A recurring theme of Algerian-American law academic’s Karima Bennoune‘s moving and informative Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism is the disastrous consequences of pandering to Muslim fundamentalism. For example, Karima Bennoune’s Pakistani interlocutors note how important the “Islamisation” program of Zia ul-Haq‘s regime was in encouraging fundamentalism (p.241). The British in Egypt played the Muslim Brotherhood against the secular nationalists, the Algerian regime played the FIS against democratic secularists, Israel played Hamas against Fatah, Sadat and Mubarak played the Muslim Brotherhood against the liberals, Pakistan partly created the Taliban as an instrument to dominate Afghanistan and has used jihadis against India, the US funded fundamentalists against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The list goes on.
While political or strategic expedience was part of what was going on, one also wonders if the baleful effect of the Hegelian fallacy of modernisation theory was not also in play–the presumption that history has a direction, so serious religious belief is a thing of the past; thus “wave of the future” liberals, democrats, nationalists, secularists are the more “serious” threat. It surely plays a role in so many Western intellectuals, journalists and politicians being unable to take religious motives seriously.
One is reminded of the original “Red-Brown” alliance–the Stalinist KPD functionally helping the Nazis to bring down the Weimar Republic on the grounds that as “mere reactionaries” the Nazis were doomed by History. That turned out very badly for the KPD and while, in the longer run, the Soviet Union was able to expand, it only survived the consequences of the Nazi-Soviet Pact through the Anglo-Americans diverting key German forces (such as much of the Luftwaffe) and massively subsidising the Soviet war effort.
The nature of the project
Another theme in the book is that the operational choices of Islamists vary far more than their underlying aims. Which puts into context the dramatic tactical shifts the Tunisian Islamist Party Ennahda has engaged in, for example (Pp272-3). In his 1993 piece Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible, Algerian left-wing educator Salah Chouaki, gunned down by Muslim fundamentalists in 1994, wrote:
[Egyptian philosopher Fouad] Zakariya identified and analyzed the following pattern: the Islamists occupy the socio-cultural terrain, then the politico-ideological terrain. They exert a multiform pressure on the society and the state. The latter makes concessions to them, and even ends up trying to outdo them so as not to allow itself to appear less Islamist than the Islamists. Thus, the state introduces Islamism in school, in the cultural realm, in institutions, in different spheres – including the economic one – thinking or pretending to think that it is promoting Islam as a religion. The Islamists profit from all of this, re-investing their gains in all manner of renewed pressures which win them yet more ground, and then they repeat this pattern again, at ever higher levels.
It is very much about a “long march through the institutions“; positively Gramscian indeed. All of which reinforces my point that the jihadis are the Islamic equivalent of the Nazis–a modernising revolt against modernity, adopting the operational techniques and total politics of Leninism for a very different political project; emphasising heroic, warrior virtues (whose appeal Susan Sontag memorably analysed in her Fascinating Fascism essay) in an explicitly atavistic project. Though theirs is a project of master believers rather than a master race. Still, Susan Sontag’s closing comments are remarkably apposite:
Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.
The jihadis are the SS without the tailoring:
the SS seems to be the most perfect incarnation of fascism in its overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards.
Where loading up beheadings and brutality on YouTube replaces uniform aesthetics as the way to make one’s statement about valorising violence. For:
fascism—also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners…the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man [believers] (under the parenthood of leaders).
The cult of the homicidal self-immolation of slaughtering “martyrs” is most certainly a fetishism of courage. When German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen infamously said of the destruction of the Twin Towers that it was:
the greatest work of art ever. That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for ten years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we, composers, are nothing.
And British artist Damien Wise told the BBC that the attacks were:
visually stunning artwork: The thing about 9/11, is that it’s kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually. . . . Of course, it’s visually stunning and you’ve got to hand it to them on some level because they’ve achieved something which nobody would ever have thought possible. . . . So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.
They were vindicating the continuing relevance of Sontag’s analysis.
The ambitions of the Muslim fundamentalists are, however, much more grandiose than those of the Nazis. The Nazis “merely” wanted a Lebensraum empire to the Urals which would be (amongst other “purifications“) Judenfrei. The Muslim fundamentalists are thinking much more global. In the words of the Islamic State’s spokesperson:
“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”
What is the “root cause” of a multi-generational ambition for global domination? Or is salvation-through-seeking-global-acceptance-of-submission-to-the-sovereignty-of-Allah its own reward? Both in this world and the next.
Dilemmas of opposition
Secularists in the Islamic world are often in very difficult positions. Fewer more so than Palestinian secularists, caught between Hamas and Israel (p.325). And the corruption of Fatah.
As an aside, Karima Bennoune manages a lovely demolition of Jerry Falwell:
On the tenth anniversary [of 9/11], I thought a lot about the victims, like Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan priest who was a Fire Department chaplain and died in the lobby of Tower One. Father Mike had administered to AIDS patients and alcoholics and was a fan of Celtic rock band Black 47. Rushing to comfort victims of terror, he became one. Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell said of 9/11 a few days later that the feminists and gays and all who tried to secularise America “helped this happen”. Though he subsequently apologised, Falwell was clearly unable to understand Father Mike’s life or his death (p.265).
Though, in a through-the-looking-glass way, Falwell was right, in that it is a wish to have, and a determination to block, the sorts of social freedoms that Westerners take for granted as experience and aspiration which has so riven the Muslim world. Karima Bennoune is right to wonder why Western liberals, progressives and folk of the left–who are so quick to denounce the politics of Western religious fundamentalism–seem so blind and mute about its (much worse) Muslim equivalents. Leftists of Muslim heritage, such as Fouad Zakaria and Salah Chouaki, can grapple critically with Islamic history:
In each and every case, it is fundamentalism that succeeds in re-orienting the positions that take hold in these spheres in its favor. This is because of the enormous scientific and cultural lag that affects these countries. It is also because the balance of power within religion, as shaped by our history, has erased the brightest pages of our Arabo-Islamic cultural patrimony – those which carry the seeds of rationality and of modernity. This historical dynamic has promoted the domination of the most conservative and obscurantist interpretations.
We have an organisation which closes down schools, shoots faculty teachers…and turns most of the north into an educational wasteland. How can we reach children there? We must first get rid of Boko Haram. (p.266)
Karima Bennoune continues:
Movements like Boko Haram and Al Qaeda are so bent on the destruction of human beings that the only possible response is to abhor them–not the individuals in them but their collective political organisation and what it does. (p.266)
Boko Haram being another viciously murderous organisation operating in a social context free of substantive connections to the Cold War, Western intervention or the Israel-Palestine conflict. None of which ever explains why Muslim fundamentalists mainly kill fellow Muslims, use such recurring techniques of massacre, murder and brutality or engage in recurring forms of social and religious repression. The “root cause” of jihadi terror is Muslim fundamentalism: looking for congenial-to-framings social causes is like looking for the “root cause” of the Holocaust in the unemployment of the early 1930s.
As an aside, the fumbling foreign policy cluelessness of President Obama and his Administration (how is that “reset” with Russia going?: no, actually ISIS is deeply–indeed obsessively–Islamic: as for a jobs program for ISIS, words fail) shows a depressing lack of sense of history. Likely based on a fairly extensive ignorance of it.
Regarding the nonsense about ISIS et al being “not Islamic”, a comment on a typically sensible piece by Julian Sanchez is on point:
Arguing ISIS isn’t Muslim is like arguing the Habsburg or Swedish army in the 30 Years War wasn’t Christian.
Was Abu Bakr [first Caliph] morally wrong to burn that man [Fuja’ah Al-Sulami] alive? Nobody dares to say so. So we are left in this vicious circle, and you can expect more barbarity, because all this barbarity is sacred. It is sacred. This barbarity is wrapped in religion. It is immersed in religion. It is all based on religion. Your mission [as a cleric] is to say that while it is part of our religion, the interpretation is wrong. Do not tell people that Islam has nothing to do with this.
The suggestions of those interviewed by Karima Bennoune (300 people in 30 countries) about what to do about Muslim fundamentalism are many and varied (p.332). What Karima Bennoune herself seeks is popular mobilisation against Muslim fundamentalism and an empowering of civil society (Pp 332-3). Both their violence and their ideology need to be opposed:
there can be no successful strategy to combat terrorism that does not involve a commitment to ending the relentless fundamentalist attacks on civilians in Muslim majority contexts…
…the problem is also the discriminatory and hateful ideology that underlies it, the yeast that makes its beer. (p.336).
There are no useful “moderate” Islamist allies or partners for peace. There is:
a need to sometimes be uncompromising in facing off with fundamentalism. The attempts by some governments, by some academics, by some in civil society, and even by some Western feminists to accommodate some Muslim fundamentalist views about things like equality and the role of religion in public life help advance Islamist goals and undermine the people whose efforts are chronicled in this book (p.341).
Karima Bennoune cites Salah Chouaki, the aforementioned Algerian left-wing educator gunned down by Muslim fundamentalists in 1994, who wrote in his 1993 article Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible:
There is an unresolvable contradiction between support for the idea of a modern society and the belief…that it is possible to ‘domesticate’ the totalitarian monster of fundamentalism. …
The best way to defend Islam is to put it out of the reach of all political manipulation. The best way to defend the modern state is to put it out of the reach of all exploitation of religion for political ends. (p.341)
As Karima Bennoune writes:
The world is messy and defies simple paradigms. That is what the fundamentalists cannot tolerate, but their opponents must. (p.312)
But they are master belief totalitarians; which it is why it is necessary for decent folk to see them for what they are and revile their entire awful project. Reading Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is an excellent step in intellectual hygiene and celebrating a certain basic moral decency.