By David Kline
March 13, 2015
Last month, three Brooklyn men were charged with plotting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. They were among thousands of Western recruits to Jihad in recent months. Yet the U.S. State Department continues to try to counter ISIS propaganda by addressing would-be recruits as if they were merely acting out of childish nihilism, naïve to its bloody consequences. In one online message, for example, the State Department posted a photograph of three Americans who died after going to Somalia to wage jihad. The caption read: "They came for Jihad but were murdered by Al Shabab."
This might work against dilettante jihadists with dainty hearts, but it is useless against young people convinced that they are embarking on a journey of great consequence. For what actually motivates thousands of disaffected youth throughout the West to join ISIS is a force far more potent than nihilism: the genuine desire to live a life of meaning and purpose.
This urge, which human beings experience most acutely as young adults, is called the "hero's journey," a concept made famous by the scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell. In his classic 1949 work "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," Campbell wrote that most of mankind's myths share at their core a common narrative: the man or woman, who, through great suffering, embarks on a heroic quest to defeat a seemingly invincible enemy and, having learned the true meaning of life, returns home to set society free.
This misguided wish to embark on the "hero's journey" is what drives thousands to embrace jihad. Here, in abbreviated form, are its stages:
1) The Ordinary World: The would-be hero is a passive figure in ordinary life, buffeted by forces beyond his control.
2) The Call to Adventure: Something shakes up the would-be hero -- a lost job, a brush with the law, or an emergent mental health issue. Searching for an answer, he or she sees jihadists dominating the TV news and social media, fighting in romantic faraway mountains and deserts against impossible odds. Their certainty in the cause is compelling.
3) Meeting with The Mentor: The jihadist wannabe meets a seasoned veteran of the cause -- a local radical imam, or an online ISIS recruiter -- who gives him or her advice, training or financial support to make the journey to jihad, either in Syria or at home.
4) Crossing the Threshold: The would-be hero departs for Syria and the Islamic State -- or else stages an attack at home.
5) The Road of Trials: Assuming the recruit doesn't end the journey at this point with a suicide attack at home, the hero is then tested by dangerous conditions in ISIS-held territory. Here the recruit learns the reality of jihad -- brutal death, horrifying wounds and savage executions. For some, the brutality becomes addictive. Most, though, simply learn to survive and manage their constant fear, just as soldiers in every war do.
6) Rebirth and Return: The hero fights until martyred or, if so ordered (and if unknown to the security services), returns home to recruit others to jihad or organize attacks.
The appeal of jihad cannot be understood unless we appreciate the attractive power of the "hero's journey." Nor can we counter it without trying to sharpen in young recruits' minds the insupportable contradiction between theory and reality common to all absolutist movements -- whether political like Marxist-Leninist or religious like jihadist -- that inevitably leads to their self-destruction.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, millions flocked to Marxism-Leninism and revolution, including thousands of young people here in the U.S. But thanks to the inherent contradiction between Marxism's promise and its social and economic reality, today you could probably fit all remaining American Marxist true believers into a mid-sized meeting room at the Marriott.
When I watched a million people marching together in Paris in January shouting "We Are Charlie," I had no doubt that one day, within a generation or two at most; the jihadists will meet the same end. But that can only happen if we truly appreciate the heroic striving that drives so many young people foolishly to jihad -- and if we then find ways to redirect that striving towards the defence of civilization rather than its destruction.
David Kline is a Portland-based journalist who reported on the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.