January 1, 2007  

Rebels and religion

How fighters become fanatics

How long will you sleep? How long until you wake up to Allah’s will? Rise up and fight Allah’s fight! The time is now! The evil-doers must pay ? even if there are but three of you, if you surrender to Allah and seek your honor only in Him, you need not fear a hundred thousand enemies. But strike, strike, strike! The time is now! The wicked are nothing but dogs ? strike, strike, strike! Show them no pity ? do not consider the suffering of the godless ?. show them no pity! Do not let your sword grow cold ? throw down their towers ? strike, strike, strike while the day is yours! Allah goes before you! Follow Him! Follow Him!”

The words of Osama bin Laden? Of Ayman al-Zawahiri? Or of Moqtada al-Sadr? Maybe Hassan Nasrallah? The late Ayotallah Khomeini? President Ahmedinejad of Iran?

No. Every line is taken from a letter written by the Reformation-era Protestant extremist Thomas Muentzer to the citizens of Allstedt near the climax of the “Peasants’ War” — the chaotic series of popular uprisings that swept much of Germany, parts of Austria and northern Switzerland in 1525. The only “cheating” I did was to translate Gott as “Allah,” rather than as “God.”

For the record, longer excerpts from the lengthy letter can be found in “Der Deutsche Bauernkrieg” by Guenther Franz, first published in 1933, before the German Democratic Republic’s entertaining attempt to claim Muentzer, the religious fanatic, as a communist forerunner.

Muentzer held an apocalyptic worldview and believed that the Second Coming was close at hand; his interpretation of events and his rhetoric bear an uncanny resemblance to those of President Ahmedinejad, who is anxiously awaiting the Twelfth Imam. Muentzer didn’t generate his blood-soaked portion of the Peasants’ War out of a vacuum, but exploited existing secular discontents — much as Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders have done. And he soared to his brief term of power by publicly defying the powerful — as Moqtada al-Sadr has done.

Muentzer and the gruesome rebellions of his age, when politically frustrated men fervently embraced extremist religion, have more to tell us about the challenges we face from Islamist extremism today than do more recent waves of revolutionary struggle, when secular ideologies briefly eclipsed the appeal of faith. By studying only political terrorism of the sort we faced in the late 20th century, we miss our enemy’s inspiration, conviction and passion, and underestimate the alacrity with which he rejects “civilized” rules: His god’s will trumps our mortal conventions.

Politics may inspire action, but religion inspires sacrifice. Our obsession with finding “logical” reasons for suicide bombings and terrorist massacres deludes us: Only by acknowledging the integrity and intensity of our enemy’s faith can we begin to understand him — and to combat him effectively.

The Peasants’ War (a misnomer, since it also drew in urban dwellers, out-of-work soldiers-for-hire and even some disgruntled noblemen) exploded in early 1525. By the end of the year, the wildfire local revolts, which were never effectively coordinated with one another, all had been put down. The brutality with which they were crushed ensured that there would be no early repetition of the challenge to the existing order. But for all its apparent suddenness, the Bauernkrieg had deep historical roots. What makes it especially relevant as a case study for our own troubles is that the pattern of radicalization offers a template that applies to many, if not all, outbreaks of millenarian passion, of the belief that the End of Days is nearing and that God wants help in speeding up the process through retributive violence.

The Bauernkrieg isn’t just a historical footnote, but a perfect-storm model of how religious extremism masters a receptive population and rapidly excites it to violence in a god’s name. From the suicidal revolt of the Zealots in Palestine almost two millennia ago, through countless chiliastic uprisings around the globe, to the evolution of Middle Eastern terror over the past four decades, the pattern of how practical dissatisfaction and political frustration open the door for impassioned religious movements seeking holy vengeance has been remarkably consistent since the Old Testament era.

We should’ve seen this coming.

A return to traditional law

Unrest in the German-speaking lands simmered for at least a century before it boiled over in the Peasants’ War. Working before World War II destroyed many of Germany’s archives, scholars discovered numerous examples of local disturbances that ranged from brief riots to extensive plots for revolution throughout the 15th century. (The uprisings often employed the Bundschuh, a peasant’s lace-up footwear, as their rallying symbol.) The troubles consistently arose from the efforts of regional princes or the Habsburg emperor to centralize authority and enforce a uniform “Roman” legal code intended to rationalize rights and obligations throughout a broader domain. (Much the same role was played by the artificially created states of the modern Middle East as they sought to consolidate power.) For the peasants, as well as for many burghers in the towns, this often meant the loss of traditional privileges and the imposition of new, onerous taxes and obligations. The first, raw uprisings demanded a return to traditional “German” law, often only oral codes handed down over the centuries — just as Middle Easterners defend their local traditions and inherited social structures today.

Most of the pre-Bauernkrieg uprisings in the German-speaking world were readily — often savagely — put down (when not discovered in the planning phases and interdicted). Rights continued to erode, and a sense of injustice prevailed. Local populations felt disoriented by rapid change originating from distant sources (echoed, again, in the Middle East today). Increasingly, calls for the preservation of traditional rights and the old Germanic folk-law were supplanted by an insistence that “God’s law” should prevail, a social order based upon biblical texts (Sharia, anyone?). The worse the frustration and stasis created by the authoritarian regimes of the day, the more frequent the invocations of a divine order became.

That’s exactly what has happened over the past 60 years in the greater Middle East.

The explosion of 1525 involved a crisis of governmental order; an eruption of fundamentalist faith in the wake of Martin Luther’s confrontation with the papacy; a split between establishment and dissident clerics; Luther’s translation of the Bible into German (the effects rapidly exceeded Luther’s vision of orderly reform); the destabilizing influence of the movable-type printing press (the Internet of the day); the availability of out-of-work soldiers who had learned their skills in recent foreign wars that exposed the weakness of the period’s superpowers (an obvious corollary with the Islamist veterans of the Afghan-Soviet struggle); a popular sense that conditions were unjust and that religion offered a viable alternative power structure; divine reassurance in a period of disorienting change; and, above all, the appearance of charismatic radical fundamentalists with a gift for rhetoric and no scruples whatsoever about turning to violence.

That is the pattern of the Middle East today. The first, nationalist revolutions were secular and aimed against foreign rule or alien systems. But even where the revolutions succeeded, their results disappointed. Strongmen kept the people down (sometimes backed by Moscow, but supported all too often by Washington, whose diplomats, like the Habsburgs, placed stability above all other mundane considerations in international affairs). The popular sense of grievance endured and grew, with the belief that legitimate rights were being denied and economic progress was stymied by external forces. Paranoia deepened (another similarity to the Bauernkrieg). The clergy split between an approved establishment and radical renegades bent on a stern reformation. Retributive violence came to seem not only a means but an end.

The exemplary case of the Palestinians demonstrates the transition from faith in political solutions (negotiations between states), through the initial attempts to use terror to accelerate the political process (Black September and Fatah), to disaffection with secular leaders and a new ardor for fundamentalist religion of a sort that until recently seemed foreign to Palestinian society (Hamas). When men failed to deliver, the people turned to a vengeful god whose prophets promised empowerment and triumph.

Iran offers another example: The shah’s repression inhibited organic political development just as the nascent globalization of awareness held up foreign examples that simultaneously enticed and terrified the population. Left with no legal recourse, the masses turned increasingly to a fundamentalist variant of their religion that promised to uplift them, absolve them and avenge them. Fitting perfectly with the historical pattern, a charismatic, uncompromising figure — the Ayatollah Khomeini — arose from the clergy. A frustrated population discovered that actions recently considered crimes were now pleasing to their god. The new theocracy quickly outdid Savak, the shah’s notorious secret police organization, in barbarity. Yet, the masses were intoxicated — sufficiently so to embrace the enormous sacrifices of the Iran-Iraq War and to remain entranced in large numbers more than a quarter-century after the Revolution of the Mullahs.


The lessons of all these transitions from unaddressed discontents to religious fanaticism hold true for violent outbreaks down the centuries on virtually every continent and in all major faiths. When regimes insist that time must hold still and deny traditional or perceived rights, fundamentalist religion is always lurking nearby. At the beginning of “The Plague,” Albert Camus speaks of how a bacillus can lurk, dormant and undetected, only to reappear unexpectedly when conditions are right. Extremist religion has its own bacillus, and it has proven impossible to exterminate: There are no proven antibiotics for the plague of fanaticism. When political sanitation goes wanting, it strikes.

Yet, that does not mean religious extremism can be addressed strictly through political measures (or through diplomacy, that great Western superstition). The only chance to minimize the violence is to intervene early on to create political and social breathing space for restive populations. Once religious extremism has taken hold, the pattern cannot be reversed. This is an absolutely vital point for American leaders to grasp. If the banner of jihad (or a crusade) has been raised successfully, the peaceable kingdom is finished. Only shedding blood ruthlessly can eliminate or at least reduce the problem — the enemy enraptured by faith must become more terrified of you than he is of his god. Usually, you must kill him.

This matters vitally today as the U.S., disappointed by its experience in Iraq, threatens to return to its disastrous “Habsburg” policy of the latter half of the 20th century, in which the greatest democracy in history and the beacon of humankind supported a long parade of vile dictators and authoritarian regimes in the interests of stability.

The great strategic problem today isn’t instability. The current instability confronting us is the result of our insistence that outwardly stable Middle Eastern states were the highest geopolitical good in the region. The great enabler of Islamist terrorism has been the artificial stability imposed on the Middle East by local despots backed by foreign powers. Increasingly, populations saw no hope of meaningful change. Right on schedule historically, charismatic religious bigots stepped in to offer not only hope, but a divine dispensation. It cannot be repeated too often or too forcefully: When human beings see no hope of remediation on this earth, they become susceptible to the prophets of religious violence, to the argument that their God wants them to punish their oppressors. And their conversion is a one-way street.

The paradox is that suicide bombers who “martyr” themselves to force a return to a traditionalist society are the product of societies in which secular progress came to a halt. Whatever his social class, the man who sees no palatable future is easily seduced by the myth of a better past. Whether late-medieval peasants convinced that German tribal laws had let their ancestors live closer to Eden or today’s Islamists struggling to “restore” the caliphate — whose days of glory were over a thousand years ago — those who find the here and now intolerable are easy prey to self-appointed prophets promising a return to a lost golden age through the time machine of millenarian violence.

Living with instability

President Bush has stated again and again that we are not at war with Islam. And, although some elements within the Islamic world are certainly at war with us, let’s hope that Washington does not excite even more Muslims to align with our enemies by reverting to our failed policies of the Cold War era, when any dictator would do as long as he was “ours.”

We must learn to live with higher levels of foreign instability and not seek the false peace of the secret policeman if we are ever to see an end to the tumult by which we find ourselves troubled today. The temptation will always be there to support a strongman abroad when our will weakens at home, to align ourselves with those who seem powerful in mundane terms, while we miss the eternal power of the religious impulse and fail to grasp the all-or-nothing nature of the pursuit of the Kingdom of God. This problem is especially acute as we face 2007. In December, the Iraq Study Group issued a report whose implicit message was that there is no greater geopolitical value than stability. Bewildered by the demons our attempt to conjure democracy unleashed in Iraq, we long for the “good old days” in our own way, just as Islamists long for their own version of a better yesteryear. Both visions share a fundamental dishonesty, since the good old days are always a fantasy. Any American leader who imagines that the dark decades of the Cold War, when global nuclear annihilation loomed, were better than the current instability has lost his or her grip on historical reality. Even with the looming advent of a nuclear-armed Iran, we are far better off in 2007 than we were in 1957.

At the same time, we are paying now for geopolitical debts run up in the Cold War decades. After the long oppression of the colonial era, newly independent populations expected miracles — and got the shah, or Saddam Hussein, or, at best, Gamal Abdul Nasser. We are now at the painful beginning of a new era in which a world whose borders and structures of government were horribly deformed during the European imperial period and then by the ideological strictures of the Cold War is attempting to sort itself out through Darwinian collective action. Where we see daily acts of violence and alarming unrest, a longer view reveals human cultures and societies that were forced out of their organic equilibrium trying to right themselves. Historically, that has never been accomplished without bloodshed.

But the struggle of human collectives to find a new, functional balance is an issue beyond the scope of this essay. Of immediate relevance to us is the burden of our own new myths and the manner in which our chosen illusions prevent us from achieving success against extremist religious movements. Our fantasies run from the insupportable nonsense that the Middle East is amenable to diplomatic solutions, through the absurd notion that wars can be waged gently, to our insistence that religious differences can be reasoned away. We engage in wishful thinking every bit as irrational as Islamist claims that the American people will be converted to Islam.

Once the plague of religious passion has broken out into the population, the only solutions are the age-old remedies for the Black Death: Burn it out ruthlessly or let it burn itself out. The first course is unpalatable, the second catastrophic. Confronted with religious fanaticism, we cannot simply hope the epidemic will peter out before it does too much damage. Once we have become the target of violent religious movements, we have no practical choice but to respond with the unwavering use of force. Of course, we shall not do that. Not yet. And so we will pay, and fail, and wonder what happened as we stare at the ruins.

The legitimate authorities of his day confronted Thomas Muentzer’s thousands of armed followers promptly, before his particularly destructive brand of rebellion could spread to other provinces where the revolts had been less fanatical. On May 15, 1525, Muentzer’s ragtag army awaited battle on a hill north of Frankenhausen, confident that God would deflect the cannonballs of their enemies. The nobles opposing them had united various military contingents through forced marches to be certain of an overwhelming superiority. In the end, it was hardly necessary. When their faith did not divert the first cannonballs from the massed target, the rebels broke and ran, with only a few small bands of fanatics putting up any resistance during their disastrous rout. Their campaign of burning abbeys and castles, of plunder and the execution of “God’s enemies” was over, and the ruling powers made certain there would be no recurrence by slaughtering more than 5,000 of Muentzer’s followers in the fields and ditches. The bloodshed was horrific — yet, it was far less gore than would have been spilled had the rebellion been given time to spread more widely. The battle on that hill near Frankenhausen was the Tora Bora of the day — but the authorities had no illusions about the nature of their enemy or what it would take to defeat him. Their Osama bin Laden wasn’t allowed to escape to continue to preach his crusade.

Muentzer had been a defiant lion in his days of power, sentencing opponents to death for offending God and justifying apocalyptic excesses. But when his ad hoc army of peasants and townsmen fell apart, he fled — only to be apprehended disguised as a sick man in bed. His belief that the Kingdom of God was at hand had shaped his every action; defeat shattered his faith. He broke under torture, recanted his beliefs publicly and went to the scaffold discredited. His treatment was brutal. And it worked. The world could see that Muentzer’s god had failed him.

A few leaders of the Peasants’ War were able to flee to Switzerland, the Pakistan of the day, but the resolute nature of the response by the authorities to the series of uprisings that inflamed Germany proved thoroughly effective — the only brief successes gained by the insurgents came where local officials dithered. Faced with insurrections of any kind, but especially with faith-fueled rebellions overheated by millenarian rhetoric, the response must be prompt and fierce. Early ferocity saves countless lives — a paradox that the liberal Western soul cannot yet bring itself to accept. Mercy can follow victory, but cannot precede it.

For us, there are two pressing challenges: combating the enemies already standing against us and preventing the needless creation of more enemies. The first issue demands a new sense of reality about the nature of warfare and the motivations of our opponents. The second requires that we avoid the seductive lure of the strongman who promises us the illusion of peace and thus plays into the hands of religious fanatics.

The imposition of another term of artificial stability in the Middle East isn’t a solution. It’s a trap.