If terrorists are searching for meaning, it is found not in fanatical religion but in everyday acts of kindness—like those of Mancunians last nightby Julian Baggini / May 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
The point at which my eyes started to water this morning, listening to the news of the Manchester atrocity, was when the radio reporter started to talk about how Mancunians had opened their homes to the victims, offered lifts, cups of tea, glasses of water. There was something deeply touching about such ordinary kindness in the face of extraordinary (as such attacks thankfully remain) violence.
At such moments, it is natural to see a stark conflict between light and darkness. Human society is about love, life and goodness, while terrorists embody the opposite.
There is much truth in this—but commentators have, I think, often mischaracterised Islamist terror. Islamic State has, apparently, claimed last night’s attack as the work of one of their own. Although details will doubtless continue to emerge over the next few days, it is worth pointing out that their message specifically referred to the target as the “shameless concert arena.”
We might pause at this fact. Some describe Islamic extremist movements such as Islamic State as nihilistic death cults. Janet Daley, for example, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the Paris Bataclan attacks were “carried out for the sheer nihilistic thrill of it” by those belonging to a “hysterical death cult.”
Terrorism, however, is more a—deeply misguided—response to the threat of nihilism than an expression of it.
For decades now, the accusation of nihilism has been directed most frequently not at radical terrorists but at godless and materialistic western society. It is viewed as shallow, lacking spirituality, consumed by materialism and empty hedonism. The Japanese philosopher Nishitani Keiji, for example, described nihilism in 1949 as “the historical actuality of Europe.” His concern was that the decline in traditional Japanese spirituality and the rise in western values was creating a crisis of nihilism in Japan too. On this analysis, nihilism does not threaten the west from without but from within.
This is no more than what many western intellectuals have argued. The French existentialists recognised a long time ago that the death of God created a crisis of meaning. The original nihilistic killer was Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus’s L’Étranger, who senselessly kills an Arab man in French Algiers. Meursault had no values, no meaning, no purpose. Our situation today is a strange inversion of Camus’ allegory. The Muslims…