If you went to school in America, you learned about Germany, the Nazis, World War II, and the Holocaust. We know these historical events intimately. Our textbooks are filled with haunting images of prisoners in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau. Even in flyover small-town southern Missouri, where the vast majority of us grew up having never even met a Jewish person, we knew that during World War II, Jewish people suffered in ways that words can’t fully describe.
I read Anne Frank’s diary multiple times and I bawled like a baby each time. I still have my worn, beloved copy; it’s here with me in Riyadh and I hope Lavender will read it and value it someday as much as I do. I want to visit Amsterdam someday just so I can go to the Anne Frank house and pay my respects to one of the few dear friends I came to know in a book that actually existed, actually lived, and was actually stolen from the world.
In school, we learn a bit about how Hitler came to power, but it’s significantly glossed over in comparison to the actual war, as is World War I. But when it comes to explaining how there came a point where Allied forces found themselves discovering rooms filled to the ceilings with the shoes of murdered Jewish people, our education is (or at least, was) woefully incomplete. We just know it happened…and never again. Because of course. We don’t need to know how it came to pass in order to be convicted that it should never, ever happen again.
But World War I is inextricably linked to the rise of the Nazi party. World War I absolutely decimated the German economy (as commonly happens to a country on the losing end of a war). The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, required Germany to pay heavy reparations to countries it had fought against, in addition to making Germany admit that they had been at fault for starting the war. Germany had to give up large chunks of land, and its military was almost completely dismantled. The German economy was so poor that only a fraction of the required reparations were actually made, but even those payments were a heavy burden. After the Treaty of Versailles had been signed by Germany, President Woodrow Wilson announced, “At last, the world knows America as the savior of the world!”
Naturally, the Treaty of Versailles was not a popular document with your average German. Inflation was at ridiculous levels. Jobs were scarce. It was in this environment that Adolf Hitler began his rise to power as a member of a small fringe political group, known as the German Workers’ Party. He attempted a takeover of the German government in 1923, an event known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Multiple people were killed in the attempt; Hitler was arrested, tried for treason, and sentenced to five years in prison. He only served nine months, though, and during his time in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf and he honed his platform and his propaganda strategies.
Once released, he rose to power by playing on the average Germans’ soft spots. He constantly reminded them about the great history of Germany, and he promised that under his reign, the glory of the German people would be restored. He promised prosperity. He promised respect. He drew your average, everyday German who just wanted to feed his family and live his life into the Hitler vortex of crazy, by fostering a sense of collective pride in the culture and characteristics shared by many Germans. And as a result, most people rallied behind him–or at least, didn’t actively oppose him.
But even though Hitler claimed to be building a world empire based on this concept of the perfect “Aryan” race, there were plenty of Aryans who were fighting against him—namely, from the United States, France, and Britain, among other places. These were people who could have easily joined Hitler in the Aryan fight, if they had chosen to do so, but instead, they opposed him, many of them sacrificing their lives in the process.
Does any of this sound familiar? Like history repeating itself? Because it totally should.
The Iraqi and Syrian infrastructures were both decimated by war—in Syria, there was a revolution and subsequent (and ongoing) civil war, with American officials throwing their support behind revolutionaries that would later go on to spawn ISIS. And in Iraq…well, any American over the age of 18 knows what happened there. Whether or not we want to admit it, we Americans created the Iraqi power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS. And when that power vacuum collided with Syria’s…well, it was what folks call a “perfect storm” (except, of course, “perfect” actually means “stunningly horrible and destructive”). The same thing happened in Afghanistan and gave rise to the Taliban. Have you ever seen the movie Charlie Wilson’s War? There’s this perfect line where Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) says, “We go in there with our ideals and we change the world, and then we leave. We always leave. But that ball…it keeps on bouncing.”
That’s exactly what we did with Iraq. We went in, essentially tore down what established infrastructure they had, and then we left. And what we left behind was a power vacuum for crazies. Of course, it’s not entirely that simple (if you want to read more about how America was involved in breeding ISIS, you can do so here and here), but that’s the short story.
I don’t know exactly what ISIS is doing in their captured territories. I do know that if the mainstream media’s treatment of Saudi Arabia is any indication of how seriously they approach fact checking their information (and offering retractions and/or clarifications when they get it wrong), it’s safe to believe about half of what is widely reported. But even that half is bad enough, and ISIS is certainly a bloody mess to whose cleanup America is obligated to contribute.
But the difference between World War II and now is that back then, no one really worried about blonde, blue-eyed Americans, even those of German descent and/or with German last names, joining up with the Nazis. Of course, Japanese-Americans were another story; they were deemed suspicious. (Just ask George Takei.) Japanese people were easily identifiable (as many Muslims also are by virtue of our clothing choices…but, contrary to stereotype, this is not always the case. In fact, many, many Muslim women don’t wear a headscarf, just as many, many Muslim men don’t wear long beards), and so they were rounded up and made to live in internment camps for the duration of the war, even though there was no reason to suspect that they were in any way disloyal to the United States.
But Germans? Nah. No one worried about them, even though there were quite a number of Nazi sympathizers in the States (in fact, there’s actually an abandoned compound in Los Angeles that they set up to welcome Hitler to America. Not even kidding. You can visit it if you are so inclined). And in the end, the American government issued an apology for having essentially imprisoned all Japanese Americans during the war, because we had to admit that it was totally, indisputably wrong, nor did it even help the war effort or make our country safer. It was just…racism.
So, naïve as it may be, I just don’t get why so many people are unwilling to believe that these “Islamic State” nutjobs don’t in any way represent the tremendously vast majority of Muslims around the world. If you’ve never feared that your blonde, blue-eyed relatives are going to be radicalized by right-wing Aryan extremists (which, if you’re an American hoping to eliminate terrorism, as we all are, that actually should be a concern), why would you suspect Muslims everywhere are just ripe for the ideological pickin’ for this extremist movement? ISIS is doing the exact same thing that the Nazis did during their rise to power. They are playing on the soft spots of your average Iraqi and Syrian, reminding them of the glorious history of Islamic empire and promising them stability and prosperity–education, medical care, jobs–in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people, even as they are being opposed and actively fought by other Muslims, just as many, many other “Aryans” fought the Nazis and their evil, genocidal empire.
Islam is just the shared characteristic that ISIS uses in their attempt to unify the people and rally them to their cause, just as Hitler used the history and widely shared characteristics of Germans in order to build support for his own regime. If the resources and power were up for grabs in a land where Christianity was the dominant religion, then this group would consist of Christian terrorists, and they would be claiming to follow their true religion as they obeyed brutally violent, context-stripped, cherry-picked verses from a holy book. If ISIS was operating in a land of mostly unreligious people, they would still find common characteristics to crow about as a means of bolstering their brutal power grab. Just like Hitler did.
I understand that it may be convenient to attribute the violence to Islam–after all, that’s exactly what ISIS is telling you, so why should you believe otherwise? And Islamophobia is a booming business. But Americans, Brits, and other “Aryans” outside of Germany didn’t believe Hitler when he said that he fought for “truth and justice” because he called himself a Christian, nor did they jump in lockstep behind him because he claimed his atrocities were Jesus-approved. So why do we believe ISIS about the source of their ideology?
For anyone who lives in a Muslim family, or is actually willing to listen, get to know, and embrace their Muslim neighbors, it’s obvious: ISIS isn’t about religion. ISIS is about power, money, and control of lucrative resources (and they’re certainly not the first to wage war in Iraq for those reasons under lofty ideological pretenses).
So please, do me a solid and keep these comparisons in mind. When you’re tempted to ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against ISIS?”, please know that they are. The question that you should be asking yourself is not, “Why don’t more Muslims oppose ISIS?”, but rather, why don’t most mainstream media outlets find it relevant to amplify the vast multitude of voices that do?
I’ve said it before: go talk to a Muslim. Invite a Muslim to dinner at your house. Listen, learn, and teach one another. Hug a Muslim, ya’ll. Make the world a better place. Please. If not me, then for my kid. She’s really cute…and even though she hates being buckled into her car seat, she totally knows where her tummy is.