Why have so many young men and women from the West flocked to join ISIS? What is the attraction of such a violent and brutal regime in Syria and Iraq?
Since I will be teaching a continuing education class in May at Green River College on “Cults in America,” I’ve been reading up on the topic of mass movements. The best book I’ve found on the topic is Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer,” written in 1942.
Hoffer, having analyzed the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese, had deep insights into human nature that help explain the modern day phenomena we see in the Middle East today, and in Europe and America. The common links are: deep frustration, a sense of meaninglessness, the desire for change and a tunnel vision focus on the future.
Muslim youths, especially if unemployed, suffer from frustration with themselves. Joining a mass movement like ISIS appeals to them. It gives meaning to their existence.
Hoffer summarized it this way: “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.” Hoffer also states, “Faith in a holy cause is in some ways a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
Hoffer continues: “For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking.”
Hoffer’s insights into human nature and mass movements clearly summarize the thoughts and feelings of thousands of idealistic and naïve young Muslim youth who journey to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS.
These youth also desire change since their own situations in Western Europe and America give them a sense of helplessness.
“The men who rush into undertakings of vast change usually feel they are in possession of some irresistible power.” Power and control are what these youth are craving.
“They (these youth) also crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking – hence their proclivity for united action.”
Joining ISIS after watching its phenomenal rise last year must have inspired many youths to travel to the Middle East to start a new life with a new mission.
True believers also ignore the past and the present and look solely to the future. Any suffering they may feel in the present is swept away by their hope of the bliss to come.
The present can be wrecked if necessary, because the future is all that matters. These attitudes aptly describe the young who join ISIS. The bloody, gruesome murders of captives only more clearly demonstrate to these impressionable youth the clear, single-mindedness of ISIS’ goals and the rightness of the cause.
Human nature has not changed much since the insanity of World War II that Hoffer observed 73 years ago. Youth are driven to end the sense of meaninglessness and frustration in their lives. By joining a mass movement like ISIS, their individuality, doubts and failures can be absorbed by a cause that is larger than they are.
True believers can become the anonymous members of a great cause – the restoration of Islam to its rightful place in history. Their identities can be absorbed in the change they seek to bring about. Thinking only about the future, death and destruction do not matter to them. All that matters is the future bliss to come.