What Motivates Jihadists?

Over at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has a fascinating but disturbing piece on the theological foundations of ISIS. It is worth reading the whole article, but this is the critical passage:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry played off of Wood’s article to explain that one of the left’s problems – and the Obama State Department’s problems – in fathoming the motivations of ISIS and other jihadists is that the left in the West tend toward a “vulgar Marxism.” This approach assumes that all people are basically motivated by economic self-interest, not ideas and principles. But it turns out that, for good or evil, people all over the world do make decisions on the basis of ideology and religious convictions.

The classic secularization thesis would have assumed that, whatever religion’s motivating status centuries ago, it should not motivate people today. This thesis has turned out to be dead wrong.

This problem of interpreting the motives of religiously-rooted doomsday groups has caused serious problems in episodes from confronting ISIS to negotiating with the Branch Davidians in Texas decades ago. Trying to precipitate apocalypse would not seem to be in anyone’s personal self-interest, unless you really, really believe in your theology and assume that violence may be required before enjoying the fruits of the afterlife.

I would offer two cautions about this discussion, however.First, as I have noted before, we should neither believe, nor want to believe, that jihadism is the inevitable result of devotion to Islam. Most Muslims in the world do not commit violence in the name of Islam, and we should not wish it to be otherwise. The terrorists do wish for Islam to be naturally violent, and they are quite frustrated with most of the other billion or so Muslims because they are not joining the jihad. Graeme paints a compelling picture of ISIS’s beliefs, but notes that most Muslims do not share those beliefs.

Second, as sympathetic as I am to Gobry’s “vulgar Marxism” thesis, we should not imagine that theology is the only motivating factor for the jihadists. Explaining why anyone becomes a terrorist (or why anyone does much of anything, at a root level) is notoriously difficult. It often depends on theology, yes, but may also be connected to family relationships, friendships, psychology, social networks, and a host of grievances and frustrations. Jihadists will inevitably cite the will of Allah as their chief motivation, and it would behoove those in authority to accept that factor as a real, if not uniquely determinative one. But as frustrating as it is to hear the Obama administration attribute ISIS’s motivations to everything but their theology (lack of jobs?), we should not forget that this-worldly factors do play a role in the toxic mix that produces jihadists.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    This may sound medieval to some, and I am not minimizing the role of human choice and responsibility for the consequences of those choices. Nevertheless, I do wonder if the influence of “the powers of darkness” – demons and their “leader” – might have a significant role in all of this. While people are quite capable of thinking all on their own that killing their fellow human beings in horrible ways is exactly what God wants them to do, the truth is that most people don’t think that way and don’t do that – it takes something extra to push most people over that edge.

  • Amen Specklebird

    Why do Christians suppose themselves “monotheists,” who then believe in multiple gods of the trinity and a host of bad gods that can influence humans? This is nothing more than pagan polytheism of the Greek Pantheon.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Two misconceptions here:

    Trinity does not equal tri-theism. The false premise is that a “personal” God must be personal as we are personal, when in fact God is not so constrained as we finite creatures are. Saying that a unitary God has been revealed to us in the form of three distinct persons is not at all the same thing as saying that there are three separate Gods. (It is true, though, that there are quite a few people who think they are Christians but are functionally tri-theists without really realizing it.)

    Second: Angels or demons (same thing, different teams) are not “gods” – they are created beings just like us, but just different than us.

  • Amen Specklebird

    “Trinity” dogma equals a three-card monte hustle.

    And if “Satan” has all the power Christians ascribe to him, he is definitely “a supernatural being having power over nature or people” to them, i.e., a God.