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July 14, 2005
Dafydd: Cold Water On Hot Blood

A new paradigm is sweeping the blogosphere -- well, that portion of it that I view in between my frequent naps, experiments in animal husbandry, and trips to the taxidermist. The global war on terrorism, or GWOT, is really not a war at all but more akin to a "blood feud." The idea has been discussed by Hugh Hewitt, both online and on the air; by Wretchard (Richard Fernandez) at The Belmont Club; at Free Republic; NoLeftTurns; a Canadian blog called ThePolitic; and many other sites.

I think the originator of this new simile is one Lee Harris. Writing in Tech Central Station on July 8th, "War in Pieces: The Blood Feud," Harris opined:

After the London bombing, I feel more than ever that the war model is deeply flawed, and that a truer picture of the present conflict may be gained by studying another, culturally distinct form of violent conflict, namely the blood feud.

The problem with this simile (which has become an endlessly extending metaphor) is that it both directly contradicts his earlier, far more convincing insight that saw the terrorist acts in a very different way and also contradicts the actual pattern of jihadist attacks we see on the ground. I much prefer his earlier paradigm, which fits the current pattern far better than this new one does (I fear Harris suffers from the need writers all feel to constantly reinvent ourselves). Alas, it hasnt gotten nearly as much blogplay as the blood-feud article.

Let me explain why I think his first idea was more powerful, why the blood feud is not really a good explanation for the death obsession of jihad -- and then offer what I think is a better metaphor that can actually lead to a real plan for the philosophical war that parallels the military one.

This is long; continue reading at your own risk. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!

Harris's early musings appeared in the somewhat more prestigious Stanford University magazine Policy Review, in August of 2002. In "Al Qaedas Fantasy Ideology," Harris penned a far more robust analysis of the mass psychology of jihadism.

He first discussed the case of a university friend of his in the mid-1960s who planned to attend a particularly unpleasant and violent anti-Vietnam-War protest. Harris, who shared his friend's politics back then, tried to argue him out of it; he pointed out that the protest would not only not gain the anti-war cause any converts, it was more than likely to drive potential allies away, to infuriate the people, and to be all in all massively counterproductive to the political goals of the protesters.

But his friend said that would not matter... for his real purpose in attending was that the protest would be "good for his soul." (All emphasis below is added by me.)

[W]hat it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy....

For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy.

He lists several "fantasy ideologies" from earlier eras -- the French Revolution, Mussolini's Fascism, and Hitler's Naziism -- each of which self-consciously evoked great historical empires. Harris argues that the backward look is essential to the fantasy ideology:

This theme of reviving ancient glory is an important key to understanding fantasy ideologies, for it suggests that fantasy ideologies tend to be the domain of those groups that history has passed by or rejected groups that feel that they are under attack from forces which, while more powerful perhaps than they are, are nonetheless inferior in terms of true virtue.

So what is the backward look that underpins the "fantasy ideology" of jihadism? Professor Bernard Lewis provides the missing clue here. In his seminal work What Went Wrong?, Lewis ably chronicles the angst and befuddlement that Arabs feel at the loss of Arab Moslem preeminence in world civilization.

At one time, during the Dark Ages, Islam, and particularly Arab and Turkish Islam, were the apex of human civilization. Although what they had came mostly from Western sources (Greece and Rome, primarily), at least the Middle East still had it, while Europe had lost virtually everything refined and byzantine. Europeans were reduced to living in mud and wattle huts, while the East languored in pleasure domes and palaces, swimming in clear water above intricate geometrical mosaics.

Militant Islamism provides a backward look to this Islamic golden age, when "God's in His heaven / All's right with the world!" (to wrench Browning utterly out of all context). The terrible theater of blood that began, for the West, in the 1979 Iranian revolution seems deliberately designed to enchant that epoch back into existence... just as Mussolini conjured Italy into a conquering empire by invading Ethiopia in 1935. Harris uses that absurdist invasion to illustrate the true horror of a fantasy-ideology war:

Any attempt to see this adventure in Clausewitzian terms is doomed to fail: There was no political or economic advantage whatsoever to be gained from the invasion of Ethiopia....

Why invade, then? The answer is quite simple. Ethiopia was a prop a prop in the fantasy pageant of the new Italian Empire that and nothing else. And the war waged in order to win Ethiopia as a colony was not a war in the Clausewitzian sense that is to say, it was not an instrument of political policy designed to induce concessions from Ethiopia, or to get Ethiopia to alter its policies, or even to get Ethiopia to surrender. Ethiopia had to be conquered not because it was worth conquering, but because the fascist fantasy ideology required Italy to conquer something and Ethiopia fit the bill. The conquest was not the means to an end, as in Clausewitzian war; it was an end in itself. Or, more correctly, its true purpose was to bolster the fascist collective fantasy that insisted on casting the Italians as a conquering race, the heirs of Imperial Rome.

Harris's insight into the theater of the "fantasy ideology" perfectly describes what we can see of the jihadists' attacks: they fit no pattern of rational warfare, but are rather a series of ritualized rains of destruction upon targets deemed symbols of "wickedness"... that is, symbols of Islam's loss of cultural dominance over the world. (I'm only discussing here the grand theatrical attacks or series of attacks, not ordinary acts of terrorism, such as the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.)

* The forces of jihad struck Iran -- Persia -- which had become modernist and more secular under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

* They struck repeatedly at the Jews in Israel who were threatening to revive the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, but under Jewish control (a double-whammy to militant Islamists!)

* The forces of Persia (still leading the attack) struck the Great Satan in Beirut, driving us from the field -- which served to convince great masses of Moslems that Allah had lifted his hand in support of these holy warriors.

* They struck us again in 2001, according to Osama bin Laden (Sunni Wahhabism now seizing the lead from Shi'ite Persians) to punish us for defiling the land of Mecca with our "crusader" boots.

* Then they struck various Moslem nations (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia) that were also venturing into modernity, thus becoming apostate.

* And they struck at the symbol of the greatest reach of the ummah, the Realm of the Faithful, and consequently the greatest pain for many militant Islamists when they contemplate its loss: Spain. The jihadists still call Spain al-Andalus, the name used while Spain was controlled by Moslem "Moors" for seven hundred and eighty-one years, until King Ferdinand finally expelled the last of them in 1492 -- not coincidentally the same year he and Queen Isabella finally agreed to finance Christopher Columbus's expedition to sail west to find the East Indies.

Each of these grand targets was chosen for its symbolic value to Moslems around the world, making them believe that the ummah was just about to be restored with Allah's direct divine help. So long as there was little response from the West but surprise and shock, it would seem like an unbroken line of great "victories" for the jihad.

But Harris's theory of the fantasy ideology could not explain why this particular fantasy seemed to be about blood, death, and destruction alone. After all, other fantasy ideologies were about conquest and military victory, not simple butchery, including the three Harris mentions in his Policy Review article: the French revolution, Italian Fascism, and Naziism. All three had their massacres, especially the last; but in addition to the destruction, there was a sense of the modern in the attempted construction of something that would take the place of that which was torn apart: liberty, equality, and fraternity, perhaps, or the Aryan ubermensch who would be "beyond good and evil." Other fantasy ideologies, such as the Soviet Union, also thought they were creating as well as destroying... creating the New Soviet Man and the "dictatorship of the proletariat." None claimed destruction for its own sake. Shouldn't the jihad be trying more actively to restore the glory of ancient Islam?

I think that is just what Harris is trying to explain, this difference from all previous fantasy ideologies, when he develops his metaphor of the world-wide blood feud.

In the blood feud, unlike war, you have no interest in bringing your enemy to his knees. You are not looking for your enemy to surrender to you; you are simply interested in killing some of his people in revenge for past injuries, real or imaginary -- nor does it matter in the least whether the people you kill today were the ones guilty of the past injuries that you claim to be avenging. In a blood feud, every member of the enemy tribe is a perfectly valid target for revenge. What is important is that some of their guys must be killed -- not necessarily anyone of any standing in their community. Just kill someone on the other side, and you have done what the logic of the blood feud commands you to do.

In the blood feud there is no concept of decisive victory because there is no desire to end the blood feud. Rather the blood feud functions as a permanent "ethical" institution -- it is the way of life for those who participate in it; it is how they keep score and how they maintain their own rights and privileges. You don't feud to win, you feud to keep your enemy from winning -- and that is why the anthropologist of the Bedouin feud, Emrys Peters, has written the disturbing words: The feud is eternal.

Clearly, this is an attempt to explain the mindless, senseless murders, mostly of the "faithful" who were perhaps not quite faithful enough, uncoupled from any serious attempt to create or even conquer. But the problem with Harris's "blood feud" analogy is that it necessarily provokes the reader into visualizing a "tit for tat" scenario -- a cycle of violence, if we must -- that is neither in synch with the concept of a "fantasy ideology" nor even descriptive of the reality we see.

Why would a millennarian, militant religious fantasy ideology await a blow before striking a counterblow? The whole point of the fantasy ideology is that it does not concern itself with the outside reality. Rather, everything outside itself, including its enemies, is merely a "prop" in its global Grand Guignol Theatre.

Nor do we see any such tit-for-tat in the actual operations of jihadist terrorism, outside of Israel. While it may be true that in a blood feud, "every member of the enemy tribe is a perfectly valid target for revenge," Harris must also admit that there is little feeling of tribal solidarity within Islam. Do Indonesian Moslems think they are the same "tribe" as Iranians, Turks, Saudis, or British jihadis like failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid?

In fact, Islam is highly factionalized, from the macro (Shi'a vs. Sunni) to the micro (the tribes in the Sunni Triangle vs. the tribes on the Iraq/Syrian border); and if the West strikes a blow in Baghdad, it's a bit thick to point to an attack months later in Spain or London, carried out by people with no significant contact with jihadis in Iraq, and call it a "counterblow."

I think Harris hit it out of the park the first time: he is correct that this is not a war in the Clausewitzian sense, not a struggle between nations trying to advance political ends by military means. But neither are the terrorists engaged in a simple "blood feud" with the West. To the extent jihadis use that language, they are simply reading their lines in the passion play. We must look elsewhere to understand why this fantasy ideology, apart from all the others, concerns itself only with chaos and destruction, rather than creation and construction -- evil though that construction typically is.

Here is where I have my own ideas. I have long thought that the central organizing principle behind militant Islamism, or jihadism if you prefer, is the death cult. There have been death cults in the past. The most extreme was probably the Aztecs, and estimates of the number of human sacrifices they performed annually range from the tens of thousands up to 250,000. Although various researchers offer "explanations" of the staggering number of human sacrifices more prosaic than religious worship, it's hard to argue that religion was not at least one of the top motivating factors.

Human sacrifice is typically justified by the belief that there is some sort of energy or force found within life, strongest in human beings; sacrificing the man, woman, or child releases this energy somehow, allowing the gods to feed on death, their natural food. Blood and souls for Huitzilopochtli!

I think it quite possible that the leaders of the jihadis are actually death cultists; perhaps they believe that their bizarre version of Allah grew weak from hunger, and that is "what went wrong," to respond to Lewis. In this scenario, by sacrificing mass numbers of people, the militant Islamist leaders believe they feed Allah, and he grows strong. Perhaps he will then respond by reaching forth his hand to crush the infidels, restore the Caliphate, and expand the ummah to blanket the world. Alternatively, perhaps the leaders believe that Allah is angry that they have not been killing infidels and apostates, as he ordered them to do... and if they kill enough, Allah will be mollified and again lead them to supernatural victory.

In either case, I highly doubt the rank and file believe this or that they even wonder why they are asked to kill and kill and kill for no apparent reason; being told by a trusted cleric to do so is probably all they need. It is the leaders of the worldwide jihad that I am trying to understand... because you cannot defeat what you do not comprehend.

But even if the leaders do not literally believe that they are releasing life-energy for their demonic version of Allah, their actions are functionally identical to death cultists. There certainly is more of a match both with what we see on the ground and with Harris's insightful metaphor of the fantasy ideology than we find with his recent blood-feud hypothesis.

A fantasy ideology coupled with a millennarian death-cult fantasy would actually explain both the theater and the obsession with destruction over creation. It also points the way to two natural points of attack by the West.

First, Harris notes that some fantasy ideologies arise from Democracies, such as Naziism, which arose from the Weimar Republic. But he wrongly concludes that establishing democracy is therefore ineffectual at fighting against the fantasy ideology:

[T]o hope that democratic reform would discourage radical Islam ignores the fact that previous fantasy ideologies have historically arisen in a democratic context; as the student of European fascism, Ernst Nolte, has observed, parliamentary democracy was an essential precondition for the rise of both Mussolini and Hitler.

But here, Harris misses the point. Naziism did not arise from democracy, it arose from the collapse of democracy due to economic catastrophe. The collapse of the Weimar Republic had a negative transformative effect on German society, tilting it away from the intolerable reality and towards the grandiose fantasy ideology of Naziism.

Might not the establishment of a new democracy have a mirror transformative effect, from the fantasy of jihadism to the reality of modernity? It certainly seems to be working that way in Iraq and Afghanistan and to some extent in Lebanon. The establishment of democracy where it never existed before allows people to take control of their lives and environment, converting an otherwise intolerable reality -- which could lead a people into fantasy as an escape -- into a manageable and indeed exciting and dramatic reality, where they will feel less need to escape into dreams of empires past.

Second, although Harris primarily considers evil fantasy ideologies, the theory itself seems relatively open to good and positive fantasy ideologies. The precursor to the fantasy ideology is William James's philosophy of "the will to believe," where humans believe in something against all evidence to the contrary; and Harris recognizes that this can be good as well as evil:

Yet the fact that such beliefs cannot be justified by science does not mean that they may not be useful or beneficial to the individual or to the society that holds them. For James, this meant primarily the religious beliefs of individuals: Did a mans religious beliefs improve the quality of his personal life? For Pareto, however, the same argument was extended to all beliefs: religious, cultural, and political.

He also accepts that such transformative beliefs or "myths" can be deliberately manufactured (or "artificially inseminated"), an idea he attributes to socialist/syndicalist Georges Sorel. But why shouldn't Moslem clerics who oppose jihadism deliberately construct a new "myth" of restoring the greatness of Islam of the past by re-constructing it in the modern world -- rather than by tearing down all of modernity itself, flinging the world back into the Dark Ages, when the ummah was comparatively better off than Christendom?

Why not construct a competing fantasy ideology to combat the evil jihadist fantasy ideology?

Combining Western military power with the transformative democratization of Islam and with a new and powerful myth of rebuilding greatness within, not instead of, modernity could be exactly the key we seek to eradicate the disease of jihadism once and for all time.

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Posted by Dafydd at July 14, 2005 1:46 PM

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