Heaven on earth
HISTORY never repeats itself, but occasionally, there are eerie echoes of the past in current events. Take, for example, the rising tide of terrorism inspired by an unrecognisably extreme interpretation of Islam.
As we struggle to understand what drives these ruthless killers, we tend to forget that ultimately, they are motivated by a utopian dream: the establishment of a Caliphate that will unite the ummah, or the Nation of Islam, and stretch from Indonesia to Tunis. Across this vast area, God’s laws will prevail, bringing about peace and equality. Pernicious Western attitudes and influences will be dispelled.
Many of us may not share this vision or consider it practical, but Islamists are willing to kill and die in imposing it on us. While we may think this violent attempt to enforce a system on the majority is unique to our era, we need only to look back to the mid-19th century and the revolutionary ferment in Europe to find many parallels.
Then, anarchists sought to change the status quo to attain their dream of a world in which all were equal, power was decentralised, the profit motive was no longer supreme, and people were free to strive for the goodness that was inherent in all humanity. In this version of heaven on earth, there would be no wars because ordinary people, unlike the rich, had no need to seize the resources and lands of others.
As a philosophy, anarchism was close to Marxism, and only split off from the movement due to the perceived authoritarian and ‘statist’ streak in socialism. This kind of doctrinaire schism has also caused endless infighting among various Islamist groups.
Current examples range from the vicious battle between Deobandis and Barelvis in Pakistan to the confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt.
Both periods have also witnessed huge income disparities. In Paris, Berlin and London — all hotbeds of revolutionary ideas — the fabled Belle Epoque, or Gilded Age, flowered next to abject poverty. And at present, many studies indicate that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider at an alarming rate. As bankers and corporate bosses pocket ever larger bonuses and salaries, the poor in many western countries are having to scrounge for food.
One difference between the two movements is that senior figures in the anarchist movement wished to adopt peaceful means to achieve their goals. However, their acolytes launched a terrorist campaign that shook Europe. In the present jihadi context, most militant groups have adapted the takfiri argument first developed by Ibn Taimiya, a 14th century theologian. He argued that the lands of Islam needed to be purified of Sufi and other non-Muslim tendencies that had crept in. Many terrorist groups use this to justify their attacks against fellow Muslims, something clearly forbidden in the Holy Book.
In 19th century Europe, much of the revolutionary ferment was framed between two major events: the multiple uprisings that shook the ruling elites across much of the continent in 1848; and the Paris Commune that was briefly established during the siege of the French capital by the Prussian army in 1871.
After the unpopular French emperor Napoleon III fled into exile after his defeat, revolutionary and republican groups seized control of parts of Paris. But the provisional government crushed the incipient movement with great brutality, killing around 20,000 and expelling many others.
So tight was German control over the besieged city that not only were telegraph wires cut, but specially trained falcons swooped down on homing pigeons carrying messages to and from French forces in the provinces. The establishment of the Paris Commune, short-lived though it was, became a rallying point for revolutionaries the world over. Here, I suppose we have our own Red Mosque incident, except, of course, those killed were in the scores, not the thousands.
One major difference between the two movements is the total absence of women from the front ranks of the jihadis. Contrast this with the large number of women who not only fought with the Communards in Paris, but were ideologues and leaders in both anarchist and Marxist tendencies. Of course, the European movement was partly inspired by the Enlightenment with its emphasis on equality.
If Al Qaeda’s attack on America on 9/11 triggered a global ‘war on terror’, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist with alleged anarchist links, saw the beginning of World War I. This conflict took millions of lives, and set the stage for an even bloodier conflict a mere two decades later.
Both Islamists and anarchists can claim to have pushed their ideas into the mainstream. Anarchists argued for workers’ rights, social security and the elimination of privilege for the rich. Many of these progressive ideas are taken for granted in developed countries today. Across the Muslim world, secular ideals have been marginalised in an increasingly Islamised landscape. A militant agenda has been pushed through street and gun power by groups who constantly resort to violence to get their way. States have been weakened by the constant questioning of their Islamic credentials.
So while their goals are almost diametrically opposed, both groups have waged a violent struggle to impose their worldview and their version of utopia on the rest of us. Towards the end of the 19th century, anarchists subjected major European capitals to a reign of terror, assassinating several leaders and setting off bombs in public places. They practised what they called the ‘propaganda of the deed’.
If anything, jihadis have been even less discriminating, often deliberately targeting women and children. They appear to have absorbed many of the lessons from the anarchist movement, launching audacious attacks that get maximum media coverage.
But while anarchists dreamed of a democratic utopia where all were equal, the Taliban and their ilk seek to subject us to a theocratic dictatorship where the length of men’s beards or the invisibility of women will determine status. Take your pick: I know which one I would choose.