In my 2004 book on globalization, I argued that post-modernism and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin. Seemingly contradictory — post-modernism rejects the very notion of absolute truth whereas fundamentalism insists on one sole and unshakeable truth — they in fact spring from a complex nexus, one feeding the other. And so contrary to what one might expect, religious fundamentalists rarely came from tradition-bound places they want to protect from the encroachments of modernity. Far from it, they are most often steeped in modernity, and are waging personal battles to exorcise the demons in which they once delighted. The ‘tradition’ they feel needs their protection is often one they have conjured in exile, when they feel somehow alienated from or rejected by a modern world.
So it didn’t surprise me when I heard that Omar Mateen, the killer in last week’s attack on an Orlando night-club, had previously immersed himself in gay culture. Just as you argue most with the people you love most, you despise most those things that you experience most intimately, but about which you are conflicted. While research into the personality-types attracted to Islamist extremism is still in its infancy, a picture is starting to develop of the typical terrorist. He is most often a young man, either a citizen of the West or one who has spent a long time there, who has usually experienced some form of economic marginalisation, who was often involved in petty crime, and whose upbringing was conventionally religious – in other words, wayward but rather secular souls. So when they re-discover a religion that both seems to make sense of their lives and helps organise them better, they often reject the faith of their elders for having failed to keep them on the straight-and-narrow path. The passion of the convert then finds the weapons of the mass-murderer.
As freedoms multiply in the West, the response from the opposition will, at least in the short term, grow more violent. This is because at the very same time that the developed countries of the West are becoming less religious and more heterogeneous in their ethnic and religious composition, the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction. It’s easy not to notice in the West, where the broad trend is away from religious observance, and where crusading atheists now talk of the imminent death of god, but the world’s population is actually growing more religious. Much of this has to do with a revival in the developing world. Much of that, in turn, owes its vigour to relatively new, increasingly fundamentalist strains of religion, like militant Wahhabi Islam or evangelical Christianity.
Before we get too smug, citing this revival as proof that what the world needs is our secular and tolerant modernity, let’s reckon with the fact that many sociologists see the religious revival as a reaction to a crusade of our own: the triumph of a ‘market fundamentalism’ that has imposed neoliberal policies on Third-World countries in the devout conviction that faster economic growth will solve every problem. In one of the passages in my upcoming book, The Money Gods (Simon and Schuster, 2017), I write of how the political vacuum that gave rise to the Islamic State was created by the Arab Spring – the largely youth-led uprising against the neoliberalism that had smashed older social and political bonds and freed a tiny elite to enrich itself at everyone else’s expense. As modernity has apparently failed many citizens of the developing world, some inevitably have put the blame on modernity itself rather than its neoliberal strain, and have found solace in religion.
Now, this religious revival happens to be occurring at the same time that the population growth-rates of the rich countries have been declining. If we are to maintain ourselves in the standard to which we have grown accustomed, we need to keep importing immigrants. And because the sources of European emigration that once fed the labour markets of the developed countries have all themselves made the transition to low fertility, the only place left to turn is the abundant fields of the Third World. Thus, at the very time we are relying more on Third-World supplies of labour, those regions are becoming increasingly militant in their rejection of our secular trend.
The front-line of this clash lies in the major urban centres of the West, where the children of this immigration, whether native-born or themselves immigrants, immerse themselves in modernity. To call what results a clash of civilizations is, however, misleading. Militant Islam despises moderate Islam nearly as much as it despises the West. It’s more of a blowback from centuries of imperialism — a revisionist critique that says the West has used modernisation to keep other peoples down. As crude and simplistic as this narrative may be, it’s hard to debate it, because the counter-argument that celebrates Westernisation as progressive is equally crude. In truth, we in the West have spent much of the last few centuries enriching ourselves at the expense of those now turning against us. We have a problem on our hands, to which there are no easy solutions (as I have written previously). But it is a problem which in no small measure we created, so we need to look into ourselves for the solution.