by Sam Buntz
The major problem with ISIS—which includes its great host of smaller abnormalities—is that it represents a “time-bound philosophy” (as Aldous Huxley would’ve put it). It does not wish to create a separate peace in the present world: it wishes to torture the world until it conforms to an idealized future vision. Unlike some religious and political movements, but like many others, ISIS seeks goals that can only be realized in some blessed epoch that is yet-to-come. A yogi on retreat in the Himalayas can search for enlightenment in the moment, or whenever he or she has the opportunity: the specific historical time period attending this attempt is almost irrelevant. But, like The Inquisition, Nazism, and Bolshevism, ISIS’s goals are attached to time. As Huxley wrote, “From the records of history it seems to be abundantly clear that most of the religions and philosophies which take time too seriously are correlated with political theories that inculcate and justify the use of large-scale violence. The only exceptions are those simple Epicurean faiths, in which the reaction to an all too real time is ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ This is not a very noble, nor even a very realistic kind of morality. But it seems to make a good deal more sense than the revolutionary ethic: ‘Die (and kill), for tomorrow someone else will eat, drink, and be merry.”
Huxley is undoubtedly correct: this ethic is not very inspiring. The promise of a glorious future without carved statues, alcohol, or publicly visible women does not strike many of us as being particularly attractive. (You have to be tuned to a certain wavelength, one would suppose.) But I don’t think that what really motivates ISIS’s fighters—and particularly, the foreign fighters, the Waffen-ISIS—is the promise of a glorious Islamic utopia. Consciously, that’s what most of them apparently think and say they’re fighting for, and it is a subject over which they’re willing to shed copious tears (even on camera). But, dealing with the difficult realities of human psychology and brain chemistry, I would imagine that they’re actually fighting and killing for the great pleasures of… fighting and killing. The same pathology was at work with Bolshevism: the Bolsheviks said they were making war against their own population so that other people in the (possibly quite distant) future could have an ideal existence, but in reality, the passion for destruction so obviously outweighed the passion for creation. Paraphrasing 1984, the real goal of Bolshevik Communism was to experience the joy of stomping eternally on a human face, over and over and over again. The same thing is so obviously true for ISIS.
Perhaps the higher-ups in ISIS really do have rather more Utopian schemes and dreams in mind, beyond their own version of Prohibition and the murder of idolaters and infidels—though I doubt it. Having read, for college courses, certain central texts of political Islamism—like Sayyid Qutb’s Social Justice in Islam—I can say that they’re simply none too brilliant, let alone inspiring. Qutb, the intellectual figurehead of modern Islamism, lived in the United States for an extended period of time, and didn’t seem to understand anything that was happening around him: his written reflections on the U.S.A. of the late 1940s are wholly bizarre, and include a rant about the seductive evils of the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and the unbalanced claim that there was joyful confusion on the streets of Washington D.C. in 1949, as the American people celebrated the death of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Hasan al-Banna (not that it needs to be noted, but this didn’t actually happen; Qutb was in a D.C. hospital getting his tonsils removed at the time, and just assumed that Americans were rejoicing, not suspecting that the average American was not particularly engaged with internal Egyptian politics at that time). Clearly, Qutb was preaching to a very specific choir… At any rate, my point is that these guys and their leaders don’t have the same intellectual conception of reality as revolutionaries like Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky (adherents of a different time-based philosophy). They might be skilled tacticians in the field of fight, but their philosophy is painfully simple-minded and brutal (obviously). While their goals are technically historical, time-based-goals, like those of the Marxists or the Nazis, they’re also kind of a joke: the real point is the pleasure of destruction, as though one were to become so attached to time as to perform its annihilating work for it.
Our world overflows with time-bound philosophies—ISIS is just the most vicious example. But in the Islamic world, no less than in the Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu worlds, we see the continued existence of people—like the Sufis—who nobly refuse to give a damn about such ferociously temporal concerns. People who turn their attention to eternal realities suddenly find more reasons to create than to destroy: it would be fair to say that all art (including great Islamic art) grows out of this spiritual orientation, and that all the social improvements we’ve made as human beings were due to a direct engagement with current realities, a passion for the Now, rather than to zealous striving for heaven-on-earth.