The vision of reconstructing society became, almost overnight, my whole life. Friends who didn’t share my convictions were abandoned. Personal interests evaporated, along with dreams of any future not contributing to the crusade. While not all members gravitate with the same intensity to the group’s political mission, most do distance themselves from activities or friendships outside the group.
Studies of “cause-based” or isolationist groups indicate that similar psychological dispositions are present regardless of religious or political specificity. Groups gain ascendancy over members by filling fundamental human psychological needs. At the heart of toxic activism is the inebriating sensation of transcending the limitations of daily life and participating in a mission of global importance. Most members also become deeply attached to the support system. As a committed comrade-in-arms, you are superior, necessary, valued.
At eighteen, I left my country for a convent in France where Catholicism blended with the writings and ideas of the European religious far-right, including those of Charles Maurras and the antisemitic Fr. Denis Fahey. The danger of the political formation was all the more serious because it was presented as the only legitimate social application of the Faith.
Though not prone to waltzing on the way to Mass or whistling on stairs, I was as mismatched for the convent as Maria von Trapp and eventually returned to my home in California, still politically radicalized. Though many leaders of the group discourage higher learning for women, I justified attending college as a sort of “finishing school” and enrolled, an 18-year-old in a 32-year-old body who couldn’t explain why she didn’t know who U2 was or why the Soviet Union was missing.
While taking a Modern Middle Eastern History class, I discovered the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood. For the first time, I looked objectively at my own political worldview because of its presentation in the context of another religion. I can still see where I sat in class that day as I peered into the mirror of hatred and ignorance called radical Islam and saw my own gruesome reflection. So this was my face — the paranoid objectification of Jewish people, the hatred of my intellectual nature as a woman, the loathing of America, the disdain for everything and everybody not myself and not engaged in my war for my Utopia.
That I wore no bombs was merely accidental. My hatred of the world was as destructive as a terrorist. That day in the classroom, unable to face the consequences, I closed my mind in a blatant act of intellectual dishonesty and put Band-Aids on the wall enclosing my mind.