The Undergarments of Absolutism: Why Abdulmutallab Got on the Plane

You know the dream you have, where you’re up in front of heaps of people and suddenly you realize you’re in your underwear? Or there’s Homer Simpson, imagining the audience in their underwear, only to look down to see that he’s fantasized himself into his underwear too. Then Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab went and put a bomb in his underwear. Underwear will never be as embarrassing again.

After years of apparent calm, terrorism is again an immediate and serious threat on American soil. To stay this threat, we must better understand where its beginnings lie, from where it draws its strengths, and finally, and most importantly, what causes its decline. In this spirit, I submit three points which, in interaction, may create the conditions for the radicalization of young Muslim men. (But that’s no guarantee: We have to leave space for free will, personal circumstance, and a host of other variables.)

The first point: radicalism is most likely to emerge from zones of overlap. By this I mean the people, places or other contexts where Western and Islamic perspectives come together in negative contrast. Say, the African Muslim student who travels to Europe to study, finding himself alienated by the lifestyle around him, the hateful comments about Islam in the public discourse and the undeniable pain of war and poverty in so many Muslim lands. Or the British Muslim who’s angry at his government’s foreign policy and tired of not being considered part of his country. (No wonder the pining for future Caliphates: it’s somewhere one’s passport might imply belonging.)

The second point: these material contrasts between Muslim-majority and Western societies are real, in many places accelerating, and cannot be wished away by zeroing in on a specific individual or blaming an abstract cultural difference. Colonialism happened. But it’s not poverty so much as the awareness of it, not the impoverished circumstances so much as the narrative framework within which material disparities are experienced and processed, that lead into radicalization. The radicals have narratives that explain reality in attractively absolutist ways, placing blame wholly on the West or wholly on insufficiently prayerful Muslims. These narratives create impossible—even soul-crushing—demands of the self and society, in such contradiction to reality that they can only be resolved through spectacular violence.

The third: the great divisions across Islam, the intellectual and actual battles for hearts and minds, are also the great unity of the modern Muslim world. The radical narrative is a symptom of a larger disagreement within the Muslim world, a fracture whose primary cause is the absence of consensus on the moral responsibility of the individual in modernity and the relationships between individuals and their societies. (Muslim political thought hasn’t said enough about the need to check, as opposed to capture, state power.) The disagreement keeps Muslim states—a number of them egregious human rights violators, some supported by the West (i.e., Uzbekistan)—unstable and materially inferior, a feedback loop in the radicals’ favor.

Together, these three points imply a fledgling theory: radical terrorism will threaten us so long as 1) “the great divergence”—to borrow Kenneth Pomeranz’s term—exists between Islam and the West, 2) it is processed through absolutist narratives to be solely the fault of the West or the moral failure of Muslims (both populations then become legitimate targets), and 3) the profound disagreements over self and society produce schizophrenia in young Muslim men and paralysis in Muslim societies.

Umar vs. Umar

In his online postings, Abdulmutallab reported confusion over what he considered contradictory priorities. (A topic I have explored in my first novel, an imagining of the sympathetic pains and nostalgic fury that lights a path to Muslim militancy.) Studying Arabic in Yemen, he was excited by the availability of fast food like KFC, but concerned, I suspect, as to why he so cared.

He was also attracted to women, but unsure how to square his lust with the piety he aspired to. His loneliness surprises us for its adolescent rawness: a sexually frustrated teenager, a rich kid idealizing a severe piety, and all the while unsure how to unite himself. It was the radical narrative that created the fiction of incompatible life choices, between wealthy and westernized or an inflexible religious ideal, which appeared to break Umar and push him down the bomb-in-his-underwear path.

A materialist bias would like us to believe that human flourishing negates the baser aspects of the self, an assumption undermined by someone such as Saddam Hussein, who despite his wealth was still a predator upon his people. People who are deeply mired in poverty can be attracted to extremist causes, and can and do commit acts of terror. But the founding leaders of al-Qaeda, and those who would attack us within Western territories, are generally well-educated and well-off citizens from the non-West, persons who are themselves zones of overlap. We hear the struggle in Abdulmutallab’s words. It’s not that poverty doesn’t move them, but more correctly it is an interpretation of poverty that radicalizes (and is itself radical).

There Are No Muslims on Star Trek

It’s rather easy for radicals to pitch a long war with the West. The ease emerges out of the undeniable underperformance of today’s Muslim world. The Muslim politics of the past, however they seem to us now, sustained sovereign states for centuries; for many Muslims today, that past gives the Muslim a sense of security and dignity which is otherwise painfully lacking—and demands recovering. The continuing presence of Western armies in Muslim countries only supports their point.

The deep disagreement over the place of Islam in society, and the relationship of personal to collective morality, partially explains the underperformance of many Muslim states. Consider today’s Iran: an inheritor of one of the most brilliant civilizations in history, she is unable to reclaim her past significance. Since the June elections, thousands of Iranians have come together in protest, though it’s unclear what these protests mean to accomplish. The protests reflect the inability of that society to produce a consensus over the political boundaries accorded to “Islam” and “democracy”; the tension is so severe because enough Iranians want both Islam and democracy to shape their society (and a sufficient minority wants either Islam or democracy) but aren’t agreed on where to draw the boundaries between them.

Or consider Nigeria, a fusion of a Muslim-majority north and an increasingly Christian south. A few hundred years ago, indigenous Muslim states, by expanding, brought Islam and a more global culture to the region, though their flowering was cut short by European colonization. Today’s Nigeria is one the most corrupt places on Earth and her constituent peoples are clearly uncertain whether they should belong to the same nation. How can a society develop when it is so divided against itself? What kind of individual is produced when he exits this society (physically, through travel, or culturally, through television) to see the prosperity, coherence and power of Western societies? And what then, when he is presented with a narrative that blames one’s failures on the other’s success?

Littler Pictures: Preemptive Paternal Strikes

But radicalism has largely failed to capture the minds of most Muslims. The frustrations of select Muslim youth will only descend into radicalization if they cannot refute the radical narrative. It shouldn’t be so hard to do so: the radicals cannot engage the dangers of power qua power, the realities of human frailty and the limits of history, because the narrative teaches that any cohabitation with the other, in politics or piety, pragmatically or genuinely, is impious. Nor do they offer a spiritually uplifting or morally attractive vision.

Just as radicalism cuts across many supposed boundaries within the Muslim world, so too does the increasingly pronounced reaction, born of ethical shock, sheer exhaustion—the “moral” demands of extremism are suffocating—and righteous anger. It is inchoate and shaky so far, and its full growth will require patience. There’s no reason to suppose that the drive to consensus can emerge painlessly or simply. As a noted scholar of Islam once put it to me in a different respect: people don’t realize how many decades had to pass and ideas had to change in order for you to get a super-sized value meal in three minutes.

In the meanwhile, Muslims should eschew the big picture. Work on the negotiations that form everyday life, developing an organic reality that allows our communities to balance interests in a way that is moral and merciful, rooted in our legal traditions and alive to today’s needs. Muslims must pursue institutions that speak to contemporary circumstances and dismiss the zero-sum game. Western societies also need to think critically about their relations with Muslim countries and attitudes to Muslim minorities: support for dictatorships constitutes fuel for the radical fire, while these same minorities will form the base for resistance to radicalism.

We’re getting there already. In both the case of the five young men who went from America to Pakistan and Umar Abdulmutallab, their own families warned the relevant authorities. Their actions argue that for all those who feel that acting violently redresses an injustice against the Muslim world, those near to them disagree enough to resist. Such a fracture within households suggests the intimacy and depth of the struggle, a battle that travels the Muslim world and unites it anew. That means more and more Muslims pushing back against the delusions of a confused young man whose idea of Islam led him to place a bomb in his underwear, to try to punch a plane out of the sky.