Out of this observation, the researchers, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, developed the theory of cognitive dissonance, which states that when individuals are confronted with empirical evidence that would seem to prove their beliefs wrong, instead of rejecting their beliefs, they will often hew to them more strongly still, rationalizing away the disconfirming evidence.
All of us have experiences with cognitive dissonance in our ordinary lives: When we hear or see something we don’t want to believe because it threatens our view of ourselves or our world, rather than changing our views, we may be tempted to persuade ourselves that there has been a mistake---the disconfirming evidence is wrong, we need new glasses, we misheard. When this happens in cults, members may try to recruit others to join them in their views.
Since then, a number of similar cults have been studied, many but not all of which followed this pattern. The vast majority survived the failed prophecy, but some employed other stratagems to cope with cognitive dissonance, such as “spiritualizing” the prophecy by claiming that life did not end, but changed significantly, on the day the world as we know it was predicted to end. Among Protestant apocalyptic cults, there is an important distinction between pre-tribulation and post-tribulation fundamentalists. Pre-tribulation believers expect that Jesus will save them from experiencing the apocalypse through a divine rapture, the simultaneous ascension to heaven of all good Christians. Post-tribulation believers expect to be present during the apocalypse. Christian militants who subscribe to post-tribulation beliefs consider it their duty to attack the forces of the Antichrist, who will become leader of the world during the end times.
William McCants explains that there is no analogous post-tribulation eschatology in Islam. “The Islamic Day of Judgment is preceded by a series of ‘signs,’ some of which occurred in Muhammad’s own life time. The signs are mentioned in words attributed to Muhammad and usually have the formula, ‘The Hour won’t come until . . .’ As you get closer to the Day, the signs become more intense. ISIS can’t hasten the Day with violence but it can claim to fulfill some of the major signs heralding its approach, which might be tantamount to the same thing.”
Many new religious movements employ a set of practices for enhancing commitment. These include sharing property and/or signing it over to the group upon admission; limiting interactions with the outside world; employing special terms for the outside world; ignoring outside news sources; speaking a special jargon; unusual sexual practices such as requiring free love, polygamy, or celibacy; communal ownership of property; uncompensated labor and communal work efforts; daily meetings; mortification procedures such as confession, mutual surveillance, and denunciation; institutionalization of awe for the group and its leaders through the attribution of magical powers; the legitimization of group demands through appeals to ultimate values (such as religion); and the use of special forms of address.
Most terrorist groups employ at least some of these mechanisms. Violent cults develop a story about imminent danger to an “in-group,” foster group identity, dehumanize the group’s purported enemies, and encourage the creation of a “killer self” capable of murdering large numbers of innocent people.
ISIS members engage in a number of these practices. Many Western recruits burn their passports as a rite of passage. ISIS flaunts its sexual enslavement of “polytheists” as a sign of its strict conformance with Shariah, and of the coming end times. The strict dress code is enforced in part by public shaming of women who don’t comply. Like other apocalyptic groups in history, ISIS’s stated goal is to purify the world and create a new era, in which a more perfect version of Islam is accepted worldwide. This is a typical millenarian project, which always involves transforming the world into something more pure, either politically (as with the communists’ “New Man”) or religiously.
Dr. Robert J. Lifton is a psychiatrist who has studied “totalistic” groups since the 1950s, and he continues to write about them. “Increasingly widespread among ordinary people is the feeling of things going so wrong that only extreme measures can restore virtues and righteousness to society.” None of us is entirely free of such inner struggles; there is much that is confusing about contemporary life, in which many people are no longer tethered to traditional societies. But apocalyptic groups act on these feelings, “destroying a world in order to save it,” in Lifton’s words. Lifton was referring to another violent millenarian cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which in the 1990s had attempted to acquire nuclear weapons and had succeeded in poisoning some five thousand people on the Tokyo subway, twelve of whom died. But his words apply as well to ISIS. “Having studied some of the most destructive events of this era, I found much of what Aum did familiar, echoing the totalistic belief systems and end-of the-world aspirations I had encountered in other versions of the fundamentalist self. I came to see these, in turn, as uneasy reactions to the openness and potential confusions of the ‘protean’ self that history has bequeathed us.”
ISIS is similarly apocalyptic in its views, as similarly unpredictable. It emerged out of an especially barbaric strain of Al Qaeda, which was initiated by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, rather than Osama bin Laden. One of the reasons for both Zarqawi’s and ISIS’s anti-Shi’ite savagery is their apparent belief in end-times prophecies. It is impossible to know whether Baghdadi and other ISIS leaders truly believe that the end times are near, or are using these prophecies instrumentally and cynically to attract a broader array of recruits. Either way, appealing to apocalyptic expectation is an important part of ISIS’s modus operandi. And goading the West into a final battle in Syria is a critical component of the scenario.
Jessica Stern is a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University, and a member of Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and law. J.M. Berger is a non-resident scholar at the Brookings Institution.