It took the beheading of Western journalists for public opinion in Europe and the United States to finally awaken to the danger lurking in the blossoming of Islamic fundamentalism. After the initial flood of condemnations regarding the “primitive” bloodthirsty culture, came analyses and explanations that emphasized, justifiably, the fatal combination of historic struggles between the different denominations of Islam and the extreme economic gaps in the global era, with entire population layers sinking into hopeless poverty.
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But very little attention has been paid to the role played by Western culture in this new phenomenon. The fact that young people, born and educated in Europe, chose to go to a distant battlefield in the belief that it is possible to turn the wheels of history back to the Middle Ages and with the clear understanding they could end their lives there, is not connected just to economic difficulties or the urge for adventure.
One of the important achievements of Western culture since the middle of the last century has been the spread of the concept of pluralism. Born as a response to the era of colonialism and radical nationalism, the ideal of pluralism created expectations that were difficult to fulfill, especially among the generations of immigrants born in Europe. The disappointment at a reality that pushed them into the margins, especially during periods of economic crisis, only sharpened their feeling of social alienation. Moreover, the relativist theories that promoted unconditional equality and granted retroactive legitimacy to cruel and dark cultures and cults, increased the tension between withdrawn communities and the local population.
There is another aspect of Western cultural influence that has been forgotten in the heat of the condemnations. Despite the widening cultural gulf between East and West, the knife-wielding members of ISIS have learned to edit movies and to run an effective public relations campaign that has transformed a few tens of thousands of fighters into a worldwide threat. And not just that. Even as they fulfill ideas emanating from extremist Islamic sects, they are able to search for sources of inspiration in the various media platforms that have become excellent guides to violence for its own sake in recent years.
Vicious violence has become one of the most prominent characteristics of Western culture in the 21st Century. Despite the occasional criticism heard in the wake of a murderous event at a school or university, the level of violence is rising steadily. The scenes of horror are staring out from every screen: Movies, television, computer games and the Internet are filled with violence and cruelty of every type. The threshold for violent images is defined anew every day and the entertainment industry rushes to satisfy the demand it has created.
The problem is that this phenomenon does not characterize only popular culture. Violence and cruelty are part of the human experience and have kept generations of philosophers employed from the dawn of history, finding expression in all the areas of creation. But in recent years it seems that all the dams have burst. Theories formulated back in the 18th Century, which gave a spiritual dimension to cruelty and violence as authentic expressions of the depths of the soul and defiance of social conventions and moral norms, had a great influence on the modern era.
Familiar from early 20th Century Expressionist art, these theories ably served the Nazi regime, as well as - and not by chance - other extreme mystical cults. They blossomed in the second half of the 20th Century, which explains how, among other things, the Marquise de Sade turned into a representative of progress and enlightenment and the “Theatre of Cruelty” of Antonin Artaud became the message of the avant-garde revolt.
Film directors such as Tarantino and Anderson are the guides and The Game of Thrones is a favorite series. Sadism has been granted a romantic halo with incredible success, such as with the book “50 Shades of Grey,” but it is not hard to discover in reality series, too, in which participants are required to endure real physical torture.
In such a reality, with the concept of censorship proscribed and every move to limit the complete freedom of new media, including those intended for children, immediately perceived as totalitarian, it is hard to understand the deep shock that the ISIS videos aroused. Mounds of explanations that clarify the subversive-critical dimensions and the symbolic significance of representing violence in all areas of art will not change the fact that contemporary culture engraves its images of uninhibited cruelty from a young age. The Islamic fanatics are simply proving the practical significance of that fact.