The Aryan superman was as blond as Hitler, as tall as the dwarf Goebbels, and as slim as the corpulent Goering. That these three clowns could get the German people to deny what was before their eyes and embrace an ideology of racial superiority that its proponents’ very physical presence contradicted is still one of the great mysteries of history.
Perhaps it is even more mysterious why, after the carnage, suffering and misery that they and their racial ideology wrought, they still have believers.
To list the possible explanations for this phenomenon would be an exercise in futility. One thing is certain: There exists within the human condition a need to belong; to be part of a movement greater than oneself; and to commit oneself psychologically to the cause by either shedding blood or advocating it.
Such movements have been called the mad inspiration of history, but more likely it is a certain madness that inspires such movements. This begins, as in the case of the Aryan superman, with a denial of reality.
Radical Islam is another mass movement based on denial of reality. A triumphalist ideology, Islam has done anything but triumph. Its so-called golden age is a thing of the past. Radical Islam does not look to an ineluctable positive future but to the re-creation of a golden past and its culmination in an Armageddon-type conflict that fulfills a spiritual and not terrestrial destiny.
The irony is that for talented Muslims to be successful in the modern, real world, they must migrate to the West. For some Muslims, this is a source of incredible psychological dissonance that in part is overcome by replacing the terrestrial with the spiritual. What is denied in this world is promised in the next.
The reason that fundamentalist Islamic terrorism defies rational explanation is that the usual explanations of mass movements based on perceptions of the real world are immaterial. Fundamentalist Islam is not a movement concerned with this world but the next. Westerners whose theories of mass movements deal with political struggles are less capable of intellectually explaining spiritual struggles because they are vastly outside the realm of their own thinking.
When they attempt to explain the actions of spiritual movements, these are reduced to struggles in the material world. But fundamentalist Islam is not about the real world, and that is why the people who embrace ISIS and similar movements come from all social classes across the world’s continents. The defining demographic is a spiritual one, not a material one, and as such it eludes the explanations of secular intellectuals, some of whom have even invoked global warming as an explanation, a position that further removes them from understanding the spiritual nature of the phenomenon with which they are dealing.
Embracing a belief system is like embracing a lover. One does not do so with one’s mind but with one’s heart. If the mind contradicts the heart, it is the heart that wins. Germans were admonished not to search for Hitler with their minds but with their hearts.
The embrace of death gives meaning to life, not in the life of the mind but in the life of the spirit. The secularist sees the embrace of death as a denial of life, but the zealot sees the embrace of death as an affirmation of life, to be remembered as a martyr, to bring honor to one’s family, especially in a culture where honor and shame define life’s meaning and one’s place in the community.
To keep Somali refugees in Minnesota from joining radical terrorist groups overseas, it has been proposed that communities consider after-school programs and the sorts of activities that keep young men and women from becoming delinquents. Such efforts are laughable when dealing with an eschatology, for they fail to comprehend that in a certain belief system this is not a delinquent choice but an affirming one.
One fights ideology with ideology, something a secularist fails to comprehend. Goebbels said that he could take a good communist and make a good Nazi out of him in three weeks. Goebbels understood the need that belief systems fulfill in people seeking to belong to something greater than themselves and how interchangeable they are.
Radical Islam can be degraded on the battlefield and pushed back, but the real fight against radical Islam must also contain a competing ideology, whether a different version of Islam or a different belief system. Every religion goes through periods of fundamentalist revival; and Islam, currently, is no exception. It is just that the revival is more virulent and more threatening because it is — as these things go — more successful.
As a society, our fight against radical Islam would be more effective if we believed in ourselves, our own history, and our own destiny. But the institutions that are supposed to fulfill that function — our institutions of learning and our media — are more concerned with tearing us apart, exposing our sins rather than celebrating our virtue.
If you were a young Muslim, would you rather embrace a belief system that celebrates itself — as Islam in any form does — or one that thinks its greatest responsibility is to expose its failings?
Abe Miller is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.