June 24th, 2019

War on Jihad

The soul of the fanatic

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Oct. 31, 2014

 The soul of the fanatic

"Now let's make two things clear: ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria's civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way."

      —  Barack Obama
September 10, 2014

It is hard to believe that our president is as naive as he sounds when he declares that ISIS—or ISIL or Islamic State or whatever appellation it has adopted today— is not Islamic. What else could it be? It's as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan is American—for every terrorist organization is an expression of the worst aspects of the culture it claims to be defending and bringing to a glorious triumph. The way the Nazis claimed to represent the essence of the German Volk, and the Bolsheviks the wave of the future for all mankind. ("This is the final struggle / Let us join together and tomorrow / The Internationale / Will be the human race.")

How have a modern, armed and aggressive terrorist organization with no vision of itself, no ideology or beliefs, no army or flag, no reason-for-being? How have a terrorist organization unrooted in any culture or faith—however perverted its version of that faith? And what other faith could this latest excrescence of violence in the Arab world claim to embody other than Islam—the Optimist's Creed? I don't think so.

Of course this latest wave of violence and conquest to come sweeping out of the desert is Islamic, even more-Islamic-than-thou. For it claims to be the purest expression of the Prophet's teachings—the closest to the original, pristine faith.

Doesn't every grotesquely exaggerated outgrowth of a culture, every tumor on a once healthy body politic, claim to be truest to the original vision of its founders? "When fascism comes to America," Huey Long is supposed to have said, "it will come wrapped in an American flag."

Yet our president tells us that ISIL cannot be Islamic, for no religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim." Of course they have been; every fanatical faith first eliminates those it perceives as heretics.

What a civilized, sanitized, all-American view of religion Barack Obama seems to have, as if religions were all nice, sweet Hallmark cards complete with hearts-and-flowers. As if no religion ever produced any zealots.

So much for all that nonsense about Barack Hussein Obama's not being a true American; how much more Americanized a view of religion can he have? Can he really believe that no religion ever produced haters or persecuted the innocent? Yet religion can, and has, done so—time and again. There is no good that cannot be perverted into evil. For old Satan still goes to and fro in the land, walking up and down in it, and seeing what mischief He can stir. And does. Just look at the Middle East—or elsewhere.

I know it's hard to believe, my fellow countrymen, but that old Devil can work his black magic even here in the good old US of A. As a Russian named Solzhenitzyn once pointed out, the line between good and evil is not drawn between countries or ideologies, but within the human heart.

When this president (or anyone else with a bully pulpit) goes all sweetness-and-light on us, for whatever purpose, he sounds like those naifs who doubt the very existence of Evil, and so risk becoming its dupe, even accomplice. Like all those Good Germans who just went along with the times.

C.S. Lewis was surely not the first to point out that one of the Devil's most effective tricks is to convince us He doesn't exist—and so we needn't always be on guard against Him. And yet every nation, every soul, is quite capable of falling for his subtle wiles.

The notion that It Can't Happen Here is a lovely thought, but only that. And the harder a people is pressed, and the more it becomes convinced it has been abused by others, the easier it becomes to blame its own failings on some wicked Other, for desperation is the mother of fanaticism.

Southerners of all people should certainly understand. For we have much in common with the Arabs, however unlikely that might seem at first, superficial impression. For the Arab also lives with the dream, even myth, of a past glory that has faded, and therefore must have been stolen from him.

John Shelton Reed, the de Tocqueville of Dixie, who writes better and sees deeper than anyone who calls himself a sociologist has any right to, once explained that "when nationalists come from a nation that is economically 'peripheral' on the world economy, one like the South of the 1920s that produced raw materials and supplied unskilled labor for a more 'advanced' economy, they often adopt the same stance as the [Southern] Agrarians did ." and wind up claiming theirs is actually the advanced, superior culture.

Sound familiar? Call us Ishmael. The fanatics of the Arab world are not so different from you and me. They just have given way to a hatred that can inflame any of us, given the right—or rather wrong—set of circumstances.

Maybe our president is just trying to curry favor with the more Westernized elements of the Muslim world when he starts sounding like a speaker delivering a Brotherhood Week sermon about how all religions are alike sources of light and beneficence, and incapable of cruelty and oppression. If this is just a tactic to win friends and influence people in the Islamic world, that would be fine. We can use all the allies we can attract in this fight. But the troubling thought occurs that Barack Obama is sincere, that he actually believes the banalities he spouts.

Of course the president is right when he says the Islamic State is no state; it seeks to establish not just still one more Arab state but a whole, worldwide caliphate. Of course ISIL/ISIS doesn't respect artificial lines drawn on a map by the British Colonial Office circa 1919. Any more than the Ebola virus respects border controls.

Arabs spring from a society of clans and tribes in which the one over-arching ideal is The Idea, not all the trappings of the artificial divisions imposed on Arabdom by Western powers ignorant of its very essence. Arabs, lest we forget, are a semitic people, entranced not just by words but by the Word, always ready to follow the next Prophet true or false. Has there been a Westerner who understood the Arab mind, and soul, since T.E. Lawrence? And he did so only because he became one.

It is a terrible thing for a people to suspect they've wound up on the wrong side of history, only be told again and again it's their own fault, and that they have no true faith or civilization. Or, worse, to suspect it themselves. It can drive a whole people mad; the zealots may be only the advance guard of a lunacy that can overtake a whole nation, however once civilized. See the history of modern Germany, 1933-45.

Our president dismisses ISIL as only "a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way." It's a simple enough way to explain the threat that this latest batch of fanatics poses. The president's instant analysis is so simple it's simplistic. It fails to recognize our adversary's humanity, however twisted. It could be, it is, our own terrible humanity. Or as Mr. Lincoln once told those fervent abolitionists who were forever inveighing against the irredeemable evil and cruelty of Southern slaveholders, "They are just what we would be in their situation."

It is not enough to understand our enemy if we are to overcome it. We need to respect it, and understand where it's coming from. Instead of indulging in fairy tales about its having no connection with any great faith or culture. Or we will wind up bogged down in one meaningless crusade after another against a threat we don't fully comprehend, and therefore can't fully apprehend.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.