In a speech on Wednesday, President Obama said: “Whatever these murderers think they will achieve by murdering innocents like Steven [Sotloff], they have already failed.”
Not so, says the evidence. Publicity, Islamic State (Isis) knows, is the oxygen of terrorism. And publicity it has received in spades with the beheadings of two American journalists. So an organisation that hardly anyone knew existed only a few months ago is now the world’s, and particularly the west’s, premier political and public concern, eclipsing Iran’s nuclear programme and Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The aim of Isis’s strikingly gruesome spectacle is to terrorise and fascinate public sentiment. Especially in the media-driven political theatre of western liberal democracies, public fury reliably leads to precipitate political reaction. Like the kind of heedless, scatter-gun approach pursued by America and Britain that transformed al-Qaida from a small band of fairly well-educated violent extremists into a youthful social movement that appeals to many thousands of disaffected Muslim immigrants in the western diaspora, and many more millions who are economically and politically frustrated back home.
Unlike al-Qaida, though, from which Isis was expelled earlier this year, Isis tolerates no compromise with other interpretations of Islam, much less with Islam’s duty to rule the world. In its view, America and Britain are too weak in the conviction of their ideas and ideals to ultimately matter. For the devoted actor, rightness of cause will always win against apparent material advantage as long as the cause has the minimal material means to endure.
Isis’s violence is far from being nihilistic – a charge usually levelled by those who are wishfully blind to the attraction of their foes. The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown.
Western volunteers for Isis are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends, having left their homes and looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways: through barbecues or on the web; because they were perhaps uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex; or because their parents were humiliated by form-checking bureaucrats or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf.
As I testified to the US Senate armed services committee, what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool.
Volunteers for Isis are surfing for the sublime and all that is lacking in the jaded, tired world of democratic liberalism, especially on the margins where Europe’s immigrants mostly live. Many are just “vacationers” for jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory. The beheadings are doing what the images of the collapsing twin towers did for al-Qaida, turning terror into a display of triumph over and through death and destruction. In Burke’s sense, a display of the sublime. As philosopher Javier Gomá Lanzón recently mused: is this sense of the sublime part of Isis’s attraction? Is the west’s failing its cynicism about a visceral rather than purely intellectual quest for meaning?
Awe of God and its myriad representations in art and ritual was once the west’s sublime, followed by the violent struggle for liberty and equality. The great historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets as such. In studies carried out with support from the National Science Foundation and the US defence department, my co-researchers and I found that most societies have “sacred values” for which their people would fight, risk serious loss and even die rather than compromise. In 1776, the American colonists had the highest standard of living in the world. Frustrated not over economics but “sacred rights”, they were willing to sacrifice “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” against the world’s mightiest empire.
Is our ideal now merely one of “ease, security, and avoidance of pain”, as Orwell surmised in explaining why Nazism, fascism and Stalinism had such a strong pull on engagement and commitment, especially among adventurous youth? For the future of liberal democracies, even beyond the threat from violent jihadis, this may be the core existential issue.
Scott Atran is an anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, Oxford University, John Jay College and the University of Michigan.