I read this article when it first appeared in the dead-tree version of First Things, and was immediately struck by this passage:
When I studied the book The Ritual Process, by the eminent psychological anthropologist Victor Turner, I was mesmerized by some of the anthropological components of religious life, which seem to have gone unrecognized in the endless discussion on how to make orders more relevant...
Following the example of such saints as Anthony of Egypt, Paul the Hermit, and Pachomius, an ex-soldier of the Roman legions, men and women took up the pursuit of the vowed life. An important but frequently overlooked variable of that life is a quality known as liminality—the state of being an outsider to the establishment of any society, even one with strong religious characteristics and values.
Liminality derives from the Latin limen (which means threshold or edge) and refers in this case to people who live beyond the accepted norms of the establishment. Obviously chastity, poverty, and obedience to a spiritual master or superior take a person out of any establishment where family life and inheritance are the norm. Such people as St. Benedict, St. Francis, and, in our time, Mother Teresa of Calcutta are obvious examples of liminal personalities. In fact, Turner spends much time on the study of liminality in the early days of the Franciscan Order.
Liminal people stand in sharp contrast even to virtuous members of the establishment. This dichotomy is not a bad thing, although there must always be a degree of liminality in any follower of Christ. We see this in the saintly members of royal families: St. Louis IX of France and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for example, who wore the Franciscan habit beneath their royal finery and served the poor with zeal and joy. Anyone familiar with religious life at the time of its collapse knows that liminality was almost entirely lost—and remains lost, except for the new communities and a few older ones that have remarkably held the line.
The above was written by a popular and admired Franciscan abbot, Father Benedict Groeschel. In it he explores the failure of vowed religious communities in the West which he writes are "in a state of collapse." But he also discusses the possible reasons for the emergence of new communities of vowed religious, almost all of them adhering to stricter rules of life. "A surprising and welcome development at the present time," he writes, "is the emergence of a whole wave of young men and women interested in authentic religious life.
What does this have to do with jihad? Something clicked when I read it, because it may explain in part the reasons why young, middle class men throw away everything for jihad. First, if you harbor any expectation that jihadis are the poor and dispossessed, get over it. They are for the most part educated and middle class. Marc Sageman's book is a good place to start on your road to making sense of it all. Recruiters, imams, and teachers and trainers who draw young men into jihad, aren't promising them riches. Just the opposite. There's nothing in, say, Issa al-Hindi's book The Army of Madinah in Kashmir that would tell a young man that he's going to get rich and get laid "doing" jihad.
Instead the promise is of a something challenging beyond the banality of middle class life is sold through jihad media in videos like these, highlighting the austere life and camaraderie:
But perhaps the most important factor drawing many young men into jihad is the sense that it is authentic and sacramental life. [And I mean sacramental. Jihad is a sacred act that they are told guarantees them paradise.] It's a life that makes demands of them, and has an allure that has no competition in the latest video game release.
I hate the idea of comparing, say, Franciscans to jihadis, but if we look at the popularity of jihad among some young, middle class men as part of a greater trend throughout all three Abrahamic faiths toward liminality, it begins to make sense. It also doesn't bode well for the West, because it almost guarantees another generation or more of young men willing to walk away from everything to kill and die senselessly for worthless Utopian fantasies of a global caliphate.
Liminality trends may also not bode well for attempts to introduce democratic and free market reforms into the Middle East. Though noble goals in their own right, they may not ultimately satiate the need some young Muslim men have for a deeper meaning and purpose. Instead, there's perhaps an even greater need to answer jihadism and Qutbism not with empty secularism but with an authentic Islam that rejects violence but still gives young men a sense of purpose.