Wednesday, 27 July 2011

From one extreme to the other

By Martin Pollard

An interesting article on Tuesday’s Today programme posed the question of whether Anders Behring Breivik – the extremist who has confessed to the mass killings in Norway – should be considered “mad”. There followed much talk of semantics and definitions, of course, with John Humphrys playing his usual role of straight-talking stalwart to the guests’ more cautious undertakings. But the most intriguing point was one that had nothing to do with insanity, but with politics. Rightly identifying that all forms of extremism should be confronted with civic debate where possible, Maajid Nawaz (former extremist himself and founder of the think-tank Quilliam) nonetheless stated that Breivik, a “fascist”, was “the mirror opposite” of an Islamist.

Now, clearly there is a very important difference between Islamic extremism and right-wing extremism. Quite apart from the differing demands of a white supremacist gunman in Norway and a bomb layer in Kabul, there is a gulf in majority-white Britain’s reaction to the two which has its roots in culture, language, religion and – let’s face it – skin colour. That’s why it is so very important that the media get this right. We should all applaud Charlie Brooker’s very eloquent condemnation of the ill-informed speculation that dogged the initial coverage of the Norway killings, a symptom of the must-guess -now obsession that is the unintended consequence of our 24-hour news culture. We must resist the narrative of the post-9/11 world that pushes us towards the view that nowhere in world will ever be safe again, and that this is the fault of Muslims.

But “the other end of the scale”? Something in this doesn’t ring true; in fact, as soon as you start to pull apart those words, you smell a rat, and perhaps an unpleasant and hypocritical one at that.

What precisely is this scale? A political one, with white fascists at one end at Islamists at the other? This appears to have no rational basis at all. Both groups exist primarily out of a hatred for others who don’t look or sound like them, whether the targets are pro-immigration left-wingers or democracy-loving Westerners. In fact, fascists and Islamic extremists essentially hate the same people – liberals. The fact that the latter purport to have religious reasons for doing so seems only to be relevant in terms of how they define the ‘other’. Both support the violent overthrow of those who oppose them; both have demonstrated numerous times that they will act on those beliefs.

Both groups push an extreme ideology, and do not care whether this outrages the majority of peaceful citizens in their countries. They assume that much of this opposition derives from some establishment-driven conspiracy theory, and their propaganda rests on this conceit. It has a degree of success in both cases, trickling down through more mainstream opinion and emerging in street protests that demand the killing of Americans, or in fact-free hate campaigns against immigrants led by national newspapers.

It is a deeply unpleasant aspect of such movements that they equate democracy and freedom with cowardice and immorality. But many of us progressives must accept a part of the blame, for all too often we fail to condemn such voices equally, to stand firm against hatred and fascism in all its forms. For Islamist terrorism is a form of fascism; not the opposite of a right-wing ideology cooked up in a Norwegian’s bedroom, but the same thing seen through a different lens.

The denial of such commonalities is not new. When the US and UK were preparing to invade Iraq in 2003, I condemned it as an illegal act which would kill tens of thousands of civilians and take many years to achieve a resolution. So it has proved, and I stand by my opposition to that war. But at the time, I was also ashamed at some of the company I found myself in. I found it bizarre that fellow liberals – led, of course, by the left’s über-clown of reductivist posturing, George Galloway – could actually support Saddam Hussein, one of the worst mass-murderers of the 20th century, to all intents and purposes a fascist dictator. And there was more: a deeply unpleasant current of anti-American fervour, a blind prejudice against everything the US stood for which should now be named for what it was – racism. (For more in this vein, I recommend reading Nick Cohen’s excoriating What’s Left?. I don’t endorse Cohen’s arguments in their entirety, but he does make a good case that the left is in danger of becoming morally redundant on such issues.)

Of course, there are those who claim that Islamism is different, that it derives from anger at Western economic and cultural dominance, and that this might be righteous anger. But while Al-Qaeda might spin theories about Judaeo-Christian conspiracies to destroy Islam, it makes no claim to be the ideology of the oppressed. Even if it did, we have long seen our way past the failures of the Weimar and the Third Reich’s promises of riches to – rightly – pass judgement on the Nazi foot-soldiers and collaborators. We should do the same with Islamist extremists.

Francis Wheen, in his entertaining survey of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, singles out Noam Chomsky among the so-called leftists who are so intent on damning America and all its works that they “abandon reality and morality altogether rather than forgo their comforting choices”. Chomsky gave the benefit of the doubt to Pol Pot and Slobodan Milošević, “strenuously downplaying the scale of their terror”, whereas:

With the United States… no proof is required. In October 2001 he stated as a fact that Pentagon strategists were planning the ‘slaughter and silent genocide’ of three or four million Afghans during their military campaign against the Taliban.

It is vital that we oppose ugly prejudices wherever we find them – and that includes a recognition that hatred and violence can emerge from people of all backgrounds, all ethnic and religious groups. We can all agree that our popular media have a key role to play here, in resisting what often appears to be an engrained prejudice – sometimes subtle, sometimes not – against people who are not Christian or not white. But liberals, lefties and internationalists must play their part too, if those descriptions are to mean anything. We must resist the analysis of world events which divides acts into two broad camps – things which challenge the West, and are therefore good, and things which support its ‘hegemony’, and are therefore bad. If freedom and human rights are to mean anything, then we have a duty to defend them against all their attackers.