Some members of the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol last month unquestionably saw themselves through the lens of history. A quick look at the crowd revealed flags from several periods of America’s history: Betsy Ross’ 13 star, Christopher Gadsden’s “Don’t Tread on Me” from the American Revolution, the Alamo’s “Come and Take It” flag from Texas’ Independence movement, and the “Southern Cross” battle flag of the Confederacy. Similarly, two of the organizations promoting the “stop the steal” narrative explicitly define themselves through historical allusion. The Proud Boys refer to themselves as “western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” while the Three-Percenters Militia claim to be latter-day patriots defending the ideals of the American Revolution.
There is nothing revolutionary about extremists situating their movements within history, however. Salafism, the fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that undergirds much of jihadism, teaches adherents to strictly follow the behavior of the Prophet Muhammed and his earliest followers (the Salaf). Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal terrorist who led al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS, idolized Nur ad-Din Zanki, an Arab-Muslim hero of the Second Crusade. Allusions to Saladin, who led the Muslim military campaign against crusaders in the Levant, and condemnations of western nations as “crusaders” are so common in jihadi parlance as to verge on becoming extremist-cliché.
On the other end of the extremism spectrum, the far-right idolizes Charles Martel, who is credited with stopping in 731 the Muslim invasion of France at the Battle of Tours. Allusions and memes of crusaders are fixtures of far-right web forums. Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Bering Brevik, who killed 77 people in 2011, described himself as a latter-day Templar knight. Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019, claimed that the “reborn Knights Templar” gave his attack their blessing. White supremacists across Europe and the United States regularly claim as ideal the “racial purity” of ancient Greece and Rome.
Of course, the historical allusions anchoring political beliefs are notoriously oversimplified, cherry-picked, and in some cases outright false. Early Islamic history is shrouded in myth, thus the precise behaviors of the Salaf are possibly historically unknowable. The Crusades were not a simple case of unified Islam and united Christendom engaging in battle. There is bitter historical debate over just how influential Martel’s victory was in defending the West. Recent evidence suggests between 15 and 25 percent—as opposed to three percent—of American colonists fought the British. While extremist groups span a vast chasm of temporal, geographic, and ideological differences, a near-universal constant is their reliance on simplified historical allusions. Why?
Simply put, shared history is good for nation-building. Historians have long recognized that a sense of history is essential for self-identity. In The Idea of History, R.G. Collingwood wrote that “the value of history . . . is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” When that pursuit of self-knowledge is applied broadly to a nation, an ethnic group, or an extremist movement, history becomes, in the words of post-colonial historian Prasenjit Duara, “the most important pedagogic technique of identity formation.” Extremist ideologues are in essence attempting to build a new nation that is based on jihad, white identity, nationalism, etc.
Humans intrinsically seek to belong. Research has shown that many who are drawn to extremist movements believe themselves in some way disenfranchised from mainstream society. What better way to recruit those individuals than with a glorious narrative—linking past, present, and future—that defines them not as outsiders, but as temporarily-dispossessed victims and defenders of a pure and righteous path? Selective historical interpretation thus becomes the scaffolding upon which modern extremists frame their struggle.
While much research has examined the psychological and sociological underpinnings of radicalization, there has been considerably less research into how their view of history informs what extremists believe. We continue to neglect this at our own peril. Appreciating how a group sees history, and its place within it, is an essential element of defeating it, both militarily and ideologically.
For example, the meteoric rise of ISIS’s so-called caliphate in early 2014 left policymakers struggling to understand what, exactly, motivated their extreme brutality and millenarianism. A sober examination of ISIS’s deep belief in a particular strain of Islamic doctrine and history would have provided policymakers important insights into how the group would evolve, its determination to defend the caliphate to the bitter end, and its shift to targeting Europe.
Ultimately, examining and understanding extremist groups’ usage of history provides insights into the motivations of the evildoer on his own terms. If we truly seek to defeat an extremist, then our only option is to understand his thinking, free of our own normative biases that inevitably distort our perceptions. Fyodor Dostoyevsky may have summed it up best: “While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”