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Whose Nihilism?

After the brutal execution of the American journalist James Foley, President Obama issued a statement decrying the brutality and viciousness of the so-called Islamic State.  “From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.”  Obama said, “There has to be a clear rejection of these kind (sic) of nihilistic ideologies.”  Nihilistic, you say?  That’s an interesting and unfortunate appellation, to say the very least.

Tellingly, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement the same day, also referring to the Islamic State as “nihilistic.”  Clearly, the administration has consciously chosen to attack the ideology behind the radical Islamism for its nihilism.  And lest you think that this is a partisan phenomenon, Republicans, too, have long bemoaned the nihilism of the Islamists.  Indeed, just after 9/11, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer charged al Qaeda with a “worship of death and destruction [that] is a nihilism of a ferocity unlike any since the Nazis….”

But is this really so?  And if it’s not, what does this fascination with Islamist “nihilism” say about the fight to stop the spread of this deadly ideology?

Nihilism, as you undoubtedly know, is a complicated and complex philosophical concept. The heart of it, though – both linguistically and metaphysically – is nihil, the Latin word for “nothing.”  Nothing is real; nothing is important; nothing matters; nothing can be known; nothing is good; nothing is evil; nothing . . . well . . . is.

Nihilism as a philosophical notion is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who notably pondered the concept, its causes, and its cures.  Nietzsche’s study of nihilism is important in its own right.  But for our purposes today, we think it’s far more important for the influence it had on others and their influence on the course of Western civilization.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Nietzsche’s thoughts on nihilism was the effect that they had on Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher, Nazi backer, and patron saint of postmodernism.  Heidegger, through his interpretation of Nietzsche’s nihilism, effectively fashioned what we understand today as postmodern thought and especially postmodernism’s examination of reality, values, and truth.  In brief, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the purpose of being and thus the value in being helped form the foundation of Heidegger’s “da-sein” (i.e. “being projected into Nothingness”), which, in turn, helped form the foundation of postmodernism’s critique of objectivity and objective reality.

What all of this suggests is that calling the Islamists “nihilists” actually states the matter precisely backward.  Islamism may, indeed, be a death-cult of sorts, but those deaths are at least associated with some meaning, a perverse meaning to be sure, but meaning nonetheless.  In the case of the nonbeliever, death is an exercise in purging the temporal world of the stain of this non-belief, of purifying the community, the ummah.  In the case of the devout Islamist, death is the means by which God’s will is done and man enters into eternal paradise.  In both cases, life and death are, at least in some sense, meaningful.

By contrast, the Western world, led by the United States, has very much become a practical case-study in what amounts to a nihilistic attack on reality, a laboratory of postmodern experimentation.  And “postmodernism” is an anti-Enlightenment philosophical tradition.  It explicitly rejects the foundations of the Enlightenment, and of modernism itself, which is to say that it rejects reason as the source of knowledge and rejects the individual as the repository of this knowledge.

As such, postmodernism rejects objective reality, preferring to define reality as nothing more than the amalgamation of language and power.  It also broadly espouses a view of the individual as a derivative of the collective, the “group,” and of the collective’s social and linguistic attributes.  Professor Stephen Hicks put it this way in his classic Explaining Postmodernism:

Metaphysically, postmodernism is antirealist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality.  Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality.  Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality.  Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions.

Or, to put it another way, postmodernism denies the existence of reality.  Nothing is real.  Nothing is true – except that which power relationships determine to be true.  Nothing is objectively right.  And nothing is objectively wrong.  Such concepts are mere constructs of power relationships.

As nice as it may sound to condemn the enemy as “nihilists,” in truth, it is we, not they, who tend toward the nihilistic, the belief in nothing.  And that presents an enormous problem.

Note that James Foley was executed by a man who spoke with a London accent and who was most likely a British citizen.  British intelligence estimates that there are more British Muslims serving in the militia of the Islamic State than are serving in the British armed forces.  Young men from all over the Western world – the United States, Canada, France, Australia, and especially Great Britain – have decamped to the Middle East to take part in the Islamic civil wars and to train for jihadi operations against their native lands.

The problem of the Western jihadist is likewise the problem of Western civilization.  Western morality and even much of Western religion has devolved, over the last century or more, into little more than the complicit rationalization of contemporary values.  The great moral tradition of the West has largely been jettisoned in favor of a contemporary, situational ethic, a moral system that values nothing so much as non-judgmentalism and which offers very little, if anything, by way of spiritual transcendence.

Confronted by this spiritual nothingness, many people, and many young men in particular, choose to forsake their decadent culture for something more traditional, something that offers a real and fixed belief system.  All too often, those who are best at marketing and promoting the solidity of their beliefs also happen to have rather perverted and sadistic beliefs as well.  All of which is to say that young men who are encouraged to believe in nothing often find themselves drawn instead to something.  And that something is far too often a primitive and violent misinterpretation of reality.

Man, as it were, yearns for something to believe in; he craves something to fill his soul to give him hope.  As the apocryphal Chesteron quote puts it, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”  And in the case of the Western jihadists, that “anything,” all too often includes a brutal and blood-thirsty, primeval creed.

In the end, then, the crisis of Islamism is, in part, a crisis of confidence on the part of Western civilization.  A culture that no longer understands itself, no longer believes in its own righteousness – indeed, no longer believes in righteousness at all – is a culture that cannot long survive and certainly cannot be expected to fare well in a clash of civilizations.  All of which is to say that nihilism is indeed an enemy in this war.  But it is Western nihilism, not that of the Islamist terrorists, that matters.