In ‘The Mystery of ISIS’, Anonymous delves, in the pages of the 2015 Summer Edition of the New York Review of Books, into the Western miss-comprehension of ISIS. The atrocities of al-Baghdadi and his henchmen and women are hard to take, particularly their ‘theology’ of sex slavery of ‘infidels’, public display of savage killings and ruthless expansion of purist doctrine. The mystery Anonymous addresses is less about why such a movement exists and why it is successful, but why it attracts so many Westerners who should know better. The mystery, it is claimed, lies in the willingness of these young Westerners to give up their freedom and subjugate themselves to a rigidly controlled system (particularly the women and jihadist brides). But freedom, it seems to me, is not the issue. The issue is a deep seated discontent with a liberal and unfulfilling economic system in the West (and autocratic regimes elsewhere). This mystery, I think is well explained in the words by Edmund Phelps, who, in the same issue yet seemingly unrelated topic (economics), writes that ‘many people have long felt the desire to do something with their lives besides consuming goods and having leisure. They desire to participate in a community in which they can interact and develop.’
And participate they do, these recruitlings of ISIS, willing to give up their comfortable life built on economic efficiency, but void of purpose and creativity, to find a community of brothers and sisters that claims to care for them. Most of us can see ISIS as the destructive cult that it is, but a few disaffected youths cannot head the warning signs, like so many youth before them, who joined communist and fascist movements. They join in the belief to create something new and big and fulfilling…. and to be able to participate, something they feel they cannot do in their parents society.
Such descriptions of unfulfilled lives are of course common, and most who experience it do not join a nihilistic tribe, and we will seldom understand the actual trigger of an individual who does so. But the idea that having freedom, as understood by Western standards, shields from attraction to such movements is completely misguided*. We just have to step back, for arguments sake, from the beloved dichotomy of good and evil. From such a detached perspective, ISIS recruits are not the only ones who conscientiously give up their freedom and are willing to die for a cause. So are the men and women joining the United States military, who are sacrificing their independence and life for a greater good. It is all about which greater good is worth fighting for, of course. The reason to join either tribe and the actual outcomes are entirely different, but the willingness to give up freedom for a perceived greater good seems to me the same nonetheless.
*One of the rational for the Bush administration to bring ‘freedom’ to the Middle East was the strong belief that ‘giving people freedom like we have in the US’ preempts the need to become a terrorist.