Slate International Affairs writer Joshua Keating sees similarities between the terrorist organization ISIS and Seventh-day Adventism in one key respect: both millenarian groups have had to reinvent themselves in light of their failed eschatological predictions.
In his Slate piece, “ISIS’s End-of-the-World Problem” (originally “ISIS’s apocalyptic prophecies aren’t coming true”), Keating detailed the failure of ISIS’s prediction of an End-of-Times showdown in Dabiq, Syria:
In a gruesome video released November 2014, showing the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig along with 16 Syrian soldiers, the masked militant known as “Jihadi John” says to the camera, “Here we are, burning the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”
That invocation of Dabiq was significant: In ISIS’s apocalyptic propaganda, the otherwise unremarkable Syrian town of Dabiq was to be the site of a showdown with “Rome,” the Christian invaders of the Middle East, which was to immediately precede the conquest of Constantinople, and then the Day of Judgment. ISIS named its English-language magazine after the city, which it captured in the summer of 2014, and heavily fortified the town, despite it having little strategic value. But in October 2016, ISIS lost Dabiq after a short battle with Turkish-backed rebels. The Day of Judgment hasn’t happened yet.
The so-called Islamic State, Keating noted, has not only established its “brand” by performing brutal executions but also using its distinct eschatological vision of a final showdown as a recruitment tool.
“They believe that the re-establishment of the caliphate will lead to a final battle that hastens the end of days,” Keating wrote.
The ISIS apocalyptic narrative has been a valuable means of attracting adherents. However, ISIS has lost control of Dabiq and Mosul, Iraq, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph in 2014, Keating noted. Further, ISIS has steadily lost the majority of territory it once controlled, which has presented a problem for ISIS propagandists.
Not dissimilarly, the millenarian movement that became the Seventh-day Adventist Church succeeded at attracting adherents with an End Times narrative in which proto-Adventists played a starring role. When William Miller’s predictions about the Second Coming of Christ did not come to pass, the Advent believers were forced to reconsider the texts upon which their schema—and their hopes—had been founded. Out of that Great Disappointment emerged the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Keating referred to a study from the mid-1950s by social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues pointing to evidence that when messianic movements’ predictions fail, "adherents became more devoted to the cause."
“Festinger argued that an adherent is likely to stay true if he or she has deep conviction in such beliefs, has taken actions that are difficult to undo in the name of them (like selling all of your earthly belongings), and has social support for those beliefs,” Keating observed.
Keating cited the work of California State University Long Beach religion professor Jon R. Stone, who edited Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy. Stone demonstrated that religious groups tend to find spiritual fulfillments for temporal predictions that fail. This was certainly the case in the Adventist Church’s prehistory when Miller’s prediction was reinterpreted as pertaining to the cleansing of a Heavenly Sanctuary (The Investigative Judgment Doctrine) instead of the Second Coming of Christ.
Writer and researcher Alexandra Stein told Keating that belonging to a failed organization brings stigma that can make leaving hard. “It’s a hell of a thing to come out of something like that and say I was wrong for 10 years, and utterly manipulated. You don’t get points for that,” Stein said.
To be clear, Neither Keating nor any of the article’s participants suggested similarities between the violent mindset of ISIS fighters and propagandists and today’s Seventh-day Adventists. Rather it is because, like many other religious sects from fringe groups to mainstream Christian groups, Adventists have had to find a way to deal with the failure of their founding “prophecies,” ISIS and Adventism share something significant in common. Adventism figured out how to reinvent itself after the catastrophic failure of Miller’s 1844 predictions, which, in part, led Keating to conclude that ISIS will, too.
The Islamic State has already turned from “its core state-building project in Iraq and Syria to smaller holdings in places like Yemen, Egypt, and Afghanistan as well as encouraging attacks by adherents in the West,” Keating noted.
Still, the apocalyptic language of ISIS fighters and terrorists persists, leading Keating to opine that (like Seventh-day Adventists with their End-Times narrative) ISIS does not see its apocalypse as having been canceled, just postponed.
Jared Wright is Southern California Correspondent for SpectrumMagazine.org.
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