Debut author Williams confronts the violent emergence of terrorism by appraising its root causes in modernity itself.
Williams’ shorthand for the problem is an idea borrowed from biblical thought: idolatry. In its original manifestation, idolatry means the willful turning away from rational thought in favor of some false object of worship. The modern version of idolatry, Williams argues, involves an obsession with inferior substitutes for moral purpose, like sex, money, and, ultimately, obeisance to illegitimate authority. This submission to false authority, the author believes, has extraordinary repercussions deeply corrosive of modern life. First, it undercuts the possibility of meaningful public discourse, narrowing the acceptable topics of discussion as well as the parameters within which they can be discussed. This leads to a broadly felt crisis in democracy itself because central political institutions cease to be adequately representative. As more and more people become disillusioned with the political process available to them, the possibility of bellicose reactions to it, like terrorism, becomes increasingly likely. The author considers specific sources of terrorism, including debilitating debt, polarizing media, the proliferation of weapons, and the prevalence of sectarian conflict fueled by “doctrinal supremacy.” Williams impressively studies the ways our current global challenges are the products of a modern ethos historically unfurling for some time now. And while he acknowledges the contributions Islamic fundamentalism has made to worldwide terrorism, he also explains that a more thoughtful interpretation of Islamic religion permits healthy debate and intellectual tolerance. In fact, he contends that an imperious Western colonialism helped push the Muslim world into its currently defensive posture. A quick 33 pages, this is more essay than full-length book, and the brevity of Williams’ treatment stymies his considerable ambitions. It’s simply not possible to do justice to this topic, and all the other issues he raises as its corollaries, in so few words. However, he provocatively and helpfully encourages the reader to look beyond our historical moment to find deeper causes for the stubborn problems that confront us today.
A thoughtful if unfortunately truncated analysis of modern terrorism.