“I miss my mother.” It’s not what I expected to hear from a suicide bomber.

An excerpt from Payam Akhavan's 2017 Massey Lecture explores the reality and psychology of ISIS fighters.

The Spirit of Human Rights

The Bonds that Make Life Worth Living

“I miss my mother.” It’s not what I expected to hear from a suicide bomber. Ahmed Qasim al-Khateb had a boyish face—big brown eyes, long eyelashes, missing front teeth, and a caterpillar moustache—but he spoke with unwavering confidence about his sacred mission. His clumsy arrogance reminded me more of a rebellious teenager than a ruthless terrorist. It took some imagination to realize that he was in fact highly dangerous.

Ahmed had been captured by the Kurdish peshmerga troops, crossing into Iraq at the Syrian border. His suicide vest had failed to explode. Now he was behind bars, deprived of both freedom and the glory of martyrdom. “There is only one Allah,” he proclaimed, defiantly holding up his index finger. The salute of ISIS—the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—symbolized tawhid, the oneness of God. From that sublime premise, the narcissistic narrative of the holy warriors leaped to the improbable conclusion that anyone who disagreed with their ultra-conservative Salafist ideology was an infidel who should be killed. Here I was, a law professor from Canada, sitting in Duhok prison with the celebrated journalist Sally Armstrong, getting schooled in Jihad 101 by a youth half my age.

Ahmed’s lecture in psychotic theology demonstrated the success of the emirs in brainwashing impressionable youth, exploiting their desperate rage for the diabolical cause of the so-called caliphate. But it didn’t take long for him to run out of things to say. As his ideological swagger began to crumble, it exposed a confused and vulnerable adolescent, rethinking his life choices.

“I miss my mother,” he muttered as he was being taken back to his prison cell by the guards. “I wish I could turn time back and go to school. I wanted to become a doctor.”

How had Ahmed the healer become Ahmed the killer? What would make a young man with dreams and ambitions choose death over life? The power of the primal bond with his mother perhaps offered a clue. Evidently, having lost everything, it was a lifeline to the most meaningful connection that he knew. Teenage suicide, as I had come to understand, was about extreme despair, a want of the bonds that make life worth living. It was a question of mental health, not religious ideology. Maybe in another universe, closer to my reality, I would have encountered Ahmed hanging around a shopping mall, texting his girlfriend on the latest iPhone. Instead of fighting a holy war, he would be fighting boredom with the wide range of electronic distractions at his fingertips. For him, the scenes of carnage in Iraq and Syria would be no more than a Facebook post. But whether afflicted by cataclysmic terror or consumerist tedium, one way or another he would have to grapple with what it means to live and die in a world of extremes. Whether in the prison or the shopping mall, there would be no escape from the perennial problem of how the depth of our connections distinguishes a meaningless life from a meaningful death.

Far from the grim reality I encountered in Iraq’s prisons and refugee camps, the blogosphere and television talk shows were buzzing with commentary. The Internet-savvy ISIS was pushing all the right buttons. Its psychological warfare had successfully invaded Western minds. Politicians and pundits, celebrities and saviours, all chimed in to process the shocking spectacle of beheadings broadcast on social media. The sadistic cruelty on display had created a palpable consternation. Angry condemnations mixed with visceral fear and voyeuristic fascination, and the occasional expression of sorrow for the victims. It resembled group therapy for secondary post-traumatic stress. Reflecting on this righteous storm in cyberspace, it occurred to me that the story wasn’t just about what was happening in ISIS territory, but also what was happening at home, among the spectators.

What do our encounters with human rights atrocities say about who we are, as distinct from who we pretend to be? In pursuit of a virtuous self-image, how does the “civilized” world of Western liberalism perceive the suffering of others at its periphery? We no longer define the sublime by turning to the heaven of medieval Christianity, or even to the modern utopias of totalitarian ideologies. Disabused of the catastrophic illusions of the past, in our postmodern search for transcendence we have embraced human rights as the secular sacred. Having shunned absolute truths, we navigate the stormy seas of moral relativism, weary of foundering on the forbidden rocks of individual autonomy and cultural diversity. In this disenchanted universe, belief in the inherent dignity of humankind is the magical island where we can still find refuge amidst moral uncertainty.

Belief in human dignity finds expression in democratic institutions, constitutional rights, principled foreign policy, and so forth, but it is much more than a set of legal concepts and political procedures. By one classical account, liberalism is merely a social contract designed to prevent our descent into anarchic violence. But what we espouse as an unimpeachable truth about human nature, what we enshrine as a fundamental purpose of society, also reflects our most basic self-definition, as individuals, communities, and civilizations. In fact, the conception of human beings as possessing a noble essence is a giant leap of faith. We could equally conclude that our species is incorrigibly selfish and aggressive, doomed to self-destruction. It is this stark contrast that makes it difficult to reconcile worship of the secular sacred with the crass materialism of our consumerist culture. The glorification of greed and the violence that it breeds are fundamentally incompatible with the spiritual reality that the depths of our humanity can only be discovered through altruism. The light of our soul is best mirrored in how we help the suffering, not in how much we consume.


Excerpted from the 2017 CBC Massey Lectures, In Search of A Better World. Copyright © 2017 Payam Akhavan and the  Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Permission granted by House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.

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