Flights From Freedom

LONDON – Among the most chilling developments in the rise of the Islamic State is that so many citizens of Western countries have joined the group’s ranks, becoming suicide bombers and beheading hostages. Why do hundreds of Muslims, many of them educated and from middle-class backgrounds, leave comfortable Western democracies to join a brutally barbaric movement? What makes young men and women susceptible to the extremist Islamist message?

As he watched the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, Sigmund Freud described the dangerous appeal of authoritarian leaders and the satisfying self-aggrandizement that their followers experience when they subsume their personalities in an ideology or group. For those acolytes, freedom is a psychologically burdensome condition. As one of Freud’s disciples, Erich Fromm, famously argued, the urge to escape the demands of free choice – by adopting rigid beliefs or norms of conformity – can be especially compelling for those whose sense of a strong autonomous identity or a capacity to think for themselves is not fully developed.

The contemporary democracies from which Western jihadis defect offer an unprecedented degree of freedom. It is hard to think of a form of political community that requires so little allegiance from its members, proposes so few shared norms, and enforces so few behavioral guidelines. In nearly every aspect of our lives – morals, manners, sexuality, family structure, careers, and religious beliefs – we Westerners are essentially free to do as we like.

This may seem like a highly desirable state of affairs, conducive to the cultivation of a good life. But in the last few decades, Western democracies have been undergoing a marked identity crisis, manifested in an unwillingness to articulate organizing ethical principles or to project democratic values onto the international stage.