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Are Americans Reaching Their Limits of Nihilism?


The atrocities committed by the jihadist terror group known as the Islamic State have dominated Western media headlines over the past year and half, as did the atrocities of its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, for the previous decade. Academics, politicians and pundits regularly debate how such violent and barbaric groups espousing jihadi ideology can be stopped.

Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), weighed in on what will be necessary to stop the Islamic State in his essay entitled, “Are Jihadis Reaching Their Limits of Nihilism?”

Fuller notes that although “we are going witness many more horrors from these murderous jihadi groups,” in the end they are moving toward “the point of self-collapse. The clock would seem to be running out on them . . . The backlash from fellow Muslims—the only one that really counts in the long run— is underway. The West should ‘lead from behind’ to the extent possible on rolling this stuff back” because “in the end it will only be Muslims who are able to rein in such fanatical excesses within their own communities and mosques.”

President Obama has also come to the conclusion that Muslims are the ones who need to take action to stop the barbaric ideology of the Islamic State. In a recent interview he said:

“There is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community that is our enemy and that has to be defeated. … There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.”

Certainly, Muslim majority countries in the Middle East are in need of reform. Many are plagued by authoritarianism, poverty, sectarianism, and the oppression of women.

What is odd, however, is that US political and intelligence elites like Fuller and President Obama do not also suggest that reform is needed even more desperately in the United States, reform that they would actually have some ability to effect.

In the same essay referenced above, Fuller somewhat casually notes that, “We know about US wars that have killed over a million Muslims over the past decade.”

I am not sure where Fuller came up with the number of one million Muslims, however, the number over the past decade (not to mention decades) is undoubtedly large. If the United States has initiated wars that have killed over a million Muslims in the past decade (or half a million, or even 240,000), this suggests there is a desperate need for reform in American society.

President Obama has himself overseen a drone program known for killing primarily innocent civilians in various Muslim countries. He has also overseen the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and the bombing of Libya (which led to the country becoming a failed state). He has also provided support for the Saudi bombing of Yemen, which is ongoing, and has resulted in “numerous coalition airstrikes that were unlawfully indiscriminate, hitting residential homes, markets, healthcare facilities, and schools where there was no military target,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Additionally, it is our closest allies in the Muslim world (in particular Saudi Arabia) that perpetuate the violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam that guides the Islamic State. These close American and British allies in the Gulf also support radical jihadi terrorist groups in Syria monetarily (primarily via the banking system in Kuwait) as well as militarily. The United States is more concerned about buying oil and selling weapons to these countries than applying pressure on them to stop spreading their radical interpretation of Islam.

What ideology or guiding principles then have led the United States to kill such vast numbers of Muslims over the past decades?

It can be said the United States is guided by the ideology of democratic capitalism. This suggests that perhaps there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of democratic capitalism advocated by at least two factions within the American political and business elite (namely, neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists) that are our enemy and that have to be defeated. It seems there is also the need for American society as a whole to challenge that interpretation of democratic capitalism, to isolate it, and to undertake a vigorous discussion within our community about how democratic capitalism could work as part of a peaceful, modern society. It seems that, in the end, it will only be Americans who are able to rein in such fanatical excesses within our own political parties and government. But US elites like Fuller and Obama are not doing anything of the sort.

Have we Americans reached the limits of our nihilism then? Since mainstream American society does not condemn the mass atrocities our government has committed against Muslims, let alone attempt to reign in such fanatical excesses, it would seem not. Perhaps to do so, we will need to kill a few hundred thousand more. Seems rather barbaric, doesn’t it?

William Van Wagenen received a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and survived a kidnapping in the Sinjar region of Iraq in 2007. He currently works in finance.

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