The Captive Mind is the title of a 1951 book by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. In it, Milosz, a refugee from communist Poland, speaks out against the obtuse and wilful blindness of the West about events behind the iron curtain. He takes the West to task for its self-deception and its lack of political fortitude in combating the injustices and depredations of the communist bloc. The book attacks the moral corruption and intellectual duplicity required to support the tissue of lies that was life under communist rule.
Although Milosz’s outrage is directed at communism (“a stupefying and loathsome phenomenon”) and the complicity of its western apologists, the book may be read as a meditation on the larger dangers of intellectual conformity. According to Milosz, there arose among the western intelligentsia a consensus view, one which refused to challenge the totalitarian nature of communism, and so deliberately avoided the battle of ideas that desperately needed to be fought. Milosz’s lesson is that to combat totalitarianism, in whatever form it takes, it is imperative that democratic societies engage in honest, open and robust debate. In a healthy democracy, this means that no set of beliefs, no ideology, no text, no creed and no religion is exempt from critical scrutiny. Doctrinaire or dogmatic beliefs of any stripe need to be challenged in the public square.
Such a candid debate has been noticeably absent when discussing the most recent iteration of totalitarianism, radical Islam. Like all ideologies, radical Islam is concerned with beliefs which lie at the heart of the human condition. It espouses universal principles for human conduct, and prescribes the ideal political state, namely the Caliphate. Like communism before it, radical Islam has proclaimed the one true faith, and has set out on a messianic mission of global conquest.
Yet at its core, radical Islam advances ideas which are irreconcilable with the accounts of justice, equality, moral autonomy, and creedal forbearance given in liberal democracies. Whereas western democracies are built upon such foundational notions as pluralism, freedom, equality, toleration, codified rights and the rule of law, radical Islam forthrightly rejects these standards. Instead, it divides the world into believers and infidels, oppresses religious minorities, subjugates women, actively persecutes homosexuals, demands death for apostates, and advocates the stoning to death of adulterers. The contrast could not be more pronounced. We in the liberal west are right to call radical Islam barbarous; but we are mistaken if we think that the religious vision it sets out for its believers doesn’t hold great appeal.
The stubborn refusal of the west to acknowledge that the violence that is daily perpetrated in the name of Islam arises from religious zeal is, frankly, mystifying. The media denies this by evoking platitudes (“Islam is a religion of peace”), while the political class engages in either outright lies or euphemisms to evade uncomfortable truths. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron have engaged in such absurdities as “ISIS is not Islamic,” or that ISIS “has nothing to do with religion.” When a jihadi kills innocents, such as occurred in Canada with the murders of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the political class falls back on one of two explanations: either such violence is the result of psychopathy and mental illness, or else it is because the individual subscribes to a perverse version of his religion. As Justin Trudeau opined after the attack in Ottawa, “…this is not the real Islam.” Politicians are unwilling to acknowledge the politically awkward truth that such violence can be motivated by an authentic and sincere religiosity. Hiding behind a veil of falsehoods, platitudes and euphemisms, we avoid acknowledging the obvious: that the world contains a great many jihadis who are willing to kill and die for their religion. As Edward R. Murrow observed, “The apparent we see eventually, the obvious takes a little longer.”
Radical Islam is a brutal, extreme and vicious interpretation of Islam; nevertheless, it is an interpretation to which a great many Muslims do, in fact, subscribe. Moreover, extremist organizations such as ISIS have broad support across the Middle East, as well as among the Islamic diaspora in the west. Yet many in the west stubbornly refuse to acknowledge radical Islam is a genuine subsidiary of the Muslim faith. Why is this?
I think in large part the answer lies in a set of conventional beliefs about the world which have become axiomatic in discussions about politics and society. These suppositions can be traced to the intellectual legacy of Karl Marx, who posited that historical movement comes about not because of ideas or the deeds of “great men”, as previous generations had mistakenly believed. Rather, history is driven exclusively by the material conditions of society. According to Marx, we need to rid our minds of “false consciousness,” and look exclusively to the dominant material relationships which hold in society. And these material relationships can be distilled into one of two ideas: the quest for power, which is politics, or the quest for wealth, which is economics.
This notion that it is the material conditions alone which provide an explanatory matrix for historical movement has become the de facto position of the West. In this limited sense we are all Marxists now, for when looking for the so-called “root causes” of conflict, our politicians, academics and journalists instinctively look to narratives of political or economic deprivation. Such unvarying materialist explanations develop into what the American writer Michael Ledeen calls “pidgin Marxism,” which posits that unjust or inequitable economic or political conditions invariably lead to desolation and hopelessness, which in turn leads to conflict and violence. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombing, Justin Trudeau suggested that “there is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded.” So, despite terrorists’ public avowals of Muslim causes, or the frank proclamations of jihadis who publicly declare their desire to conquer the world and subjugate the infidel, we nevertheless refuse to take seriously the religious genesis of these ideas. Instead, we insist on folding jihadi violence into a narrative that makes sense to our own way of understanding the world, one which makes it impermissible to concede the power and force of religious ideas.
Yet by ignoring the religious element, and translating the struggle into such materialist concepts and categories as poverty, political inequality, and discrimination, the nature of what and who we are fighting is radically misconceived. The plain truth is that we are engaged in a battle of ideas. If we are to win the battle, we need to set aside our own materialist biases, and take seriously the religious world-view of the jihadi. Rather than filtering the “war on terror” through the preoccupations of a secularized west, we need to understand the religious sensibilities which motivate the enemy.
This will require a concerted effort of the imagination. In part, this is because Islam posits norms which are alien to our own; but in larger part it is because the secular West no longer recognizes the resoluteness and determination of religious believers. To a very significant degree, the collective memory of the west has forgotten how powerful an inducement religion can be to action. This constitutes a failure of the imagination as well as sheer ignorance of the facts. Even the most inattentive student of history cannot fail to notice the great violence and brutality which, over the millennia, has been perpetrated in the name of religion.
So rather than frame the debate in a language which conforms to materialist preoccupations, the democracies need to engage in a frank assessment of the religiosity which drives radical Islam. Why is it that radical Islam and violent jihad have such an appeal, even for Muslims born and raised in Canada and the West?
Perhaps one of the more helpful ways of answering this question is to view radical Islam as the latest manifestation of what might be termed the “totalitarian temptation”, or what Susan Sontag once referred to as “fascinating fascism”. As witnessed in the crucible of the last century, totalitarian ideas hold enormous appeal to masses of people. To think that this broad appeal has somehow diminished today is delusional. Unlike democracies, where in principle no one way of life is inherently superior to another, totalitarian systems claim to have identified immutable, impersonal and absolute laws to which all must submit. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, totalitarian rule is far from lawless or arbitrary; rather, it rests ultimately on so-called “suprahuman” laws, which claim to provide total knowledge of the past, the total explanation of the present, and the reliable prediction of the future. Communism claimed to have uncovered the invariant laws of history, while Nazism, in advancing the superiority of the Aryan race, cited the immutable laws of nature. In like fashion, radical Islam claims to be instituting on earth the unassailable will of Allah.
Conceptualizing radical Islam as a form of religious totalitarianism allows us to glimpse some of its great appeal. Like communism, fascism and Nazism, it is a system of thought which, at root, sets itself against the philosophy of liberal democracy, and proposes a very different account of human flourishing, namely that given in the Koran and Sharia law. For its adherents, life is no longer uncertain, ambiguous or without meaning. Rather, it provides the believer with the sort of moral and intellectual certitude which appeals to many, particularly to the idealistic young. The ironclad will of Allah licences the faithful to ruthlessly crush dissent, and sanctions such savageries as beheading the unbeliever or stoning to death the apostate. For the true believer, no action is too depraved or too wicked, for one is doing the will of Allah under the mandate of heaven. As a sincerely believing jihadi, one is assured that however depraved and horrific your actions may appear to the non-believer, they are nonetheless sanctified by the only judge who matters, Allah himself.
It is of course foolish to think that Islam somehow has a monopoly on religious violence. There have been no shortages of attempts to posit “the one true God”, or “the one best way to live”, or to derive a “final solution,” all of which have resulted in fanaticism, political disaster and, ultimately, great inhumanity. Here is how Isaiah Berlin put it:
If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.
Over the millennia, the allure of killing in the name of one’s God has motivated countless thousands from practically all faiths. It is facile to think that this idea has not survived into our own age, or that its appeal has somehow lessened.
Moreover, the willingness of individuals to sacrifice themselves in the name of belief is frequently underestimated. As Milosz writes, “There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.” The sanctification of violence, even to the point of self-destruction, holds great appeal, particularly to young males. As Sam Harris recently commented about the ISIS fighters:
Contrary to what many liberals believe, those bad boys who are getting off the bus in Syria at this moment to join ISIS are not all psychopaths, nor are they simply depressed people who have gone to the desert to die. Most of them are profoundly motivated by their beliefs. Many surely feel like spiritual James Bonds, fighting a cosmic war against evil. After all, they are spreading the one true faith to the ends of the earth—or they will die trying, and be martyred, and then spend eternity in Paradise. Secular liberals seem unable to grasp how psychologically rewarding this worldview must be.
Given the materialist presuppositions of the West, we remain imaginatively closed off from the sensibilities of religious fervour, and so are perplexed by what attracts so many to the cause of religious fanaticism. It is not so much that the secular West is turning a blind eye to the religious roots of radical Islam; it is rather that the West misconceives the religious psychology at work in Islamo-fascism.
The prevailing tendency in the west is to sentimentalize the religious impulse, and to sanitize the history of religious conflict. We are inclined to view all religions as variations of the Sermon on the Mount, which is to say as benign wellsprings of universal benevolence. Or, we adopt the similarly spurious view that all religions as equally true, or equally false or equally irrelevant. This failure to take religion seriously, and to make distinctions between and among various faiths, is both naïve and dangerous. At a minimum, it fails to appreciate that some religions, at least some of the time, enjoin their adherents to violence and savagery in the name of their God. In a word, the sentimentalizing of religion teaches that violence is a perversion of the religious instinct: yet as history so abundantly shows, and as the jihadis of recent years have so ably demonstrated, violence is frequently at the heart of the religious impulse.
By viewing Islam through the secular preconceptions of the west, we are culpable of two consequential errors: one, we mistakenly assume the benevolence of all religious injunctions, and so fail to acknowledge the link between Islamic ideology and violence; secondly, we fail to grasp the powerful psychological inducement which Islam offers to individuals, and to young men in particular.
The culture of the secularized west suffers from an impoverishment of the religious imagination. It is as if we have imposed an embargo on ourselves, one which invariably lays jihadi violence on a Procrustean bed of materialist assumptions. While we may be in denial about the force and power of religion, large parts of the Muslim world are not. As Dean Inge observed, “It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism, while the wolf remains of a different opinion.”
We need to speak directly and honestly to the ideology of radical Islam, openly acknowledging its power to move believers to violence. This means that we need, as a start, to exchange euphemistic falsehoods and platitudes for serious analysis. Such disingenuous ways of speaking corrupts our thinking, misrepresents our adversaries’ motives, and precludes an honest assessment of the true nature of the conflict.
We are engaged in a war of ideas with radical Islam, a totalitarian, anti-democratic, and inhumane religious ideology, whose adherents subscribe to a toxic set of beliefs which threaten our way of life. If we are to prevail, then we need to set aside our materialist assumptions, recognize the religious psychology of the jihadi, and try, as far as is possible, to imaginatively enter his world. To candidly acknowledge that our adversary is acting from genuine religious belief may be an uncomfortable truth; but our failure to do so will only obscure from view the real “root causes” of this war, and prevent us from understanding what is ultimately at stake.