ISIS: Lessons from the KKK

2 Sep


Published in The Hoopla, September 2, 2014

Multiple choice question: Was it ISIS, KKK or Al Qaeda that was described as a “terrorist organisation, which in its endeavours to intimidate, or even eliminate those it dislikes, using the most brutal of methods”?

This is how US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas referred to the Ku Klux Klan in 2003. It echoes why Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri disavowed all links with ISIS in February when he accused them of sedition in Syria and condemned them for the “blood that was shed.”

The American KKK and the anti-American ISIS may appear a world and a century apart, but some have already alluded that ISIS is to Muslims what KKK is to Christians.

A closer look at KKK’s pitfalls may shed light on how to defeat ISIS.

In origin, both organisations were a resistance to a local invasion. The many incarnations of ISIS were borne out of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, while KKK was borne out of the post-Civil War era in 1865 when the Republican Party passed the Reconstruction Act, granting ‘equal protection’ to former African slaves. The KKK refused to recognise the freedom of African Americans.

While ISIS initially sought to restore their version Sunni supremacy in Iraq, KKK sought to restore white supremacy in America’s South.

Both sought to reclaim a ‘pure’ homeland. In the ISIS propaganda video ‘End of Sykes-Picot’, the Prophet’s ‘successor’, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was dubbed the ‘breaker of borders’. His ISIS troops trample over the 1916 post-Ottoman empire boundary between Syria and Iraq and declare that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority”.

KKK also fought for its romantic view of the ‘invisible empire of the South,’ calling its leader a Grand Imperial Wizard. Their xenophobic slogans yearned to maintain the status quo. A magnet used by both movements is trying to make the complex simple – extremely simple.

The ISIS leader was a high ranking veteran from the war against the US invasion in Iraq, while the KKK founders were high ranking veterans from the Civil War.

The name ISIS is a translation of an Arabic acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (greater Syria), ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa as-Sham (DAESH). By contrast, KKK was a name based on the Greek word for circle and was concocted in humour by six veterans for their fancy-dress social club in 1866. They later learned that their white costumes with astrological symbols resembled ghosts which frightened superstitious African Americans.

While ISIS claims to have 16 wilayat (provinces) in Iraq and Syria with over 100,000 troops, KKK has 100 klaverns (chapters) and over 5000 members, mainly in South and Mid-West USA. Their peak membership in the 1920s reached 4 million.

Initially, only White Anglo Saxon Protestants could join the KKK, and Catholics were among their targets during the 1915 economic downturn alongside Jews and immigrants. The cross lighting ceremony began in the 1920’s to symbolise the cleansing fire of Christ that cleanses evil from the land and lights the way from the darkness of ignorance.

However, the modern landscape of white supremacy has forced many KKK chapters to accept non-Christians.

Similarly, ISIS regards Shiites and Alawites as infidels, not as Muslims. Despite their religious symbols, both ISIS and KKK have morphed into political movements about territory, cleansing, vengeance and power.

While Al Qaeda denounced the splinter group ISIS as overly violent, the first Grand Wizard, General Nathan Bedford Forrest tried to disband KKK for the same reasons in 1869.

Their supply chains of funding and finance are poles apart. ISIS controls over US$2 billion from oil fields seized in eastern Syria, Mosul’s central bank, donations from Gulf Arabs, business extortions, kidnapping ransoms and weapons stockpiles.

By contrast, KKK relies on their member fees and paraphernalia sales. This is one of many reasons for their repeated cycles of collapse, apart from their resurgence in the immigration boom of the 1920s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Since the 1970s, skin-head and neo-Nazis have proliferated in the white supremacist scene which has rendered the KKK brand name as the grandfather’s hate group. The modern groups rely on social media rather than BBQs and Klanta Klaus.

Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS recruits Westerners through a highly coordinated social media presence including YouTube, Twitter, theme songs and their online magazine Dabiq. Their carefully executed videos attract global attention as they showcase their brute force and rapid results.

Modern racists have been put off by the lynching of innocent African Americans as they have more modern targets in mind. As the KKK membership attracts people with violent or anti-social natures, and they remain US citizens subject to criminal law, many leaders have been convicted and removed. With ISIS creating their own citizenship and jurisdictions, they appear immune from state laws.

The domestic terrorists beneath white KKK hoods have killed 3446 African Americans. The global terrorists beneath the black ISIS hoods have killed 50,000 Arabs, and counting.

While KKK was roundly denounced by churches, ISIS has also been denounced by Muslim leaders such as the Grand Mufti of Egypt who dismissed the reactionary caliphate as an ‘illusion.’

Just as KKK does not represent Christians, ISIS does not represent Muslims. Unlike the weak national leadership of KKK, the ISIS leader remains an elusive engineer of fear and media.

The KKK brand name was tarnished by its brutality and overtaken by groups with a different methodology and different targets. If the ISIS brand name becomes tarnished by its brutality against fellow Muslims and other minority groups, it may be overtaken by a splinter group that is more interested in territory than purity.

The KKK may not be able to teach us how to conquer ISIS, but it may teach us that its most powerful enemy may be within its own circles – especially former members who have become reformed and speak out. The repulsion by pure evil may trump the attraction to a pure territory.

These movements peak when fear peaks. They thrive on staged spectacles and free publicity which feeds into their power. We can only fan their flames if there is oxygen, and our media is their oxygen, inadvertently paying for their global recruitment and fear campaign.

To snuff out their flame, we need to stop retweeting their propaganda. The power of stopping supply costs nothing, but saves lives.

*Joseph Wakim OAM is the author of ‘Sorry We Have No Space’ (2013). He is an independent writer who has had over 500 opinion columns published in all major newspapers for over 20 years. He is the Founder of Australian Arabic Council and a Former Multicultural Affairs Commissioner. He blogs at and is on twitter @WakimJ

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