Istanbul, Nice, Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Berlin, Munich, London, and most recently, Manchester. The perpetrators of these horrific acts—all claimed by ISIS—are almost invariably misfit Muslims from marginalized communities with little to lose.
To be sure, the vast majority of Muslims reject ISIS’s violent interpretation of their faith. Poll after poll shows that Islamic terrorism is deeply unpopular in majority-Muslim countries—particularly since Muslims make up the bulk of ISIS’s victims (a fact often glossed over in Western reporting).
Yet ISIS’s oppressive ideology continues to appeal to some within the Islamic community. That’s in part because ISIS capitalizes on a popular longing for a time when, centuries ago, the Islamic world was far richer, far more influential, and far more dominant than it is today.
When the future looks bleak, the echoes of a distant past beckon.
An Islamic world purified and restored to an imagined glory.
ISIS’s slogan might as well be “Make Islam Great Again.”
The promised restoration of a glorified past—however illusory it may be—also features prominently in the playbook of countless politicians across the ideological spectrum. Most recently, Donald Trump’s campaign propaganda relied on the same nostalgia for the past. During his presidential campaign, Mike Huckabee wrote a book with the subheading “12 Steps to Restoring America’s Greatness.” Marco Rubio used the same word, “restore,” in his book, American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone. Even progressives like Bernie Sanders deployed the nostalgia tactic to promise a return to “forty years ago” when “one person could work 40 hours a week and earn enough money to take care of the whole family.”
Vladimir Putin also perfected the craft of invoking nostalgia for public consumption. A veteran of the Soviet spy agency KGB, Putin once described the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” As various Russia scholars have made clear, Putin was not lamenting the collapse of the communist economic and political system. Rather, his wistfulness is for the Russian hegemony obliterated by the collapse of the Soviet Union–not unlike ISIS’s desire for a return to the golden age of Islam.
Here’s the problem: The good old days weren’t that good.
The worlds that these divergent groups seek to resurrect are the products of a selective memory. The economic boom of the 1930s may appear glamorous to Donald Trump, but an African-American who had to live through Jim Crow will tell you a different story.
Theirs is a revisionist history carefully curated by glorifying the highlights and ignoring the excesses.
They can’t find a way to construct a viable future, so they seek to reconstitute an imaginary past.
They get back to the fundamentals.
They are, in a word, fundamentalists.