zondag 17 mei 2015

The West, Emptiness and Jihad

There are an awful lot of them lately. People who believe that our society suffers from emptiness and spiritual void. And quite a few of them who then make a connection between the societal dullness and young people who need a cause to fight for.

The latter would be, in that view, the explanation why, after the attacks in January in Paris, we see an increase in the number of conversions to Islam. And that is, however mysterious, the tenor of a recent tweet from Joyce Oates: “Although it is tragic that IS attracts young people, it is not inconceivable; it should bring society and parents to self-examination.”

Now criticism of society’s corruption and vacuous nature is, if not of all times, then certainly of the last century. Just think of the enthusiasm with which in 1914 the Great War was greeted by a cultural elite of avant-garde artists and writers. They experienced the war as a deliverance from a personal, existential crisis of meaning of which civil society, soulless and focused on consumption as it was, was held responsible. “This war is large and stunningly beautiful”, Max Weber wrote in elated fashion.

But at the time these feelings of emptiness and disorientation lived in relatively small groups of conservative believers or artistic individuals. That’s different now.

According to the diagnosis of the philosopher Joep Dohmen, our society in its entirety is disillusioned and directionless. That’s because for centuries we had fine ideals, namely Christian charity and sacrifice readiness, but that proved too ambitious for us. We can no longer believe in it. “We need a new shared moral anthropology, in which the strength ánd the weakness of man is pictured convincingly in such a way that we find the courage to move forward together”.

But there are also seasoned secularists, as the French writer Houellebecq, who believed until recently in the ethical space offered by our Enlightenment based societies. Now they ventilate their feelings that the very general language of anti-racism and solidarity has degenerated to a form of hypocrisy. Houellebecq doubts whether the Enlightenment is still tenable. In his new novel Submission France in the year 2022 is transformed into an Islamic country.

For the large group of Muslims who now live among us the perspective is not much better, according to the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. “Neither the West nor the intellectuals of the Arab world have a sufficiently enticing offer that allows you to organize your life. When I was thirteen I was looking for for a purpose in my life, an alternative to jihad did not seem to exist. That still applies to many others. Outside Islamism for many young people in the world there is no alternative ideological offer. You’re seeking, you need something absolute”. That ‘something’ should, according to Arabist Maurice Blessing, distinguish itself from secular liberalism or Christianity in more than only its ritual, outward manifestations. Because otherwise, why did Allah not give us the Act of Parliament or the Constitution immediately?

The dramaturgists Arie de Mol and Johan Doesburg make similar claims. Mol finds that in Western society aspects of former belief, such as a purpose in life or the radicalism of Jesus, are sorely missed. Doesburg believes that all of us long for something greater than ourselves. And we all are, according to him, looking for alternative means to find that.

With these diagnoses of a great societal void come also also suggestions for an answer. But honestly, on most of them I have my doubts.

Across the void found by Joep Dohmen the philosopher Paul van Tongeren proposes a revaluation of the traditional Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. But that does not seem credible to me for the reason Joep Dohmen already gave: we have already tried that and it turned out to be too big for us. For the same reason De Mol sees no future for the radicalism of Jesus by which he actually is so much impressed. Nevertheless radical religious devotion keeps having an enchanting appeal to him, even in the guise of jihad fighters, “because at least they have one common goal”. Though De Mol rejects any extremism, I think such glorification of radicalism is not well thought out and downright dangerous.

A very different suggestion for a response comes from historian Beatrice de Graaf. “We have to tell stories to each other again, as a strategy. Because shared stories create connection, they help people to identify with each other. They force people through the presentation of a plot, and elaboration of some characters, to make a choice to do or not do something. That is more than an ‘ideology’, it is not bloodless, there is life, passion and drama. And at the moment, unfortunately, especially IS is  very good at that.

Compare that with our own story for a while. What is the holy triad of democracy yet? Choose Cameron, buy an iPhone, or else? It is therefore urgent that future teachers in the teacher training are again being taught in the old-fashioned storytelling, and that we start thinking by what stories we want to fascinate future generations. If only from a counter terrorist point of view”.

This plea by De Graaf for storytelling perhaps comes most close to what I think is necessary. What I like about it is that it corresponds to our desire for lived experience, because in this area we run dry. But there is something instrumental in her suggestion, and certainly something artificial. Indeed, do not stories and community in general stárt with experiences? Is it not rather shared experiences – which háppen to you – that you need? Instead of ideas abóut experiences and stories?

Nevertheless, her suggestion seems valuable to me, because there is always something to experience, also in instrumentally deployed stories. But to me it does not yet constitute the real thing, that which can truly fill emptiness. Stories keep being things in the second degree, derived from what you really want in the first degree: the experience of actual contact and commonality.

But if so, then my mood gets a bit less gloomy. Because I just read in the newspaper that some technical schools do not seek innovation and improvement primarily in the material offered or teaching techniques, but in personal relationships with and between students. Relationship before  achievement, they say. And at universities there seems to be a similar trend.

And what you can do about it in education, you can – whether or not handing in your iPhone – even at work, in the care, and not in the last place: at home, with each other. From this perspective the real thing is: first grade experience, namely of real contact, much closer to us than where everyone seems to be looking. Who is still speaking about emptiness?

Also see Alcoholism and Jihad, What happened in the West? and Taylor, Levinas and Emptiness