lone nut.” Yet a search of his dwelling turned up lots of Islamic literature and his contacts with the first American born suicide bomber as well as two interviews with the FBI showed that he did indeed have an “interest in jihad.” And this “interest” translated into a vicious attack that killed and injured over a hundred people. The Islamic State claimed him, too – in spite of his alleged psychological “issues.”
This dissonance between the personal habits of terrorists and their alleged religious beliefs is nothing new: it can be traced all the way back to the archetypal jihadists who pulled off the 9/11 attacks. They, too, partied it up: gambling, drinking, etc., right before they took down the World Trade Center and targeted the Pentagon. And yet they were acting as soldiers of a terrorist outfit that wants to impose Sharia law, ban alcohol, veil women, enslave unbelievers, and generally take the world back to conditions that prevailed in 12th century Saudi Arabia.
How do we account for this curious phenomenon of cognitive split personality?
There are two factors at work here. First, Islam is evolving under the pressure of modernity and the “war on terrorism” itself. Adherents must coexist in the world with Western mores and it’s inevitable that they’ll be influenced: after all, they are not apart from the society they supposedly hate and want to “purify.”
More importantly, however, Islam itself is undergoing a transformation from a set of religious principles embodied in its holy books into a full-fledged political ideology. While the more quietist strands of Islam may be largely exempt from this transformational process, the fact is that the West has been waging a war in the Muslim world – and this is seen by many as a war against the Muslim world. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq have played right into the hands of al-Qaeda and its offshoots, so that the theological justification for jihad has been seemingly verified – and the thin line between religion and ideology has been effectively erased.
In any case, that line was always vague when it came to Islam, which, unlike Christianity, or Buddhism, or any of the other great religions, has a prescription for how society ought to be organized as well as how the individual can lead a virtuous life. Sharia law describes a comprehensive social system, validated in the holy texts, and the devout are motivated to impose it on unbelievers. This hasn’t always been the case, and Islam isn’t alone in this tendency toward statism: there are elements within Christianity (and other faiths) that have inspired militant adherents to impose religiously-inspired regimes on the unwilling.
However, this has largely been characteristic of the earlier stages in their development, when the zeal of the newly-converted has conjured visions of a “virtuous” society ruled by religious strictures. Yet this militancy has been ameliorated over centuries, certainly in the case of Christianity, until the separation of church and state has been established, enabling a policy of peaceful coexistence.
What has happened in the case of Islam – and this is a simplification – is that 1) The line of demarcation was never clearly established, and, 2) the perception that the West is at war with Islam has politicized and fundamentally transformed what was a religion into an ideology.
Therefore we get controversies like this one about a reporter for a British broadcaster covering the Nice massacre while wearing a hijab. The PC left is in an uproar over this piece that appeared in the Sun – a rightwing tabloid of dubious reputation – seeing it as a symptom of “racism” and “Islamophobia.” What they don’t get, however, is that while this sort of thing is reprehensible, they are missing the larger issue – which is that the viewer sees the hijab as an ideological symbol, and not a religious one. The hijab in this instance is perceived as making a political statement, and the audience is left wondering whether the coverage they are listening to is biased or colored. To give another example of the same phenomenon turned on its head: viewers had every right to wonder whether reporters who were wearing American flags on their lapels in the wake of the 9/11 attacks were filtering the news through an ideological prism.
The “war on terrorism” has transformed our lives in many more ways than we see at the moment, and religion is hardly exempt: it is now possible for a “soldier of Islam” to drink, be promiscuous, and indulge in other decidedly un-Islamic behavior, while engaging in “jihad” as a religio-ideological act of “devotion.” It also allows some in the West to engage in systematic denial: to aver that the Orlando shooter and the Nice truck-terrorist weren’t really jihadists, they just had psychological problems that caused them to “go postal.”
War poisons everything it touches: religion, journalism, and everyday life itself. It distorts our perceptions, and makes it nearly impossible to think clearly about anything. It changes us in ways that are not immediately apparent, and certainly not for the better.
The irony is that those who warn us that Islam is inherently violent and anti-Western, and advocate a “global war” of endless military intervention in the Muslim world, are engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They and the policies they urge us to pursue are the catalyst that has set these forces in motion.
Reversing this process is going to be a long and drawn out process: just as the progress of a disease, even once it is checked, continues to have its effect on the body, so the body politic is not easily drained of the poisons that have accumulated due to war. What is required is a fundamental reversal of our foreign policy of perpetual war: then and only then can the healing process begin.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.