Alienation and despair, according to most Western experts, are what generally lead people to join or support jihadist organizations. In some cases that is true, writes Gershon Hacohen. But more often the motivations are quite different:
Many times, it is precisely those who had hoped to integrate into affluent Western society who chose the path of terrorism. Some of the world’s most notorious terrorists, such as those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, studied at leading universities. At a recent international symposium I attended, I learned from a Malaysian researcher that in his country it is mostly outstanding students with exceptional prospects who choose to join Islamic State.
Projecting despair and alienation onto everything may blind us to the existence of other significant motives. . . . Besides security and prosperity, people also seek meaning. . . .
That sense of meaning can be found in religion, and religious zealotry especially. But why turn to violence? Hacohen notes that many Islamists believe that now is the time to overthrow the West by waging war against it, a conclusion that stems as much from observation as from religious doctrine:
To a large extent, [terrorists’] sense of opportunity is rooted in the way Islam perceives Western society: as a decaying and declining society. This perception stems first and foremost from the significant decline in birthrates in the West, which Islam views as the weakness of an ailing society. No children means no future, no labor force, and no manpower pool to fill the ranks of the soldiers.
With their liberal aspirations and their emphasis on human rights as a basic principle that trumps a state’s authority, Western countries seem to have relinquished the need to exercise their sovereignty. . . . It is the perceived manifestation of the West’s weakness that gives hope in terror operatives.