Political philosopher John Gray says that we are deceiving ourselves if we think that ISIS is a medieval throwback. Every barbaric act and strategy it employs have also been employed by modern states. In fact, an eschatological cult like ISIS could only have emerged in modernity; fundamentalism, he says, emerges and thrives in societies in which long-settled customs and traditions have been disrupted. And for that matter, movements like Communism and Nazism were simply secular versions of the same millenarian vision. More:
While much remains unknown, there is nothing mysterious in the rise of ISIS. It is baffling only for those who believe—despite everything that occurred in the twentieth century—that modernization and civilization are advancing hand in hand. In fact, now as in the past some of the most modern movements are among the most barbaric. But to admit this would mean surrendering the ruling political faith, a decayed form of liberalism without which Western leaders and opinion formers would be disoriented and lost. To accept that liberal societies may not be “on the right side of history” would leave their lives drained of significance, while a stoical response—which is ready to fight while being doubtful of ultimate victory—seems to be beyond their powers. With mounting bewilderment and desperation, they cling to the faith that the normal course of history has somehow been temporarily derailed.
The prevailing mode of liberal thinking filters out any fact that might disturb its tranquility of mind. One such fact is that toppling despots does not of itself enhance freedom. If you are a woman, gay, a member of a religious minority, or someone who professes no religion, are you freer now in Iraq, Libya, or most of Syria than you were under the dictatorship of Saddam, Qaddafi, or Assad? Plainly, you are much less free. Another uncomfortable fact is that tyrants are often popular. According to today’s liberals, when large numbers of people flock to support tyranny it cannot be because they do not want to be free. They must be alienated from their true nature as human beings. Born liberals, human beings become anything else as a result of social conditioning. Only cultural and political repression stands in the way of liberal values becoming a universal way of life.
This strange metaphysical fancy lies behind the fashionable theory that when people leave advanced countries to join ISIS they do so because they have undergone a process of “radicalization.” But who radicalized the tens of millions of Europeans who flocked to Nazism and fascism in the interwar years? The disaster that ensued was not the result of clever propaganda, though that undoubtedly played a part. Interwar Europe demonstrates how quickly and easily civilized life can be disrupted and destroyed by the impact of war and economic crisis.
Civilization is not the endpoint of modern history, but a succession of interludes in recurring spasms of barbarism. The liberal civilization that has prevailed in some Western countries over the past few centuries emerged slowly and with difficulty against the background of a particular mix of traditions and institutions. Precarious wherever it has existed, it is a way of life that has no strong hold on humankind. For an older generation of liberal thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Isaiah Berlin, these were commonplaces. Today these truisms are forbidden truths, which can no longer be spoken or in many cases comprehended.
Future historians will marvel at how Westerners dismantled the fundamentals of civilization — religion, family, community — in the name of a utopian progressive vision: the liberation of the Self.
It is left to the rest of us to figure out how to remain resilient and hopeful amid the ruins they create with each passing day.