Doctors for Death and Other Lessons in Contemporary Fanaticism

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Reasonable people keep wondering how or why someone who takes the Hippocratic Oath can contemplate killing innocent civilians. So it is refreshing when a recovering fanatic of the Islamist variety comes forth to tell people that one of the most frequently recycled explanations is utter bunk.

Hassan Butt describes himself as a former member of a British-based jihadi network, and he relates in the Daily Mail how he and his cohorts used to rejoice whenever well-meaning TV analysts attributed acts of Islamist terrorism to "western foreign policy."

Butt says that it was not only wonderful to have others do the propaganda for the extremists: "More important," he writes, "they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology."

Yes, Butt qualifies his remarks by saying that western foreign policy did add fuel to jihadist passions. But neither he nor most other militants were driven primarily by such reactive motives. "What drove me and many others to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain and abroad was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary worldwide Islamic state that would dispense Islamic justice," Butt writes.

Helpfully, Butt goes on to explain how jihadists could square the ideal of justice with such barbarous acts. Put simply, the problem comes down to a crisis of interpretation within Islam—that and a failure of leadership among religious authorities, particularly in the West:

"But the main reason why radicals have managed to increase their following is because most Muslim institutions in Britain just don't want to talk about theology.

"They refuse to broach the difficult and often complex truth that Islam can be interpreted as condoning violence against the unbeliever—and instead repeat the mantra that Islam is peace and hope that all of this debate will go away.

"This has left the territory open for radicals to claim as their own. I should know because, as a former extremist recruiter, I repeatedly came across those who had tried to raise these issues with mosque authorities only to be banned from their grounds.

"Every time this happened it felt like a moral and religious victory for us because it served as a recruiting sergeant for extremism."

Such honest self-scrutiny in one ex-jihadist is not enough to turn the tide in the war of ideas. But it should serve as a challenge to Muslim clerics, scholars, and intellectuals who mouth platitudes and assess blame everywhere but in their own house.

Westerners, too, need a clearer sense of what is at stake in the current ideological struggle. At the very least, it might help them understand how doctors can plot to kill innocents—and how it even makes a kind of sense. (People who were astonished by the professional credentials of Britain's physician-jihadists should remember that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin's top aide and strategist, is himself a surgeon. Would that he would only heal himself!)

A rather grimly helpful book in this regard is Lee Harris's forthcoming study of fanaticism, The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam's Threat to the West. An independent writer and frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Harris explains why products of western liberal societies have such a hard time accepting that not all people behave like rational actors. Or, more precisely, why we in the West have such a hard time not believing that history is slowly but inexorably leading people around the world to be more like us.

From Hegel to Fukuyama, faith in progress toward a global liberal order has served as a kind of underlying political myth, inspiring liberals and (more recently) neoconservatives alike. And that myth, Harris believes, makes us all the more vulnerable to the fanaticism of radical Muslims.

Harris holds that this is not simply an intellectual failure, an inability to think beyond our own boxes, though it is partly that. The intellectual problem consists in our failure to grasp that many people see modern rational actors as the very kind of people they don't want to become. Self-preoccupied individualists who use reason to advance our interests within limits prescribed by law, we are, in the eyes of the fanatics of radical Islam, nothing more than lost and isolated souls, lacking any real connections with sustaining communities or tribes. And the fanatics are not entirely wrong, of course.

Lee demonstrably overstates when he says that we rational actors are unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice for our communities, but we are certainly less willing than fanatics. And that, according to Lee, is why we also lack a certain moral courage in not recognizing how different the fanatic is. "To recognize fanaticism," he writes, "would require us to recognize how fragile our world is, and how profound is the challenge to the politics of the rational actor that is posed by the politics, or more correctly the antipolitics, of the fanatical tribal actor."

We even have a deep-seated fear of using the word fanatic, Lee argues. "We avoid the word," he writes, "in order to avoid having to think about the thing, thereby leaving the impression that our resistance to acknowledge fanaticism arises less from sensitivity to Muslim feelings than from our wish to evade the momentous challenge posed by the thing itself."

The dark little secret of western rational actors is that we, too, can become fanatical: about reason and its power to change and win over everyone. Witness Robespierre, the first great fanatic of reasonableness. In recent history, liberal internationalists have usually been most vulnerable to this form of fanaticism, Lee says, but neoconservatives have jumped on board in a big way. "Despite the label by which they are known," he writes, "the very fact that the neoconservatives sought to topple ancient regimes and bring about a virtually global revolutionary movement puts them squarely in the same camp as all other modern revolutionaries who sought to destroy the old world and establish a new order on the basis of reason alone."

While most of Lee's analysis is pretty pessimistic, he doesn't succumb to fatalistic despair. He believes that the whole rational arrangement constructed by the West is vulnerable, and that we could all succumb to the law of the jungle, tribe fighting tribe to the bitter end. But there is an alternative in our approach to the fanatics. One he describes as "enlightened tribalism"; the other as "critical liberalism." While the former is "content with simply protecting and defending its own exceptional culture of reason," the other retains its faith that a "cosmopolitan culture of reason" may one day, probably in the very distant future, win over most of the Earth's inhabitants.

But however much the two camps may differ, Lee insists that they must not clash "over the necessity of protecting their own unique culture of reason from being subverted or undermined through an abstract ideal of tolerance that forces tolerant men and women to tolerate those who have no interest in tolerating others."

One could argue, of course, that we already have those two camps. But have we come to the kind of working agreement that Lee insists we need? It is a good question to ponder.