The Islamist attacks on the West, such as the recent ones in Paris (13 Nov 2015), Charlie Hebdo, the London bus and tube attacks (2005), the Madrid train bombing (2004), 9/11 (2001) get our attention here in the West, even in New Zealand. But similar attacks are carried out hourly elsewhere against other Muslim sects, Christians, Hindus, Yazidis ... on and on; although the attacks in the MENA region get little attention in the West.
So why do they do it then? Browsing in our local bookshop recently I saw several books on the Islamic State (ISIL / ISIS) phenomenon. They get decent reviews on Amazon, but in my opinion they do not answer the 'why' question because they focus on the wrong thing. They focus exclusively on the political aspects, which while they have some relevance and provide some justification, does not give the whole picture.
The other part of the picture is somewhat taboo and few people seem to have identified it. Hence doesn't it get much airtime. That's the sociological and psychological side. Here I'll try to present a rational and logical view of this - but it assumes the reader has a bit of background in these areas.
Each attack is different, each attacker is different, they have different histories and backgrounds, different levels of education, different countries of origin, yet they strike with one purpose.
It is well known that a common factor is the attackers' Muslim faith. But world leaders including Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and even our own John Key here in NZ have said that these attacks are 'nothing to do with Islam'. Muslim leaders have expressed similar sentiments. So what's the deal then?
Let's look at this another way.
It is well known that Tribal culture is essentially anti self-esteem* by definition. The Tribe is everything; the individual is nothing without the Tribe.
Islam is in essence a Tribal culture - there are strong rewards for joining and remaining within the 'group' (including those in afterlife) and strong threats and punishments for leaving or apostasy - death (and everlasting punishment in hell). The five pillars of Islam, while they are personal (ie things you do personally) are things that are done as a group. They are designed to strengthen in-group bonding, suppress individuality, give life meaning and diminish the terror of the grave for you.
- The declaration of faith (Shahada) is clearly little more than a pledge of allegiance to the group. It could literally save your life. At the time of the formation of Islam in 7th century tribal Arabia, with various forms of polytheism prevalent, the Shahada was a renunciation of your previous tribal gods and acknowledgement of the Prophet Mohammed as Allah's messenger - his representative on Earth and therefore your new leader.
- Prayer (Salat), always includes multiple iterations of the Shahada, and a curse on the Jews and the Christians (last verse of Al Fatiha). Across the five daily prayer times the Shahada is repeated a minimum of 17 times per day and could easily be up to 44 times per day. Prayers take a total of 45-90 minutes per day (excluding ablution time). In summertime the first may be at 03:00 AM and the last at 23:00. This regime both requires and instils a high-level of suppression of ones own mental, emotional and bodily desires and needs. The 'rewards' for praying as a group grow exponentially as more people take part. This is aimed at coercing all to participate and eliminating individuality. Group prayers are done in regimented straight lines facing Mecca, emphasising equality before Allah.
- Charity (Zakat), is a form of mandatory taxation for Sunnis (optional for Shia) but must be distributed in the community from which it was taken (ie local Muslims).
- Fasting (Sawm) is a self-imposed shared hardship which strengthens group bonding and cohesion. Done amongst the heathen in the West it strengthens self-control. Done en-mass in Muslim majority nations it encourages individuals to spy on and coerce others to toe the line.
- The pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) should be done at least once in your lifetime and is a very public acknowledgement of your being part of the in-group (and possibly your submission to Allah). The mandatory garb worn is specifically intended to remove personal identity and show equality.
These five pillars are just the basics - there are literally thousands of other minor Islamic rituals that can (and should) be incorporated into your daily life as a Muslim.
Now Muslims are not alone in having elaborate religious rituals. Most (all?) religions have these - that's what makes them a religion. But what makes Islam different is the level of commitment needed to carry them out day after day. It is intended to result in identity fusion with the group. The surrender of one's mind, body and 'soul' to the group.
Islam means 'submission' to Allah - submission to Islamic religious authority. And unsurprisingly when you look at the rituals, Muslims see themselves first and foremost as Muslims rather than as citizens of any country (esp the West). They tend to distrust or despise Western forms of authority. The submission (blind faith) in the Quran, the religion and the traditions leads to a kind of moral bewilderment where doing what is 'right' quite obviously goes against any kind of rationality or humanity - yet these are the things you have been taught to value. It is a fact that the average person tends to judge themselves by the values prevalent around them, although those values may not be rational and may not answer to the needs of the individual.
So you have a bunch of individuals with low self-esteem (having inherited values, incapable and unwilling to think for themselves), who distrust authorities (esp Western) which predisposes individuals to believe in conspiracy theories. Then you throw in the fact that the Quran and Hadith are predominantly critical of unbelievers and condone violence against them. For Muslims the Quran is the literal word of God, and the Hadith are highly revered. The Sirat ul Nabi by early writers such as Ibn Ishaq are filled with vast amounts of violence - not merely isolated incidents.
Any culture, including Islam, at any given time is a group of individuals. Because Islam embodies a tribal culture, individuals (in many respects) have low self-esteem and their identity is fused with the group. It is not therefore entirely surprising that minor 'insults' to the group are seen as major affronts to what is effectively a fragile self-esteem held by the group. If the tribe itself has low self-esteem then other groups are seen as sources of external approval or disapproval. Sources of disapproval should be eliminated.
Then you could look at it from the Transactional Analysis viewpoint put forward by Eric Berne. Human individuals of all cultures have Parent, Adult and Child characteristics or states. Regrettably the vast majority of Muslims through their upbringing (culture) have strong Parent and Child characteristics but very weak Adult characteristics. Muslims are not taught critical thinking - in fact quite the reverse. Learning is done by rote; individual thought and reasoning simply does not generally occur (in any field of education). For this reason, in my experience, Muslim students from Muslim majority countries who come to NZ or the UK to study at university, often have great difficulty adjusting to the idea that they are expected to come up with original work, because they are simply not taught how to think back 'home'. Rote learning and recitation of Quranic verses in Arabic (which they probably do not understand) is expected and asking questions quickly gets you into trouble - so they learn not to ask questions (esp. regarding Islam).
Finally returning to the simplistic political justifications; There is envy and jealousy of the wealth and freedoms enjoyed in the West. There are feelings of inadequacy when Muslims see that God's chosen people are largely left behind in the progress stakes. There is an obvious discrepancy between the prosperity of the infidel West vs. the Islamic world which is largely poor and must therefore be the victim of Western exploitation (as Muslims see it). There will be deep-seated personal frustrations with the worldwide dominance and interference by the West in Muslim nations. So there are wrongs to be righted and a balance to be restored.
Then ISIL comes along and provides you with a clear direction, with Quranic authority and opportunities for concrete engagement in the cosmic battle for what is 'right' (and perhaps funding). In my opinion, It really wouldn’t take much to tip the balance and turn a semi-rational Muslim into a terrorist, based on their personality traits and upbringing. Progressing from the Major Jihad (struggle to suppress the self) to the Minor Jihad (suppression of others by military means) becomes a necessity.
Note however, that the vast majority of the victims of Islamist violence are in fact other Muslim sects or local (out) groups. This is largely because of their accessibility - it is easier to attack your neighbours than someone on another continent. But it also demonstrates that Western foreign policy is not the key driver of Islamist activities.
If you'll excuse the pun - radicalisation is a small step for a Muslim but a giant regression for mankind. Islamic rituals, traditions, scriptures and faith are the key foundations for this step.
For the sake of brevity I've had to generalise a bit here. Individuals are unique, but there are patterns of behaviour that can be observed. Let me also be clear that most Muslims are not violent radicals, but the potential is there. Most Muslims have not read their holy scriptures in their own language - the danger is that if / when this occurs they might feel obliged to act on them...
Let me be clear that I am not anti-Muslim, but I do think that in general Muslims need to think a little more critically, broaden their viewpoint, read a little more widely.
*Note also that 'self-esteem' is a very much misunderstood term. Please read some extensive documentation from someone such as Nathaniel Branden before leaping to conclusions about use of term here.