By Shikha Dalmia
September 17, 2014
ISIS is not just a nasty extremist group—it's a nasty extremist group with Western recruits. It even gave the starring role in the gruesome videotaped beheading of two Americans and an Englishman to a British rapper.
The rise of ISIS is massively unsettling, and time will tell if it's a good thing that President Obama has finally figured out a "strategy" to deal with this group. But nothing about ISIS justifies the growing fears in the West that liberalism's lack of "transcendent" purpose is making it difficult to counter the allure of its Islamist ideological opponents.
Among those voicing such worries is The Week's Michael Brendan Dougherty, who noted that the "West's appeal, such as it is" may be diminishing. Why? Because it has "lost confidence in its way of life," making an Islamic State that offers the "romance of revolution, and the promise of action and power" hugely appealing to disillusioned Western youth. Likewise, National Review's Charles C. Cooke laments that "totalitarianism is exciting"—and not to the socially marginalized living in grinding poverty, but the bored bourgeois youth whose basic needs liberalism has met, given that many jihadis come from well-to-do families. And across the pond the Telegraph's Tim Stanley echoes that young men and women rejecting comfortable Western homes and lifestyles to turn to jihad are a "symptom of an existential crisis" afflicting liberalism.
But if anything bespeaks Western softness and loss of confidence, it is what counts as an "existential crisis" now.
Let's begin with the actual numbers: The Soufan Group, which conducted the most comprehensive study of the foreign fighters in the region, reports that over the last three years, about 12,000 fighters from 81 countries have joined the civil war in Syria, far more than went to Afghanistan.
Of these, around 2,500 to 3,000 are Westerners—some of whom are fighting for the Assad regime in Syria and some for rebel groups of which ISIS is only one. France, England and Germany, the biggest suppliers of European jihadis, have contributed about 700, 400, and 270 recruits, respectively.
And the United States? "Dozens (70+)," notes the study.
This works out to 0.00003 percent of the total American population and 0.004 percent of the American Muslim population. A much higher percentage of Americans upset with the "system" join violent gangs and political cults every year. Between 2000 and 2008, the United States birthed 298 new hate groups, four times more than the total number of American individuals who have gone Jihadi.
There is nothing new about a small number of Americans bolting to join foreign armies fighting for anti-liberal causes. Over 2,800 Americans enlisted on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War, despite America's official policy of neutrality (because, as in many current conflicts, there were no clear good guys). What's more, in the first eight months of 1931, when Stalin's atrocities were approaching their zenith, more than Americans applied to emigrate to the Soviet Union, several thousand of them successfully.
The relative puniness of the Western Jihadi phenomenon is all the more striking when one considers that for 13 years now America has been engaged in a war against terror whose locus is the Muslim world. America has invaded two Muslim countries and relentlessly drone-bombed others, often in violation of their sovereignty and with high civilian casualties.
One can debate whether America's actions are justified or not. But one can hardly be surprised that they have generated questions at home and repercussions abroad. The Vietnam War lasted less than a decade yet spawned a far bigger domestic backlash. Student organizations such as the Students for Democratic Society mounted violent protests; radical outfits such as the Weather Underground arose for the express purpose of overthrowing the United States government; and the Black Panther Party launched campaigns to advance "an anti-imperialist political ideology that linked the oppression of anti-war protesters to the oppression of blacks and Vietnamese." No doubt the draft prompted much of this, but that was a real existential crisis!
What's more, the war on terror has occurred at a time of sizeable, perhaps record, Muslim migration to the West. There are nearly 5 million Muslims in America and England each and about 7 million in France.
It is inevitable that some hotheads from this relatively large population, riled up by profiling and other targeting, would seek revenge. Still, what's most remarkable is that, according to the Soufan report, 25 percent of French ISIS volunteers had no cultural or ethnic connection to Iraq or Syria. Rather, they were converts who'd embraced Islam in search of meaning and identity
ISIS has been greatly aided in its efforts to recruit these Jihadi wannabees (some of who reportedly ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon before heading for Syria) by the advent of social media. ISIS has launched sophisticated Facebook and Twitter campaigns, crafted to appeal to confused and impressionable millennials that emphasize the joys of living in an Islamic utopia without making any mention of its barbaric side. One video shows a soft-spoken soldier with a beatific smile holding a little kitten (puppies are considered impure in Islam) talking about what a good time he's having. Pictures on Twitter hashtagged #Jihadifitness show "brothers" jogging with a glorious sunset in the backdrop to portray the easy camaraderie of the Jihadi lifestyle.
In a liberal society that guarantees freedom of thought, there will inevitably be some people who will freely choose illiberal ideologies. And given that Islamism is the only anti-liberal democratic game in town, it attracts many folks who might have gravitated toward the far left and fascism in the past.
However, 13 years after the 9/11 attacks triggered a mighty "clash of civilizations," if all that ISIS and its ilk can dredge up are a handful of malcontents, despite all the sophisticated communication tools at its disposal, Western liberalism must be in pretty good shape.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets, and a weekly columnist here at The Week. She is also a Bloomberg View contributor and writes regularly for Reason, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and numerous other publications. She considers herself to be a progressive libertarian and an agnostic with Buddhist longings and a Sufi soul.