The Transformation of "Jihad Jack" and John Walker Lindh
By Christian Beenfeldt (San Francisco Chronicle, April 9, 2006)
Like the 2002 case of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, the current case of Australian "Jihad Jack" Thomas--who was charged with being a terrorist "sleeper" agent, convicted of having received money from al-Qaeda and sentenced to five years imprisonment--raises the same question that baffled the world during the Lindh trial: How can a freewheeling Westerner morph into a fanatical Islamist?
Like Lindh, Thomas started out at what appears to be the opposite end of the spectrum from a hard-line religionist--he was a beer-loving punk rocker--and then, like Lindh, he deliberately sought out radical Islam, travelling to a far-away terrorist training camp where he embraced religious dogmatism and obtained instruction in suicide bomb tactics.
How is this transformation possible? The freewheeling, "anything goes" type and the religious dogmatist are of course both familiar in today's culture--and they are generally considered to be diametrically opposed. But are they really?
Consider the typical "progressive" leftist, with his non-judgmental relativism. He is the embodiment of subjectivism: he holds that there are no absolute principles, that truth is "in the eye of the beholder," and that "what's right for you might not be right for me." He is the exponent of the belief that nobody can have objective knowledge or objective grounds for evaluating another person's beliefs or actions. On the premise that moral values are merely subjective preferences, he feels that there is no factual basis for moral judgment.
Thomas betrayed a residue of this sentiment when he stated that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." And Lindh's Marin County parents certainly typified this philosophy with their non-judgmental attitude towards his early affinity for nasty rap music and his later conversion to radical Islam.
The religious dogmatist, on the other hand, dismisses the "truth is relative" chorus of the subjectivists and has no qualms about making moral judgments. His philosophy, he says, espouses the unquestionable truth and advocates absolute standards of right and wrong.
It is only on the surface, however, that the dogmatist is opposed to the subjectivist; at root, the two share a fundamental similarity. In denying that there are any objective standards by which to choose how to think or act, the subjectivist makes clear that his choices are ruled by blind feelings. This is precisely also the basic policy of the religious dogmatist.
There is an infinite number of opposing religious sects. How does the religionist decide which faith to embrace, which revelations to follow and which authority to obey? Does he scientifically gather the evidence, carefully weigh it, and then adopt the conclusion to which reason and logic point? Obviously not. He feels it. He feels that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, astrology or whatever, is the right faith for him.
As Thomas himself describes his conversion to Islam, after agreeing to fast for the month of Ramadan: "I just felt a link from all the prophets of Adam and Noah and Moses and Abraham and all the prophets coming from one God and Confucius and Buddha and all the people being messengers and all my whole world came together." He continued to follow his feelings to radical Islam, to terrorist training, and to the adoption of "Jihad" as his first name.
So while the religionist may claim to uphold absolute truths, his beliefs are as arbitrary and baseless as those of the subjectivist. Thus, the paradoxical conversions of Jack Thomas and Walker Lindh--from subjectivist to religious dogmatist--aren't so paradoxical after all; in both cases, the switch was merely from one form of emotionalism to another.
What neither the subjectivist nor the dogmatist can fathom is the need for an objective approach--a method of seeking truth, acquiring knowledge, and defining moral standards, not by indulgence in emotions, but by a process of reasoning based on factual evidence alone. In every issue and area of its life, a mind on this premise is moved not by arbitrary whims, but by logical arguments that are grounded in directly perceivable facts.
What is needed, then, to avoid raising the "Jihad Jacks" and "American Talibans" of the future, is for our culture to reject emotionalism in all of its varieties--whether in the form of anything-goes subjectivism or of emotion-driven faith in mystical dogmas--in favor of the rational alternative: objectivity.
Christian Beenfeldt, MA in philosophy, is a guest writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
For more articles by Christian Beenfeldt, and his bio, click here.