It would be an understatement to say that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has ruffled a few feathers in the last few months. Its suspected downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt, followed by random attacks in the city of Paris and then the execution of a Chinese national, has created an unprecedented situation where, for the first time probably in the history of humanity, every major power has thrown its support behind the elimination of a common enemy.
One wonders what the rationale would be for ISIL to offend every major power on earth, most of whom are already bombing them with precision strikes in Iraq and Syria. Of course, it is consistent with their view that anyone who does not support their cause is an infidel and will be destroyed, whether great or small. In this sense, it is a demonstration of their will and their power to strike anyone, anywhere, without fear of consequences.
At the moment, ISIL has every reason to crow about their potency. The world’s greatest superpower, the United States, with its coalition of Middle Eastern allies and assorted friends (including Australia and, more recently, France and Britain), as well as Russia, the Syrian government, the Iraqi government, Iran, and miscellaneous local militia, are struggling to make a dent in its hold on vast swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory. That is perhaps not surprising given that none of the forces arrayed against them appear brave enough to venture within the city walls to flush them out one-by-one. Airstrikes, after all, only have limited effectiveness against an enemy that mingles amongst women and children.
But with talk among world powers about better cooperation and a long-term strategy to deal with IS and, more fundamentally, how to find a political solution to Syria’s long-running civil war, there has been little attention paid to the underlying factors that produce groups like ISIL in the first place. Sure, we have heard talk about the problems of failed states in producing ‘political vacuums’ and disenfranchisement of minority groups that groups like ISIL exploit. We have heard about marginalised Muslim youth in Western countries who turn to groups like ISIL for belonging and a sense of purpose that they lack in their own societies. But when it comes to explaining the genesis of a group like ISIL, the commentary rarely goes beyond vague and rhetorical tropes about ‘evil’ and ‘criminality’ that is stock and trade of the discourse surrounding any terrorist group. As a result, little is learnt about the fundamental processes that produce groups like ISIL
I am not referring to the array of long-running grievances that Islamic groups have against the West, such as its blind support of racist states like Israel, its manipulation of Middle Eastern politics to suit its oil interests, and the threat posed by Western culture that, with its brash commercialism and hyper-sexuality, offends conservative Muslim values. These socio-historical factors are certainly relevant, but they do not explain the vicious, inhumane outlook of a group like ISIL, whose adherents gleefully sever the heads of aid workers, elderly people and anyone else who they take to task, or the women they kidnap, rape and betroth to their soldiers.
Such forms of behaviour are by no means unique to ISIL, and throughout history similar stories of cruelty in times of war abound. But one would hope that, for those educated in the West at least, such actions would be antithetical to one’s conscience. Yet sections of Muslim youth from countries from around the world, including Britain, Australia and France, have gravitated to the ISIL cause, and have been at the forefront of executions and terrorist acts where the value of human life is worth so little.
It is easy to explain away such fanaticism as typical of the Muslim mindset (which ignores the fact that most Muslims are law-abiding and peaceful in disposition), or of bad parenting, or just something not right in the head. Some might point to violent video games. The bulk of the problem, I contend, does not lie with the participants themselves, but a society where children are not taught to think in rational terms. This is not picking on Islam. The same kind of fanciful thinking is pervasive in Western society almost as much as it is in non-Western societies. I am not only referring to the irrationalism found in religions, cults and Scientology centers. Politicians do not talk in rational terms but in rhetorical ways. The average person does not understand the science which makes their television sets produce images, or their lights to illuminate their living rooms.
With irrationalism being the norm rather than the exception in Western society, how can we expect young people to be able to see through the kind of incredulous claims made by groups like ISIL, that they will achieve eternal paradise if they strap a bomb on and kill a dozen people in a café, or that raping a young girl is acceptable because Mohammed did the same and it is the role of females to serve the needs of men? These might seem to be clearly flawed and immoral matters to the average person, but such insights are more the result of cultural norms than reasoned understanding. Most people would only oppose the view that strapping on a bomb will result in eternal paradise on the basis that ‘people who kill others do not generally go to heaven’. But on the question on whether heaven exists, they might say that they wholeheartedly believe that it does, without being able to offer a shred of evidence for this view.
The problem is, once such an unfounded, irrational conclusion is accepted, it is not a far step – once a person is removed from the normalising forces of the society around them – to arrive at a diametrically opposed point of view, which claims to be moral in character. What if the person you are killing is an infidel, who is bringing evil to the world by not following the path of the prophet (as they interpret it)? Are you not, in this instance, doing Allah a service? Is it not right that you should be rewarded for ridding the world of such people, in the same way that soldiers are praised when they kill the enemy? 70 virgins in heaven seems like a just reward. Heck, take your 70 virgins now – why wait?
The fact is, no one knows if there is a heaven or not. On the basis of probabilities, considering all the empirical evidence, it is doubtful that there is. That is the only rational position on the question of heaven – all other views are dubious and based either on wishful thinking, blind belief or conditioning from religious influences. Now if a person accepts the possibility that there may not be a heaven, and is open to the possibility (actually, probability) that Mohammed did not receive any teachings from some divine entity, and that therefore the Koran is not an authoritative template for living a virtuous life in the modern era, it is doubtful that such a person would be more than willing to don a suicide vest and blow themselves up in a downtown café, regardless of their political views or personal insecurities.
But Western countries do not want to tackle these underlying causes of fundamentalism and extremism. It cannot do so, because Western leaders and commentators lack the insight into their own conditioning and the irrational mindset that pervades Western society generally. So it is that Western leaders condemn the irrational fanaticism of ISIL, all the while turning a blind eye to the equally extremist ideology of the Saudis who fight as part of its coalition (in fact, it is alleged that Saudi citizens are funding ISIL as part of their Sunni rampage against Syrian and Iraqi Shiites). So it is that Western politicians bemoan the lack of responsibility exercised by Islamic communities in instructing their youth, even while the same politicians fail to implement critical thinking lessons in public schools.
A dumbed-down education system will produce dumb citizens, and half-wit parents will produce half-wit children. Do not be surprised, then, if some dumb, disaffected youth seek to join a half-wit group of fanatics half way around the world. Such is the world we have created, and which we continue to perpetuate.