There appears, nevertheless, to be something especially potent about Islam in fomenting terror and persecution. Contemporary radical Islam is the religious form through which a particular kind of barbarous rage expresses itself.
So, to understand why jihadis have been drawn into a moral universe that allows them to celebrate inhuman acts, we have to understand why political rage against the West takes such nihilistic, barbaric forms, and why radical Islam has become the primary vehicle for such rage.
Jihadis view themselves as warriors against western imperialism. Yet few anti-imperialists of previous generations would recognise jihadis as ideological kin.
There is a long history of popular struggles against colonialism and empire. While such movements often used violent means to pursue their ends, they were rarely “anti-western” in any existential sense. Rather they worked within a universalist moral framework that stressed freedom and emancipation for all humanity.
Over the past few decades these anti-imperialist traditions have unravelled. The new movements that have emerged in their place are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity, and are sectarian or separatist in form. This shift is linked to the wider decline of progressive social movements, the loss of faith in universalist values, and the replacement of ideological politics with the politics of identity. Moral norms have increasingly become tribal rather than universal. Political struggle for a better world has given way to inchoate identity-driven rage.