Author’s note: While the Islamic State is revolting to regain the territory of the old Umayyad Caliphate, McWorld is watching how the uproar unfolds in front of its television. Although it feels like an action movie scene, the beheading of American journalist James Wright Foley is part of the dreadful reality. However, remote events like these do not affect us directly in any way: when the news headlines are over, life within our cocoon of safety continues. In comparison to the peoples that are waging wars, fighting for their heritage or aspiring for a better country through revolution, our western lives of consumerism may feel rather meaningless.
Era of suicide
We are living in the era of suicide. Safety and consumption, two characteristics of our society, might not necessarily make us happier than our outside world counterparts. The World Health Organization points out that in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60%. Each year one million people put an end to their lives, which equals one life every 40 seconds. “There are now more than two suicides for every murder in the U.S., and suicides also outnumber deaths in motor vehicle accidents,” Scott Bonn wrote in Psychology Today. Currently, Europe seems to be the cradle of this suicidal epidemic and the phenomenon is increasing. What insanity drives people to end their lives in, actually, one of the most prosperous regions in the world?
From what I’ve learned about history, I can see a binding force in almost all human activity to this day: conflict. We have always been at war. Tribes against tribes, nations against nations and ideology-induced groups of people who, in the name of God, seek to destroy their pagan opponents. The current situations in Iraq, Syria, Israel and Ukraine are nothing different. It seems like groups built upon a collective identity set themselves apart from others, in order to defend from, and wage war against other collectives. These identities can be formed by anything; religion, skin color, language. Within these collectives, men continue to make distinctions. Hence, the categorization of people based on gender, wealth, intellect, looks and other features by which people are able to distinct themselves. Conflicts emerge within these groups too, which shows us – and this is the point I wish to make – that humans are in an enduring conflict on different levels.
The Jihad concept
In Islam, a concept of this enduring conflict of existence is called jihad. Jihad can be translated as struggle. Unlike the way this concept is promoted in the media, due to Islamic fundamentalism that legitimizes itself by using this term (which the Islamic State seems to be doing today), struggle is not necessarily a bad thing. It defines an important part of being human and dealing with the world around us. Sadly, many struggles that have been occurred throughout history have resulted in bloodshed. However, using our human capacities to prevent these conflicts can be defined as struggle too. Having zoomed in on the human history of war and conflict, there is another form of conflict that encompasses jihad. This is defined by Muslim scholars as inner struggle, although it is a controversial concept which had been widely nuanced and discussed. “According to a modern definition, jihad is the “self exertion” of a Muslim to discipline his own soul, to improve one’s faith and to refrain from combat, his own evil inclination,” wrote Shmuel Bar from the Hudson Institute in his work Jihad Ideology in Light of Contemporary Fatwas (2006). From this point of view, people have to deal with outer as well as inner conflict, and approach it with the ways their religion has to offer. This duality of jihad could be essential to understand the increase of suicide.
Individualism seems to be a new societal condition in the history of men. In this condition, which lacks an ultimate ‘group cause’ to live for, what do we live for then? Sociologist Georg Simmel argued that having a common enemy creates unity within nations and groups of people. “Enemies provide people with this sense of coherence,” Nathan Heflick wrote in Psychology Today. Many examples can be found in our past, of wars between peoples and nations. Being part of a certain group or nation, the cause of our misery was clear: it was the other group. For that reason we had to chop their heads off, kill them with gas, bomb their cities and rape their wives and, sadly enough, these situations are still very common in the world outside our western cultural boundaries. Current reports of a Yazidi genocide and sex slavery in Iraq, the beheading of Foley, but also the Israeli bombings on Gaza are examples of this outer struggle that, at the same time, empowers group solidarity. This is, actually, quite healthy for the social human being who, as history proves, is always searching to belong. “In the past quarter-century, events occurred that so weakened, our commitment to larger entities as to leave us almost naked before the ordinary assaults of life,” stated psychologist Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism. But the thought that death and suffering cultivates group solidarity is simply troubling. A recent example is the National Day of Mourning shortly after the MH17 plane crash, on which the feeling of Dutch unity skyrocketed for a while. We suddenly had a common enemy in the East who is responsible for killing hundreds of our kinsmen, and a certain war instinct arose within people that are living in peace since the end of WWII.
How do our great conflicts in life take place? Are there any? By the absence of war, we seem to engage ourselves in inner conflicts, a spiritual war, in which the enemy is to be found within our minds. You may not have chopped your neighbors head today but this person might have been tormented by feelings of uselessness, loneliness, depression, anger and other problematic emotions, maybe using alcohol or drugs to cope, leading to more suffering and misery. Is the increase in suicide evidence that our inner conflicts become as insane and self-destructive as the outer ones? Are we to wage war with it?