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Spring 2004

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Inside al-Qaeda? I'm not so sure...

It was a cold, dark winter that made me grateful for commonplace comforts: a good furnace, fresh food, FM radio, and the freedom to borrow library books and attend citizens’ forums.

Given my upbringing in this culture (and my travel experience no farther afield than western Europe), I can’t begin to fathom the life, much less the mindset, of those not born into a supermodern, secular, consumerist society. Take, for example, some Afghan in a stone hut on a remote mountain, with no new ideas to explore, and with his social outlets pretty much limited to tribal, gangland-style affiliations shaped perhaps by an extremist cleric. He and I share membership in the human race, which is no small connection, but beyond that our lives have nothing in common.

It was refreshing to see the diversity of the panelists in Skidmore’s Jihad/McWorld conference. They included a white South African anti-apartheid activist now with a peace and justice group in West Africa, an Australian bioethicist and animal-rights advocate, an Iraqi whose ancestors came to her homeland in 680 AD, a self-described “deracinated Muslim” of Asian descent, and an American working with women’s collectives in Bangladesh. But they’re each unusually well educated, funded, and privileged. Their varied backgrounds enriched the intellectual discourse; but, for all their erudition and experience, I can’t believe they’re much closer to that Afghan extremist’s view of life than I am.

Yet, like many pundits, most of the panelists confidently ascribed Islamic terrorism to the “humilia-tion” dealt them by modern forces of global capitalism, secularism, and the Pepsi-Nike-MTV culture. I don’t discount the damage done by these exports of Western imperialism, but I’m less confident about their precise role in the motivations of individuals. Can these professional scholars operating in the West truly understand the Afghan zealot’s perception of cultural identity or personal dignity? Their positing of his ignominy almost tasted of pious grandiosity: My, it’s a shame how we Westerners have so abased him and driven him to suicidal hatred. Maybe the panelists knew of interviews or psychological profiles that confirm the wounded-pride theory in the majority of cases, but even if they’d cited them I’d still wonder if it might be just as possible that what inspires a jihadist is pure moral outrage, or adamant loyalty, or deeply inculcated ideology, or…

On this subject I’m afraid philosophizing can too easily drift into psychologizing. In fact, I think that boundary is a fundamental problem of academic inquiry in the humanities and social sciences. Certainly studying other societies is essential for fostering perspective, empathic imagination, and tolerance. But it doesn’t provide reliable, deep understanding of people’s personalities; let’s face it, even marriage and parenthood don’t often provide that. And in seeking fresh insights, theorists can easily overreach and tumble to unsubstantiated assertions that only sound like new insights. Even devoutly anti-imperialist thinkers can become imperialists in the world of ideas if they arrogate to themselves the “right view” of other people’s innermost concerns and motives. If Islamic extremists are avenging the insults of Western exploitation—or if they’re not—isn’t a small slap added when well-heeled frequent flyers convene in the luxury of Western academic freedom to tut-tut and pronounce their diagnoses?

One thing I love about academics is their ardent skepticism. It’s their job to mistrust and contest every idea. Yet it’s also their job to go out on an intellectual limb to “create new knowledge”—which requires more optimism than skepticism, heightening the danger of overreaching. I guess the trick is to summon the hubris and the humility to climb bravely out on that limb while critically interrogating every datum and increment of logic with each scoot forward, always asking, Is this a safe route? the best route? the only route? Maybe those panelists did a fine job after all. Me, I’d still be up in the tree, clinging to the trunk, paralyzed by anthropological agnosticism. Somebody once observed, “Doubt is the essential mindset of the effective editor,” so I suppose I’ve found my true vocation. —SR


© 2004 Skidmore College