Understanding ISIS


In an era when many people in the West have become desensitized to brutality by an endless series of atrocities, from Eastern Europe to Palestine, from Rwanda to North Korea, the brutality of ISIS has succeeded in shocking us: mass beheadings, genocides of religious and other minorities, burning caged men to death—and bragging about doing so online. That so many young people who, one would think, should know better are so attracted to ISIS that they travel thousands of miles to join is more shocking still. How could such a ragtag assemblage of malcontents be so successful in violence, and why is that violence so magnetic?

Experts of all kinds are engaged in an effort to make some sense of this unexpected phenomenon, well summarized in an article by “Anonymous” in the August 13, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books. He writes that despite piles of information on the workings of ISIS, and analyses of its ideology, which he characterizes as “the peculiar blend of Koranic verses, Arab nationalism, crusader history, poetic reference, sentimentalism, and horror that can animate and sustain such movements,” “Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.” To have more information will not solve the problem of the “alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon.” He concludes in something like despair: “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

Horrified and baffled. We have been here before. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This sentence by Theodor Adorno . . .

click here to read the article

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