Events in Afghanistan and the Middle East have awakened the Western world to the existence of an existential threat. We are not confronting a specific grievance that could be remedied by negotiation. We are not faced simply with rogue regimes and insurgent groups that can be dealt with through sanctions and reciprocal menaces. The threat is rooted in biological and cultural conditions that we cannot change by politics, and which have in any case pushed politics aside.
The Middle East is, as we are discovering, not one thing: on the contrary, it is a patchwork of communities whose peaceful coexistence depended on conditions that no longer exist. And many of those communities are in the habit of producing the two greatest scourges of the human race: young men without women, and puritanical rage. These same scourges have visited Afghanistan and North Africa, and they lie dormant throughout the Islamic world.
It is true that in Turkey and large parts of the Levant women have obtained a kind of social equality with men: but it is a precarious equality. Thanks to Atatürk polygamy was abolished in Turkey and women were encouraged to enter public life. Their status as the unspeakable ‘secret’ was removed, their faces were revealed, their soothing presence was everywhere perceivable. Thanks also to Atatürk the other great solvent of social tension – alcohol – was permitted and, while drunkenness is rightly viewed with anger all across the Middle East, the example of Turkey has helped many of those ancient communities to let their hair down and relax together over a bottle.
Remove wine and women, however, and the tension quickly escalates. This is especially so in societies where the women, although hidden away, are encouraged to have children, and where the quantity rather than the quality of children is the most important sign of status. Just to consider one of the many flashpoints, the median age in Gaza is 18, compared with a world-wide figure of 28 and a European average of 40. We see the result on our televisions. When conflict erupts in an Islamic country and people come out into the streets we witness vast crowds of young men. In Turkey there are women too among them. But Turkey is the exception that proves the rule. The norm is young men without women, their anger fuelled by the anger of those around them, gesturing towards something that as often as not they are unable to describe except in vast, vague and metaphysical terms – the reign of God, the death of the infidel, the destruction of the Other who stands in their way.
There are few political analysts who seem to have noticed what is really happening in these places. Of course there are grievances. But those who make use of them do not want a solution. They want a fight. And they want a fight in the first instance because they are young, male, and womanless. Sure, there are women around at home. But they are forbidden women, and the whole idea of womanhood is shrouded for them in mystery. They are taught that real women are untouchable until marriage. But they have been provoked by Western licentiousness into thinking that women in our societies are another thing altogether, and this both excites and enrages them, with devastating effects on young Muslim men who live in the West, as we have seen recently in England. (See my post on the Rotherham case.) The spectacle of emancipated women is, for these young men, an existential threat – the forbidden thing that tempts and destroys. They are an existential threat to us because that is what we are to them, even though our intentions are peaceful, and even though we long for a negotiated end to their violence.
I don’t think that evolutionary psychology tells us the whole truth about the human condition. But it tells us half the truth. It tells us that deep biological imperatives govern much of our conduct and are apt to erupt in ways that are not understood by those who are subject to them, or understood only through ideas that don’t admit of refutation. That is why Islam is so useful to young men in this condition. It rephrases their biological need in holy accents, telling them that in giving vent to their rage they are also doing God’s will, and that death in such a cause is their salvation. Of course, no such thing is authorised by their faith, and those Muslims who condemn the atrocities that we are witnessing will be the first to point out that the murder of the innocent is as much forbidden to a Muslim as it is to anyone else. But that is of no real effect when the absolutes of the religious mind-set are commandeered by the absolutes of the hormones.
How then are we to confront this super-abundance of young men in the grip of puritanical self-righteousness? What conceivable change in the order of things can calm them down, and bring them to accept the imperfections of earthly government and the need to live on terms with those who disagree with them? It is very difficult to answer such questions. We know from our own history that puritanism, combined with the territorial imperative, is the greatest threat to civil order. The puritan seeks a religious solution to all earthly conflicts, and wishes to align his will with the will of God. For the puritan, earthly existence is one long sequence of temptations and the pain that this inflicts on him can be overcome only by persecuting those who enjoy the forbidden fruits. Only a radical change of Islamic societies, of the kind engineered in Turkey by Atatürk, can provide these young men with the things that they need – the things that will take them out of themselves, so that they can look with a measure of self-irony on their hyper-sexualised rage. Only when women are public, uncovered and competing on terms with their men; only when they are able to show to the world that male violence is a threat to them, and that the destiny of the male is not the band of warriors but the supper table at home, will the puritan rage be quelled. And if a bottle of wine could be put on that supper table, that too would be good.
But can it happen? In all the confusing news that has emerged from the Middle East surely nothing is more cheering to us, than the information that one of the fighter pilots who has been attacking the Isis redoubts in Iraq and Syria is not only fighting in the air-force of a Muslim country (the United Arab Emirates) but is also a woman. Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri is setting the example that those foolish young men most need. And if she became revered across the Islamic world we would know that the danger might soon be over. Until that happens, however, we must be on our guard.
Roger Scruton is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.