Is Islamic State evidence we are living in a ‘post-honour’ world?

No society is immune from the rise of ‘us and them’ intolerance expressed through anger and a desire for brutal revenge. EPA/Ian Langsdon

Journalists and commentators these days quickly seek personal reasons for every horrible case of murder, drug or human trafficking, terrorism and so forth. In doing so, they fail to recognise that these are also interrelated sociopolitical events, representing the limitations and failures of the “modern world”.

This was the case recently when three British Muslim mothers and their nine children, aged between three and 15, were believed to have joined Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Reportedly, the missing Dawood sisters came from an “ultra-conservative” Muslim family and two of them had unhappy marriages.

No reasonable person could easily find a justification for the UK-born-and-bred sisters leaving their husbands and taking their children to a war zone. Nor could one could deny the powerful role of personal motivations and incentives in criminal and unlawful actions.

Nevertheless, as first identified by sociologist Emile Durkheim, suicide, and by extension the expression of sympathy and support for groups like IS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, is the consequence of our disturbed and troubled social order.

As Ahmed Akbar has forcefully argued:

Global developments have robbed many people of honour. Rapid global changes are shaking the structures of traditional societies. Groups are forced to dislocate or live with or by other groups. In the process of dislocation they have little patience with the problems of others. They develop intolerance and express it through anger. No society is immune. Even those societies that economists call ‘developed’ fall back to notions of honour and revenge in times of crisis.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the global total of displaced people has risen to around 60 million people. Among other things, the rapid dislocations of so many people have led to a crisis of identity and belonging.

‘Us against them’ reinforces alienation

In Muslim majority countries, this crisis of identity revealed itself through the “Arab Spring” uprisings against the political failures of state authorities to provide the people with security and meaningful means of economic and social survival. Their plight has been reinforced by historical injustices inflicted by the dominant Western powers since the early 19th century.

In repeated surveys, the majority of the world’s Muslims express unease and negative attitudes towards what they see as unequivocal support by the US for Israel in the Palestine-Israel conflict, and US inconsistency on meaningful democratic reform in the region.

State failures and the crisis of identity have paved the way for the emergence of radical al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like the Nusra Front and IS in the Middle East and Boko Haram in North Africa.

Open hostility to Islam undermines the community cohesion needed to fight extremism. AAP/Mick Tsikas

The Western world offers little recognition of the limitations and failures of modernity. The exclusionary discourse of the righteous “us” against the evil “them” has dominated most media and government responses, particularly since September 11. Underlying this is the anxiety of most governments in the West, including Australia, about the capacity of Muslims to be fully active citizens without betraying their religious obligations.

Rather than addressing the root causes of the problem, many in the West have assumed that Islamic religiosity is a set of beliefs and practices contrary to the underlying rights and obligations of active citizenship. In such a context, it is increasingly becoming a social norm to feel personally and socially unworthy, and to dishonour others by supposedly maintaining your group honour.

Sadly, it seems a thing of the past that protecting and maintaining one’s honour required him/her to pursue noble causes – to condemn cruelty and tyranny, to stand up against inequalities and to achieve justice for people around you.

As Ahmed Akbar puts it:

What would once have been seen as the deviant appears to be accepted as the norm. Exaggerated tribal and religious loyalties – hyper-asabiyya – disguise acts of violence against the other. But neither tribal custom nor religious ideology requires the senseless violence we witness in our time. The widespread use of honour in this perverted manner suggests we may indeed be living in a world with little honour or no honour or a post-honour world.

What needs to be done?

No doubt the strategy of most Western countries to work with so-called “community leaders” and members of specific communities can help identify individual suspects and perhaps deter them from joining groups like IS. Monitoring and surveillance might also restrict their activities.

However, these measures do not really tackle the root of the problem and are subject to failure, as shown by the many Australians and Europeans who have joined IS since 2013.

What is needed is a new dialogue to genuinely acknowledge the potentials and failures of the modern world. This approach should encourage inclusion, cultural diversity, inter-faith dialogue and religious tolerance.

Authorities need to go beyond working with community leaders to reach out to Muslim youths on the way to being radicalised. AAP/Mal Fairclough

In addition, social justice mechanisms and “compassion for all” policies need to replace the exclusionary “us against them” mindset, so as to “reverse the movement that has brought us to the post-honour world”. More precisely, social justice policies should take priority over mere inclusion of “others” at local, national and global levels.

It is also important to broaden our understanding of the motives and practices of radical groups like IS. It is commonly reported that IS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, which rose to power because of the failures of Iraq’s Shi’a authorities to include and accommodate the country’s Sunni tribes. This is a gross simplification. One factor alone – the Sunni-Shi’a divide – regardless of how powerful and relevant it might be cannot explain the motives, beliefs and practices of a movement like IS.

It is true that IS shares some of the ideological positions and motives of al-Qaeda. Both groups reject the ideals of the nation-state and seek an “Islamic Caliphate”. IS members and supporters show sympathy for former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and call him “Sheikh Osama”. However, as Graeme Wood has shown:

Jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

National and global responses must recognise that IS differs from al-Qaeda in many respects. IS members have a deeper religious devotion. Its leadership also sees the control of territory as essential to achieve the group’s goals.

IS is also more strategic in using social media to spread its propaganda worldwide and has a distinct jihadist culture. A recent analysis of the group’s poetry has revealed that:

… unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

IS might require a rather different military response, and indeed social, political and economic responses, than groups like the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Boko Haram.


You can read other articles in the Roots of Radicalisation series here.