I have just returned from Japan. The country represents a different model of development, its collective emphasis often chanelled towards organisations and nation, as opposed to clan and community. Its homogenous ethnicity and lack of significant migration is also its Achilles heel as it struggles with a low birth rate and amongst the oldest populations in the OECD.
I was also struck at similarities it shared with Islam. Kamikaze bombings was the state organised, militarised version of the suicide bomber, an expression of a devotion to the collective that is considered pathological in Western outlooks. The Japanese moral spectrum, like other clan-based cultures, lay between honour and shame and not Christianity’s sin and redemption. At the end of World War II, as a condition of surrender, the Emperor Hirohito broadcast a national message, presumably under the supervision of General Macarthur, that he was not, in fact, descended from the Japanese version of a deity, and nor were the Japanese a superior race destined to rule the world.
I couldn’t help thinking Islam and Muslims need a version of Hirohito.
The discarding of a belief in exceptionalism only occurs after great defeats, be it with Japan or the Weimar republic. Part of the problem of terrorism is Islam’s refusal to discard any possibility against its exceptionalism and pre-destined triumph. There is no prospect of a message like Hirohito’s emerging from an international Islamic leader and, until there is, we will all continue to suffer.
Virtually every culture, at some stage, has a belief of exceptionalism. This was particularly the case before the world was so intertwined and the vast majority of people didn’t have the faintest clue how others lived in far flung places. My mother speaks of how growing up in 1960s Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, she was taught the country was the most advanced, prosperous place on Earth.
Our world is driven in part by three stories of exceptionalism.
One is that of America, of the light on the hill, a God-ordained democracy destined to spread liberty and prosperity to all corners. Trump is recasting this myth as an exceptional America under threat. Obama’s unpopularity in many quarters lies in his ‘leading from behind’ foreign policy mantra which casts the country as a strong power among other unexceptional nations, an attitude at odds with America’s self image.
Another more subdued exceptionalism is the Middle Kingdom. As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen writes, this view holds up China as ‘a uniquely non-expansionist power over millennia… bringing harmony in a Confucian expression of its benevolence a China standing in contrast to the predatory West’.
But the most immediate, threatening one is that of Islam. In Islamic Exceptionalism: How The Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid writes of Islamism being a reaction to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and, for the first time in history, Muslims having no Caliphate or joint Islamic nation. This has rendered Muslims unable to incorporate pre-modern Islamic law with the nation state. Reinstituting the Caliphate is the express aim of Isis. Despite his thinktank’s links to the Democrats, his book explicitly illustrates terrorism has everything to do with Islam. It is the religion’s reaction to worldly defeat and the emotions underlying it are envy, oppositionality and resentment. If the civilisation cannot compete in material and technological arenas, it aims to impose its system of morality Muslims historically believe to be superior. There is considerable pessimism in Hamid’s book. I struggle to see how Muslims en masse will successfully live as minorities in the West. Nor is there a precedent for such a scenario arising peacefully.
While few had predicted it, it is not entirely a surprise that conflicted homosexuals at odds with their identity are emerging as a subtype that are more likely to commit terrorist acts. Both the Orlando bomber and the Nice truck driver used smartphone applications aimed at homosexuals, punishable by death in many Islamic countries. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in psychiatry up until 1973 where under pressure from the civil rights and sexual liberation movements, it was appropriately removed.
But for years a label called ego-dystonic homosexuality remained, which referred to homosexuals who either stayed in the closet or were still coming to terms with their sexual reality. The conflict they experienced was the contradiction of their idealised self image, their dreams of marriage and children and, in turn, acceptance and approval from their families and communities with the lived reality of their unacceptable urges. For some this contradiction was not tolerable, leading to mental illness and suicides.
The suicide bombings by Islamic extremists can be seen as a similar kind of ego-dystonic, intolerable conflict, but of the situation of Islam itself, an idea of exceptionalism and pre-destined triumph at complete odds to its reality, of failure, degradation and chaos.
There is a case for, if not banning, severely limiting Muslim migration. This is particularly the case for refugees, as the crescendo of terror attacks in Europe so strikingly illustrates. Refugees and unskilled migrants are more difficult to integrate and more vulnerable to the mix of personal resentment conflated to the political, Islamist ideology that terrorism is fuelled by. Merkel’s overreach with Syrian refugees, allowing all and sundry to enter under the guise of being Syrians, may well go down as one of the more suicidal acts by a Western leader.
As Australians we are better placed than most and can thank a strict migration policy focused primarily on skilled migrants. And we can be thankful that we have had conservative governments that did not keel over to the shrill cries of the morally superior Left on the issue of asylum seekers. Most Muslims will hold views symphathetic to many of the grievances underlying Islamism, but their prosperity and opportunity dilutes their oppositionality, limiting them to incessant cries of racism, wishes to curb free speech and a stance of perpetual victimhood. It may be a lesser of evils.
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