Does nihilist Islam fill a vacuum of viable radicalisms?

Kenan Malik, who is too old and well-adjusted to by the child of me and Mose, but man

Kenan Malik, who is too old and well-adjusted to be the child of me and Mose, but man

I’m pretty sure I have search engine de-optimized my blog with that post title, which is probably just as well. There is little Combat! blog today, because I am sick. Given the 38 contact hours of air travel I logged in the last two weeks, I got off light. But my nasal passages are locked in a battle of propulsion against distant orifices working in the other direction, and I pity myself. If only I had some god to comfort me, but I am a modern American. I know that god, flag, tradition, all restrictions on sex and most identified forms of love are bullshit. What I need is a bigger phone. If that doesn’t make me happy, I guess I’ll turn to radical Islam, since Western modernism has essentially no other radical critiques.

That’s the contention of Kenan Malik’s crackerjack essay in last Sunday’s Times, in which he considers answers to a question that is taboo among people in the habit of considering anything:

Why, many ask, do so many of today’s most vicious conflicts appear to involve Islamists? And why do Islamist groups seem so much more vicious, sadistic, even evil?

Did you lift your pelvic floor a little? These questions bear a creepy resemblance to what comes out of your Peter Kings and your Pat Robertsons. If you are a decent and conscientious person, don’t steer the conversation toward why one religion is the most evil and violent. It’s hard for liberals to talk about the Islam in violent Islamism, because “this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear.”

Malik avoids some of these complications by constructing Islamic fundamentalism less as a religion than as one competitor in an increasingly narrow marketplace of ideas. You’ve got western modernity, with our secular culture informed by individual rights and rational public debate—i.e. twerking—and then you’ve got…what?

If western modernity enrages you—or if, just to invent a hypothetical, it used its 19th-century production advantage to invade your land and spent the next 200 years slowly overwriting your culture—what is your alternative? What radical belief system offers a viable alternative, or at least a meaningful critique?

Marxism is dunzo. The Catholic church is western materialism in a dress. If you hate modernity and don’t care whom you must decapitate to prove it, radical Islam is the only game in town. It just happens to be a system of utter nihilism:

“Jihadism provides Islamist ideology with a military form and seemingly creates a global social movement, at a time when radical alternatives have collapsed. What jihadism does not possess is the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements. Shorn of that framework, and reduced to raging at the world, jihadists have turned terror into an end in itself.”

When al-Qaeda announces that “we love death and you love life,” it points to the same truth. In the 21st century, “life” pretty much means western modernity. Life is the temporal world—the secular world to which fundamentalist Islam offers the two theoretical alternatives of umma and the afterlife. Umma is not happening. “Radical social movements have collapsed,” and with them the hope of overthrowing western modernity in this temporal world. Increasingly, martyrdom looks like the only option for the very pissed.

It’s a valuable insight, because there is something wrong with western materialism—isn’t there? Ours is not a satisfying culture. It’s way better than Boko Haram, but still there is something terrifyingly empty about the relentless pursuit of hotter porn and a better economy. We tortured people to get that. We seized their oil and burned it until maybe we broke nature to get that. And we told everybody there is no god, and the stars are random fartlights that exploded a billion years ago, and now it’s every man for himself—women too, if they’re sexy.

Western rationalism isn’t living up to its values much better than Islam. It’s hard to argue 21st-century America reflects the best of the Enlightenment tradition. Maybe we feel the absence of a radical critique so sharply because both the going systems are destructive and empty. Maybe the radical critique is what we already know is true.

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