Of old was the age when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, and grass nowhere.
Before there was anything there was nothing. Caught between fire and ice was a gaping pit known as the Ginnungagap. It was filled by the collision and synthesis of these opposing primal forces, creating the materials that would be made into Midgard. Yet even though this barren void lies in the past another empty abyss stands before us, its constant pull warping hearts and seducing minds. This howling expanse looms more sinister for at its core is the fear dwelling in every person.
These fears have been coming forth in recent days in a furious flood of carnage. On Thursday forty three innocent lives were snuffed out in Beirut by Da’esh suicide bombers. The next day, without pause for breath, one hundred and twenty nine more were ruthlessly cut down in a series of attacks across Paris staining the streets with blood. Refugees, fleeing worse carnage inflicted by the same perpetrators, find themselves greeted not as people in dire need of hospitality but as enemies. In Central America decades of tension and violence, fueled by the drug trade, are forcing families to send their children north across the US border in hopes of finding safety. They are greeted by hostile crowds accusing them of invasion and criminal intent.
Amidst the growing tragedy white nationalists respond with increasingly strident, bloody calls for race war. Crouching in their siege mentality these out and proud racist gruesomely echo and reciprocate Da’esh’s calls for a global war between Islam and the West. This tendril of the gap’s pull manifested yet again among those who hide their bigotry behind hammers. Last Tuesday the FBI announced the arrest of two white men in Virginia who twisted Asatru to justify waging very literal race war against nearby synagogues and Black churches.
All of these manifestations of this proverbial pit have greater depths beneath what lies on the surface. For everyone one who takes violent action in the name of advancing exclusionary, xenophobic ideas there are many more in the shadows mouthing the same slogans, preaching the same arguments, and spreading the same claims. Whether one is discussing violent Jihadis like Da’esh and Boko Haram or the Islamophobic anti-immigrant, white nationalist, and racist Heathen movements sprouting up in the United States, Canada, and Europe both depend on this dynamic of terror and carnage. Even worse each feeds the other, creating and expanding a symbiotic relationship of mutual fanaticism, disgust, and dependency.
Answering the question of ideological support and validation is critical for understanding all aspects of these sad situations. Many claim, in truly heated words in some cases, there are inherent flaws in specific ideas or groups that inevitably guarantee such responses. What these claims miss is how disturbingly easy it is to make people commit truly horrible acts when they are given some sort of external validation and approval for such atrocious deeds. Given the right circumstances of justification and oppressive power dynamics and any number of people can moved to willingly take the plunge into the abyss head-first.
Two potent psychological experiments who probed into these exact questions offer chilling evidence of the power of validation and authority. The first of these two studies was the infamous Milgram Experiment, conducted in 1961 to answer the question of how true the common Nazi defense of, “just following orders” really was. Students selected for the study were set up in small rooms with a lab-coated authority figure who, during the course of the study, demanded they administer increasingly severe, though fake, electric shocks to another study participant designated as a learner. In nearly every case the students administering the false jolts, in spite of their vocal objections, followed the orders of the authority figures watching over their shoulders. Interviews after the fact confirmed it was the validation of these authority figures that made it possible for the students to silence their screaming conscience and up the voltage.
The second was the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, where students were put in a simulated prison environment and divided into guards and prisoners. Over the course of the six days of the study the “guards” descended to incredible levels of cruelty. The treatment they inflicted ranged from taunts and harassment all the way to forcing people to sleep naked on cold concrete, depriving them of food, and physical assault. The “guards”, when interviewed, discussed the immunity from consequences of their positions and the impact of the dehumanization of the “prisoners” as key to justifying their actions. What both of these cases proved, among other terrible findings, is given the right validation and perceived authority all sorts of people are capable of taking the great leap into the void.
Brothers shall fight and fell each other
And sister’s sons shall kinship stain;
Woe is on Midgard, with great abandon,
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor shall humans each other spare
Da’esh and Boko Haram, when one takes this dynamic into account, are a perfect example of how in a religious group such extremism can flourish. Both groups trace their ideological and theological roots back to the Saudi Wahhabi sect of Islam, a subgroup within Islam characterized by their fanaticism, hostility to all things deemed outside the faith, and the harsh measures used to enforce their will. This rather young sect, tracing its origins back to the 1700s, is also known for being a minority within the Muslim world thanks to how greatly their views, methods, and conclusions diverge from the vast majority of Muslims both Sunni and Shi’a. Wahhabism provides Da’esh and Boko Haram with the language, validation, and framework needed for justifying waging war against all they see as enemies of Islam.
One of course may wonder how it is possible for such a small sect to rise to such terrible influence. The truth is Wahhabism reaches as far as it does thanks to two main factors. The first is the enormous wealth available to Wahhabi groups thanks to Saudi oil. Saudi and oil money flows freely into the coffers of Wahhabi clerics and establishments, giving them disproportionate means for spreading their message of fear and exclusion.
The second is America’s virtually unlimited political support for the Saudis and the Gulf oil states, guaranteeing their physical security in exchange for energy security, making it possible for the Saudis to act with little fear of repercussions. This policy has remained unchanged in spite of clear evidence of Saudi and Gulf State wealth playing a critical role in funding everything from Al Qaeda to Da’esh. Only recently has Da’esh’s violence moved Saudi authorities to denounce them openly even though the flow of funds and arms quietly continues. As for Da’esh itself this organization would not be what it is today if not for the American invasion of Iraq, the resulting destabilization of the region that followed, brutal actions taken during the occupation, and the masses of desperate, angry people left in its wake.
If evil you see and evil you know
Speak out against it and give your enemies no peace
The actions of these groups, in turn, have their own opposing and equal consequences. In Europe a new movement known as PEGIDA sprung up a little over a year ago denouncing what they saw as the creeping Islamization of the continent. They claim Muslim immigration and giving shelter to Syrian refugees opens up Europe to invasion by groups like Da’esh. Political parties like the French Front National in France and the British UK Independence Party have shamelessly ridden these fears to growing power, claiming people fleeing from a devastating warzone are Trojan horses for a greater assault. Such sentiments have been repeated across the Atlantic by American elected officials and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Even some who consider themselves to be Asatru share and support calls for war against Islam, in some cases claiming the conflict is spiritually and genetically mandated and stretches back over a thousand years.
What is especially twisted about these denunciations is, contrary to the logic espoused by the hard-liners and xenophobes, they are doing exactly what Da’esh wants. The hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their grasp directly undermines their claims the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is an ideal place for Muslims to live. After all if the lands under Da’esh’s rule are so ideal why are so many running away from them to the allegedly decadent, anti-Muslim lands of Europe and America?
This is further reinforced by the experiences of Nicholas Henin who, when held captive by Da’esh, observed nothing unnerved and upset his jailers more than news of refugees finding welcome, hospitality, and sanctuary in Europe and the United States. PEGIDA’s rallies, gubernatorial decrees, and Islamophobic stump speeches do more to bolster Da’esh’s cause than hamper it. On the other side of the coin those asserting we must match exclusion with exclusion and jihad with crusade would have no pull if not for the existence of Da’esh, Al Qaeda, and other such exclusionary groups.
These rising cries of war with Islam march hand in hand with other inflated fears. The first are those who view the recent surge of refugees from Central America as an existential threat to the United States. They claim these refugees, fleeing from the deadly drug cartel-fueled conflicts engulfing their homes, are criminals, rapists, and a clear and present danger to the United States that must be held back. The most fearful, including self-proclaimed Asatruar like Stephen McNallen, loudly argue frightened, starving children are the vanguard of a vast invasion of the American West. Not a word is given to other, proven causes such as the devastation of family farms by NAFTA or the negative consequences of America’s Drug War for the region.
Some have taken these words to heart, lashing out at those they see as dangerous enemies. In August of this year a Boston man assaulted and urinated on a homeless Hispanic man, claiming Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric inspired him to do so. At a recent Trump rally a group of immigration activists were assaulted by Trump’s supporters before being forcibly removed by the police. The most extreme call for an all-out race war of whites against the world with bloody examples abound including Frazier Glenn Miller and Dylann Roof. These individuals take the fears spread by others to violent ends through deadly shooting sprees and direct attacks on those they see as racial enemies.
Most recently two self-identified Asatruar in Virginia were arrested for stockpiling weapons in preparation for waging race war against Black and Jewish Americans. These men used Asatru to justify their actions, claiming they were acting in defense of the white race and their faith mandated they take violent action. This is, sadly, not the first act of its kind by those identifying as Heathens of some form or another. In 2012 a member of the Wolves of Vinland, an organization claiming Odin as their patron, was arrested for a nearly-successful attempt at burning down a Black Baptist Church. Both acts were motivated by rhetoric of race-based war and acting out in defense of their Folk.
The siege mentality seen in these deeds is not isolated to these cases. Though those who identify as Heathen and are shameless in spreading exclusionary ideas are quick to denounce the actual acts they never stop promoting the siege mentality inspiring them. What is especially galling is how opportunistically they hide behind the rest of Heathenry when their rhetoric inspires terrible consequences even as they expend much in effort and action denigrating those who do not see things their way as false Heathens.
Cattle die, kinsmen die
And so dies yourself
But one thing I know never dies
Is the fame of a dead person’s deeds
And so we stand at the edge of a howling void. It is too vast, too all-encompassing, and too deep to ignore. The screaming emptiness offers two choices: to tumble in or replace it with something new. As awful and terrible as it there is a seductive ease to simply giving in. It is very easy to let go, to fall endlessly into the empty world letting what will come wash over you unopposed. The other path is that of fire and ice. It is uncertain, tumultuous, and chaotic but offers enormous, new potential for Heathenry. All was created through the cataclysmic collision of these seemingly opposing elements leading to a new state of existence through combining the interactions of the two into one new reality. By embracing the diversity this process implies we can make a better Heathenry than what the abyss offers.
Those who walk this road will find plentiful company. For all the talk by the fearmongers of being utterly critical to our community they are far fewer than meets the eye. The most prominent bloc advocating exclusionist ideas, the Asatru Folk Assembly, consists of less than 10% of all American Heathens with approximately 700 members. If one assumes all are lockstep supporters, a highly unlikely situation to say the least, and that there are another two who feel similarly outside of the AFA that pegs the number of exclusivist Heathens in North America at a little over 2,000 people. When one considers this in the context of numbers even AFA supporters consider credible adherents of these ideas make up at best 30% of the at least 8,000 strong North American Heathen community. If one takes into account the multipliers suggests by Dr. Seigfried the proportion shrinks to an even smaller slice, proving how far on the fringe these individuals and groups are.
Only by making hard decisions in these trying times can we fill the void of fear with the stuff of possibility. Such work will not be over swiftly or come without challenge. Even though there are many obstacles ahead the consequences of failure are too horrible to imagine. We face the choice of hard growth through work, discomfort, and creating real justice for all or slowly dwindling under the onslaught of terror and violence. In doing so we do not seek to wage some sort of war against those who use our Gods to justify their bigotry. The best path is to build a community where their ideas will find no support, to give them no aid or comfort, and to leave them to descend into the darkness they have embraced. We have it within ourselves and each other to build a better future for Heathens living today and all those who will follow in our footsteps. It is our responsibility to give them the best world and the best Heathenry we can.
The sluggard believes they shall live forever
If the fight they face not
But age shall not grant them the gift of peace
Though spears may spare them
Ryan Smith is a Heathen devoted to Odin living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, a founding member of Golden Gate Kindred, is active in the environmental justice and anti-police brutality movements, and recently completed his Masters in modern Middle East History and economics.