Newspaper article International New York Times

The Nihilism of Radical Islam

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Nihilism of Radical Islam

Article excerpt

The paradox of terrorism committed in the name of religion is rooted in a revolt against modernity.

Faced with a horror like the slaughter of 148 schoolchildren and school staff members by the Taliban in Pakistan, it is tempting to describe the act as "inhuman" or "medieval." What made the massacre particularly chilling, though, is that it was neither. The killings were all too human and of our time.

The Peshawar massacre may have been particularly abhorrent, but the Taliban have attacked at least 1,000 schools over the past five years. They have butchered hundreds through suicide bombings of churches and mosques. And beyond Pakistan lies the brutality of groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram and the Shabab.

What seems to bind these groups together is that they claim to act in the name of Islam. Why, many ask, do so many of today's most vicious conflicts appear to involve Islamists? And why do Islamist groups seem so much more vicious, sadistic, even evil?

Muslims are not the only religious group involved in perpetrating horrors. From Christian militias in the Central African Republic reportedly eating their foes to Buddhist monks organizing anti- Muslim pogroms in Myanmar, there is cruelty aplenty in the world. Nor are religious believers alone in committing grotesque acts. Yet, critics argue, there appears to be something particularly potent about Islam in fomenting violence, terror and persecution.

These are explosive issues and need addressing carefully. The trouble is, this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear. For many, the actions of groups like the Islamic State or the Taliban merely provide ammunition to promote anti-Muslim hatred.

Many liberals, on the other hand, prefer to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the Taliban or the Islamic State do not represent "real Islam" -- a claim made recently, in so many words, by both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain. Many argue, too, that the actions of such groups are driven by politics, not religion.

Neither claim is credible. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by how believers interpret those texts -- that is, by its practices. The ways in which believers act out their faith define that faith. The fact that Islamist extremists practice their religion in a manner abhorrent to liberals does not make that practice less real.

Nor does it make sense to think of the Taliban or the Islamic State as motivated simply by politics, any more than it does to imagine them as purely religious. Radical Islam is the religious form through which a particular kind of barbarous political rage expresses itself.

Instead, we need to ask why political rage against the West takes such nihilistic forms today. And why has radical Islam become its principal vehicle?

The character of anti-Western sentiment has changed strikingly in recent decades. There is a long history of anti-imperialist movements stretching from the Haitian revolution of the 1790s to the independence movements of the 1960s and '70s in Africa and Asia. While these challenged Western power and often used violent means, they were rarely "anti-Western" in an essential sense. …

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