The radical Islamic movement ISIS is more radical than Islamic. It is true, of course, that this group’s vision of a restored caliphate in the Middle East, like its other ambitions, only makes sense in an Islamic context. But its methodsruthless violence and criminality, grandiose goals framed in world-historical terms, leadership cadres regularly purged to ensure purity, and bloody public spectaclesare familiar elements of the modern European experience of radical politics.
The head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may have a beard rather than Hitler’s toothbrush mustache, but the two share similar paths to radicalism. Hitler’s radical politics developed in the aftermath of World War I when Germany experienced a decade of political instability that included paramilitary violence. After a failed putsch in Munich, he was put in prison. There he refined his ideology and rededicated himself to the service of what he imagined to be the Great Cause that would redeem not just Germany but the human race. After his release, he became a remarkably effective leader of a movement that promised to put an end to disorder (much of it created by his own paramilitary wing), restore Germany’s dignity, and destroy all that threatened the purity of the German race.
We don’t know much about Baghdadi, but what we do know follows the same pattern. Apparently, the chaos after our 2003 invasion of Iraq encouraged him to form a militant group. He was captured by U.S. troops in 2005 and spent four years in prison, where he apparently met and came to work with Al-Qaeda militants. After his release, he fought as part of an Al-Qaeda cell in Iraq. As its leaders were killed off, he assumed control. When Syria exploded in a civil war, his group entered. Soon it had built itself into an organization able to claim sovereignty over a significant portion of Syria and Iraqall for the sake of restoring true Islam to its dignity and with a brutal determination to purge Muslim society of its impurities.
Hitler’s rise to power was aided by many factors that also find parallels in today’s Middle East. His extreme nationalism and his anti-Semitism were widely popular in inter-war Germany. Although most respectable middle-class Germans kept their distance, Hitler’s vision inspired a highly committed core of supporters willing to make great sacrifices. Among the elites he was seen as déclassé and too extreme, but was viewed by many with sympathy and even supported. His radicalism was thought good for Germanya galvanizing force, a useful counter to communism, a commendable expression of strength.
Baghdadi and his rise to power? I doubt most Muslims in the Middle East want him to rule their countries, but they’re nevertheless proud of his ability to assert Muslim power. Inspired by his successes, some are joining his forces. Cairo shop owners aren’t going to leave their businesses to take up armsand undoubtedly many find Baghdadi’s brutalities regrettablebut many Muslims are glad someone can stand up to the arrogant West (especially America). ISIS is seen as a threat by Saudi Arabian and other governments, but I’m willing to bet that not a few elites in the Middle East think the way the German generals, aristocrats, and businessmen did in 1932. For them, ISIS, like Al-Qaeda, is useful extremism: a populist safety valve, a cat’s pawn to use against enemies, and a source of crises that redirects attention away from their unsustainable dominance over their own rapidly changing societies.
Finally and most importantly, Hitler and Baghdadi are united in their vision of a society and culture united by blood and death. Nazism was characterized by a self-conscious and cultivated brutality. It was not only meant to intimidate; it was also designed to inspire. The ruthless shall inherit the earth!
ISIS seems built on a similar foundation. Western commentators wrongly describe the videos of the beheadings of foreign journalists as “directed toward the West.” This is a naïve assumption that shows lack of knowledge of our own history of radical politicsand of human nature. They are just as much ritualized sacraments of death designed to inspire the Muslim world. We have the courage to spill blood! We will shape the destiny of nations!
In the 1930s, not all Germans were engorged with bloodlust, far from it, but Germany was, collectively, a society gone insane. The popularity of radical groupsnot just ISIS, but also Hamas and other organizations that use death to inspiresuggests something similar. Significant parts of the Islamic world are collectively going mad.
This isn’t somehow proof that Islam has defective DNA that invariably gives rise to barbarism. German culture and history shaped Nazism and gave a distinctive character to their crimes. But the way its underlying insanity took hold of a sophisticated and otherwise human society for more than a decade is a universal possibility, not a uniquely German one, as the horrors of Mao and Pol Pot’s revolutions remind us. The same it true today for ISIS and Islam.
A society based on death? It’s a human, all too human, project, going back to Cain. Which is why it can be so contagious. Which is why we should take it with utmost seriousness. Which is why we should resist it with clarity and force.