Faced with a horror like the slaughter of 148 schoolchildren and school staff members by the Taliban in Pakistan, it is tempting to describe the act as “inhuman” or “medieval.” What made the massacre particularly chilling, though, is that it was neither. The killings were all too human and of our time.
The Peshawar massacre may have been particularly abhorrent, but the Taliban have attacked at least 1,000 schools over the past five years. They have butchered hundreds through suicide bombings of churches and mosques. And beyond Pakistan lies the brutality of groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram and the Shabab.
What seems to bind these groups together is that they claim to act in the name of Islam. Why, many ask, do so many of today’s most vicious conflicts appear to involve Islamists? And why do Islamist groups seem so much more vicious, sadistic, even evil?
Muslims are not the only religious group involved in perpetrating horrors. From Christian militias in the Central African Republic reportedly eating their foes to Buddhist monks organizing anti-Muslim pogroms in Myanmar, there is cruelty aplenty in the world. Nor are religious believers alone in committing grotesque acts. Yet, critics argue, there appears to be something particularly potent about Islam in fomenting violence, terror and persecution.
These are explosive issues and need addressing carefully. The trouble is, this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear. For many, the actions of groups like the Islamic State or the Taliban merely provide ammunition to promote anti-Muslim hatred.
Many liberals, on the other hand, prefer to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the Taliban or the Islamic State do not represent “real Islam” — a claim made recently, in so many words, by both President Obama and David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain. Many argue, too, that the actions of such groups are driven by politics, not religion.
Neither claim is credible. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by how believers interpret those texts — that is, by its practices. The ways in which believers act out their faith define that faith. The fact that Islamist extremists practice their religion in a manner abhorrent to liberals does not make that practice less real.
Nor does it make sense to think of the Taliban or the Islamic State as motivated simply by politics, any more than it does to imagine them as purely religious. Radical Islam is the religious form through which a particular kind of barbarous political rage expresses itself.
Instead, we need to ask why political rage against the West takes such nihilistic forms today. And why has radical Islam become its principal vehicle?
The character of anti-Western sentiment has changed strikingly in recent decades. There is a long history of anti-imperialist movements stretching from the Haitian revolution of the 1790s to the independence movements of the 1960s and ’70s in Africa and Asia. While these challenged Western power and often used violent means, they were rarely “anti-Western” in an essential sense. Indeed, their leaders often embraced revolutionary ideas that came out of the West, self-consciously locating themselves in the tradition of the European Enlightenment.
Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian nationalist, was one of the most important anticolonial theorists. The aim, he suggested, was not to reject Western ideas, but to reclaim them.
“All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought,” he wrote. “But Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them.”
Anti-imperialists of the past saw themselves as part of a wider political project that sought to modernize the non-Western world, politically and economically. Today, however, that wider political project is itself seen as the problem. There is considerable disenchantment with many aspects of modernity, from individualism to globalization, from the breakdown of traditional cultures to the fragmentation of societies, from the blurring of moral boundaries to the seeming soullessness of the contemporary world.
In the past, racists often viewed modernity as the property of the West and regarded the non-Western world as incapable of modernizing. Today, it is radicals who often regard modernity as a Western product, and reject both it and the West as tainted goods.
The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage against modernity. Many strands of contemporary thought, including those embraced by “deep greens” and the far left, express aspects of such discontent. But it is radical Islam that has become the lightning rod for this fury.
There are many forms of Islamism, from the Taliban to Hamas, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Boko Haram. What they have in common is a capacity to fuse hostility toward the West with hatred for modernity and, seemingly, to provide an alternative to both. Islamists marry political militancy with a conservative social sensibility, a hostility to globalization with the embrace of a global ummah (the worldwide community of Muslim believers). In so doing, they turn the contradictory aspects of their rage against modernity into a strength.
Jihadism provides Islamist ideology with a military form and seemingly creates a global social movement, at a time when radical alternatives have collapsed. What jihadism does not possess is the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements. Shorn of that framework, and reduced to raging at the world, jihadists have turned terror into an end in itself.
The slaughter in Peshawar, like the mass beheadings by the Islamic State, tells us something about the character of contemporary Islam and of Islamism. It tells us even more about the state of contemporary politics, and especially of radical politics.
Kenan Malik is a contributing opinion writer and the author, most recently, of The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics.