It really isn’t the case that social and political phenomena, particularly in non-establishment forms, can be explained fully by pointing out basic religious and philosophical principles. Those are important, but they never tell the whole story. We have to look at a bit of psychology, as well as noting wider trends among similar groups of people. I tried to do this in my first lecture on religious converts at the Bucer Institute (mp3s here). I found that I got two primary reactions. One said that it was totally unscientific and therefore of no use, and the other said my description was precisely what had occurred in their own experience and was among the most valuable insights in the whole lecture series. So I suppose I will confess to being unscientific in this regard while continuing to insist that certain psychological and personal issues are real. Pastors and politicians especially need to understand this.
This definitely applies to certain personalities that are attracted to religious extremism. It really isn’t even correct to call it religious extremism, because, as we saw in the case of Breivik, they can routinely admit to not being very religious at all. So let’s call it cultural extremism. Cultural extremists are on a quest, and they are trying to solve a deep problem in their lives. They are disaffected with modernity and long for another era where the men were men and the living was authentic. Whether it be some notion of medieval Europe, the golden age of Islam, or even the American founding, a nearly utopian world is created in which the cultural extremist can find his new identity. He may or may not cease to be active out in the “real world” (his local community and the public square), but he certainly devotes the majority of his interests to the alternative world.
We saw this in Breivik as he described himself as playing lots of World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare 2, even crediting them as a sort of training ground. Additionally Breivik claimed to be a member of the Knights Templar, an institution that has not existed for centuries and is largely now the property of Dan Brown-style conspiracy fantasies. Breivik listened to the soundtracks of Conan the Barbarian and the Lord of the Rings on his iPod, supposedly while he was carrying out his shootings. There’s a real marriage between warrior and geek in Breivik’s personality. What struck me the most, however, was the military wetsuit that he created for himself and appears in at the 12 min. mark of this video. On his left arm is a patch which reads: “MARXIST HUNTER… Multiculti Traitor Hunting Permit.”
Now think about that for a minute. While building his bombs, buying his guns, and planning a mass murder, this guy also played dress up. I mean really, a fake hunter’s permit patch? That’s outrageously geeky. Breivik was playing his own sort of RPG throughout all of this.
This kind of thing happens routinely among ideologues, albeit certainly to a lesser degree. Everyone who is familiar with Presbyterianism knows that when a Baptist becomes a Presbyterian, they typically have to watch Braveheart, buy a CD of bagpipe music, and, if they live below the Mason-Dixon line, develop a strong fondness for the antebellum South. Anglicans have their own version of this. I know several young men who have adopted the British spellings of colour and honour as a way to show their commitment to the true faith. Usually these sorts of things are left at the level of fun and geeky side-interests, but if the convert is himself alienated from a community of friends or particularly angry at the world, these character quirks can turn into something else. This is what was going on with Breivik, and, with certain modifications to fit the scene, this is also what’s going on with a lot of Islamic radicalism. They are allowing their ideological fascinations to become an alternative identity.
This isn’t just a sampling of silly hobbies that accompany religious ideologies. This is actually part of wider condition throughout modernity which transcends the various ideologies under discussion, and we do have a relatively recent portrayal of this disposition in popular American culture: Fight Club.
First a book and then a popular movie (though as a cult classic, which is more appropriate for the topic at hand), Fight Club is a portrait of a man jilted by modernity and in search of something more authentic and primal in his life. He begins a secret club where men can regain their true identities by fighting. This eventually becomes a terrorist organization with the goal of bringing down modern corporate America. Sound familiar? There’s no religion in Fight Club because the phenomenon is its own issue. We could say that it is its own religion. And what I’d like to propose is that radical Islam and right-wing nationalism have more in common with each other than they do with their own purported cultural and religious histories. They are Fight Club.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not willing to say that there’s nothing to worry about with Islam. But I am insisting that what there is to worry about with Islam is totally different than what the majority of the media and mainstream press get worked up over. What they’re always on about is either something worth considering (the idea that religion and culture might actually impact each other) or it’s just the Fight Club phenomenon. And when dealing with this latter issue, we don’t need to be fooled into thinking that it’s primarily a political or theological issue. It’s a personal issue. People attracted to real-life RPGs in the form of partisan hostility do not need so much to be combated on the intellectual level, but on the existential one. They are having trouble with “reentry” and need to come back to reality.
There’s certainly a political angle to extremism. I wouldn’t want to deny that. The leadership of many terrorist groups has adopted its style of action because of the necessities of being a non-state actor or what Carl Schmitt called “the partisan.” Schmitt’s political and historical reading is important, to be sure, and it shows that the tactics of terrorism come from a very specific military strategy which has its origins in Spain and Russia, further supporting my insistence that it cannot be addressed merely by religious or philosophical ideology (though again, to be clear, religious and philosophical ideology is important and does have a role to play). Nevertheless, as helpful as this is in addressing the organizational level of extremism, I still believe that the Fight Club phenomenon best addresses the recruitment level. It is, as much as anything, the root of the problem. They have an identity crisis.
What’s the solution? Daddy-issues-styled therapy? Perhaps. But more simply I think these individuals need to be reassured of their own manhood (or personhood in general) and given appropriate outlets to realize their desires. They need to kill and eat so to speak, but they need to be able to do this in non-harmful ways. Instead of being told to repress their energy, they need to be told to redirect it an appropriate manner. Instead of radical politics, they need what the old Protestant theologians called vocation, or a personal calling to work in the world. This isn’t limited to a job, though that’s not a bad start. It also includes marriage, a family, building something for the community, creating a larger life-project, and even contributing to the common good. This is where the churches can and should come in to address the problem. And I suppose that this is the level where ideology will also come back on the scene.
Churches cannot use “culture wars” to promote alternative realities and Fight Clubs. Instead, they have to be able to marshal a prophetic critique that is consistent with all of the prophets. “Seek the peace of the city,” –he said. “For in its peace you will have peace.”