A recent essay – Scott Shane’s “From Minneapolis to ISIS : An American Path to Jihad” (New York Times, 3/22/2015) – poses a picture of ISIS recruiting young Americans. It is alarming to realize that young Americans, brought up on western, democratic values, could be susceptible to the allure of ISIS Jihadist extremism. To be sure the number of persons recruited so far, is quite small. Still, the mystery remains: Why is the ISIS vision appealing at all to modern Americans (and, I might add, to many Westerners beyond America)?
My research on the appeal of cults suggests some answers: Four features emerged. (1) Individuals can be seduced by an offer of “Ultimates” — of fundamental values and objectives for one’s life presented clearly, forcefully and convincingly. Individuals might be seduced because of frustration or, even, boredom in their present life – where our values are often expressed and implemented unconvincingly and squandered in political shenanigans. (2) There is an offer – usually from a charismatic leader – of tangible access to the Ultimates . That access is available to you here and now, by your own actions that comply with the leader’s vision. (3) This can produce a sense of sublime achievement – convinced that one’s identity is now entwined with the Ultimate. (4) Yet alongside one’s access to the Ultimate comes an extraordinary vulnerability. For example, for a devout Muslim whose identity is vested in the Koran as the sacred symbol of the Ultimate, a shocking experience erupts when the Koran is desecrated. One’s very identity now seems to be under catastrophic assault.
I experienced something like this in my own life. It happened when I, a Jewish child, saw sacred Torah scrolls desecrated during the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938. I felt that my entire life was in jeopardy when this most sacred symbol was desecrated. ( Being a child, such terms as “identity” were not yet in my vocabulary.) I could also cite American responses to desecration of the American flag. There, too, deeply-felt personal identities are believed to be under attack.
These insights might give us clues about the appeal of ISIS. There we are also encountering cult-like behavior, such as the embrace of Ultimates.
I have written about my findings in a short Kindle e-book: Fred Emil Katz, THE LURE AND BI-POLARITY OF THE ULTIMATE, and as chapters in two of my other books, CONFRONTING EVIL: TWO JOURNEYS, and OUR QUEST FOR EFFECTIVE LIVING.