The recent horrible attacks in Paris, as well as the other terrorist attacks in Australia and Canada, are unpardonable acts. But as the adrenaline and immediate fear subsides, the question arises: why would anyone do such a thing? And why must the most terrifying acts of the modern world be carried out in the name of Islam?
Experts repeatedly emphasize that Islam is a peaceful religion, that no proper interpretation of the Koran would support the recent brutality. Having read the Koran as well as academic, personal, and historical analyses of the literature, I am very inclined to agree. But these assertions stand in stark contrast to what we are experiencing in the modern world. I would agree that the Islamic militants of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorists are an extremist minority. But the fact remains that there are a few thousand people in the world who have unified together under like causes of spreading violence, fear, and hatred for the Western modernity. They have created for themselves an identity that, one can imagine, is a clear and welcoming alternative to uncertainty and confusion.
Consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s cliff walker from his early work of Being and Nothingness. According to Sartre, one’s identity is ambiguous, changing, and uncertain. It is defined by one’s actions, not by a state of being. We must look to our future to make meaning of the present. Naturally, since the present is ambiguous and changing, there are an infinite number of possibilities for the future. The cliff walker, walking along a precarious path on the edge of a precipice, is anguished because he faces these infinite possibilities; and one such possibility is to jump in to the abyss to die. Sartre argues that it is the decision to jump or walk that defines the identity – we have the freedom to choose, by acting, the infinite possibilities, even though we do not know precisely what these possibilities are. It is freedom to walk to cliff; it is freedom to jump off the cliff. And the choice can be quite daunting to someone overwhelmed by the ambiguous, changing, and uncertain nature of one’s identity.
One can see the parallels to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness cliff walker to today’s youth. The world has been changing rapidly all of their lives; many live in a country or culture different than their parents or grandparents. There is the desire to assimilate, the desire to remember one’s heritage, the desire to find and hold onto the familiar. What does it mean to assimilate? What does it mean to have a heritage? What does it mean to be familiar? Are these naturally mutually exclusive categories, or can they coexist in the same time and space? If coexistence is a possibility, then everyone would have a mixed identity, and by definition a different identity – how then can one belong, unless the definition of belonging is to exist in a space where no one belongs? What does it even mean to belong?
Clearly, these conflicting desires lead to a divisive, schizophrenic identity that is obvious to any objective viewer. And such arguments seem to define the ambiguous, changing, and uncertain Sartrian identity. Sartre was wise to point out that jumping off the cliff is also an identity, and is also a freedom. Though jumping off the cliff has a certain future – you die when you hit bottom. Perhaps, joining a group like ISIS or Al-Qaeda is akin to jumping off the cliff. You receive the temporary psychological comfort knowing that you have made a choice, that you have an identity, that you have expressed your freedom in making that identity. The tragedy is that you will also hit the bottom of the abyss.
The tragedy deepens. The extremist versions of Islam have woven a rhetoric so convincing that, for its adherents, hitting the bottom of the abyss is not seen as a tragedy. Unfortunately, Islam lends itself well to the rhetoric. It is still seen in the same light as your choice to jump off: identity and freedom affirming. But, for the Sartrian cliff walker, the decision to jump off the cliff or to continue walking is supposed to be filled with anguish. The cliff walker does not want to die, but the cliff walker does not want to face the infinite unknown of walking either. Perhaps the ISIS militants have felt this anguish for a long time, and the unification of the group provided the opportunity to jump, or perhaps they jumped without seeing the bottom of the abyss as the anguish producing tragedy. Most likely it is a combination of both. But leave with the final thought: we should not be wondering what is wrong with Islam, or any clashes of civilizations, or the collision of modernity with antiquity. We should be worrying on how to express the anguish at the bottom of the abyss in a language that all souls, while in the throws of a schizophrenic identity search, would understand as a serious and life ending freedom.