Islamism, like many movements, at its core is based on a foundational myth that carries with it assumptions about the world.
This is that story:
Once upon a time there was a king. He was a good king. He ruled in the name of truth and beauty and aligned his heart towards the Supreme King of Kings God Most High. God heard his prayer and gave him wisdom. The King gave alms to the poor and built magnificent buildings and lush gardens to beautify his realm. And when danger threatened, he rode out to war and he smashed his enemies with an iron fist, so that none dared threaten the people of the kingdom.
And there was justice in the land because of him, and the people were happy and content.
It came to pass that the King died. And gradually, bit by bit, corruption spread in the land as people turned aside from God and the community, and each did what was best in his own eyes.
Dangerous men came promising a newer, better world. They told the people they did not need the old ways and they did not need God. They promised in the new world everyone would be free, liberated from the shackles of archaic traditions and could do what they wanted. Many believed them and eagerly embraced the new ways.
But these new ways did not bring happiness or peace. Strife increased as people became estranged from one another. Families collapsed as people began to cheat. And the dangerous men who convinced people to join this new way began lining their pockets with the wealth of the kingdom, corruptly exploiting it.
A small group of devoted men saw what was happening to their country. They gathered together to send out messengers and find the rightful heir to the kingdom, someone who could restore order and end the corruption.
And when they find him, for he is out there, he will return, drive out the liars and the cheats and restore the ancient traditions of his father. And truth and beauty will reign again in the kingdom.
What Does This Story Mean?
Do you recognize this story? It’s one of the founding myths of conservatives across many cultures. It posits that there is a correct, traditional way of doing things, that deviating from that tradition is bringing chaos and suffering, and that returning to the old ways will restore order and bring back success.
The myth exists in various forms across dozens of cultures around the world. In many versions of the myth, the King did not die but sleeps, often under a mountain, until the time comes for him to return. Most of these versions presage a great battle at the end of days that the king will wage to liberate his people.
In European folklore, some of the Kings said to be sleeping under the mountain include Charlemagne, who reportedly sleeps under the Untersberg mountain. Other myths say it’s the German Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In Britain, King Arthur supposedly did not die, but was spirited away to the fairy realm Avalon, where he waits to return at a time of great peril.
In Shiite Islam’s eschatology, the twelfth imam (leader) of the Shia community, born in 868, was placed by God into hiding. He will return at the end of days to lead his people. This version of the myth is very popular in Iran, where the regime use it to encourage anti-Western activity.
Outside of its folklore forms, the myth speaks to the notion that society today is corrupt and that at some past time things were as they should be. Restoring that past time and past greatness is necessary for the nation to come out of the troubles it is currently undergoing.
In the Anglosphere, recent political developments tapped into this myth. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.” The Brexit campaign promised to “Take Back Control.”
Both of these movements tapped into the fear that something in the world has spiralled out of control, and there needs to be a restoration of order.
For these same reasons, it’s the founding myth of Islamism. We can see this in their propaganda and public statements, which heavily reference the current degradation of the Islamic community, as opposed to the supposed glory days of eons past. Islamism looks to the Caliphate as a time when everything was going well for Muslims. It posits that restoring a caliphate that implements sharia as state law is the only way to fix the many problems in the Muslim (and greater) world. It makes sense that Islamism has gained a mass following given the corruption, incompetence, stagnation and repression the dictators who have ruled most Muslim majority countries for the past century have imposed on their citizens.
Why is the Story Bad?
The myth is not necessarily entirely harmful. Corruption is a problem, as is poor leadership and it is reasonable to long for a better time. Looking to heroic figures of the past to provide inspiration on how to build a better future can be beneficial and empowering. The myth resonates across cultures and times because it appeals to our most basic impulses for stability, justice and belonging. It is a very romantic idea.
What is harmful is when the idea expands to mean that only one vision of a pure, older society is legitimate and the violent restoration of that order is the only way forward. Fascism scholar Roger Griffin termed this notion of collective national rebirth from the ashes of a decadent society “palligenetic ultranationalism.” He identified it as the core idea of fascism.
Islamism certainly fits the bill in taking this idea and imposing it, forcibly, in a deeply harmful way.
Understanding this mythological idea can help us understand why Islamism is able to find recruits when it is seemingly such an obviously bad idea.