When it comes to the totalitarian rebellions against liberal societies throughout history, sophisticated people have very often failed to grasp what goes on in the minds of the fanatic.
Back in the 1930s, attempts to explain fascism famously tripped up many leading intellectuals of the time. Hitler’s demands to expand the Third Reich were taken by many otherwise sophisticated people as code for something else. Was it not true, after all, that the Treaty of Versailles had imposed punitive and unreasonable conditions on Germany? As Paul Berman noted in his book, Terror and Liberalism, despite the SS repeatedly reaffirming at its death camps that “here there is no why”, for much of the left there was always a “why”.
As he writes: “The anti-war socialists gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions and the lure of murder.”
It wasn’t just the French left that tied itself in mental knots over the rapid growth of militarist fascism. In an edition of the British pacifist newspaper Peace News, the Marquess of Tavistock, who sat on the national council for the Peace Pledge Union, blamed German aggression not on the lunacy of National Socialism, but instead on the “very serious provocation which many Jews have given by their avarice and arrogance when exploiting Germany’s financial difficulties, by their associations with commercialised vice, and by their monopolisation of certain professions”. In a letter written in 1942, the pacifist poet D. S. Savage also famously informed George Orwell that Hitler required “not condemnation, but understanding”
More recently, a good portion of many column inches dedicated to “explaining” the 2001 attacks on New York similarly relied upon a straightforward inability to countenance the existence of al-Qaeda. Thoughtful people instinctively hunted for the so-called “root cause” of jihadist violence in the material world, largely ignoring the seriousness of the ideas held by the perpetrators.
The real spark of fascistic violence must always and everywhere be poverty and hardship, or so it was assumed; hence the multiple attempts to conflate the repression of the Palestinians with 9/11 – despite the fact that al-Qaeda was and remains ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
In reality the sheer irrationality of violent Islamism should have been obvious when in the years following 9/11 young fanatics started (sometimes successfully) trying to blow up nightclubs. The British-born Islamists who plotted in 2004 to murder clubbers in the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London did not after all cite Palestine or imperialism as their Casus belli, but instead gleefully talked about murdering “those slags, dancing around”.
In other words, it was our liberalism that the would-be bombers despised, rather than our inability to be sufficiently liberal.
Indeed, as with almost all fanatical religious movements, an obsession with the way women behave goes right to the heart of Islamism. Sayyid Qutb, the author of the Mein Kampf of Islamism, Milestones, embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on the back of a visit to the United States, where he found himself appalled at the freedom afforded to American women.
Yet all too often, rather than acknowledge the existence of pathological movements that reject the very premise of a free society, the default assumption among liberals has run something like this: fascist violence must be code for something else, probably despair. The fanatic is only fanatical because ‘we’ have driven him to it. If only Britain and America behaved properly, people would not hate us.
And of course, the West has certainly behaved in ways that have helped to swell the ranks of movements like Isis, just as they were atrocities committed by American armies during the previous century that provided ammunition for the communist cause. But let us be clear: the “root cause” of fascism (and what Isis is practicing us clerical fascism) is an absolute rejection of a plural and democratic society. It is our existence, rather than the subtleties of how we behave, that is intolerable to Isis, hence current attempts to exterminate “un-Islamic” religious minorities in Iraq – a genocide-in the making thankfully being thwarted by the United States.
Despite his many flaws, even the the consummate Marxist Leon Trotsky recognised the psychopathic element that underpins fascism, writing of the growth of Nazism in the 1930s that “Today, not only in the peasant homes, but also in the sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism.”
In Iraq and Syria today, alongside the twenty-first century exists the seventh. To look for the “root cause” of Isis is to miss the point. The group represents all the subterranean barbarism that every so often is apt to crawl, blinking into the light, out from the depths of the human subconscious.
Intelligent people enjoy saying that “nothing exists in a vacuum”. In reality things very often do. Some outcomes are no more than the result of people having certain thoughts and as a consequence performing certain actions. Isis would see us all drop dead in an instant. And like their European predecessors, there really is no “why”.