Saturday, November 10, 2007
The Mystic Martyr
I've been developing an argument over the past week or so that militant jihadism and the cult of the suicide martyr represent a rearguard pre-modern resistance to the incomplete attempts to introduce modernism in the Islamic world. The obvious counterargument, what I'll call the Mohamed Atta exception, occurred to me today. Namely, that while the Taliban and the tribal militants in the Pakistani badlands are certainly the products of a pre-modern (or hybrid "post-pre-modern") culture, the men who actually represent the greatest terrorist threat to the West largely come from urban, educated and modern backgrounds.
But the distinction between the two, while significant, actually strengthens my argument. Western attempts to understand what motivates guys like Mohamed Atta have focused on political aspirations and Arab nationalism as the source of their extremism. According to this line of thought, repressive regimes propped up by American support drive young, alienated, urban Muslims to the only movement they feel is taking concrete steps to resist, or avenge, America's presence in the Arab world: Al Qaeda. All of that might be true, but it's only part of what drives them.
Because if this modern rejection of the West's policies marks the first steps of the trajectory that eventually produces the Mohamed Atta brand of terrorist, its later stages is dominated by a nostalgia for a simpler, more authentic, more "whole" pre-modern existence that is common to urban modernites of all backgrounds. One need only consider the journey of young, urban, "Westernized" Muslim men from the streets of the European and Arab capitals, where they studied and grew up, to the Al Qaeda training camps in the hills of Afghanistan, where they put the finishing touches on their indoctrination, to get a sense of it. Once in place, that nostalgia is welded to a mystical ascetism that uses a reading of religious texts to encourage a spiritual cleansing, of both self and the world, through the sacrifice of the flesh.
The same nostalgia has driven the New Age, "back to the land" awakening in the West that over the course of two generations has popularized Yoga, Eastern and Native American philosophies, wholistic approaches to health and healing, and Paganism, including some of the more ascetic aspects of those disciplines. Where the cult of the suicide martyr differs is not in its refusal to spare judgment of the "less enlightened" for the evils of modernism, a practice shared by many New Age schools of thought. It differs in its refusal to spare them the sentence -- a sacrificial death -- embraced by the ascetic mystic.
That a large part of this nostalgia is driven by the attractive reassurance of traditional gender roles, and in particular male privilege, is obvious when one considers women's place in fundamentalist Islamic society. But in this, as well, it's the expression rather than the fundamental motivation of the urge that differentiates it from Western versions. The hippie ideal of the Earth mother, for instance, under the guise of softening gender roles only serves to reinforce them. That the Pagan influence of Western pre-modernism has allowed for an acceptance of the "wild woman" and her sexuality does nothing to undermine the argument. What is celebrated under the light of the full moon in Santa Cruz is hidden under the burka in Afghanistan. The difference is enormous, but both responses spring from a common source, namely traditional pre-modern interpretations of gender.
By no means am I minimizing the differences between Western expressions of nostalgia for pre-modern ways of life and the jihadi suicide cult's version. I'm simply suggesting that we can use one to better understand the underlying psycho-socio-cultural dynamics of the other. In particular, it bears mentioning that these critiques of modernism draw many valid conclusions about the alienation and atomised social structures of modern life. More centrally, they point to a fundamental flaw of modernism, namely its failure to adequately address humankind's (innate?) need for a core metaphysics of meaning.
The jihadi terrorist has mistakenly been accused of nihilism. But he is no more nihilist than the medieval Christian mystic mortifying the flesh to repent for the sins of humankind or, for that matter, the well-meaning BoBo who covers the carbon tracks of his 4x4 by subsidizing the planting of forests. His ascetic mysticism has simply been perverted into a murderous purging of modernism. We haven't paid enough attention to this aspect of his revolt. It's time we did.