Righteous Rage

By Lorenzo

In September, there were two horrific jihadi attacks in Africa against “soft targets”–the 21 September attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya and the 29 September massacre of students in the male dormitory of the College of Agriculture in Gujba, Yobe State, Nigeria.  The first attack killed at least 61 civilians (plus 6 Kenyan soldiers and 5 jihadis), the second 44 (mostly Muslim) students.

Conflicted history

Africa has a long history of jihadism. The frontiers between Islam, Christianity and animism have been violently contested ever since the first waves of Islamic conquest swept across North Africa and into Spain from the mid C7th to early C8th. The notion that the jihadi impulse went dormant after the initial wave of Islamic imperialism until being “revived” by Western imperialism is quite false, and particularly so in Africa.

Not only was there violently contested religious frontiers, but the social pattern of isolated trade cities and thin agrarian strips surrounded by lineage-organised pastoralism which had produced the original Islamic explosion in the Arabian peninsula was reproduced in North Africa, especially in the Maghreb. Periodically, a religious leader would inspire unity across lineages, leading to another wave of conquering, religious-inspired pastoralists, such as the Almoravids in the C11th and the Almohads in the C12th.

Not that Africa is the only border area of Islam where there is a long history of contested religious frontiers. The tiny Christian minority in Pakistan continues to be the regular target of mass-murder attacks.

Revealing rage

The September attacks were massacres of civilians (in the second case, teenage boys), though the Westgate mall turned into a prolonged gun battle when Kenyan forces arrived. The attacks were mass murders, and intentionally so. In the case of the Westgate mall attack, there seems to have been some attempt to only target non-Muslims.

The attacks prompted me to re-read Bernard Lewis’s 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage. The analysis therein does help make sense of such attacks in ways that “blaming the West” narratives do not. The organisation behind the massacre of students–which has previously carried out similar attacks–is Boko Haram, whose name apparently translates as “Western education is sinful”. Such attacks are about controlling behaviour and belief–above all, within Muslim societies themselves.


Who is attacked, how and where can be very revealing. Consider the attempt to kill 14 year old Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for schooling for girls. How can a 14 year old girl be such a threat that she had to be killed?

Very easily, if one understands that the focus is control and belief; particularly controlling women. Indeed, what could be a greater threat to that goal than a Muslim teenage girl who publicly embraces actively thinking and seeking knowledge for oneself?

Attacks on Western targets are subordinate to that ultimate goal and make sense in terms of that goal. First, because the West is seen as the most dramatic source and exemplar of belief and behaviour outside the designated righteous patterns. Second, to create an “us and them” dynamic, to encourage more Muslims to see the West as the wicked Other. Third, to display the power and commitment of the jihadis, through their ability to strike at the powerful West–especially the most powerful and culturally salient Western Power, the US.

None of which reasons operated in the slaughters of Boko Haram, in the Westgate mall massacre, in the slaughters of Pakistani Christians, in the attempt to kill Malala. It is not a matter of how Western policy or actions drive such attacks, it is a matter of how the underlying motivation–given the goal of controlling belief and behaviour–drives who is attacked, how and where.

Which means that US policy can have only a very limited impact on the motivation behind the attacks on US targets because they are not driven by responding to US policy. American films and TV shows, and the culturally subversive patterns therein, are ultimately a greater offense than, for example, supporting Israel. The level of anti-Americanism in Muslim countries has much more to do with the local dynamics of political mobilisation (pdf) than the specifics of US policy or even the local level of religious piety. Turkey is one of the most secular of Muslim countries, yet anti-American sentiment is high. Senegal is one of the most traditionally pious of Muslim countries, yet anti-American sentiment is low.

Ironically, phrases such as “they hate our freedoms” and “the war on terror” are closer to the mark in describing that nature of the jihadi struggle than more “knowing” sophistications. It is not, however, their being “our” (i.e. of the West) freedoms which is the problem; the problem is the spread of such freedoms–that they become not merely of the West. That is what is truly threatening.

Hence a murderous attack on a 14 year old girl.

Culture jihad

Complaints about waging the war on terror being a “war on a noun” (which, strangely, do not come up when people talk about fighting racism, for example) do have a germ of a point, however. The problem is the homicidal rage of the righteous. Terror may be their strategy, but it is a cultural struggle, a kulturkampf, that they are engaged in.

Yet the mere fact of cultural struggle is not, in itself, a problem. The problem is precisely in what means they employ to prosecute that strategy. So, in that sense, it is a war on terror that the West is engaged in.

If, however, the aim is to get the jihadis to foreswear the strategy of terror, then there is a deeper problem. For there is no more complete way to express rage than slaughter and no more complete statement of commitment than embracing death for the cause. Terror then becomes not a merely strategy but a fulfilment. Both an instrument to an end and an end in itself. Suicide bombing may be a tactic, but it is one overwhelmingly associated with religious motivations; especially when it is realised that the leadership of the “secular” Tamil Tigers also invoked religious claims.

Fuelled by righteous rage, terror becomes a fulfilment which does not simply profoundly discount the costs to others. Horror at the attacks, pity for the victims, these are manifestations of empathy. Yet, in the dynamics of righteousness, refusal to empathise with the unrighteous is not psychopathology, it is commitment to righteousness; it is the highest morality. All who refuse to follow the path of righteousness are guilty.  The pain and horror inflicted are not “collateral damage”, they are successful punishment of, and warning to, the unrighteous. The costs to (unrighteous) others is part of the benefit to the righteous.

For the unrighteous do not become non-persons, they become anti-persons. Their pain is gain to righteousness and the servants thereof. There is no warrior code to restrain the killers, because all the unrighteous are legitimate targets in the highest struggle of all. Warrior codes exist to distinguish between warriors and murderers and this war of righteousness makes no such distinctions in who may be killed, just by whom and why.

Particularist moral systems–such as those of tribal and nomadic communities–differentiate between members of their moral community and outsiders. The latter are effectively moral neuters, who are treated with amoral pragmatism. The are, in a sense, morally non-persons. Though they may gain moral status–as in the rules concerning hospitality.

Universal moral systems have no category for moral outsiders in the above sense. The moral rules apply to everyone–that is what makes such a system a universal one. To be outside its precepts is to be morally pathological, unrighteous, and not as some unfortunate accident but as deliberate choice. Systems of sin or grace both expand the ways to be fallen and the consequences of being so. To wilfully embrace unrighteousness is to become an enemy of righteousness. You are not merely outside the moral system, you are opposed to it. Hence you are not merely a non-person–a moral neuter–since a universal moral system admits no such category, but an anti-person, an enemy of righteousness. Someone whose success is an offence to righteousness, and whose loss is therefore a gain to it; a literal reversal of moral standing from someone of positive moral standing to someone of negative moral significance.


Systems of eternal salvation raise the stakes, and hence the anxiety, attached to adhering to righteousness. Vilifying the unrighteous becomes an excellent way of displacing one’s own anxiety while signaling to oneself, and others, one’s commitment to righteousness. (The Islamic doctrine of “the torments of the grave” adds to such anxiety.)

In such universal moral systems there is status and authority to be had from acting as gatekeepers of righteousness. Righteousness becomes a club good, and there is power and authority in saying who is in and who is out; what is righteous and what is not. Pakistani clerics issuing fatwas against Christmas celebrations are precisely playing that game. But so, of course, is a Cardinal-Archbishop denying communion to those displaying the rainbow sash.

Not that is purely a religious game. Political correctness is simply a secular form of righteousness, where part of signalling how righteous you are is ad hominem denunciation of those who fail to follow its precepts of righteousness. The point being precisely that those who so fail are not merely mistaken, but of bad character, as the point of the club is to mark out the better people, the “good” people, and the more intense the vilification, the greater one’s commitment to righteousness and the more one is one of the “good” people. There is a certain wry amusement to be had in watching human rights commissions and Catholic and other clerics struggle over who gets to be socially dominant gatekeepers of righteousness, who gets to be the more effective moral bullies. It is, however, a struggle that rarely leads to murders; still less to patterns of mass murder.

There is a range in degree of adherence to generalised normal norms (applying to everyone) or to limited (ambit) moral norms (typically tribal or clan based), to adopt a distinction from social science literature (pdf). Thus, Europe has developed more reliance on generalised norms (“the city”), China more reliance on (pdf) (via) limited norms (“the clan”). Islam offers universalised norms in a region when limited ambit clan/lineage norms are very powerful. It is perhaps not surprising that “tipping over” into commitment to norms with wider application is both more intense and more easily structured into a new, and particularly intense, form of insider-outsider norms. Especially when, due to its all-encompassing nature, Islam is structurally hostile to alternative generalised norms (such as nation, citizenship or democracy-based norms).

Indeed, in the Asharite theology that al Ghazali helped make dominant in mainstream Sunni Islam, there is literally no knowledge, morality or binding injunction outside God’s will and revelation. Revelation does not reveal what is good or evil, it constitutes what is good or evil. Allah is a Nietszchean (beyond good and evil) legal positivist whose revealed law is the only morality. Islam is, in effect, a system of limited-ambit norms with universal claims and exclusions. With very different notions of locus of control than presumed in Western thought, so very different presumptions about individual responsibility and standing–or, indeed, causation in general. There is no other evil than disobeying God because God’s revelation literally defines good and evil. There is no individual conscience, there is only submission to God.

Signals and framing

Demands from within the West for other Muslims to publicly reject the actions of the jihadis is usually simply signalling reassurance–are you Muslims we can live with or are you all our enemies? But there is also a framing reassurance–do you buy into the framing of righteous versus unrighteous used by the jihadis?

To which the accurate answer is usually–well, yes, to some extent. The jihadis are not engaging in a delusional fantasy about Islam. They are being highly selective in which manifestations of Islam they embrace and the religious authority for some of their actions is very thin, to say the least. But their framings are not just made up. Jihad as religious war against non-believers is deeply rooted in Islamic jurisprudence, the working out of God’s rules (which is all that there is left after the Asharite reduction of everything to God’s will and power).

Moreover, the technology may be modern but the outlook is familiar from history. The Zealots of Jewish history had essentially the same motivations, framings and modes of action as contemporary jihadis. They, after all, were also engaged in a kulturkampf against contamination of Jewish culture by Graeco-Roman culture.

Titus destroying the Second Temple.

Titus destroying the Second Temple.

Waves of brutal Roman repression, and dispersal to permanent minority status, shifted Jewish history into the same sort of path that the Ismailis (whose religious lineage includes the original Assassins) have embraced for the same reasons. But cultural threat colliding with an aggrieved sense of righteousness generated very similar responses among Jews under Roman rule as among contemporary Muslims under Western cultural hegemony.

The Zealot impulse burned itself out once the costs were demonstrably so high that Jewish culture evolved mechanisms to ensure that path was closed. Given how comparatively limited the costs to the global Muslim community have been from jihadi actions and the responses to same, I suspect that Islam’s fraught interaction with modernity will continue to motivate jihadi responses for decades to come. That righteous rage will continue to generate mass murders. And that the spectre of hi-tech jihad will continue to hang over us.


  1. Patrick
    Posted October 16, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I suggest we resurrect William Tecumseh Sherman and ask him to drive out Boko Haram, and then al-Shabab.

  2. MT Isa Miner
    Posted October 18, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    How were the cost higher in history for the Jews?DO you mean Christian pogroms? Buckleys of that happening again. Give us option B.

    What cultural mechanisms did jews use to close off the warpath with chrisiantity? Would you reckon the jews being able ti charge interst on money where it was a sin for the rest of ‘”us” was it? You mentioned it before. Again Buckleys of the muslim world showing any signs so far of a trade or skill advantage. Always interesting posts, mate.

  3. kvd
    Posted October 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Good ‘black and white’ analysis of motivations, but it’s also a bit like saying all Liberals are basically failed Jesuit seminarians with a predilection for bike riding. Or all Catholic priests are a priori pedophiles.

    I like grey. Did you know Lorenzo that the Hubble telescope produces all those lovely colourful pictures without an actual ‘colour camera’ on board? All pixels are shades of grey scale. And far more than 50 of them.

  4. conrad
    Posted October 19, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    That was an interesting read. I’m a bit skeptical of some of it. The reason for this is that I think once these conflicts have gone on for long enough, many of the participants don’t actually really know why they are fighting — they’re just doing what they expect to do, and hence it perpetuates. So whilst the original manifestations may come from deeper sources, the latter ones don’t. It’s like when you go to protests and ask people why they’re there. Sometimes (perhaps most times), most can’t explain it.

    A good example of this comes for an IRA interview I saw, where they were interviewing some guy in jail for doing heinous crimes. That’s basically what he said — he didn’t even why he was doing what he was doing, and it was just he’d grown hating the other group and that was what he did. So the original reasons for the motivations were long gone.

  5. Posted October 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] African problems which need African solutions.

    [email protected] Actually, it was Roman pogroms. The Christian pogroms operated when the Jews had long since stopped being any sort of threat. I am not sure there is an option B except the grinding anti-terrorism struggle.

    [email protected] I am not sure what is grey about trying to kill 14 year old girls of teenage boys asleep in their beds because you have a different view of appropriate education.

    [email protected] Some conflicts can be self-perpetuating. But Boko Haram, for example is a relatively new group. There is a question why similar sorts of responses are seen again and again in a wide range of social milieus.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *