About 43 years ago I wrote in a political notebook, “People are always being killed by governments, one way or another. The point is, how many, and which ones, and why. … Some radicals take a soft-headed approach to revolution. They can’t understand that Communist Party work is bad work which must be done.”
Welcome to Islamic State thinking, brother Olasky. Dear readers, how many times have you heard, “It’s a mystery why people join ISIS.” No, it’s not. Muslim theologian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) argued that humans have only two choices: Islam or “jahiliyya,” licentiousness. Choose: virtue or vice. Choose: waking up with pride or waking up with a hangover. Choose: Change the world or crawl through it.
Islam, like Communism, is in one sense a Christian heresy, and the Islamic State, like Communism, proclaims a Satanic distortion of Christian devotion. We Christians choose between waking up with humility before God or maintaining our pre-Christian addictions to fame, power, money, or some other drug.
The Communist thrust in the 20th century was always more cultural than economic. At the height of the Cold War, Russian and Chinese leaders claimed superiority over the purportedly decadent West. So what if the West had more stuff? He who dies with the most toys loses; he who gives his life for others wins.
Whittaker Chambers, a Communist who became a Christian, described in his 1952 memoir “Witness” the ideals that had pushed him leftward. (The first 88 pages are still well worth reading.) Chambers described one of his former heroes, Felix Djerjinsky, a political prisoner before the Russian Revolution: Djerjinsky cleaned the latrines of the other prisoners because he held that “the most developed member of any community must take upon himself the lowliest tasks as an example to those who are less developed.”
Chambers spoke of one revolutionary who protested the flogging of others by drenching himself in kerosene and burning himself to death. Madness, we might say. Madness, we will say. But to a certain type of person at a certain stage of life, particularly when he sees decadence as the alternative, that’s appealing—especially if he ignores how Djerjinsky as a Soviet boss made others clean latrines and drench themselves in kerosene.
Why do some young people join a throng of murderers? As a Communist Party member in 1972 and 1973, I took a Russian language course and felt sorry for my elderly teacher, a Russian émigré: He had survived Stalin and told us, “If Communists ever come into power in this country, I’ll cut my own throat.” That afternoon at the Communist Party’s Angela Davis bookstore near the Yale campus I told the teacher’s story to a cute young comrade. She replied, “That old fool. When Communism comes to this country he won’t have to cut his throat, we’ll do it for him.”
I don’t want to be reductionist, so it may be an overstatement to say the Islamic State is a religious equivalent to the Communist impulse—but maybe not. Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev said in 1956, “Mi vas pokhoronim!” (“We will bury you.”) Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani ash-Shami said last year that the Islamic State will “break your crosses, and enslave your women. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”
“The Atlantic” contributing editor Graeme Wood noted last month that the Islamic State is “committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. … Individual executions happen more or less continually … Muslim ‘apostates’ are the most common victims.” Echoes of Josef Stalin, seminary student turned terrorist turned dictator, who practiced the same type of purification during the 1930s, with former Bolsheviks the typical victims.
Wood’s summary of Islamic State eschatology: Millions die as the Islamic State becomes “a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.” Echoes of Mao Zedong in 1957 saying, “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I’m not afraid of anyone.”
The Islamic State: Chilling, yes. Mystery, no.