Recently I watched Klansville USA, a documentary about the rise of the Klu Klux Klan in North Carolina during the 1960s. It was both fascinating and disturbing to learn that the KKK’s attraction for poor white Southerners was similar to the appeal of today’s Islamic fundamentalism.
Like the Klan, Islamic fundamentalists target the poor and disenfranchised, the people who don’t feel they have a voice let alone a seat at the table. And their sales pitch is nearly identical: 1) you are not to blame for your situation in life; 2) someone else is; 3) that someone must be punished if you ever want to advance; and 4) only we can help you do that.
Of course that’s an enticing appeal for the poor and disenfranchised, as everyone wants to think they’ve been dealt a raw deal through no fault of their own. It’s easier to claim a conspiracy than it is to accept an unpleasant truth: life is difficult, and not everyone succeeds.
Ironically, the real reason a lot of these followers find themselves in such an unsatisfactory place in life often has more to do with the manipulations of those who lead or at least fund these hate groups, whether that be white Southern businessman and politicians or wealthy Muslim businessmen and politicians. These manipulators seek to control the masses in an effort to maintain their elevated situation, the status quo. And they typically do so by denying education and opportunities to the poor masses while placing the blame on someone else – and using that blame to keep the poor masses preoccupied, so they’ll be compliant and not ask questions.
The Klan Plan
The leaders of the Klan, for example, rallied poor white Southerners against blacks and other minorities, blaming these third parties for their economic struggles and overall disenfranchisement. This unrest, and the violence and intimidation it bred, not only kept blacks and other minorities in check, preventing them from advancing, but it also kept poor whites occupied so they wouldn’t question the politicians and businessmen who had orchestrated the society that had been consistently letting them down in the first place. An added perk was that the leaders of the KKK also pocketed a sizable sum of cash from these poor folks, thanks to things like membership dues and merchandise sales.
What made this especially appealing for many is that the Klan’s doctrine was served up with large portions of patriotism and religion. As history continues to teach us, there’s no limit to what you can get people to believe – and do – when you convince them that it is for God and Country.
A Global Variation
Islamic fundamentalists work in a similar fashion, though their variations are designed to work across borders. Like the Klan, the leaders of these Islamic fundamentalist movements are often relatively well-off compared to their followers. Many of them are also better educated and tend to have already enjoyed the “trappings” of Western civilization. In fact, some of them turned to fundamentalism only after they failed to succeed in their attempts to pursue a more Westernized life.
In addition, the governments of the host nations where these groups operate tend to be shamelessly autocratic, giving the people no rationale for their continued suffering and oppression. Wisely, though, the leaders of these extremist groups temper their authoritarian rule – often far more brutal and oppressive – by preoccupying the masses with fears of a common enemy: Western civilization. They position the West as the reason for all their suffering. And they then use the violence and hatred this breeds to combat Western influence, ensuring that the governments of their host nations remain weak and isolated, which ensures that they continue to have a safe haven to operate in. The most violent acts also serve to provoke Western powers, leading to retaliation that reinforces the extremists’ argument and boosts recruitment.
Like the Klan, this is all packaged in religion and patriotism – so the poor and disenfranchised Muslims being fed this propaganda aren’t going to question any of it, just as Klan followers didn’t. These disenfranchised and often uneducated Muslims become radicalized by the religious and patriotic fervor. They are convinced that the West and its secular puppet regimes are to blame for all of the problems in their world, so they expend all their energy fighting against that assumed enemy. If you can somehow overlook the inherent evil in this scheme, it’s really a neat trick to keep the masses oppressed by pitting them against the forces best suited to encourage the kind of reforms that could eventually help free and empower them.
It’s also interesting to note that this is similar to the way the Nazi’s rose to power in Germany in the wake of World War I. They told the nation’s poor and disenfranchised that they were not to blame for their situation, suffering the economic and emotional ravages of losing an especially horrific war. They identified a number of scapegoats (like both the Klan and Islamic fundamentalists, they selected specific religious faiths, political beliefs, and ethnicities that were either easy targets or might offer resistance to their eventual rule) and rallied the masses to blame them for their troubles.
The Nazi’s also fueled their followers’ fanaticism with an equally twisted blend of religion and patriotism. It’s yet another example of how this powerful combination can be used to mask hateful and violent intent, which is necessary because even the uneducated might think twice about an openly evil doctrine if they weren’t convinced that it was for God and Country.
Lessons To Learn
So how do we counter terror organizations that use religion to manipulate the minds of the poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised? According to the Klansville USA documentary, the downfall of the KKK was largely the result of both its leaders being exposed as frauds as well as their followers finding a more fruitful agenda. And a second documentary, How Superman Defeated The KKK, provided some insight into how this actually happened.
The Klan achieved a strong resurgence in America during the 1960s, with its members holding many leadership positions in politics and businesses throughout the South. But a brave man by the name of Stetson Kennedy was able to infiltrate the organization and discover its darkest secrets.
Unfortunately the local criminal justice systems, many of which had been infiltrated by the Klan, were not willing to take action on what Kennedy had discovered, just as most of the nations that harbor Islamic fundamentalist organizations turn a blind eye to their activities. So Kennedy sought a different avenue for exposing and discrediting the Klan.
Superman To The Rescue
Kennedy contacted the creators of the Superman comic, which had become widely popular during World War II. Since that war had ended, Superman needed a new foe to battle. And the creators of the comic – which had also become a popular radio program – welcomed the opportunity to take on the unbridled bigotry of groups like the KKK.
In a ground-breaking series, Superman battled domestic forces of hate, taking on the Klan and ridiculing them in the process. The series exposed the greed and corruption of Klan leaders, which certainly didn’t sit well with their poor Southern followers. This coincided with some federal prosecutions in which Klan executives took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to testify. That didn’t sit well with the Klan followers either, because most of them supported Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ugly and unjust witchhunt against Communists, in which many of the accused had also plead the Fifth and refused to testify.
But discrediting the Klan’s leaders and exposing their hypocrisy was only part of the strategy. The real turning point was when, through the efforts of things like the Superman series, the doctrine of the Klan was exposed as being in opposition to the American ideal of freedom and justice for all. The Klan had always relied on a sense of patriotism to validate its mission, but that was taken away when soldiers returned from World War II having witnessed firsthand the horrific effects of such hatred and intolerance.
The Klan lost much of its religious support and credibility as well. With teh organization’s darkest secrets being exposed, it became harder for Christian religious leaders and their followers to continue to embrace and back the hate group. Sadly, though, many of these Christian fundamentalists have since moved on to preach hatred and even violence against other minority groups, practices which are unfortunately still alive and well today.
Another factor in the Klan’s demise was the gradual swing to the right in the Republican party. This increasingly conservative political force contributed to the downfall of the Klan by offering poor white Southerners a more legitimate voice at the table. Just as they realized the Klan had failed to speak for them, these former followers found that some of the new voices in conservative American politics would champion many of the causes that concerned them – though often without the open hatred and bigotry that had kept the Klan largely out of the mainstream.
Hope Against Hate
Perhaps in these lessons we can find some solutions to combat the growing popularity of terror groups like Al Qaeda, AQAP, Boko Haram, FARC, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIL, and the Muslim Brotherhood. True, the KKK and its ideology of hatred are far from dead. But the Klan is now largely an impotent, fringe force here in America.
And surely all peace-loving peoples would welcome a similar tempering of the violent extremism we are seeing from today’s Islamic fundamentalists. If we can find a way to expose the fallacy of their teachings and discredit their hypocritical leaders while simultaneously offering their followers a more rewarding agenda and a more effective forum for their concerns, then we might be able to emasculate these hate groups around the world – just as we were able to clip the Klu Klux Klan here in the US.