The possessed at the mosque

To me this book seems like perhaps the first analysis of “jihadi” terrorism that really digests the psychology behind it. The central point that the author, Faisal Devji, makes is that for the likes of al-Qaeda violence is an “ethical” rather than a “political” act. As I understand it, what that means is this: in the 20th century even the most murderous ideologies like Nazism and Bolshevism tended to justify themselves teleologically, i.e. the end justifies the means. Of course there was idolization of militarism, but generally they envisioned an ultimate world order that would sanctify the ideals of peace, harmony and unity. Of course this may well have been merely a fig-leaf to justify the inherent violence of the movements, but at least ostensibly this long-term goals made the violence tactical, a means of arriving at a future which would not itself be violent.

If i understand Devji right, al-Qaeda and its ilk have functionally discarded long-term reconciliation with bourgeois morality. They look at the warrior-life of constant battle and overcoming as their ideal of day-to-day existence. Their utopia really would be a war without end. I don’t know if this makes jihadis any different than Nazis or Maoists practically speaking, but it does make the possibility of any compromise or common-ground between our society’s ideals and their even more inconceivable, in the sense that it would be theoretically possible to rearrange our social institutions to accomodate Marxist ideals or whatever and thus circumvent a murderous struggle with its opponents. But when the very essence of jihadi culture consists of strife and battle we literally cannot coexist with them, because the movement is predicated upon the destruction of those outside the group. Of course this may deepen jihadism’s threat but it also limits its reach, since it necessarily turns the whole world into the enemies of its followers. As the self-negating implications of this become clearer, the ideology will no doubt soften. The reversion to simple demands for territory like Palestine and Iraq is probably symptomatic of that.

p.s. Three cheers for anyone who noticed that my post-title is a Dostoyevsky reference.

6 Responses to “The possessed at the mosque”

  1. Dave Says:

    Please see: Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology by Lee Harris – http://www.policyreview.org/AUG02/harris.html

    In this article the argument is made that the motivation for this type of activity is irrational and is directed at stoking the psychic satisfaction of the activist. This is consistent with their attacks of high profile targets. They then undoubtedly revel as they read about themselves in the newspapers, the way serial killers do. Of course you don’t negotiate persons with this type of mentality, much less blame your self for being the “root cause? of their acts. I see parallels with the sixties radicals. They were not concerned with avenging any act that had personally been done to them or their family. In fact they hated their mom and dad as well as their country. These Islamists are much more virulent. The sixty’s Weather Underground carefully placed their bombs so as to avoid killing innocent people. They accidentally killed a night watchman, or a bank guard I think. Today’s terrorists apply extra care so as to maim and kill as many innocents as possible. The only way to deal with them is to hunt them down and kill them.

  2. Curt Says:

    Yeah, but let’s be honest, getting psychic satisfaction from violence is not something that is exactly limited to terrorists.

  3. Dave Says:

    Hopefully civilized persons would learn to sublimate their violent tendencies by watching sports such as hockey, football and WWF wrestling or by watching violent Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Even better they could play violent computer games such as Grand Theft Auto. Note how violent crime has dropped since the introduction of these games. See: gr.bolt.com/articles/violence/violence.htm Specially designed games for Islamic jihadists featuring popular fantasies such as killing and maiming Jews and Americans could be produced.

  4. Curt Says:

    Done and done. But the fact that Hizbollah is sponsoring something like this clearly indicates that at least they don’t believe it will lead to the sublimation of violent impulses–quite the opposite in fact.

  5. John Lopez Says:
    …quite the opposite in fact.

    And that conclusion isn’t confined to Islamic radicals:

    Drawing on interviews, published personal accounts and academic studies, Grossman investigates the psychology of killing in combat. Stressing that human beings have a powerful, innate resistance to the taking of life, he examines the techniques developed by the military to overcome that aversion.

    Grossman argues that the breakdown of American society, combined with the pervasive violence in the media and interactive video games, is conditioning our children to kill in a manner siimilar to the army’s conditioning of soldiers: “We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.” Grossman, a professor of military science at Arkansas State University, has written a study of relevance to a society of escalating violence.

  6. Dave Says:

    Darn! Someone already thought of video games like I was talking about. Well if we can’t figure out a peaceful way of deterring them, I guess we are back to just having to kill ‘em. It may be that games, books and movies are a two edged sword. This subject of the pernicious effect of mass media has been around at least since there were printing presses. Undoubtedly the impressionable can be influenced, but government or clerical censorship is worse than the disease, plus it stimulates demand. Fears of hoards of trained killers coming back from war were myths circulated during and after WWI, WWII, Vietnam and now add video games. When I was a kid it was action comic books that were blamed for causing juvenile delinquency and this lead to censorship. People need to be taught the difference between fantasy and reality, not protected from either. Actually the murder rate is going down,though I do agree that there has been a sometimes unpleasent coarsening of mass culture.

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