One of the most fascinating things about the two most evocative violent threats to our society today is that neo-Nazis and Islamic terrorists pull from symmetrically identical groups: young, alienated, men.
This has led researchers to conclude that in many cases it’s not the ideologies themselves that are making people violent, but that young men with a propensity for violence are attracted to these ideologies. In fact, the data is overwhelming.
(So much so that it’s actually kind of a misnomer to call “Islamic terrorists” “Islamic” at all. So-called “Islamic terrorists” generally do not attend mosques, isolate themselves from mainstream Islamic communities, and have very little religious education. At that point, calling them “Islamic” is a bit like saying that the creepy guy hanging around campus to attack women is a member of the faculty. He could be, but assuming he is because he likes to assault students is a category error.)
But why these particular ideologies? What’s the mass appeal?
One of the puzzling questions that gets asked repeatedly about suddenly radicalized Islamic terrorists in the West is: what do these guys think they have in common with Islam? Many of them have long track records of drinking, of casual sex (or attempting to have casual sex), of a love of Western music and video games, of drugs and nightclubs. Why in the world would somebody who likes to live like this, and has no particular background in scripture, suddenly declare themselves a martyr for a cause that forbids everything they like to do?
There are multiple factors in play here, obviously – no single answer will do – but a significant part of it surely resembles the reason why, beginning in the 1960s, European soccer hooligans started using “Jew” and “Jewish” as their slurs of choice – even to people and things that have literally no connection to Judaism.
In his 2006 book Murdern in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma suggests that much of what we believe to be genuinely fascist and racist behavior has more to do with the sense that, if one wants to be truly offensive now-a-days, anti-Semitism is one of the few options one has. After all, what is really offensive anymore? As a society, the liberal West is almost impossible to shock anymore – we have combined a non-judgmental sensibility on one side with outrage fatigue on the other. Between our media’s embrace of sex and violence and the Westoboro Baptist Church, we’re pretty much inoculated.
But Nazis? Call yourself a Nazi? Yeah, that is one of the very few taboos it is still possible to break.
“One of the reasons soccer hooligans from Rotterdam called their Amsterdam counterparts ‘filthy Jews’ was ignorance,” Buruma wrote. “Another, possibly more compelling reason was that it was the most shocking thing one could say in post-Holocaust Europe. They may not have realized quite why, but the hooligans knew they were breaking a taboo. They were shouting something out loud that respectable people would not even have dared to mutter under their breath.”
One gets this same sense from the contemporary alt-right now. Their resentment, like Trump’s, like Fortuyn’s, may be an endless abyss sincerely held, but their fascism has always seemed like an allegiance of convenience. If you are a young white man who is deeply angry, and you really, really, want to piss off the liberals and the establishment and maybe mom and dad, what can you do? Be a Nazi. They will instantly be horrified and even afraid. They will want to know: “how could you?” And even “where did we go wrong?” You are suddenly significant, as a threat to a world that only ignored you before.
Does this make their racism and anti-semitism sincere? Insincere? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but often that’s not even a useful question to ask, because asking it implies that we expect there to be some level of ideological consistency behind the belief, and the point is precisely that in a significant number of cases, that is exactly what we won’t find. You can, it seems, be motivated to kill for a belief that you don’t really care about.
Likewise if one is a young immigrant who is angry enough at society, and you want to lash out at them and make them understand that you are a force to be reckoned with … well … you can’t really say you’re a Nazi. But you know the people you resent most in the world are genuinely frightened of “radical Muslims.” The minute you start calling yourself one, they’ll start taking you seriously enough to be frightened.
(Indeed it should be noted that a substantial body of terrorism research shows that an actual religious education is negatively correlated with violence: ironically, most “Islamic” terrorists are not actually practicing Muslims in the sense that Muslim communities generally recognize. As terrorism research Scott Atran has said: their knowledge of Islam generally amounts to “I know there’s a war going on against these people, and I want a part of it.”)
Now this is not to say that there aren’t “true believer” Nazis and Islamic terrorists, or that the people flocking to these banners aren’t legitimately dangerous – we should not take the threat they represent lightly. But they have grown so prominent recently not because their specific ideologies as coherent ideologies actually appeal to that many more people, but because mainstream society considers them uniquely dangerous. That, and not the specific points of doctrine or policy, is the major extent of the appeal.
We’ll start to put all these factors together in the next installment.
This post is part of a series which first ran on my Patreon.