A reader writes:
Mitchell had me until the final paragraph of your excerpt: “In the meantime, in the interludes of peace, diplomatic and cultural outreach and, above all, higher education initiatives intended to help the younger generation understand and thrive in the disenchanted world it will inherit offer perhaps the most constructive ways to engage the region.”
Empirical study of Islamist extremism, looking both at political and ideological commitment and at participation in violence, have shown that higher education correlates with higher, not lower, commitment to the dream of “returning to an enchanted world for which an imagined Islam provides a ready guide.” (See Krueger and Maleckova’s “Education, Poverty, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” for an entry into the modern literature.)
Worse for Mitchell’s conclusion is that the correlation between education and Islamist radicalism is more pronounced among those who have earned advanced degrees in technical subjects rather than religious studies – and also more pronounced among those who have studied in the West.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to any reader of Tocqueville – his world was one that had only recently emerged from a generations-long spasm of violent religious extremism in which the best-educated and most entrepreneurial few fueled the violent radicalization of the many in the name of ever purer faith. The shadows of Reformation extremism and violence cast themselves across Tocqueville’s view of America, overtly in several chapters. When Weber wrote of the “Puritan work ethic” eighty years after Tocqueville, he was describing a continuity of habits of thought and conduct from the time when educated, industrious, entrepreneurial Protestants plunged Europe into maniacal religious terror.
Education, at least in the near term of a few generations, is not the answer. Or anyway, education for men will not solve the pathologies of the Middle East – better education and entrepreneurial spirit among Middle Eastern men may in the long run be necessary and virtuous, but in the short run, more educated and industrious men likely means more extremism, illiberality, and violence, not less.
It’s an American heresy to believe that education may not be the answer to everything. But it can be true. I think Mitchell’s core point is that violent Jihadism is a response to the bewildering terror that modernity evokes for many in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is thereby reactionary in content but truly modern in form and style. We see this in a much milder fashion with American Christianists. Modernity for many Christianists is really a function of sin and decadence; and the more modern the world the more reactionary and pure must the religion be. And so we have seen a remarkable surge in fundamentalism in an era when the Founding Fathers assumed we’d all be deists at most.
Some liberals forget this. Liberals forget it because many find religious faith ludicrous and cannot quite internalize the fact that fundamentalism often has the strongest appeal to some of the most intelligent people around. Some conservatives don’t get this because they always assume that religion is a force for tradition and continuity, while in actuality it can become radically disruptive and, in its fanaticism, very modern indeed. Modernity emits the fumes that fundamentalists huff.
What does this mean about the Middle East?
To me, it means that this violent and radical psychosis we call Jihadism is not going to go away any time soon – and the attempt to stop it from the outside is almost certainly likely to energize and inspire even more anti-Western, anti-modern fundamentalism. My view is that we have to hang tight, keep calm and carry on. In so far as we can divert these powerful passions away from us, we should. The hope is that, just as Europe had to fight itself until it had become a bloody human abbattoir in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries before turning away from theocratic madness, so too may the Arab and Muslim world in the century ahead. This is a stage that the Arab world has to go through. It will not be pretty, and it might not end well. But we cannot do much to control that. We merely have to limit the damage – to us and to humanity.
And in that respect, I remain of the view that the most under-rated achievement of this president in his second term was his deft maneuvering to get Syria’s WMD arsenal out of the country and destroyed. It’s the WMD issue that could truly make the long Muslim civil war an apocalyptic one. Obama achieved in Syria without a shot what Bush failed to achieve in Iraq with a grinding, lost war. Maybe one day, that will be better understood, and the wisdom of a minimalist approach to anti-terrorism better appreciated and understood.
(Sketch of Tockers by Daumier)