Karen Armstrong and others have argued that great religions and ethical systems — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, classical Greek philosophy and more — arose in the Axial Age as universalist efforts to contain increasingly deadly tribal conflict. The goal was to extend common values across tribal boundaries. Christianity, Islam, and others have emerged from similar need.
The Westphalian Consensus might be summarized as European elites deciding their wars of religion — outbreaks of tribalism within a universalist construct — were entirely too costly. An increasingly fractured universal claim was succeeded by cults of dynastic and/or national sovereignty. Confessional diversity and various tribal identities would be tolerated if subordinated to the State. While never entirely successful, the risks seemed manageable until 1914-1945, when the mitigation process dramatically failed.
Emerging from this failure, two large post-Westphalian States competed to offer alternate visions of universalist ascendance: capitalism or communism. (Each offer complicated — occasionally enhanced — by tribal particularities of the USA and USSR.)
Since the end of the Cold War, various kinds of capitalism — rarely pure, sometimes state-sponsored, usually mixed — have made their bid for universal influence. It is typically a creed of consumption, near-term gratification, supply chain efficiency, creative destruction, constant change, the next new thing. Many have benefited. Millions have been pulled out of poverty. But costs, both direct and indirect, are steep and are accumulating.
I am a Capitalist and an alleged Christian. I am an active citizen of a post-Westphalian nation-state that has proudly (at times earnestly) aspired to be post-tribal. Universalism is my cultural and personal comparative advantage. But from time to time, even I feel the litany and logic of universalism to be manipulative, inhumane, and vulgar. Others, for whom tribe is source of identity and sustenance, — and those with no meaningful identity — often find my universalist values unnatural and frightening.
Some have credibly demonstrated our species emerged no less than 60,000 years ago and can be traced even further back. For at least two-thousand generations tribe has been hearth, health, and all that is holy; universalism a very recent, comparatively abstract addition. Tribal relationships continue to enrich. A drought of tribal connections and continuity leaves many thirsty.
ISIS, al-Qaeda and similar movements — Islamic and not — attempt to fuse the promise of tribal roots and universal relationship. Despite the stonings, beheadings, bombings and mayhem their ultimate goal is said to be comprehensive peace and fraternity, within reassuring boundaries of their own tribal traditions.
Rather than atomistic consumers competing for the greatest new thing, they promise a global community of loving faithful no longer tempted by Satanic notions of self-indulgent, ephemeral, and empty consumption. With the wholeness of creation re-formed, peace will characterize the inner and outer lives of all, they promise.
In the specific case of ISIS, members of the cult are self-persuaded that Jews and Christians — and hypocritically modern Muslims — destroy and defile traditional truths and obscure the path of Ultimate Reality with gross materialism and a pernicious tolerance of evil. To overcome this challenge ISIS has been explicit regarding a strategy to unify Muslims by causing the West to exclude and abuse them. The Paris attack was designed specifically to prompt such responses. The National Front and others — including governors of several of these United States — are ready to oblige.
ISIS has also communicated it desires to battle the Crusader nations, especially the United States, France, and Britain, in Northern Syria specifically at Dabiq. Many in the ISIS leadership understand that this military encounter will initially bring it considerable success, followed by enormous losses, but in any case will inaugurate the end-days, the second-coming of Jesus, and divinity’s direct rule. Once again several, including Senators Sanders, Graham and Cruz and President Hollande, seem ready to make a date for Dabiq.
ISIS, like al-Qaeda before it, is expert in manipulating tribal tendencies to its particular notion of strategic advantage.
The attacks in Paris were horrific. As we have seen in Mumbai and now again, a small team very modestly organized can do terrible harm. I expect we will see similar attacks in other cities: Rome, Istanbul, and London are at the top of my list. ISIS has apparently called out Washington DC and New York as targets.
These sort of attacks do not reflect an existential threat to a great nation. But it is very difficult to imagine any government so disciplined and stoical as to make this argument. A more robust military response, one way or another, eventually will come.
Despite the Dabiq prophecy, I expect a coalition of regional and Western forces will “destroy” the current Raqqa regime. Given their threats, demonstrated capability, and bloody ambition this probably will now happen sooner than later. Given what we have heard from inside the self-styled Caliphate, maybe this time victorious troops will actually be greeted as liberators. (Probably not.)
But what then?
We can transfer, try to proactively avoid, and reduce the risk posed by ISIS. But we live in an era when, I suggest, the risk itself will persist. The underlying threat will not be destroyed. Whether the West and/or modern Muslims wage war or peace, the perceived divide is too great to be reconciled any time soon. Given global proximity, even intimacy, the conflict will continue and probably escalate… regardless of what we do or don’t.
The risk cannot be destroyed and must be ruefully accepted because ISIS is merely the most recent reflection of a 2500 year plus contention between forces of tribalism and universalism. Across all these centuries and most of our cultures there has been a recurring effort to contain the deadly pride of tribe versus tribe. In many times and places universalism has claimed the cultural high ground. But tribal insurgencies have always retained the emotional commitment of many.
Tuesday I complained that our current threat had been reduced to an indefinite plural pronoun. I have heard many insist that we must be explicit regarding the proper noun. But most of the names offered have been those of a weaker progeny of a primordial power that the best men and women of our species — some would claim an authority even greater than this — have failed to destroy and seldom enough contained.
What then, shall we do?
I have just exceeded my thousand word limit, so I will conclude with three questions that may be worth regularly asking:
- Does my (our, this nation’s, this culture’s) action inflame or contain tribe-vs-tribe tendencies?
- Is my action coherent with some version of the other-as-self ethic of reciprocity?
- Will my action increase or decrease the likelihood of future pain and suffering, for me and for most others as well?