by Paul Freundlich


Marco Polo during his travels to the Orient…recounts a story he heard, of the “Old Man of the Mountain” who would drug his young followers with hashish. After being drugged, the devotees were said to be taken to a paradise-like garden filled with attractive young maidens. Here, they were told  that they were witnessing their place in Paradise and should they wish to return to this garden permanently, they must serve the cause. His disciples, believing that only he could return them to “paradise”, were willing to carry out his every request.

“Hassan-i Sabbah (the Old Man of the Mountain) founded the Order of the Assassins to exact vengeance on his enemies. Because of the unrest in the Holy Land caused by the Crusades, Sabbah found himself not only fighting for power with other Muslims, but also with the invading Christian forces. The hashashin specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies. These killings were often conducted in full view of the public and often in broad daylight, so as to instill terror in their foes.”

from Wikipedia

From almost a thousand years ago, the promise of paradise, acts of terror, public killings, internecine warfare with other Arabs as well as invading Christian armies echoes through the ages – and is frighteningly familiar. The present day Caliph of the Jihad rules a rum dum Empire, yet, hard as it may be to accept, an ideal which rests on the sacrifice of one’s life, the brutal taking of others, and the humbled negation of individual freedom in favor of ancient laws, draconian punishments and mandated sexism has captured the imagination of more than a few under and over-privileged Muslim youth.

What we need to understand is that both ends of the spectrum of those attracted to the Caliphate have despair in common, and what it offers is meaning.  Another words, the free-market economy that dominates the world is facing an existential challenge we barely recognize.

The military power of the West may be sufficient to eventually overwhelm, even eradicate the nascent Caliphate at its base in Syria and Iraq. But jihad, unless dealt with on its own terms, is likely to remain an apocalyptic danger to open societies.

In 1995, Benjamin Barber wrote in the prophetically titled, “Jihad and McWorld”:

“Jihad and McWorld operate with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other national borders porous from without. Yet Jihad and McWorld have this in common: they both make war on the sovereign nation-state and thus undermine the nation-state’s democratic institutions. Each eschews civil society and belittles democratic citizenship… Their common thread is indifference to civil liberty. Jihad forges communities of blood rooted in exclusion and hatred… McWorld forges global markets rooted in consumption and profit… Neither global markets nor blood communities service public goods or pursue equality and justice….”

“Unless we can offer an alternative to the struggles between Jihad and McWorld, the epoch on whose threshold we stand – postcommunist, postindustrial,  postnational, yet sectarian, fearful and bigoted – is likely also to be terminally postdemocratic.”

If Barber is right, the threshold we stand on is more like one of those TV commercials with a diminishing ice floe resulting from global warming, carrying a worried polar bear. It seems to the bear that only a few moments before, there was a well-grounded, wide open vista of possibilities. Now it will take the deus ex machina of a rescue ship to save the day. Poor bear, poor us.

In the narrow world of tribal allegiance, religious certitude and cultural limits, how to imagine the priority of a planetary collaboration to address supra-national threats? Here’s the essence of the existential quandary: At a time when it is critical for the world to come together, it seems to be hell-bent on coming apart.

The very openness of secular societies is turning into a critical risk factor as semi-automatic weapons replace placards and refugees pour across borders. For much of the world, lacking access, the material wealth so prized by the West is a deadly insult.

Even if we could ameliorate or mitigate the disparities, deeply felt suspicion and antagonism towards materialism fit with a spiritual bias that elevates a perfectible heaven. Radical Muslims share this valuation with religions and sects varied as Orthodox Jews, Evangelical Christians, and Hindu conservatives.

The scale of the dangers we face is an artifact of globalization. The response thus far has about the same credibility as when, fifty years ago, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, proposed we bomb the North Vietnamese back into the stone age. The contrast between the primitive terrorists ranged against us and our vastly superior firepower is once again frustrating politicians who fail to understand the basis of the antagonism or the essence of our vulnerability.

So what to do?

A thousand years ago, the Mongols stormed the mountain redoubt of the Assassins and that was the end of that. We tried to flush out and finish off the Taliban in Afghanistan without much better than erratic success.

The number of targets in the USA, Europe, Oceana  and developed parts of Asia are beyond our capacity to completely protect.  Not with walls, security checks, monitoring and phone tapping. The supply of terrorists is, if not unlimited, constantly being motivated and engaged.

Yet there are solutions, if we were prepared for a long siege.

  • We need to come to terms with acceptable losses. As has been noted, more people die in the USA from the use of handguns in domestic violence than terrorist attacks. Even as we mourn tragedy, stoicism is called for rather than hysteria.
  • The network of security apparatus while it will never be foolproof will continue to disrupt bad initiatives.
  • Disparities and disruption create a culture sympathetic to radical solutions. They provide the seed bed in which terrorists flourish. Allocating resources and re-ordering priorities aimed at a fair return for productivity, focusing on establishing a global standard of livability,  is the best, long-term counter we can offer.
  • A re-invigoration of community institutions creates social cohesion. Buckminster Fuller advised us to “Think Global, Act Local,” and it remains as potent advice across a wide spectrum of values.
  • Consider the possibility of establishing a homeland for the Caliphate, within the boundaries of which, their own dystopian culture may flourish or die. Encourage those who wish to embrace that society to migrate, with right of return severely circumscribed.
  • Enter into a global dialog about the contradictions between materialism and spiritual search with clerics of every religion and sect. Set up satellite and cabal and internet for a 24/7 connection under the auspices of the UN that might bore viewers to death, but at least lays out the range of humanity’s dilemma.
  • Create a massive education program about the thousands of initiatives and millions of activists who are contributing to a just, creative and sustainable world.

Those youth who were captured and captivated a thousand years ago had scant alternatives to the Assassins’ bogus paradise. From the macro of the internet to the micro of our communities, a wider set of options is available.

Spiritual search and control of resources have been pitted against each other throughout history, but neither of them tell the whole story. Spirit can encompass the subordination of self, leading to the cruelest of inquisitions or the most uplifted and generous creativity. Expansion of resources can be sequestered in greedy hands, or driving solutions to the most pressing and tangible challenges humanity faces.

For all its terrors, we live in an amazing age of discovery. Jihad and McWorld like Lady and the Tiger are each behind their unlabeled doors. They stubbornly refuse to stay there. Whether they can be tamed and harnessed remains to be seen.

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