The Islamists do not need to understand the left. All they need to do is go on using it.
The left has never adapted to the transition from nationalistic wars to ideological wars. It took the left a while to grasp that the Nazis were a fundamentally different foe than the Kaiser and that pretending that World War 2 was another war for the benefit of colonialists and arms dealers was the behavior of deluded lunatics. And yet much of the left insisted on approaching the war in just that fashion, and had Hitler not attacked Stalin, it might have remained stuck there.
The Cold War was even worse. The moderate left never came to terms with Communism. From the Moscow Trials to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the left slowly disavowed the USSR, but refused to see it as anything more than a clumsy dictatorship. The only way that the left could reject the USSR was by overlooking its ideology and treating it as another backward Russian tyranny being needlessly provoked and pushed around by Western Europe and the United States.
Having failed the test twice, it is no wonder that the left has been unable to come to terms with Islam, or that it has resorted to insisting that, like Germany and Russia, the Muslim world is just another victim of imperialism and western warmongering in need of support and encouragement from the progressive camp.
The anti-war worldview is generations out of date. It is mired in an outdated analysis of imperial conflicts that ceased being relevant with the downfall of the nation-state and its replacement by international organizations and causes based around ideologies. Nazism could still loosely fit into the jackboots of the nation state. Communism was another creature entirely, a red virus floating around the world, embedding its ideas into organizations and using those organizations to take over nations.
Islamism is even more untethered than Communism, loosely originating from powerful oil nations, but able to spring up anywhere in the Muslim world. Its proponents have even less use for the nation state than the Communists. What they want is a Caliphate ruled under Islamic law; a single unit of human organization extending across nations, regions and eventually the world.
The left is incapable of engaging with Islamism as an ideology, instead it reduces the conflict to a struggle between colonial and anti-colonial forces, showing once again that the left’s worldview is usually at least fifty years out of date. Mapping colonial and anti-colonial conflicts over a map of Mali, where the anti-colonial forces are represented by the slave-owning Tuaregs and the Arab and Pakistani Jihadis invading an African country, makes very little sense, but that is all that the left knows how to do.
The anti-war movement does not deal with wars as they are, but with a revisionist history of war. The continuum from Oliver Stone to Ron Paul resolves all questions through a historical revisionism that locates the source of every conflict in American foreign policy. By blaming America for it all, they are freed of the need to examine who the other side is and what it wants.
During WW2, Trotskyist unions in the UK claimed that American troops weren’t coming to help fight Hitler, but to break up labor protests. That same obtuse obliviousness, the insistence that a conflict spanning centuries, religions and continents is all about their pet cause, is how the left has responded to every conflict since.
Their response to the Clash of Civilizations has been to include Islamists in the global rainbow coalition of minorities, gays and gender theorists, indigent third world farmers, transsexuals, artists and poets, sex workers and terrorists; without considering what the Islamists were or how they would fit into this charmed circle.
The left views the Islamists as just another front group to be used. The Islamists see the left the same way and in Iran, Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamists have a better track record of getting the better of the left. But the left never learns from history. It never questions its outdated Marxist fisheye view of events or realizes that the Industrial Revolution, feudal peasants and the banks are not a metaphor for absolutely every struggle that takes place anywhere in the world. And so the left dooms itself to repeat again and again the history that it refuses to learn.
The left only recognizes one ideological war. Its own. Through its narrow garret window, it sees only the dead hand of the capitalist establishment and the fossilized nation-state bound together by a devilish compact of greed blocking its way. It cannot recognize that there are other historical forces at work and other fanatics who dream of exploiting the collapse of the western nation-state for their own purposes.
Progressives see history moving forward in their direction and ignore the Islamists who see everything coming up Jihad. There are two ideologies who both see themselves as the culmination of human history going down the same track and only one of them can make it to the final destination. The Islamists understand that, but the left does not.
Rather than deal with Islamism, the left persists in fighting phantom wars against nationalism, capitalism, militarism, colonialism and imperialism; all things that are approaching extinction in its sphere of influence, while thriving outside its sphere of influence. The left is too busy fighting a civil war to see that if it wants to survive, it will have to fight a global war. True to its nature, it is determined to finish digesting the West before it is ready to defend it, and by the time that the left digests the West, with the help of its Islamist allies, the war will be over and the left will have lost.
The left is undone by its own conception of history as a treadmill moving forward through historical stages, rather than a chaotic morass of forces colliding together. In the progressive understanding of history, progressive forces defeat reactionary forces and humanity advances to the next stage. There is no room in that neat orderly evolution for the violent chaos of Islamism and its resurrection of tribal forces, ethnic grievances and religious intolerance into a worldwide movement that is every bit as fanatical and determined to forcibly carve out its own vision of a new world order.
From the progressive perspective of history as an evolutionary process, Islamist tribal fanaticism is from too early a stage to threaten the left. Socialism must battle against the industrialism of the previous stage, with each generation advancing the future by destroying the achievements of the previous generation in a species of grim historical cannibalism. The left fears being held back by capitalism, not by Islamism. It does not believe that the values of the 6th century can compete with it, only that the values of the 19th century can.
The left’s rigid view of history has caused it problems before. It rejected Zionism as a historical aberration, and spent over a century fighting against the idea with spiteful hate, propaganda, terrorism and tanks. In the left’s view of history, a Jewish State is an attempt to turn back time by building a state whose roots are in religious scripture. Israel is ahistorical and must therefore be destroyed.
What it rejected as ahistorical for the Western Jew, who was expected to assimilate into the Socialist society, rather than building a nation state of his own, it accepted from the Muslim world, which it deemed more backward and in need of passing through all the historical stages to get to the red finish line. The left has been willing to tentatively accept Islamism, even when it is destroying Arab Socialism, because it assumes that Muslims are backward enough to need an Islamic simulation of Socialism.
While the left sees itself as progressive and Islamism as reactionary, it is the left that has trouble adapting to new developments, while the Islamists have successfully glommed onto everything from the Cold War to the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of international organizations and even the War on Terror, and exploited events for their ends. In the new century, the Islamists have been riding the left over the finish line, without the left realizing that it was being ridden.
The Islamists are intellectually and morally backward, but unlike their collaborators on the left they are not bounded by an inflexible vision of history. Their strategy is flexible and they are willing to do anything that works. They are utterly unconcerned with the tactics they use or with the historical implications of movements and events so long as they lead to them toward a Caliphate.
The Islamists do not need to understand the left. All they need to do is go on using it. The left does need to understand Islamists, but generally chooses not to. When some among the left, like Christopher Hitchens, take a long look at the Islamists, they have the same reaction that the USSR did when the Nazi tank began rolling across the Russian border, and realize that it’s come down to fight or die.
The left dwells in an intellectual bubble of its own making. It transforms that bubble into an elaborate place, furnishing the space until it resembles a miniature world, but a bubble is not a world, it can only ever be a bubble. Ideology is the left’s bubble. It is the lens that the left sees through, the air that it breathes and the clamor that fills its ears. Ideology conditions the left to view history as an orderly progression. An arrangement of chess pieces moving forward in a complex strategy to cripple their opponents.
The left is often vicious, hysterical and irrational, but underneath that is the vision of an orderly historical progression toward a great society. Trapped inside the bubble, it cannot realize that the world is going backward, not forward, that the 21st century is really the 7th century and that the future is the past. The Islamists understand this quite well. The left cannot.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.