Earlier this month, the New York Review of Books published an essay on Islamic State (IS) by an unnamed former “official of a NATO country” who admitted his “bafflement” at its rise to power. Paul Berman argues that confusion is uncalled-for:
What is [Islamic State’s] motive? On this point, . . . there is no mystery. IS has been eager to reveal its own thinking. It slaughters for religious reasons—which is to say, for reasons that are bound to seem incomprehensible to us. It is piety that requires the efficiently organized jihadists to slaughter the poor unoffending Yazidi minority in Iraq; and to slaughter the Shiites, which they have been doing for many years now, one suicide bombing after another; and to slaughter Christians; and would surely require them to slaughter the Jews, if only the Israel Defense Force would do them the kindness of getting out of the way. Given the opportunity, Islamic State would slaughter most of the world, if I understand [its] doctrine correctly. Slavery, too, is piety, in these people’s eyes. They pray before raping.
And they have prospered! Their successes bear out political theory on a few points, but mostly they are a rebuke to political theory. They are the enemy and conqueror of every doctrine that has ever supposed human behavior to be predictable. This is the bafflement. . . . They have scored a triumph over every theory of human progress that has ever been proposed. They are not the first people to score such a victory.
We have needed their reminder, though. In recent decades we have liked to tell ourselves that, after the Nazis, mankind has learned its lesson. But mankind is not a lesson-learning entity. . . . [I]f once upon a time the barbarities of the 7th century thrilled and inspired a substantial portion of mankind, we can be confident that 7th-century barbarities will remain forevermore a viable possibility.