Rejecting Liberalism

David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men. (1 Samuel 22:1-2 ESV)

Simon Cottee over at The Atlantic shows why it’s so hard for the West — both Muslims and non-Muslims — to effectively counter the propaganda of Daish, the Islamic State:

More crucially, ISIS has a narrative. This is often described by the group’s opponents as “superficial” or “bankrupt.” Only it isn’t. It is immensely rich. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence estimates that of the 20,000 or more foreign jihadists believed to have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, around 100 are from the United States. These fighters may be naive or stupid, but they didn’t sacrifice everything for nothing. John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell, told me that people who join groups like ISIS “are trying to find a path, to answer a call to something, to right some perceived wrong, to do something truly meaningful with their lives.”

The [U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications] doesn’t have a narrative—not one, at any rate, remotely comparable in emotional affect and resonance to that of ISIS. No one is more sharply aware of this than Fernandez himself. “ISIS’s message,” he said, “is that Muslims are being killed and that they’re the solution. … There is an appeal to violence, obviously, but there is also an appeal to the best in people, to people’s aspirations, hopes and dreams, to their deepest yearnings for identity, faith, and self-actualization. We don’t have a counter-narrative that speaks to that. What we have is half a message: ‘Don’t do this.’ But we lack the ‘do this instead.’ That’s not very exciting. The positive narrative is always more powerful, especially if it involves dressing in black like a ninja, having a cool flag, being on television, and fighting for your people.”

In his biography of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ray Monk discussed Wittgenstein’s decision to enlist in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. It wasn’t really about patriotism, Monk suggested. Rather, Wittgenstein “felt that the experience of facing death would, in some way or other, improve him. … What Wittgenstein wanted from the war was a transformation of his whole personality, a ‘variety of religious experience’ that would change his life irrevocably.” One of the greatest challenges in counterterrorism today is working out how to create a narrative that directly speaks to a similar kind of longing among potential terrorists—and channels that longing in a nonviolent direction. As Scott Atran argues in Talking to the Enemy, “In the long run, perhaps the most important counterterrorism measure of all is to provide alternative heroes and hopes that are more enticing and empowering than any moderating lessons or material offerings.”

And this is true. At every one of the masjids I attended and worshiped at, virtually every Muslim agreed that Muslims in some places — Palestine, Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir — were being oppressed, and that something should be done. Few were will to go as far as the revolutionaries, but there was broad sympathy for the grievances. Attempts to deny the reality of the grievances, or highlight Western attempts to deal with them (such as NATO’s intervention in Bosnia) only made matters worse.

Because it wasn’t so much about saving Muslims as it was Muslims saving themselves.

But one of the reasons Westerners, and western governments in particular, are going to have trouble crafting an alternative narrative is that the people — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — who are susceptible to the narrative told by the Islamic Revolutionaries are already disaffected to begin with. For whatever reason, they find themselves outside, and struggling to make sense of the world in which the stories at hand, the ones provided to them by the societies in which they live, don’t work.

That was me. I note in my book The Love That Matters that in high school, I read an armload of alternative and left wing versions of American history and international politics. I read those books not because they were assigned (you couldn’t get me to read an assigned book in high school), but because they explained an America to me that I’d already experienced. I wasn’t a blank slate. I’d lived a life — a short one, yes, but a life — and I was trying to make sense of it. Good, patriotic, “America is awesome!” history didn’t help me any. It didn’t make sense to me. But Juan Jose Arevalo and Malcom X did.

I suspect it will be impossible for folks with power to construct alternate narratives. Because already disaffected folks aren’t going to listen to the stories power has to tell anyway. Power already has little credibility in their minds. Its stories, no matter how well constructed, won’t be believed. The don’t make sense.

But folks with power don’t have to create alternate narratives. They merely have to create space for doubt. To keep some disaffected people from acting. And a lot of what Fernandez and his group are doing probably does some of that. Were I 25 years younger (with the same background), and enamored of Daish (which is a distinct possibility), the efforts of the State Department group to highlight to cruelty and violence of Daish, and even some of its hypocrisies, would likely have worked with me. Not to convert me, but to peel me off, and keep me sidelined from the fight long enough to find some other kind of meaning to both my life and the world.

In the end, though, this is about meaning and a rejection of liberalism’s privatization of meaning. I may have problems with liberalism’s essential meaninglessness (or rather, liberalism’s elevation of the nation-state and society as both means and end of human existence), but that inherent meaninglessness is actually a real strength here. It allows for the possibility of successful dissent and nonconformity. Make no mistake — the world is not rejecting bourgeois liberalism. The promises of liberalism, and the ability to deliver on them for enough people, are too enticing. But some people need more than the promise of comfort and ease, a promising career or commercial success. They — okay, we, because this still includes me — see the purposes of God as being much bigger than this, and we want to lead lives in some kind of harmony with that purpose.

We are the ones rejecting liberalism. And liberals will need to make room for non-liberals in their midst, to live and to thrive and to prosper. Being powerful, however, they won’t have to, and I fear that will become less likely as liberalism — a creed already terrified of alternatives — becomes even more conformist and less tolerant.

Which means more people are going to be disaffected, and potentially attracted to alternative narratives that explain the world — and their place — in it. I’m not hopeful, and not optimistic. This doesn’t have to be a downward spiral. But nothing suggests to me it won’t be.

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