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Extremist politics

Douglas Murray’s holy war on Islam

St James Matamoros (killer of Muslims), hero of the Spanish re-conquest

After the bombing in Manchester, prime minister Theresa May said, on the steps of Downing Street: ‘We struggle to comprehend the warped and twisted mind that sees a room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish but as an opportunity for carnage.’

Really? After over 50 years of Islamic terrorism against the West, we still struggle to comprehend the mind of those violently opposed to us? That suggests a real failure and weakness on our part.

Douglas Murray, the author of The Strange Death of Europe, thinks that those who attack us are constantly trying to explain their motives to us. We’re just not listening. They are constantly explaining that they’re motivated by their reading of the Koran and their understanding of Islam.  But Western politicians and journalists won’t publcly acknowledge this, because it might seem racist to connect terrorism and Islam. Instead they insist terrorists have ‘nothing to do with Islam’, that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’.

Murray’s book – currently number 6 in the Amazon UK charts – is a rallying cry for Europeans, a last stand, like Childe Roland blowing his horn before falling beneath the moors’ swords. Europe is being rapidly transformed by waves of Muslim immigration, he says, and this threatens Europe as we know it. We must resist, he says, or liberal Europe will die.

Europe’s liberal universalist dream is that new arrivals will more or less share its liberal ideals. But that’s not necessarily so. A survey by ICM last year, for a Channel 4 documentary presented by Trevor Philips (the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), found that 23% of British Muslims support the introduction of shariah law in some parts of Britain, 52% think homosexuality should be illegal, 40% believe wives should always obey their husbands, one in six want Muslims to live more separately from the rest of society. Philips said: “there is a correspondence between this desire to live separately and sympathy for terrorism. People who want to live separately are about twice as likely to say that they have sympathy for terrorist acts.” (Some criticized the methodology of this survey).

Murray thinks these illiberal attitudes will grow as Muslim populations grow in western Europe, from around 2% in 1990, to 6% in 2010, to a projected 10% in 2050. Eventually, he fears, liberals will be in the minority and Europe will become a shariah-state. It has a sort of tragic Nietzchean note to it, in common with other alt-right texts – his friend James Delingpole has a podcast which broadcasts from ‘occupied Europe’, while American alt-righters love to talk about how Europe is ‘lost’, ‘London is fallen’ and so on.  It’s simplistic and alarmist, but then so is a bomb.

Murray’s book does a sort of sleight-of-hand. It mixes a critique of Islam as an illiberal religion with a critique of mass migration in general. He mixes denunciations of Islam with reports of how London is now majority non-white, how the face of western Europe has been transformed in the last two decades, how mass migration is putting a strain on public resources and public sentiment.

It’s true that European populations have been utterly transformed in the last three decades. We are sometimes told that nothing has changed, that Britain has always been a ‘mongrel nation’ – like the Huguenots, right? No, something has changed. Rates of migration went up very rapidly under New Labour. Cities including London, Bradford, Birmingham and Slough have gone in 50 years from being almost entirely white to becoming majority non-white.

Office of National Statistics figures on UK migration

Is this sudden expansion of the immigrant population a good or bad thing, economically? It’s not clear. European populations are ageing, and migrants provide cheap labour. On the other hand, the rising numbers puts strain on schools, hospitals and housing. Some welcome the greater diversity in our culture – the arts, the music, the food, the cultural dialogue – while others blame increased diversity for lower levels of trust in communities (the evidence for this is, again, mixed).

Migration and rape

Murray’s most controversial point, and it’s one he returns to repeatedly, is that mass immigration has led to a rise in crime in European societies, and in particular of rape. He focuses on the awful incidents of gangs of Middle-Eastern, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men who groomed and abused thousands (yes, thousands) of white teenage girls in Rotherham, Halifax, Oxford and elsewhere. The local authorities in Rotherham apparently failed to spot and stop the abuse partly because they were afraid of appearing racist. One of the first investigators of grooming gangs, Julie Bindel, writes:

the police and social services appeared to be scared of intervening in these particular grooming gangs, because a large number of the men involved were of Pakistani Muslim origin. The professionals who were turning a blind eye did not want to be labelled as racist

Murray also covers the mass groping by migrant men that took place in Cologne’s main square on New Year’s Eve in 2015, as well as reports of mass groping and rape at a Swedish music festival, and rapes in asylum centres. He argues that Sweden has become the rape capital of Europe and blames this on its high level of immigration.

This linking of immigration and race to rape is an extremely old and powerful propaganda technique – which is why Donald Trump and Nigel Farage use it, why Steve Bannon’s alt-right website Breitbart seizes on any stories involving migrant rape. It’s why the Nazis dropped leaflets on French soldiers saying English troops were seducing their wives, why British posters in WWI showed the Kaiser as an ape carrying off a British woman. It was the main justification used by white Americans for violence against blacks in the 19th and 20th centuries – they’re raping our women! It pushes a very old monkey button in us, that says: ‘protect your women from the rapey foreigners’ (and yes, the button says ‘your women’). Historically, invading tribes really did – and do – rape and abduct women. The ancient rape-alarm button is still there in my limbic system – I remember reading about the Rotherham case and feeling horrified and vengeful, probably more so than if the perpetrators had been white.

‘They’re raping our women’ is a very old and effective propaganda technique. A British WWI propaganda poster, a Nazi anti-semitic cartoon, and a recent magazine cover, from Poland I think


Where sex crimes are committed by immigrants, we need to prosecute them without fear of appearing racist. However, Murray is guilty of exaggeration and inaccuracy – and that’s really unforgivable in such a contentious area.

He reports that in 2009, immigrants were responsible for all reported rapes in Oslo. I was horrified by this. Why weren’t we being told? Was there a politically-correct cover-up? It turned out to be true that from 2006 to 2009, all 41 reported incidents of ‘assault rapes’ (rapes committed by a stranger) were committed by immigrants. But there were many more incidents of domestic rape, committed by Norwegians. An Oslo police report in 2010 – also seized on by anti-immigrant journalists and politicians – found that 61% of rapes were perpetrated by Norwegians. Around 30% of Oslo’s population is foreign-born, so immigrants are over-represented in the rape statistics, but it’s a dangerous inaccuracy to say they’re responsible for all rapes – and they’re not all Muslims.

He’s guilty of the same exaggeration and inaccuracy (or, if you prefer, lies) on Sweden. Sweden has the highest level of rape in Europe, and one of the highest levels of migration. Murray, like Nigel Farage and President Trump, insists the two are connected. But Sweden’s high level of rape appears to be mainly because the country changed its laws to introduce a broader definition of rape than other European countries, and it has taken steps to try and encourage women to come forward to report if they’ve been raped.

I think there are genuine issues with migrant men coming, on their own, from highly conservative, highly patriarchal cultures to a permissive and (relatively) gender-equal culture like Western Europe. While most sex offenders in the UK are white (82%), data suggests that between 20% and 30% of grooming gangs are Asian (who make up 6% of the population) , while gang rape is apparently much more likely to be perpetrated by young black-British men.

But Murray undermines his case by misusing statistics. And this matters, because he’s trying to make a sober, rational and intelligent case against mass migration in general and Muslim migration in particular, and to distinguish himself from racist extremists. When he mishandles statistics to create alarming emotional narratives, he gives credibility to myths and provides fuel for the extremists.

Public opposition to immigration

On one point Murray is certainly right: there is a deep disjuncture between European public attitudes towards immigration, and the attitudes and policies of mainstream politicians and liberal journalists. The mass migration into the UK which began in the mid-1990s was passed without a public discussion. Any discussion was shut down – if you criticized mass immigration in politics, journalism or academia, you were a racist, a far-right loony.

At my own centre, our 2016 annual lecture by Canadian historian Stephen Brooke looked at the emotions of Asian immigrants moving into Tower Hamlets in the 1970s, specifically their fear of racial violence (their emotions were measured by the Greater London Council). He didn’t even bother looking at the emotions of the white East Enders, who felt their community identity was threatened (rightly – within 30 years Asians had become the largest ethnic group in the borough). The GLC didn’t ask white working class people how they felt, so there was no data. They were the inexplicable Other.

In fact, ever since they began measuring it in the 1960s, public opposition to immigration was high – it started at a high of around 80% and has dropped since then, but it remains over 50%. It’s become a much more pressing issue to voters in the last decade – before then, it was not a top five issue. Now it is. This may be because of Islamic terrorism, or because migration has become more visible, or because it’s become more OK for media and politicians to express opposition to immigration.

Today, many politicians express a concern that multiculturalism is not working – even Angela Merkel. But now we are told it’s too late. ‘The dam has burst’, Boris Johnson wrote in 2012. ‘There is nothing we can now do except make the process of absorption as eupeptic as possible.’

European unease around the issue of immigration became acute in 2015, when a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean in boats, thousands of them drowning en route. Europeans were shocked by photos of dead children washing up on the shores of Greece and Italy. Europe’s leaders showed very different responses to the migrant crisis. In 2015, Chancellor Merkel said all asylum seekers were welcome in Germany (this year, trailing in the polls, she’s decided ‘what matters most is repatriation, repatriation and more repatriation’) while leaders in Eastern European countries expressed their opposition. ‘We are a Christian country’, said Slovakia’s PM. ‘Islam has no place here.’ What is the Christian response – to welcome in millions of migrants, or to resist mass Muslim immigration?

Murray makes the point that the million refugees of 2015 weren’t all Syrian asylum seekers – only around 40% were. Almost as many were economic migrants from Kosovo, Albania and Sub-Saharan Africa – single men looking to make money for their families back home. Should or could Europe simply accept anyone who wants to move there? Is that a serious policy? For the millions of Syrians fleeing the civil war, was it not better and cheaper to keep them in refugee camps nearer Syria, so they could move back home when the war was over?

At his most philosophical, Murray describes what he sees as Europe’s cultural exhaustion. We have become soft, decadent, pleasure-seeking, ‘without any unifying idea capable of ordering the present or approaching the future’. We’re suffering ‘an exhaustion caused by a loss of meaning, an awareness that the civilisation was ‘no longer accumulating’ but living off a dwindling cultural capital’.

Many Western Europeans – including Murray – have either lost their faith in Christianity or never had that faith in the first place. He writes: ‘Who knows what will step into this void, but for the time being the consensus appears to be that the answer lies in enjoying our consumerist culture, frequently buying things that do not last and then buying newer versions of the same to replace them. We can go on holiday, of course, and generally try to have as nice a time as possible.’

When Europeans have a moment of existential crisis – as most of us do now and then – what answers does our culture give?  ‘Nothing says, ‘Here is an inheritance of thought and culture and philosophy and religion which has nurtured people for thousands of years and may well fulfil you too.’ Instead, a voice at best says, ‘Find your meaning where you will.’’

We’ve become a culture of hedonism, expressive individualism, and shrill identity politics. It is a society, he says, ‘ripe for submission’. Islamic communities are beset by no-such crippling doubts, partly because anyone who publicly denounces Islam or even subjects its texts to historical criticism has to go into hiding. In an era of complexity and confusion, Islam gives clear, rigid certainty. That, Murray suggests rather pessimistically, is why it will probably win. Again, this note of cultural pessimism and critique of consumer capitalism is quite common in the alt-right.

But hey, maybe we’re not doomed! Blow your horn, Childe Roland. Show us a way forward before we kneel to the Prophet.

Neo-Christianity and the war on Islam

Murray actually spends more time criticizing the limp inaction of European politicians than he does suggesting practical solutions. But he suggests some. Firstly, listen to European publics when they say they don’t want more immigration. This seems fair enough to me. If the public doesn’t want more immigration, try to lower immigration. Otherwise you eventually lose all legitimacy as a political system and democracy breaks down. The 2015 migrant spike is just the start – the desire to migrate to Europe from poorer parts of the world is not going away. Either you say ‘come on over everyone’ or you try and discourage mass illegal migration – why not have a public campaign in countries like Kosovo and Albania explaining that western Europe is not the promised land?

Could one also have a ban on further Muslim immigration, as Donald Trump tried to introduce? A ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries is supported by a majority of Europeans. But an explicit anti-Muslim immigration policy would alienate the roughly 20 million Muslims living in Europe, and weaponize the minority of them prone to violence. It would play into the aim of groups like ISIS to ‘eliminate the Gray Zone’ between Muslims and infidels, and draw a stark line between Muslims and non-Muslims. What are you going to do – intern them? Deport them? Where to?

That’s why it’s not a good strategy to say ‘the problem is Islam’, as Murray does, even if there is a clear link between Islamic terrorism, certain passages in the Koran, and some Islamic fundamentalist cultures (specifically, Wahabbism and Salafism). I do think you can criticize sexist, homophobic or anti-democratic beliefs where they exist in Muslim cultures, as well as practices like female genital mutilation or honour killings, and you can raise textual and historical inconsistencies in Islam. I also think we should crack down on extremist preachers – chuck ’em out! But to say ‘Islam as a whole is a threat and has no place in Europe’ puts 20 million people into a state of existential threat. It makes them more likely to cling to rigid and extreme forms of Islam.

Are European governments so pathetic in their response to Islamic terrorism? No. I think they’ve done a very good job at reducing incidents, considering how easy it is to make a bomb or drive a truck into a crowd. Of course they understand there’s a link between Islamic terrorism and Islam. They also understand it’s a strategic error to criticize Islam in its entirety, as Donald Trump did to win votes (now as president he genuflects to Saudi Arabia, chief global exporter of extremism, while criticizing Iran, that well-known funder of global terror).

Murray’s broader solution is to urge a return to Christianity, even for the non-religious. He writes: ‘Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through.’ He doesn’t think it’s likely anyone will come up with a new religion (apparently he hasn’t attended Sunday Assembly), and he thinks the arts are not a sufficient substitute as they are ‘parasitic on Christianity’ – they offer a form of remixed Christian transcendence. He thinks liberalism also grew out of Christianity’s respect for the individual, and may not survive the decline of that religion in the West.

He writes: ‘A society that says we are defined exclusively by the bar and the nightclub, by self-indulgence and our sense of entitlement, cannot be said to have deep roots or much likelihood of survival. But a society which holds that our culture consists of the cathedral, the playhouse and the playing field, the shopping mall and Shakespeare, has a chance.’  Although he finds evangelical Christianity ‘uninformed’, he feels drawn to cathedrals or the music of Thomas Tallis. It’s Roger Scruton’s sort of aesthetic Anglicanism – when I asked Scruton if he was Christian he said ‘it has done nothing to offend me’. How’s that for a whoop of faith!

Murray’s neo-Christianity – like the neo-Christianity of alt-righter Steve Bannon – is a strange thing. It’s a Christianity more to do with Charlemagne than Jesus, with Christendom than Christ. It’s not a turning towards Jesus, but a turning against Muslims. It’s a sort of Christian nationalism, a civil religion, and apparently it’s on the rise – a new report suggests the number of those calling themselves Christian in the UK has stabilized because people increasingly see Christianity as an expression of English patriotism. Tommy Robinson, leader of the English Defence League, became a Christian last year.

But there are all sorts of paradoxes and inconsistencies in this neo-Christianity. First of all, there are twice as many Christians in the UK’s immigrant population as Muslims. The reason Christianity is growing in London, unlike the rest of the UK, is because of Christian migrants, mainly African Pentecostalists and Eastern European Catholics. If Murray thinks the only viable future for Europe is a return to Christianity, does he think the influx of foreign Christians is a good thing?

Secondly, he suggests Christianity is the best defence for liberalism, but Neo-Christianity or Christian nationalism can be just as illiberal as Islam, and sometimes just as violent. Yes, in some ways our liberalism emerged from Christianity, but in other ways it emerged by rejecting Christianity, and there’s still a tension between the two.

According to the Pew Centre, American Christians are becoming broadly more accepting of homosexuality, but over 90% of African Christians think it should be illegal. Half of evangelical leaders in the global south, and a quarter of evangelical leaders in the global north think the Bible should be made the law of the land – sort of a Christian version of shariah law. 71% of evangelical leaders around the world see secularlism as the greatest threat to society.

Breitbart columnist Milo wotshisname dismisses the idea of a ‘rape culture’ in America (unless it involves immigrants)

The Christian right may not insist on women wearing burkas, but 52% of American evangelical leaders think women should always obey their husbands, while Steve Bannon’s alt-right movement (an unholy alliance of Christian, Stoic, libertarian and white supremacist men) is violently anti-female rights and pro-patriarchy. It justifies marital and date rape and dismisses  ‘rape panics’ on American campuses. So, for the alt-right website Breitbart, it’s absolutely intolerable and horrific when migrants rape white women, but if white men are accused of rape, it’s femi-nazim and moral panic.

Still, Christians don’t detonate bombs do they? Most Christians don’t, but some Christian extremists do. In Norway, Anders Breivik killed 77 teenagers in his crusade against multiculturalism – he repeatedly called himself a Christian. In the US in the last two weeks, a far-right Christian killed a politician in Montana (in the same week a white supremacist fatally stabbed two men in Portland, and another far-right loon fatally stabbed a black man on the campus of Maryland University). Anti-abortion terrorists tend to self-identify as fundamentalist Christian. There have been over 200 incidents of bombing or arson against abortion clinics since the 1970s, the most recent is the shooting of three people in a US clinic in 2015 by a man who called himself Christian.

If we’re fine with the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Islamist terrorism’, which I am, then we should also be fine with ‘Christian terrorism’. Yet 80% of Christians think Christian terrorists aren’t really Christian, while over half think Islamic terrorists are actually Muslim. Why won’t the media use the word ‘Christian’ or even ‘terrorist’ to describe violent hate crimes by Christian fundamentalist groups and individuals?

I feel that Murray has searched for an existential answer to life’s meaning, a grand narrative, and has decided his mission is to oppose Islam. This is the great war of our time, he reckons, and it is heroic to give one’s life to this mission (and it’s true that some outspoken critics of Islam have ended up being killed, like Pim Forteyn and Theo Van Gogh). Nuance and balance is the first victim of this grand war.  And this crusade is not Christianity. It’s militant tribalism, however much you dress it up with Shakespeare and Thomas Tallis. It’s closer to Fight Club than the Beatitudes – you give yourself a meaning by picking a fight.

In conclusion, I agree with Murray that European politicians have – by accident or design – imposed mass immigration onto their populations for two decades, against the wishes of their populations. I agree that if populations want to control or lower immigration, governments should try to do it rather than dismissing them as bigots. I agree that political correctness should not stand in the way of prosecuting crimes by immigrants. I also agree that Europe needs a greater sense of transcendence and meaning, beyond consumerism and hedonism.

However, it is a strategic error to say ‘the problem is Islam’ because it alienates and weaponizes the 20 million Muslims already living here, and pushes Muslims of all varieties towards more extreme variants of the faith. Circulating false but highly provocative statistics like ‘all rapes in Oslo are carried out by immigrants’ is deeply irresponsible and fans the flames of extremist fear and violence on the right.

Finally, I don’t think it’s a goer to embrace Christianity as the solution to Europe’s existential problem if you don’t actually believe in Jesus or even in God, but just see it as a useful cultural barrier to resist the barbarians. That is not a vital long-term solution – it’s an empty suit of armour, without a warm, beating heat within it. You end up perverting the faith you’re using as a military banner.

Christianity has an important role to play in our culture, but we’ve long been more pluralistic than that, influenced just as much by Greco-Roman culture, and today by other cultures like Indian, American, and, yes, Muslim culture. I think pluralism is not empty or morally hollow, but a reflection of the nature of God, and the dignity of human freedom. I know it’s uncomfortable not to have one official existential Meaning for our culture, but have a look at the countries that have that (Iran, Saudi Arabia) and ask yourself if we’re really in such bad shape.

The ecstasy of violence and war

‘War’, wrote the French knight Jean de Bueil in 1465, ‘is a joyous thing’.  War – and violence in general – is ‘one of humankind’s great natural highs’, in the words of sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich.  War absorbs our consciousness, heightens our senses, distorts times, bonds us to our fellow fighters, and can give us a sense of transcendent meaning and sacred value. War is carnival-esque – we put off our normal identities, put on face paint and war costumes, and use music, drumming, chanting, prayer and intoxicants to go into a battle trance. There ‘is a Midsummer Night’s Dream quality to the war experience’ writes former war journalist Chris Hedges, ‘as if no one can quite remember what happened’.

Violence and war are ecstatic experiences. The German military author Ernst Junger wrote: ‘Once again: the ecstasy. The condition of the holy man, of great poets and of great love is also granted to those of great courage. The enthusiasm of manliness bursts beyond itself to such an extent that the blood boils as it surges through the veins and glows as it foams through the heart . . . it is an intoxication beyond all intoxication, an unleashing that breaks all bonds. [In combat] the individual is like a raging storm, the tossing sea and the roaring thunder. He has melted into everything.’

One of the best accounts of the ecstasy of war is a 1984 Esquire magazine article by Vietnam veteran William Broyles Jr, called Why Men Love War. He writes:

Part of the love of war stems from its being an experience of great intensity; its lure is the fundamental human passion to witness, to see things, what the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the Marines in Vietnam called eye-fucking. War stops time, intensifies experience to the point of a terrible ecstasy. It is the dark opposite of that moment of passion caught in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d/ For ever panting, and forever young. ” War offers endless exotic experiences, enough ‘I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.

A lieutenant colonel I knew, a true intellectual, was put in charge of civil affairs, the work we did helping the Vietnamese grow rice and otherwise improve their lives. He was a sensitive man who kept a journal and seemed far better equipped for winning hearts and minds than for combat command. But he got one, and I remember flying out to visit his fire base the night after it had been attacked by an NVA sapper unit. Most of the combat troops I had been out on an operation, so this colonel mustered a motley crew of clerks and cooks and drove the sappers off, chasing them across tile rice paddies and killing dozens of these elite enemy troops by the light of flares. That morning, as they were surveying what they had done and loading the dead NVA…on mechanical mules like so much garbage, there was a look of beatific contentment on tile colonel’s face that I had not seen except in charismatic churches. It was the look of a person transported into ecstasy.

And I – what did I do, confronted with this beastly scene? I smiled back. ‘as filled with bliss as he was. That was another of the times I stood on the edge of my humanity, looked into the pit, and loved what I saw there. I had surrendered to an aesthetic that was divorced from that crucial quality of empathy that lets us feel the sufferings of others. And I saw a terrible beauty there. War is not simply the spirit of ugliness, although it is certainly that, the devil’s work. But to give the devil his due, it is also an affair of great and seductive beauty.

We can be more discriminating in our analysis than simply saying ‘violence is ecstatic’. The psychologist GE Partridge wrote after World War II of the various ‘ecstasies’ which war inspires. I’ve identified ten varieties.

1) Violence is a high

Violence itself is a high, and people need only the most tenuous justification to seek it. Bill Buford is an American literary journalist and former editor of Granta. He became interested in English football hooligans of 1980s, and embedded himself with a group of Manchester United hooligans for his book Among The Thugs. He recalls:

I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable…the pure elemental pleasure was of an intensity that was unlike anything else I had experienced before…This is, if you like, the answer to the hundred-dollar question: why do young males riot every Saturday? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their anti-social kick, their mind-altering experience’.

Violence is an intense and addictive sensory pleasure. Usually our consciousness is scattered and diffuse, but in moments of ultra-violence, it is so absorbed that we forget our selves and are not even aware of pain. This pleasure is now somewhat shameful to admit, but it was unashamedly celebrated in medieval society. The 12th-century troubadour Bertran de Born sang a hymn to the ‘pleasant season’ of war: ‘I tell you that neither eating, drinking nor sleep has as much savour for me as when I hear the cry ‘Forwards!’ from both sides, and horses without riders shying and whinnying, and the cry ‘Help! Help!’, and to see the small and the great fall to the grass at the ditches and the dead pierced by the wood of the lances decked with banners.’

2) Violence is transgressive

In a society like ours, which has to some extent stigmatized violence, it has the extra pleasure of transgression, the illicit feeling of breaking social conventions. Buford writes of the moment, in a hooligan riot, when a line of transgressive violence is crossed, and the energy of the mob is suddenly heightened: ‘With that first violent exchange, some kind of threshold had been crossed, some notional boundary: on one side of that boundary had been a sense of limits, an ordinary understanding – even among this lot – of what you didn’t do; we were now someplace where there would be few limits.’ This is some of the pleasure, I’d suggest, of the extreme histrionic violence of Daesh – it is transgressive, shocking even to other Jihadi groups. It’s also a part of the attraction of Donald Trump’s coarse, offensive language – it gives people an illicit sense of conventions being violently transgressed.

3) War leads to experiences of ‘combat flow’

The violence of fighting and war isn’t just a sort of berserker rage, although it can be that. It can also bring moments of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli calls ‘flow’ – when a person’s consciousness is completely absorbed in what they’re doing and they feel a sense of mastery over a difficult challenge. We admire war because it can bring out these moments of heroism and millitary skill. Yuval Noah Harari of Hebrew University of Jerusalem has collected various accounts of combat flow, like the following from an American soldier fighting in Mogadishu in 1993:

it was like an epiphany. Close to death, he had never felt so completely alive….The only thing he could compare it to was the feeling he found sometimes when he surfed, when he was inside the tube of a big wave and everything around him was energy and motion and he was being carried along by some terrific force and all he could do was focus intently on holding his balance, riding it out. Surfers called it The Green Room. Combat was another door to that room. A state of complete mental and physical awareness.

Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo recalls his platoon getting into a fight with a Vietcong unit: ‘an eerie sense of calm came over me. My mind was working with a speed and clarity I would have found remarkable if I had had the time to reflect upon it. I knew what I was going to do. . . . The whole plan of attack flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds…’. He manages to lead his platoon to victory: ‘I felt a drunken elation. . . When the line wheeled and charged across the clearing, the enemy bullets whining past them, wheeled and charged almost with drill-field precision, an ache as profound as the ache of orgasm passed through me.’

4) Violence and war are a sexual turn-on

Related to Caputo’s last comment, many people come away from war zones admitting they found war a turn-on. This may be because it makes them feel sexually empowered, or it may be because being in close proximity to death is arousing – it heightens the physical senses and gives one a ‘live for the moment’ mentality. War also leads to the loosening of normal morality and the normalization of prostitution and rape, so that Daesh soldiers feel entitled to have multiple wives and sex slaves.

5) Violence and war bond you as a group

Violence and war give us a strong sense of togetherness to our fellow combatants. That might be a feeling of intense love for one’s ‘band of brothers’, or it might be the feeling of togetherness in a crowd, a mob, a rally, or an entire nation going to war.

Jean de Beuil writes in 1465: ‘We love each other so much in war. If we see that our cause is just and our kinsmen fight boldly, tears come to our eyes. A sweet joy rises in our hearts, in the feeling of our honest loyalty to each other, and seeing our friend so bravely exposing his body to danger in order to keep and fulfil the commandment of our Creator, we resolve to go forward and die or live with him and never leave him on account of love. This brings such delight that anyone who has not felt it cannot say how wonderful it is. Do you think that someone who feels this is afraid of death? Not in the least! He is so strengthened, so delighted, that he does not know where he is.’

James Jeffrey, a British lieutenant serving in the Iraq War, writes: ‘It all made for an intoxicating experience and was possibly, sad to say, the best thing I, and I imagine others, had ever done. Ever since it has been like something has gone out of my life forever. For it wasn’t just the unparalleled sensory spectrum, there was a communal satisfaction, tapping into a primordial core, which came from taking part. That blissful sense of community started with the soldiers, wonderfully skilled and maddeningly headstrong, insubordinate at times but ultimately doggedly looking out for each other.’

A scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film ‘Triumph of the Will’

There is a sense of the ecstatic transcendence of one’s little ego in the big group of the crowd, the army or the state, a ‘casting aside of our little selves to live under the august grace and the enhancing of the genuine life of the people of a State’, as the Japanese Ministry of Education put it in 1937. The German nationalist Heinriche von Treitschke wrote:  ‘The grandeur of war lies in the utter annihilation of puny man in the great conception of the State, and it brings out the full magnificence of the sacrifice of fellow country-men for one another’. In war, we feel less lonely. Chris Hedges writes that war ‘instantly reduces the headache and trivia of daily life. The communal march against an enemy creates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbours…wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation.’

6) Violence gives you a thrill of high status and domination

Genghis Khan declared: ‘The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bewildered with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.’

It is a thrill to dominate one’s enemies, to turn the fear of being preyed upon into the joy of being a predator, to humiliate one’s enemies, to humiliate and torture them. The troubadour Bertran de Born sings:  ‘By my troth, I laugh at what you say. I care not a fig for your threats. I shall shame every knight I have taken, cut off his nose or his ears.’ Medieval culture unashamedly celebrates torture. We read one account of a medieval knight: ‘He spends his time in plundering, destroying churches, falling upon pilgrims, oppressing widows and orphans. He takes particular pleasure in mutilating the innocent…And his wife is just as cruel. She helps him with his executions. It even gives her pleasure to torture the poor women.’

Violence gives us the thrill of revenge for past grievances and humiliations. One notes a deep sense of grievance and victimhood in aggressive nationalist movements in Nazi Germany or fascist Serbia, and a similar sense of grievance and resentment in Daesh propaganda: ‘a day will come  when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honour, being revered, with his head raised high, and his dignity preserved. Anyone who dares to offend him will be disciplined, and any hand that reaches out to harm him will be cut off.’

Violence and war also gives us the ancient pleasure of raiding another’s territory – Bill Buford writes of a moment when a group of Man United hooligans manage to resist the police in Turin and overturn their monopoly on violence: ‘The city is ours, Sammy said, and he repeated the possessive, each time with greater intensity. It’s ours, ours, ours.’ This is one of the thrills of rioting – the city becomes a Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the police no longer have a monopoly on violence. One of the 2011 rioters remembers:  ‘It was ours for a day. Salford was more like a party atmosphere. Everyone was stood around, drinking… smoking weed, having a laugh.’

7) War is a rite of initiation that proves your manhood

Barbara Ehrenreich writes: ‘Men make war in part because war makes them men’. Fred Blackmum recalls joining the Royal Navy at the start of World War II: ‘I was eager and I was looking forward to it. This is what you did…… You went in a boy and you came out a man.’ Many tribal cultures around the world have the idea that you’re not a ‘real man’ until you kill something or someone. The Fang tribe in central Africa, for example, after a successful ambush, come home shouting: ’We are real men, we are real men, we have been to town and shot a man.’  Christopher Isherwood recalls of the First World War: ‘War…meant The Test. The test of your courage, your maturity, of your sexual prowess. ‘Are you really a Man?’ Subconsciously, I believe, I longed to be subjected to this test.’

8) War gives you a sense of sacred meaning and catharsis through blood-letting

War alters our consciousness and takes us into what psychologist Lawrence LeShan calls a ‘mythic reality’ – a sort of uncritical mythopoetic trance in which our side is on a mission from God and the enemy is the demonic embodiment of evil. ‘War makes the world understandable’ writes Chris Hedges, ‘a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially critical thought.’  This Manichean division of the world into heroes and villains – what Daesh calls ‘the elimination of the grayzone’ –  is deeply satisfying to our subconscious. That’s why we love epic myths like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Frank Miller’s 300, where the baddies are obviously bad – they are demonic, ugly, orc-like.

War also gives us catharsis. Carl Jung suggested we all carry a ‘shadow self’ – a part of us that feels wounded, ashamed, anxious, guilty and afraid of being ostracized or persecuted. We all seek catharsis for this shadow self, these feelings of anxiety, guilt and loneliness. Violence and war offer a sort of dark catharsis – we project our anxiety, guilt and aggression onto someone else or another group, tribe or nation, and make them the embodiment of evil. Then we imagine that their sacrifice – their extermination – will cleanse us of our anxiety and guilt. They become the scapegoat. War, wrote Thomas Mann, ‘is a purging and a liberation’. As the anthropologist Rene Girard has suggested, we seek catharsis and wholeness through the bloody sacrifice of others, healing our own inner divisions through their blood.

Sacrificial killing, writes the classicist Walter Burkert, ‘is the basic experience of the sacred’, and human sacrifice has a central role in many indigenous cults, in occult practices, and still in some African magic. The desire to heal ourselves and placate the gods through blood-letting runs very deep in human consciousness.

9) Apocalyptic violence

A variant of this ‘sacred violence’ is apocalyptic violence – you believe you are involved in a final cosmic showdown between good and evil. The more enemies you kill, the more God forgives your sins. Apocalyptic violence is not unique to Abrahamic religions, but it’s certainly very strong in the Old Testament, New Testament and Quran. And it’s horribly apparent in the history of the Crusades. The Declaration of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II in Clermont in 1095 is a moment of mass ecstasy. The historian Norman Cohn writes:

As the Assembly listened it was swept by emotions of overwhelming power. Thousands cried with one voice ‘Deus le volt!’ – ‘It is God’s will!’ Crowding around the Pope and kneeling before him they begged leave to take part in the holy war. A cardinal fell on his knees and recited the Confiteor in the name of the whole multitude and as they echoed it after him many burst into tears and many were seized with convulsive trembling….

The knights and peasants of the Crusades were assured the more they ‘killed for Christ’, the more their sins would be expiated. They had visions of the heavenly city of Jerusalem as they marched through Europe, raping and pillaging as they went. When they finally arrived in Jerusalem, they killed every Muslim in Jerusalem, and every Jew they could find. ‘In and around the Temple of Solomon, the horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgement of God’.  Of course, the End Times didn’t arrive as expected, and Jesus didn’t come back to Earth. But that didn’t stop a steady succession of apocalyptic movements going on the rampage in the Middle Ages, with self-proclaimed prophets and Messiahs announcing that the End Times were nigh, an Age of Love was dawning, Jerusalem would be liberated, and the Jews exterminated. Daesh has much in common with these medieval movements, even down to bonkers predictions like the return of the giants Gog and Magog.

10) Utopian violence

Utopian violence is similar to apocalyptic violence, but slightly different. Utopians believe that contemporary society is hopelessly compromised and immoral. They feel strangers or exiles in it, adrift in a culture of ‘strangeness’ (as Daesh propaganda puts it). They hate the fact that this immoral ‘civilization’ makes us all wear masks, forcing us to lie, flatter and serve the boss. They long to smash this fallen civilization, and replace it with a perfect state, in which they can feel ‘expanded’ (as the Utopian Thomas More put it) into their genuine authentic selves. Rather than the present system of inequality and subjugation, in the perfect Utopia all would be equal, all joined in love and solidarity. Now it may be that some ‘deviants’ refuse to join this blissful unity. In that case, they should be purged, rubbed out. This purging is similar to the cleansing violence of apocalyptic movements, but it is not done to placate some bloodthirsty divinity, but rather to erase the blots of imperfect humanity as we create the perfect state. One meets this chilling Utopian violence in various philosophers, from Plato to Thomas More to Rousseau to Marx to ‘radical chic’ philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou.