An underexamined belief system that links aggressive fanatics of all stripes
Video of the bombings in Boston on April 15, 2013, revealed a scene of apocalyptic carnage. Soon after the bombing suspects were identified, the Internet seethed with posts about the Tsarnaev brothers, identified by authorities as the perpetrators.
One revelation was that the YouTube playlist of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brother who was killed before being captured, featured a long video concerning the “Black Flags from Khorasan,” a marginal and disputed Islamic end-time prophecy. Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer (4/19/13) reported on the significance of the video shortly after the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as suspects.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev also collected publications from the far right in the United States (BBC, 8/5/13). For example, Tamerlan had a subscription to American Free Press (Wall Street Journal, 8/6/13), which serves a stew of conspiracy allegations laced with antisemitism—like claims (9/18/12) that “neocon US officials and a cabal of Zionist-infected Pentagon officers are trying to ignite apocalyptic, nuclear unholy war” for a “planned fiery genocide against the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims.”
Apocalyptic conspiracist thinking and the aggressive violence it spurs have helped shape contemporary political life in the United States since the Salem witch trials. Apocalypticism is a difficult word to pronounce, but an important concept to grasp—especially concerning violence and terrorism. Reporters need to deepen their understanding of this dimension of contemporary terrorism and how it links seemingly unrelated ideologies. This could reduce bigoted interpretations of Islam while improving security and defending civil liberties for all of us.
Right-wing media coverage of the Boston bombings focused attention on the threat of violence by Muslims. Media Matters (5/7/13) singled out Fox News for highlighting the Boston bombings while underplaying domestic right-wing violence. Bigoted suggestions that violence is central to Islamic theology are a core theme of numerous right-wing pundits, as detailed in FAIR’s 2008 report on “Smearcasting.” In fact, since the September 11 terror attacks, there have been more incidents of violence in the US perpetrated by domestic right-wing fanatics, including white supremacists and Christian anti-abortion activists. Several journalists, especially David Neiwert and Sara Robinson, have documented this media bias.
Centrist and liberal media tended to shrink from the possibility that a marginal yet militant interpretation of Islam was a motivating factor in the Boston attacks. Perhaps this was out of ignorance of apocalyptic religious references, skepticism over the concept of apocalyptic aggression, or a hesitancy to report the facts in detail because they might be misconstrued by Islamophobes.
The hometown Boston Globe (4/20/13) ran an an article headlined “Islam Might Have Had Secondary Role,” in which Globe reporters Lisa Wangsness and Brian Ballou stated that evidence “suggests that the Tsarnaev brothers did not grow up in a particularly religious household and that they were not strongly observant when they arrived in the United States.”
Wangsness and Ballou reported that “Tamerlan Tsarnaev seemed to never have fully integrated into American society,” and quoted experts dismissing the Tsarnaevs as “self-styled, wannabe jihadists”—“young men who had a hard time adapting to American culture” who engaged in “political activism gone wrong.” (Their article appeared on the same day as a Globe op-ed by Simon Saradzhyan, a Harvard expert who painted a more complicated picture.)
Wangsness and Ballou did mention that Tamerlan’s YouTube page contained “a slick production that invokes the apocalyptic symbolism of Al-Qaeda,” but there was no discussion of this apocalyptic belief.
The Globe’s focus on psychological dysfunction was reflected in much of the media coverage. “We learned from the media that the Tsarnaev brothers were alienated, disgruntled and unfulfilled,” said sociologist Jeff Goodwin, wryly pointing out: “My goodness, if everyone who is alienated, disgruntled and unfulfilled in the United States started setting off bombs, it would be a much more bloody place to live.”
Mustafa E. Gurbuz, a sociology post-doc at the University of South Florida, suggests the mass media should use more complex analyses of “human behavior and especially terrorism, which needs to be understood from a sociological eye.” He warns that when media carelessly emphasize a terrorist’s “increasing devoutness to Islam,” it is “counterproductive” and endangers “a billion Muslims at large, who are peacefully living all around the globe.”
Prophetic apocalyptic beliefs are present in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the percentage of religiously faithful who believe them or act based on them varies greatly. Apocalyptic beliefs by practitioners of these three related “Abrahamic” religions take many forms, from passive to defensive to aggressive.
Aggressive forms of apocalyptic belief, however, are an important strain of thought shared by a tiny minority of violence-prone fanatics. It’s not religious fanaticism, but a fanatic identity formation by the perpetrator as a heroic martyr. This superhero identity combines apocalypticism, anger, conspiracy theories and aggression—whether the justification is religious, political or incomprehensible.
In 2012, Professor Roger Griffin (Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning) sketched out how apocalyptic aggression is behind much “religious terrorism,” and singled out “Chechen terrorists as modern Zealots.” The Tsarnaev family is ethnically Chechen, with relatives in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, which Islamic militants want to merge with Chechnya into an Islamic republic.
Detailed explanations of Islamic apocalyptic belief and its relationship to Al-Qaeda, Hamas and other political groups from which violence has emerged have been available in scholarly studies—including some online—for over a decade. For example, scholar David Cook, an expert on Islamic apocalyptic beliefs, was cited in a Religion News Service dispatch by Daniel Burke (2/6/13). Burke’s piece was a sidebar to his article on how some contemporary apocalyptic Christians believe that in the millennial “End Times,” a Satanic Antichrist will appear. Burke reported that some also argue this evil person will be a Muslim seeking to build a One World Religion and political New World Order.
In a series of studies, many since the September 11 attacks, a number of scholars have teased out a stacked set of tendencies that seem to drive some people toward violence and terrorism:
• A sense of seeing one’s nation, religion, ideology, or family humiliated in a way that demands retribution (Jessica Stern, Griffin).
• The construction of a new self-perception as a hero or warrior to replace an identity shattered by conflict or alienation (Griffin).
• The targeting by demagogues of an evil “Other” claimed to be conspiring against all that is held to be patriotic and sacred in the idealized community (Michael Barkun, Paul Boyer, Brenda Brasher).
•The apocalyptic idea that the expected confrontation is fast approaching therefore action has to be taken now, before it is too late (Stephen O’Leary, Carol Mason).
What triggers the move toward aggressive action is the apocalyptic sense that time is running out—and therefore “we have to get them before they get us.”
Conspiracy theories are especially dangerous when wedded to ideological mandates and apocalyptic timetables. Motivations for terrorism may be complicated, but they are seldom completely mysterious or inexplicable. An example of this from a political rather than religious context came a few weeks after the Boston bombings.
That’s when Keith Luke was sentenced for a murderous spree the night after Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Luke had been browsing conspiracist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites. The shooting victims were people of color from the Cape Verdean community in Brockton, Mass. Two people died, and a third was raped and seriously injured.
The Globe story by Brian Ballou (5/31/13) dismissed Luke’s “series of bizarre explanations for his actions” and quoted Luke’s attorney stating his client “was not in touch with reality.” The Brockton Enterprise (5/31/13), however, cited a “mental health expert called by the prosecution,” who called Luke’s beliefs “half-baked…garden-variety…antisemitic, neo-Nazi views.” This quote reflected a deeper understanding of the more complicated political, conspiracist and apocalyptic aspects of Luke’s murderous rampage.
Why apocalyptic? A school of scholarly thought recognizes Hitler’s Nazi movement as apocalyptic, with titles like Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation. Nazism was built around apocalyptic conspiracy theories that demonized Jews as a threat to the German nation.
Before his attacks, Luke had been reading white supremacist conspiracy theories about President Obama planning to subjugate white men (Brockton Enterprise, 1/26/09). This is a common apocalyptic narrative on racist far-right websites. Luke told police he wanted “to kill as many Hispanics, Jews and blacks as he could,” reported the Enterprise (1/22/09), which earlier won an award for extensive reporting on the case. The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted Luke (Brockton Enterprise, 5/30/13).
Corporate media rarely mention the relationship of apocalyptic fears and conspiracist beliefs to violence. Apocalyptic motivations for clinic violence, for example, seldom get serious coverage in the corporate media. In her book Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics, Carol Mason traces how abortion is increasingly portrayed in the US as a sign that society is out of control and careening toward destruction. Mason observes that “apocalypticism has shaped various factions of the antiabortion movement, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly,” since the 1960s, when the “fight against abortion was seen overtly as ‘America’s Armageddon’ by Catholic conservatives.”
For decades, domestic anti-abortion terrorism by a small fraction of Christians has been built around the same apocalyptic framework as that used by a small fraction of Muslims. For example, apocalyptic belief can be harnessed to Christian anti-Islamic bigotry in the United States. Sarah Posner in the Daily Beast (6/10/13) warns against the “incendiary ramifications of Islamophobia,” noting the “apocalyptic fervor” of evangelical groups that attribute their support for Israel to a “biblical mandate” that “portray[s] Islam as being in a cosmic conflict with Christianity.”
Mason sees “apocalypticism as a cultural narrative that spans a variety of religions and denominations within religions.” Moreover, “unlike theological doctrine, apocalypticism has become increasingly secularized in US culture.” Mason says this is widespread because with
everything from the War on Terror to global warming, doomsday scenarios constitute our entertainment and news media. The blockbuster movie line-up for the summer of 2013 features lots of apocalyptic scenarios: World War Z, Pacific Rim, The World’s End.
Meanwhile, the US government employs a primitive understanding of differences among right-wing groups in the United States in which the lines separating neo-Nazis, white supremacists, militia supporters and Tea Party activists are blurred in terms of their threat to public safety. Federal agents’ failure to comprehend the role of apocalypticism led to needless death in confrontations with groups like the Branch Davidians in Texas and the Weaver family in Idaho. Such ignorance undermines civil liberties and security for all of us.
Whether or not the Tsarnaev brothers adopted the specific prophecy about the Black Flags of Khorosan, the aggressive form of Islam they embraced was constructed over decades through storylines that wove prophetic apocalyptic narratives and conspiracy theories about betrayal and humiliation into anger at US military interventions. To understand the processes generating much contemporary terrorism, it helps to understand the role of apocalyptic aggression.
Chip Berlet has published popular and scholarly studies on religion, apocalyptic millennialism, and terrorism; he is currently writing Boston’s Marathon Apocalypse: Fanaticism, Murder, & the Shining Beacon on the Hill for Write to Power Books. He is curator of the Social Movement Study Network. Supplementary resources for this article are online at http://www.researchforprogress.us/jump/ fair2013.html.