Record numbers of young westerners are choosing to join radical extremist groups such as ISIS and people are scratching their heads over why. There is no single profile. Former recruiters and recruits reveal a range of reasons that include but are not limited to: dissatisfaction with their lives; lack of healthy family; racism; a sense of injustice; a desire for belonging; disenchantment with the typical lifestyle of a westerner; a desire for meaning and purpose; a desire to belong to a cause; outrage over the hypocrisy of the west; a belief that the west is against Islam. When ISIS began to make headlines, Defense Secretary Hagel and General Martin Dempsey acknowledged the need for military action of some kind is without question, but that there is no military-alone solution to ISIS, that radical Islam is ultimately something that won’t or can’t be eradicated by military force because it is an ideology and mindset.
So where did the roots of this ideology and mindset originate? The mind of the man considered to be godfather of modern Jihadism, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was a literary critic, author, and educator turned Islamic theologian most known for his notorious Islamist tract Milestones. Qutb’s work was cited as a primary source of influence on bin Laden by the 9/11 Commission Report, and although now ISIS and al Qaeda are at odds, ISIS, in their own propaganda, traces its origins to bin Laden.
Qutb spent two years in the United States, from 1948 to 1950, on a scholarship to study the educational system. He visited major cities such as New York and Washington D.C. and also spent extended time in Greeley, Colorado. He recorded his observations in a small book titled, The America I Have Seen. Depending on what mood you are in when reading it, this strange document can seem annoying, insightful, sophomoric, or hilarious. He displays a cultural snobbery (e.g. his mocking complaints over the unfamiliar use of salt and sugar and haircuts lacking “elegance”) and there are some amusing factual errors (he claims the first immigrants to North America were adventure seekers and British prisoners.) And while Greeley in the late 1940s would be considered very conservative by today’s standards, based on Qutb’s description of a church dance while there along with his impression of the American female, you would have thought that he visited a disco and a strip club. He obviously exaggerates, seizing on the most negative and presents a picture of America in the ugliest, most unflattering angle and light possible, but some of his observations admittedly are astute, incisive, and cut to the core of a spiritual and moral bankruptcy that exists in America, a country that gives God a lot of lip service but frankly in daily practice seems to put more faith in applied science. When grasping for reasons as to why radical Islamists hate the west so much, we often state, “They hate our freedom and democracy,” as if it were just a petty matter of envy and resentment. But unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that. What we Americans (and westerners in general) smugly and complacently see as progress, Qutb viewed as a regression into a more primitive state and that our fixation with technology is actually barbaric akin to a caveman eyeing his tools with vulgar fascination over what more powers he could wield if he could only dream up more tools. In Qutb’s words:
“As for the invention of tools, the wielding of powers, or the making of objects, these things are in and of themselves weightless in the scale of human values.”
“It appears that all American ingenuity is concentrated in the field of work and production, so much so that no ability remains to advance in the field of human values. America’s productivity is unmatched by any other nation. It has miraculously elevated life to levels that cannot be believed. But man cannot maintain his balance before the machine and risks becoming a machine himself. He is unable to shoulder the burden of exhausting work and forge ahead on the path of humanity, he unleashes the animal within.”
“It is the case of a people who have reached the peak of growth and elevation in the world of science and productivity, while remaining abysmally primitive in the world of the senses, feelings, and behavior.”
“But humanity makes the gravest of errors and risks losing its account of morals, if it makes America its example in feelings and manners.”
Qutb found America’s achievements to be unquestionably astonishing, but that our modernity masked a degeneration. He believed our extraordinary advancement wasn’t making us more civilized but more like desensitized animals living more on impulse than on values.
Qutb would have no trouble finding evidence to support his views in contemporary American and western culture. Much of our entertainment and advertisement caters to the basest of human desires and the lowest common denominator. Especially in entertainment anything goes, and the boundaries are continually pushed into increasingly edgy and more disturbing content that is vulgar, violent, and graphic (in the wild west of the internet, it gets much worse) and this is viewed as “freedom.” We’ll argue until we’re blue in the face that our media has zero influence on our behavior, but at the same time Madison Avenue rakes in billions of dollars to create advertising. Why? Because advertising in the media works. Yet this obvious contradiction is never noticed and doesn’t concerns us. Rampant and record rates of addiction to everything from shopping to food to substances to sex shows America has a serious problem with impulse control and maintaining balance. America’s insatiable appetite for drugs enables cartels to be just as lucrative if not more lucrative than Fortune 500 companies. And general violence and shooting rampages have become a regular occurrence. Qutb especially noted the superficial quality of relationships, that they tended to be utilitarian serving base needs versus forming real community. Many would concede that these days, opportunistic friendships and shallow hookups often replace real intimacy. Qutb quotes a female university student he met in 1949: “The matter of sex is not a moral matter at all. It is but a question of biology, and when we look at it from this angle it becomes clear that the use of words like moral and immoral, good and bad, are irrelevant.” Which just confirmed for Qutb that the so-called “progress” and “advancement” of modernity was just a reversion into the law of the jungle and a more primitive state. (On an interesting side-note, one of the main reasons the Amish distrust technology is that they believe technology tends to erode and destroy community. Incorporation of any new technology in their culture goes through a rigorous evaluation of how it will positively or negatively impact community over the long-term.)
What Qutb found so repugnant was the godless, amoral state of our modernity. Modernity places faith in technological progress and the belief that humans can create an ideal world through their mastery of the sciences and technology. Central to modernity is a belief in a material universe with physical laws that can be manipulated for various forms of gain, as well as a general rejection of tradition and disdain for agrarian societies, and a movement towards industrialization, capitalistic enterprise, and the market economy, the legacy of which we’re living out today. Our current practice of capitalism and finance stems directly from the Industrial Revolution. For example, Wall Street banks originally rose to prominence and gained previously unheard of fortunes in the funding of large industrial enterprises. As much as you may support or believe in capitalism you can’t deny that in our most common practice of it, there is a shadow side. In a pure capitalistic system it’s believed self-interest always produces good. And people are only as valuable as how productive they are and how much they consume in the most materialistic sense of the word. In short, the bottom line is all that matters, whatever generates cash flow is right, and the dog-eat-dog market is infallible. And like it or not, you’re just a cog in this survival-of-the-fittest machinery.
In short, Qutb believed there was little that was truly enlightened about the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, the culmination of which is the modern industrial age which has been in a steady creeping growth and taking over the whole world. A couple examples: the westernization of Asia and the replacement of old world imperialism with the corporate imperialism of globalization.
While technology itself isn’t bad, a misplaced faith in it is. I personally don’t believe the answer is about going back to the past or recreating the past. New forms and models of how we think about and use technology and how we practice capitalism are needed. Unfortunately, Qutb was of the camp that believed violent revolution was the only solution.
Qutb believed modernity to be merely Jahiliyyah, the state of godless ignorance, and he formulated a political ideology based on the view that only the law of Mohammed can save, redeem, and correct this savage state. He believed that most modern Muslims are hopelessly hypnotized and corrupted by the modernity or Jahiliyyah of the west and he implored all true Muslims to Holy War or jihad against the west and most especially America the most powerful representative and practitioner of modernity. Unfortunately, Qutb also viewed this modernity (which is essentially an atheistic worldview) as Christian and this has morphed into the view that the Christian west is against Islam.
Qutb’s writings are distorted—he shamelessly exaggerates, gets many facts wrong, and his theology is tragically flawed. At the same time, they do contain a kernel of truth that has a convicting sting to it. This same kernel of truth resonates with the likes of bin Laden and countless people who feel alienated by and disenchanted with modern society. Qutb’s rabid political ideology via the conduit of bin Laden went on to be further amended and refined by other extremist groups such as ISIS into an emphasis on a caliphate. (Bin Laden believed his work as a jihadist to be a precursor to a caliphate.) To potential recruits the caliphate is presented as a utopia—Islamic State offers complete care including health care to all members regardless of contribution. The caliphate is romanticized as the ideal Islamic community and a vehicle or means of salvation under the presumption that if like-minded Muslims follow the law of Mohammed perfectly then this utopia will be created. Many of you can already see that this is doomed to failure. Anyone who makes the slightest mistake can only be dealt with most severely, and since no one can follow the law perfectly at all times, inevitably an oppressive police state and blood bath will ensue. As General Dempsey noted, ISIS is a death cult hiding under the cloak of religious legitimacy.
So what does all this have to do with Baumann, the counter-culture, hippie terrorist in Germany? His puzzling comment, “…for myself, it was only the fear of love from which one flees into absolute violence,” reveals a strange irony. The violent movement he was a part of started with the best of intentions. As Baumann explains in his book Terror or Love?, “For me, the whole time it was a question of creating human values which did not exist in capitalism, in all of Europe, in all of Western culture—they’d been cleared away by the machine.” The Hash Brothers railed against “the dehumanized system of monopoly capitalism” and set about in earnest to create a new and better society, but Baumann noted with dismay, in their terrorist attempt for change and revolution, they just became more and more like the machine they were seeking to destroy. In reflecting on how the movement fell apart, he writes: “…there’s no more sensibility in the group. Only rigid continuation, total pressure to achieve, and it keeps going, always gets worse.” “…so you pull these people along into an absolute stream of violence.” Baumann found himself to be increasingly surrounded by death and more death which climaxed in the gunning down of his best friend Georg von Rauch at his side. Other members collapsed from the pressure and betrayed the movement and the rest who tried to stick it out like Baumann became weary fugitives and he noted, “you only have contacts with other people as objects” [to serve immediate needs.] “…because the new quality cannot be maintained, and as the opposition, you become just like the apparatus itself.” “At the end it’s caught up with you—you become like the apparatus you fight against.”
Overall, Terror or Love? is rambling, obviously written in haste not long after Baumann abandoned the movement and went into hiding, and it shows a mental snapshot of a very confused person who had just wreaked havoc on society with his confusion, but with glimmers of insight just starting to break through. Ironically, he feared and fled from the very love that would heal the dehumanized system and machine that his movement railed against. The very thing he needed most and the cure was what he was running away from. Without fully grasping why, Baumann also writes, “…fear of love, and fear of freedom—really have to be taken into account, and have to be worked at.” He noted that some members of the movement, at the anxiety and uncertainty over the complete freedom of the counter-culture and not knowing what to do, retreated back to working in the factories again, the very thing they wanted to fight against. Out of fear there seems to be a tendency to retreat into the security of rigid structure, of being told what to do, and slavish obedience—anything from a factory assembly-line or the imperatives of a revolutionary movement or legalistic adherence to religious law. While providing a form of security, all are dehumanizing, devoid of love.
Baumann acknowledges that what he tried was a failure and by the close of his book, seems to hint that he realizes real revolution has something to do with an inner transformation. Without an inner transformation any external revolution would just result in more of the same. While remaining ignorant of what exactly this transformation is at the time of writing, he seems to grasp there is this glimmer of hope.
In spite of coming from completely different ends of the spectrum—Baumann from the far left counter-culture and Qutb from conservative religious extremism—both are tied by a genuine indignation and grieved by the same empty materialism and lack of love, values, community, and real relationships in modern society. And unfortunately, Qutb and Baumann both had their part in misguided solutions that are essentially rooted in ignorance and a backwards theology—that doing presupposes receiving. Especially in Qutb’s solution, at the core is a belief that God’s peace and love is going to be earned by doing in the form of following the law perfectly. But that’s backwards. The peace and love of God is something you have to receive first, it’s not something you earn. And only in the receiving of this love does real transformation occur. And God works and shows this love through people in the form of community. Baumann fled from and was ignorant of this agape love of God which Nawaz was fortunate to experience in time in reflected form from the likes of John Cornwall and others who cared about him.
For general information on ISIS, the article "What ISIS Really Wants" is one of the better pieces I’ve seen (although I don’t agree with all of the author’s views.)