Amid all the cacophony of protest and violence across portions of the Middle East and North Africa, there has been little serious effort to look for deeper meanings or explanations.
To be sure, the contemptible attacks on American diplomatic persons and premises were animated by the usual array of Islamist fears and Jihadist goals.
The same can be said, of course, about certain hyper-sensitive and conspicuously adrenalized public reactions to the anti-Islam video.
Still, to genuinely understand what is happening today in this fractionated part of the world, we may learn substantially more from the psychologists and anthropologists than from the pundits and political scientists.
After all, the cascading and inter-penetrating problems of religion, war, and terror in sections of the Islamic world represent utterly primal kinds of social behavior. Such behavior, in turn, is the inevitable result of readily identifiable private needs, and also of corollary collective expectations.
Sometimes, even more than the usually overriding need to avoid death, human beings want to belong. This often desperate need can be manifested quite harmlessly, as in sports hysteria or rock concerts, or more perniciously, as in rioting, war, and terrorism. Yet, in all cases, the critically underlying motivations are pretty much the same.
Aristotle had already understood that “Man is a social animal.” Typically, even the “normal” individual person feels empty and insignificant apart from his or her membership in the “Mass,” the “Crowd,” or the “Herd.” Often, that Herd is the State. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes it is the Faith (always, the “one true faith”). Sometimes it is the “Liberation” movement, or, in a plainly kindred relationship, “The Revolution.”
Whatever the particular demanding collectivity of the moment, it is the persistent craving for membership that hastens to bring forth a catastrophic downfall of individual responsibility, and a corrosive triumph of combined will.
Today, in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, unless millions of our fellow humans can learn to temper their overwhelming desire to belong, the prevailing military and political schemes to control regional violence, war, and terrorism will fail.
To best understand what is really at work in the anti-video riots and anti-American embassy assaults, analysts must first locate the pre-political causes. Ultimately, these “molecular” explanations stem from the celebrated fusion of susceptible individuals into popular crowd-centered collectives. Not every Mass or Crowd or Tribe or Herd is pernicious, we can acknowledge, but war and terrorism simply cannot take place in the absence of “omnivorous” collective identifications.
Whenever individuals crowd together and form a Herd, the annihilatory dynamics of the mob may be released, thus lowering each person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where absolutely anything, even mass killing, can be encouraged.
Publicly, all current Arab/Islamic rioting, war, and terror are fueled by certain effectively incontestable presumptions of Divine Will. In reality, of course, the net result of homicide bombings, chaotic riots, and mass denunciations must always be to drown out any residual hint of sacredness or godliness. Once empathy and compassion outside the Islamist Herd go intentionally unrewarded, they become extraneous, and, as virtues, completely beside the point.
In the presumed name of divinity, Arab/Islamist war, terror, and the murder of “others” impose upon the wider world neither salvation nor holiness, but “groupthink.”
Reciprocally, and predictably, the hideously intolerant rhythms of such a suffocating ethos make it increasingly futile to advance any meaningful efforts at coexistence
To mount now urgent investigations of an already widening Arab/Islamic jihad against the United States and its allies, our scholars and policy makers should begin to look more closely at human meaning. Before we can prevent further expanding violence against innocents, certain Arab/Islamic states and terrorist groups will have to be shorn of their insidious capacity to bestow reinforcing significance upon complicit individuals.
To affect those individuals who now turn ritually to rioting, war, terror, and killing for affirmations of significance, we will first have to identify more benign and similarly attractive sources of belonging.
An underlying cause of present Islamist violence in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, and elsewhere in the region, is the enduring incapacity of individuals to draw authentic meaning from within themselves. In the Middle East and North Africa, at least among large swaths of enthusiastic Islamist adherents, true redemption still requires Muslims to present “proof of membership.”
Moreover, in any such presentation, evidence of recent participation in anti-American or anti-Western activities is prima facie “valid.”
At its heart, the cumulative violence that we presently face in the Middle East and North Africa is a problem of displaced human centeredness. Ever anxious about drawing meaning from their own inwardness, large numbers of Islamist adherents draw closer and closer to the faith-based Tribe.
In too many cases, this collective voice spawns hatreds and excesses that may make even genocidal forms of mass killing appear desirable. Fostering a visceral refrain of “us” versus “them,” it may eventually prevent each affected person from becoming fully human.
This prevention is accomplished by encouraging motivated adherents to inflict mortal harms upon selected “outsiders,” and then by subsequently celebrating such egregious harms as a proper expression of religious “sacrifice.”
At birth, each person contains the possibility of becoming more fully human, an empathetic possibility that could reduce potentially destructive loyalties to any manifestations of groupthink. It is only by nurturing this indispensable possibility that we can seriously seek promising remedies to our current difficulties.
So, futile as it may seem, or be, our immediate task must be to encourage certain amenable masses in the Arab/Islamic world to discover the way back to themselves, as genuinely feeling and caring individuals, and as members of an entire species that would seek only an authentically universal, or non-exclusive redemption.
It would depict an infinite circle of membership, a geometry in which the whole would become more than the sum of its parts, into which everyone could “fit,” and from which no one would be denied entry.
We should not misrepresent our real enemy.
Now, the core challenge that America faces in a sorely afflicted region is not one of criminal justice for terrorist killers (“we will find and punish those responsible…”), but of acquiring a far deeper understanding of our pertinent foes.
Always, for meaningful national defense, genuine analytic understanding is a net. Only those who cast will catch.
Louis René Beres, born in Zürich, Switzerland, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and counter-terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979), and Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). Professor Beres has examined WMD terrorism for more than forty years, earlier in consultation with the Nuclear Control Institute, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Defense Nuclear Agency (DoD), and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center/U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. His recent articles have appeared in Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College; Special Warfare (Department of Defense); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; International Security (Harvard); and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.
The Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003), Dr. Beres’ work is well-known to certain Israeli intelligence and military communities.