One of the most tragically ironic things about populism anno 2017 is the extent to which it reflects the very same radicalism its adherents claim to be fighting against.
A little over a year ago, ISIS released a slickly produced (and I mean even slicker than usual) propaganda video that played on the notion that the group’s fighters would eventually wage an apocalyptic battle with non believers at Dabiq, which the BBC once described as “a dusty backwater.”
The village sits around six miles from Syria’s border with Turkey. “An Islamic prophecy names Dabiq as the site of a battle between Muslims and infidels that will presage doomsday, a message Islamic State used extensively in its propaganda, going so far as to name its main publication after the village,” Reuters wrote last year.
Dabiq has no strategic significance to speak of. It was home to just 3,000 people according to a 2004 Syrian census. It’s import is strictly symbolic.
In one of the most famous ISIS propaganda films (released about three weeks prior to the video mentioned above), the group promised that its enemies would “burn on the hills of Dabiq.” Here’s a screenshot:
This is one of the reasons why it’s dangerous for the West to play into the narrative ISIS propagates among its followers.
That is, the last thing you want to do if you’re trying to stem the tide of recruits is essentially confirm what is an otherwise absurd story by sending troops into Syria. Depending on where those troops end up, you could end up accidentally turning ISIS fantasy into ISIS reality.
Dabiq is nowhere near Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital, but it is near Kurdish positions and, perhaps more ominously, is included in a proposed “terror free zone” which could conceivably end up being defended by US troops under Trump.
With all of that in mind, consider the following from “Trump, Islam, And The Clash Of Civilizations” which appeared in the Financial Times on Monday.
Donald Trump’s travails with his “Muslim ban” make it easy to dismiss the whole idea as an aberration that will swiftly be consigned to history by the judicial system and the court of public opinion. But that would be a misreading. The ban on migrants and refugees from seven mainly Muslim countries was put together clumsily and executed cruelly. But it responded to a hostility to Islam and a craving for security and cultural homogeneity that is finding adherents across the western world – and not just on the far right.
Even if Mr Trump’s ban is withdrawn or amended, it will probably be just the beginning of repeated efforts – in the US and Europe – to restrict migration from the Muslim world into the west.
There certainly should be no doubt about the radicalism of the thinking of some of Mr Trump’s key advisers. Michael Flynn, the president’s embattled national security adviser, and Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, believe that they are involved in a struggle to save western civilisation. In his recent book, The Field of Fight, General Flynn insists that: “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.” Mr Bannon holds similar views. In a now famous contribution to a seminar at the Vatican in 2014, he argued that the west is at the “beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism”.
The fact that Mr Trump’s closest advisers believe they are engaged in a battle to save western civilisation is a key to understanding the Trump administration.
Through his Breitbart news service, Mr Bannon forged close ties with the European far-right, who share his hostility to Islam and immigration. The belief that the west is engaged in a mortal struggle with radical Islam clearly animates Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, who recently argued that: “Washington, Paris and Moscow must form a strategic alliance against Islamic fundamentalismâ€‰.â€‰.â€‰.â€‰Let us stop the quarrels and unnecessary polemics, the scale of the threat forces us to move fast, and together.”
Far-right parties with a Trumpian view of Islam are also prospering in the Netherlands and in Germany. The Freedom party led by Geert Wilders is set to top the polls in next month’s Dutch elections – although it is unlikely to enter government. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party has surged in response to the refugee crisis, and is likely to become the first far-right party to enter the country’s parliament since 1945. Some in the British government believe that hostility to immigration from the Islamic world – more than Europe – lay behind the discontent that triggered the Brexit vote last year.
In case any of that isn’t clear enough, the point is that there is no “clash of civilizations.” Or, perhaps more accurately, there isn’t unless the West, under new management, creates one.
Rhetoric designed to play on the electorate’s fears by imagining an epic global struggle between the “civilized” West and radical Islam serves one purpose and one purpose only: to validate the mythology that motivates extremists.
When we entertain that mythology it ceases to be a myth. And that’s dangerous.