What is pulling Western-born boys, a surprising number of them converts from other religions, to the grisly banner of Islamic State? Surely a lot of the attraction has to do with the pitiless confidence that characterizes all totalitarian movements. The Salafists, like the Bolsheviks and the Nazis before them, promise a new age. Everything will be swept away: laws and nations and customs. An ideal so abstract as to be apparently unattainable will somehow be realized.
Some young men, in every age and nation, are attracted by unachievable purity. They like the appeal of trial rather comfort, of struggle rather than prosperity. They can hardly help contrasting the apocalyptic certainty of Islamic State with the self-doubt of the West.
Children of immigrant parents in Amsterdam or Birmingham or Copenhagen are taught, from the moment they go to primary school, the liberal nostrums that characterize Europe’s state sector: no culture is better than any other, patriotism is dangerous, the nation-state is anachronistic, everything is acceptable except sexist language and Euroskepticism. Is it any wonder that some kids cast around for an identity that seems less insipid?
It is here that I fear President Obama may be missing the point. In a speech at a conference on counter-extremism, he rattled through a number of clichés about respecting great religions and standing by the decent majority of Muslims against the extremists and yada yada. All fine as far as it went – an improvement, certainly, on the idea that we’re dealing with random acts of randomness – but hardly a ringing endorsement of Western values.
Then again, ringing endorsements of Western values aren’t exactly this president’s thing. Virtually his first act on assuming office was to go on a world apology tour, telling delighted European audiences that America had been too arrogant and too ready to resort to force. The Euro-pantywaists lapped it up, of course; but they weren’t the only people listening.
When you are unembarrassed about your own values, your citizens feel less need to grope around for alternative identities. And, as a bonus, your enemies are less likely to test you. Vladimir Putin didn’t even pretend to observe the ceasefire in Ukraine: his proxies were gobbling up the city of Debaltseve even as the Ukrainian regulars were downing weapons. The Russian president has got our number, all right. As a Member of the European Parliament friend, an Austrian socialist, put it to me mournfully, “It almost makes me wish we had your hero Reagan back. He may have been bats–t crazy, but at least the Russians knew he was bats–t crazy”.
How, then, should the West deal with radical Islam? The pithiest answer comes from an unlikely source, namely Toby Ziegler in that magnificent liberal fantasy, The West Wing: “They’ll like us when we win”.
The jihadi gunmen are excited because Islamic State claims to have revived the institution of the caliphate. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has a millenarian fringe. Its apocalyptic tradition, like those of other religions, looks forward to a global battle between the forces of good and evil, presaging Judgment Day. The jihadis, of course, cast the West in the role of the forces of evil. The caliphate’s re-emergence is a critical part of the story.
We have been here before. Almost exactly a hundred years ago, Britain and France went to war against the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Papers were circulated by the Committee of Imperial Defense fretting about the impact on “our Mussulmans in India and Egypt.” After all, the Ottoman sultan wasn’t just the most powerful Muslim leader in the world. He was also the last caliph, the commander of the faithful. Would British Muslims listen to him if, as he was sure to do, he issued a fatwa ordering them to switch sides?
Not a bit of it. More than 400,000 British Muslims joined up – every man of them a volunteer. Why? Because the British brand was, in those days, stronger than that of the Ottoman Caliphate (which was formally abolished shortly after the war). They liked us when we were winning.
The current pretender to the caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is reported to have been briefly detained by American forces in Iraq. He will have watched that whole wretched episode, culminating in the inglorious withdrawal, and drawn his own conclusions about Western willpower.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for a reoccupation of Iraq: I was one of a tiny number of conservatives who opposed the original invasion, precisely because I thought it would weaken our authority and credibility. Al-Baghdadi would like nothing more than to draw the United States into a ground war and so, as he hopes, trigger the End of Days. That is the likely purpose – to the extent they can be said to have a strategic purpose – of the hostage murders.
I am arguing, though, for a more assertive attitude in general at home and abroad. What do people in the Middle East see when they look at the West? A group of indebted, sclerotic, apologetic nations, in thrall to the ruling dogma of multiculturalism. A civilization whose highest public virtue seems to be not courage or integrity or patriotism, but a determination to avoid offending minorities. Nations with the best military hardware on the planet which have just been comprehensively outmaneuvered by a paramilitary gang Soviet nostalgics in the Donets Basin. Is it really so hard to see why some troubled young men prefer the demanding creed of al-Baghdadi and his followers?
Some of our values are beyond argument: free speech, free association, separation of church and state, the equality of all adults before the law. We need to be ready to defend them, with force of argument and, if necessary, force of arms. Seriously: they’ll like us when we win.