A few weeks ago, a silly, overlong article made the rounds, angering quite a few people before the predictable quiet. No, it’s not the terrible, bigoted, poorly-researched piece it was said to be, but amidst all its details, the political suggestions (many of them quite solid), the REAL issue was still obscured, and Islam — a 1500 year-old phenomenon — was still left blurred by mystique. The problem is that Graeme Wood’s essay has everything you’ve come to expect of political backtalk: trite observations, vague yet over-the-hill fear-mongering (apparently, ISIS controls a region ‘larger than the United Kingdom’; much as, using similar logic, a band of sea-lions might control half of Antarctica), accusations re: American tolerance of such, and, of course, the requisite contradictions, such as when the author calls the group ‘dystopian’ in one breath and ‘medieval’ in the next. Yet despite the 10,000+ words spilled on the subject, the key to understanding ISIS is not to be found in a bulleted look at Islam, but somewhere in the past, wherein today’s bullshit tends to linger, if only so that it’s mistaken for something else — something harder to explain — tomorrow.
In other words, for all of the books on Islam, for all of the articles, the fear, the PoMo-level analysis on both sides, the beheadings, ISIS (and everything else like it) is little more than the old you. Now, just stop and think what this entails. There was a time, recall, when you — assuming you’re a white Christian in America — put on a stinky old vest, smeared your face with mud, recited a few nonsensical sermons, and still won your converts. This was when things were good. In more difficult times, you’d swap your vest for armor, find a horse, and lance a few skulls in Jerusalem. A century or two later, in Constantinople, you’d pillage, rape, and even destroy your Lord’s churches — for what’s a vow, really, when you know what’s best in your heart of hearts? And this was Christianity in power, at a time when amusements were at a minimum. There were no other outlets, and little else that could be called ‘purpose’. Sometimes there’d be war, and sometimes there was peace, but peace — you’d come to understand — was merely preparation. You never quite knew what for, exactly, but such is faith, and God’s love is narrow and stippled with requirements.
But perhaps you’re neither Christian, nor white. Let’s assume you’re, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese Buddhist. If lucky, you might have seen yourself in a Chinese king — Taizong, say — who felt the need to send his armies where they did not belong, partly for reasons of empire, and partly to help Buddhism as a kind of ‘charity’. Sure, you might have railed against superstition here or there, but given the nature of your era, you couldn’t help but replace one superstition with another, and even adopt that condescending smirk as you watched Buddhism become the world’s first mega-church. And it gets worse. You are now a guy called Xuanzong, and although you preside over one of the greatest courts in history — replete with 3 official religions vying for favor — you soon fall deeper and deeper into ritual fluff, until, one day, you notice that the empire isn’t what it once was, that old friends got the best of you, and that, for all of your spiritual devotion, it all meant nothing, anyway, once set against material reality. So, there is now rebellion. Genocide. This wasn’t in the Book, you think, nor on the mouths of your clairvoyants. No, you don’t have the same blood on your hands as the Christians do, but blood, it seems, is purely circumstantial, while your mentality — thousands of miles apart — is part-and-parcel of the times. Yet they reflect each other, still, for it’s never the particulates that seem to matter. It is the thinking, the personality, the material root that draws the suckers in. And it is an inner lack that keeps them.
It’s been said that Islam is a unique threat. It has, the story goes, neither parallel nor antecedent, for it emerges from a document too destructive for us to understand. Yet Islam’s problems are not immanent to it, but shared across time, even as it’s one of the world’s last ‘frontier’ religions that, for reasons of ill luck, has not quite grown up, and never had a chance to become, well, a little less serious. In many ways, then, it’s simply doing what Christianity had done for centuries, what other religions, in their own fits of exuberance, have had the opportunity to do before they were defanged by freedom, diversity, and wealth. The point I’m making is that every frontier is eventually tamed, and while ISIS, the Popes, and the Inquisition all fight for death, they do so from the vantage of the wilds. It’s not that ISIS wishes to ‘return’ to the world of the medieval. The deeper point is that those who’ve gravitated to the ISIS mentality — of which ISIS is merely a New-Age symptom — have never truly left the medieval world in the first place, and, perhaps even more importantly, will not leave it until there’s something more seductive in its place. Today, Muslim men lift weights, chase girls, and play video games, if they can get over the initial psychological hurdle, and have the peace and security to do so. Those that don’t might become belligerent (for they’re envious), anachronistic (for the answer must be in some Golden Age of yore), or merely self-loathing. A tiny percentage might join a local terror group, or — like Ted Kaczynski — run back into the whatever’s left of the frontier. Today, that’s ISIS, and a decade from now, it’ll be something else entirely. Yet guys like girls and girls like money and today such things are in abundance. The temptations are in place. And once material reality catches up, the most fanatical Muslims can look forward to being as banal, as self-negating as the West. The hierarchy of fluff won’t change. It’ll just be a bit less dangerous, and a lot more colored.
So, is Islam inherently violent? Perhaps, as I’ve not the linguistic knowledge to tease out all the controversies re: words like ‘jihad,’ ‘death,’ ‘slavery,’ and ‘blood.’ The more cogent point, of course, is that it’s irrelevant, for any movement — religious, intellectual, or whatever — inevitably falls into a bell curve of hypocrites and extremists at either end, and an overwhelming mediocrity in the middle. And THIS, believe it or not, is the real human project: to get people behind a standard, a baseline, a vapid nothing, so that they can just ‘be’ without getting tricked into something worse. Oh, sure, such a life has its own delusions and won’t produce a thing of value, but what of it? Peace is valuable in ways that war will never know. And once that’s settled, once the superstitions (secular, religious) go, once people learn to mind their business, first, before tending to others’, the next frontier will open, and it’ll have nothing to do with the old us.
[This article originally appeared on Cosmoetica, on 4/10/15.]