Stephen Ulph: Islamism and Totalitarianism

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Islamism and Totalitarianism
(Stephen Ulph, May 25, 2011)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Stephen Ulph is a member of the board of the Westminster institute and Senior Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation. One of the preeminent analysts of the Islamic world, Mr. Ulph specializes in the analysis of jihadist and Islamist ideology and regularly lectures on aspects of Islamist and Jihadist ideology impacting on Western democracies and the course of the war on terrorism. He is the founder and former editor of Islamic Affairs Analyst and Terrorism Security Monitor for Jane’s Information Group.

His publications include an analysis on jihadism in Syria for the CTC, an ideological analysis of the ‘Virtual Border Conflict’ (the online arena for Islamist extremism) for The Borders of Islam, an in-depth examination of the relationship of Islamism to other totalitarian systems of thought in Fighting the Ideological War, and a 4-part reference work, Towards a Curriculum for the Teaching of Jihadist Ideology, available online at the Jamestown Foundation. He is also the Director of The Reform Project and its bi-lingual website Almuslih (‘The Reformer’ which supports Arab reformist writers and promotes their work to an English-language readership.

He also spoke at Westminster on the subject of The Importance of Muslim Reformers.


Stephen Ulph:

Right, thank you. I just want to pick up on that very interesting last point that Patrick made. We’ve left the field. Who is going to do this? Who is going to engage in this ideological warfare? One of the problems as you all know is how to embark on such a thing. There is a lot of resistance. One of the basic lines of resistance is it’s an internal Muslim affair and then we have this sort of reticence that we should not – especially as non-Muslims, we should not engage in this.

Among Muslims too there is another problem because there’s a hermetically sealed universe that the Islamist radicals are living in and they can’t easily penetrate through that themselves because what actually happens is that any debates tend to dissipate in endless Qur’anic verse and hadith wars. This is why de-radicalization initiatives have very mixed results, usually varied results, so what we’re- what we’re looking for ideally if we- if we can find one is a neutral debating ground where we Muslims and non-Muslims alike are not being wrong footed, okay?

So we need some way to force the Islamists to bother to undertake the debate in the first place, but obviously they feel they don’t need to, so I’m going to possibly to resolve these concerns come up- bring up a comparative approach, which may be the most effective. That’s the comparison between Islamism and the various historical manifestations of totalitarianism and what I wanted to do here is to explore how some deeper mental mechanisms may allow us a point of entry into deconstructing the threat.

Now, you’re probably aware this has been subject of some controversy. There have been- there’s been objections to the idea that you in the same paragraph you might mention the word Islam or Islamism and a word such as fascism. There’s been a very thorny issue. I personally have experienced some rather rough rides when I brought up the subject in the same paragraph but I think we have to, you know, take courage and just push, push on on this.

Question of observing the common mental trajectories. The key to all of this is is to try and find the common ground and the way it’s useful is that it argues by using the terms of reference of the extremists themselves, the uniqueness of their model, the divine origin that they claim for their ideology, and the uniqueness of the political applications of this, so we want to put question marks to this point that Patrick importantly flagged up, the authenticity preoccupation.

How solidly founded is that authenticity? Why – just to recap – why is authenticity important? While military reverses can always be brushed aside and they often do by saying well it’s a long term struggle. It’s not something which a defeat on the battlefield makes no particular difference here or there, but ideological justification cannot brook defeat at any point not at any second and a basic building block for that is the resilience that comes from authenticity.

It’s the key. It’s their moral authority is their yardstick for determining what is true and counterfeit Islam and why they should be listening to anyone in the first place. It’s based, as Patrick mentioned, on the words and deeds of the virtuous predecessors, the salaf assalihoon (السلف الصالح), or the Salaf assalih, and the reason why that’s important is that they are the pattern to be emulated.

They are the authentic pattern because they predate the compromises made in Islamic medieval and modern history with grubby compromises of mandate power, so they keep a nice purity to them and it’s a very handy way of maintaining an authenticity and Salafi or the Salafist groups are the intellectual cradle in which groups such as Al-Qaeda, who call themselves jihadi Salafists, that’s the intellectual cradle that they- that they are born in.

So, it allows them to justify their position because they are commanded for instance to imitate the prophet and the prophet, of course, was fighting a jihad so QED, following the- the precedent is outlined in the text, the hadith and the sira literature, the biography literature, means that they are more authority than the other Muslims and finally, they do not therefore have to worry about what scholars will say because they are collaborators. They have been got at by the world system, so who are they to talk to us anyway? That is the problem we are faced with, so what is it that could damage this claim to authenticity?

The only thing that I can think of is the basic no-no, which is behaving like the infidel. The aim of the comparative approach is to demonstrate that. Therefore, their ideology does not – despite their claim – represent a pure, unmingled, standalone truth, but is a typical product of a broader spectrum of an all too human speculation.

You know we have all had some experience on Islamism and the ideology. We know the names, people like Sayyid Qutb. What do we pick up from these? We pick up some basic points such as a disengagement from contemporary culture and social relations, the promotion of a single, supreme ideology as a universal explanation, the goal of transforming not only the political and social order, but the very intellect of the individual, the promotion of communal over individual rights and the gradation of rights based on loyalty to a belief system, and the vehement opposition to democracy, pluralism, liberal thought, etc.

Now, of course, a lot of us here as Westerners will find these things interestingly familiar from our own historical experience. There are, in fact, many who would begin to point out that there are areas where you could make a parallel with and these are the areas I am referring to. I will just pick a few illustrative points.

For instance, the crisis is important, the crisis of the contemporary world. This is a very common feature of totalitarian ideology. It is always a response to some form of failed values of the liberal society, a society which is disastrously atomized, pluralistic, and purposeless.

Now, to remedy this crisis entails more than reform, it means a total abolition of the failed system and I think you are familiar with phrases from Sayyid Qutb, who argues that mankind is on the edge of an abyss and his work Milestones features this in detail.

Marxism-Leninism also taught that human nature must be transformed in order to pave the way for a glorious disworldly paradise, very interesting terminology, and this is the feature that gave it an air of pseudo-religiosity. The fact that there was a religious dimension to politics was openly claimed by totalitarian leaders. Benito Mussolini said, “Fascism is a religious concept.” And he did not mean that in any sense of a metaphor.

In this type of sacralized society, all systems that accommodate the individual will must be repudiated because that is a selfish element, so they were now going to have to live in a collective identity, an indivisible one that links you altogether in one group. Mussolini defined this as where the state would function as one organic whole, a system of interrelated parts that possess value only as they work towards a whole. It is not a society of individuals, it is individuals building up a collective whole.

And of course, the interesting point is that Sayyid Qutb down below mirrors this conception almost to the letter. The thing is, of course, that the Islamists have an extra advantage because they can add divinity to the argument because democracy is an expression of positivist law, and therefore it must be a direct negation of religious truth, so the concept of legislation by the voice of the people is now a false religion, a false, competing religion.

And the ultimate villain is what Qutb called the “hideous schizophrenia.” This is the disastrous trajectory which Christianity took, according to Sayyid Qutb, by separating faith from the state. Now, the interesting point about this and the way it impacts on authenticity is Sayyid Qutb genuinely thought that this was unique to Islam, that this comprehensiveness was something which guarantees the authenticity of their program. But it is actually an illusion.

National-Socialists in Germany, Leninists, shared the same disdain for the separation of the public and the private lives like a hallmark of the liberalism, which they despised. They argued just as vehemently for their systems being complete ways of life which entered into every area of human activity. For Hitler, he used the term Gleichschaltung, the coordination of every possible aspect of life in Germany for the purpose of eliminating this individualism. And here the radical Islamist Maududi actually made this comparison quite explicit.

Now, when we focus on the comparison between Islamism and fascist totalitarianism, we see some more, closer parallels. You see – just to take up a few points of this – take authenticity, it is the key element as I mentioned, and the fundamental element of this is to have the restoration of a lost vigor, something has gone wrong in history, something has been lost. Where for the Italians it meant restoring the ancient Roman vigor, in Germany it meant the re-Aryanization of European civilization. For the Islamists it is the restoration of (as Patrick mentioned) the community of the early Muslims, and by doing this they will retrieve God’s favor and they will get that winning formula back, the winning formula which led Muslims to conquer the world, reproduce that, and we are back on a roll again.

Now, against this, of course, there are the evil machinations of the constant enemy. We are all very familiar with the idea of the conspirator against all of the totalitarian systems, but in fact, in the case of Islamism the matrix is very highly developed as you can see, the top of the list being Jews as you can see.

But the parallels are much, much deeper than that because they also reflect the idea of the internal enemy. Jews were useful in the German system because they lived both inside and outside the country, but for the Islamists I should say their Eternal Jew is the Eternal Conspirator of the Muslim. Here you have an example of it. This is the Al-Qaeda Al-Neda website, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, detailing where the real threats lay. They do not really, again, Jews are taken as read, but the real threat comes from secularizing Muslims.

Now, we also have the issue of the hero and the permanence of the struggle. This is an interesting element. This is a very important feature of fascism. Mussolini as it says mentions that, “Fascism is something that repudiates pacifism” as such because the life is lived for the struggle. And you can see how the Islamists reflect this quite closely, especially the interesting quote at the bottom here, “For this reason the Muslim is alive.” The whole identity for the Muslim is to fight, according to the Islamists’ ideology.

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