Tomorrow Belongs To Us: Thoughts on Totalitarian Ideology and Violence

What follows is an extract from a longer essay which I’ve just posted on my blog. It is in part a response to mugwump’s last post.

Mugwump links to a number of studies and reports which I have not addressed, since they are used to support an argument I believe has been built on faulty premises. Instead, most of the post is devoted to an alternative reading of the Prime Minister’s speech reflecting my understanding of the government’s view, as well as some wider thoughts about the nature of Islamist ideology and totalitarianism.

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There are, I believe, two ways of analysing and understanding Islamism. The first approach seeks to understand it as a religious phenomenon. That is to say, to examine Islamism through the prism of Islamic theology and religious history. The second is to consider Islamism as a totalitarian political ideology.

These analyses overlap and both are valuable to a deeper understanding of what Islamism is and how it developed. But it is the latter which, to my mind, offers a clearer insight into Islamism’s otherwise mysterious allure and the dangers it presents to liberal democracy. Not least because Western totalitarian ideas exerted a profound influence on Islamist thought, which first emerged in the writings of a handful of Egyptian theorists following the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924.

In the section of his speech immediately following his mention of “certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish”, Cameron elaborated on what those ideas are.

Ideas which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality.

Ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation.

Ideas – like those of the despicable far right – which privilege one identity to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others.

And ideas also based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached – that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.

And like so many ideologies that have existed before – whether Fascist or Communist – many people, especially young people, are being drawn to it. We need to understand why it is proving so attractive.

Cameron sketches an ideological framework which is anti-democratic, sectarian, supremacist, conspiracist, and anti-Semitic. His concluding lines, which directly compare Islamist ideology to the totalitarian ideologies of Communism and Fascism, invite us to consider Islamism, not as a primarily religious phenomenon, but as the inheritor and most recent incarnation of one of the twentieth century’s most destructive and potent political myths.

This myth rests on a cosmic and paranoid but powerfully seductive view of world history, in which the righteous and the chosen have been dispossessed and persecuted by corrupt and powerful elites from without, and beset by treacherous forces from within. (Cameron returned to the theme of conspiracism repeatedly in his speech, mentioning it no less than nine times, in reference to both Islamist conspiracy theories and to those circulated about Muslims by the nativist far-right.)

This is not to suggest that Islamist ideology can be disentangled and neatly separated from Islam. On the contrary, Islamism is explicitly and fanatically Islamic, and Cameron was clear about his refusal to further indulge those who seek to decouple one from the other. But he was also careful to point out that, in the first instance, Islamism appeals to Muslims as members of an embattled community which uses Islam as a marker of identity. In this respect, its narrative closely shadows that of previous totalitarian mass movements.

For the Nazis, the victimised chosen few were the Aryan race. For revolutionary Communists, they were the Proletariat. For Islamists, they are Muslims, all members of a pan-national community of believers known as the Umma. In each case, grievance, resentment, alienation, and a paranoid siege mentality are encouraged and exploited where they already exist. Where they do not, they are sown and then carefully cultivated where the soil is found to be fertile.

Victimology is central to all Islamist propaganda, and as David Paxton’s recent essay reminds us, it was a point of repeated emphasis in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of War, which Paxton describes as “wallow[ing] in the tropes of Muslim victimhood and conspiracism”. In keeping with this narrative, anti-Semitism – the world’s oldest conspiracist hatred, enjoining the inflammatory scapegoating of Jews (latterly referred to as ‘Zionists’) – turns out to be salient to all three ideologies.

Palestine. Kashmir. Chechnya. Iraq. Afghanistan. Bosnia. Burma. Sykes-Picot. European colonialism. American bases on sacred soil. Domestic counter-terrorism measures perceived as a mere pretext for the subjugation of Muslims. In the mouths of Islamist propagandists, real instances of persecution become indistinguishable from the complexities of ongoing conflicts and historical grievances stretching back decades, even centuries. Western intervention undertaken in defence of Muslim populations is disregarded, and the persecution and oppression of Muslim populations by other Muslims is either downplayed or somehow blamed on the West (and/or Israel) by proxy.

All of this stuff is simply grist to the anti-Western, anti-Zionist conspiracist mill, identified by Cameron in his speech, which contrives a version of reality in which the world of unbelief is at war with history’s eternal victims.

The rest of the post (~4500 words) can be read here.