Moderate Muslims II

James started a good discussion with his Moderate Muslims post below. One of the commenters raised a question that I think has an answer:

To get a handle on jihadism we really need to try to figure out why people feel the need to emphasize that aspect of their tradition over allother aspects.. The tradition itself isn’t the driving force; something is making jihadism and the associated death and destrctiveness attractive to some people (frustrated pride? Nationalism? Anger over the Palestinian situation and a general sense of being victimized by outside forces?).

The first thing to note is that even before they’re Muslim, those who profess the Islamic faith are human beings. That means that they will act and react in the ways that other human beings do. There is a history of human reaction to externally introduced pressures on various “statuses quo” that tend to fall into discernable patterns.

I’ve found one of the best examinations of this phenomenon to be Weston LaBarre’s 1970/72 book The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion. The book, sadly, is out of print, but a 1990 version can be found at second-hand book dealers.

LaBarre’s book is a bit dated, particularly in its use of Freudian analysis to explain many things. But his overall perception, that societies under stress reacting in particular ways, always involving religion in some aspect, remains valid. Below the fold, I’ll give a lengthy quotation from his first chapter, to set the scene:

The Ghost Dance of 1890 was the revelation of a Paviotso messiah, partly a mixture of borrowed Christian notions with earlier Indian cults and partly the autistic vision of the messiah. The fantasy of a new heaven on earth and the miraculous reappearance of dead ancestors and leaders as helpers was a response to the disintegration of Indian cultures under the pressure of the advancing white frontier. The historic context is quite clear and well known–the great Sioux Uprising, Custer’s last stand, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Wounded Knee.

The insight derived from a study of the Ghost Dance apply equally to the famous Hellenistic “failure of nerve” (in Bury’s phrase), the ghost dance of our own historical tradition, when Greek culture collapsed after the long and disasterous Peloponnesian War, and when Hebraic culture suffered the destruction of the Temple in the razing of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the Diaspora of the Jewish people. The old Roman Republic had been destroyed by a cynical and exploitative Caesarism when Graeco-Judaic Christianity appeared during the this multiple crises of the classic world. Christianity spread further as the Roman Empire proved unable to solve its social and economic and moral problems through the familiar institutions of slavery, militarism, and the autocratic deified Emperor. Our sacred culture is the ghost hovering over dead Graeco-Judaeo-Roman cultures, the ghost dance of our forgotten psychological past. Small wonder that sacred beliefs must be “religiously” protected against rationality and contemporary common sense, for that wouldr reopen old wounds not to be probed! The intensity of the reaction instituted an autistic response that lasted in force for at least a millennium and a half. Nor is this ghost of the dead classic world quite laid to rest.

Religion is the feeling of what is desirable and comforting in crisis situations. “There are no atheists in the foxholes” ran a familiar cliché in a former war. That is, when under severe stress, men must have credence in some larger ultimate reasonableness than their immediate experience would seem to give them. Similarly, in everyday situations, men have to call upon an inherited morality to regulate their raw animal impulses. Religion is thus a kind of moral geometry to help triangulate one’s way through social reality; commonly joined to it too is the cognitive map of a new cosmology…

In his massive book, LaBarre goes on to show how various cultural crises brought forth almost stylized reactions–Cargo Cults, the 19th C. Mahdi of Sudan, various redemptionist and messianic Christian cults.

Cultures can, collectively, go into stress. They react to this stress to lessen it. The stress of modernization, of globalization, of having to live in a multi-cultural and multi-valued world is tremendous. Some react by burning down McDonald’s in France, or trashing the host cities of the WTO. Others do it by declaring jihad and flying airplanes into buildings.

Some cope with the stress through adaptation and adoption of foreign values, or at least finding ways in which those foreign values can be fitted together with traditional ones. Others retrench, finding that their weakness arose through inadequate attention being paid to rite and ritual. This is very much what the Bin Ladens and Zarqawis, the extremist Wahhabis, Muslim Brothers, and Deobandis all believe. They are aided and abetted by those still fighting colonialism and giving last-ditch defenses of Marxism. Modern Muslims, in their view, have stopped being “good Muslims” because they have accepted unauthorized (i.e., religiously unsanctioned) change. Bin Laden’s finding “apostacy” left and right in the Islamic world is just another stress.

Because traditional responses to stress do not serve to resolve that stress, more radical means are necessary. Having been shown to be powerless in traditional responses, non-traditional responses–particularly if they can be cloaked in religiousity–become useful. That there is a history of violent jihad provides legitimacy of some sort. That earlier examples didn’t exactly work out well doesn’t actually matter. The issue is eschatological, not rational.

Nationalism, pride, Palestine, Iraq… they all add to the stress. Incompetent state governments, bleak futures, impotence at change being imposed from outside… they all add to the anger. Coupled with modern technology and weaponry, they become exceptionally lethal.

The solution is hard because solutions work best for rational problems. But some of the aggravations can be reduced, or at least mitigated in their effect.

We need to recognize that there is real anger in the Islamic world. Some of the causes of that anger can be addressed. Efforts to promote democracy and free markets can relieve some of the pressures. Some are more difficult to address because they go to psychological issues–acknowledging that you’ve been a fool to accept tyrranical governance, for instance, or admitting to yourself that you haven’t been paying attention to important things, like the value of human rights and religious freedom. Yet others issues, though, especially when focused on the End of Times, are not available to rational solution. When the extremism becomes too great, death or incarceration is the only solution.

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John Burgess
About John Burgess
John Burgess retired after 25 years as a US Foreign Service Officer, serving predominantly in the Middle East. He contributed 35 pieces to OTB between February 2006 and April 2014. He was the proprietor of the influential Crossroads Arabia until his death in February 2016.


  1. floyd says:

    i smell burning sawdust![lol]