Here is an article that posits that young Western men who go to join the ranks of ISIS are perhaps following the same impulse that led an earlier generation of Westerners to join international leftist movements. It follows the same line of thought I've begun to trace out, linking the fall of global socialist revolutionary movements to the rise of political Islamist terror. The author of the article summarizes some of the reasons and passions that may at least in part explain the seeming need for certain young men to join such radical anti-establishment movements: "abject suffering in the world or examples of injustice... [also the] impulse for escape, radical purity and justice of an often disfigured sort". The author ventures that a "radical ideological [sic] of opposition" responds to or arises from some profound, inherent human trait. This might be true--I for one have often felt disgust at the state of the world, and dreamed of acting decisively to fight against injustice. Though I don't know if the ideology of opposition, which seems to be a natural part of any human, must always be radical or violent. I myself have an almost innate drive to oppose, probably because I agree with the author of the article that it is not a viable situation to have just one dominant, unopposed ideology driving the world. But at the same time, I personally have come to appreciate the importance of a steady, concerted, uncompromising, but nonviolent fight against injustice.
Somehow, though I can't sympathize with their means or even agree with much of their philosophy, I can better understand the international Leftist terrorists of the past than I can understand or relate to ISIS and their ilk. International Marxist groups were fighting for something that was at least in theory inclusive and constructive. The cause of fundamentalist political Islam is inherently exclusionary, and often destructive. That said, let's be clear about the similarities. Groups like the PLO or Bader-Meinhof explicitly advocated on behalf of the disenfranchised; ISIS doesn't explicitly seem to do that, but effectively they are feeding into feelings of disenfranchisement and an urge to resist the hegemon. At the same time, while ISIS seems to glory in barbarity, Leftist groups often were wantonly destructive of human life, regardless of their humanist rhetoric. So in terms of both their effective constituencies and their immoral, violent methods, 1970s international leftist terror and 2010s international jihadist terror don't seem that far apart. But still, to me there is a difference between a group that sees its end-game as the betterment of humanity's lot (even if they are often incoherent in pursuing that goal), and a group that has no such long-term aspirations, and seeks only to utterly destroy those it regards as "other" (which ends up being most of humanity). There is a difference between strident militancy in favor of a viewpoint, and total destruction of any opposing viewpoints and their bearers.
My cousin sent me this article precisely when I happen to be in El Salvador for work. It's a very interesting country, and I've enjoyed getting to know it a bit these past few days. But what strikes me as an odd coincidence is that in this country, and in many other places in Latin America, the apparent drive toward radicalism, the drive for puritanical solutions to injustice, seems not to be at play right now. It can be argued that Latin America is the part of the world where violent ideological struggle has had its most prolonged, savage, and ecstatic expression, even long after the Cold War had supposedly ended. But in El Salvador, site of massacres and torture and disappearances and radical puritanism for the better part of two decades, right now social injustice is being addressed (with varying degrees of success) through the mainstream state bureaucracy. The party in power right now is the former left-wing guerrilla movement, now looking more like a mainstream social democrat party than fiery radicals.
Of course El Salvador is still home to bitter political discourse and differing opinions on how to address society's problems. But I think that here, as in Colombia and the Southern Cone and Nicaragua and surely other places, the leftist voice is becoming a staid part of the establishment, and there is not much of a popular support base anymore for the ferocity and savagery that have so long defined the region--people are sick of it.
The scars and the new wounds of violence still plague us, but it is a different violence from the puritan political terror of years past. In fact, in some ways today's violence is more fearsome, since it has no cause to advance, no collective it pretends to represent and advocate for. There's no reasoning with a criminal commercial gang, at least not in the same way as with a right- or left-wing armed movement.
Admittedly my musing on the end of political, militarized radicalism in Latin America has its limits; the Latin American insurgent Left never attracted non-Latin recruits the way that ISIS does today, or even the way that the PLO or Bader-Meinhoff-type groups did back in the day. And leftist guerrilla groups in Latin America were never as wantonly violent as ISIS or the PLO in its 1970s heyday. Statistically, most of the bloody massacres and the torture in Latin American history have come from right-aligned governments or shady paramilitary operators, and even the criminal groups plaguing the region today often have their roots in these right-wing berserkers.
But the example of Latin America should at least give pause to those who think that a cause or an ideology can die so rapidly or so completely. Hopefully this is a good thing, because it means that any valid aspects of yesterday's radical ideology might be rescued to inform today's debates, or even to replace or override the more destructive ideologies that might have arisen since. For much of the 90s and 2000s many people thought that socialism in its many guises had definitively lost the war of ideas, that the loud, oblivious chant of neoliberalism had won the day. But look at the political map of Latin America today, and you will see that leftist ideas and even the actual people leading leftist movements twenty years ago or more, are very relevant to daily life and the political discourse. I don't know what this says about al Qaeda (another ideology we'd thought had been consigned to the dustbin), or ISIS, or Baathism, or Pan-Arabism, or any other political line of thinking in the Middle East. But if the author of the article I cited is correct, there will always be people looking to fundamentally oppose the uglier aspects of the current status quo. Let's hope that they can find an ideological framework that isn't even uglier than the status quo it pretends to oppose.