September 21, 2016


Epidemics of Insanity: Euripides, Mao, and Qutb : How virulent contagions of political fanaticism spread across the globe--or, what the Muslim Brotherhood and its descendants share with The Little Red Book (Paul Berman, September 20, 2016, Tablet)

Maoism stood for the revolutionary principles of Stalin, which Stalin's mediocre heirs in the Soviet Union had abandoned--Stalin, in the perfected form of Mao Zedong Thought. And, around the world, there were people who fell into the belief that, under Mao, the utopia that had failed to emerge in the Soviet Union was indeed taking shape, and the horrors of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were, on the contrary, grandeurs, and the turmoil in China was merely the traumatism of a magnificent and world-historical birth. The new proletarian civilization was emerging at last, except in the perfected form that allowed it to be, instead, a peasant civilization. The most astounding claims were made on Chinese Communism's behalf. It was believed that, under the Cultural Revolution, a new level of altruism had been achieved, that individualism had disappeared, that a new kind of sexual purity had emerged, that mankind had very nearly become a new and superior species. [...]

Milestones proposed and still proposes an alternative reality, in a pocketbook version. This is seventh-century Medina, which Qutb wished to reestablish in some corner of the world, yet to be determined, in order to launch the struggle for world conquest against the rival empires of Communism and the Western powers. And Qutb's book proposed that, in the degree possible, you should begin to inhabit the alternative reality right now, even if the Quranic society has not yet been able to establish itself somewhere. Like Maoism, then, Qutb's idea offers an alternative life, as well as a program for action. It lends itself to a utopian counterculture, which can be established anywhere, not just in regions where the jihadis have succeeded in taking power, as in the emirate of Afghanistan in Taliban times, when al-Qaida acted on Qutbite principles, or in the post-Qutbite Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in our own moment.

In France, for instance (as I learn from reading a superb new book by Gilles Kepel, Terreur dans l'Hexagone: Genèse du djihad français), an Islamist preacher from Syria succeeded for a few years in establishing a Quranic utopia in the little village of Artigat, outside Toulouse, which attracted converts to Islam and the descendants of North African immigrants alike. The Quranic utopians ran businesses; meanwhile, their community became an outpost of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Jihadis shuttled back and forth from France to the field of battle; sometimes they made France the field of battle.

Why did people join this community, or join the myriad other Islamist countercultures that established themselves in one neighborhood or another in different countries? They joined, and they continue to join, because they have wanted to adopt marvelous and heroic new identities--not the identity of a muscular proletarian or peasant from the Chinese posters, which was the attraction back in Maoist times, but the identity of a companion of the prophet in ancient Medina. Perhaps there are indications that, here and there around the neighborhood, geographical or virtual, a good many people are deciding to adopt such an identity. Then the attraction may become irresistible. In this fashion, the contagion may spread, and the newly established utopias may turn into Euripides' Thebes, centers of insanity--with the only difference being that, whereas the women in Thebes abandon themselves to wine and Bacchic follies, the women in the Islamist countercultures abandon themselves to a life of teetotaling, self-isolation beneath a niqab, serial widowhood, and perhaps (as we have just now seen attempted in France) martyrdom themselves.

I do not mean to ignore the philosophical and practical chasms that separate Islamism's alternative reality from Maoism's. Still, it is interesting to observe that, from the standpoint of graphic design, nothing at all separates these alternative realities. If you look at the iconography of the Islamist terrorist movements--I had the opportunity to do this by attending an illustrated lecture by Ely Karmon in Tel Aviv some months ago--you will be struck by how closely the Islamist images of fists clutching AK-47s and other representations of the jihad follow the graphic-design concepts that were established many decades ago by the Chinese Maoists. But it is not just a matter of imagery. Mostly these political contagions resemble one another in their consequences, which have been, in Maoism's case, devastating (by and large), and, in the case of the Islamic jihad, devastating (entirely).

Posted by at September 21, 2016 1:34 PM