Advances on the ground, in Iraq and Syria, by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), its ruthless killing of hostages, recent terrorist acts committed on European soil and the aggressive promotion of jihadist ideology show what an apparently small movement of determined people can achieve in a short period of time. Whether the Sunni Caliphate that ISIS is pursuing is something realistic or not is almost irrelevant, in terms of the inspiration and creativity that its members draw out of this pursuit. Bloody creativity and inspiration for absolutist and often horrible things, one may well add, but the energy is there as are the improbably real outcomes on the ground.
At first sight ISIS’ successes may look very different from the significant gains that extreme nationalistic, xenophobic, intolerant and often neo-fascist movements made in several EU countries in the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament. But are they? At the heart of all this is a lethal mix of human frustration, deeply felt exclusion and pain (see the alienated Muslim youth or the jobless EU citizens blaming immigrants), coupled with a counterbalancing sense of greater purpose and perceived moral superiority. This all too often culminates in a self-granted license to be ruthless, as if operating under higher orders / following a greater destiny, practicing offence as some kind of justified self-defense.
This is nothing to laugh about, dismiss or take lightly. It is actually a bomb, metaphorically and on occasion literally, in the foundations of today’s world, which is characterized by globalization in information, markets and trade, and supposedly increasing freedom. But even the “mainstream” of this world has its own “Taliban”, for example in the form of the (un)holy warriors of the financial sector, who spare no effort to conquer vast expanses in the meta-world of financial transactions, increasingly disconnected from the real economy and real people. Again a self-righteous, absolute and intolerant extremism served by dedicated people who are trying to prove their superiority and shape the world in their own image, of course with themselves enjoying the good life on top.
What is the counterbalance the “real” society has to offer to all this? It is enough to look around to notice the lackluster performance of what is considered mainstream. No conviction, no leadership, no vision but rather a focus on process, spinning things for electoral benefits every four years or so, hoping that the markets will deliver by themselves, cosying up to select authoritarian regimes to secure energy supplies, using a lot of big words that lose their meaning.
In the absence of any guiding ideology beyond the pursuit of money and power, which has come to be considered normal, and an overall nonchalance in terms of principles and “the big picture”, alternative ideologies develop, mostly of the destructive, exclusivist and intolerant kind. These ideologies excite some young and often bright people that long for a sense of purpose and heroism in their lives. And they commit to them often sacrificing their lives and the lives of others.
The challenge is great for those who want to count themselves as voices of humanism and reason, win-win solutions and decency, moral values and peace. They may cautiously articulate something that slightly improves what already exists but fails to excite. Or they may succumb to one or the other extreme ideology, with possibly deadly consequences. Neither of these really works.
It is my strong belief that it is urgent and quite possible to articulate an inclusive, tolerant and pro-active ideology in a convincing manner. In fact, such an ideology is knowingly or unknowingly practiced already by millions of decent people who try to live their lives as close to ethical standards as possible. They would include pious followers of all established religions, as well as atheists and agnostics with a humanist/civic conscience.
What we need is a global paradigm of cosmopolitanism, moderation and mutual respect at the individual and the collective level; an ideology of real life that also permeates politics and economics; and as a set of rights and responsibilities that are inalienable and shared, guiding interactions among people and with nature. It is also important to include a set of common projects that honestly bring together the expertise, resources and hard work of all towards achieving shared goals, from fighting poverty, disease and environmental degradation to colonizing Mars and exploring the universe. The only real question is, are we ready to do it?