Radical Islamism Channels ‘The Hero’s Journey’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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There’s a good piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about how homegrown terrorists are being marketed to, ironically, via Western media narratives.

As the story notes,

the highest-end productions, made by the group’s al-Hayat Media Center, are glossy, carefully scripted and designed to recruit Westerners. One of the most prominent videos—“Al-Ghuraba (The Stranger): The Chosen Few of Different Lands”—follows a popular 12-step screenwriting technique called the “Hero’s Journey,” first formulated by a Disney executive and familiar to any “Star Wars” fan. After the film’s protagonist, Andre Poulin, decides to give up an idyllic life in Canada to follow the call of adventure, the video tracks his journey as he arrives in Syria, takes the name of Abu Muslim, joins ISIS, and dies fighting for the group.

(Note: This worldview is consistent with the satirical theory that Luke Skywalker was radicalized by a religious extremist.)

Some have concluded that these homegrown terrorists are narcissists (they tend to take selfies), but I think there’s more to it than that—as evidenced by the the reference to the hero’s journey in the quote above. On one hand, the desire to be recognized and venerated is utterly narcissistic—and their means of achieving it is not only horrifically misguided, but also delusional. On the other hand, the desire to be “heroic” (and I’m putting this in quotes because I don’t think killing innocent people is really heroic) is a natural and even salutary or civilizing instinct. It’s the reason some people get up and go to work in the morning. This drive (call it “quixotic,” if you like) is so strong that it’s worth dying to achieve.

This is a point I’ve made a few times, but it bears repeating: What is modern Christendom calling us to sacrifice? How can a young man who wants to remain a contributing part of Western Civilization realistically hope to obtain a sense of honor, heroism, or fame?

Volunteering for Habitat for Humanity or attending a “Take Back The Night” rally isn’t gonna scratch that itch. And modern warfare doesn’t seem so chivalric—if such romance ever existed. So what do we do?

Moderns tend to sublimate the heroic urge into more achievable pursuits like binge drinking, engaging in romantic conquests, passively watching heroic movies, or vicariously living out their fantasies in video games. But the truth is this doesn’t sate our cravings. Although it might sound anachronistic to modern, “civilized,” or secular ears, historically, military service has provided a sort of rite of passage whereby young men could prove themselves–and elevate their status.

This is from Hamilton:

God, I wish there was a war!
Then we could prove that we’re worth more
Than anyone bargained for…

I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s probably the case that civilization shouldn’t outsource heroism—even if it can afford to do so. Maybe we need to have some sort of mandatory national service (an idea I once vehemently opposed). Maybe we need to do a better job of venerating police and military veterans. And maybe we all (parents, teachers, spiritual leaders) need to start demanding more of young people—not less.

Radical Islamism is obviously perverting a God-given intrinsic desire for purpose and meaning. They are able to exploit this primarily because we have created a vacuum. They essentially have a monopoly on it.

Matt K. Lewis