Over the years I have urged readers to look behind the news. Now, amid relentless socio-political eruption and upheaval taking place across the Middle East and North Africa, there has still been too little serious effort to look for any underlying meanings and explanations. To some extent, perhaps, the reasons for this laxity have to do with an apparent sense of obviousness. On the surface, after all, much of the violence is entirely predictable, having been spawned by the traditionally visible array of Islamist fears andjihadist goals.
In essence, cascading and intersecting crises of religion, war, and terror in volatile sectors of the Islamic world represent distinctly primal kinds of social behavior. Such behavior, moreover, is the inevitable result of both compelling private needs, and ecstatic collective expectations.
Sometimes, even more than their typically overriding need to avoid death, human beings want to belong. This often desperate need can be manifested harmlessly, as in sports hysteria or rock concerts, or more perniciously, as in rioting, war, and terrorism. In all cases, however, the critically underlying motivations are pretty much the same.
Back in classical Greece, Aristotle had already proclaimed that “Man is a social animal.” Now, we readily understand that even the “normal” individual often feels empty and insignificant apart from his or her membership in the “mass,” the “crowd,” or the “herd.” Often, that herd is the state. Sometimes it is the tribe. Sometimes it is the faith (always, the “one true faith”). Sometimes it is the liberation movement, or, in a plainly kindred relationship, the revolution.
Whatever the particular demanding collectivity of the moment, it is the persistent craving for membership that hastens to bring forth a catastrophic downfall of individual responsibility, and, as corollary, a corrosive triumph of collective will. Today, unless millions of our fellow humans in parts of the Middle East and North Africa can learn to temper their overwhelming desire to belong, the prevailing military and political schemes to control regional violence, war, and terrorism will inevitably fail.
To best understand what is going on here analysts must first learn to locate pre-political causes. These “molecular” explanations stem from the celebrated fusion of susceptible individuals into popular crowd-centered collectives. Not every mass or crowdor tribe or herd is pernicious, of course, but war and terrorism can never take place in the absence of consuming collective identifications.
Whenever individuals crowd together and form a herd, the murderous dynamics of the mob may be released, thus lowering each person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where absolutely anything, even mass killing, can be accepted.
Publicly, current Arab/Islamic rioting, war and terror are fueled by certain effectively incontestable presumptions of Divine Will. In reality, of course, the net result of homicide bombings, chaotic riots, and mass denunciations must always be to drown out any residual hint of sacredness or godliness. Once empathy and compassion outside the Islamist herd go intentionally unrewarded, they become extraneous, and as virtues completely beside the point.
In the presumed name of divinity, Arab/Islamist war, terror, and the murder of “others” impose upon the wider world neither salvation nor holiness but groupthink. Reciprocally, and expectedly, the hideously intolerant rhythms of such a suffocating ethos make it increasingly futile to advance any meaningful efforts at coexistence. This futility is especially troubling in Israel, where assorted promises of a peaceful “two-State solution” are resoundingly unpersuasive.
To mount now urgent investigations of an already widening Arab/Islamic jihad against Israel and the United States, our scholars and policy makers should begin to look more closely at human meaning. Before we can prevent further expanding violence against innocents, certain Arab/Islamic states and terrorist groups will have to be shorn of their capacity to bestow significance upon complicit individuals. To affect those individuals who now turn ritually to rioting, war, terror, and killing for affirmations of importance, we will first have to identify more benign and similarly appealing sources of belonging.
An underlying cause of present Islamist violence in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan and elsewhere in the region is the enduring incapacity of individuals to draw authentic meaning from within themselves. In the Middle East and North Africa, at least among large swaths of enthusiastic Islamists, true redemption still requires Muslims to present tangible proof of “membership.”