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Why do Westerners Join ISIS?

Official portrait of Senator Bob Casey

Fifty-five year old Senator Bob Casey declared that he expects the campaign against Islamic terrorism to last beyond his lifetime.

Worried comments on Westerners joining ISIS tend to overlook the fact that this is an all-volunteer army. Surely that has some significance when trying to explain its success. Fifty-five year old Senator Bob Casey has declared that he expects the campaign against Islamic terrorism to last beyond his lifetime, implying that we are dealing with a clash of civilizations. However, it’s a different clash from the one Samuel Huntington wrote about in the nineties.

Huntington and contemporary commentators inspired by him see it as a clash between ‘freedom’ and a religious dictatorship. But if that were the case, why are hundreds – and perhaps thousands of young people from the ‘free’ West flocking to join ISIS ranks? Why did they come – the technicians who help them pump and sell their oil on the black market, the financial geniuses who enable them to make sophisticated money deals around the world, the doctors who presumably treat their wounded, not to mention the writers, photographers, video streamers and other technicians who run their recruiting websites, etc. etc.?

There must be a very compelling reasons why Westerners would overlook medieval beheadings to join the campaign for an Islamic Caliphate. (One commentator argued yesterday that beheadings are not necessarily more shocking than death by drone, but that explanation doesn’t suffice.) They do so for the same reasons that others join their national armies to fight organizations like ISIS: a belief in the values those armies defend. For Westerners, it’s about the freedom for individuals to develop to their full potential without too much government interference. But that freedom has increasingly been manipulated by a Madison Ave that gets the 99% to acquire all sorts of ‘things’ in order to fill the coffers of the 1%. That relentless campaign uses men, women and children as props, trivializing and often degrading them, as well as the lifestyles as those who are taken in by it. If you doubt this argument, consider that German cities are seeing ‘Sharia Patrols’ in their streets, while Iran’s president Rouhani seeks to soften restrictions on women’s dress.

ISIS’s black-flagged campaign against the West is not so much about God as it is about life-style. Its Western recruits likely range from puritanic men who want all women to wear the hijab, to men and women who reject the emptiness of the consumer society and have come to the conclusion that speaking and writing about it will have no effect on a system that can crush all enemies. Considering that the priority is to overthrow the Behemoth, in the absence of Western revolutionary movements, they join ISIS, seeing it as the enemy of that enemy.

I do not believe there will ever be another Caliphate because the world has changed too much for that to happen: but part of what underlies the North/South divide is a radical difference in visions of the good society. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, like most leaders of the developing world, condemn the barbarism of radical Islam, while disagreeing with the Western model of society. Together with a growing number of Western thinkers such as no-growth advocates like Serge Latouche, or essayists like Pankai Mishra, they see the lifestyles the consumer society promotes as empty and degrading. Their vision is of a capitalism that would not replace ‘backwardness’ with emptiness.

But that story doesn’t make good headlines.

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Deena Stryker

Deena Stryker

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