The hero is the one who stays home

The hero is the one who stays home
Illustration for the article "The hero is the one who stays home".

As the struggle to contain the spread of the radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement continues, reports have emerged about the motivation of those foreign fighters who left the comfort zones of their homes and communities in the West and Asia to join the radicals fighting their war in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Arab world.

From the accounts of some of those captured or who have surrendered, it appears that among the factors that motivated them to join the movement was a sense of hopelessness and ennui in their daily lives back home.

Many complained of poor-paying jobs and menial and meaningless work, and having little faith in the future.

It is doubly ironic that some of these would-be martyrs discovered upon their arrival in the war zone that they were assigned equally humdrum tasks, such as cooking and cleaning toilets.

Some who grew disillusioned with the ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or IS) now complain that even in the ranks of the so-called "brotherhood" of heroes, some are more equal than others.

While there is little doubt that ISIS is a radical militant threat that ought to be dealt with seriously, it is equally important to ask if the use of military might to counter ISIS is the only solution to what appears to be a hugely complex problem.

The deployment of jet fighters, rockets and drones may momentarily halt the advance of such an armed force of insurgents, and may rapidly turn their victories into defeats if they are soundly beaten in open combat.

But this still does not address the question of how and why men (and in some cases, women) from developed countries have chosen to abandon their ordered lives in order to take up arms in a struggle that is not truly theirs.

A modern problem

If desperation and disquiet about the all-too-comfortable life of modern developed countries is the issue, then it could be argued that this is a problem that is not unique to ISIS alone.

The sense of alienation and the feeling of individual insecurity is as old as the problem of modernity itself, and has been part and parcel of the process of modernisation all along.

Since industrialisation, we have seen the effects of large- scale urbanisation, the growth of routine work in factories and the mind- deadening rise of consumerist culture of urban-commercial centres in many parts of the world.

It was not a coincidence that the Luddites emerged in Nottingham, ranting against what they regarded as the evils of industrialisation.

And it is not surprising that the figure of Ned Ludd himself was later blown out of proportion to semi-mythical status, and lionised as "General Ludd" by his followers.

This sense of rage has accompanied the train of modernisation from the beginning, and remains palpable today as it was then.

The main difference that we see today is that in the developed Western world, those who wish to opt out of the system have many other choices and means to do so, from joining new-age cults in the wilderness to forming subaltern collectives experimenting with other forms of societal organisation and production.

People opt out all the time, and do so by taking various paths - not all of them radical or violent.

But the one factor that is common to all these cases - be they hippy new-age individuals or radical militants - is that none of them sees the value of persevering in a system that does not accord them value or purpose in life.

Linked to this search for purpose is the yearning for a higher set of values, which suggests an aspiration for metaphysics of some sort.

In the case of ISIS militants, this alternative value system is placed on a higher metaphysical level where it contemptuously looks down upon the lives of others as mundane and meaningless.

The yearning for a higher moral vocabulary may be an inspiration for some, but it is there that ISIS militants have also committed the same moral error that they accuse society of being guilty of, namely, the demeaning and devaluation of ordinary labour.

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