How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric - but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent. Part II of a series; Part I is here.   

How do you save a civilization from implosion?

Modernization has never been pretty. It destroyed Christendom before the growth revolution picked up steam and left the European subcontinent in disorder for two centuries more. The collapse of the Chinese imperial order and the traditional family that supported it was a cataclysmic string of tragedies that left tens of millions dead. Now it is the Ummah's turn to walk through the threshing ground of modernity.

Traditional Islamic civilization does not need to fear spectacular cultural or political collapse. These are the after shocks of a more mundane type of destruction. Social anthropologist extraordinaire Emmanuel Todd explains:

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Todd, in the middle of the Cold War, in the days of Leonid Brezhnev, you predicted the collapse of the Soviet system. In 2002, you described the economic and imperial erosion of the United States, a global superpower. And, four years ago, you and your colleague Youssef Courbage predicted the unavoidable revolution in the Arab world. Are you clairvoyant?

Todd: The academic as fortune-teller -- a tempting idea. But Courbage and I merely analyzed the reasons for a possible -- or let's say likely -- revolution in the Arab world, an inexorable change, which could also have unfolded as a gradual evolution. Our work was like that of geologists who compile the signs of an imminent earthquake or volcanic eruption. But when exactly the eruption takes place, and its form and severity -- these things cannot be predicted in an exact way.

SPIEGEL: On what indicators do you base your probability calculation?

Source: "Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate:
A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution

Der Spiegel English. 20 May 2011.
Todd: Mainly on three factors: the rapid increase in literacy, particularly among women, a falling birthrate and a significant decline in the widespread custom of endogamy, or marriage between first cousins. This shows that the Arab societies were on a path toward cultural and mental modernization, in the course of which the individual becomes much more important as an autonomous entity.

SPIEGEL: And what is the consequence?

Todd: That this development ends with the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens. Although this follows a global trend, it can take some time. (emphasis added). [11]
 Monsieur Todd explains the fall of the old order from the heights of the ivory tower. He can collect data dispassionately and pronounce revolutions from afar. Those closer to the upheaval are not granted such liberties. For them the death of civilization is an intensely personal affair. To understand their view--and how it can lead to radical terrorism--we must see the disintegration of their society as they do.

The War Nerd gives us a chance to do just that. Several days before the attack on the Westgate, he suggested that Western malls were a particularly conspicuous assault on the old Arab order:
In Najran, in the most remote corner of Saudi Arabia, a state so afraid of Western contamination that it doesn’t even issue tourist visas, there is a mall. And, when I lived there, you could watch —literally watch—the conflict between Sharia Law and Mall culture, five times a day.

The mall was anchored by a huge market, HyperPanda, complete with its own cheery green and red logo. HyperPanda sold everything from camel meat to iPods.... You go in the mall and the logos of all the high-end retailers of Europe and Asia wink at you, and there are even chairs and benches for the tired grandmother to slump in while the kids try their skate-shoes on the marble floors...
All this, only eight miles from the Yemen border. It’s amazing, actually. Amazing that the regime tolerates it at all, because as jihadis know, or sense, all social change is corrosive, and worse still, unpredictably corrosive, eating away at norms that don’t seem to have any direct connection to the change itself.

HyperPanda’s most direct affront to the culture is that it provides an attractive nuisance, in insurance terms, to the adolescent population. Malls draw teens in Najran just like they do in Minnesota. But the Mutaween have taken a, shall we say, proactive stance toward that fact in Najran.
HyperPanda in the Dubai.

The Mutaween (“Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice”) has hundreds of men, and even a few women, working in Najran. Some wear the big beards and special headdress, but others are in disguise. And what these undercover morality police do, mostly, is patrol HyperPanda to see if boys are talking to girls, or looking at girls, or throwing girls little folded-up slips of paper with their cell phone numbers. That last one is perhaps the greatest threat to morality in town, and HyperPanda is the scene of most such crimes. The Mutaween mount multi-cop surveillance routines, with some disguised as Malays or Filipinos, to detect any instances of heterosexual contact at the mall.

The culture, the law, are very clear. No pre-marital fooling around, and that includes flirting at HyperPanda. Mall rules are very clear too: It’s an obvious place for boys and girls to check each other out. When mall meets culture, hijinks ensue—and murders sometimes follow, with the male relatives of the girl who’s been compromised at HyperPanda hunting down and killing the boy who accosted her.

Ten years ago, the mall didn’t exist. Cell phones, the other contributor to the delinquency of minors in Najran, have only been around for 20 years, like the internet that gives girls notions of romance, thanks to the South Korean soap operas they all watch.

Everything is tilting toward the mall, away from the old rules, and the resistance is always futile, and worse yet, ridiculous. Every day one piece of this resistance breaks away. Yesterday it was the new head of the Mutaween admitting that there’s no Scriptural basis for forbidding women to drive.

That will infuriate men in Saudi, because as devout as they consider themselves to be, this was never just a religious argument. Orthodoxy never is; it’s always what’s comfortable and familiar. It would be news to these guys, watching the old world crumble, that people in South Dakota are afraid that “creeping Sharia” is about to creep its way into Fargo, presumably on insulated booties.

Kids in Najran already hate the Mutaween. They see kids flirting on TV from the west, and cops chasing grownup criminals, and it strikes them as ridiculous that so many cops devote all their time to the prevention of flirting. Now that the King has ordered the Mutaween to be nice, hate will turn to contempt. Pieces of the old walls will start falling even faster.

It’s hard to see how defensive jihad is, when you come from the homeland of the malls. At first, when you get to a place like Najran, you notice how alien and annoying everything is, how unlike California. Slowly you begin to realize that all the ingredients of California are being added to the mix.

It’s amazing how well most people handle this very volatile, unstable mix. When people are flooded with so much alien culture and technology, you’d expect wilder upheavals than we’re getting, especially in rural patriarchies like the one that used to operate unchallenged in Saudi Arabia. It’s not a surprise—not at all—that a fraction of the young males from there joined up for jihad. The real surprise is that there are so few of them. [12]
HyperPanda delivers a blow to the traditionalists no number of crusades, sieges, Nakbahs or democratic liberations ever could. The traditional Islamic system is well prepared for their type of shock. Defending the honor of the near in-group from the faraway out-group was a fundamental moral value of the Arab tribal system; Islam hijacked this tribal frame of mind, elevating the conflict between in and out to the entire Muslim community. The tribal mindset does not fear division and conflict between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb. Pressure from the outside is business as usual.

But HyperPanda does not come from the outside. The old system is not falling apart because of anything intentional the outside has done at all. Middle Eastern women are choosing to have less children, marry outside their families, and pursue education because they want to. Arab teens are watching dreadful K-dramas and flirting in malls because they want to. The enemies of the traditional order don't come from the House of War. The threat comes from within.


Totalitarian regimes have it easy. They have a ready-made response when people start to lose faith in the system: round the offenders up, force 'em to write self criticisms, and send them to the Gulag -- or if that is too complex, simply kill them. Just enough should be done to strike fear in the hearts of everyone else. Fear works when faith fails.

This is not a universal solution. Totalitarian methods prove fantastically impossible in decentralized societies. Arab tribes are a prime example. There are few human cultures so overtly hostile to centralized government as that sired by the Bedouin tradition (though the most zealous citizens of the Anglosphere can get pretty close). Anthropologist Philip Salzman describes the common tribal attitude towards their governments as one of the 'central tenants of [Arab] deep culture': "Middle Easterners regard states as criminal organizations to be distrusted, avoided, and, whenever possible, defeated and conquered." [3]

Using the government to enforce social norms or ideological purity just isn't in the cards. Governments have tried to do so, but as the Saudi example suggests, this method has a poor track record. If the more radical elements are truly committed to keeping things the way they are, they must find a way to cajole, convince, pressure, or dupe the modernizers away from modernization. They cannot coerce their fellow Arabs back into the stone age.

This point is important. I will repeat it: The Arab world has plenty of people who want modernization. A small minority actively agitate for change. A much larger group cannot be bothered to agitate for anything, but are content to let history take its course. This second group are the people who keep Arabian reactionaries from sleeping properly each night. They know that letting history run its course is to declare defeat. They also know that they alone do not have power to derail history from this chosen path. Defeat seems assured.

Those most agitated by the erosion of the old Islamic order do not accept defeat. They will not accept defeat until they know with a certainty that the game is up and the rest of their society will never rise up to make a more perfect Ummah. But only if the idle majority joins in unity with the committed minority can this dream become a reality. The most committed are willing to go to extreme measures to awaken the apathetic to their senses.

This is the social context that gives birth to radical Islamic terrorism. From the radical's perspective,  compromise is just another step towards defeat; moderation or apathy from inside the system pose greater dangers than pressure from outside it. Thus the central aim of radical groups is to create a political environment where moderation and compromise is not possible.

This chosen end leads easily to extremist means. An example closer to home may help us understand why this is so. 


The antebellum South could never decide if they loved or loathed Thomas Jefferson. They loved him for the obvious reasons. By 1860 they would justify secession with his fabled words. In those early days of glory and gunpowder, it was gratifying to pronounce that the spirit of the American revolution was the spirit of a Southerner. But not everything Mr. Jefferson wrote was congenial to Southern sensibilities. From his pen came venomous eloquence that undermined everything the Deep South's faux aristocracy pretended to be:
Public Enemy of the Old South.

Thomas Jefferson. By Rembandt Peel (1800). 
Source: White House Historical Association.
"There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it... The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.... And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation." [4]
Thomas Jefferson's actions never matched the high standard set by his rhetoric. This did not matter much in the eyes of his contemporaries; a plantation master was never to be judged on what he physically accomplished. These parlor patricians took pride in their independence from work. Sweat was for Yankees - and slaves. They strove to live in a world of the mind. 

Here the words of Thomas Jefferson tore through their pageantry. His sin was to express with eloquence sentiments shared by many - too many. Whether or not this was his intention, with such words Jefferson forced slavers to step down from their abode in the clouds and see their elect existence for what it really was: a base, reprehensible tyranny that corrupted all it touched, running counter to the courtly system of morals southerners pretended to honor. Yet this was not the most frightening thing about Mr. Jefferson and his words. What most disturbed those committed to the South's 'peculiar institution' was not the realization that it was a system of tyranny. No, what disturbed them most was that other southerners had the gall to admit it.  

The historian William W. Freehling once asked how a radical minority of a minority could lead the United States into Civil War. Part of the answer can be found in the paranoia of this class. Condemned by the Europeans, overtaken by the Yankee economy, and in perpetual fear of slave rebellion, the antebellum South was a world besieged. Who did this people under assault, the most radical slavers, hate the most? Freehling’s answer: Other southerners. They loathed and feared Thomas Jefferson's intellectual descendants -- southern gentry who sat rich and fine on their plantations, but all the while discontent in their hearts with the tyrants they were.  The fire-brands of the South hated those who were happy to let the demographic and economic trends of their day lead slavery to its eventual demise.  If the South was to be the South, then all southerners needed a gut for slavery. 

Soon the weak-hearted elements of Southern society forced its most trenchant members to extremes:
Perptualists [who believed slavery should be saved or extended] early discovered that apologists [like Jefferson] could neither be forced into consolidations of the institution nor forced away from increasing its vulnerabilities. The result was early loss of proslavery opportunities and early emergence of crimped and contained slave power.

The second and third generation of slave holding perpetualists drew the proper conclusion. If the South was ever to be a South, actively warring against anti-slavery, Jeffersonians passive failure to man the barricades had to be contested as aggressively as apologists’ tame attempts to chip away at the institution Thomas Jefferson epitomized why fire-eaters had to rally the irresolute. Such necessity profoundly shaped Southern extremist politics. [5]

As more and more states started to look (and act) like Maryland the question became more desperate. How do we keep the system alive? More importantly, how do we keep our own slave holders in line? How do we keep the South united against the moral assault from the outside?

The answer is fairly simple: we do everything our power to create a world divided into ‘us’ vs ‘them,’ anything that will force our moderates and the apathetic to pick a side. Even if it means war.

It is a tactic old as time. And it is a tactic we see repeated in the Middle East today. Like the antebellum South, theirs is a society radically different from those around it, subject to cultural incursions from the outside, apparently doomed to the forces of history, and fatally weak to the claim that it is oppressive and immoral. Many people living in the old order are not emotionally invested in it; a radical only needs to see the crowds at a Haifa Wehbe concert to a know that too many of their compatriots are cheering its death.These people will not be moved to action unless something radical is done.

Some people make the mistake of thinking these terrorist attacks are about Westerners or Christians. They are not. They never have been. [6] Jihadism isn’t about destroying the West – it is about creating an Ummah that has no West in it. There is no room for compromise in his vision. If the Ummah is to be what it is supposed to be then the moderates must be forced to pick a side. 

This is what barbarity is for. This is why innocent men, women, and children are being gunned down in malls and blown up in market places. It forces everyone to take a side. Barbarity precludes compromise. It takes advantage of the old tribal urge to unite and defend the near us from the far other. And if these savage tactics de-humanize Muslims in eyes of the rest of the world – well, all the better. In the traditional Islamic system pressure from the outside is business as usual.


[1] Emmanuel Todd interview with Der Spiegel. "Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate: A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution." Der Spiegel English. 20 May 2011.

[2] Gary Bretcher. "Jihad vs. The Shopping Mall." NSWFCorp. 20 September 2013.

[3] Philip Salzman. "Why the Middle East is the Way it Is." The Hedgehog Review. Vol. 13 (3). Fall 2011
[4] Merrill D. Peterson, ed. Notes on the State of Virginia: Thomas Jefferson. New York: Library of America, 1984. pp. 288-291. 

[5] William Freehling. The Road to Disunion, vol I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1991. pp. 120-121. This entire argument is adapted from his book.  

[6] Attacks against Israel - and to a certain extant, India - are generally an exception to this.

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Malls are big in the Gulf states, sure - that's where people can afford them. In most other parts of the Islamic world, they're a luxury for a few rich kids in the capitals, not a part of daily life. Satellite TV is more to the point, but that feeds desires without creating a space in which they can be fulfilled.

More generally, the hypothesis you're arguing for is interesting, but what's the evidence for it? How would you apply it to such obvious cases as Algeria in the 1990s or Pakistan now?

October 14, 2013 at 8:28 AM

@Anon- before I answer your question I wish to make sure the logic of my argument is explicit and clear. As it is separated over two posts and the trends and peoples included are poorly known, the flow of the argument is easy to lose. Here it is restated in easy bullet point form:

1. Radical violence is not senseless - like all premeditated violence it serves a purpose. Barbarity is a means to an end.

2. To understand barbarity, therefore, is to understand the end it is being used for.

3. To understand the end desired is to understand the culture and society of those seeking this end. Radical Islamic terrorism was born in a social system I have termed "the Traditional Islamic Order."

4. The Traditional Islamic Order was a spectacularly successful system that dominated the Middle East, the Mahgreb, Central Asia, and Bactria for more than a thousand years.*

5. The basic demographic and economic changes that come with modernity are wearing away at the foundations of the Traditional Islamic Order.

6. These changes are happening because of choices and compromises made by people in the system itself.

7. This deeply disturbs those who feel threatened by the eclipse of the old order, partly because they know they cannot coerce their compatriots from abandoning the old way -- they must convince them to choose it on their own accord.

8. Their goal, therefore, is to create an environment where compromise with the new is not possible, where everybody must declare a side.

9. Extreme violence does just that.

* It has a few distinguishing factors that distinguish it from other ore-modern systems:

a)The basic unit of the system is the endogamous community family. The ECF has a unique structure and a code of contact natural to it (See the work of anthropologist Emmanuel Todd for more on this)

b) These ECFs are embedded in larger tribal units. Even where tribal units have ceased to have political significance, tribal values - such a egalitarianism and us-against-them view of the world - dominate local culture. (See the work of anthropologist Philip Salzman for more on this).

c)Islamic theology and Islamic religious structures unify the whole, provide intellectual justification for the entire system, and at times can direct its efforts against the outside world.

Those three things come together in interesting ways that further set the Traditional Islamic Order apart from other societies. (For example, a conspiracy-prone distrust of government or very distinctive set of roles for men and women).

October 15, 2013 at 4:05 AM

Now to address your points:

I did not include WarNerd's mall description because malls are the single reason the traditional Islamic order is collapsing. I included it because War Nerd does a good job of describing the visceral feelings of disorientation, despair, and futility that fuels terrorism.

That plays out differently in each society. I will plead ignorance of Algeria in the 1990s. As for Pakistan, I think Akbar Ahmed offers an insightful view of the context between old tribalism and new globalism. His book is probably a good place to start.

October 15, 2013 at 4:15 AM

My question primarily targets 8: What is the evidence that defenders of the "TIO" think that they're trying to force people to take sides, as opposed to other potential motivations for violence?

On another note, if I had to pick three countries that are in no danger of going through the demographic and social changes associated with modernity any time soon, Mali, Somalia, and Afghanistan would be pretty close to the top of the list. If this is the explanation for this sort of violence, why is it much more prominent there than in, say, Lebanon or Tunisia?

October 15, 2013 at 5:22 AM

RE- Force people to take sides:

Akbar Ahmed's book The Thistle and the Drone addresses this directly, I think. See my most recent post to read more about the book and its claims.

I read a 20 or so pages of it on Google Books. He quotes extensively from Osama Bin Laden and other Asir tribe members who planned or executed the 9/11 attacks. No where do they say "I am doing this to set up a world to make people choose a side." But then again, neither did the radicals of the American south. Those radicals worried about Southerners they could not trust, manipulative elements from the North that tried to destroy everything they held dear, and the desperate need to stand united and stand their ground -- or be doomed. Akbar's jihadis peak in slightly different tones. They tell of a world poisoned by globalization, of a society whose honor has been compromised, and the need for all Muslims to be unite in retaliation to revenge the 'blood of the ummah.'

The implications are the same. We are under siege. We must stand united and fight back.

The only real difference is the type of rhetoric used to describe the fight - for the Southerners they were "defending" civilization and freedom, for the Jihadists it is "raiding" and exacting "revenge" as tribal parties are wont to do.

RE- Somalia, Afghanistan, and Mali:

It is interesting that you link those three together. I am reminded of a thoughtful 2012 op-ed by Abdul Ghelleh that also links the three. Beyond correctly predicting what would happen in Mali before a year had passed, Mr. Ghelleh centers his editorial around a single insight: radicalism in all three places comes from Saudi (and specifically Wahhabi) influence. Saudi Arabia is in many ways ground zero for this ideological conflict, caught between the worlds of Beirut and Kabul. To quote again Lynn Rees (whose words appear in the first post):

"The problem is less the software architecture of Islam and more the Arab firmware its embedded in... The pernicious thing about our enabling of the House of Saud through our petrodollars is that the particular Islam they export comes with the most primeval of Arab tribalism"

October 16, 2013 at 12:41 AM

Sorry for the 3 year reply, I just read this article and something I don't understand.

Your thesis is that the old timer wants to maintain their thousand year old "Traditional Islamic Order" And they see that its slowly being undermined from within, so they use extremist tactics to force rest of the population to their side.

So question is, lets say if they succeeds, how would Traditional Islamic Order help to advance their civilization? It has no path forward for them in the 21st century, they are against technology and innovation, no women rights, anti everything modern etc.... they remind me of the Boxers.

And the only reason they have not been sweep away like the Boxers is because literally got free money from the earth itself (oil). I don't see oil run out before they became ever more obsolete, then what?

I agree with you that violence is not for the sake of violence, its for something else, but I feel like there must be some other underlining reason for this.

August 7, 2016 at 12:16 PM

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