These words Taliban and ISIS are forever etched onto our American brains as foreign, Islamic terrorist movements and organizations — threats originating outside our country, but experienced by many as real, looming threats to our safety. However, as our own FBI is now telling us, the threat from homegrown right-wing violence and insurrection is actually a more pressing, more real problem.
The fact is, in a real sense, we have our own Taliban and ISIS taking shape now inside our own country. This is more than a mere metaphor. The naïve mindset of “it can’t happen here” is not only sloppy thinking, it is dangerous thinking. During the past year, we have seen a great many comparisons being made between Trumpism and the fascist authoritarianism in Germany under Hitler and in Italy under Mussolini. Yes, there are valid similarities. But there are similarities with radical fundamentalist Islamic movements. These similarities are just as disturbing, in fact, perhaps even more so.
The authoritarianism of the Nazi and fascist parties rejected religion in almost any form — except for a (somewhat feeble) attempt in Germany to foster forms of racially hyped-up Aryan Christianity and Aryan Folk Religion. This attempt was real, but it didn’t take off in a huge way because the main thrust of authoritarianism in those countries was so strongly opposed to religion.
In the case of the Taliban and ISIS, however, we have seen these movements of insurrection are built specifically on a foundation of an extreme, fundamentalist interpretation of the religion of Islam. So fundamentalist, in actual fact, that these movements do not reflect the belief system of the vast majority of Muslims. These movements’ religious teachings hold that it is the duty of Muslims to engage in “jihad” (struggle) and they interpret the word “jihad” to mean a violent, armed, militarist, political and sacred battle against anyone and anything not in line with the most fundamentalist type of Islam. This word “jihad” in mainstream Islam more commonly refers to the private struggle of each person to become a better, more peaceful and more generous Muslim — a meaning very far from Islamic fundamentalism.
Also, we need to remember the Taliban and ISIS took shape in locations where there were strong forces at work to modernize their societies and make them more “liberal” in the sense of creating more distance between religion and state, and creating more rights for the female population, as just two examples. Islamic fundamentalism rejects all of the above. Moreover, these locations were, and are still, experiencing high unemployment for young male populations. It is well-known that unemployed young males often tend toward violence.
Cult-like leaders were very much involved in the establishment of the Taliban and ISIS. The Taliban originated during Afghanistan’s Civil War, but was vastly strengthened by Mohammed Omar — his followers eventually bestowed upon him the title “Commander of the Faithful.” ISIS originated out of the sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. It was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had troubles as a young man and ended up in prison for a time where he became a devoted follower of extreme fundamentalist Islam.
When he got out, he went into high gear as a violent extremist. Eventually, his nickname became “the Sheikh of the Slaughterers.”
Omar and Zarqawi were strong speakers, Machiavellian, operated like mafia dons, and used fundamentalist religion and nationalism to whip their followers into a frenzy for violent insurrection. They also, like all Islamic fundamentalism, hearkened back to an earlier, better time when the Islamic world was stronger and unpolluted by any liberal tendencies. They claimed they would ‘Make Islam Great Again’ almost in exactly those words.
Does all this sound vaguely familiar? It should.
In the U.S. during the past five years, we watched Donald Trump operate like a mafia don, encourage violence, use violence and use fundamentalist religion and nationalism to whip his followers into a frenzy for violent insurrection. All the time, he told his followers he would ‘Make American Great Again.’ And, of course, it hardly needs pointing out that Trump has become a cult figure. In the evening of the day of the Capitol riot insurrection, Trump declared “a sacred landslide election victory” had been stolen from his followers. His word “sacred” should be carefully noted, and we should remember that Trump received almost 50% of the vote. That is a nation severely divided.
The Taliban and ISIS didn’t show up on the world’s stage out of thin air. They came out of certain social/political contexts, contexts where there was immense internal social and religious conflict in nations divided against themselves. We have a similar social and religious conflict in the U.S. today, as close to civil war as we have been since the 1860s. And we also have a cult leader viewed by his followers as being on a “sacred” mission. Trump rarely, if ever, sets foot in a church and his life has been lived in stark opposition to mainstream Christian teaching. Similarly, the lives of Omar and Zarqawi have been lived in stark opposition to mainstream Muslim teaching.
The FBI is completely correct to warn us about a rising tide of Christian Right extremism becoming more and more of a problem in the U.S., and that it will lead to more violence. We have to address this problem at the back end — by putting adults in jail after violent actions. Additionally, we have to address this problem at the front end — by putting adults on notice they will not be allowed to teach and foster these violent methods to our youth. One of the most troubling sources of Islamic fundamentalism is found in certain religious schools and mosques in the Middle East. At the same time, we would be fools to think religious bigotry is not being taught (or encouraged) in some of our Christian right-wing schools and churches in the U.S. It is. One only has to view the flags and cult objects on display in the Capitol insurrection — it was right before our eyes.
I will defend religious freedom until my dying breath. However, I will defend the right of the people and the state to prosecute those who misuse religion to foster hatred, bigotry and violence, especially in education. Church and state have to monitor each other in a constant dialectic. When either one is out of line, the other has to stand up and argue the point. This is essential for peaceful societies.
The most damning aspect of the Taliban, of ISIS, and of the extreme Christian right, is their absolute refusal to engage in meaningful dialog and their conviction that theirs is a “sacred” fight against the opposite side that is ‘working for the devil.’ That’s not politics, that’s obstructionism.
Never think “it can’t happen here.” It is happening here and happening right now. The last 4 years have brought us to Robert Frost’s famous “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Now we, too, have to take “the road less traveled by,” the high road, even though it may be more difficult. And that will make all the difference.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.