Monday, September 24, 2007

The Negative Eureka

Writing in the Times on September 11th, Martin Amis made some excellent points about radical Islam, points which I think apply to many groups inclined towards extremism.

First, he points out the distaste such extremists have for reason:
Thanatism derives its real energy, its fever and its magic, from something far more radical. And here we approach a pathology that may in the end be unassimilable to the nonbelieving mind. I mean the rejection of reason – the rejection of the sequitur, of cause and effect, of two plus two. Strikingly, in their written works and their table talk, Hitler and Stalin (and Lenin) seldom let the abstract noun reason go by without assigning a scornful adjective to it: worthless reason, craven reason, cowardly reason. When those sanguinary yokels, the Taleban, chant their slogan, “Throw reason to the dogs”, they are making the same kind of Faustian gamble: crush reason, kill reason, and anything and everything seems possible – the restored Caliphate, for instance, presiding over a planetary empire cleansed of all infidels. To transcend reason is of course to transcend the confines of moral law; it is to enter the illimitable world of insanity and death.

This dual negation is for a while intensely propulsive. It gives the death cult its needed momentum – its escape velocity. On the other hand, for our part, the high value we assign to human life is not a matter of illusion or sentimentality or “hypocrisy”; it is not the “Papist-Quaker babble” derided by Trotsky. Reason, moreover, is one of our synonyms for realism, and indeed for reality; without it, as Islamism will soon find, the ground turns to mire beneath your feet. Death cults are in the end obedient to their own illogic: what they do is die.
I find the comparison among Hitler, Stalin and Lenin especially relevant. Some Western radicals would like to pin the atrocities of those three men on disbelief and even science. But as Amis points out, it's their disdain for reason, which all parties have in common. So, too, in fundamentalist Christian sermons, I couldn't tell you how many times I have heard pastors and teachers refer to reason with something verging on contempt. It's as if at some level they realize that reason dismantles much of foundation their sinking edifices are built upon. Which ties in directly to Amis's finally point. He believes something that I've come to believe since 9/11 (apologies for employing that construction, Mr. Amis): as religion shrinks further in an increasingly secular world, doubt and fear will propel the most radically religious to engage in increasing acts of violence. Amis explains the equation and why radical Islam has been provoked to doubt their God:
Much of our analysis, perhaps, has been wholly inapposite, because we keep trying to construe Islamism in terms of the ratiocinative. How does it look when we construe it in terms of the emotions? Familiar emotional states (hurt, hatred, fury, shame, dishonour, and, above all, humiliation), but at unfamiliar intensities – intensities that secular democracy, and the rules of law and civil society, will always tend to neutralise. There is religious passion too, of course, but even the bruited, the roared fanaticism seems unrobust. It may even be that what we are witnessing is not spiritual certainty so much as spiritual insecurity and spiritual doubt.

Islamism has been with us for the lion’s share of a century. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and within a decade there was an offshoot in what would soon become Pakistan. But the emotionally shaping event, one is forced to deduce, was the establishment of the Jewish Homeland. In the war fought to bring that about, Israel, occupying 0.6 per cent of Arab lands and with a proportional population, defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Trans-Jordan, together with the supplementary forces of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

In the other 99.4 per cent of Arab lands, this event is known as al-nakba: the catastrophe. And that epithet hardly overstates the case. The “godless” Soviet Union, after a comparable reverse, might have fallen into troubled self-scrutiny; but what does it mean for peoples who sincerely believe that an omnipotent deity is minutely attentive to their desires and deserts? Having endured several centuries of Christian prosperity, global power and reach, and eventual empire, the Islamic nations were vanquished by a province the size of New Jersey. In the Koran, the Jews are portrayed as cunning and dangerous, yet they are never portrayed as strong: “Children of Israel . . . Dread My might.” We in the West have ceased to understand the meaning of the word “humiliation”, and we use it, in descriptions of our daily struggles, with the lilt of comic hyperbole. Now we must further imagine how it feels to be humiliated, not only by history, but also by God.

This was surely a negative eureka for the Muslim idea. Following the defeat of 1948, and following the defeat (in six days) of 1967, Islam, or its militant vanguard, was finding that it had arrived at a crossroads – or a T-junction. The way to the left was marked Less Religion, and meant a journey to the future. The way to the right was marked More Religion (Islam is the Solution), and meant a journey to the past. Which direction would lead to the return of God’s favour? On their left, a stretch of oily macadam, perhaps resembling one of the unlovelier sections of the London orbital, scattered with windblown trash, and, of course, choked and throttled with traffic. On their right, something like a garden path at the Alhambra, cleaner, simpler and – thanks to the holy warriors and their "smiting of necks" – much, much emptier. In Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, John Gray reminds us that Islamism, in both its techniques and its pathologies, is on the crest of the contemporary. But the emotions all point the other way; they speak of retrogression and revanchism; they speak of a vehement and desperate nostalgia.

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