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The “refugee” koan

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — considering both sides, while tilting one way or the other ]

I call it a koan because you can flip it — there are two sides to it, and very possibly a serrated edge that it can balance on, foiling your best efforts to come up with a yes-no answer:

On the one side, Tsarnaev:

Not a Christian, BTW..


Okay, before the second shoe drops…

Consider this, from Benjamin Wittes, In Defense of Refugees today on Lawfare:

It is worth reflecting at least briefly on the security risks of turning our backs on hundreds of thousands of helpless people fleeing some combination of ISIS and Assad. Imagine teeming refugee camps in which everyone knows that America has abandoned them. Imagine the conspiracy theories that will be rife in those camps. Imagine the terrorist groups that will recruit from them and the righteous case they will make about how, for all its talk, the United States left Syria to burn and Syrians to live in squalor in wretched camps in neighboring countries. I don’t know if this situation is more dangerous, less dangerous, or about as dangerous as the situation in which we admit a goodly number of refugees, help resettle others, and run some risk—which we endeavor to mitigate — that we might admit some bad guys. But this is not a situation in which all of the risk is stacked on the side of doing good, while turning away is the safe option. There is risk whatever we do or don’t do.

Most profoundly, there is risk associated with saying loudly and unapologetically that we don’t care what happens to hundreds of thousands of innocent people — or that we care if they’re Christian but not if they’re Muslim, or that we care but we’ll keep them out anyway if there’s even a fraction of a percent chance they are not what they claim to be. They hear us when we say these things. And they will see what we do. And those things too have security consequences.

And, from a very different area of the political spectrum, this:

There’s a reason that hospitality is actually a religious virtue and not just a thing that nice people do: it is sacrificial. Real hospitality involves risk, an opening of the door to the unknown other. There is a reason it is so important in the Biblical narratives, which were an ancient people’s attempt to work out what they thought God required of them in order to be the people of God. Hospitality isn’t just vacuuming and putting out appetizers and a smile — it’s about saying, “Oh holy Lord, I hope these people don’t kill me or rape my daughters, but our human society relies on these acts of feeding and sheltering each other, so I must be brave and unlock the door.” Scary stuff. Big stuff. Ancient and timeless stuff. “You shall welcome the stranger.”

Now: is that wisdom, or foolishness?


Aha, the second shoe..

Besides Tsarnaev, who else do we know who came here as a refugee?

albert einstein non christian refugee

Einstein, no less.

And Einstein was not a Christian either, FWIW.

Apocalypse soon from Lapido, McCants from Sources & Methods

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — my latest for LapidoMedia gives Sunni, Shia background, & importantly the shift from Zarqawi to Baghdadi — followed by a chaser from Will McCants ]

My latest from Lapido, opening paras:

TO SENIOR military officers, intelligence analysts and policy-makers, blood and guts are more real than fire and brimstone.

To the followers of ISIS – which now calls itself the Islamic State – however, not only do the concepts of hell fire and the gardens of paradise seem real, the hope of heaven and fear of hell are powerful recruiting tools, morale boosters and motivating forces.

While the battlefield is real to them, to lose one’s life on that battlefield is viewed as victory, and as martyrdom rewarded with a painless death, avoidance of Judgment Day and a direct passage to paradise.

And that vivid expectation of paradise is accompanied by a sense that in any case, ‘the end is nigh’.

That is why the ‘caliphate’ established by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has named its English-language magazine after the town of Dabiq.

Indeed, Dabiq’s first issue opens with a quote from Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi, the brutal founder of the group that became the Islamic State:

‘The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.’

The town of Dabiq is obscure enough that you won’t find it indexed in David Cook’s Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature, nor in French diplomat-scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam.

Will McCants, in his book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State due out later this month, quotes a leader of the Syrian opposition as saying, ‘Dabiq is not important militarily.’

And yet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, like Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi before him, makes it a centrepiece of his strategy and propaganda.

Read the whole thing on the LapidoMedia site


Will McCants gave a useful response in his Sources & Methods podcast interview yesterday, at the 35.00 mark — answering a question about apocalypticism in IS:

I think it’s really important in terms of attracting foreign fighters from the west. If you think about what gets a foreigner motivated to leave their home and travel to an insanely violent conflict zone, there are few things that might motivate people more than the belief that the end times are right around the corner. So I see a lot of that apocalyptic propaganda from the Islamic State really directed towards foreign fighters. But also you know in the Middle East, after the Iraq war in 2003, apocalypticism began to get a lot more currency than it used to have. You know, before the war, apocalypticism among Sunnis was really kind of a fringe subject as compared to the Shia, for whom it’s been an important topic for centuries – for modern Sunnis, they kind of looked down on it, that’s something that the Shia speculate on, but that’s not really our bag. The US invasion of Iraq really changed the ways that Sunni’s thought about the end times. And then with the Arab Spring coming, and all the political turmoil that followed in its wake, it’s given an apocalyptic framework far more currency than it ever had as a way to explain political upheaval in the region.

Listen to the whole thing at Sources and Methods.

We’re a legacy industry in a world of start-up competitors

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]

chautauqua haqqani daveed


From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”

I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:

Amb. Haqqani:

None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.

You’ll see how neatly this fits with my recent post on borders, No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.

Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..


If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.

Daveed G-R:

In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.

Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.


The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us

a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities

— down to our own times.

Amb. Haqqani:

What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.

The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:

Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.

Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.


Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.

Daveed G-R:

The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.

And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.


Amb. Haqqani:

The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.

This makes a nice DoubleQuote with Gabriel Marcel‘s more general aphorism:

Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.


Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..

Daveed G-R:

Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?

He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:

Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.

— and had the final, pointed word:

We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.


Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:

No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

Monday, August 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — borders and distinctions from Trump to Revelation, plus one ]

Donald Trump‘s “three core principles of real immigration reform”:

1. A nation without borders is not a nation.


G Spencer-Brown wrote of his book. Laws of Form, “The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart” — or as Heinz Von Foerster rephrased him, “Draw a distinction and a universe comes into being”. Indeed, his book opens with the words:

We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction.

He writes:

Distinction is perfect continence.

That is to say, a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example in a plane a circle draws a distinction.

Similarly, Gregory Bateson defines an idea as “A difference or distinction or news of differences”.


Borders are both physical and metaphysical: the border between the physical and the metaphysical passes through human beings, who are themselves both metaphysical and physical.

Borders may thus be heeded or ignored.

Smugglers don’t necessarily ignore them, they may take them very seriously, as do those who police them. Birds, however, ignore them, fishes, lizards, languages..

There are would-be states that straddle national borders, as the Basque peoples straddle the border between France and Spain:

Basque France Spain 600

There are also would-be states that literally erase national borders, as in the case of IS bulldozing thw border between Iraq and Syria:

Iraq Syria Border 600

Thus while borders may be tidy in separating one from a second, they are also untidy in straddling them, neither one nor two, yet (like Janus) both.. They are, in short, thresholds, limina. And so wahat we know of liminality applies to them. I have discussed tthis previosuly on Zenpundit in Liminality II: the serious part — suffice it to say here that limiality is a condition that exacerbates, intensifies.


The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, quotes Leviticus 19.19:

You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.

Why these disjunctions? Dougles notes the repeated refrain in just such contexts:

Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy

and points out that Ronald Knox correctly — if “rather thinly” — translates this:

I am set apart and you must be set apart like me

She then tells us:

Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order.

noting that:

The word ‘perversion’ is a significant mistranslation of the rare Hebrew word tebhel, which has as its meaning mixing or confusion.

and concludes

ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.


The upper image, below, is taken from my recent post on Matrioshka cartography, and waas taken in turn from Say goodbye to the weirdest border dispute in the world in the Washington on August 1st..

SPEC DQ maps

… while the lower image is from Welcome to Liberland, the World’s Newest Country (Maybe) in the New York Times Magazine, dated Aug 11


Lydia Kiesling, in her post Letter of Recommendation: Uzbek in the NYT magazine today, writes:

National borders can be risibly at odds with reality, especially in Central Asia, where Turks, Mongols, Persians and others roved and mingled, where ‘‘Uzbek’’ was, for a time, more of a descriptive antonym of ‘‘Tajik’’ — no­­madic versus settled — than an ethnic classification.

And why not?

They are, after all, distinctions drawn in the mind, lines drawn on paper. Thus the Sykes-Picot map:

Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916 600

Sykes was quite clear about the “lines dorawn on paper” part. He is reported to have said:

I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk

The map, in other words, is not the territory: the map is a map.

To take another instance of importance in today’s world, the Durand Line:

Durand_Line_Border_Between_Afghanistan_And_Pakistan 600

Not only is the map not the territory in this case — it can be seen, as one-time Afghan president Hamid Karzai said, as “a line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers” — Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Sympathies which exist across borders can be potent forces for their dissolution. In a poem titled “Their Eyes Confer Fire” written in the 1980s about Basque country, I wrote

We have
little time,
Marie explained,
for those
who, because
it is hard
to draw
across actual
carve up
this earth on

France, Spain:
we disdain
boundaries, borders,
and border guards.

A canny reader noted that the entire poem could be read not as a description of the Basques as they exist in reality, but as a paean to the corpus callosum joining the two hemispheres of the brain — and thus the two modes of cognition of which I so recently wrote.


Returning to Lieberland, or Gornja Siga as the locals call it, we learn:

Gornja Siga has come, over the last few months, to assume an outsize role in the imagination of many — not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East and in the United States. Its mere existence as a land unburdened by deed or ruler has become cause for great jubilation. There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation. All the most recent states — South Sudan, East Timor, Eritrea — were carved from existing sovereignties in the wake of bitter civil wars. Here, by contrast, is a truly empty parcel. What novel society might be accomplished in a place like this, with no national claim or tenant?

Consider one sentence alone as the key to that “outsize role in the imagination”:

There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation.

The apocalyptic yearning here and its kinship with the Amrican dream are hard to miss — it is like a conflation of Matthew 5.14:

A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

with Revelation 21.1-2:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.



Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

Hunger for Fascism

Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

[….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

“I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

[….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

“Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

Read the whole thing here.

The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

“I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

This is a great question.

The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.


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