The British have arrested Muslim terrorists, and once again, soul-searching is very much in evidence. "Why," I hear asked, "are those born among us turning against us?"
High unemployment, social isolation, anti-Muslim prejudice¯the standard explanations are canvassed. They boil down to a general analysis of homegrown terrorism as stemming from isolation from Western culture and ideals.
But is that right? Is the Muslim terrorist really such a strange, marginal, and alien figure in our own cultural history and mythology? Or is he not a rather familiar figure, perhaps all-too-well socialized into certain aspects of the modern and postmodern West?
The philosopher Charles Taylor has observed that a "politics of recognition" plays a significant role in the political psychology of modern liberal culture. People do not just have a right to speak their minds¯they have a right to be heard! Protest, burning draft cards, street violence, the Black Panthers: Public aggression and assertion have long been legitimated by our dominant, progressive mentality. "Silenced voices must be heard!"
Step back for a moment and think about it. We wonder why Muslims in Europe won’t contain their grievances and settle down to live within the ordinary routines of European society. I imagine that the tacit motto of most British politicians is "Just give assimilation a chance." And yet that same society supports and idealizes an entire class of perpetual protestors (Greenpeace, anti-globalization groups, animal rights activists, and so on) whose waking lives are spent hurtling themselves against society. May I be forgiven for thinking that mode of modern European existence has been well assimilated by the arrested terrorists?
Moreover, the linkage of supposedly idealistic protest with violence and aggression is also very much a part our modern Western political aesthetic. The French Revolution sanctified mob violence and ritualized public executions as noble expressions of liberty. The revolutionary remains a heroic type with a gun slung across his shoulder. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir wrote about gratuitous crimes as acts of existential purity. Norman Mailer romanticized murderers, and the Marquis de Sade ascends to canonical status in our universities.
I’m not an expert in Islamic history or theology, so I cannot assess its contribution to the European predicament of homegrown Islamic terrorism. But I do know something about the antinomian theologies of modern Western culture. We have a strong tradition of idealized political violence, and we have a closely related tradition that celebrates the imagined courage to transcend mere bourgeois morality to become the master of life and death. These are traditions taught and transmitted with pride and public subsidy. Educators and other representatives of culture vigorously defend these traditions against any criticisms by what remains of the older Western culture of civility, order, and restraint.
Maybe the arrested British Muslim men are not so alienated from the West after all.
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