Youth, as everyone knows who has passed through it some time ago, is the age not of idealism but of self-importance, uncertainty masked by certitude and moral grandiosity untouched by experience of life — or, of course, the age of total insouciance. It is not surprising that ideology makes young men dangerous, for it is in the nature of ideology to answer all the difficult questions of human existence while giving believers the illusion of special understanding and destiny not available to others.
With the downfall of the Soviet Union, Marxism lost almost all of its appeal for hormonally disaffected young men of the West, leaving them bereft of significance and purpose. Except for one group among them, they now had only a potpourri of causes (sexism, racism, the environment, etc.), none of which quite met the need or filled the gap.
The group excepted, of course, was the Muslims. Islam was waiting in the wings with a ready-made ideology. Nature hates a vacuum, especially in young men’s heads, which are all too easily filled with quarter-baked ideas. Islamism is so stupid, so preposterous and intellectually nugatory, and so appallingly catastrophic in its actual effects, that it makes one almost nostalgic for the days of Marxism. At least Marxism had a patina of rationality, and most of its adherents (in the West at any rate), while not averse to violence in the abstract, were willing to postpone the final, extremely violent apocalypse to some future date and did not believe that by blowing themselves up or cutting people’s throats they would ascend directly to the classless society or meet Marx in his pantheon. You could be a martyr in the Marxist cause, but only on the understanding that death was final. The best you could hope for was that, after the final victory of the proletarian revolution, you would have a postage stamp issued in your memory. This does not have quite the same attraction as an everlasting orgy in a cool desert oasis while everyone else is roasting eternally in Gehenna (no bliss is quite complete without someone else’s agony).
The other great advantage of Marxism, from the point of view of national security, was that it was not dominated by ethnic minorities (as Islam is, give or take some converts), so that, however vehement the language of Marxism or its imagined solutions to the world’s problems, its organizations were easy to infiltrate. The observed and the observer shared the same general culture; there was no foreign and unfamiliar tongue to learn; and though it had its jargon, it was easy to master. Moreover, very few young men in the West went off to join Marxist insurgencies around the world or posed a threat to their own countries when they returned. They preferred support in theory to participation in practice, certainly after World War II. Only the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War attracted Marxists to real combat.
But the sheer stupidity of a belief that is incompatible with the most obvious reflections on current reality and on history is, alas, no obstacle to its spread; and Islamism has been able to inspire, if that is quite the word, hundreds or thousands (no one knows exactly how many) of young Muslims from Europe, and a few from North America, to fight for Islamist causes in the Maghreb, the Sahel, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Among them are thought to be about 700 from Britain, the largest contingent of any Western country. Though France has a Muslim population twice as big as Britain’s, its jihadist contingent is estimated to be about half the size of Britain’s.
The South London accent and intonation of the apparent killer of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines, and the manner of the murders, have shocked and horrified people in Britain. Very little is known of the man, not even his ethnic origin: In London, a third of whose population was born abroad, there are so many possibilities, even among Muslims. But his joy in his own brutality, his sadistic delight in doing evil with the excuse that it was for a supposedly holy cause, in inflicting such a death under the illusion that it was a duty rather than a crime, was obvious. His “faith” allowed him to act out the fantasy of every dangerous psychopath dreaming of revenge upon a world that was not good enough for him and that otherwise failed to accord him the special notice or place that he thought he merited.
Not only is the British contingent the most numerous among the Western jihadists, but by all accounts they are the most brutal of the brutal. That, at any rate, is the conclusion of researchers at King’s College London who have followed the evolution of the jihadi temptation in Britain, the latest instance of what Jean-François Revel called “the totalitarian temptation.”
Two questions call for answers. The first is why there should be proportionally more jihadis from Britain than, say, from France. The second is why they should be more brutal. Since the premises of the questions themselves are somewhat speculative, depending on information that is itself far from proved beyond reasonable doubt, any answers must be even more speculative. In any case, the uncovering of the why of any human conduct is seldom straightforward.
Are there more British jihadis, for example, because the condition of Muslims in Britain is worse than elsewhere? In answering this question it is well to remember that Muslims are not just Muslims and nothing else. The Muslims in Germany are mainly of Turkish origin; in France, of North African; and in Britain, of Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Any difference in their collective behavior, therefore, might be attributable to their origin as much as to the country of their upbringing.
The position of the Muslims in Britain is not “objectively” worse than that of their coreligionists in France; if anything, the reverse. It is considerably easier for a young Muslim man to obtain a job in Britain than in France, and social ascent is easier. Britain is more obviously a class society than France, but also more socially mobile (the two things are often confused, but are different). And there has been no legislation in Britain against the public use of that cherished Muslim symbol of male domination, the veil.
But failure is not necessarily easier to bear in a more open society than in a closed one: On the contrary, resentment is all the stronger because of the additional element of personal responsibility for that failure, actual or anticipated. In some ways, life is easier, psychologically at least, when you can attribute failure entirely to external causes and not to yourself or anything about yourself. The relative failure of Muslims (largely of Pakistani origin) is evident by comparison with Sikhs and Hindus: Their household wealth is less than half that of Sikhs and Hindus (immigrants at more or less the same time), and while the unemployment rate of young Sikhs and Hindus is slightly lower than that of whites, that of young Muslims is double. Sikh and Hindu crime rates are well below the national average; Muslim crime rates are well above. Racial prejudice is unlikely to account for these differences. Jihad attracts ambitious failures, including those who are impatient or fearful of the long and arduous road to conventional success. Jihad is a shortcut to importance, with the added advantage of stirring fear in a society that the jihadists want to believe has wronged them, but that they are more likely to have wronged.
But why should the British be the most brutal of European jihadists, by all accounts the doctrinally most extreme among them (supposing that reports of this are true)? This, I think, is explicable by the nature of contemporary British culture, using the word “culture” in the widest sense. It is the crudest, most aggressive, and most lacking in refinement of any of the Western cultures, at least of any that I have observed.
Nowhere else known to me do so many young men desire to look brutish and as if the slightest disagreement with them, the first thing denied them, the first word they deem offensive, will cause them to become violent. In no other country in the world are so many doormen and bouncers necessary to keep order in places of entertainment; in no other place in the world does collective enjoyment so quickly turn to fight and riot. Eye-to-eye contact is regarded as a challenge and can lead to an attack of murderous intensity, while sexual crudity and incontinence are accompanied by furious jealousy, a common occasion of violence among young men.
Before they find in Islamism the answer to life’s problems, the jihadis have often fully participated in this way of life. Jihadi websites enjoin their coreligionists to forswear it as degraded and horrible (as indeed it is): Those who do the enjoining know whereof they speak.
Instead of forswearing their brutality, however, they moralize it and give it a semblance of a cause and purpose. For them, jihad is a nightclub brawl on a huge scale with a supposedly transcendent purpose. In being the most brutal of the brutal, they show how partially British they are.
— Theodore Dalrymple is a medical doctor and the author, most recently, of Threats of Pain and Ruin. This is adapted from an article in the September 22, 2014, issue of National Review.