Cultural Caviar


December 18, 2017

Multiple Pages

It’s that time of the year again. As Coca-Cola’s magic truck trundles across our televisions and Starbucks’ ubiquitous red cups punctuate the daily commute, the terror alerts are flooding in. On Saturday, a knifeman was shot at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. Two weeks before, elements of a nail bomb were found at Berlin’s Potsdam Christmas market. Last week, a Bangladeshi-Brooklyner detonated a homemade pipe bomb in the subway. The New York Times soft-soaped in spectacular style, telling us the bomber was a “good guy” who had been “radicalized online” and—wait for it—got into neighborhood parking disputes. Just your regular guy next door!

European Christmas markets are now encircled by concrete-and-steel countermeasures against vehicle attacks. Some municipalities have thoughtfully decorated these with Christmas trees, provoking a sardonic Twitter backlash. The police are on a hair-trigger response, recently placing London’s Black Friday on lockdown in response to a rumor. Shoppers ran for their lives—from nothing. If the purpose of terror is to terrorize, then it has succeeded.

Repackaging the ideology behind recent attacks has become an urgent imperative for Western liberals. At the core of this discourse is extrapolating secular motivations from divine ones. And so we are told that terrorism is rooted in foreign policy, poverty, disenfranchisement, racism, prejudicial Islamophobia, Israeli self-determination, and—of course—Donald Trump. If you believe the old adage “Don’t talk down to a man with a gun,” the relentless Western rationalization of jihad must be infuriating to its exponents. Not only infuriating but dangerous, as ignoring the self-professed motivation of those whose only recourse is to violence can only lead to more violence.

“Because Fascism did what it said on the tin, it did not share the others’ reliance on the Big Lie.”

The need for a secular West to shoehorn religious terrorism into its own frame of reference extends even to terror’s most outright critics. Their go-to sound bite is that most Eurocentric term, “Islamofascism.” Sure, it’s attention-grabbing and accessible: Who doesn’t hate Nazis? Even Christopher Hitchens did his bit to popularize the comparison. For many writers like him who started their journey on the left, Fascism remains the sine qua non of negative dog whistles. Perhaps this is why—if we are really so in need of a secular cipher for Islamism—the more logical phrase of Islamo-Communism has not proffered itself.

What Islam and Communism share—and Fascism lacks—is the pretense to altruism. Both claim to be the universal solution for all mankind, offering peace at the barrel of a gun. For all its iniquities, Fascism was at least honest about its violent purpose: elevating certain groups to the fatal exclusion of others. From that watershed of candor flow the following four streams of difference.

First: Because Fascism did what it said on the tin, it did not share the others’ reliance on the Big Lie. Stalin’s heavily fortified “Frontier of Peace”—known to us as the Iron Curtain—echoes the historical Islamic distinction between the House of Peace (Muslim lands) and the House of War (everyone else). The “Anti-Imperialist” expansionism of contemporary Islamist terror is also reminiscent of the USSR’s “Anti-Imperialist Empire.” Both further employ peaceful forms of address —brother, sister —within militarized societies. The Nazis got straight to the point with “Hail victory.”

Second: Because of their claim to intellectual totality, Islamism and Communism  suppress the power of the individual rather than harnessing it. Private inquiry and commerce—the lifeblood of development—are extinguished. As a result, their economies become extractive rather than innovative. The free-extracting Ottoman Empire could only survive while expanding; thereafter, it declined into poverty. The USSR was famed for having its “windows open in winter,”  consuming but not creating. It is ironic—daresay hopeful—that both Communist and Islamist governments will always deny themselves the stability they crave for this reason. Yet Fascism looked eagerly to the power of the private sector to advance its cause—as the awkwardness of certain German industrial families testifies to this day.

Third, which is closely related; The super-primacy of ideology in Communist and Islamist systems creates a fatal drive toward self-purification. This point was illustrated in Graeme Wood’s seminal 2015 article on ISIS, which revealed a readiness to point the finger of heresy  at unlucky members. Executing people “to be on the safe side” is also more than familiar to historians of the USSR. Solzhenitsyn’s humor is never darker than when following Stalin’s thoughts as he stalks his bunker. “Someone has killed all the good people,” thunders the Red Tsar to himself, “and it’s left to me to deal with all the rest!” In Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a lifelong Party loyalist finds that his time has come. Imprisoned and awaiting execution, he ponders whether this was inevitable , undoubtedly also a common reflection among shamed Islamists. Under the Ottomans,  it was a given that the strangler’s rope awaited anyone who served the Sultan not only badly—but also too well.

Fascism was more pragmatic, however, allowing people to remain in civic and military society on merit. The Gramscian march through the institutions seen in the USSR and contemporary Turkey was not undertaken to the same degree by Fascist states. Continuity with pre-Nazi Germany both bubbled up in the form of plots against Hitler—Rommel is taken as a case in point—and subsequently made de-Nazification a storied process, tainting civic actors like the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Passive cooperation had been accepted in the hierarchy; whereas for Islamist and Communist states, it was a source of suspicion. Hence the purges.

Fourth: The totality of social transformation mandated by Islamism and Communism means they tend to come to power by revolution rather than plebiscite. These are self-rooted ideologies that see no role for democracy. Indeed, they prefer to come to power by revolution, not by vote, if only to avoid the awkward notion that the people can remove them by the same means. Because the social transformations they seek then turn out to be impossible, they then remain frozen in a state of “permanent revolution.” Both typically proffer the excuse that their failures are not rooted in too much application of the ideology but too little, that it’s “never been done properly” (reread V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers for a reminder of the Islamic version of this trope). If failure is down to insufficient purity, it also drives the vicious cycle of judicial murder.

Albeit by tapping into the darkest currents of humanity, 20th-century Fascism did see a role for democracy. Unlike their Marxist and Islamist counterparts, Fascist regimes targeted election rather than revolution as a means to power (although subsequently changed their national constitutions). Hence the phrase “Revolutionary Fascism” has little currency, whereas Revolutionary Marxism and Islamism are standard. Moreover, both share a Hydra-like quality, morphing and dissembling as they converge on the ultimate revolutionary goal.

Perhaps, as the modern left waltzes ever closer to Islamists, a formulation like “Islamo-Stalinism” is simply more truth than it can bear. Their shared self-rootedness and super-political dislike of freedom—underwritten by the quiet agreement that “Western society is the enemy”—are siren calls to the disappointed fellow traveler of the 1960s. Like the soft left’s unholy marriage with global corporatism, the two sides appear to have made eye contact across the table. For all it’s un-historicism, perhaps the phrase “Islamofascism” should therefore remain on the books, if only to shake the left out of its stupefied alliance with Islamists.

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