A friend in Tunisia tells me the unemployed young men sit around and watch Isis videos and porn.
One of his good friends even joined up and got killed. Tunisia is the only democracy to be born of the Arab Spring, and the young women there seem educated and liberated. But unemployment and a sense of hopelessness are high among young men and they are joining Isis in droves.
It all makes the pseudo-religious cult look a bit less evil and more like some masturbatory power fantasy. It is time we explore why we are so afraid of these guys and learn to laugh at their absurdity. In so doing, we will puncture their aura of invincibility and nonviolently combat their propaganda.
But if you want to start by blaming Islamic culture, just remember all those Christian Germans who joined the far more genocidal Nazis not so long ago when they were unemployed and hopeless. Sometimes it seems as if young men will join anything that promises to give them a sense of purpose. But Isis is not just any movement. Here in the West, they have come to represent a sort of post-apocalyptic return to barbarism.
The vacuum of state failure in Syria and Iraq has become the occasion for the rise of a postmodern nihilism dressed up in religious drag. Isis represents not only everything that could go wrong in human nature and society but also a frightening vision of the future. There is even an Isis video of masked men racing down desert roads shooting up the passengers of random cars, like extras in some Mad Max remake.
Yet, ours is a remarkably peaceful phase of history with fewer wars and fewer people being killed in war than perhaps any time in history, notes Steven Pinker in his rigorously researched, Better Angels of Our Nature. ISIS reminds us of the cruelties to which humanity is heir. We may shudder at our first glimpse of a beheading, but the guillotine was introduced in France just before the Revolution of 1789 in order to make executions painless. And the Reign of Terror following the Revolution was far more bloody than Isis hit squads.
We may express shock at the genocide Isis is carrying out against the Yezidis and other minorities. But it was not so long ago that one of the most respected Presidents in American history obliterated not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also Dresden, Tokyo and Kyoto. ISIS represents not only the barbarities humanity might at any time commit, but the repressed shadow of an America that might still at any moment completely obliterate the world.
Isis provides a glimpse of what might lie beneath the surface of institutional break down. The vision frightens us because we know the coming century will be characterized by a multitude of global challenges that might very well stress the institutions of civilization to the breaking point.
Isis seems to present less a glimpse of some lower phase of human development and more a case of developmental collapse. This is what happens when the effort to develop socially and politically implodes and the bottom drops out.
Globalization is now searing through every part of the world. It is liquefying settled ways of life and increasing the burdens of governance. For where customs are no longer clear, the state must step in. But in all too many cases, the state has simply buckled under the strain. As a result, Foreign Policy magazine’s Index of Failed States has been growing annually for some time, and groups like Isis and Boko Haram are filling the void.
The specter of runaway global warming may also lurk behind our fears. There are simply too many variables to bear in mind to think about climate change rationally, so our thinking on the matter drifts into science fiction fantasies of social collapse and desertification. And into the inferno of the imagination slips the self-styled darkness of ISIS, offering up a nightmarish vision of how globalization and environmental collapse might converge to unleash civilization’s long suppressed id.
My own book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind, explores the many ways we struggle to think coherently about something so vast as a world. There is a strong tendency when thinking through so many variables to become overwhelmed. The effort constitutes a developmental leap for which we are all to often unprepared. We shuffle wildly through scenarios of what the world may become as we are inundated with new perspectives and possibilities. And Isis presents an eerie vision of how everything might fall apart.
Isis brands our visions of the future with the stamp of nihilistic hate. But they are not nearly so murderous as the Syrian Assad regime. Assad is starving whole cities, like the 20,000 or so Palestinians of Yarmouk, who are now dying of hunger in a far-too-ignored genocide. Videos of laughing Syrian soldiers, bashing heads against walls and stomping on dead bodies, are often more grim than their better known Islamopunk Isis counterparts. But Isis has somehow managed to make murder cool, and it is here where we can have an effect.
The Ghanaian philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, notes in his masterpiece of contemporary philosophy, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, that moral revolutions happen when customs that were once regarded as honorable instead become an embarrassment. While in 1750 British noblemen were expected to duel, by 1850 it had become an occasion for laughter and derision. While in 1850 Chinese women were expected to bind their feet, by 1950 it was a source of cultural shame.
My ex-partner, Alia Braley, who is writing her Harvard Masters thesis on how to fight Isis nonviolently, recommends among numerous strategies, breaking the trance of fear through satire. Isis may represent our worst fears of the future and those fears might one day become manifest. But the fears are now being manufactured, like the juvenile videos of bearded morons smashing ancient art. As a former leadership coach, I would advise an army of scarcely 30,000 soldiers, taking on much of the world, to focus on its strengths, and it seems that ISIS is most skilled at producing videos that play on our fears. Take these away and they are just another band of losers seeking a sense of purpose, who have gotten far too carried away.
If you can’t build a civilization, break its art; if you can’t find a wife, rape a village girl—so appears to run their half-baked reason. But Braley suggests something deeper and more uplifting than simply laughing them into oblivion. The people of the region need to claim a better vision of the future and combat brand evil with something more inspiring and uplifting than a half-secure existence under corrupt, secular dictators. If Isis represents some of our own worst fears realized, then perhaps we too should spend some time thinking about how to build the future we truly want.
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Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May