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June 1, 2004

The Psychological Sources of Islamic Terrorism

Alienation and identity in the Arab world


The threats we are now confronting have roots in surprising places. And yet, even after September 11, and now post-Operation Iraqi Freedom, national security by and large continues to be defined in the traditional way. Threats are concrete, specific, and grounded in material capabilities. At issue, for the most part, are political-military questions such as power, territory, alliances, credibility, and prestige. Most important, the response when challenged is to deploy the tried and true elements of realpolitik — military action, coalition building, threats and promises, intervention overt and covert.

But there is an inherently psychological character to the war on terrorism that remains poorly appreciated: The security threats the United States faces today have everything to do with the pressures of modernity and globalization, the diaphanous character of identity, the burden of choice, and the vulnerability of the alienated. That is not all that they have to do with, and the influence of psychological factors lies in a larger context of socioeconomic, cultural, demographic, and other realities. Yet those material issues become most relevant, and most dangerous, when they are breathing life into latent psychological distress.

This diagnosis is hardly new. Everyone these days seems to be talking about the human effects of modernization and globalization, and the ways in which frustration, rage, and ultimately terrorism spring up from the collision of the new and the traditional. Works connecting radical extremist Islam to a reaction against modernity have been around for decades; many have tended to lay this phenomenon alongside the concomitant rise of fundamentalist strains in other religions.1 Yet the full implications of this widely drawn insight have not touched U.S. national security strategy and policy. What needs special attention, in fact, is what this diagnosis has to say about the cure — because it is an open question, one past which we have rushed in an understandable desire to strike back at evil, whether or not phenomena that are fundamentally psychological in character can be defeated with military power or law enforcement efforts.

 

Homeless and alone

The best diagnosis of the extremist upheavals of the previous century and today can be found in the philosophical tradition of existentialism. Amid much variety, a consistent motif emerges: All existentialists worry that modern, mass technological life tranquilizes people, drains us of our authenticity, of our will and strength to live a fully realized life. The result of this process is alienation, frustration, and anger. A few themes stand out from this broad concept.

One has to do with the burdens of freedom and choice. By breaking the chains of tradition and conformity, modern life offers a bewildering, paralyzing degree of choice about everything from career paths to marriage partners to fashion. When you can potentially be anything, the existentialists worry, you may in fact be nothing — and have no identity at all.

And yet existentialists are also very much in favor of making choices and being committed to them — so much so that passion is a second theme of this literature. Most existentialists urge a passionate embrace of life, of projects, of career. They revere the venturous and rash, the ones who try to make a mark on the world. In this sense the self-help guru Tony Robbins peddles a more truly existentialist therapy, a more sophisticated and deep cure, than most tweedy philosophers would care to admit. Passionate commitment, self-invention, and responsibility are, for the existentialists, the route to authenticity.

Making passionate choices is, in turn, a very personal thing, and existentialism celebrates the sanctity of the individual as against the mass herd. Existentialists glorify individualism and worry about the potential for a new style of degraded, thoughtless conformity.

Existentialists plead with all of us to be our own people, to think rigorously and independently about what we believe, feel, and want. The self-help movement as a whole — its emphasis on self-esteem and on controlling one’s own destiny — emerges directly, I would say inevitably, from the existentialist diagnosis. Self-actualization is the route to social harmony in the modern era. The problem is that many folks don’t come close to achieving it, and a few end up trying in ruinous ways. Neither embraced nor cowed by the pressure of community, confused and angry loners rush off in search of self-actualization and find, instead of Tony Robbins, Osama and his like.

Existentialism also has a religion problem — or, rather, it insists that modern society does. Not merely an assertion that “God is dead” (there are, after all, existentialists who write in any of a variety of religious traditions), existentialism more than anything contends that religion has become an individual rather than a group enterprise. To be authentic, people must confront religious questions independently and come to their own conclusions. As an added benefit, religious experiences sought out and brought to flower by personal commitment are far more lasting and intense than those encountered in rote communal ceremonies.

Modern life is not encouraging of such spiritual commitment, however, as far as the existentialists can tell. Their description of the authentic person turns into a diagnosis of modern society, and they don’t much like what they see. Technological, materialist, denatured, and despiritualized, reeking of the mass herd and the generic assembly line, the modern world is for most existentialists a factory of inauthenticity. It is rootless in the complete sense of the term: rootless from tradition, from heritage, from genealogy, from place, from community. As its brilliant interpreter William Barrett has emphasized, existentialism loathes nothing more than abstraction — the generic, distant encounter with life that modern technological society has substituted for direct personal engagement with it. It is worth quoting from Barrett’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist Philosophy (Doubleday Anchor, 1958):

Thus with the modern period, man . . . has entered upon a secular phase in his history. He entered it with exuberance over the prospect of increased power he would have over the world around him. But in this world . . . he found himself for the first time homeless. . . . [His] feeling of homelessness, of alienation has been intensified in the midst of a bureaucratized, impersonal mass society. . . . He is trebly alienated: a stranger to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social apparatus that supplies his material wants. But the worst and final form of alienation . . . is man’s alienation from his own self. In a society that requires of man only that he perform competently his own particular social function, man becomes identified with this function, and the rest of his being is allowed to subsist as best it can — usually to be dropped below the surface of consciousness and forgotten.

The passionate yet calculating, vicious yet idealistic, brilliant yet astonishingly misguided members of al Qaeda can be seen as, at least partly, engaged in a search to reclaim these lost elements of their humanity, their being.

Here the roots of fundamentalist terrorism intertwine and join with those of many other anti-modern strains of thought from the past three centuries. First there were the Romantics, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge and later American naturalist heirs to that tradition, who saw in belching factories and impersonal cities and the worship of the twin gods Progress and Technology the beginning of the end of mankind as a worthwhile project. These woodsy poets would hardly have imagined themselves as forebears of Nazism, and yet they were, in a very traceable way: With the marker of intellectual history, one can draw a straight line from Wordsworth through Hölderlin to Heidegger, and thence to the Nazi hacks. For all its fascination with technology, National Socialism was a dreamy, romantic, anti-modern movement through and through.

Even from the beginning, too, the existentialists were speaking the language of purification through return to a simpler, more authentic imagined past. Kierkegaard wanted to return people to communion with the first Christians; Nietzsche would have hauled them all the way back to ancient Greece. Modernism must be discarded, or at least radically reformed. And as Ian Buruma has recently pointed out, “the idea that liberalism is mediocre, unheroic, and without martial vigor” is not the sole possession of fascism and Bolshevism and radical Islam; it is also “an old battle-cry of the anti-liberal European right.” Indeed, among some members of the conservative political theory crowd in the West, there remains more than a shade of precisely the same anti-modern project one finds in the extreme groups — the same lack of comfort with the relativistic, value-free, unheroic modernism of a secular industrial society.

Existentialism implies, and indeed often preaches, a rejection of whatever moral system happens to hold sway. Nietzsche argued as much, certainly, but there were also others — Heidegger most of all — who referred to our “fallen-ness” from authenticity precisely because we stumble along doing what we are told to do, mechanically doing what we understand to be the right thing.

The ultimate manifestation of an authentic life, according to at least some of the existentialists, is to regain control over the manner and purpose of one’s death. Here is Barrett again:

Only by taking my death into myself, according to Heidegger, does an authentic existence become possible for me. Touched by this interior angel of death, I cease to be the impersonal and social One among many, as Ivan Ilyich was, and I am free to become myself. Though terrifying, the taking of death into ourselves is also liberating: It frees us from servitude to the petty cares that threaten to engulf our daily life and thereby opens us to the essential projects by which we can make our lives personally and significantly our own.

I am not sure that Heidegger was thinking of suicide bombers; he seems to have had in mind more the internalization of our morality, the taking in of the idea of death. But one is hard-pressed not to think of the stolid, brutal authors of September 11, going about their placid lives and smoothly traversing their petty cares sustained by the conviction that they had taken their death inside, bought and owned it, and thereby achieved wholeness, achieved greatness, achieved authenticity. They had attained the ultimate freedom as espoused by another existentialist, Sartre: the freedom to say No.

 

Looking for ties

We have, then, in the existentialist diagnosis, all the ingredients of extremist, anti-modern terrorism. The recipe crops up again and again in modern history — in Nazism, in Soviet communism, in Romanian and Japanese religio-nationalism, and in the spurts of violent lashing out at modernity from the Kaczinskis and the McVeighs that modern society tended to laugh off until they became more numerous, more organized, and far, far better armed. That the portrait of a confused, angry person lost in the choices and options of the modern world is now a cliché doesn’t make it any less insightful. Passionate risk-taking and identity-seeking gone wrong on a mass as well as a micro scale have haunted — and, from time to time, devastated — the modern world. Inability to “find a home in the world,” to quote Heidegger, produces a desperate and sometimes violent search for the zealous embrace of a tightly bound community in service of a heroic cause.

Eric Hoffer’s study of such people, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Harper & Row, 1951), remains the best. All mass movements, he wrote, “draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.” That type is the frustrated individual — people “who, for one reason or another, feel that their lives are spoiled or wasted.” Hoffer distinguishes between the satisfied on the one hand and the frustrated and dissatisfied on the other: People with a “sense of fulfillment,” he writes, think that the world is basically good and “would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change.” Thus it is that radical movements must depict the present as despoiled and ruined and point both to an idealized past and the hope of a purified and restored future, quite literally creating a fantasy in the minds of their followers. “What ails the frustrated?” Hoffer asked. His answer:

It is the consciousness of an irremediably blemished self. Their chief desire is to escape that self — and it is this desire which manifests itself in a propensity for united action and self-sacrifice. . . . Such diverse phenomena as a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible, and many others which crowd the minds of the intensely frustrated are . . . unifying agents and prompters of recklessness.

That is striking enough as a haunting preview of modern terrorism, but Hoffer has more to say. Fanatical mass movements strive after a “primitive” ideal. They find the modern world to be weak and worthless and uphold rough, rigorous, self-sacrificial modes of life as an alternative. Theatrical to the core, they strive for grand acts. They “religiofy” their ideology. They tell a story of a glorious, purified future to be achieved through their own strategies — along with a wondrous past that proves such a future is possible. Through all of this, they inspire suicidal devotion: “To lose one’s life is but to lose the present,” explains Hoffer, “and, clearly, to lose a defiled, worthless present is not to lose much.”

Scapegoating is an essential component of the fanatic’s toolbox. Generating hatred against an enemy held responsible for the debasement of the present and the destruction of the glorious past focuses energy. In the process of all of this, members of such groups objectify everyone else — as well as themselves. Their horrific acts become more comprehensible when we understand that they have surrendered their self-control to the group: “They are made to feel that they are not their real selves but actors playing a role, and their doings a ‘performance,’ rather than the real thing.”

All the old existentialist themes are here — alienated individuals in search of authentic identity amid a debased mass society that has forgotten or destroyed its virtues — and there is an ironic twist on the existentialist prescription. The fanatic engages reality through objectification; he (or, often enough, she) becomes authentic by playing a role. This irony bears a powerful hint of the ultimate answer to fanaticism, fascism, and terrorism because, deep down, these violent responses to the alienation of modernity amount to just another form of delusion, a massive and monstrous inauthenticity. In a desperate search for identity, the terrorist becomes doubly alienated.

 

Choosing

The centrality of choice and freedom — economic, cultural, and political — to the fabric of the modern world is hardly a new concept. Apart from the existentialists, development theorists old and new, from Sir Arthur Lewis in the 1950s to Amartya Sen in the 1990s, have been interested in it for decades.

A recent study by three scholars (including the notable theorist of value shift Ronald Inglehart) nicely lays out the mechanism. Socioeconomic development furnishes people with the material resources they need to make choices — money to educate themselves and to travel, capital to open a business, and so forth. Cultural changes accompanying modernization invariably produce, in every society yet studied, a greater emphasis on values of self-expression and individualism. Then democratization slowly emerges, adding political choices to the menu and, by creating a system of effectively protected individual rights, creating a secure umbrella for choice of all kinds.2 Inglehart and his co-authors refer to the resulting combination of factors as “Human Development,” and, as they say, choice is the central theme. This should hardly come as a surprise because “the concept that the core principle of modernization is the broadening of ‘human choice,’ is implicit in modernization theory.”

Choice flies directly in the face of tradition. “What is distinctive about tradition is that it defines a kind of truth,” writes Anthony Giddens in Runaway World (Routledge, 2000). “For someone following a traditional practice, questions don’t have to be asked about alternatives.” Under the influence of globalization, Giddens argues, in the West “not only public institutions but also everyday life are becoming opened up from the hold of tradition,” and in the rest of the world societies “that remained more traditional are becoming detraditionalized.” The result is something that should by now sound familiar:

A society living on the other side of nature and tradition . . . is one that calls for decision making, in everyday life as elsewhere. The dark side of decision making is the rise of addictions and compulsions. . . . Every context of detraditionalization offers the possibility of greater freedom of action than existed before. . . . Self-identity has to be created and recreated on a more active basis than before. This explains why therapy and counseling of all kinds have become so popular in Western countries.

Fundamentalism, in this context, “is beleaguered tradition. It is tradition defended in the traditional way — by reference to ritual truth — in a globalising world that asks for reasons.” As Hannah Arendt pointed out long ago, it is when tradition becomes beleaguered that its defenders become most impassioned; it is when “the tradition loses its living force and as the memory of its beginning recedes” that the power of tradition “becomes more tyrannical.”

 

Anti-modern ideology

After lurking for a century or more in the nationalist, pastoralist, anti-Western, and xenophobic subconscious of such countries as Germany, Russia, Romania, and Japan, beleaguered tradition emerged to become the author of the twentieth century’s most heinous crimes and destructive wars.

Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair (University of California Press, 1961) referred to this reaction as the “conservative revolution.” (Stern was careful to distinguish a truly radical-fundamental brand of revolutionary conservatism from traditional, cautious, temperate conservatism.) Affronted by what it perceived as the immorality and corruption of liberalism and modernization, the movement sought “to destroy the despised present in order to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future.” It fed on the simple fact that “our liberal and industrial society leaves many people dissatisfied — spiritually and materially. The spiritually alienated have often turned to the ideology of the conservative revolution.”

From the work of Stern and others, one can cobble together a portrait of this anti-modern ideology. It despised materialism and, in at least some guises, was abjectly opposed to commerce and capitalism. (Marxism and the unique character of Russian communism have their own roots in romanticism.) It decried the spiritual and moral emptiness of life. It insisted that distinctive cultural values take precedence over universal ones; cosmopolitan tolerance was the enemy. It represented a reaction to urbanization and the destruction of various national myths of pastoralism.

The conservative revolution, the reaction against Enlightenment liberalism, laid out specific political charges in addition to a broad philosophy. It held that existing political rulers were irresolute and corrupt. In every case it worried about the weakness of the particular nation/people relative to competitors, a weakness brought about by flaccid modernity and the decline of martial, nationalistic values. It held out an idealized past and future and a vision of national or ethnic redemption. It employed sometimes brutally canny conspiracy theories. Some scapegoated group typically took the rap for national decline. In Europe, it was always the Jews, perhaps in part because of their apparent close connection to all the values of Enlightenment life — cosmopolitanism, education, tolerance, and commerce. Apart from the local fifth column, there were also outsiders and external influences to blame.

The movement had a longing for national heroism and a virile life that led to an enthrallment with violence. It encouraged a tendency, especially among the young, to await a “hidden savior” — whether the new Barbarossa or some other national cave-dwelling myth. Generally the movement held a strange and contradictory position on technology: violently opposed to the mechanizing influences of modernization yet delighted to embrace technology, even develop it in profound new ways, if it aided the agenda. Oddly, movements begun as romantic, bucolic assaults on modern life have often ended up as the engineers of the most scientific or industrial states of the modern world.

Finally, all strains of this reactionary movement have professed dedication to “faith” and religion, though sometimes of an essentially secular-nationalist-mystical form. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the religiofication of the reactionary movements. It is just as the existentialists predicted: With the death of certainty in a largely secular and relativistic modernity, lost souls want not merely a generic answer to their alienation, but an answer imbued with spirituality. So the movements have portrayed the state as a religious vessel and have deified history, viewing it (and most specifically their own advance to power) as the expression of God’s will.3

The recent book Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003) by Paul Berman is excellent on this point and makes an argument similar to the one I am making here. Berman catalogues the enemies of liberalism — Nazism, Bolshevism, Fascism, and now some versions of radical Islam — and describes their common features. Among other things, these commonalities include hatred of a corrupt, despoiled cosmopolitan present; the worship of a pastoral, righteous past; the longing for a utopian future; acceptance of or even enthusiasm for dictatorship in service of this cause; and the designation of hated enemies, foreign and domestic, as responsible for the evil present. Berman traces the line of such thinking from current radical Islamist intellectuals back to the same roots that, intentionally or not, underpinned fascist and communist ideology. Early in the twentieth century, Berman contends:

The old Romantic literary fashion for murder and suicide, the dandy’s fondness for the irrational and the irresponsible, the little nihilist groups of left-wing desperadoes with their dreams of poetic death — those several tendencies and impulses of the nineteenth century came together with . . . the dark philosophies of the extreme right in Germany and other countries, with their violent loathing of progress and liberalism. . . . They gazed across the landscape of liberal civilization, across the many achievements of democratic freedom, social justice, and scientific rationality. And everywhere they saw a gigantic lie.

As a substitute, Berman explains, these emerging movements sought an uncompromising vision — an ideal of submission to a complete and encompassing ideology and system. “It was the ideal of the one, instead of the many. The ideal of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement.” This, he argues with references to such radical ideologists as Sayyid Qutb, is precisely the strain of thought underpinning the modern terrorist assault against the Western world.

Thomas Simons, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Pakistan who has studied the Islamic world since the 1950s, compares the extremist terrorists of revolutionary Russia to those of the Islamic world today in his book Islam in a Globalizing World (Stanford University Press, 2003):

The young of both times and places — the Russian world after 1870 and the Arab world around 1970 — were seared by the frustration of always living second-rate lives in relation to those at the cutting edge of globalization. There are tremendous penalties for latecomers to the modernization sweepstakes. . . . [T]his reality is painful, and the pain often is felt most keenly not by the poorest, but by those who have progressed a little and are frustrated in their aspirations to go further.

Of the perpetrators of September 11, Simons says, “They were killers to be sure. But they were also uncertain young men, torn from their roots, belonging nowhere, at home only in their small groups, frightened, exalted. To understand them we can do worse than reread Dostoyevsky; we can do worse than contemplate [Dostoyevsky’s amoral student character] Raskolnikov in his tiny room fingering his ax.”

 

Managing mindsets

The widely voiced concern about globalization’s assault on human identity and security thus turns out to be grounded in some very basic concepts of human nature and needs. An existentialist-psychological map of threats in a global world would help to capture an important idea: If we are indeed engaged in a war on terrorism, it is a war not against tank divisions or infrastructure, but against a mindset. Our enemy’s center of gravity lies in the thirst of millions of young people, especially those in particular regions of the world, for self-actualization, identity, and self-worth in a world filled with daunting (and Western-tainted) free choice and options. The origins of this threat are psychological, very much as existentialists would understand them, rather than (primarily) political or material.

I am not for a minute suggesting that political issues have disappeared. China’s quest for regional influence, Russia’s desire for a voice in neighboring regions — these and many other political issues (as well as associated phenomena such as nationalism itself) continue to shape world affairs. Kim Jong Il may be motivated by specific psychological factors, but the existence of his state and the threat it poses are not primarily psychological challenges. Some terrorist groups possess agendas more rational-political than fantasy-psychological.

My argument, instead, is that the balance has changed. The degree to which these and other political issues become violent and dangerous, the degree to which they pose a threat to American interests, depends to a greater degree than before on issues of psychology, mentality, and perception. (The balance has changed, in part, also because of the rise of modern, democratic trading states more likely to favor stability and less likely to go to war with one another than in the past — an argument made eloquently by the Bush administration’s own National Security Strategy.) In a global and modernizing era, managing the political issues is no longer enough; we must manage mindsets as well. These psychological issues are not likely to be resolved in traditional ways and in fact may feed off of the unintended consequences of the steps we take to deal with traditional threats.

The history of similar movements seems to support and bear out this claim definitively. For a modern supporting example, take Egypt. Can we imagine the growing disquiet there — an explosive stew of economic stagnation, political repression and debility, rapid population growth, national decline, and a context of growing tension between Islam and the West — being cured with anything from the Bismarckian toolbox? What is the United States going to do, invade the place? Short of that, what options are available? It is an article of faith with the current administration that radical groups are not “deterrable” once in possession of certain destructive capabilities. But if so, then it becomes very nearly self-evident that American national security policy — while it is still, in some ways, about tank divisions and force-to-space ratios and the aeronautic qualities of the latest fighter-bomber — must, if it is truly to protect us, become something much more nuanced, anticipatory, and social-psychological in its ends and means than it has ever been before.

In making this suggestion, I do not mean to downplay the socioeconomic roots of terrorism. Economic decline, the deprival of freedom, and general desperation and lack of hope are, in fact, precisely the problem. But it is the mindset produced by this situation — a mindset to which radical extremisms of all sort have always appealed, and for which the radical dogmatists stand ready to offer a framework of blame and hate and violence and totalitarian politics — that seems the more proximate cause of the threat we now face. The two issues, socioeconomics and psychology, are of course intimately linked. But the former mostly becomes dangerous when joined to the latter — and, in my view, a fairly specific form of it. We don’t worry, after all, about a psychology of pure, distilled hopelessness in destitute areas of the world. The existentialist diagnosis was always more profound than the Marxist one; modern life raises the issue of who owns one’s life choices — one’s soul — far more urgently than it does the question of who owns the means of production.

The mechanism seems to work similarly in most cases. The process begins with disaffections of some sort — some combination of social, economic, political, and cultural angst — built centrally and most profoundly on the mechanism of a collision of identity and dignity in the transition from the traditional to the modern, the non-Western to the Westernized, the rural to the urban. The disaffections can also include a variety of related ills, from economic stagnation to political repression to class divides. Into this dangerous situation steps what has insightfully been called an “identity entrepreneur” — someone offering a cure for popular alienation and anxiety. Such persons draw power from the fact that they offer not merely a stale social-scientific analysis, but a narrative — an actual story with a logical flow from glorious past through rotting present to reglorified future. They tell a story populated with heroes (those who rebel) and villains (the local and global conspiracies that have laid the nation low) and even a climactic point (the current moment). Often, a forcing function is required — a widespread economic collapse, a war, an assassination — to jolt the populace into outright rebellion. The result is action, in the form of revolution or rebellion or terrorism, often ending in the creation of a new, even more repressive and rotting state, which in turn sparks a democratic, free-market revolution, sometimes imposed from the outside through an occupation after a large-scale war. Arguably the overriding question for the Islamic world today is whether it must traverse this entire destructive path before widespread and lasting reform takes hold.

Critically, the radical and extreme mindset does not infect the whole population at once. Initially it appeals to very few — those whose sense of distress and longing for identity, whose searing personal experiences, make them most susceptible to the identity entrepreneur’s toolbox. Our task in the war on terrorism, then, is to forestall the appeal of the identity entrepreneur of terrorist violence before he reaches a much larger audience — the turning point that has led to such devastating brutality in the past century. And in this we may well be failing.

This consistency of modernization and its effects is the best answer to those who would deny any meaningful connection between the experiences of Germany, Russia, or Japan and the modern Arab world. An emphasis on cultural difference leads some observers to claim that the divergent experiences, histories, values, cultures, and so on of the West and the Middle East make the sort of connections I am trying to make facile and ahistoric.4 The reply seems to me straightforward and obvious. Modernization is a largely homogenous and homogenizing force. The social tremors suffered in modernizing societies look roughly the same the world over — and the intellectual/psychological foundations for assaults against modernity in such places as Germany, Russia, and Japan, while they certainly betray many differences, have much in common as well. There seems no reason to expect things to work out any differently in the Islamic world. Judging from the rhetoric, complaints, and tactics of those now confronting Westernization and its chief author and symbol, there is every reason to see a familiar pattern at work.

This reality puts the lie to the notion that what we are seeing in some corners of the Islamic world today is morally and psychologically more crazed and extreme than anything that has ever issued from the West. Writing, for example, in the New Criterion (January 2003), Roger Kimball lauds the “relative political stability of Western civilization” and its “pursuit of knowledge,” comparing this tradition to Islam’s more crimped and inherently authoritarian promise of “security.” He quotes, approvingly, the columnist Mark Steyn, who wonders why only Muslims respond to religious affronts by slaughtering innocent people. One can only speculate how these writers would explain away such inconvenient episodes of Western slaughter as the Crusades, the annihilation of Native Americans and native peoples everywhere, the brutalities of colonialism, the horrors of the French Revolution, and the Holocaust (one could go on for page after page). Human beings are obviously capable of states of psychological distress so severe that inflicting unimaginable horror seems not merely allowed but required. To write this off as the habit of one ethnic or religious group is as ahistorical as it is offensive.5

 

The jihad era

All of which brings us back to the roots of terrorism, to the motivations and worldwide appeal of al Qaeda, which appear, on close examination, to have much in common with the model of anti-modern conservative reaction described above.

The analyst of terrorism Audrey Kurth Cronin has summarized the portrait of religious-extremist terrorist groups in a manner that Nietzsche and Hoffer would immediately recognize: “The jihad era,” she remarks, “is animated by widespread alienation combined with elements of religious identity and doctrine — a dangerous mix of forces that resonate deep in the human psyche.” Terrorist groups in this camp appeal to people who “feel powerless and left behind in a globalizing world.”6 She continues: “Religious terrorists often display a complete sense of alienation from the existing social system. They are not trying to correct the system, making it more just, more perfect, and more egalitarian. Rather they are trying to replace it.”

Graham Fuller, in his recent book The Future of Political Islam (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), similarly describes the basic revulsion with the modern, technological present that exists in much of the Islamic world:

The deepest underlying source of Muslim anguish and frustration today lies in the dramatic decline of the Muslim world, in over just a few centuries, from the leading civilization in the world for over one thousand years into a lagging, impotent and marginalized region of the world. This stunning reversal of fortune obsessively shapes the impulses underlying much contemporary Islamist rhetoric.

Osama bin Laden himself has referred to 80 years of Muslim “humiliation and disgrace” as a main source of his grievance. The decline, moreover, is seen as a very specifically moral and spiritual one; it is because Islam has lost touch with the values that once made it great and because the specific governments that now run much of the Islamic world are undemocratic, unrepresentative, corrupt, inefficient, or worse. As Bernard Lewis has stressed, too, Arab ventures at modernization have seldom fared well. It was the Westernized Arab armies which were swept aside by the Israelis beginning in 1948. It was Western-style parliaments and political parties that underwrote the Western-style corruption and repression of many Arab countries. It is hardly surprising, Lewis concludes, that “the rejection of modernity in favor of a return to the sacred past has a varied and ramified history in the region.”

As anti-modern extremism has always done — indeed, as it is required to do for psychological consistency — this emerging version views its enemy (in this case America and the West) as weak, vacillating, and on the verge of moral and social collapse. From the Iranian revolution onward, modern extremist Islamic groups have seen the United States as irresolute. Did not the Americans flee from Vietnam, from Lebanon, and from Somalia? In the view of the radicals, Bernard Lewis concludes, America “has become degenerate and demoralized, ready to be overthrown.” This points to the importance of toughness, of hitting back, of committing to a cause and not running when costs — even human ones — appear. It points, in other words, to the crucial role of successful outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Graham Fuller puts the bottom line this way: “The striking feature of our ‘postmodern’ era is the continuing assault upon the concepts and verities of modernism. . . . [L]urking doubts about the universal benefits of both rationalism and positivism existed from early on. . . . And the many critics of modernity indeed found vindication of their fears in the moral blight of the twentieth century.” No set of critics, he suggests, is as impassioned, committed, or angry as the radical extremists of the Muslim world.

Some will say that, if there is anger in the Arab and Islamic worlds, it requires no reference to modernity to be explained. People in this turbulent string of nations (especially the young males) are angry because of a lack of opportunity, angry about regional and national decline, angry about Israel and its policies and American support for them, and angry about corrupt and oppressive local governments. They are not, on the surface, angry about “modernism.” What is fascinating, however, is the degree to which the resulting bill of complaints looks very much the same as all the anti-modern extremisms of the past century or two. The symptoms of a panicked, traditionalist, anti-Western, anti-globalizing reaction are many and varied, and they touch political, social, economic, and ethnic issues. But the root, the fundamental process, lies deeper, and it is a common one.

 

Fighting fanatics

If the parallels to earlier anti-modern extremisms are valid, what we are up against is something far less amenable to compromise, negotiation, or even deterrence than Bismarckian methods are able to recognize. The “balance of power,” for all its rhetorical punch, is a rather effete way to deal with globe-swaying rivalries. If the intellectual and psychological position of the al Qaeda recruit shares the many elements of anti-modern extremisms sketched out above, then what the terrorists want has become too extreme to assuage, too radical to coopt, and too persistent and widespread to “defeat” in any truly political-military sense of that term. “Policy can never speak to wrath,” as Fouad Ajami has put it. Americanization-cum-globalization is the one power that cannot be balanced; it is, instead, reviled and endlessly besieged.

The terrorist campaign against the United States, the West, and the developed world generally is merely the latest example of a much larger phenomenon. This phenomenon is not (yet) a political-military threat in the way that fascism and Bolshevism ultimately manifested themselves. It is not, on this reading, primarily a political or religious phenomenon. It is a social-psychological one.

But if so, then what do we do about it? And especially, what do we do that is different from what we are currently doing?

What a social-psychological approach to the problem of extremist terrorism does not do is undermine the importance of toughness or deny the simple truth that the conflict (as it was against the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, the Japanese ultranationalists, and all their like) pits the modern world against some truly evil people. Those fully in the grip of a fantasy ideology are in many ways lost to the ideology.7 “The fanatic,” Eric Hoffer warned, “cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause.” Life without the enfolding group and self-assurance of the cause would be “trivial, futile and sinful . . . adrift and abandoned.” Having subsumed his identity in the group, the fanatical adherent cannot get it back again. Against such people there may be only one meaningful response. In a broader sense, proving the willingness of America and the West to stand up for themselves, to pay real prices and run real risks in their own defense, is an important element of any strategy for addressing the mindset of those who might be tempted to become terrorists.

Yet here we run head-on into the basic dilemma embedded in anything we might call a “war on terrorism.” If what we are really dealing with is large numbers of people striving for positive identities and self-actualization in a world of fractured tradition, toughness can be only a piece of the necessary answer, and a secondary one at that. What becomes quite obvious, looking at the problem as an existentialist would, is the same point made by many inside and outside government: By far the most important means to counter the spread of extremist Islam will be nonmilitary. The roots of such beliefs lie in national, historical, social, and economic places, and only by attending to these other factors can we keep our necessary military responses from becoming counterproductive.

This is, to me, the greatest danger of the war on terrorism as currently incarnated. Surely, criminals and violent terrorists must be hunted down. Just as surely, the mindset of the hard core of terrorist disciples cannot be changed with “good behavior” or the offer of a scholarship to Michigan State and a subsequent job at Microsoft or Starbucks. Some enemies are too implacable to be reasoned with. And yet a larger sense of unease looms over the enterprise because the bigger questions, the bigger objections, will not be answered by killing or by a new emphasis on “political-military credibility.” Had a magic button existed in 1937 or 1938 that would have slaughtered the top 100 Nazi leaders including Hitler, the underlying social-psychological tidal wave of resentment and xenophobia and totalitarian temptation would still have posed a grave threat to the stability of the West. The same could have been said of the top 100 Bolshevik leaders or the top 100 leaders of similar movements in Japan, Italy, Romania, and elsewhere. Surely, key people made a crucial difference, and without Hitler there might not have been World War ii as we knew it or the Holocaust. But there would have been trouble of some sort because trouble was brewing within modernity itself, the product of a far larger set of factors than the fiery, mirror-practiced speeches of a former Austrian corporal.

This is, incidentally, the magic of the current moment in relation to radical Islam. Islamism has no common global movement, à la National Socialism. It has no Hitler. It has not coalesced into a monolithic body, and it remains a secondary and even marginal force in nearly all Muslim nations. In any measured, thoughtful effort to ease the burdens of modernity throughout the Islamic world, we will find, in the governments and peoples of the regions, a thousand allies for every enemy.

September 11 may ultimately be seen as an early warning sign of a sort we did not get before we had to confront the other radical anti-modernisms of the past century. It is almost as if a few especially ambitious and diabolical Nazis had flown a Heinkel into the Empire State Building in 1935. We have an opportunity to act more decisively than the world acted in the 1930s, and we have this opportunity in particular because of the psychological character of radical violence as an answer to modernity: It, too, is inauthentic, as much so as going to work in assembly-line monotony for a whole meaningless career. It represents fake, rather than real, self-fulfillment. Offered richer and more rewarding avenues to a prideful, authentic identity, people will take them far more often than not.

Yet such inauthentic routes to hoped-for identity are also appealing, in part because the West is not merely disrespected — it is also loathed. Toughness, credibility, and military prowess will only get us so far; the pursuit of them has in all likelihood passed the point of usefulness and become self-defeating. As an example of why, take the psychological theme a step further and imagine that we are dealing with the mindset of a single individual. He has experienced recent personal failures, but has a rich family tradition. He has become resentful of his bosses, who seem to be running his company poorly, and of his business competitors, who are easily beating him in the marketplace. He blames the business consultants who constantly traipse through his offices, telling him how to do his work, and nurtures dark conspiracy theories about their connection to a few scheming coworkers. He has become angry and alienated. He has easy access to role models of violent backlash and wonders whether he should follow their lead.

We are his team of psychologists. We see in him indications of depression, frustration-aggression syndrome, and narcissism. What approaches might we come up with to treat such a person? It is, after all, a complex case; we are dealing with someone self-confident yet self-loathing, angry at himself and his coworkers yet liable to blame outsiders for the failings, proud of his family’s business history yet unsure that its habits have left him able to compete in the global economy.

I am not a psychologist, and I don’t know what cocktail of therapy, career coaching, or medication might be appropriate for such a case. But this much seems obvious: Single-minded threats to deter and cow this individual into the mute acceptance of his dismal prospects would not be enough and would very likely backfire. Dealing with a personality fraught with so many conflicting emotions would seem obviously to demand a careful, nuanced, multifaceted response, not a bash across the skull aimed at intimidation. Yet this is precisely the approach we seem to be following in the so-called global war on terrorism.

 

Islamic modernity

We must, then, think about the so-called war on terrorism in more encompassing terms than we are doing. Surely, we must deter, locate, and destroy terrorists, but compelling historical parallels suggest that the Middle East, and the Islamic world more broadly, could go very wrong in far bigger ways than producing a few thousand desperate young men willing to impale themselves on the frontiers of globalizing Westernization. We must attend to a larger risk — the danger that very large numbers of people could turn against modernism in very profound ways. In the process, we must ensure that our responses to the narrower threat do not exacerbate the broader one.

Responding strategically to the threat of terrorism, specifically extremist Islamic terrorism, means far more than raining smart bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq. It means more than reshuffling departments in Washington and deploying spit-shined passenger screeners at airports. Rather, if it is to be serious, it must mean a broad-based effort to address the psychological roots of radicalism and terrorism in the Islamic world. It means taking seriously the character of the psychological balm on offer from the “identity entrepreneurs” of radical Islam. To address the threat of extremist Islam, Graham Fuller writes, “one of two things must happen: either the conditions that helped impel Islamism into political life will have to weaken or disappear, or some other force or ideology will arise to meet the need more effectively.” The most important level of the struggle, Fuller concludes, “is of a more positive and constructive nature and involves the need for change and reform in the Muslim world, attending to deeper sources of grievance that constitute the soil for terrorism.” A mostly negative war against terrorism “will aggravate tensions within the existing international order that help produce these radical movements. . . . The psychological mood of the region is worse than ever before.”

The alternative to a largely military response — the alternative, in fact, to a “war” so named — is a strategy that lays engagement alongside deterrence, human development alongside special operations, multicultural outreach alongside border controls, and, most of all, positive identity entrepreneurs alongside terrorist ones. It is a strategy that takes seriously the larger, more dangerous phenomenon of which extremist terrorism is merely a hint of what could come. It is a strategy, as Thomas Simons has written, that takes as its centerpiece the strengthening and encouragement of the numerous and varied elements in the Islamic world trying to find a comfortable synthesis of modernity and Islam. “It may now be possible to break the linkage of modernity with Western domination that has afflicted the Islamic world for nearly two centuries,” Simons suggests. “It may now be possible at last for Muslims to shape for themselves a modernity that is consonant with Islamic belief and Islamic authenticity. . . . [S]uch syntheses of what is modern and what is Islamic are possible and achievable.” They are, as well, the keys to a successful, truly strategic response to September 11. A number of them, incidentally, existed well before March 2003. Those who claimed, and still claim, that Operation Iraqi Freedom was necessary to light the spark of modernity in the Middle East and the larger Islamic world must not have been paying attention to places like Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, among others. The spark had already been lit, and if the United States had wanted to demonstrate the potential of being both modern and Muslim, a half-dozen promising test cases were available, none of which would have required us to go to war.

Of course, as has often been said, the challenge of marrying Islam to modernity is one that needs to be worked out within the Islamic world, between Muslims. But the United States will still influence the outcome — for good or ill, in small ways or large. Our global and regional role, and most of all our position as the leading exemplar of modernization and globalization, ensure that we will have some effect on the process. One of the most important American foreign policy challenges of the next half-century is to do everything we can to ensure that the effect is a positive one.

A strategy to achieve this goal could have several elements. One, as Paul Berman has emphasized, ought to be a full-blown war of ideas to counter the specific ideology of Islamic extremism — the sort of contest that the West waged against Soviet communism from the 1940s onward and which it did not choose to wage in any real way against Nazism before 1939. That war of ideas, of course, does not posit Islam as its target — indeed, it would be a contest conducted shoulder to shoulder with devout Muslims the world over who are as offended and fearful of the violence and totalitarian urges of their radical brethren as is the West. The goal of such a campaign would be to furnish the people of the Islamic world broad and deep new sources of information about the United States, the West, and their values and to explain, with far more detail and persuasive force, the basis for U.S. policies.

Another requirement is to address the sources of resentment to be found within American policies. Multilateralism is not just a catch phrase; it can be, and has been, an essential tool for spreading risk among allied nations. Extremists may not be persuaded by a U.N. mandate — but vast millions of others in the Islamic world, watching the global hegemon for signs of humility and restraint, might cast a more suspicious eye on the extremists’ claims if Washington acts, again and again, in the name of the world community. There is, too, U.S. support for Israel, which must somehow be brought into balance with the larger requirements of our interests in making Western-tinged modernism palatable to the Arab and Islamic worlds. Absent a humane solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, absent some greater perception of fairness in U.S. policy on this issue in the broader Arab world, any other American initiatives will operate with an enormous, and possibly fatal, handicap. If nothing else, the United States could demonstrate much greater sympathy for the plight of average Palestinians through economic aid, high-level visits, encouraging American ngos to become more active in the area, and in other ways showing genuine concern and investing in a brighter Palestinian future.

A psychologically inspired war on terrorism would address the need for reform in a number of key countries, allied and otherwise — and address it seriously, directly, and in conversation with reformers in those nations. It would, inevitably, make efforts — knowing that they will be pinpricks, drops in the ocean — to substantially expand U.S. foreign assistance programs in the region by a factor of, let’s say, 10 to 20. Every home, hospital, school, or farm built with American aid dollars will work its effect on the minds of a few, and perhaps more. Every young person drawn into hope for a better life and away from the temptation to terrorism will count as a victory of sorts. Finally, there is no substitute for attention at the highest levels — visits from the U.S. president and his cabinet, over and over and over again, to key countries in the Arab and Islamic worlds to explain our values and our intentions, to speak to anger and resentment, to try to understand and be understood.

What all of this boils down to is the requirement to underwrite a growing set of alternative identity entrepreneurs. Dealing with this issue at its true depths — as, among others, Eric Hoffer once emphasized — is not as simple as mailing out videos of the wonderful life in the West. It is not merely a matter of improving standards of living and piling U.S. Agency for International Development projects into affected countries. Those who have joined, or may join, radical extremist movements are desperately in search of meaning and identity in a very concrete sense. They need a movement to follow, a charismatic leader to revere, and a doctrine to absorb. They need much more than facts — they need a narrative, a story, told by people they respect, integrated into a human community they can join.

To combat the identity entrepreneurs of extremist Islam, we need others like them — but others who offer not an identity based on violence, terror, and the hoped-for utopia of seventh-century primitiveness, but instead a future of greater freedom, higher standards of living, and continued expression of national and cultural values. The major focus of our strategy, then, could become the support for groups and individuals making the case for a happy marriage of modernism and Islam. Such allies will not always be “pro-American,” and they will seldom be “secular” per se. But if they have ideas and programs for addressing the insults to Arab and Muslim identity in the modern world that can accommodate basic U.S. interests, and if they can translate these ideas into concrete organizations, parties, or programs that can offer membership and dignity and hope to large numbers of people, they can become partners.

Who would such people be? What would a “strategy of identity entrepreneurs” look like? A few suggestive ideas occur, categories of identity-seeking to promote drawn from the agenda described above:

• Start a mutually respectful dialogue with Islamic leaders preaching empowerment and nonviolence. Washington could engage leaders in such countries as Malaysia, Turkey, and Jordan or prominent clerics and political/religious figures in such places as India, Indonesia, and Kuwait in a serious, ongoing strategic dialogue and be prepared to compromise in our rhetoric, attitudes, and policy. These dialogues cannot be confined to people who already agree with us or are perceived as Western allies; they must engage as wide a spectrum of Islamic opinion as possible and start from a willingness to come a long way to address their legitimate concerns about American policies and intentions. The tougher their message, the more suspicious of the West and the United States they might be (short of advocating or condoning violence), the better placed they will be to serve the psychological needs of their people.

• Embrace commercial entrepreneurs. To promote identity-seeking through commerce, encourage investment, microlending, scholarship programs to international mba programs, and other means of developing and encouraging entrepreneurship as traditionally understood.

• Endorse political entrepreneurs. Taking seriously the psychological roots of anti-modernism and terrorism recommends, even mandates, a more vocal stance in favor of democratization and good governance on the part of regional governments. This means endorsing and encouraging specific reform advocates and leaders of movements (some of which will be distinctly Islamic in character) trying to bring greater accountability to their countries. It also means being critical of longtime U.S. allies offering support for the current war on terrorism.

• Support nongovernmental organizations. Whether focused on development or human rights, women’s rights or Islamic values, ngos can speak for frustrated groups and, at the same time, thicken the sinews of civil society in many undemocratic states. In the West, they have often furnished avenues for influential identity entrepreneurs to build followers and experience.

• Invest in cultural entrepreneurs. Rather than to promote American culture everywhere, American foreign aid, public and private, could be used much more explicitly to support the work of local writers, artists, and other cultural figures trying to reassert a form of identity in the face of global homogenization, especially those who serve up strong critiques of U.S. culture and policies, so long as the proposed remedies are nonviolent. Both by aiding such identity outlets and by being seen to do so, we could gain much.

This approach is risky. In its economic aspects, it risks accelerating the changes that are fostering alienation. In its investments in identity entrepreneurs not obviously friendly to the West, it risks nourishing incipient bin Ladens and Saddams and Khomeinis early in their careers. In its embrace of more foreign aid and a somewhat tougher approach to Israel, it risks forfeiting political support at home. And Yet it seems to be one of the few approaches that takes seriously the psychological aspects of our present challenge.

September 11 reminded us of the need to act boldly, some said, to change our whole approach to national security. Perhaps we did change it — but not, after all, by much. Ours is still a national security enforced by soldiers, implemented by carrier battle groups and air wings. It is still national security underwritten by “boots on the ground.” It is still national security conducted much in the manner of Bismarck.

And it is still, overwhelmingly, an approach to security that has shied away from what is more properly seen as the “hard stuff.” It is impossible to observe post-war Afghanistan and claim that the United States made an all-out effort to transform the psychology of people there and beyond. It is similarly impossible to conclude that the psychological aspects of security in post-war Iraq weighed heavily on American minds. Sadly, the encompassing silence on elements of a possible strategy for shoring up modernity in the Arab world is the strongest of all signals that, at the end of the day, America hopes to bully its way out of yet another corner. A Bismarck might react to bullying in the way we intend — correcting his course, moderating his policies, counting his power chips and hoping for better days. Those in the grip of anti-modern radicalism are likely to respond quite differently.


1 See Bruce B. Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (Harper & Row, 1989); and Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994). For the connection to other fundamentalisms, see Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed (University of Chicago Press, 1991).

2 Chris Welzel, Ronald Inglehart, and Hans-Dieter Klingemann, “Human Development as a Theory of Social Change,” unpublished paper available at the home page of Inglehart’s project at the University of Michigan, the World Values Survey: http://wvs.isr.umich.edu/papers/KRIESJPR.pdf.

3 These last two points come from John Dewey’s insightful study, German Philosophy and Politics (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1942).

4 Paul Berman cites the Arab intellectual Tariq Ramadan to this effect in Terror and Liberalism, 24-26. The same argument, unsurprisingly, comes from a modern master of multiculturalism, Clifford Geertz. See his review essay, “Which Way to Mecca? Part II,” New York Review of Books (July 3, 2003).

5 Anyone who has any doubts about terrorism as a Western tradition can consult, among many sources, Noel O’Sullivan, ed., Terrorism, Ideology, and Revolution (Westview Press, 1986).

6 Audrey Kurth Cronin, “Behind the Curve: Globalization and International Terrorism,” International Security (Winter 2002-03).

7 See Lee Harris, “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology,” Policy Review 114 (August-September 2002).