Dylann Storm Roof, a Confederate flag-toting gunman, murdered nine congregants at the storied Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17. Emanuel is one of the oldest black churches in the United States. The tragic crime shook the town and reverberated throughout the country, reigniting a painful debate over a controversial symbol that evokes everything from Southern pride to racism, subjugation and fear—the Confederate flag.
Several positive events occurred in the aftermath of Roof’s cold, premeditated and brutal killing spree. The South Carolina Legislature, amidst a national outcry and support from the state's governor, voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in early July. Conversely, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) responded by holding a rally at the Statehouse. “Rebel” protestors waiving the Confederate flag greeted President Barack Obama upon his arrival in Oklahoma City later that same month. The KKK, seeing an opportunity, stepped up its recruiting efforts across the U.S., from all over the South to the suburbs of California.
These events are an unsettling reminder that not all extremists wave the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Extremists of all types – including white supremacists, Islamists, and others – share several key characteristics: They espouse a singular and simplistic interpretation of a particular history; believe that their way of life is under attack and must be defended; and use symbolism and imagery to inspire their followers and instill fear in their targets.
Extremists have a very parochial and warped interpretation of a particular history. Many white supremacists and white separatists claim to display the Confederate flag as a celebration of Southern heritage. Their view of what constitutes so-called “Southern heritage” is actually romanticized, if not completely fictional. Despite all their rhetoric about “the rebels” and “the war of Northern aggression,” theirs is a history based on selective memory that can best be boiled down to this – white people and white culture are superior to that of non-whites.
Islamic extremism is grounded in a similarly selective historical reading. Like white supremacists, Islamic extremists romanticize a golden age and an interpretation of Islam that conveniently highlights only carefully selected aspects of the past. The concept of a modern caliphate as propounded by ISIS is a near fantasy, ripped from the days when Islam was monolithic under the first four caliphs, who were successors of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic extremists’ misinterpretation of historical fatwas are another example of historical cherry-picking. Muhammad issued fatwas that allowed women to choose their husbands and seek divorce and created safe spaces for religious minorities. And yet, what we see from Islamic extremists today ignores that rich heritage and historical complexity in favor of religious purity, which conveniently gives its leaders absolute power and the right to enslave and punish those who do not adhere to their strict and narrow interpretations.
Both extremist ideologies only recall a past in which “the other” is an adversary. There can be no middle-ground, no interfaith or interracial tolerance – no coexistence. There are only manipulated facts in support of dominance and hate.
Both white supremacists and Islamic extremists believe they are victims and their way of life is under attack. White supremacists in the United States will cite concerns about black-on-white crime and oppose the "mixing of races," arguing for “traditional families” that are “pure.” Today, the KKK continues to recruit using slogans like, “Save Our Land. The KKK wants you. The brown is bringing us down,” and more blatantly, “Help Save Our Race.” Roof repeated the messaging found echoing in the dark caverns of white supremacist sites, expressing fear that people of color were raping women and “taking over the country,” a narrative common to white supremacists throughout the world.
Islamic extremists similarly believe their religion is under attack and is being diluted by Western democracies. Moreover, any Muslim who veers from the extremist Islamic narrative is labeled kafir (an infidel). All kuffar (infidels), whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims or others, are targeted by extremist terror. Bolstering the need to perpetuate victimhood, Islamic extremists repeat references to centuries-old grievances such as the Crusades, or build intricate conspiracies around the presence of foreign soldiers in the Middle East, particularly those from the U.S.
Symbols matter, especially as tools of power and fear. Extremists use symbols to broadcast a message and exert power over others. The Confederate flag was popularized among white supremacists during the 1950s and 1960s as a direct response to the growing civil rights movement. Not only does this confirm the Confederate flag as a racist symbol, but it also illustrates how white supremacists use it to assert dominance over non-whites. Some white supremacists have appropriated yet another anachronistic symbol, the apartheid-era South African flag. The banner is appearing more and more often at white power marches and online forums.
Similarly, ISIS extremists misuse the Quran and Muslim traditions to justify their brutality and inspire fear. They adhere to a strict interpretation of the Quran, carefully picking words to legitimize their violence. A particular passage from the Quran is often used as a justification for beheadings, though it is contradicted by other passages. In another example, a particular passage is used to encourage jihad and self-defense, yet the Quran explicitly prohibits the killing of civilians and innocents.
The black banner, flown by al-Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and now ISIS, dates to the 8th century and the Abbasid Caliphate. It bears the words, “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This shahada, also on the flag of Saudi Arabia, is a Muslim faith declaration, but today has come to symbolize the brutality and bloodshed of extremist propaganda videos.
The ISIS flag, the Confederate flag and other symbols evoke an ideology and shape a threatening narrative. They help assert a power over others and perpetrate the very violence and oppression that they claim to resist.
White supremacists and Islamic extremists of course have different origins, ideologies and goals. Nonetheless, they use some of the same tools and present similar dangers, both to America and humanity as a whole. They both must be rejected and overcome.