Understanding terrorism with Nietzsche, Kissinger and 4 other great thinkers

An 11-year-old boy who pleaded with his mother to take him to the park, killed by a suicide bomber who detonated just yards from a set of children’s swings in Pakistan. A young couple—parents of an 18-month-old boy—shot dead while celebrating a birthday in Paris.

Stories like this are hard to read. Tragically, though, they are no longer such a rare occurrence. Extremists’ attempts to get the world’s attention show no signs of slowing: analysis by the Institute for Economics And Peace found that 32,685 people around the world died as a result of terrorism in 2014, which is 80 per cent more than in 2013, and a nine-fold increase from 2000. But why the sudden increase? And how can we successfully fight back?

Taking the time to try and understand something that takes so many lives, including the lives of children—something that viciously attacks the fundamental values on which we base our culture—can seem pointless; some see the terrorists as mindless thugs, while others find it almost impossible to understand such radically different mindsets.

But, in order to slow the spread of terrorism, we need to make sense of why people are drawn to the terrorist cause in the first place: not to sympathize, but to address the root of the problem long-term.

So why do apparently peaceful citizens turn to violent extremism? What leads someone to enter such a dangerous world, and eventually destroy both their lives and the lives of thousands of others? And what can we do about it?


Good, evil, and Nietzsche: the desire to create new moral values

In his 1887 book Beyond Good and Evil, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues that old religious ideas of what is “good” and “evil” are outdated. Old moral values such as selflessness, compassion, humility, chastity, and piety were based on Christian virtues, Nietzsche says, and so fail to resonate with many of us in contemporary life.

Nietzsche argues that the religious interpretation of “good” and “evil” represents only one of many possibilities for ethical life, and we must recognize that we are now free to create our own values.

Despite Nietzsche’s plea for other philosophers to take up the challenge of creating these new ideas of modern morality, we don’t yet have new definitions. For most, this can lead to alienation from religion and a general feeling of “being lost,” but for some, the desire to help create a new world with their own ideas of “good” and “evil” leads them to extremism as a way to build it.

What Nietzsche can teach us about modern terrorism:

When terrorists attack civilians, it is because they see those civilians not as individuals, but as part of a stereotyped evil “other.” It’s these “them” and “us” mentalities that allow terrorism to thrive. Knee-jerk reactions of blind hate only serve to strengthen the extremist cause by turning peaceful members of our society against each other. As President Obama suggested in his official response to the ISIS attack on Brussels, terrorist groups depend on ignorance and fear to spread their message:

“We have to reject any attempt to stigmatize Muslim-Americans… [Such an attempt is] counterproductive. It plays right into the hands of terrorists who want to turn us against one another; who need a reason to recruit more people to their hateful cause.”

By refusing to see the world in this black-and-white way, and educating those around us of the dangers of pigeon-holing those peaceful members of our society, we can help prevent the terrorists from achieving their aims.


The psychology of extremists

American thinker Eric Hoffer argued that people join extremist groups out of a frustration with their perceived lack of identity. In his 1951 work The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Hoffer examines the psychology behind radical movements, rather than simply their stated beliefs.

Hoffer argues that the people who join cults, fascist and authoritarian parties, or political movements all have low self-esteem, and find little of worth in their own characters. They have become frustrated with their own situations, have lost all faith in themselves, and, as a result, no longer value their individual identity.

What Hoffer can teach us about modern terrorism:

Extremist groups such as ISIS, Hoffer would argue, offer disillusioned individuals the chance of a new life, a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. Since these people already want to change their lives, they are willing to abandon their individuality and devote themselves to an organization that promises to radically alter the world. Followers profess undying loyalty to the group’s leaders and show unquestioning faith in its mission. And, having abandoned any sense of personal self-worth, they become willing to die for the cause.

By following Hoffer’s argument and accepting that there might be psychological (ie. human) factors affecting the radicalization of people into these groups, rather than just religious or political ones, we can begin to establish better ways of building people’s self-worth and identity before they become at-risk of radicalization.


A clash of cultures and an identity crisis

Major conflicts between 1945 and 1989 were mainly caused by political differences. But in 1996’s The Clash Of Civilizations, American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington predicted that the divisions of the twenty-first century would be caused by a clash of cultures between different civilizations, which would breed mistrust between groups of people with different beliefs.

The worst clash, he argued, would come between the Islamic world and the West. In Huntington’s view, the West’s excessive arrogance and belief that its culture is a “gift” to the world would come into conflict with Islam’s obstinacy and concern that its culture is, in turn, under attack from a morally decadent “other.”

What Huntington can teach us about modern terrorism:

Huntington’s predictions about major conflicts of the twenty-first century have proved remarkably accurate, but it’s his thoughts on the main driving force behind these clashes that can tell us the most about why terrorist groups are thriving in today’s societies.

Huntington blames modernization for anti-Western feeling, arguing that the collapse of ideology that comes with development created a vacuum that was being filled by “anti-secular, anti-universal” religious revivals. “[Development undermines] traditional village and clan ties and [creates] alienation as an identity crisis,” he says in The Clash Of Civilizations. Modernization, therefore, increases the appeal of non-Western culture, Huntington says, and encourages anti-Western feeling. This identity crisis can then be manipulated by radical groups looking for converts.

Using Huntington’s logic, it’s not hard to speculate that the dramatic rise of the internet and social media, which increasingly makes the world feel “smaller,” has gone some way to helping these “clan ties” and cultural identities slip away even further.


Why do Islamist groups succeed—and fail?

In 2014’s Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East,  Shadi Hamid explores the concept of “illiberal democracy,” in which large groups use the democratic process to reject human rights that the Western world accepts without question, and offers guidance for future creators of Western foreign policies.

Using information gathered from hundreds of interviews with leading Islamist figures in Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan—including ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi—Hamid investigates the past, present, and future of Islamist parties in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group who rose to power after the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Before the uprisings and in the midsts of repression, Hamid argues, the Brotherhood were forced to moderate in order to survive: “Repression, and the fear of it, pushed mainstream Islamist parties to fundamentally rethink their priorities… They sought allies from across the ideological and political spectrum… [and] democratized their organisational structures.”

Working within the democratic system, the Brotherhood maneuvered their way into the perfect position to replace the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak when the opportunity arose. In office after the uprisings and without the unifying power of repression, though, distrust and dismissiveness of opponents set in and the order was ousted in 2013 amid violent clashes between protesters and supporters.

What Hamid can teach us about modern terrorism:

When trying to understand how Islamist groups—whether extremist or moderate—can succeed or fail, there is nothing more valuable than commentary from those who lived at the centre of it, even if that commentary makes for uncomfortable reading.

Terrorist attacks, and Western responses to them, have consequences that reach far outside the boundaries of what is heavily reported in the Western media. Only by putting events into human context can we understand why they happened—and how those events can help us fight back.


The dangers of mis-reading history

Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999) is a unique piece of scholarship as it examines the period of the Crusades with an emphasis on Islamic sources. It was written after a series of clashes between Western and Muslim interests that would culminate in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, two years after the book was published, and the subsequent War on Terror launched by the United States in response.

Middle Eastern rulers who were both Islamic and opposed the policies of the West, such as the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, often made use of negative imagery of the Crusades, comparing the actions of 20th century Western powers to medieval Christian invasions of the Muslim world in their propaganda, and referring disparagingly to Western governments, soldiers, and leaders as “Crusaders.”

Conversely, in the West, the term “Crusade” was used to describe a noble and positive undertaking or struggle, applicable even in fields such as sport or politics.

Both of these viewpoints are simplistic, Hillenbrand points out, and are challenged by the unparalleled range of accounts that she gathered in The Crusades. The book clearly contradicts the idea that Crusaders were either unfailingly noble or unfailingly immoral. It also proves that, in fact, Christians and Muslims often coexisted peacefully in the Crusader states that were established in the Middle East, and even had meaningful cultural exchanges.

What Hillenbrand can teach us about modern terrorism:

It is dangerous to see today’s divisions in straightforward terms, as simply Christians against Muslims. In The Crusades, Hillenbrand highlights the political complexities that already existed in the early medieval period, showing the Muslim world as highly divided even when they were all united against “the Crusaders.”

Given these complexities, it seems impossible to imagine we can end terrorism through regime change alone.


Could we ever be rid of terrorism?

In 2014’s World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Henry Kissinger argues that different cultures have different ideas about how to establish a stable world order. And conflict is caused by differences between these visions of how the world should look. The problem is that these ideas are incompatible.

Kissinger says that, in order to reduce global conflict, the power of states worldwide (and ISIS sees itself as a state-in-the-making) needs to be kept in some kind of balance. When there is an imbalance of power it creates fear in weaker states, and these states then try to unite against the more powerful state. It’s the many imbalances in today’s global order that increase the threat of terrorism.

What Kissinger can teach us about modern terrorism:

If Kissinger is right, global conflict at a state level will continue until there is either political and military equilibrium between states, or one vision of the world order that is accepted by all. This has two implications for terrorism:

  • Tension between states can help create conditions that fuel terrorism.
  • As terrorist groups often operate outside state control, any state-based world order could still be threatened by people whose ideology runs counter to that order.


Conclusion: what we can learn about terrorism from the great thinkers

Terrorism—and, in particular, how to slow its progress—is nothing if not an emotive and contentious subject. While empathizing with the reasons behind acts of seemingly-mindless terror makes most feel uncomfortable, the great thinkers of the last few hundred years would, presumably, agree that the causes for such acts are distinctly “human”: lack of self-worth and identity; hatred and fear of an “evil other;” and the power of suggestion in relation to misunderstood events.

As we have explored, acting without critical, rational, and empathic thought would, as President Obama put it, play “right into the hands of terrorists who want to turn us against one another.”

And, as the U.S. heads into an election that will determine the fate of the fight against terror, whether on their home soil or in foreign lands, it’s worth keeping this in mind.


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