A Stronger Way of Life?: Responding to President Obama on ISIS

President Obama put his finger on a key to the struggle with militant Islam: the difference between two ways of life. In a press conference during his visit to Malaysia he once again clearly expressed the predominant views of our secular culture.

First, in Obama’s view it is precisely our values of openness that make our culture strong:

So I want to be as clear as I can on this:  Prejudice and discrimination helps ISIL and undermines our national security.  And so, even as we destroy ISIL on the battlefield -- and we will destroy them -- we will take back land that they are currently in. . . .  Even as we are in the process of doing that, we want to make sure that we don't lose our own values and our own principles.  And we can all do our part by upholding the values of tolerance and diversity and equality that help keep America strong.  

Are those the core values upon which our nation has been founded? I think he may be correct in pinpointing them as our current central values. The problem, in relation to the fight with ISIS (which the President refers to as ISIL), consists in this openness creating cultural weakness.

Alan Bloom may have described best how openness leads to becoming closed in his monumental work, The Closing of the American Mind:

Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness, without recognizing the inherent political, social, or cultural problem of openness as the goal of nature, has rendered openness meaningless. Cultural relativism destroys both one's own and the good. Culture, hence, closedness, reigns supreme. Openness to closedness is what we teach.

What Obama thinks keeps our nation strong actually keeps it weak. Tolerance, rather, must be incorporated into a compelling vision of the good life, which promotes openness to others in light of the search for truth and commitment to living out what is good.

President Obama insists that the key response to ISIS entails not fearing them. Asked to clarify this, Obama remarked:

They're a bunch of killers with good social media.  And they are dangerous, and they’ve caused great hardship to people.  But the overwhelming majority of people who go about their business every day, the Americans who are building things, and making things, and teaching, and saving lives as firefighters and as police officers -- they're stronger.  Our way of life is stronger.  We have more to offer -- we represent 99.9 percent of humanity.  And that's why we should be confident that we’ll win.

The President has placed his finger on the key issue in the conflict between the West and ISIS: two ways of life. There are some stark differences between the two cultural visions—one keeps religion private, the other seeks to force its practice publicly; one, as the President mentions, is busy building up material goods, while the other largely destroys material security. There are some shocking similarities too. Both have instrumentalized human life, for example, subverting human dignity to its divergent goals: human security and religious fundamentalism.

But which vision have youth found more compelling? Hasn’t it become almost cliché to admit that our youth are disengaged, distracted, confused, with no compelling vision for the future, apart from comfort and pleasure. What about ISIS? Youth are flooding in from around the world, some not even from a Muslim background. ISIS has provided a compelling vision to some youths, who have experienced a void in the openness and materialism of the West. Many of its extremists have been raised in Europe, and even some from America, within moderate social settings, but have come to reject the emptiness they have found in secularism.

Ross Douthat recently noted an important reason why Western-born youth head to Syria, in his piece “The Joy of ISIS”: “If you don’t recognize that for at least some of the Islamic State’s young volunteers there is a feeling of joy and celebration involved in joining up, then you’re a very long way from understanding the caliphate’s remarkable appeal.” In in contrast: “Our widespread inability (concentrated in particular among our leadership class) to imagine or understand what else, beyond the pull of sadism and thuggery, our fellow human beings (including quite a few young, Western-raised people) seem to find intoxicating about the Daesh experiment.” Could there actually be joy for some in responding to a clear vision of something greater than their own selves, which requires sacrifice, even of life itself, to help bring this vision about.

President Obama conceives of our fight with ISIS in fairly simple terms: “And we fight them, and we beat them, and we don’t change our institutions and our culture and our values because of them.” On the other hand, maybe we should change our culture because of them. Maybe we should recognize our own deficiencies in light of what many youth recognize as a “stronger way of life.” We need to change, we need to more clearly articulate a vision of the good life, which can motivate youth to aspire to something greater than themselves. Our society has grown weak and it is time to rediscover what it means to be strong.