Saturday, February 21, 2015

On totalitarianism

This article by Graeme Wood has been shared widely. It isn't surprising that it has been. It is a clear explanation of the theology of Islamic State. It is long, but is worth reading in full. It is also a critique of the way that journalists and writers have understood Islamism as being something other than religious. That it really is Islamic should be obvious. Equally obvious is that it is unrepresentative of what Islam has become in the modern world. There is a trap here that the article comes close to falling into. It may rubbish the claim that Islamic State is somehow un-Islamic, quoting Bernard Haykel that such views are "embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion," but it doesn't say explicitly that ISIS' fundamentalist views are atypical of the faith as a whole and the piece seems to me to come too close to an essentialist view of Islam as violent and oppressive.

It may be a cliché to say that Islam is a religion of peace, but it is certainly true for many of its adherents, some of whom are willing to take action to prove it. Time is a great editor and modernity has discretely removed much of the psychotically bonkers bits from the sacred texts of all religions, rendering them, in the words of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, mostly harmless (the qualifier is very necessary). ISIS reject modernity to produce something that is unexpurgated and wholly harmful. Most Muslims are horrified, not least because they are becoming targets of hatred from all sides and picking up the blame for something that they had long rejected. However, Islamism's air of authenticity, its politicisation of piety and its spirit of religious revivalism are an important part of its appeal, especially to a generation looking for radical alternatives. I am anything but an expert, but it seems to me to be a challenge to the liberalisation of Islam and, on a secular level, a grab for power.

Religious movements are difficult for secular minds to understand, myself included. And so we have mentally secularised Islamism in two main ways. The first is by suggesting that it is responsive. Apologists portray it as a retort to western imperialism, liberals that it expresses a hatred and even envy of enlightenment values. The former is contemptible, the latter is true though superficial. The second way is by describing it as an interaction between religious traditions and European political movements. The term Islamofascism is one way of rendering it comprehensible to a secular mind, as is Paul Berman's discussion of the history of death cults in Terror and Liberalism. There is much more sense in this. Just as interaction with liberal societies has been a stimulus for reform, it wouldn't be surprising if authoritarian and irrational western ideas have also influenced Islamic political movements. Yet, I am not comfortable with either as a complete explanation and Wood's article rejects them in terms of understanding ISIS. So, what if this form of jihadi radicalism has nothing to do with the west? How then do we understand it? Well, we can simply take it on its own terms and assume that they mean what they say. That is common sense, even if it leaves us baffled, but we can also use totalitarian theory.

Totalitarianism is one of those many terms that are thrown about as accusations without paying much attention to what they actually mean. It has been applied so widely as to render it meaningless and it has been used to conflate very different regimes as being essentially the same. I think we need to be much more precise. Seen as a form of government, Friedrich and Brzezinski's definition of totalitarianism as a six point syndrome (a single ideology; a single mass party; the use of terror; a monopoly of force; a monopoly of the means of communication; central control of the economy) has been the basis of most post-1945 discussion. Though useful, I find it limited. It is firmly secular and historically specific. It tells us nothing about the nature of different totalitarianisms. I don't think totalitarianism is solely a form of government, instead I would argue that it is an intellectual pathology and that the key to understanding it is ideology.

Totalitarianism has emerged on both the right and the left and I want to suggest that these ideologies can be categorised into four ideal types: secular, theocratic, modernist and traditionalist. They can either be inspired by science - or more usually pseudoscience - or by religious revelation. They can look forward to a new world remade or backwards to an idealised version of the past. These categories aren't enough though. I would add three additional defining features, which, when all are present together, make for a totalitarian ideology.

The first is eschatology. This is a belief that there is a final, absolute destiny for humanity. It is a much stronger concept than utopianism. There is plenty of utopian thought that is crazy and potentially dangerous, but utopianism is mainly speculative rather than prescriptive. It can be dreaming about a better world that may just be possible. And without the dreamers, would we ever progress? I doubt it. No, totalitarians are not sentimental dreamers, they know where we are heading and brook no compromise or deviation. They are ruthless because they are dictated to by destiny.

Secondly, totalitarian ideologies assert the importance of human agency to bring about radical change. They do not think that all people have to do is sit back and wait for some historical process to work itself out or for an act of divine intervention. People are obliged to take action, to struggle and sacrifice, otherwise humanity will remain sunk in the squalor of mediocrity. It is demanding and heroic. As such, totalitarianism is revolutionary.

And lastly, a totalitarian ideology is clear that this final goal, this state of human perfection, can only be realised through the elimination of certain categories of unworthy or corrupting people. Terror is not just an instrumental tactic for holding on to power, it fulfils our destiny. Totalitarianism is inherently genocidal.

Islamic State fits these definitions. It is a theocratic and traditionalist totalitarian movement seeking to return to the purity of 7th century Islam. It calls the faithful to action and martyrdom and condemns to death those who do not answer the call. It wishes to purify the earth through the slaughter of unbelievers. It isn't secular in any way. It isn't fascist. It is millenarian, an ecstatic religious uprising of the type that has occurred and reoccurred throughout history. And if we want to understand it, perhaps we could do worse than to dust off our copies of Norman Cohn. Countering it is another matter altogether.


Bob-B said...

Cohn is very relevant. It would be good if more young Muslims were familiar with the events it describes.

George S said...

Sounds good to me, Peter. The complex part of the eschatological package is how far it is a)morally puritanical b)theologically literalist and c)specifically Islamic.

I'd make a distinction between a) and b) as one may be temperamentally puritan without the theological framework of (b)though the two often go together.

As concerns (c) IS is always quoting the quran and the hadiths, pretty accurately, as I am being told by those who say they know.

Islamism as the reaction to the Modernist stage of the Enlightenment makes sense.

The trouble is that it isn't only the more ignorant parts of the secular West that talk loosely about Islam as such - the Islamists do too.

unaha-closp said...

You are almost there, but Islamism of the type we are seeing is not a spontaneous event. The next question is why now?

What is religion and why? Marx - Religion is the opiate of the people. Religion as merely a tool, can be used to suppress dissent.

The state of Saudi Arabia, which is an extremely wealthy religious theology, uses a purified Islamic religion to maintain its power and wealth. Internal to Saudi Arabia this Islam keeps the people united and quiescent, the oil wealth of the state doles out funds to keep the people well fed.

External to Saudi Arabia however the same religion is without the crutch of a large state dole. The followers are united, but also agitated inevitably blaming impurity of others for their lack of wealth. This is the Islamism we see today.

Countering Islamism is simple, get Saudi Arabia to reform. And since that is impossible we have to wait 60 years for the oil to run out.