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.



Coping behavior, Crusades, extremism, higher power, ISIS, Jews, persecution, social space, Ultimates

In today’s New York Times (February 15, 2015) Susan Jacoby presents an enlightening essay, “The First Victims of the First Crusades”. She reminds us that Catholic Crusaders, in 1096, entering on their journey to free Jerusalem from Muslims singled out Jews for their first extremist target. Jews must convert or die. Her essay, along with President Obama’s recent speech point to similarities between the ISIS type of extremism and the extremism of the Crusades. To be sure not all Muslims share in the ISIS murderous extremism, in fact they are appalled by it, just as not all Catholics shared in the murderous extremism of the Crusades, and were appalled by it.   And yet, these actions deserve serious analysis – not merely labeling the participants as crazy terrorists, or violent lunatics (as Susan Jacoby does). Just what is going on? What is the appeal of such supposedly “medieval behavior” that’s happening in our time, highlighted by the actions of ISIS members?

For some time I have been studying how we humans cope with the fact that we live in Social Space. (*) Within that space we often find ways to “transcend” our immediate circumstances. I began this work by interpreting Viktor Frankl’s famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it he describes how, in the Auschwitz concentration camp, a young, dying women was able to transcend the horror of her present situation, convinced that she had gained access to a HIGHER POWER, some sort of  Ultimate Reality, and thereby achieve sublime insights that made her declare that she was now happier than she had ever been!  She was convinced that she had brought that HIGHER POWER, that Ultimate Reality, INTO HER HERE AND NOW! It gave her the tools to deal with the horror in her present situation.

I am convinced that this is not as unique as it may sound. We humans practice Transcendence quite often — in mundane ways when we pray, when we “declare allegiance to the flag”, when we are enraptured by a guru and, even, when decent Germans followed a charismatic Hitler. In each case we are convinced that not only do we have a glimpse of some sort of Higher Power, an Ultimate Reality. We may believe we have access to it, and even more importantly, that this Higher Power, this Ultimate Reality, comes into our life, here and now.   That LURE OF THE ULTIMATE  is surely at work in the actions of ISIS extremists – just as it was for Crusaders in 1096. They feel empowered by the conviction that the ULTIMATE is with them. They are its agents. They must implement its vision.  It is their highest calling.  Their greatest reward.

The basic issue is that the ISIS extremist actors are using the human capacity to connect to a supposed Ultimate Reality and bring it into one’s personal life, here and now. Their actions are appalling. But they make use of an ordinary, commonly used human attribute. This is what we must look at if we want to fight their evil actions.

(*) In my book, “Our Quest for Effective Living: A window to a New Science / How we Cope in Social Space.”