Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Reflections on the Tragedy in Orlando from an Expert in Tyranny

Waller Newell

A few things seem clear from Sunday’s shocking massacre in Orlando carried out by Omar Mateen, a self-professed follower of the Islamic State.

The shooter was apparently a self-recruiter responding to ISIS’s many calls to carry out such attacks, which emphasizes how the threat of Jihadist terrorism may now be outpacing even the most sophisticated of intelligence operations to expose ISIS agents. This kind of recruit doesn’t need to be a part of any such network.

His ex-wife remarked that, when she knew him, he wasn’t very religious. Others have said that he was influenced by a radical cleric.

The precise state of his religious beliefs, I would argue, doesn’t matter, because the appeal of Jihadism isn’t primarily religious, it’s nihilistic, masquerading as religion.

Previous revolutionary movements like Bolshevism and National Socialism attracted psychopaths, sadists and mayhem-seekers alongside ideologically rigid true believers. The same is true from what we know about recruits to ISIS from the West, including one who said that its operations were “the real Disney World.” In other words, they are murder tourists looking for the thrill of a real-life amusement park of rape, torture and death. It was reported of those who carried out the Paris attack that some of them were heavy drinkers and drug-users with zero evident interest in religion.

What matters is that the over-all ideological vision, in this case the establishment of a world-wide caliphate, provides the pseudo-moral justification for acting on their sick impulses,so, even if the violence is spontaneous and carried out by someone who self-recruits,and who has no deep visible attachment to the Muslim faith, the ideology is still central.

It is still in a different category from a “rampage shooting.” Jihadist terrorism is a revolutionary movement. We still have a tendency to think of a terrorist as having a “violent personality,” who then casts about for a convenient pretext to act on that violence. Such a person, in this view, could as easily turn into a Charles Manson or an Elliot Rodger as a Major Hassan. But surely the process must be more complicated than someone already prone to violence donning an ideology like a new shirt. I suspect that someone prone to violence early on absorbs the ideology of Jihadist movements like ISIS because they offer a full-blown utopian vision of world-wide revolution, promising a life of daring and action on behalf of a better world that will wipe away the corruption and greed of the capitalist West. The interweaving of personality and twisted idealism must eat its way into the soul until they are impossible to disentangle.

True, even Charles Manson professed a weird ideology of race war to revenge himself on society’s deliberate ignoring of his talents, while Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto” proclaimed that women who denied him sex must be punished for their injustice. But those private fantasy ideologies have nothing like the impact and wide appeal of a fully developed ideology of revolutionary utopianism like that of ISIS and the other Jihadist movements. As one of the greatest scholars of Islam, Bernard Lewis, observed as far back as the Iranian Revolution, its leaders have far more in common with Robespierre, Lenin and Hitler than they do with any precedent from mainstream Islam.

Some are tempted,I know, to attribute Islamist terrorism to that faith itself, and there are Muslim clerics who do embrace it. But to do so carte blanche is a grave mistake.

Consider the fact that, wherever Jihadists have carried out terror against non-Muslims — ISIS’s murder of Christians and destruction of their churches, or the Taliban’s dynamiting of ancient Buddhist statues — they have done so in areas that had been under Muslim influence or control for centuries, and whose comparative tolerance, not perfect by today’s standards but impressive for their time, was evidenced precisely by the existence of those non-Mulsim communities and culture for the Jihadists to attack. Islamism is a distortion and perversion of Islam.

By claiming to return to the original community of the Prophet as their model, today’s Islamists skip over hundreds of years of accumulated political, economic and cultural achievements by the Ottoman and other caliphates, which often outpaced Europe in learning and religious tolerance. That is why the Jihadists’ claim to be “restoring” traditional Islam is an empty delusion, comparable to the Jacobins’ claim to be restoring the Golden Age of “the Year One” or the Nazis’ vision of a German “community of destiny” that bore virtually no relationship to the received traditions of the German past.

Their alleged vision of Muslim tradition is empty and provides nothing but an agenda for destroying civilization, including Muslim civilization.

Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror 

About The Author

Waller Newell

Waller R. Newell is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Carleton University, Ottawa, where he helped found and also teaches in the College of the Humanities, Canada's ...

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