Tragedy, Therapy, and the Challenge of Jihad

The cost of our therapeutic delusions and cultural arrogance.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

After a year of righteous anger and renewed patriotism, post-9/11 America returned to many of the dysfunctional orthodoxies and bad received wisdom that had helped pave the way for al Qaeda’s success. Foreign policy in particular quickly shifted from punitive kinetic realism to enhance our prestige and create deterrence, to nation-building idealism and cringing “diplomatic outreach.” But this “rules-based international order” foreign-policy thinking itself was a consequence of a long shift in Western culture from tragic realism to therapeutic idealism that permeates our culture and accounts for many of its utopian fantasies.

Twenty years later, the debacle in Afghanistan shows that when it comes to Islam, we are still crippled by our therapeutic delusions.

The tragic view of human life derives from both our Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots. It can be summed up in a line from Euripides: “To suffer is necessity for mortals.” We are beings driven by destructive passions and impulses, yet possessing as well conscious minds and free will. We live in a hostile natural world indifferent to our pain and suffering. We are bound by time and vulnerable to change and the consequence of choices that we can’t foresee. Our world is defined by those limits, and no human effort, no philosophy, no social or political order we create can transcend them or our destructive passions.

Modernity is defined by its claims to correct this tragic world through human knowledge, technology, and the progressive improvement of humanity by eliminating those tragic constants that create our misery and suffering. Educate people to know their true best interests, remove or reform tyrannical governments, provide adequate nutrition and health-care, and create freedom and prosperity, then people will become peaceful, free, and tolerant. Pain, suffering, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” injustice, bigotry, cruelty, hunger, and even emotional pain caused by our own bad choices––remove these tragic conditions of human existence and we can create heaven on earth.

Or as Dr. Joyce Brothers, for 50 years a celebrity psychologist and popular advice columnist, put it, “Love, power, riches, success, a good marriage, exciting sex, fulfillment are not impossible dreams. They can be yours if you want them.” That is the therapeutic sensibility: failure, misery, and suffering are not the tragic constants of human existence, but anomalies that can be corrected by modern “human sciences.” Utopia, “no-place” in Greek, can become a reality.

The West has been seeking this utopia for over a century, influencing how we conduct foreign affairs. Idealistic internationalism began to shape our thinking about conflict and war. Rather than see war, as Plato did,  as the “natural state” of relations among nations, and peace as “just a name,” we made war and conflict the anomalies to be corrected by privileging non-lethal diplomatic outreach, supranational institutions, international courts and laws, foreign aid, and multinational treaties and covenants.

Two world wars, serial ethnic cleansing, and gruesome genocides that slaughtered over 200 million people in the last century were the grim, tragic challenge to that optimism. Yet from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, this foreign policy idealism came to define how we conduct international relations––as the therapeutic mechanism for creating a “new world order,” as George H.W. Bush called it, “where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind––peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.”

These dubious assertions of a universal human longing for political goods and principles that developed in the West, but were applied to a complexly diverse global population, were seconded by George W. Bush, and influenced the “war on terror” we have been waging against Islamic jihad. How we viewed that enemy, moreover, also reflected the therapeutic imperative not to say anything that hurt anybody’s feelings, even our enemies’. Our defense and national security establishments were further limited by the West’s reflexive guilt over colonialism and imperialism, and its unwillingness to “blame the victim” because environmental, social, and political forces, along with historical injustices like colonialism, have determined his bad behavior. Hence our foreign policy establishments refused to confront the reality of historical Islam and its doctrines, and their role in jihadist terror.

So too our universities and media. Right after 9/11 many in our universities attributed the attacks to our own historical crimes. Typical were the comments of the dean of the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He advised Americans to “think about our own history” such as the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. A Brown University English professor equated the attacks to the first Gulf War, which was “also terrorism.” A University of North Carolina teach-in demanded that the President apologize to “all the millions of victims of American imperialism.”

Such comments set the pattern for subsequent interpretations of the attacks, all of which reduced the followers of a 14-centuries-old faith to passive victims lacking agency or their own motivations. In 2007, the Society of Professional Journalists promulgated guidelines for covering Muslims that included rules such as “when writing about terrorism, remember to include white supremacist, radical anti-abortionists and other groups with a history of such activity,” an egregiously false comparison. Phrases like “Muslim terrorism,” “Islamic terrorist,” or “Muslim extremists” were also proscribed.

Writer Bruce Bawer, analyzing a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times puff-piece about a Brooklyn Imam, in 2009 wrote that the “article was a prime example of the way the mainstream media cover Islam today: emphasize personal and superficial details that are likely to generate sympathy while side-stepping or whitewashing core beliefs, domestic arrangements, social rules, and long-term political goals that might actually inform––enlighten, and therefore alarm–– readers.”

In other words, approach the topic of Islamic jihad from the therapeutic angle focused on the personal and emotional, while ignoring the tragic truth about jihad documented in word and deed for 14 centuries.

Such avoidance of fact shaped the federal government’s responses as well. An assistant to the Secretary of State from the Clinton administration announced that there was no conflict between Islam and “such Western ideal as personal freedom or individual choice”––sheer ignorance about the tenets of sharia law that big majorities of global Muslims believe is “the revealed word of God,” and hence cannot be revised or altered.

Similarly, a “fact sheet” from the State Department claimed, “Most Americans and most Muslims share fundamental values such as peace, justice, economic security, and good governance.” Apparently, the author missed Koran 5:51, “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends,” for “whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them,” i.e. an apostate who must be killed.

And George W. Bush continued this bad habit, proclaiming that Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.” The President seemed unfamiliar with this Koranic verse: “I [Allah] will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads,” or Mohammed’s farewell address, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’”

This willful blindness explains the attempt to redefine “jihad” to mean not holy war, but “to strive in the path of god,” as the National Counterterrorism Center put it; or “a quest to find one’s faith or an external fight for justice,” as the New York Times opined, begging the question of what exactly “justice” means to pious Muslims. Or as Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security, John Brennan scolded, the fight against terrorism is not “against ‘jihadists,” for ‘“jihad’ means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal.”

In fact, Danish linguist Tina Magaard’s study of the word’s root in the Koran concludes that only a single reference “explicitly presents the struggle as an inner, spiritual phenomenon . . . But this sole reference does not carry much weight against the more than 50 references to actual armed struggle,” with “even more in the Hadith.”

These distortions of traditional Muslim beliefs continues to dominate official understandings of Islamic jihad. They serve the therapeutic idea that our alleged historical colonial and imperial sins, along with the lack of economic development and liberal democratic governments, accounts for the thousands of terrorist attacks by self-proclaimed Muslim jihadists traumatized by those crimes. This assumption that secular Westerners know Islam better than Muslims who are willing to kill and die for their faith bespeaks the arrogance and cultural centrism of the West. Since we have banished faith to the ghetto of the private, we cannot imagine that there exists a faith that sanctions intolerance and sacralizes violence. Thus external forces and Western crimes and bigotry must have driven Muslims to “hijack” their faith and distort it for evil ends.

This interpretation would have astonished most Western peoples before World War II, when the historical memory of centuries of Islamic conquest, occupation, raiding, and slaving had not yet faded. Take, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1838 assessment of Islam:

Jihad, Holy war, is an obligation for all believers. . . . The state of war is the natural state with regard to infidels . . . . [T]hese doctrines of which the practical outcome is obvious are found on every page and in almost every word of the Koran . . . . The violent tendencies of the Koran are so striking that I cannot understand how any man with good sense could miss them.

Just a judgement from a bigoted Westerner? Consider the response of the representative of the Pasha of Tripoli in 1785 to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were protesting against Barbary States’ privateers preying on American and European ships and kidnapping their crews: It was “written in the Koran that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [Muslims’] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find.” Are we to believe that John Brennan and other specious apologists know Islamic doctrine better than a believer?

Finally, these bad therapeutic habits of distorting Islam in order to placate Muslims characterized the doomed attempts to bring liberal democracy and our notion of equal rights to a Muslim nation like Afghanistan. One example of our efforts can stand in for the whole misbegotten effort predicated on arrogance and an ignorance of Islamic doctrines and sharia law. As the columnist “Cockburn” reported of “nation-building” in Afghanistan, “Do-gooders established a ‘National Masculinity Alliance,’ so a few hundred Afghan men could talk about their ‘gender roles’ and ‘examine male attitudes that are harmful to women.’”

Moreover, “Under the U.S.’s guidance, Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution set a 27 percent quota for women in the lower house—higher than the actual figure in America!” The bill for that folly, by the way, was nearly a billion taxpayer dollars. Given that the constitution also contained the proviso that nothing in it can be construed to contradict sharia law, how were Muslim men and women, 99% of whom support sharia, make sense of this imperialist cultural hubris?

Historian Robert Conquest once wrote about “the absolutely crucial problem of making the intellectual and imaginative effort not to project our own ideas of common sense or natural motivation onto the products of totally different cultures.” Those who fail to make that effort “assume that the light of their own parochial common sense is enough. And they frame policies based on illusions.”

For twenty years we have willfully refused to make that effort, and made “policies based on illusions.” As a consequence, committed jihadists who sheltered the 9/11 attackers are on the brink of creating a globally recognized nation that will harbor other jihadist outfits. Such is the price of our therapeutic delusions and cultural arrogance.

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