Here’s a quiz that may appear some day on history tests:
Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in November 2009, was:
a) Part of a terror network that had planned attacks on the United States since the 1990s;
b) A deranged psychotic who snapped under the pressure of treating soldiers returning from Iraq and who happened to be a Muslim;
c) A prime example of “The True Believer,” the lonely, frustrated individual who attaches himself to an overarching cause as a way of compensating for personal failures.
The answer, of course, is “c,” the true believer. There is no sense in searching his computer for ties to al Qaeda, or combing the psychology textbooks for a diagnosis, or listening to the journalistic sages such as Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, who says he “cringed” to discover that such an obvious lunatic as Major Hasan also happened to be a Muslim. The text for understanding Major Hasan’s actions is Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic, The True Believer, written as an explanation of the appeal of secular religions in the 20th century. Hoffer’s book also explains why there will be many, many more Major Hasans.
Almost completely forgotten now and rarely encountered in the college curriculum, The True Believer was a dazzling explanation of why 20th century totalitarian creeds appealed to so many seemingly ordinary and non-descript individuals, particularly among the intelligentsia. A self-educated migrant worker who spent many years living on skid row, Hoffer had been endowed with a love of reading after losing his eyesight temporarily as a child and then regaining it again as a teenager. It was only after spending a winter cooped up in a mountain cabin with a copy of Montaigne’s Essays while prospecting for gold in Alaska, however, that he became convinced he could write. Hoffer eventually settled in as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks, publishing The True Believer at age 49 and following with several more classics. A blue-collar worker all his life, Hoffer was probably the original Reagan Democrat — and indeed was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan in 1983.
Writing just as Americans were trying to fathom the causes of the Cold War, Hoffer provided an astute, sometimes brutal, explanation of why millennial sects of communism and fascism appealed to seemingly ordinary individuals:
A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.… Their innermost craving is for a new life — a rebirth — or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.… To the frustrated, a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.
To Hoffer, this dissatisfaction with the personal life was the only thing that could lead to the level of self-renunciation –and even self-destruction — that mass movements often required of their followers:
All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action: all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.
Mass movements taught people to aspire a perfect world rather than the profane one around them, a glorious future rather than the sordid present, an ideal and perfect community rather than the uncertain company of their fellow men. In many ways they resembled religions — and indeed, Hoffer said all the major religions were mass movement in their earliest stages. “Though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious,” he noted. And while the secular religions of communism and fascism had disposed of God, they certainly had not abandoned the Devil. Unbridled hatred of an enemy, real or imagined, was the core of every fanatical creed.
Mass movements thrived amidst unanticipated poverty and in the disruptions of war, Hoffer wrote. But their core appeal was to the personal failings of individuals. Moreover, “a proselytizing mass movement deliberately fosters in its adherents a frustrated state of mind,” disrupting wherever it could the ordinary satisfactions of normal life:
Almost all our contemporary movements showed in their early stages a hostile attitude toward the family, and did all they could to discredit and disrupt it. They did it by undermine the authority of the parents; by facilitating divorce; by taking over the responsibility for feeding, education and entertaining the children; and by fostering illegitimacy. [Any resemblance to the contemporary Democratic Party’s social agenda, by the way, is purely coincidental.]
The core of mass movement, then, was a hatred of the present. And of course Western democratic societies, which had succeeded in raising the comforts and conveniences of everyday life to the highest levels in history, were always the object of the greatest scorn:
All the true believers of our time — whether Communist, Nazi, Fascist, Japanese or Catholic — declaimed volubly (and the Communist still do) on the decadence of Western democracies. The burden of their talk is that in the democracies people are too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish to die for a nation, a God or a holy cause. Thus lack of readiness to die, we are told, is indicative of our inner rot — a moral and biological decay. The democracies are old, corrupt and decadent. They are no match for the virile congregations of the faithful who are about to inherit the earth.
Contemporary Fundamentalist Islam, then, is just the latest in a long line of fanaticisms that has challenged the mettle of Western values. But Islam is also a pure religion that is complete with a doctrine of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Communism and Fascism, it does not just challenge the outcome of history but the entire meaning of life. “We love death” is something no secular religion would say. While ordinary American communists may have been willing to spy for the Russians and betray their country in the belief that the Soviet Union represented a perfect society, they never engaged in random mass murder.
And while all religions may at times solicit the fanaticism of mass movements, their doctrines are not all interchangeable. Martyrdom is a concept common to all, for example, but its purposes are different. Christian martyrdom involves being persecuted or killed while spreading the gospel or witnessing for the faith. Buddhist monks immolated themselves in the streets in South Vietnam in protest of the repressive Diem government. But for Islam, “martyrdom” means not only killing yourself but taking lots of infidels with you. Suicide bombers do not blow themselves up in private.
In addition, while other religions may have gone through fanatical early stages, most have become institutionalized, often serving as the backbone for a civilization. Islam, on the other hand, never seems to have settled down to the point where it could foster a stable society. Jihad is forever. Even the fabled caliphs, rulers of Islam’s idealized past, were constantly being overthrown by outsiders who decreed that what being was practiced in the palaces of elite was not the “true Islam.” None of them died in bed.
Probably this is because, unlike all the other major religions, Islam embraces polygamy. Allowing the most powerful males to take multiple wives produces a shortage of eligible females, which in turn leads to the purchase of wives (the “brideprice,”), the hoarding and sequestering of females as valuable commodities, arranged marriages with girls that have not even reached puberty, and — most important of all — the creation of a large cohort of unattached adult males who serve as the fertile breeding ground for religious fanaticism.
Major Hasan was one of them. Unmarried, isolated in a foreign culture (even though he grew up here), he was obviously prime material to become a foot soldier in a higher cause. Jihad offered a better life, in this world or the next.
So the Fort Hood massacre will likely produce no “smoking gun,” no bank transfers or detailed instructions from a worldwide network of radical imams. Islamic fundamentalism is no secret conspiracy. It is something much more obvious — an open doctrine appealing to men with frustrations in a culture that produces lots of frustrated men. To such a cohort, the stable, satisfied — even happy — lives of people living in a successful culture can only be the objects of venomous hatred.
Major Hasan was only one. There will be more to come.
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