It is often claimed that Islamist extremism and the acts of violence committed in its name are un-Islamic.
Such statements are no less erroneous and misleading than declaring Nazism and the death factories run by the SS to be un-German. Both phenomena are deeply and deliberately marked by the imprint of their respective cultures. It would, however, be equally wrong to describe the ideology of the “Islamic State” (IS) as the true face of Islam or declare the mind-set of Nazism to represent the essence of the German national character and its aspirations.
Both are expressions of a collective cultural psychosis of catastrophic dimensions which arose due to historical circumstances comprising defeat, humiliation, a sense of injustice and an ill disguised inferiority complex.
Their shared symptoms are:
- grossly inflated arrogance and self-assurance, coupled with profound contempt, if not hatred, for all that is other.
- unconditional submission to authority figures promising restitution and salvation
- a fatal purification complex: for the sake of social renewal through purity of race, religion or class, all that is alien must be ruthlessly removed by subjugation, expulsion or extermination
- complete elimination of mercy; human empathy is seen as a weakness; violence without limit must be applied
- legitimisation of this ideology through a radical purge and revaluation of all aspects of the inherited culture.
The resulting mentality – which might well be described as a form of mental illness - has repeatedly surfaced in history under different religious, ethnic or political banners. Only in this sense can Nazism and Islamist extremism be described as un-German or un-Islamic: as manifestations of a common trait of human character. It derives its distinct identity from its singular capacity to appropriate and modify, indeed debase, the values of the culture within which it has arisen. It is for this reason that this phenomenon may well be described as a ‘cultural psychosis’. Nazism presented itself as the resurrection of archetypal Germanic identity, while Islamist extremism claims to be the sole true emulation of the sacred example set by the Prophet.
A cornerstone of the SS ethos was the proverbial German virtue of fidelity (Treue); the self-abnegation and reliance on God (tawakkul) endowed by the Qur’an becomes a tool on the path to mass murder. Attired in such disguises, both ideologies have been able to attract not only misfits and criminals, but many idealistic young people disillusioned with the status quo whose dream of adventure and sacrifice for a higher common good is seemingly fulfilled in the seductive atmosphere of comradeship and brotherhood proffered by the SS and the IS.
Both phenomena are intertwined and have common roots in the First World War. At the time, Ottoman and German troops stationed in Palestine were defeated by the advancing British forces and their Arab allies who had been promised independence upon victory. Their hopes were to be disappointed as Britain and France shared the booty and divided up the Middle East between them, while Palestine was signed away. It is significant that one of the first ‘acts of state’ broadcast on the internet by IS was the gleeful levelling of the border between Syria and Iraq which had been traced by the colonial powers. In Germany, the loss of the First World War and the perceived humiliation of Versailles helped to bring about a regime whose crimes would cast a deeper shadow over the Middle East than the betrayal and oppression meted out by Britain and France. The Nazi holocaust brought in its wake the tragedy of the Palestinian people and the conflict which has, like no other, fanned the flames of militant political Islamism. In this sense the Second World War has never really ended in the Middle East. Straight after 1945 came the Palestine war of 1948 and with it the first of a spiralling series of wars which is still continuing and expanding. Owing to numerous additional factors it is has turned into a global storm of conflict in which the Western powers, local governments and different forms of Islamism are fatally embroiled. Multiple civil wars are being fought over the future of the Muslim world, but the eye of the storm, the geo-political centre of these conflicts, is Jerusalem. What happens in this city in the coming years has the potential to calm the waters and to heal, or to accelerate the spiral of violence to unknown heights. Nothing could set a greater signal for peace than if the two parties to the conflict were to agree on shared sovereignty over this city, with equal rights granted to all its citizens; and nothing would be more incendiary for the region than open warfare over the sanctuaries on the Temple Mount.
In recent years Germany has seen a much publicised debate over the question gehört der Islam zu Deutschland? (‘does Islam belong to Germany?’). In view of the above one must conclude that Islam does indeed belong to Germany, not only because many Muslims now live there or because Islam has inspired significant aspects of German culture, such as the poetry of Goethe, but also because German history has exerted a most tragic and pernicious influence on the Arab and Islamic world. In the course of it, Germans and Muslims have both become victims of cultural psychoses which have distorted and debased their heritage. The link between them is a tragedy like no other: Auschwitz and the fate of the Jews of Europe.
Considering this chain of events, it is all the more troubling to see how reluctant Israeli and Palestinian representatives often seem to be to acknowledge each other’s trauma, despite the fact that one is the direct consequence of the other. Indeed, no holocaust memorial, and certainly not Yad Vashem, is complete without the addition of a further wing to commemorate the citizens of Palestine expelled or killed in 1948, 1967 and beyond. Only then would the full gravity of the original crime and the enduring suffering it continues to generate be made fully apparent. Palestinians and Israelis have much in common as victims of identical forces of history. Were they to realise this fully, might they not agree to make common cause, trust each other and share the land they so cherish on equal terms, taking cognisance of the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant surely extends to all his progeny: to Jews and Arabs alike? Instead, we find both parties locked in an increasingly inveterate confrontation, each seeking to cajole and win over to their side the very powers which have brought them such misery.
Germany is not the sole culprit in this chain of traumas. Until quite recently the policies of major European powers have been governed by a range of predatory ideologies, including religiously sanctioned imperialism, as well as racism and nationalism, which have left a lasting mark throughout the globe and have been contributory factors in the resentment which fuels the Islamist tide. It is only in the last six decades that a new and more enlightened way of thinking has arisen, enabling the continent to become a beacon of hope and peaceful co-existence. However, if Europeans deem the past to be overcome because their former ideologies have, at least officially, been put to rest, and if Germans think the past has been atoned because they have become responsible democrats and their government unconditionally supports their former victims in the guise of the Israeli government, they are clearly mistaken. The heirs of the past are very much alive and bring the demons of Europe’s own past back to life in turn. For the incorrigible in today’s Germany, it is no longer the Jews who threaten to undermine the German nation, but the Muslims. At the same time, young Muslim fanatics attack Jewish lives and property, thinking they support Palestine, while being in abject ignorance of the fact that precisely such acts of anti-Semitism sealed the fate of Palestine in the first place. Considering the frequent incidence of such crimes throughout the history of Christian Europe, no one can fault the founding fathers of Zionism for their conviction that a homeland had to be found for their people on other shores. Having since established such a home, one cannot but be perturbed by a mentality among many of its current leaders which exhibits symptoms of the same type of cultural psychosis found on the opposing side. For Judaism is no less immune to this malady than Islam, Christianity and the European fascists. We are thus faced with an absurdly tragic reality in which different forms of extremism continue to feed on each other over generations and propel each other forward into ever new spirals of conflict.
Once we realise how deeply rooted in the past this ongoing whirlpool is , the sermonising of European politicians in the face of Islamist terror and their appeals to civilised values or, for that matter, ‘British values’, ring rather hollow. Their statements imply that humanitarian values have always been upheld in these quarters, when in reality European colonial powers disregarded them for centuries. Their genuine, widespread adoption in European societies is very recent indeed, achieved only after wars that cost millions of victims. More recently, the lack of even-handedness in Western Middle East policy and colossal errors of judgment such as the Iraq war, have further dented the credibility of the official narrative. What is called for as a first step to confront the severe challenge the continent now faces, is a display of humility born of the awareness that Europe is deeply implicated in the events and cannot claim the moral high ground. This insight must in particular be brought to bear on the dialogue with Muslim minority communities where the now frequently seen attitude of preaching and finger-wagging by official spokespersons should stop. A positive joint history with these new communities can only be forged on the basis of a resolute acknowledgment that they are now an integral part of the European family of nations. In this spirit, measures should be taken to counteract the stigmatisation they are increasingly exposed to because of the action of a small minority. The dangerous cycle of alienation, exclusion and extremism must be confronted with a positive, inclusive message and concrete steps in the domains of education, training and employment.
These reflections are in no way intended to belittle the danger posed by the ideology of IS which, on account of its widespread reach, has perhaps even more destructive potential than that of Nazism. Action to combat terrorism is clearly vital and is being implemented throughout the continent. As a result, Europe’s prisons are now beginning to fill with a whole generation of young Muslims who are being incarcerated together with ordinary criminals. Such prisons are likely to become nothing more than breeding grounds for further radicalisation which store up even more problems for the future. Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Sayyid Qutb’s Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (‘Signposts’) – the latter the equivalent of the Communist Manifesto for Islamist radicalism - were both penned in prison. These young people require opportunities to re-educate themselves, broaden their outlook and see beyond the narrowness of their fundamentalist creed in order to pave the way for the positive reintegration into wider society of those able to respond to such overtures. This should be discussed and organised Europe-wide, in consultation with Muslim dignitaries and educational specialists who might wish to play a leading role in such an enterprise. For the majority of perpetrators are not simple criminals but misguided outcasts and idealists who tend to have a limited, utterly one-sided understanding of the religion to which they have subscribed.
This issue is but one aspect of a much broader question which is given added urgency by the long shadow of the past and the enormous turbulences now taking place in our immediate neighbourhood: how can the social, cultural and economic future of the continent be forged in such a way that the varied togetherness of indigenous inhabitants, migrants and refugees from all over the world does not break asunder but prospers on the basis of the shared acceptance of democratic principles? It is the biggest single challenge now faced by Europe’s politicians. Here Germany in particular has a contribution to make. In view of its history and its experience with the origins and consequences of Nazism it should be more capable than most of understanding the concatenation of circumstances which has brought us here and of designing a farsighted policy which transcends the legacy of past conflicts and takes account of the legitimate needs and aspirations of all concerned, however contradictory they might appear to be.
Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
University of London