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Everyday Ethics

Does Understanding Involve Justifying? Identity, Ideology, and the Challenge of Self-Knowledge

Current discussions about the Middle-East crisis display a strong polarization between the expression of a reactionary sense of western identity and its progressive castigation. In particular, confronted with the growing threat of terror pursued in the name of Islam, especially by organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, some have been wondering, as they already did in the aftermath of 9/11, whether a version of Samuel Huntington’s famous prediction (published in 1993 in explicit contrast with Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis) has begun to come true, that is, whether we are currently witnessing the beginning of a clash between the Western and Islamic civilizations. Critics of this “apocalyptic” reading of the facts claim that this conviction is part and parcel of the strategy of ISIL militants, who want to provoke panic so as to increase diffidence against Muslims and engender a global conflict. In this connection, however, the same critics tend to minimize the Islamic nature of those terroristic associations’ aims and methods by insisting that no civilization that merits the name could ever produce or justify such atrocities.

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By: Francesco Poggiani, Rock Ethics Institute Dissertation Humanities Fellow

Can we make sense of the behavior of those individuals among us and abroad who are persuaded into joining the cause of global terror? Whether we decide to deal with this question or look the other way, there is more at stake than political problem solving.  My research focuses on questions concerning the normative sources of personal identity. An important aspect of this project involves an attempt to give a meaningful contribution to the ongoing task of framing a coherent picture of human motivations and aspirations.

Current discussions about the Middle-East crisis display a strong polarization between the expression of a reactionary sense of western identity and its progressive castigation. In particular, confronted with the growing threat of terror pursued in the name of Islam, especially by organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, some have been wondering, as they already did in the aftermath of 9/11, whether a version of Samuel Huntington’s prediction (published in 1993 in explicit contrast with Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis) has begun to come true, that is, whether we are currently witnessing the beginning of a clash between the Western and Islamic civilizations. Critics of this “apocalyptic” reading of the facts claim that this conviction is part and parcel of the strategy of ISIL militants, who want to provoke panic so as to increase diffidence against Muslims and engender a global conflict. In this connection, however, the same critics tend to minimize the Islamic nature of those terroristic associations’ aims and methods by insisting that no civilization that merits the name could ever produce or justify such atrocities.

But notice the peculiar structure of this counter-argumentative strategy: on the one hand there is the sensible attempt to safeguard Islamic culture from those who would like to identify it with violence perpetrated in its name. On the other hand there is no real effort to understand the specific nature of that violence, or how legitimate interpretations of Islam do not indeed justify or tolerate it but clearly condemn it. Most commentators limit themselves to vague, ambiguous, and unsubstantiated assertions such as “Islam is a religion of peace” and “Isis militants are just a bunch of psychopathic criminals,” despite overwhelming evidence that strongly invites us to contextualize the former claim and complicate the latter. As Canadian journalist Graeme Wood has pointed out in a piece published in The Atlantic earlier last year, such overly confident characterizations do not only express the reasonable attempt to frame strategic or politically cautious responses, but also reflect a severe (and counterproductive) misunderstanding of the situation. True, without acknowledging the conditions in which such terroristic organizations arose (which may indeed involve or give rise to pathological elements), “no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.”

I suspect that the widespread assumption that cultural ideology and religious faith cannot in this case constitute important explanatory lenses is an implication of our (largely implicit) commitment to a liberal (in the broadest sense of the word, which includes both sides of the current political spectrum) conception of self-determination. From that perspective, as one type of argument goes, whenever a person’s self-conception fails to withstand the test of rational consistency, it is not only to be judged as immoral, but also as fundamentally inconsistent. If we judged it to be immoral in the usual sense of the term, our judgment could always be rebuffed in one of two ways: either by insisting on the cultural relativity of our moral standards, or by asking the well-known question: why should anybody be moral? Instead, a rationally inconsistent identity is one that is incapable of functioning as an identity, namely, incapable of performing its essential function: giving us a universally recognizable and rationally acceptable (first of all by and to ourselves) practical orientation to the world. Within this model, seeing ISIL militants as nothing more than a bunch of psychopathic criminals appears as a perfectly legitimate move. A madman after all is someone whose basic orientation to the world is unintelligible on rational grounds. But are their actions, and the ideological orientation to the world or cultural identity such actions express, truly unintelligible?

In September 2014 Roger Cohen (a prominent advocate of the clash of civilization narrative) published an article in the New York Times in which he quoted Primo Levi’s heartbroken reaction to Nazi brutality: “Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behavior means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him.” Indeed, Levi continues, “Perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human.” Thus Cohen urged that when confronted with the incomprehensible nature of ISIL militants, we don’t give in to the temptation of ignoring them. “Presented with the counter-human, the human must fight back.” But the question unavoidably arises whether a war can really be fought (let alone won) against an unknowable enemy.

In this connection, the conclusion of Graeme Wood’s essay constitutes a particularly interesting rejoinder. Reflecting on his personal encounter with some of ISIS’ most “distinguished” supporters and recruiters, he confesses:

I could enjoy their company, as a guilty intellectual exercise, up to a point. In reviewing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Orwell confessed that he had “never been able to dislike Hitler;” something about the man projected an underdog quality, even when his goals were cowardly or loathsome. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Islamic State’s partisans have much the same allure. They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.

When Cohen, quoting Levi, writes that we must not try to understand ISIS militants’ actions, and that it is indeed desirable that we don’t, he has in mind exactly this outrageous alternative confessed (however qualifiedly) by Orwell and Wood. Really to understand those actions would not only involve grasping their psychological and historical conditions, but also to perceive their “allure,” that is, to see how someone like us might be motivated to act in that way (or support people who do). But even to entertain this possibility makes us shudder, which is why it seems that the only reasonable “explanation” of those actions amounts to accounting for our incapacity to understand them: those people cannot be like us. If we really comprehended them, it would be as if we justified them (as someone who really intended to commit a crime without being able to carry it out should be treated, morally speaking, as if he had actually committed it).

But what if we tried to argue for something like the opposite claim, namely, that a lack of adequate understanding of a given ideological phenomenon might more easily grow, upon favorable circumstances, into its unproblematic, banal (whether reluctant or enthusiastic) acceptance? Conversely, what if a profound understanding of such phenomena were not a sign of consent but an opportunity (perhaps a condition) for self-knowledge?

Consider the figure of G. K. Chesterton’s ingenuous and ingenious detective. One of his most famous short stories, “The Secret of Father Brown,” opens with the little priest approaching the Spanish castle of his dear friend Flambeau. On the third night of Father Brown’s stay, the couple is joined by Mr. Grandison Chace, an American traveller who had heard of Father Brown’s visit and couldn’t wait to meet him: he wanted to understand the reason of his many impressive triumphs as a detective of murder crimes. Since the priest had declined the invitation to give a series of lectures in the United State on the “method” of his “detective science,” people had begun to suspect his science was “esoteric” in its character and, as such, incommunicable. It is at this point, and precisely in order to disprove this suggestion, that Father Brown decides to reveal his “secret”: “You see, it was I who killed all those people  […]. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.” At this point Mr. Chace, who had initially panicked in fright, gradually releases his tension and exclaims: “For the minute I really did think you meant you were the murderer. […] Why, of course, if it’s just a figure of speech and means you tried to reconstruct the psychology…” But Father Brown interrupts him:

I don’t mean just a figure of speech. […] I mean that I really did see myself, and my real self, committing the murders. I didn’t actually kill the men by material means; but that’s not the point. Any brick or bit of machinery might have killed them by material means. I mean that I thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that, until I realized that I really was like that, in everything except actual final consent to the action. It was once suggested to me by a friend of mine, as a sort of religious exercise.

What if we tried to apply Father Brown’s method to the case of those murderers whose violence is not limited to one specific target, but directed at the greatest possible number of people (as in the recent shootings of Paris and San Bernardino); those criminals for whom murder and suicide are not only necessary means but also cherished aims; those people who do indeed appear to love death as much as (if not more than) we love life? What would it take to “get inside” such people, “thinking their thoughts, wrestling with their passions, bending ourselves into the posture of their hunched and peering hatred, seeing the world with their bloodshot and squinting eyes”? And to raise the most pressing and disturbing question: what would it take to get inside those young people among us who, contemplating the daily display of such relentless, “incomprehensible” violence, are gradually persuaded into joining the Islamic State?

It is surprising to see how largely disregarded has been the question (at least until very recently) of what persuades “foreign fighters” to join the Islamic State and other violent Salafist groups. Nonetheless, a moment’s reflection suffices to show that this is the most crucial question, not only to understand who is our real enemy, but also to defeat it. Sure, the question is ever more frequently acknowledged, but efforts to work toward a real answer hardly go beyond passing remarks on social marginalization and wishful dreams of power. Indeed the most “comprehensible” narrative, and apparently the only one which has been incorporated by social programs for the prevention of radicalization, involves emphasizing the desperate and dysfunctional state (in terms of social and material conditions) of people who decide to become mujahidin (holy warriors). This widespread assumption, which is nowadays challenged by terrorism scholars, had already been anticipated and countered in a video released by ISIS in July 2014, The Chosen Few of Different Lands. As Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger have pointed out in another piece published by the Atlantic, “the barbaric nature of ISIS can lead observers to conclude its adherents are simplistic, violent, and stupid. The Chosen Few displayed a keen self-awareness of this perception and actively argued against it.” In the video, white Canadian Andre Poulin recounts his personal journey from a relatively normal, comfortable life to his conversion to radical Islam. As the narrator puts it, “he answered the call of his Lord and surrendered his soul without hesitation, leaving the world behind him… Not out of despair and hopelessness, but rather with certainty of Allah’s promise.”

Undoubtedly, not much (if anything) can be deduced from such propagandistic messages regarding the actual nature of ISIS. However, putting aside the question of what kind of reality awaits those who decide to leave for Syria, the fact remains, as various researches have begun to show, that many if not most of those people do not look at ISIS merely as an opportunity to vent their sadistic impulses. They do not (at least not only) join because they are angry at the world and have nothing better to do than to use it against innocent people. They join because of their ineradicable desire to “be chosen,” to live their life as a “promise,” to sacrifice themselves for some greater cause which might give life meaning, purpose, direction – a desire the society in which they grew up has perhaps only been able to neglect and exasperate. They do not join because of their rationally inconsistent identities, but because of their rationally inescapable need to find one (although one might also argue that it is precisely the drastic unawareness of this need’s real nature that makes it so easily manipulable). As a former body builder from a northern suburb of Paris testified: “I was a mess, with nothing to me, until the idea of following the mujahid’s way gave me rules to live by.” No wonder if the abovementioned social programs aren’t working. “If people are ready to sacrifice their lives, then it is not likely that offers of greater material advantages will stop them” (Scott Atran in a recent article appeared in The New York Review of Books).

Now the same mindset that encourages us to underplay the importance of religious ideology for the emergence and development of a group like ISIS also leads us to dismiss the foregoing considerations as being an expression of tired (and typically western) clichés. Such so-called existential anxieties and aspirations cannot possibly constitute anything more than the ephemeral, “sovrastructural” dimension of more basic, systemic problems and dynamics. And yet our supposedly deeper, “structural” understanding of what’s really going on continues to leave us speechless every time we hear of people who join Daesh’s fight not (or not only) because they lack basic (psychological as well as material) resources, but because their hope to give life meaning has not been fulfilled by the “limitless possibilities” offered by the marketplace of our liberal democracy. As Ross Douthat has perceptively written, in fact, “if you don’t recognize that for at least some of the Islamic State’s young volunteers there is a feeling of joy and celebration involved in joining up, then you’re a very long way from understanding the caliphate’s remarkable appeal.” But in order really to understand that, we do need to have experienced and desired ourselves a ‘similar’ kind of joy. And if a qualification is to be made (as it certainly must), it shall be a more passionate and self-conscious kind of joy, not a paler one. In other words, as Chesterton suggests, we shall think and think how we might come to be like those people, until we realize that we really are like them: in need of a reason to live, of an ideal that could render life not just merely bearable, but truly worth living. And at that point, but only then, we might be able to understand both the reasons of the Caliphate’s appeal and its utter incapacity to fulfill what is promises.