An idea lost on fanatics

There are many facts remaining to be discovered about the atrocities in Mumbai this week, but we already know what we really need to know.

The physical institutions targeted and the individuals singled out for particular attention by the killers -- Americans, Britons and Jews -- are signatures of the fanatic Islamists we’ve come to know as jihadis. The sites of their attacks may vary -- New York, London, Madrid, Nairobi, Mumbai -- but the object of their quarrel with history remains the same: modernity.

Mumbai was selected not simply because it was a so-called soft target but because it is a symbol of modernity in the world’s most populous democracy. The city the West first knew as Bombay is today the symbol of India’s place in the modern world, as the center not only of banking, commerce and a burgeoning high-tech sector but one of the world’s great film industries. (It’s worth recalling that when the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan, one of the first things it did was to close the cinemas and ban DVDs from Mumbai’s Bollywood.)

The places the killers struck -- luxury hotels, a railway station, a hospital for women and children, the Chabad Jewish center -- are all powerfully linked in the popular mind with the modern world. As the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has argued, the jihadis have linked anti-Americanism, anti-British sentiment (the assumption is that London is Washington’s lap dog) and anti-Semitic antagonism toward Zionism into a potent new ideology. To the extent it seems to find an increasingly sympathetic hearing in some fashionable sectors of the intellectual West, including the U.S., Levy correctly labels it “the socialism of imbeciles.”


Like all the totalitarian movements that have come before it, hatred of liberty and Jews is the real foundation of contemporary jihadism, and not the traditions of Islam or its canonical prescriptions.

Finally, there’s the particular tragedy incorporated in the murder of the young American rabbi, Gavriel Holtzberg, his Israeli wife, Rivka, and four others, including a rabbinical colleague. Because we are a people of both faith -- peacefully expressed in many creeds -- and the future, there is something in the American conscience that recoils with a special horror when violence is done to clergy and the young.

The brittle, fanatic minds that could countenance something like the Mumbai massacre are well armored against real-world complexities, like irony and paradox. If they were not, they might have realized that they could not have found a more confounding target for their hatred of Jews than one of the thousands of houses around the world operated by the Chabad Lubavitch movement for which Holtzberg and his wife served as emissaries. The facility they ran is really an observant Jewish version of the old-fashioned settlement houses, a place that simply was there to educate and to help.

Adherents of the jihadi ideology share a common presumption that the modern world in all its manifestations is the implacable enemy of a traditional religiosity. Modernism, in their minds, is built on concepts that pollute: reason, individual liberty, democracy, pluralism. Like all totalitarians, they demand submission to a single pure idea. Difference equals contamination; reason leads to sacrilege.


If ever there were a living retort to the obscenity of these presumptions, it is the current of Hasidic Judaism that began more than 200 years ago in the Byelorussian village of Lyady. There, a philosopher rabbi -- Shneur Zalman -- sought a reconciliation of intellect and heart as a compromise to the controversy then dividing the Jewish world between those who held to a tradition of scholarship and disciples of the embryonic Hasidic movement, which stressed an emotive religious practice. He succeeded brilliantly and founded a movement that today commands the loyalties of hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews around the world.

The hallmark of Chabad’s approach is an openness to -- indeed, an embrace of -- the modern world, while insisting that it make a place for their deeply traditional religious devotion. Around the world, including in Los Angeles, Lubavitcher Hasidim are living precisely the sort of lives the jihadi ideology insists are impossible. Culturally, they participate fully in the pluralist democracies, while privately, they profess fully a deeply traditional spirituality. Faithful to their own long history, they are valued and good neighbors to others.

Zalman taught his followers that their God desires the development of their minds as well as their hearts. The fully realized human intellect, he argued, was built on da’at (knowledge), bina (understanding) and chochma (wisdom).

It’s hard to imagine a more stinging defeat for the Mumbai killers than the fact that a movement of faith founded on such an idea has endured in fidelity to its traditions for more than two centuries, and will continue to thrive when, as the old Yiddish expression goes, the names and memories of the murderers have been erased.