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ISIS Isn’t About Religion; It’s About Power

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It’s easy to think that ISIS is about religion. They toss around phrases from the Quran, and have announced that their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is now “caliph,” or a successor to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. But ISIS is about as much about Islam as Hitler was to Christianity…which is to say, not much.

R.R. Reno reminds us that bloodthirstiness and an insane drive to power are nearly as old as humanity, in a piece entitled “From Cain to ISIS.” Reno spends some time comparing al-Baghdadi to Hitler, who proclaimed much of his platform was based on Christianity – in an ideological and warped way.

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 Germany—a galvanizing force, a useful counter to communism, a commendable expression of strength.


Most Muslims decry the brutality of ISIS, but there are enough very convinced supporters who are willing to make great sacrifices in order to purify Islam to make them a viable threat to global security. Sahar Aziz says the Middle East is a virtual playground for such groups, given the political instability of so many nations in that region:

The high-stakes, all-or-nothing authoritarianism that has dominated the Middle East, with the support of Western nations, created a political environment ripe for fanaticism to take hold.

Decades of dictatorship and state violence produce far more than a terrorized population. They nurture extremism that knows only the language of violence. Young people whose bodies have been terrorized by security forces respond with their own form of terror.

To legitimize their cause and gain followers, the extremist groups manipulate the norms and values of the local population. In the majority-Muslim Middle East, religion is exploited to justify war – a phenomenon not unique to Islam or the Middle East.

Aziz is clear: it’s not Islam; it’s power. Reno says it’s “bloodlust:” a society gone insane.

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.

And when one is faced with such a powerful, insane, sophisticated menace, one must do whatever it takes to subdue it. We cannot simply stand by and say, “This too shall pass.” Perhaps the advice of Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two of facing evil, might be more fitting: “One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!”

Read “From Cain to ISIS” at First Things.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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