January 15, 2010
The Twisted Logic of the Extremists
In the last two weeks we have witnessed another attempt by a Muslim extremist to commit suicide and in the process destroy a passenger jet with 300 innocents on board, while a suicide bomber in Pakistan drove into a village sports match and detonated a massive truck bomb murdering a hundred, including many women and children. To most sane people, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, these actions are totally inexplicable. Exactly what was the point? How can anyone justify murdering random civilians who are in no way party to any political dispute or conflict, and whose deaths would not lead to any obvious political result of value to the bomber?
These acts are seen by most people as extremely aggressive and totally unjustified, both in a moral and political sense. So why do the Jihadis engage in this behavior? To find the answer, we must look not at Islam, but at human nature itself.
What gives the Jihadis the moral capacity to carry out an act that they themselves would recognize as deeply sinful? To do this, they must believe that this sinful act, whether it be suicide or murder of innocents, serves a higher purpose which justifies their actions. This higher purpose is two-fold. First, it is essentially defensive in their mind. They view the world of Islam as being under siege by “Jews and Crusaders”, which has been Bin Laden’s code words for Israel and the US. The whole world recognizes the principle and legitimacy of acting in self-defense, and this is how the Jihadis see their actions. It was not the Muslims that forced the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan, or Israel to ethnically cleanse and then occupy the Palestinians, or the US to invade and occupy Iraq. Muslims are in fact entitled to fight back against these acts of aggression. And many, if not most, Muslims would agree with that general principle. The Jihadis are just taking it to an extreme, but is it any different than the US decision to bomb the civilian populations of Nazi Germany or Japan in World War Two?
In addition to the imperative of self-defense, the Jihadis are also motivated by a utopian impulse. They seek to create the perfectly just society, which Islam promises will come into being when humanity orders itself along the principles of the Qur’an. Of course, among its principles are a prohibition against suicide and the deliberate murder of innocents in war, but that doesn’t trouble the Jihadis much. This quest for the perfect state leads them to want to seize political power in Muslim countries, whether it be the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or other similar groups operating in Egypt, Indonesia, Yemen, and elsewhere. The desire to create the perfect society, to realize a utopia, is very powerful. If in fact that is what the Jihadis are trying to do, then doesn’t the pursuit of such a noble goal justify the regrettable use of some unsavory methods?
Looking back on human history, we can see many cases of these two motives justifying terrible human rights abuses and massacres. The Nazis had convinced themselves that the Jews were seeking to destroy Germany, and that Jews controlled both communist Soviet Union and capitalist Britain and the US. With this twisted logic, many participants in the Holocaust viewed their actions as self-defense, instead of willful genocide.
Similarly, the Hutus who carried out the massacre of the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994 were convinced that they were killing a mortal threat to their existence. The Israelis often rationalize their apartheid oppression of the Palestinians in terms of self-defense. They refuse to see themselves as the aggressor and the ethnic cleanser.
The global communist movement is the prime example of mass murder and terrible human rights violations justified in the name of building (a communist) utopia. Over 20 million died as a result of Soviet purges and induced famines, or were worked to death in the Gulag prison camps. Mao killed tens of millions of his fellow Chinese in pursuit of perfection, while the Khmer Rouge murdered a third of Cambodia’s population in the mid-1970s.
But utopian movements have ended in mass death among Americans too. Jim Jones’s People’s Temple movement ended in the famous mass suicide/murder of over 900 people as they drank the poisoned Kool-Aid. And during the first year of the Clinton administration, the charismatic preacher David Koresh led his followers in Waco , Texas, to a fiery confrontation with the US government. Timothy McVeigh was so angered at the perceived oppression of the Clinton administration’s handling of Waco that he responded by bombing the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. To Tim McVeigh, his murder of scores of fellow citizens was essentially an act of self-defense he undertook on behalf of the American people!
In many of these historical examples, there was some small grain of truth within the twisted logic of the perpetrators. Britain and the Soviet Union were hostile to Germany. The Tutsi had oppressed the Hutus in the historical past. The Palestinians have engaged in terrorism as part of their opposition to Israel and Zionism. The United States has undertaken policies that have been highly aggressive toward and detrimental to Muslim societies around the world. It is these grains that supported and sustained the rationale for the actions of the perpetrators of these historical horrors. Which is why to defeat them is such a difficult and uphill task. But it does go far in explaining how and why the inexplicable seem to happen. Even among the Nazis, few consciously accepted the label of unprovoked murderer, they saw themselves as acting in self-defense.