History Without a History

Excerpt from book “In the Crossfire of Terrorism: Islamic State”

History Without a History

Values of Modernity – Rationalism and Capitalism

For people living in the so-called Western societies, characterised by democracy, individual liberties, self-determination and rights, as well as a soft yet tireless pressure of political correctness that wears down any rough spots to a slimy shine, it might indeed come as a surprise that there are social groups just next doors that offer a completely different type of lifestyle. The most probable cause for such a feeling is the conviction that the Western society’s worldview and rules of behaviour are clearly better – a belief that is supported by many sound reasons ranging from material wealth and standard of living to opportunities to express one’s creative and intellectual potential.

And yet there seem to be other causes why mujahidin go to the Islamic State besides difficulties of integration or access the promised and genuine benefits of the Western societies. As it turns out, for many people the decision to join a terrorist organization is a deliberate and sensible one. Leon Moosavi, a sociologist of race and religion from Lancaster University, has written about converting to Islam in Great Britain (of course, conversion to Islam does not in any way imply joining an Islamic extremist group): “Despite the widely held belief of religious conversion as a commitment taken on by vulnerable, eccentric or mentally handicapped people, I discovered that Muslim converts acted in a rational and logic manner when deciding to accept Islam. Before becoming Muslims, they researched, discussed, even resisted and challenged the religion of Islam. Contrary to stereotypes about Muslim converts, and religious converts in general, these people were active participants of this transformation and masters of their own destiny.”[i] In this context, in order to better understand the siren song of the Islamic State, the true question is: what can Europe itself (and the entire Western society) offer its old and new residents? Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher, addresses the question why the return of wealth often leads to the radicalization of masses. In his view: “This is because the relaxation of the demands of life makes possible a new arrangement of social space: horizons are no longer restricted to the most immediate of worries, there is some breathing space, and there is room for a new life project.”[ii]

The migration towards the Islamic State is often explained by the interplay of two factors: 1) The Islamic State uses a cunning, almost magical method of recruitment, and 2) The recruits are poor souls that have lost their way along with their rationality, or, in the words of enlightenment, are trapped in “self-incurred immaturity.” (Such as Alex from the previous chapter) Since these miserable individuals are unable “to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance”, the others take over and lead them astray. Whereas if these wanderers possessed reason, they would certainly stay home and act as honest citizens.

In a broader context, such an explanation is, most likely, at least insufficient or even wrong. The modern backbone of Western civilisation values is made up of many vertebrae and two of them grew and matured during the age of modernity. The French Revolution in 1789, the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, and other major events brought about fundamental changes in the Western world and especially – in Europe. The factories of the Industrial Revolution attracted huge masses to cities in search of a better life, but this urbanisation led to the collapse of large families and the creation of small, nuclear families. This was accompanied by a shift in attention from the community to the individual. (The Middle East experienced a similar cultural transformation in the middle of the 20th century, often done in haste and out of desperation.) The French Revolution was “…no mere political upheaval, but the complete overthrow of a system of government with its social, economic and cultural foundations.”[iii] It dispelled the fantasy of the absolute power of monarchy, and made republicanism, parliamentarism, and secularism the new norm. The society of the Middle East has not undergone a comparable political and social upheaval, aside from the Arab Spring that created huge expectations initially, but eventually was not able to offer any significant changes (when put side-by-side with the French Revolution, the name Arab Mutiny seems more apt).

The legacy of modernity and the fresh ideas of postmodernism affected the mood in Europe during the 20th century. On one side, postmodernism and its central concepts like simulation, deconstruction, minorities, marginality, otherness etc. cast doubt on the myth of eternal order of things. So, a time “after modernity” began. But modernity as such did not disappear. It entered an interim condition and the “vertebrae” of modernity still define the field of values in Europe and the Western world.

The first vertebra or assumption: The Western civilisation is characterised by an assumption, rooted in ancient philosophy and cultivated during the Enlightenment, that a human being, despite its spontaneous peculiarities, is reasonable. Therefore, everyone should be rational (reasonable, logical, prudent) when assessing the causes and consequences of one’s actions and act “wisely”. Wise actions certainly do not include plans to join the Islamic State. The dominant position of rationalism received significant blows from philosophical movements at the beginning of the 20th century – the ideas on the unconsciousness by Sigmund Freud, existentialism focusing on experiences of the individual etc. Yet philosophical rationality and reasonable rule of law continue to exist as two pillars of a functioning society.

The second assumption, that characterises western liberalism and its twin – market capitalism – and has deep roots in the perception of the times, is that anything can be expressed in monetary terms, that to some extent money or capital is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega of everything. In the now classical essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” the philosopher and sociologist Max Weber argued that a capitalist market society is rooted in the ethics of Christian Protestantism: a good Christian is fair, hard-working and honest, earning more money by working hard and not wasting it by being honest. So the money is saved creating “capital” that is then invested to generate more money. Weber used the words of Benjamin Franklin to illustrate this: “Remember, that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on.”[iv] But money brings with it pride, jealousy and other vices that, sooner or later, lead to the dominance of the “spirit of capitalism” over the “protestant ethic”.  Such a consideration works both as the source and the consequence for a specific process of public life, namely, rationalisation. Weber discusses a type of rationality that expresses itself in a capitalist society as attempts to make manufacturing or production processes more useful, simpler, cheaper etc., along with public institutionalisation and increased bureaucracy. The remarkable victory march of liberal society and its market capitalism in the 20th century has produced a result that the church condemns as “materialism”, Marxists revile as “capitalist imperialism” and “exploitation of labour”, ecologists criticise as a waste of resources, philosophers warn about as a cultural crisis, but economists talk about reassuringly as “warming”. The production of capital becomes the reproduction of money – a hamster wheel which grants the capitalist society not only an undeniable increase in material wealth, but also individualism, unbridled consumerism and other advantages (or disadvantages). Money becomes the end and the means at the same time. So, if, just for a moment, we step away from the assumption that a human being should act in a rational manner and the assumption that a rationally reasonable choice should be the acquisition of material gains or the production of capital, the idea of becoming a soldier of the Islamic State is easier to interpret.

[i] Moosavi, Leon. “Conversion to Islam in Great Britain: Challenges Faced by Muslim Converts.” Reliģiski-filozofiski raksti (Departement of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia), issue XV (2012), pp. 104-124 In the same work, Moosavi refers to several previous studies to list the most common motivations for converting to Islam: the idea of Quranic infallibility, the monotheism of God (when compared with the mystery of the Trinity in Christianity), “an increasing yearning for spirituality, knowledge, meaning and God’s guidance in a hyper-rational and secular world”, the just behaviour of Muslims and their attempts to find the meaning of life and its veracity. (Ibid., p. 106)

[ii] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012 — p. 471 (orig. — p. 509).

[iii] Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 – p. 675.

[iv] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Stephen Kalberg.Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001 – p. 14.