I have felt strongly since 9/11 that the jihadis are, despite their apparent devoutness, thoroughly modern men who have more in common with the fascists and Japanese militarists of the 40s than with the Muslims of the early caliphate they idolize. It was not until I read a thoroughgoing review of Japanese militarism in Japan’s War by Edwin Hoyt, which as the title implies is Japancentric, that I began to see more clearly how all three reject the modern world and want to return to a purer past. Japan’s War explains how the warrior code Bushido and Japanese assumptions of their own superiority were distorted to provide support for what was a slow moving coup d’etat that put the military in charge of Japanese foreign policy starting in Manchuria and China in the mid 30s. Hoyt makes a convincing case that the surprise attack was central to the Japanese military ethos developed in endless feudal conflicts and then applied in bastardized form by an out of control military to attack, not just the US, but all its neighbors. Germany was frustrated in a different way from participating in the modern world fully by the consequences of WWI and the Versailles treaty and had to invent a fantasy Aryan purity and past to underpin their reactionary violence.

9/11 is often compared to Pearl Harbor and, for me, the relationship is not superficial. I recall very clearly looking over the top of my glasses at the mayhem on the TV screen and realizing I now understood how people felt on Dec 7, 1941. There are two other common views of 9/11. The jihadis felt they were finally getting to strike back against the crusaders in a war that was still ongoing from their point of view. Many other observers saw the moment as proof that Western colonialism in general and American colonialism in particular was getting its comeuppance from the oppressed. I recall in particular an Australian academic still hypnotized by the Marxist notion of capitalism’s inevitable fall saying to me “When I saw the Twin Towers come down I said. ‘YES, American must fall.’ ” I think both these views paper over the deeper reality that the events of 9/11 were an attack on the modern world itself. An attack first and foremost on the unique and apparently relentless level of material progress that the human race has achieved through industrialization in the past 250 years – now spread to much of the world’s population.

I believe the key to understanding the reaction of some is that the rate of change has been much faster than human beings can always accommodate culturally. Previously we had spent the past 5000 years making the transition from hunter gatherer to agriculture – with certain remote peoples to this day in the earlier stage. It is not surprising that some traditional cultures should balk violently at the suddenness of the emergence of the modern world. Both Japan and the Muslim world had been is a period of stasis until disturbed by the Western world. Both quickly developed a strong desire to acquire modern Western weapons and the frame of mind to use them. When combined with desperation that similar frame of mind also produced and glorified the suicide attack. While I think the explosive changes brought about by modernism are a genuine cause for anxiety, and that as a species we are clearly in unexplored territory, I believe totalitarian attempts to go back to the past are based on denial and delusion that lead to mass destruction and evil.

In a subsequent post I want to look in more detail at the two movements within Islam that drive the idea of a return to the early days of Islam: Wahhabism and Salafism.

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