A blind faith in the moral superiority of our own way of life will only hinder efforts to tackle violent extremism
By Jenni Russell - July 27, 2007
"The Guardian" -- - When I was 19 I spent a fortnight travelling around Kenya with an exiled Eritrean revolutionary. He was a charming PhD student, who had been given political asylum in Holland. He could have led a comfortable life among the Dutch, whose generosity to stateless foreigners never ceased to astonish him. Instead he dedicated his time to securing Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia.
His task in Kenya was to tour the expatriate Eritrean community, collecting tithes from small backstreet shopkeepers and the owners of dusty restaurants to fund the struggle. The opportunities for corruption were limitless, since all his fundraising was done by stealth, and no one else could check on the money he was stowing in his leather satchel. But neither personal comfort nor wealth motivated this man. He travelled third class on the crowded, grubby trains, and he stayed in youth hostels or bedbug-ridden hotels. He was driven by the conviction that he should fight in the war of liberation for his country, and nothing else had the same importance. That purpose gave his life meaning.
History is populated with men and women like my companion: intellectuals and professionals who turn their backs on easy lives because they prefer to fight for whatever values they believe in. When we share those values we look at such people and describe them as heroes. When we don't, our imagination appears to fail us. Not only do we condemn them, but we often refuse to understand anything about their motivation. In doing so, we deny ourselves the ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be.
Last month the alleged would-be bombers of London and Glasgow were found to be doctors. The general reaction was one of incredulity. Similar feelings were evoked by the university students convicted earlier this week of possessing material for terror purposes. Earlier British bombers had been more marginalised men. Even if guilty, these men were successful professionals, and people who had taken oaths to heal, not to harm. The realisation that those oaths could be overridden by a deeper imperative was a shocking one. Underlying the disbelief was the assumption that no one leading a successful life in western society was likely to reject its values in favour of other beliefs.
That assumption is widespread, and fuelled by people like our former prime minister, Tony Blair. In one of his most breathtaking speeches, five years ago, he told the Labour party conference that: "Our values are not western values. They are human values, and anywhere, any time people are given the chance, they embrace them." These sentences betrayed a total ignorance of the range of customs, convictions and prejudices that govern human behaviour in a multitude of different societies. Blair talked as if he thought that people around the world were essentially blank sheets, who would adopt all western values wholesale as soon as they encountered a can of Coke, a job in a clothing factory and a gender rights worker.
The mistake here is that the modern liberal belief - all men are equal - has been transmuted into the false idea that all people think the same. We don't. Our metaphysical beliefs, the underlying assumptions about the world that govern our lives, limit how we react to it. From our earliest experiences and the culture around us we form often unspoken ideas about what is desirable or abhorrent, holy or impure, possible or impossible. Those ideas form the boundaries into which later concepts must fit for us to feel that the world makes sense. Metaphysical beliefs are extremely hard to shift, because they are not based on reason. They become our instincts. Indeed, Jung wrote that "one never possesses a metaphysical belief, but is possessed by it". For instance, a Catholic may lose his or her faith, but find it impossible to lose the sense of guilt and duty that was instilled with it. Nor can one adopt a metaphysical belief by effort of will. I know people who are ashamed of their superstitions, but cannot change them. I myself admire the Buddhist philosophy of detachment from possessions and emotions, but in practice I am programmed to want pianos and clothes and strong relationships, and that overrides any intellectual flirtation with anything else.
Our belief structures drive us because they give us rules to live by, and a sense that there is order, purpose and personal significance in what is otherwise an alarmingly chaotic world. The difficulty for all of us is that we are happiest living in an environment that reflects our metaphysical beliefs, and profoundly uneasy if we are not. When the dissonance between our own powerful sense of what is right and the values of the society around us becomes too great, then some people are driven to act.
An ex-revolutionary from South Africa described the way in which she was drawn into acts of sabotage against apartheid 50 years ago. It was a short step from feeling, uneasily, that the system was evil, and discussing it with a tiny like-minded group, to thinking that something should be done - and why not by you? Once the group was formed, she said, it had its own dynamic. Everyone competed to show that they were good, and brave, and so they found themselves being pushed into more extreme positions by others. Lines kept being crossed and it was hard to know when to stop. All of them knew that they might well die or be executed for their actions. At the same time the adrenaline, the fear and the proud sense of a secret moral purpose were intoxicating.
The same sense of mission drives small groups now. They too are buoyed up by the belief that they are fighting for a better world, and that their sacrifice gives their existence meaning.
In the situation we find ourselves now, where a minority are so angered by the values of the west that they feel it right to act violently, the least useful response is to dismiss that reaction as evil or incomprehensible. It is imperative that we understand that other value systems have, whether we like it or not, their own deep appeal. After all, it's not as if many of us can't see the multiple ways in which competitive capitalist democracies leave people feeling anxious and adrift.
Fifteen years ago, when he published The Culture of Contentment, the economist JK Galbraith wrote about the complacency of powerful societies. All civilisations, from Rome to the French kings and today's capitalism, ascribe moral virtue to the values that have allowed their elites to dominate others. They are all reluctant to read the warning signs that tell them their beliefs are not universally shared. A blind faith in the obvious moral superiority of our own way of life, and a refusal to recognise others' search for meaning in their lives, is not going to provide any kind of answer to the question of why we now fear a terrorist threat.