Friday, October 24, 2014

Jihadism is not Nihilism

“Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
"There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century."
Barack Obama
"There is evil in this world, and we all have come face to face with it once again. Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil.
John Kerry on ISIS
ISIS believes in many things not nothing. They believe in Theocracy. ISIS believes in militant political Islam. ISIS believes in Sharia Law. ISIS believes in God. ISIS believes in the Caliphate.
ISIS are religious extremists. Correctly identifying them is one thing but understanding what motivates their extremism is another thing. The motivation and the degrees of it vary. To blame it simply on religion is intellectually weak, to blame it on nihilism is intellectually dishonest. ISIS is more of a reaction to nihilism than it is nihilism.
The issue or topic of ISIS and Islam has been approached with intellectual laziness on both sides of the debate it seems to me. Those who simply claim ISIS is just a bunch of crazy people with a screw loose or those who claim ISIS represents Islamic thought are both simplifying a more complex reality. First ISIS are not nihilists or senseless anarchists as some at the State Department would like you to think. ISIS has an ideological basis and they are religious extremists. Some at the White House and State Department would like people to think of ISIS as nihilists because they feel it is the most outcast terminology they can use but it is a misdiagnosis and intellectually dishonest. They want to cut ISIS off the evolutionary ideological tree of Islam and that is a good goal but it is intellectually dishonest to call them nihilists or claim their ideology is based in nihilistic thought.
Did they forget about Salafism? Wahhabism? Jihadism? These are much more intellectually correct and honest words than what is coming from some government officials. There are to be sure bigots and racists that criticize the religion of Islam based on their prejudice but that does not nullify all legitimate criticism of Islam or strains of Islam.
It would be like if a Stalinist critiqued German Nationalism in the 1930’s and because of that you shied away from critiquing German Nationalism because you did not want to appear siding with Stalinism. It would open you up to being called a Stalinist by simply criticizing German Nationalism. George Orwell one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century was able to critique Fascism, Communism, and Western Imperialism all at the same time. No need to be caged in to one ideological critique. You could be a German Nationalist and not be a Nazi. You could be a critic of German Nationalism or Nazism and not be a Communist. These plain syllogisms must be clear when there is so much intellectual laziness coming from public commentators and government officials.
Most Muslims and religious people do not think like ISIS. The majority of Muslims just want to live in peace. During the Islamic golden age Baghdad was a place of philosophy and medicine (House of Wisdom). Now Baghdad seems far from the House of Wisdom and closer to the House of Horrors. But to call ISIS nihilists is intellectually dishonest. Religious extremism is a problem that needs to be acknowledged.
Jihadism is just a strain of Islam but it is clearly not the totality of Islam. Jihadism is on the evolutionary tree of Islam but it does not represent the essence or totality of Islam. Most Muslims in the world have other interpretations and ways of following their religion without resorting to violence and theocracy. There are other strains like Sufism that offer a broad spiritual experience. No one should claim that Sufism is the totality of Islam though and no one should claim that Jihadism is the totality of Islam either. These are ideological evolutionary strains. Like a benign virus in one being that suddenly becomes a vicious virus when it mutates in another being.
There are many mutations and variables of why one subscribes to Jihadism. Some of the variables are the search for identity, existential crisis, belief in the supernatural, psychological stressors, religious reward or punishment, injustice perceived or real, and so on. Depending on the individual one variable will be more dominant than the other and that you have to study by a case by case process. Now as far as the stated ideological foundation for those that are in ISIS it is clearly religious and it is clearly Jihadism. However their personal motivations may vary.
*** Further reading: Is ISIS an army of nihilists? Just the opposite
"ISIS, however, recoils from such an encounter with doubt. Far from being nihilistic, the followers of ISIS are instead terrified by the empty vistas nihilism reveals. They parade a twisted version of Islam as truth, insisting that death and blood on earth are a necessary sacrifice for the paradise that awaits the religious warrior. Many of Al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s recruits are disaffected young men glad to turn to a thrilling new belief system that walls them off from the danger of nihilism. As George Orwell, among others, pointed out, a similar role has been played by other belief systems, like communism: No matter how violent the deed, it was done in the service of History, the brutal deity of the communist movement. The worldwide caliphate ISIS aims for is a vision just as galvanizing, and just as illusory, as the communist utopia...We know that ISIS scorns the principle of human justice, but by labeling them “nihilist,” comforting as that may be, we ourselves flout plain language."
By Robert Zaretsky and David Mikics

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