In September, a 24-year old Afghan immigrant, was arrested for planning to blow up a New York Building. A week before, a 29-year old fry cook who likes to be called Talib Islam, was charged with attempting to blow up a federal courthouse in Springfield, Illinois. A day later, a 19 year old Jordanian national was arrested for attempting to detonate a car bomb in Dallas. According to the Heritage Foundation, 23 known terrorist plots have been foiled in the last eight years (www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandSecurity/bg2294.cfm).
What is up with these people? I’m wondering if my wife is right, a tax on all males between 15 and 50 would finance most law enforcement and national security. Assuming these nutcases are not actually psychotic, what motivates them (other than 72 heavenly raisins)? The Islamists are attacking the infidel, they believe, a righteous battle in the name of God. But why do they believe that, and what do they hope to accomplish?
The proximal issue is education. The terrorists uniformly are not well educated, by Western standards. They know only the Koran. They know nothing of secular history, science, philosophy, or the principles of critical thinking. I’m sure that is a point of pride for most of them, but an extremely narrow world view does not leave much room for getting along with other people.
Presumably, Islamists get along fine with their own people, and that’s all that matters to them. They want the esteem of their imagined peers, not of the infidel. If they broadened their sense of community beyond the cult, they would quickly realize that they would take a serious hit on the esteem front from pluralism. So there is a built-in defense against consideration for outsiders.
“Islam” means peace, submission, obedience. Submission to what or whom? Not modern law, not community standards, not philosophical principles. It means only submission to God as defined in the Koran and often interpreted by extremist nuts. But in the beginning the term referred to the principle of submitting your personal ego to the good of the tribe. That was a huge innovation in early Arab tribalism. If each individual was utterly subservient to the tribe, you had a fighting machine with replaceable parts as good as any modern army. The “sword of Islam” would have been demonstrably superior in warfare.
Why would an individual want to submit his individual will, either to the will of the tribe or later, to the will of Allah? What’s to gain from loss of self? Immortality. Or, at least the fantasy illusion of immortality. If you are not an individual, you cannot die, because the tribe lives on. We know that for a fact because as members of the tribe we see individuals die all the time, but the tribe continues. So if you abrogate individual intentionality and responsibility to the will of the tribe, you too will continue indefinitely. The core motivation for adherence to Islam is fear of death.
Many Islamists deny that and boast of their love of death. However, that is a reaction formation, a defense against death anxiety. What they long for is immortality, not personal annihilation. That’s why suicide car bombers have their hands taped to the wheel, and why they are only ready to serve after intensive indoctrination. If Islamists really loved death so much, suicide would suffice. For example, public self-immolation can make a powerful political or religious statement, and still accomplish death, if that were the goal. Instead the goal of killing a flock of infidels reveals a more pedestrian motivation to achieve the esteem of peers (“martyrdom”) through distinction in tribal warfare.
All the religions have fairy stories to alleviate death anxiety. That is the main service provided by religion. In Christianity, good works (or arbitrary grace) will get you to heaven, where you will sit at the right hand of God forever, which is presumably a good thing. That promise is supposed to reduce your death anxiety. Coming out of a tradition of tribal warfare, Islam emphasized instead that the key to immortality is to support your tribe in fighting other tribes, or at least, for moderates, to abjure completely the ways and ideas of tribal outsiders. The Islamic promise of immortality is no less fantastic than those of other religions.
Dealing with death anxiety is not easy for anyone. The idea that you will cease to exist while everything goes on without you, is almost unthinkable. We deeply need an alternate story, and religion supplies it. But religions come in all flavors, and unfortunately for us, Islam is one whose solution to the problem was interpreted as xenophobic warfare. The only thing that is ever going to change that is a modified system of Islamic education.