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Radical Islam's Totalitarian Tendencies

Reader comment on item: Iran's Final Solution Plan

Submitted by Alex (United States), Nov 1, 2005 at 19:02

Iran's new President--and most, if not all, global Islamist leaders--are from my perspective coming more and more as of late to resemble totalitarian idelogues, rather than just simply fanatics or willing tyrants. I remember a relatively recent press report of Abu Musab Zarqawi's men randomly raiding a civilian house in Anbar Province, and then ritually executing all of its inhabitants. Does this not smack of the random terror that characterized Stalin's regime?

Furthermore, it is my contention that totalitarianism, like anything else, cannot function outside the context of political culture. So, what exactly is the political culture of the Islamic world? My argument would be that Islamic political culture basically consists of a continuing tension between two political identities: that of the tribe/family/clan, and that of some higher ideal (in the 60's, Arab nationalism, now, Islamism). Young Muslims are taught to overcome their particularistic loyalties to their own self-interest or that of their tribe and instead dedicate themselves to a system that, somehow, miraculously, keeps them free of such corruption, thus allowing them to dominate the "Other."

Most Muslims over history probably internalized the idea that it is Islam that gives them this essentialized purity, but this alone is not what makes current Islamism totalitarian. Two additional ideas do this. First, as Ian Baruma and Avishai Margalit have explained in their book, "Occidentalism," Islamists have introduced into radical/neo-traditional ideology the idea that infidelity to their God must be punished. This explains Ahmadinejad's total(itarian) hostility to Israel. Second, Islamists have introduced into Islamic political culture the notion that sacrifice for an ideal is an ideal in and of itself. Muslims no longer look for a balance between particularistic and idealistic loyalties. They are willing to make sacrifice for their a cause in and of itself, seeking martyrdom in theaters where no one could rationally believe war to exist.

The notion, as Himmler put it, that one's honor IS one's loyalty to a cause--and especially to leaders with personality cults, like bin Laden and Khomeini--is a distinctly totalitarian one. Only in modern times have the especially devious and power-hungry had access to the modern audio-visual communications technology that allows them to penetrate the private sphere with propaganda, as well as the threat and enactment of necessarily random violence, that has allowed and still allows them to use traditional clannish loyalty to erase all previous bonds between people and create a society-wide, undivided striving toward some vaguely defined goal and/or ersonality (one is reminded here of VS Naipaul's account of a Khomeini plaque in Iran that consisted simply of a bunch of Muslims traveling down a--modern!--road and morphing into one large amorpous mass like a smoke-cloud under the Imam's turban).

The idea of total, arbitrary physical sacrifice as the only honorable way of fulflling and validating one's essentialized political identity creates a strong psycho-cultural incentive to strive ever more towards one's ideal, and so it can be said that the Muslim reaction to Zarqawi's targeting of his fellow Muslims entails an ever more stringent avoidance of the painful notion that one of one's fellow believers could do something wrong; hence, the more heinous and audacious Zarqawi gets, the more loyalty he commands. Further, the recent statements of both a suicide attacker involved in the July bombings in London (posthumously published, of course) and of Mr. Ahmadinejad at the UN come damn close to making explicit this very peculiar method of commandeering loyalty. Both accused the US of using WMD's against Iraqi Muslims, and threatened vengeance in kind--was this not akin to Hitler's proclamation on the eve of WW2 that "International Finance Jewry" would be destroyed if IT plunged the world into a war and that the supposed Jewish law of "an eye for an eye" would become a German policy? I hope not, but I think so.
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