Using Hannah Arendt to understand the Islamic State. And other recommended reads.

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The primary focus of my blog is understanding how trends in technology, society and economics will unfold over the next 5-10 years. So on twitter I follow people like Nick Szabo, arguably the world’s most famous cryptocurrency expert. Last week, in regards to Syrian refugee policy, Szabo retweeted this:

Right next in my feed was the astronomer Phil Plait:

Clearly the horrific November 13 Paris attacks have made the Islamic State an unavoidable topic, even for tech nerds. It doesn’t help that front running US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talked to an interviewer about registering Muslims, and, well, went rapidly downhill from there. So I was glad when liberal Kevin Drum wrote Liberals Should Knock Off the Mockery Over Calls to Limit Syrian Refugees since it “validates all the worst stereotypes about liberals that we put political correctness ahead of national security.” But was not surprised he got hostile responses back. Megan McArdle, in her piece on Syrian refugees, wrote:

It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you’re a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic.  The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you.

As an unavoidable topic that will greatly impact what will happen in the next 5-10 years, let me share and quote what I’m reading about the Islamic State. Not for everyone, and a bit long, but it’s important. Consider it my attempt to follow McArdle’s advice, trying to understand the other side.

T. Geer – taking religion seriously

I’ll start with my harshest quote, which shocked me into internalizing the obvious: you can’t understand religious fanaticism without taking religion itself seriously. It’s T. Geer quoting a friend, who singles out a line from a Max Fisher Vox piece “Religions are big and diverse, and people get out of them what they bring into them.” Then goes on:

The Vox writer’s intent here is of course to defend Islam, by advancing an argument that Islam possesses no intrinsic power to change lives — for better or worse. It’s all self-actualization, as if the world’s second-largest faith were a benign Californian therapy group with a run of bad luck on the clientele. Of course there are plenty of Muslims who will tell something rather different: by our lights, good men who became bad by their understanding of the faith, but also bad men who became good by the same process….

The truth is that most faiths, though of course not all, possess a concept something like what the Christian Church Fathers called metanoia — usually translated as “repentance” but more properly the transformation of the soul. It is visible in the tales of Paul, Raskolnikov, and Malcolm X. It is not “people get[ting] out of [religions] what they bring into them.” Quite the opposite: it is people getting out of religion what they never had before.

I’ve cut the personal attacks from this quote. But follow the link above if you want to read the harsher version which slams this point home.

Graeme Wood – What ISIS Really Wants

Graeme Wood’s March piece in the Atlantic is probably the single best essay on the Islamic State, and many people I follow linked to it after the Paris attacks. Wood is also on twitter, and posts links fairly often, making him a good twitter follow on this subject. Quote:

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership. Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamed Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut. There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

Scott Atran

Atran is an anthropologist who has written on the evolutionary roots of religion, and done extensive fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists. Always worth reading.

From a reviewer of his 2010 book Talking to the Enemy.

It is the bonds of fictive kinship that they construct which weaves a cell of terrorists together so tightly. In the same way that militaries propagate fictive kinship as a way of creating a fighting unit, these ties also hold firm in the world of terrorism. Intriguingly, Atran also notes that in some jihadist circles “friends tend to marry one another’s sisters and cousins” (p.36). [1] With knowledge of the strength that fictive kinship bonds hold, terrorist handlers actively enforce the idea that suicide bombing will benefit ‘fictive’ kin. Potential bombers become convinced their sacrifice will benefit kin. As this happens, the calculus of costs to benefits shifts to the point where sacrifice makes sense in the mind of the terrorist. Often being highly moral and even altruistic people, though with a horribly misplaced sense of justice, terrorists are spurred not by their own humiliation, but by watching the humiliation of people they identify with – their “imagined kin” (p.300-305). In summation, suicide terrorists “don’t simply kill and die just for a cause. They kill and die for each other” (p.7).

And here is Atran himself with Nafees Hamid on the Paris attacks:

Today, France has one of the largest Muslim minorities in Europe. French Muslims are also predominantly a social underclass, a legacy of France’s colonial past and indifference to its aftermath. For example, although just 7 to 8 percent of France’s population is Muslim, as much as 70 percent of the prison population is Muslim, a situation that has left a very large number of young French Muslims vulnerable to absorbing radical ideas in prison and out. Within this social landscape, ISIS finds success. France has contributed more foreign fighters to ISIS than any other Western country….

For others who have struggled to find meaning in their lives, ISIS is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that many of them will never live to enjoy. A July 2014 poll by ICM Research suggested that more than one in four French youth of all creeds between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have a favorable or very favorable opinion of ISIS. Even if these estimates are high, in our own interviews with young people in the vast and soulless housing projects of the Paris banlieues we found surprisingly wide tolerance or support for ISIS among young people who want to be rebels with a cause—who want, as they see it, to defend the oppressed.

Yet the desire these young people in France express is not to be a “devout Muslim” but to become a mujahid (“holy warrior”): to take the radical step, immediately satisfying and life-changing, to obtain meaning through self-sacrifice. Although feelings of marginalization and outrage may build over a long time, the transition from struggling identity to mujahid is often fast and furious. The death of six of the eight Paris attackers by suicide bombs and one in a hail of police bullets testifies to the sincerity of this commitment, as do the hundreds of French volunteer deaths in Syria and Iraq.

As one twenty-four-year-old who joined Jabhat an-Nusra in Syria told us: They [Western society] teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster. So, I and my friends simply decided to go around and invite people to join Islam. The other Muslim groups in the city just talk. They think a true Muslim state will just rain from heaven on them without fighting and striving hard on the path of Allah.

I thought this interview question posed to Atran was highly revealing. In exposing the interviewer’s hedonistic world view, not that of ISIS.

Interviewer: But, you know, we’re used to think that young people, teen in transition, like you say, they want freedom. They want to have fun, they want to have sex and drugs and drink. What we see with ISIS is forbidding this, for young people and for everyone – yet, there is this flock towards ISIS. I still don’t understand why, because whatever they’re trying to convince young people of, it’s pretty obvious there is no freedom where they are going. And young people usually strive for freedom…

Atran: Yeah, but I believe they do think they’re getting freedom. Instead of freedom-to-do-things, it’s freedom-from-having-to-do-things, where a life well-ordered and promising. I mean, again, they appeal to people from all over the world. I got a call from head of Medical School telling me that her best students have just left to set up field hospital for ISIS in Syria, and she was asking me why would they do this; and I said, “because it’s a glorious and adventurous mission, where they are creating a Brand New World, and they do it under constraints.” I mean, people want to be creative under constraints. A lot of young people just don’t want the kind of absolute freedom you’re talking about. The choices are too great, there’s too much ambiguity and ambivalence. There are too many degrees of freedom and so one can’t chart a life path that’s at all meaningful, and so these young people are in search of significance, and ISIS is trying to show them a way towards significance. Again, we have to take it very seriously, that’s why I think it’s the most dynamic counter-cultural movement since WWII, and it’s something I don’t think people are taking seriously, just dismissing them as psychopaths and criminals and… this, of course, is something that we have to destroy. I think, we’re on the wrong path in terms of the way we’re going to destroy it.

Along the same lines, Ross Douthat quotes Atran extensively in his latest piece The Joy of ISIS, where he acknowledges the power and attraction of jihadism. Human beings crave transcendent purpose. And if denied, will seek it out wherever they can.

Now for some maps and charts.

Percentage Muslim Populations in Europe

France of course has the largest percentage of Muslims, with Germany the largest total number.

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Survey of negative views of minorities in Europe

Negative views for Muslims around 40% or so. Roma not surprisingly higher.

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Survey of negative views of ISIS in Muslim countries

I’ve seen the chart below framed two ways. First, ISIS has a greatly unfavorable reputation in nearly all countries with large Muslim populations. Second, the absolute number with a favorable view is still quite large. Certainly tens of millions. Both are true of course.

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Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism

Arendt’s 1951 book provides my personal theoretic frame for understanding the Islamic State as a form of religious totalitarianism. Not everyone would agree Arendt’s book applies, since Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were militant atheist. And since she’s describing the totalitarian state in its final platonic ideal form, her writing is more of a warning on nascent ISIS potential than today’s reality. Unfortunately Arendt writes in a meandering style that’s difficult to concisely quote, perhaps due to her tutelage under the philosopher Martin Heidegger. All that acknowledged, I found re-reading her in the context of ISIS surprisingly contemporary and at times brilliant. So I just went with longer quotes. Skip down as needed.

p. 366

The fellow-traveler organizations surround the totalitarian movements with a mist of normality and respectability that fools the membership about the true character of the outside world as much as it does the outside world about the true character of the movement. The front organization functions both ways: as the facade of  the totalitarian movement to the nontotalitarian world, and as the facade of this world to the inner hierarchy of the movement. Even more striking than this relationship is the fact that it is repeated on different levels within the movement itself. As party members are related to and separated from the fellow-travelers, so are the elite formations of the movement related to and separated from the ordinary members….

Through a carefully graduated hierarchy of militancy in which each rank is the higher level’s image of the nontotalitarian world because it is less militant and its members less totally organized, the shock of the terrifying and monstrous totalitarian dichotomy is vitiated and never full realized; this type of organization prevents its members’ ever being directly confronted with the outside world, whose hostility remains for them a mere ideological assumption. They are so well protected against the reality of the nontotalitarian world that they constantly underestimate the tremendous risks of totalitarian politics.

p. 376

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the secret societies and the totalitarian movements lies in the role of the ritual. The marches around the Red Square in Moscow are in this respect no less characteristic than the pompous formalities of the Nuremberg party days….

What is remarkable in the totalitarian organizations is rather that they could adopt so many organizational devices of secret societies without ever trying to keep their own goal a secret. That the Nazis wanted to conquer the world, deport “racially alien” peoples and exterminate those of “inferior biological heritage,” that the Bolsheviks work for the world revolution, was never a secret; these aims, on the contrary, were always part of their propaganda. In other words, the totalitarian movements imitate all the paraphernalia of the secret societies but empty them of the only thing that could excuse, or was supposed to excuse, their methods-the necessity to safeguard a secret.

p. 383
The party members never believe public statements and are not supposed to, but are complimented by totalitarian propaganda on that superior intelligence which supposedly distinguishes them from the nontotalitarian outside world, which, in turn, they know only from the abnormal gullibility of sympathizers. Only Nazi sympathizers believed Hitler when he swore his famous legality oath before the supreme court of the Weimar Republic; members of the movement knew very well that he lied, and trusted him more than ever because he apparently was able to fool public opinion and the authorities. When in later years Hitler repeated the performance for the whole world, when he swore to his good intentions and at the same time most openly prepared his crimes, the admiration of the Nazi membership naturally was boundless.
p. 391
Practically speaking, the paradox of totalitarianism in power is that the possession of all instruments of governmental power and violence in one country is not an unmixed blessing for a totalitarian movement…. Propaganda and organization no longer suffice to assert that the impossible is possible, that the incredible is true, that an insane consistency rules the world…..every bit of factual information that leaks through the iron curtain, set up against the ever-threatening flood of reality from the other, nontotalitarian side, is a greater menace to totalitarian domination than counterpropaganda has been to totalitarian movements.
The struggle for total domination of the total population of the earth, the elimination of every competing nontotalitarian reality, is inherent in the totalitarian regimes themselves; if they do not pursue global rule as their ultimate goal, they are only too likely to lose whatever power they have already seized.
p 400
The multiplication of offices was extremely useful for the constant shifting of power; the longer, moreover, a totalitarian regime stays in power, the greater becomes the number of offices and the possibility of jobs exclusively dependent upon the movement, since no office is abolished when its authority is liquidated…. The result was that up to the end of the regime, there were not one, but two National Socialist student organizations, two Nazi women’s organizations, two Nazi organizations for university professors, lawyers, physicians, and so forth.
p. 421

In the first stages of a totalitarian regime, however, the secret police and the party’s elite formations still play a role similar to that in other forms of dictatorship and the well-known terror regimes of the past; and the excessive cruelty of their methods is unparalleled only in the history of modern Western countries. The first stage of ferreting out secret enemies and hunting down former opponents is usually combined with drafting the entire population into front organizations and re-educating old party members for voluntary espionage services, so that the rather dubious sympathies of the drafted sympathizers need not worry the specially trained cadres of the police. It is during this stage that a neighbor gradually becomes a more dangerous enemy to one who happens to harbor “dangerous thoughts” than are the officially appointed police agents. The end of the first stage comes with the liquidation of open and secret resistance in any organized form; it can be set at about 1935 in Germany and approximately 1930 in Soviet Russia.

Only after the extermination of real enemies has been completed and the hunt for “objective enemies” begun does terror become the actual content of totalitarian regimes. Under the pretext of building socialism in one country, or using a given territory as a laboratory for a revolutionary experiment, or realizing the Volksgemeinschafi, the second claim of totalitarianism, the claim to total domination, is carried out. And although theoretically total domination is possible only under the conditions of world rule, the totalitarian regimes have proved that this part of the totalitarian Utopia can be realized almost to perfection, because it is temporarily independent of defeat or victory. Thus Hitler could rejoice even in the midst of military setbacks over the extermination of Jews and the establishment of death factories; no matter what the final outcome, without the war it would never have been possible “to burn the bridges” and to realize some of the goals of the totalitarian movement.

P. 425
If it were only a matter of hating Jews or bourgeois, the totalitarian regimes could, after the commission of one gigantic crime, return, as it were, to the rules of normal life and government. As we know, the opposite is the case. The category of objective enemies outlives the first ideologically determined foes of the movement; new objective enemies are discovered according to changing circumstances: the Nazis, foreseeing the completion of Jewish extermination, had already taken the necessary preliminary steps for the liquidation of the Polish people, while Hitler even planned the decimation of certain categories of Germans; the Bolsheviks, having started with descendants of the former ruling classes, directed their full terror against the kulaks (in the early thirties), who in turn were followed by Russians of Polish origin (between 1936 and 1938), the Tartars and the Volga Germans during the war, former prisoners of war and units of the occupational forces of the Red Army after the war, and Russian Jewry after the establishment of a Jewish state….
The concept of the “objective opponent,” whose identity changes according to the prevailing circumstances—so that, as soon as one category is liquidated, war may be declared on another—corresponds exactly to the factual situation reiterated time and again by totalitarian rulers: namely, that their regime is not a government in any traditional sense, but a movement, whose advance constantly meets with new obstacles that have to be eliminated. So far as one may speak at all of any legal thinking within the totalitarian system, the “objective opponent” is its central idea.

p 458

The aggressiveness of totalitarianism springs not from lust for power, and if it feverishly seeks to expand, it does so neither for expansion’s sake nor for profit, but only for ideological reasons: to make the world consistent, to prove that its respective supersense has been right.

It is chiefly for the sake of this supersense, for the sake of complete consistency, that it is necessary for totalitarianism to destroy every trace of what we commonly call human dignity. For respect for human dignity implies the recognition of my fellow-men or our fellow-nations as subjects, as builders of worlds or cobuilders of a common world. No ideology which aims at the explanation of all historical events of the past and at mapping out the course of all events of the future can bear the unpredictability which springs from the fact that men are creative, that they can bring forward something so new that nobody ever foresaw it.

What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is not the transformation of the outside world or the revolutionizing transmutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself.

p 461

It is the monstrous, yet seemingly unanswerable claim of totalitarian rule that, far from being “lawless,” it goes to the sources of authority from which positive laws received their ultimate legitimation, that far from being arbitrary it is more obedient to these suprahuman forces than any government ever was before, and that far from wielding its power in the interest of one man, it is quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what it assumes to be the law of History or the law of Nature. Its defiance of positive laws claims to be a higher form of legitimacy which, since it is inspired by the sources themselves, can do away with petty legality. Totalitarian lawfulness pretends to have found a way to establish the rule of justice on earth—something which the legality of positive law admittedly could never attain.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the chart below, which shows on the left most Americans supported the Iraq war 2003. But on the right, when surveyed today about what they believed 12 years ago, shows most recall NOT supporting the war. It is human nature to live in an eternal present. One where what we believe today is effortlessly projected back into our past. Old beliefs are casually lost or misremembered.

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At first this chart made me angry, but reflecting more deeply, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. Let me quote Arendt one more time about the fanatical power of totalitarian belief, and it’s fragility once support is lost. From p. 362

The fundamental reason for the superiority of totalitarian propaganda over the propaganda of other parties and movements is that its content, for the members of the movement at any rate, is no longer an objective issue about which people may have opinions, but has become as real and untouchable an element in their lives as the rules of arithmetic. The organization of the entire texture of life according to an ideology can be fully carried out only under a totalitarian regime. In Nazi Germany, questioning the validity of racism and antisemitism when nothing mattered but race origin, when a career depended upon an “Aryan” physiognomy (Himmler used to select the applicants for the SS from photographs) and the amount of food upon the number of one’s Jewish grandparents, was like questioning the existence of the world.

It is in the moment of defeat that the inherent weakness of totalitarian propaganda becomes visible. Without the force of the movement, its members cease at once to believe in the dogma for which yesterday they still were ready to sacrifice their lives. The moment the movement, that is, the fictitious world which sheltered them, is destroyed, the masses revert to their old status of isolated individuals who either happily accept a new function in a changed world or sink back into their old desperate superfluousness. The members of totalitarian movements, utterly fanatical as long as the movement exists, will not follow the example of religious fanatics and die the death of martyrs (even though they were only too willing to die the death of robots). Rather they will quietly give up the movement as a bad bet and look around for another promising fiction or wait until the former fiction regains enough strength to establish another mass movement.

The experience of the Allies who vainly tried to locate one self-confessed and convinced Nazi among the German people, 90 per cent of whom probably had been sincere sympathizers at one time or another, is not to be taken simply as a sign of human weakness or gross opportunism. Nazism as an ideology had been so fully “realized” that its content ceased to exist as an independent set of doctrines, lost its intellectual existence, so to speak; destruction of the reality therefore left almost nothing behind, least of all the fanaticism of believers.

As a certified old, I went to college during the 1980’s towards the end of the cold war. And I can personally vouch for the fact that many students and professors back then were convinced communism was a benevolent system which had just not been properly tried. The horrors of the Soviet Union were not the inevitable outcome of dictatorship of the proletariat, but instead a perversion of that ideology. And in fact Arendt was taken to task for comparing the Soviets to the Nazis when her book came out. Then in 1989, once the Soviet Union collapsed, those beliefs faded, were misremembered, or forgotten. If asked again today, no doubt many will say they never supported communism at all.

An important point in Arendt’s quote above is her contrast between religious fanatics who die the death of martyrs and totalitaristic beliefs. It’s not clear if Arendt would consider today’s Islamic State a form of totalitarianism. If so, it’s certainly in an early stage. Perhaps it’s best to think of religious totalitarianism as the logical consequence of the Islamic State’s utopian vision. Whether unfolding events take it completely down that path is not yet clear.  I’d also make a distinction between a totalitarian religious cult, from which believers may suddenly recover if pulled out of their situation (think Scientology), and the traditional religious beliefs of Christians or Muslims. Which remain more steadfast.

Let me wrap up with a disclosure of my own thoughts on current events, if for no other reason than to show where my reading of the above has led. I suspect Scott Atran is right to be worried about the capacity of European nations and culture to assimilate Muslims into the mainstream. Whereas I suspect the United States has a greater ability to absorb refugees in both numbers and culture than it currently believes. And, just as we fear the risk of spectacular airplane crashes over more deadly and common car crashes, I think the human mind naturally weighs the risks of terrorism higher than it should. Life itself is risk. So I’m for taking more refugees into the US, though believe people who are fearful of this hold a reasonable position. Finally, as a libertarianish leaning partially lapsed Republican, I despair over the US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Scott Atran is pessimistic about our ability to control ISIS, saying “even if ISIS is destroyed, its message could still captivate many in coming generations.” True enough. But if in fact the Islamic State follows the Arendt pattern of totalitarianism, then maybe we should respond as we did to the Soviets, using George Kennan’s policy of containment. Quote: “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Containment encourages totalitarians to harvest their unending need for new enemies from within their own ranks, ultimately consuming themselves. This could turn the Islamic State into something as horrific as North Korea. And by that very example disillusion and shatter the jihadist movement. After which we may suddenly find no one remembers their past fanaticism. Which would be a blessing.

Categorized as Politics

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.


  1. I don’t see US overreaction as simply overweighting safety concerns over humanity. Islamic terrorists grow their movement by driving a wedge between Muslims and the rest of the world. Engendering fear of all Muslims is their best recruitment tool. Those here who prey on fear for political gain are also their tool.

    1. Obviously I agree, as does much of the media. My point is only that the motives of those who overreact are not bad. The Iraq War itself is of course the case in point, where overreaction was what was desired, and it unfortunately is what happened.

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