Nihilism? Hardly.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Nihilism as follows:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes–epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness–have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with antifoundationalism.

LebowskiNihilistsOr, as was said in one of my favorite films:

“They’re nihilists.”
“They kept saying they believe in nothing.”
“Nihilists! Jesus. Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

I frequently argue that Islam is not ergo Islamism, and that the lazy conflation of the two does nothing so much as to empower that latter. But the argument that Islamic State-style Islamism is an exercise in Nihilism is breathtakingly moronic (or it assumes that those who are the target of the lie are morons); it is a lie designed to protect rational Muslims by differentiating them from the radical crazies, but it does no such thing. The argument that Islam is not ergo Islamism is not at all helped by denial of the self-evident fact that radical Islamists are motivated by their interpretation of Islam. To call that interpretation Nihilism is akin to a recalcitrant teenager branding anyone in authority as a “fascist.”

But that is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing (emphasis added);

Remarks by President Obama at NATO Summit Press Conference (September 05, 2014):

And I think it is absolutely critical that we have Arab states, and specifically Sunni majority states, that are rejecting the kind of extremist nihilism that we’re seeing out of ISIL that say that is not what Islam is about, and are prepared to join us actively in the fight.

Presidential Proclamation: National Days of Prayer and Remembrance, 2014 (September 04, 2014):

On this solemn anniversary, let us reaffirm the fundamental American values of freedom and tolerance — values that stand in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us.

Remarks [by John Kerry] at the U.S. Diplomacy Center Groundbreaking Ceremony (September 3, 2014):

And we now see young people across the globe who see the opportunity that other people have – and I run into this – I know my colleague – the former Secretaries have each of them commented about these changes that exist today, and it’s a world where a clash of ideas is as real as ever, from the nihilism and the destruction of ISIL to the opportunity and the freedom of the civilized world.

U.S. Officials and Experts at Odds on Threat Posed by ISIS, New York Times (August 22, 2014):

Earlier this year, President Obama likened the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to a junior varsity basketball squad, a group that posed little of the threat once presented by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

But on Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

With the rapid advance of ISIS across northern Iraq, and the release this week of a video showing one of the group’s operatives beheading an American journalist, the language Obama administration officials are using to describe the danger the terrorist group poses to the United States has become steadily more pointed. But some American officials and terrorism experts said that the ominous words overstated the group’s ability to attack the United States and its interests abroad, and that ISIS could be undone by its own brutality and nihilism.

Statement on Iraq [by John Kerry] (August 7, 2014):

For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it. ISIL is not fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq. ISIL is fighting to divide and destroy Iraq – and ISIL is offering nothing to anyone except chaos, nihilism, and ruthless thuggery.

[Remarks by John Kerry] Commitment to Africa (May 3, 2014):

Let me be clear. The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime, and we will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice. I will tell you, my friends, I have seen this scourge of terror across the planet, and so have you. They don’t offer anything except violence. They don’t offer a health care plan, they don’t offer schools. They don’t tell you how to build a nation, they don’t talk about how they will provide jobs. They just tell people, “You have to behave the way we tell you to,” and they will punish you if you don’t.

Our responsibility and the world’s responsibility is to stand up against that kind [of] nihilism.

[Remarks by John Kerry at] Swearing-in Ceremony for Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel (April 15, 2014):

I asked him about being the principal person in the State Department to help share what America is trying to do and share it with millions of young people in the Middle East and North Africa and South Central Asia, in East Asia, people who are struggling over which side they’re going to choose to be on: whether they’ll take the long walk to freedom and to modernity or choose the temptations of a path that leads to extremism and violence and nihilism. I was thrilled when he literally signed up to take the pen right then and there and committed to travel this journey with all of us here in the State Department.

Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast (February 06, 2014):

Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess — for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.

[Remarks by John Kerry at] Meeting With Mission Saudi Arabia Staff (November 4, 2013):

So it’s difficult, but we’re making progress. I really believe that. Slowly but surely, I think people are beginning to realize there’s a better alternative than this incredible nihilism where people think that you get somewhere by blowing other people up without any other purpose. The Saudis particularly are trying to make a transition. The King is investing in diversity, he’s investing in education, he’s investing in health care.

Remarks [by John Kerry] With Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (April 7, 2013):

These are the challenges that our citizens face, not just in Afghanistan but in many dangerous parts of the world, where a nihilism, an empty approach, is willing to take life rather than give it. What did that terrorist accomplish? What did his cowardice and his nihilism buy him?

Remarks [by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] at Voices of September 11th Luncheon (September 11, 2011):

Even though the United States, thankfully, has not experienced another attack since 9/11, London has, Madrid has, Mumbai has, Islamabad has, Jakarta, Bali – other places continue to be attacked. And we want to make sure that every person understands that these violent extremists are not representing any religion. They are representing evil and nihilism, and they need to be stopped by all people.

Remarks by the President at Iftar Dinner (August 13, 2010):

Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us –- and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.

Here’s an interesting take on the topic, from The Boston Globe:

Is ISIS an army of nihilists? Just the opposite: How politicians’ favorite word for the jihadist group obscures what’s really at stake (August 31, 2014):

But here’s the rub: “Nihilist” is almost precisely the wrong way to describe groups like ISIS. Not only does it fail to define the group’s worldview, but from their perspective, no word better defines the world of Western, enlightened, and liberal values—in a word, our world—than does “nihilist.”

It is the West, not the East, that gave birth to the term nihilism and the existential condition it describes. And the ethos of ISIS—in which no act is too sadistic if it helps bring an extremist religious state closer to reality—is not nihilistic at all. It is, to the contrary, a reaction to nihilism, a way of fending off its moral challenge by embracing a dangerous and outdated theocratic mentality. To understand the real meaning of nihilism, and the role it has played in Western thought, gives us not only a more accurate view of the moral conflict at work, but a path forward. Western thinkers have, for the past century and a half, proposed that a direct reckoning with nihilism can be a path not to violence, but to just and considered action.

Drawn from the Latin word for “nothing,” nihilism appeared in European thought in the second half of the 19th century. It was most often defined as the conviction that no conviction—religious, metaphysical, or moral—was possible. Its original associations were not with any perceived barbarism in non-Western societies, but to the spiritual decadence and rudderlessness of the West. By withdrawing the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, nihilism threw life on earth into relief, making us responsible for our own deeds.

Read the rest here.


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