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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

During my last trip to the US in 2018, I noticed that the current affairs sections of almost all major book stores in the American cities that I visited carried quite a few titles on ‘white power populism.’ Most of these books were alarming in their content and tone. This was a stark contrast to what one often found on the same shelves some five years ago. Most of them used to be stacked with books on ‘Islamic’ fundamentalism and terrorism. The contents of these books too had been largely alarming in nature, written as warnings about a phenomenon which was already tearing many Muslim countries apart and threatening Western societies.

After facing numerous terrorist attacks, death tolls and socio-political fissures triggered by extremist assaults on civilians and security personnel, most Muslim countries eventually came round to challenge the grave existentialist threat and attacks posed by extremists. These states did this through some unprecedented military operations and related political and judicial manoeuvres. But whereas the situation in the most affected countries — such as Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Algeria — was gradually brought under control and major extremist outfits were taken out, the situation in other affected countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria and, to a certain extent, Mauritania, is still somewhat precarious.

In his 1992 book, The Failure of Political Islam, the French political scientist and author Olivier Roy writes that the more coherent ideologies formed from the 1940s onwards and derived from the writings of radical Islamic scholars such as Rashid Rida, Hassan Al-Banna, Abul Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Ruholla Khomeini and Hasan Al-Tarabi all peaked in the late 1970s and across the 1980s.

The West can learn a thing or two from how Muslim societies tackled — or didn’t tackle — their own brand of nihilism

They contributed in the engineering of what came to be known as ‘political Islam’, which advocated the formation of ‘Islamic states’ through both conventional as well as revolutionary political means. But, according to Roy, as this strand of political Islam reached a crescendo — especially during the ‘Afghan jihad’ against Soviet forces in Afghanistan — there was also its fragmentation and eventual decline. Roy writes that, after the Soviet forces were forced to pull out of Afghanistan, emboldened ‘Islamists’ who had fought in Afghanistan then attempted to create ‘Islamic’ revolutions in their own countries.

As the state in their respective countries pushed back, however, the Islamists retaliated with violence through terrorism. Roy writes that, from being a coherently defined ideology, political Islam took a more anarchic and even nihilistic turn. Roy predicted that this force would burn out in its own fire and fury. Interestingly, He was writing this in 1992, nine years before the tragic 9/11 attacks in New York. But if we trace the rise and relative decline of extremist terror in countries such as Pakistan, Algeria, Turkey and Egypt, we can see much of Roy’s thesis coming true.

The outfits behind extremist terror in these countries were entirely nihilistic. They enforced their presence through three main stratagems: (1) seeding fear through extreme terror; (2) using various criminal activities to financially supplement themselves; and (3) manipulating non-militant personnel in the media, religious circles and even within the state and government so that they could rationalise this terror in the mainstream as an outcome of economic issues and ‘lack of Islam’ in the workings of the state.

But as German academic Markus Daechsel writes in his book The Politics of Self-Expression, the post-9/11 terror groups had lost interest in the theory of 20th century political Islam and were more interested in filling a personal emotional void; even though they explained their acts (and their nihilistic violence) as a global war against ‘infidels.’ Indeed, once they began to become engulfed by their own fires and nihilistic impulses, the state moved in to push them out.

It is remarkable how similar the trajectories of white power populism and the terrorism that it is inspiring, and of ‘Islamic’ extremism are. The narratives of ‘Islamic’ extremists are a combination of a superiority complex derived from an imagined (and largely ahistorical) Utopian past, and a besieged mindset — which explains the Muslims as victims of Western modernity and immorality. The narratives used by white supremacists, too, hark back to a past in which violent and destructive events, such as slavery in the US, apartheid in South Africa and rise of Nazism in Germany, are seen as Utopian epochs which were overthrown by the Jews, liberals and communists. The supremacists believe this status quo was now being maintained by allowing non-white immigrants to settle on ‘white lands.’ So this narrative too combines a mythical and Utopian memory of a past with a sense of modern-day victimhood.

Recently, many media and political commentators in the US have been urging their government (and those in various European countries) to start treating violence by individual or collective white supremacists just as they have been doing the violence coming from ‘jihadists.’ Elena Pokalova, a professor of international security studies, writes in Foreign Policy in Focus (November 2, 2018) that white far-right radicalisation needed to be addressed at the same level as Islamist radicalisation. In a 2018 article for the New York Times, author and socio-political commentator Janet Reitman writes that, despite the rising number of hate crimes and groups in the US, the country’s law-enforcement agencies failed to detect their rise and influence. She writes that this allowed the proliferation of extreme white supremacist ideas and related violence.

It can be said that the stage this strand of extremism is in the West (or the stage Hindu extremism is in India) is what ‘jihadist’ extremism was in Pakistan some 15 years ago. It’s a confusing stage in which many sections of society and even the intelligentsia are willing to buy into the victimhood claims of the extremist groups and even act as their apologists. As a result, the state and society spiral down in a flux of confusion and inaction, especially when politicians and influencers — who were once on the fringes of society — begin to cultivate and organise the growing extremist sentiments as a constituency.

Indeed, as Olivier Roy predicted, extreme ideas and groups eventually get engulfed by their own fires. But western countries now facing the spectre of white far-right violence should not wait to address the problem. Before extremist ideas burn out, they leave behind a trail of death and destruction. Because, remember, before the state and government of Pakistan finally decided to act against major terror groups, over 70,000 Pakistanis had already been killed in the nihilistic flames of the extremists.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 24th, 2019