Years ago I had a chat with three young Muslim men as we waited in a Heathrow airport lounge to board a flight to Islamabad. I was going to Pakistan to report on the fallout from a devastating earthquake in Kashmir. They were going there to do what they vaguely described as “charitable work.” They dressed in white shalwar kameez, wore their beards in salafist style and spoke in south London accents.
I tried to steer the conversation to the earthquake. They wanted to talk about politics. Had I seen Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”? I avoided furnishing an opinion about a film they plainly revered. The unvarnished truth about Amerika—from an American. Authority and authenticity rolled into one.
I think of that exchange whenever the subject of Islamist radicalization comes up. There’s a great deal of literature about how young Muslim men—often born in the West to middle-class and not particularly religious households—get turned on to jihad. Think of Mohammed Emwazi, the University of Westminster graduate later known as Jihadi John. Or Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, of Fort Hood infamy. Or Najim Laachraoui, who studied electrical engineering at the prestigious Catholic University of Louvain before blowing himself up last month in Brussels. Or Boston’s Tsarnaev brothers and San Bernardino’s Syed Farook.
It’s a long list. And in many cases investigators are able to identify an agent of radicalization. Maj. Hasan corresponded with extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Laachraoui seems to have come under the spell of a Molenbeek preacher named Khalid Zerkani. The Tsarnaevs took their bomb-building tips from “Inspire,” an online English-language magazine published by al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen.
But the influence of the Awlakis of the world can’t fully account for the mind-set of these jihadists. They are also sons of the West—educated in the schools of multiculturalism, reared on the works of Noam Chomsky and perhaps Frantz Fanon, consumers of a news diet heavy with reports of perfidy by American or British or Israeli soldiers. If Islamism is their ideological drug of choice, the political orthodoxies of the modern left are their gateway to it.
Take the most recent issue of Inspire. Mixed in with step-by-step photos on how to build a timed hand grenade and an analysis of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there’s a long article on the oppression of blacks in America, starting with the killing of Ferguson’s Michael Brown. The Spring 2013 issue contains a “message to the American nation” from al Qaeda Commander Qassim Ar-Reimy in which he asks whether “meddling in our affairs and installing whomever tyrant agents and lackeys you want who kill and oppress [is] forgivable?”
“Leave us with our religion, land and nations and mind your own internal affairs,” the commander—now Emir—writes. “Save your economy, look after your concerns, for it is better than what you currently are.”
This isn’t the language of Islam, with its impressive tradition of conquest. It’s the language of the progressive left, of what Jeane Kirkpatrick at the 1984 Republican convention called the “Blame America First” crowd. It fits the left’s view of the West as the perennial sinner and the rest of the world as its perpetual victim. It is the language of turning the page on a decade of war, of focusing on nation building at home.
It strikes us as radical only because it comes from the pen of a terrorist. If it had appeared as an op-ed in the Guardian, it would elicit nodding approval from many readers, a dismissive shrug from others, but no big whoop either way.
In the early 1990s my former columnist colleague Thomas Frank came up with the clever phrase “commodification of dissent” to explain how capitalism turned all kinds of countercultural beliefs and radical ideas into just another product in a box, to be sold and distributed through the usual channels. “Fahrenheit 9/11” might have been a political revelation or even a call to arms for some impressionable young Muslims from Tower Hamlets, but to Hollywood it was $222.5 million of box office gold. That made it a winner in the marketplace of ideas, and who can quarrel with that?
The commodification of dissent may have the effect of blunting the impact of all kinds of extreme notions. But it can dull us to their extremism, leaving us astonished when someone turns notion into action. The catharsis of violence seems like an interesting idea in the pages of “The Wretched of the Earth.” In practice, it’s scores of young men and women gunned down in a Paris concert hall.
We’ve become lazy in our thinking about Islam and the West. Whether the Islam practiced by al Qaeda or ISIS is “radical” or merely traditional isn’t the question. It’s whether the West can recognize that the moral nihilism of today’s Jihadi Johns is the logical outgrowth of the moral relativism that is the default religion of today’s West.