Finding a Productive Western Left in the Fight Against ISIS, Advocate, 21/02/2015

Ordinary Western people are in a weird position today. Most middle and lower class people today struggle for success. Most of us aim for a relatively dignified life, stuck in an economic system that makes growing demands on us, which leads so many of us to live our lives on credit. 

Our governments’ economic policies tend increasingly to let working people’s salaries stagnate in the face of overall growth in productivity. The rich grow richer, and the rest struggle to maintain the same standards of the previous generation. This is the central political issue of my generation of Western people, the rallying cry of the Occupy movement whose political reverberations are still being felt, and will continue for decades.

But these problems are nothing compared to the horrors people face in the definitive wars of our generation. These include violent conflicts in Sudan, Mali, the Congo, and Kenya over political power and oil and mineral wealth. I refer to Vladimir Putin’s Great Game style imperial games in Ukraine and other bordering countries. I also think of the Islamist uprisings in Nigeria and Pakistan. 

From an RT report of ISIS mass murders in Tikrit.
The most terrifying political violence on Earth to me is the genocidal wave of Islamic State, a Millenarian movement whose goal is to immolate the Middle East, kill hundreds of millions of people, and bring about Allah’s Earth-destroying fire.

I read with rapt attention Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlantic exploring the theological foundations of Islamic State as a social enterprise. It seems to have been the most read piece of journalism on this movement, and captures much of what mainstream discourse has so far ignored. The movement is, in Wood’s words, a cult with an army of hundreds of thousands, and a military arsenal raided (or given) from the region’s most brutal dictators, forged in the shameful moral wasteland of Camp Bucca, where the United States army brutally tortured captured anti-occupation militants in Iraq. Wood's analogy is that it as if Jim Jones or David Koresh actually had the firepower and global support to raze a continent to the ground.

Westerners have thought about Al Qaeda as the paradigm of Islamic fundamentalist terror movements for so long (and the social trauma of Sept 11 was so scarring) that it’s hard for us to see how a similarly inspired movement could act differently. Their eye isn’t on the West primarily, but on building a doctrinaire, prophetic Islam on Earth, a society that strictly enforces a comprehensive social morality on the model of Mohammad’s era, as well as providing for all the physical and spiritual needs of its people. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is supposed to become a society of perfect spiritual and social conformity in which there is no poverty, homelessness, or suffering that is not a punishment for crime or apostasy.

Islamic State is of a piece with the Edenic dreams of fundamentalist Christians who work to enforce total conformity to their religious and social beliefs, while hastening the End of Days and Christ’s Earthly dominion. Al-Baghdadi and his followers simply admit that their apocalypse is built on the slaughter of millions.

It is, to anyone used to thinking from anything resembling a secular viewpoint, really fucking weird.

One thoughtful critic of Wood’s piece forcefully points out his central conceptual error in understanding Islamic State. Wood talks to a single scholarly expert on Islamic prophetic extremism, and most of his reporting speaks with dedicated adherents to Al-Baghdadi’s goal to build an ideal totalitarian Islamic state on the genocide or enslavement of all those not similarly devoted.

Journalist Murtaza Hussain.
Murtaza Hussain is right to describe Al-Baghdadi’s movement as heresy. All the institutional scholarly institutes of Islam agree that Baghdadi’s movement is a perversion of Islam. His interest in writing his scathing critique of Wood’s piece is clear: in representing the Islamic State movement as a distilled, hyper-extreme essence of Islam more pure than the religion’s actual practice has ever actually been, he lends al-Baghdadi and his followers a legitimacy to represent Islam to non-Muslims that they don’t deserve.

Here’s where I feel awkward as a Western person who is struggling to work out how best to strive against the political and social injustices of my own country. I’m descended from a wide culture that has been responsible for terrifying injustices and violence on the rest of the world through centuries of colonial enterprise. Nearly everyone in the West* has benefited from colonial military-economic exploitation of others, through our having such a higher average standard of living.

* The exceptions are truly destitute people like the homeless of Toronto who have frozen to death on the street this winter, abandoned by everyone to die in worse conditions than we permit to animals and sometimes even treated with the contempt too many of us give to the poor.

But Western people are still fighting struggles of their own against the growth of oligarchy in our power structures. And too many dissident Westerners let this struggle against oligarchy misdirect our energies. It’s how earnest people of the Western left defend Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin, because they fight the West, and these useful idiot leftists associate the West with an immutable colonialism. 

The Caliph speaks for no one.
The Western Idiot Leftists are just as essentialist in their political thinking as any bigot. I want to figure out how to oppose the injustices happening in other cultures without having to absolutely vilify my own culture. Doing so targets my culture, Western culture, with the same essentialism that Wood’s Atlantic article applies to Muslim cultures when he situates Islamic State as the purest Islam. 

Muslim culture is as diverse, fragmented, and filled with as many singularities as its people. Actually more, because further articulations of Islam emerge from the relations of Muslims living their cultures together. Wood wrote in a way that left his article vulnerable to Hussain’s valid objection. Islam, like any human cultural phenomenon, has no essence. Those who already hate Islam and Muslims (people like Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and countless other bigots around the world) will read Wood’s article and take Al-Baghdadi’s Islam as the essence of Muslim culture. And they will use that belief as further bedrock for their bigotry and hatred.

What constitutes the drive to terror of Islamic State is that its adherents themselves also believe that their genocidal movement is the essence of Islam, just like the bigots of the West.

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