GIVEN President Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, imposed right at the start of his presidency, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many Pakistanis believe his administration was always hostile to Islam.
But in War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Far Right, US academic Benjamin Teitelbaum reveals that some of ideologues around Trump, including Steve Bannon, have unexpected views about non-Christian faiths, including Islam. Teitelbaum conducted 20 hours of interviews with Bannon in the course of which he asked him if he would ever consider becoming a practicing Sufi. Bannon replied hesitantly: “[I]t depends on where your journey takes you… in perfecting your being, which to me is the journey.”
Bannon, it turns out, is very familiar with the Traditionalist school of thought. Traditionalists mourn the predominance of reason over religion. They favour spirituality over materialism and ancient truths over progress. The source of many of these ideas was a French Muslim convert, Rene Guenon, who died as Abd al-Wahid Yahya in Cairo in 1951. Guenon rejected the idea of continual progress in favour of a belief, drawn from Hinduism, in cycles. He believed human history passes through a golden age followed by silver, bronze and dark ages before returning to a virtuous, theocratic golden age in which society is organised hierarchically with priests at the top followed by warriors, merchants and slaves, in that order. Today, Traditionalists believe most people are in a state of slavehood in which phenomena such as democratisation, feminism, the establishment, liberals, the European Union, socialism and capitalism have flattened the hierarchies and sucked society dry of spiritualism, thereby reducing people to being nothing more than consumers.
To understand why Catholic-raised Bannon and others like him think there might be something to learn from Islam, it is necessary to understand where Traditionalism can lead them. While Guenon embraced Islam, he saw it as just one path to understand the original core religion — the Tradition — which for the most part has been lost, but fragments of which can still be glimpsed in many of the world’s great faiths and worship practices. Think of something akin to ‘the Force’ in Star Wars. Traditionalists have also sought truths in Buddhism, Hinduism and even the occult.
Until recently, Traditionalism was an obscure set of beliefs.
Some American Traditionalists believe that the conservative US heartland has held onto spiritual values long lost by those other Americans consumed by materialism, and that to unleash the spiritual potential of these members of the working class (or is that the white working class?) it is necessary to bring down society as it is currently organised. As Lenin argued, destruction will lead to reconstruction or emancipation. But none of this is to say that American Christianity is the only repository of virtuous values: paths to enlightenment can be found elsewhere. To that extent Traditionalism can be interpreted as encouraging religious tolerance. But others have gone in very different directions, relying on Traditionalist thought to underpin white supremacism and fascistic ideas in which warriors are celebrated and the hierarchy Traditionalists favour is determined by skin colour and gender.
Until recently, Traditionalism was an obscure set of beliefs restricted to a few fringe voices on the far right. Then suddenly Traditionalists, or at least those familiar with and interested in its ideas, found themselves in positions of power. Besides Steve Bannon in the US, there was Putin adviser Aleksandr Dugin, a Rasputin-like figure whose Russian nationalism is so extreme he was banned from the US after allegedly calling for genocide in Ukraine. With a background in exotic mysticism, he created his National Bolshevik Party to draw on both fascism and communism to oppose the US, and has apparently visited Pakistan in search of anti-American allies. In Brazil, there is Olavo de Carvalho, a one-time communist turned adviser to President Jair Bolsonaro. De Carvalho set up what was claimed to be a branch of Sufism in Brazil, modelled on a Traditionalist-inspired, scandal-prone community or cult in Bloomington, Indiana. His advice to Bolsonaro is to break Brazil’s links with China which some Traditionalists see not only as inherently hostile to the Judeo-Christian West but also as an emerging globalising force, seeking to inherit rather than overturn the US role in the world.
So next time you see a gora at a Sufi ceremony, just think: he or she may be a curious UN employee or Western journalist just taking a look. They could be the latest travellers on the hippy trail of the ’60s, heading East in search of enlightenment. But it is also just possible that they are alt-right Traditionalists, equally at home at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville as they are at a Sufi shrine in South Asia.
The writer is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2021