“Man is ruined”, wrote Salman Rushdie, “by the misfortune of possessing a moral sense”. Though some beasts were odious, even dangerous, he conceded, “a jackal is a jackal, and a leopard is a leopard, and a boar has no option to be boarish one hundred per cent of the time”. “Only Man’s nature is suspect and shifting. Only Man, knowing good, can do evil. Only man wears masks. Only man is a disappointment to himself”.
For Omar Mateen, author of the largest terrorist killing in the United States since 9/11, that sentiment may have been familiar: A failed marriage to a woman who could not be battered into submission; a hoped-for law-enforcement career that never took off; above all, sexual urges he loathed in himself.
Killing is redemption: In recent years, this script has played out often with so-called Lone Wolf terrorists drawn from the Muslim diaspora in the US and Europe. The attack in Orlando is certain to have seismic political impact, and makes it imperative to carefully examine just what is going on.
The conventional explanation for the diasporic jihadist is one word: Radicalisation. In essence, the proposition holds, some individuals transition from conventional, pietist Islam to more extreme versions, and then to violence, propelled by the impact of wars raging in West Asia. Internet propaganda, put out by the Islamic State, or al-Qaeda, is in this rendition of events, a vector that drives the radicalisation process.
It is a not-implausible story, especially attractive to those who hold that belief in Islam in itself is a potential cause of violence. The problem is, it doesn’t stand up to the facts.
For one, the evidence doesn’t suggest religion had much to do the trajectories of many jihadists. Salah Abdeslam and his brother, Brahim Abdeslam, who shot up the Bataclan theatre in Paris, were known for smoking pot at the Les Beguines bar, as local residents prayed at the mosque across the road. Khalid el-Bakraoui, and Brahim el-Bakraoui, who bombed Brussels airport in March, showed no great interest in religion, either. In other cases, diasporic jihadists had, at most, an uncomfortable relationship with the Islam they grew up with. Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 London bombers, stayed away from his local mosque and refused an arranged marriage — leading his parents to all but disown him.
The converse is also true. Rizwan Farook, who with his wife Tashfeen Malik carried out the San Bernardino massacre last year, appears to have become obsessively religious at a young age — the consequence of witnessing his westernised, hard-drinking father’s savage violence against his mother. There’s no evidence, though, that he ever joined an Islamist religious group, or party. Put simply, as the scholar and intelligence analyst Marc Sageman has often pointed out, there is no one path to become a jihadist — any more than there is to other political choices. The additional problem with the radicalisation thesis is that it doesn’t actually explain anything. Wars pitting Western imperialism against Muslim countries have raged through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as have violent Islamist movements — but no suicide bombers or terrorists flourished in the West at those times.
The real question we ought to be asking, as the scholar Kenan Malik has pointed out, is why jihadism has emerged among young people in Muslim communities in the West at this particular historical moment.
Islamism, for Omar Mateen or the el-Bakraoui brothers or Mohammed Sidique Khan, is not a religion in a conventional sense. It exists free from traditional institutions of mosque and community, free from the historical contexts which their parents’ generations brought with them from their homelands. Inside small groups, online or physical, they give their diasporic Islam meaning — and act on it to dismantle the world around them.
The ultra-violence of the Islamic State, or al Qaeda — it matters little which — thus provides a language for the anger of a generation alienated from the political system, with no personal or political agency. The crisis has come at a moment when traditional political parties seem disengaged, more than ever before from the lives of ordinary people, especially the working class.
Farhad Khosrokhavar, author of an authoritative study on France’s jihadists, casts this transformation as a kind of spiritual experience: “Through jihadism,” he writes, “they transform the contempt of others into fear”. For the diasporic follower, the jihad allows entry into a feared tribe, the global Nation of Islam. Entry to this tribe comes with adoption of a sexually-neurotic code. In 1949, Syed Qutb — the founding patriarch, with the Pakistani ideologue Abul A’la Maududi, of political Islamism — visited the US, on a trip organised as part of the CIA’s efforts to recruit the savagely anti-Communist Muslim Brotherhood. In 1951, he would publish The America I Have Seen — compelling reading today, as we struggle to understand the moral dystopia young jihadists inhabit.
In the US, Qutb visited a dance organised by a local church in Greeley, Colorado. “They danced to the tunes of the gramophone”, he recorded, “and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire”. For Qutb, the American woman was “a naked, screaming temptation” — a metaphor for the broader seduction of the Enlightenment, which placed human agency at the core of its project.
The experience of America’s “spiritual wasteland” was to lead Qutb to write his 1964 opus, Milestones, which fired the imagination of two generations of jihadists. He rejected modernity, a “system which is fundamentally at variance with Islam and which, with the help of force and oppression, is keeping us from living the sort of life which is demanded by our Creator”.
Islamists are far from the only ones seeking escape from the complex, often agonising, ethical choices modernity confronts us with. From the secession of the New Age spiritualist or the junkie, to the ugly violence of the anarchist and the white supremacist, liberal values are under siege as never before. The assault is evident in the West, from parties of the right, but also in India.
Each of these challenges can be contained by better policing and gun control — but defeating them requires something more fundamental. These are fundamentally political challenges, and require politicians to engage in a clear-eyed defence of the principles that define liberalism — individual freedoms, democratic rights, and the rule of law. For a large cohort of disenfranchised young Muslims in the West, jihad has emerged as a language of rage — just as crime or drugs have done for others. Liberal political forces need to demonstrate that there are other paths to redemption.