The fear of Islamism and the terror of the state

Peter Hill on the ‘power of nightmares’ from Syria to India and the UK.

Photo: via Twitter @kafrev #Syria #Kafranbel
Photo: via Twitter @kafrev #Syria #Kafranbel

The ‘war on terror’ has seen a revival since the rise of ISIS, aka Da’esh, in Iraq and Syria, and now beyond. Like the original ‘war on terror’ against al-Qaeda several years ago, it has also provided a pretext for authoritarian crackdowns in many countries. These operations of state control go far beyond their named purpose of addressing Islamist terrorism.  Across the world, this phenomenon takes on similar forms. The threat of violent Islamist insurgencies or attacks, above all by ISIS and its offshoots is extended to cover other, non-violent forms of Islamism; and then a range of other, non-Islamist, opposition or suspect groups are swept up in the attack. All of these enemies of the state can now be included, by insinuation or direct accusation, in the general hue and cry against Islamist terrorism. We can see this repeated in case after case, wherever the notion of the ‘war on terror’ has political purchase.

We may give a few examples, firstly from the Middle East. In Syria, President Assad has for years been proclaiming his role in fighting terrorism. He was doing so long before the rise of ISIS or any other armed insurgency. From the start of the revolutionary and initially peaceful uprisings in early 2011, his regime has been concerned (a) to label any genuine opposition ‘terrorist’, (b) to drive them by sheer repressive force into violent rather than non-violent courses, and, very probably (c) to encourage the most reactionary Islamist groups among the opposition – meaning ISIS – in order to eclipse other opposition forces which were harder to label as ‘Islamist terrorists’. This has led to a situation where Assad’s brutal military regime – despite its devastation of the country and its use of chemical weapons – is de facto recognised by the ‘international community’ as a necessary bulwark against ISIS.

From Syria we pass south to Egypt. When General Abdelfattah al-Sisi seized power in summer 2013, in what the US State Department still coyly refrains from referring to as a military coup, Assad of Syria offered his congratulations: this was “the fall of what is called political Islam”, he said, as his state media showed footage of the anti-Morsi demonstrations.  Assad was right to suggest a similarity between Sisi’s regime and his own. Practically the entire leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood – until summer 2013 the elected government of Egypt – is now in jail. In a series of absurd show trials they and others have been condemned to long prison sentences or death; Morsi, who still claims to be the legitimate President of Egypt, may well be hanged, as others already have been – which may push some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters to turn to violence.  Morsi has been accused of collaboration with both Hamas and Hezbollah in the Wadi al-Natrun prison break. It illustrates how flexible such labelling is that while Hezbollah is an ally of Assad, its ‘terrorist’ reputation can be used by Sisi to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian regime’s fight against ‘terrorism’ is used as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on anyone – Islamist, secularist, liberal, socialist – who dares to offer open opposition. The recent rise in intensity of the genuine armed insurgency in the Sinai, and its creation of links with ISIS, has further strengthened the hand of the government. A recent statement from the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists describes its effect, as ‘closing the nation’s ranks’: many of those liberals and leftists who previously did not support Sisi’s regime, taking ‘a half-way position, opposing with equal vehemence the counter-revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood’, have now

“lost whatever superficial neutrality they claimed […], declaring “bravely” for closing the nation’s ranks as we are already in a state of war. They repeat the demagoguery of the regime’s mouthpieces, weeping over the soldiers killed in Sinai at the hands of treacherous “religious fascism” while not uttering a word over the murder of peaceful protesters after Eid prayers.”

(This statement provoked some angry responses, to which the Revolutionary Socialists issued this calm reply.)

So much for Egypt: what of Turkey, widely offered a couple of years ago as a model for democratic reform, with its ‘moderate Islamist’ President Erdogan? Here, an attack – very probably by ISIS – on a group of largely Kurdish socialist activists in a border town near Kobane has been used as a pretext for a crackdown, not just or even mainly on Islamist ‘extremists’, but on the Kurds and the left! As a recent OpenDemocracy piece by Evren Balta states: “In just two days, alongside the operations against the PKK and ISIS, 590 people across Turkey have been detained. Most of the detainees are not ISIS members but leftist and Kurdish activists. Many left and Kurdish websites are also under a ban.” Simultaneously, “pro-government media have begun to direct their propaganda against the HDP, accusing the party of promoting a terrorist agenda.” The state’s agenda, meanwhile, is clear:

“the AKP government has decided to revive Turkey’s conservative/nationalist voters’ longstanding animosity towards the Kurds alongside responding to the international distaste for ISIS […]. This, AKP hopes will please Turkey’s international allies and help the AKP increase its votes in any possible early election.”

There is, to be sure, one interesting difference with this Turkish example: Erdogan is a kind of ‘moderate Islamist’ himself. His strategy is therefore not so much to blur the lines between ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ Islamists, but to displace the sense of threat felt against ISIS onto Kurdish and leftist groups. Otherwise the similarities to the strategies of Sisi and Assad are clear. And the conclusion, from these three cases, seems obvious, though it is one the media is generally reluctant to draw. The contemporary authoritarian leader in the Middle East would much rather face Islamist armed insurgency or terrorism than a peaceful, democratic opposition, Islamist or otherwise. No such leader, in recent years, has been brought down by an Islamist insurgency without Western support (and no ISIS-style insurgency is going to have the support of the West). But two – Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt – were brought down in the space of a few weeks in 2011 by peaceful democratic uprisings, while others – in Bahrain and Yemen – were severely threatened. And this is not to speak of the movements elsewhere – in Syria, the Gulf, Morocco, with the Gezi Park protests in Turkey – which looked as if they might offer a similar challenge.

Hence the existence of ISIS and its like arguably offer less of a threat to these authoritarian rulers than an opportunity. In the last resort they know that the ‘international community’ will step in to save them if an ISIS-style movement becomes genuinely threatening. In the meantime, its presence can be used to justify the repression of movements which, if allowed to grow, might represent a far more serious problem: widespread, peaceful, popular protests, or democratic electoral challenges, which, if they suppressed them by force, would attract the odium of world opinion. As it is, world opinion can be diverted – by pointing at the threat of ISIS – and at home, the battle can be forced from the terrain of open debate, peaceful protest, and electoral competition, onto a ground that suits them far better: that of media-induced frenzy and fear, censorship, media blackouts, mass arrests. ‘The strongest and most dangerous form of terrorism’, the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists remind us, ‘is the terrorism of the military dictatorship.’

This is a process common to the three cases discussed: since 2011 in Syria, since 2013 in Egypt, and now being attempted in Turkey. We might trace different variants and echoes through a number of other Middle Eastern states. But the general strategy – the use of the threat of Islamist terrorism to enhance the authoritarian nature of the state – is in no sense regionally limited. Across the world, ideologically very similar strategies are being deployed, backed up by a climate of fear induced through the media. In Britain, the Prevent strategy regards Muslims as automatically suspect of sliding towards ‘extremism’, with workers in local government, health, education, prisons, immigration and charities required to keep an eye on them. Violent attacks by Islamist groups, like the tragedy of Sousse beach in Tunisia, are dwelt on in loving, gory detail by the tabloids, providing justification for this strategy. The immediate targets of Prevent are said to be Muslims ‘at risk from extremism’. But as the former director of public prosecutions has pointed out, there is no reason to assume that its remit will necessarily stop with Muslims: anyone with suspect views could be a potential ‘extremist’. Bans on protections against state snooping, for instance by Snapchat and WhatsApp, will enable the secret services to eavesdrop, not just on Islamists or Muslims, but on everybody. The sporadic attempts to smear left-wingers with accusations of support for ‘terrorism’ are stepped up: Jeremy Corbyn is taxed with an off-the-cuff remark about ‘our friends’ in Hezbollah and Hamas (for his response, see here).

Meanwhile, the usual suspects continue their trade: Tony Blair still claiming that Islamic extremism is “a poison” to be “eradicated”; David Cameron presenting ISIS as an “existential threat“. The rules of the game are different here: opposition cannot be silenced so easily. Twenty MPs can still call on Cameron to cancel President Sisi’s official visit to Britain. The UK is so far reluctant to class the Muslim Brotherhood officially as ‘terrorist’, despite pressure from ‘allies’ like Saudi Arabia. But, through the more insidious strategies of a managed, rather than overtly controlled media, of manufactured consent rather than straightforward coercion, we can see the underlying similarities of strategy, and a subtler kind of drift towards authoritarian methods.

This phenomenon has its uses in other parts of the world too: Prime Minister Modi of India, a Hindu nationalist who bears significant responsibility for the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims, uses a similar rhetoric. Although Modi last year opted not to join the USA’s coalition against ISIS, the ‘war on terror’ can still provide a welcome ally for Hindu communalism and for nationalist claims against Pakistan. One more support is thus added to another electoral-authoritarian leader and his personality cult, as he does his best to generalise across India the kind of police-state methods he used when Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Despite the widely different national contexts, we can see these as versions of the same ideological strategy. This strategy first elides the distinctions between movements which may, without stretching the language unduly, be called ‘terrorist’ – ISIS or al-Qa’eda – and groups which are wholly different in strategy, methods, and ideology. It thus lumps all ‘Islamists’ together, or severely blurs the distinctions between the different types in the very wide range that makes up the spectrum of political Islam. This strategy then does its best to throw the pall of suspicion, further, over other oppositional forces: depending on the context, this could mean all Muslims, all Kurds, all leftists, or practically anybody else who represents a real or imagined threat or nuisance to power. All of these may be suspected, if not of being actual terrorists, then of being ‘soft’ on terrorism. They are suspect. They are a danger to the state. Invoking the Islamist ‘threat’ thus serves, to different degrees in different countries, to shift the rules of the political game, away from democratic methods and liberal freedoms, towards authoritarianism, witch-hunting, and, as we approach the extreme end of the scale, judicial and military murder.

The accusation of Islamist terrorism is today the major single pretext used by governments that seek to reinforce authoritarian controls, or to whip up chauvinism – as it was once the threat of communism, and before that of anarchism and of Jacobinism. The different cases outlined above are part of a common and mutually reinforcing discourse from the Middle East to western Europe and North America to India. The louder Tony Blair or Boris Johnson talk about the Islamist threat, the easier it is for Erdogan (still often referred to as a ‘moderate Islamist’ himself) to justify his crackdown on Kurds and leftists. The more delirium the British tabloids can create around the latest terrorist outrage, the easier it becomes to justify the astonishing outbreak of judicial murder now being threatened in Egypt, or David Cameron’s attempt to return to ‘business as usual’ with Sisi. This is not to claim that ISIS, in its acts or its principles, is not a thoroughly unpleasant organisation. But it is to point out, firstly, that the major danger in all the countries exposed to the threat of ISIS is still repression at the hands of the state; and, secondly, that terrorist groups and authoritarian regimes, vivid atrocities and sensationalist media feed off each other. An escalation from one justifies an escalation from the other, as both tenderly nurse what Adam Curtis once called, in 2004, the ‘power of nightmares’.

We can see this as one more expression of the deep ideological structure of ‘Project Fear’ – a term that is beginning to be applied in a more general sense than its original reference to the Scottish ‘No’ campaign. This wider Project Fear acts, not just to hold people back from a specific political change by specific fears or doubts, but to generate a general fear of change, bound up with a profound pessimism about humanity in general. If people, left to themselves, are wicked and violent then the firm methods of state and social repression are justified. Any attempt at radical change will run ashore on the rocks of a fallen human nature, and will only end by making matters worse: not this or that change, but change as such becomes an object of fear. We are encouraged to feel a wicked, violent world, of narrow self-interest and senseless atrocities (such as is currently provided by capitalism) is all humans are fit for. Today, the spectacle of terrorism and the atmosphere of ‘existential threat’ taps into this theme – a theme as old, at least, as Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution – like nothing else. The dissemination of despair is not the least formidable of the defences of the social order.


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