Based on the impassioned response of the French and the galvanizing effect of the recent attacks in Paris on the West more broadly, one might think that ISIS’s days are numbered. Surely they will be unable to withstand the massive multi-national military force that is progressively mobilizing against them.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that even the total defeat and eradication of the organization known as ISIS will result in long-term peace and an absence of radical Islamic terrorism in Europe and the United States. The organized existence of ISIS, and al Qaeda before it, is only one—easily replaceable—contributing reason for the perpetration of terrorist acts. There is a much more powerful and permanent reason behind radical Islamic terrorism: the motivation to die for an other-worldly cause inevitably overpowers the motivation to live for this world.
The Appeal of Radical Islam
The individuals who carry out the horrific acts of terrorism we have witnessed with increasing frequency in recent decades are not, unfortunately, crazy—or at least not much crazier than the average human being. The basic idea of jihad in radical Islam possesses an undeniable appeal to profound elements of our common human nature. It provides a clear purpose and meaning for one’s life, which is a powerful source of existential anxiety and puzzlement for modern, secular Westerners. It promises permanent happiness in the afterlife, a state whose duration will make a long life on earth seem less than an instant in comparison. It gives a person something to do rather than the empty eating, drinking, and merry-making until death that pervades much of Western culture. And it satisfies what has been aptly called the “theotropic dimension in our makeup” as human beings.
Radical Islam, in other words, possesses a clear appeal to all of us as human beings, and not just to a small subset of fanatical individuals. It appeals, moreover, to what is best in us: our fundamental desire for eternal happiness with God. Even if ISIS, al Qaeda, and every other radical Islamic organization in the Middle East goes away, the appeal of radical Islam will endure and will continue to inspire terrorism.
The Decadence of Western Culture
Is there anything that we in the West can do to defend ourselves from such a powerful and primeval force? The key to answering this question lies in reflecting upon some of the criticisms that the radical Islamists (rightly) level against Western culture.
European and American political cultures have been profoundly shaped by the intellectual tradition of liberalism in its various forms, beginning with Hobbes and Locke, continuing through J.S. Mill, and concluding most recently with thinkers such as Rawls and Habermas. This intellectual tradition rests upon two desires: the desire for self-preservation (or the fear of death) and the desire for material pleasure. Hobbes defined happiness as “a continual progress of desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.” This insatiable progress of desire for particular objects translates ultimately into a more abstract desire for power. As Hobbes goes on to say, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”
Hobbes’s line of thinking gave rise to one powerful strand of modern Western liberalism, and it is no coincidence that it was this strand that led ultimately to Nietzsche’s nihilism. The Hobbesian individual is a pitiful spectacle: a person who occupies his whole life only with running fearfully from death and acquiring power to prolong successive experiences of material pleasure. Although this may be an accurate portrayal of humanity, it is far from an inspiring one. In fact, it is so uninspiring as to awaken an intense longing for its opposite: Nietzsche’s Übermensch, for example.
Resources for Revival
There is, though, another strand of modern Western liberalism that draws on Christianity and has been carried forward into the modern world, largely through the influence of John Locke. This strand acknowledges the accuracy of Hobbes’s portrayal of fallen human nature, but adds a moral and religious component to Hobbesian individualism. According to Locke, human beings are not only driven by a desire for self-preservation and pleasure but are also God’s “workmanship,” created in His image and likeness and possessing natural rights to their persons, liberties, and material property. Individual human beings possess dignity both in themselves and in their transcendent origin and destiny. The individual is thereby raised above the level of the Hobbesian hedonistic coward who falls prey to Nietzsche’s ridicule.
The Christian/Lockean strand of liberalism has never exerted a formative and permanent political influence anywhere in Europe the way it has in the United States. It was the American Declaration of Independence that affirmed equal creation with natural rights, and it was on the basis of this single idea that the Civil War was fought. Since then, Americans have become increasingly divided into those who still endorse the Christian/Lockean liberal vision and those who endorse the Hobbesian liberal vision, which tends to characterize the European view.
If we in the West are ultimately to withstand the threat of radical Islam to our way of life, we would do well to draw upon the resources in our intellectual and religious traditions that are powerful enough to inspire its continuing defense. Military successes can only lead to temporary abatements in terrorism. The appeal of radical Islam and jihad are permanent and ineradicable by material means. A defeat of ISIS on the battlefield in the Middle East will not be a real victory unless it is accompanied by a defeat of radical Islam on the battlefield of ideas and beliefs within our own borders.
If Western culture continues to be defined by the pitiful desire to go on living in as much physical comfort as possible, we will continue to be victimized and oppressed by the much more powerful appeal of radical Islam to die for God and eternal happiness. Regardless of their truth or falsity, atheistic or agnostic secularism and materialism simply cannot, in the long run, compete with Islam in a battle for minds and hearts. We in the West need to work to understand better and persuasively articulate the moral vision underlying liberalism, connecting this moral vision to the theological principles of Christianity.
The United States will need to play a leading role in this effort. Despite recent trends of decline, the U.S. remains far more religious than Europe, and we have historically been inspired by principles of natural rights and natural law in a way the Europeans have not. American political thought needs to continue to influence and inspire other nations and cultures as well as our own, and Christian belief and practice need to continue to provide purpose and meaning throughout the world. Without consistent and widespread efforts to provide a coherent and compelling alternative philosophy and way of life, all the military might in the world will not be able to resist the onslaught of Islamic extremism.
S. Adam Seagrave is an assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law and editor of Liberty and Equality: The American Conversation.