The radical Islamists are undoubtedly puritans of a sort. And of a missionary kind as well, for whom the “sword” obviously plays a central role. It seems however that they are partly a mirror image of our own, Western secular “puritans”*). They too want their way of life and outlook universally accepted, and are prepared to use the sword to enforce it. It has of course already been noted by others that there is a not insignificant overlap between these two groups: Osama bin Laden e.g. was educated in the West. However I would like to add this thought: Compared to the PC brigade, the Islamists are the “better” puritans, in the sense that they are more radical and more ruthless than their counterpart. And therefore they are bound to lose – in the long run.
I see a certain parallel between today’s Puritanism and yesterday’s nationalism. The Germans in their day were by far the “best” nationalists. And yet they lost the wars born out of this sentiment. The nationalisms that led to WW I and II were in turn a consequence of the French Revolution. A nation ruling itself through a “contract”: this inspired people all over the continent. Just like both PC and Islamism are inspiring a great many people across the world. Another result, French continental imperialism, was pushed back only after the other rulers had tapped into this new faith, the belief in the nation. At the battle of Leipzig in 1813 the French forces, weakened by the defeat in Russia, were finally broken by a collection of armies which had been recruited by whipping up a wave of national fervour. Napoleon retreated behind the Rhine.
However, now the nationalist genie was out of the bottle all over the continent. And grew. And grew. Not least in Germany. The soil there was especially fertile for nationalism because of the ravages of the 30 years’ war in the 17th century. As the Germans saw it, they had been trampled on by their neighbours precisely because they had been a disunited, loose bunch of mini proto-state entities in the middle of a restless continent. “Germany” lost about one third of its population as a result of that earlier war.
200 years ago that conflagration was “only” 170 years in the past. No longer in living memory, but still reverberating very much in the soul of the people. Old bad memories were rekindled after they were subjugated, yet again, by a foreign invader, and had to ask, among others, the Russians to help kick him out. So it is no coincidence that at the end of the Napoleonic wars, while princes were dancing in Vienna as they re-carved up Europe, German students founded fraternities which had the expressed aim to forge a strong and united German nation.
Although the powers that be, or were at the time, hastily scrambled to put the nationalist genie they had released back into its bottle, it remained at large. Despite censorship and other crackdowns, it grew and in 1848/9 it managed to frighten the establishment sufficiently for it to be eventually forced into some sort of arrangement with the new movement. In Germany this resulted in the Second Reich of 1871, which was de facto a Prussian empire with ambitions to a place in the sun. And so a few decades later, nationalism came home to roost for a while, not least in France.
What has all this to do with ISIL and radical Islamism? Well, although their Puritanism is to a large part home grown, there are two outward influences that mirror the development of nationalism: One, they are/were both fed by the rise of secular, political correct, zealous “Puritanism”. The kind taught at Western universities with relish, lapped up with equal relish by students domestic and foreign. The latter of which proceed to carry the acquired self-righteousness into their home countries. Secondly the humiliation incurred by Muslims due to repeated foreign interventions over the past century or more. Which in the last few decades in particular have been fuelled in no small way by the mentioned Western self-righteousness.
This leads me to predict a third historical parallel: That the extreme Islamists will eventually lose their war. Precisely because they are “better” at being “politically correct”: by being stricter, more ruthless and vindictive than any Western secular zealot has dared to be for a long time, the Islamists are automatically “better” at destroying any stirrings and manifestations of individual freedom. This, in the end, will be the Islamists’ downfall. People are not automatons. Try turning them into that and they start failing in their unique functions as human beings, i.e. “thinking” and “being creative”. The freer people are, the better they are at making useful things, including things that can repel or destroy aggressors.
However, when I say the Islamists will lose, that does not mean to say that the West will win. The West is spiritually dead and so, despite its current technological edge, Puritanism (either Islamist or a worse kind of our own) may come home here to roost for a while, like nationalism did in France, before it in turn is defeated. Only it is difficult to see at present who will then do the defeating. I wouldn’t bet on the Americans, who are part of the West anyway and have their own puritan freedom-destroyers in their midst. Maybe the Russians again? Or the Chinese? If none of those come to our rescue, Puritanism will defeat itself – but that may then take a while or two.
*) Hat tip for introducing that term in the libertarian discourse is owed to Ian B.