It isn’t just Muslim extremists who believe in jihad. Almost without exception, every person does. Rooting out jihadists, or mujahideen, is impossible. There’d be nobody left on earth if this were to happen.
For the root meaning of jihad is “to strive” or “to make an effort.” In the Islamic world this striving takes on certain characteristics, while elsewhere the striving manifests differently. Always jihad flows from the same psychological condition, though: a belief that individual effort can make the world a better place.
Before I get inundated with angry emails and comments calling me a moral relativist offering up excuses for Al Qaeda terrorism, I need to stress the obvious: people act on this ubiquitous propensity to jihad in many ways. Some are violent, some are peaceful. Some are destructive, some are productive.
Morality is all about channeling human striving in desired directions. A moral person is someone who desires to desire in “good” ways. Defining what good means is the big controversial question. But I think there’s general agreement that whatever “good” is, it’s something that has to be striven for. In other words, jihad is necessary to be good.
Jihad can be directed either inwardly or outwardly, though, as the Sufi mystic Rumi taught. The inward jihadist tries to change his or her own self; the outward jihadist tries to change the world.
A few days ago I was driving along in our Toyota Prius and pulled up behind a convertible Mini Cooper at a stop light. I’d never seen a convertible Mini before. Its top was down on a sunny day. Instantly a jihadist impulse washed over me: “I need that car. If I had a convertible Mini Cooper my life would be complete. The only thing standing between me and heaven on earth is not owing a convertible Mini.”
Now, I’m not willing to die for a car. That wouldn’t make any sense even if I could somehow get a Mini by dying. What good would it do me to have the car after I’m dead? Yet all the time we hear people saying things like “I’d die for a piece of chocolate right now.”
Many Muslim jihadists do just that: die for something they consider is worth striving for. That something isn’t just an otherworldly belief, individual salvation in paradise, but also a this-worldly belief: that martyrdom will help to spread Islam in accord with the will of Allah. So they are just taking to extremes the normal human propensity to strive for what isn’t yet in our possession, whether this be a piece of chocolate, a new car, or god’s kingdom on earth.
This morning I was reading an interesting essay by Daniel Araya, “Integral Religion: Uniting Eros and Logos,” that kicked off these thoughts about jihad. Following Ken Wilber’s basic distinction between Ascent (Many to the One) and Descent (One to the Many), Araya says that “Eastern religion, following the course of Ascent, seeks to unite humanity’s consciousness with God; while Western religion, following the course of Descent, serves God’s manifest unfolding.”
Philosophically, I’m an Ascender. Yet there’s a considerable gap between the ideal philosophy that I espouse and the real life that I’m living. So in a lot of ways I’m a Descender. Ascent is the path of inward jihad; Descent is the path of outward jihad.
If you believe that it’s your responsibility to help the world evolve or unfold so that it better reflects God’s will, then you’re a religious outward jihadist. If you believe that it’s your responsibility to help the world evolve or unfold so that it better reflects your will, then you’re a secular outward jihadist. Either way, you’re expecting that something outside of you needs to change, not what is inside of you. Or more accurately, what is you.
By contrast, Ascenders believe that the timeless, formless, limitless One (God) is right here, right now. Nothing separates us from what we’re lacking. The ultimate fulfillment of enlightenment, satori, nirvana, samadhi—whatever you want to call it—is a state of inward consciousness, not a state of outward manifestation.
Further, there really isn’t any striving, jihad, needed to return to the One. It’s a matter of letting go, of relaxing, of surrendering, of embracing the wu-wei of non-action rather than the tight-lipped, fists-clenched, gotta-try-harder attitude that makes the world go ‘round. And ‘round, and ‘round, and ‘round. Where it stops or if it stops nobody knows, but for most people hope springs eternal that the ceaseless motion of earthly events will eventually lead to the steady state of a Promised Land.
As Daniel Araya writes, “God reveals Himself to the Jews (and later to the Christians and Muslims) through His actions in the course of history.” Thus Judaism looks forward to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, Christianity seeks to prepare the way for the second coming, and Islam is engaged in its own jihad of a “divine campaign for justice in the world of creation.”
For the Western religions, the kingdom of God is coming, not already here. For the Eastern religions, the kingdom of God is eternally present as the essence of our very being. By and large, for the Eastern mystics the focus of jihad, striving, is inward. There isn’t any need to struggle to change the world. What needs to change is the belief that struggle is how spiritual change occurs. So far as I know, there isn’t anything comparable to “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in Buddhism, Taoism, or Hinduism. But with a little bit of editing, that song would fit right in with Jewish and Muslim beliefs.
Jihad is a universal state of mind. If we think that there are “evil-doers” in Al Qaeda who are completely different from you and me, we’re mistaken. An issue of New Scientist (which is published in England) arrived in my mailbox today after I had started writing this post. A teaser on the front cover caught my eye, “What makes a suicide bomber”
Turning to the article, “The ordinary bombers,” I read:
“Most suicide bombers anywhere in the world appear to be normal. Study after study has shown that suicide terrorists are better off than average for their community and better educated. They are also rarely suicidal in the pathological sense…They don’t have to be Islamic extremists either, or even radicalized by faith.
...The immediate reaction to suicide bombers is to label them as animals, or inherently evil. But this will not do. Blowing themselves up in a crowd is often the first evil thing these people have done. And they are not animals. The most difficult thing of all is to recognise that suicide bombers are, alas, all too human.”
What happens is that Islamic jihadists who blow themselves up have made a commitment to a group that exploits their sympathy for the group’s cause. The article notes that normal, rational people can be persuaded to do horrible things if the right conditioning is applied. This is one reason why I say that it is so important to be loyal to yourself, not a group.
Virtually all of us are prone to jihad, because we believe that changing the world outside of us is more important than changing the world inside of us. It’s just a matter of degree where we fall on the Jihad Continuum. Suicide bombers are on the far end of the jihad bell curve; a sadhu living sequestered in a cave is on the far opposite end.
Here I’m not considering the means being used in an attempt to change the outer world, just the intensity of the striving. Means are vitally important, obviously—changing minds with books is hugely preferred to bombs—but desire is what starts off a jihad of any sort, as the Buddha taught.
There’s only one way to jump off the jihad train: do what has to be done spontaneously, naturally, effortlessly. It’s much easier said than done. Yet saying to oneself that it’s essential to strive not to strive is a first step toward not taking any more jihadist steps.