The erstwhile British Empire, Islamic State and Eric Hoffer

As planes of the Royal Air Force conducted their first sorties over Iraq following the House of Commons vote authorising UK military involvement in the war against Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh), it seems apt to post something about the relationship of the present crisis to British history. The Noahide flood of online traffic discussing the crisis undoubtedly contains many arks of dubious construction, their inhabitants the opinions formed over generations of commitment to theoretical or theological understandings of Middle Eastern politics. Pro-intervention, anti-intervention, blame the West for the situation or blame the heart of the Islamic faith itself, you may find your own tent and a flag to hoist above it in the online armies of political certitude. To declare interest, I was a phone-in guest on LBC 97.3’s Andrew Pierce Show on Saturday September 27th and briefly set out my views therein – they may be considered cautiously pro-interventionist in this instance.

As you may have guessed by the title, this will also be an apt place to discuss the work of Eric Hoffer, one of the greatest and most under-appreciated political thinkers and social theorists of the twentieth century. He holds a rare distinction of having been publicly vaunted in his time for the profound insights of his bestseller books, most notably The True Believer (1951), yet his present-day legacy is largely restricted to fans in American conservative intellectual life. He is the subject of laudatory posts in The American Spectator and typically ranked among ‘Great Conservative Thinkers’ but is relatively unknown in political science classes. This may be an ancestral curse resulting from his criticism of the anti-war, anti-capitalist subversive orthodoxy he perceived to have consumed scholarly and student life at UC Berkeley, where is served as an adjunct professor in the 1960s, as well as Hoffer’s dislike of intellectuals generally. His unfinished tract on the character of the intellectual contained the inflammatory accusation that “Any social order…which can function well with a minimum of leadership will be an anathema to the intellectual” – libel to the intelligentsia and gold dust for neo-con opponents of campus leftism. But Hoffer has greater appeal than a minor deity of the conservative thinkers’ pantheon and offers far greater critical insight into the driving forces behind mass movements, whether religious, political or beyond taxonomy.

Britain’s state of collective self-belief has not only changed but has shifted paradigms; the imperial power which redrew the boundaries of entire regions of the Middle East within the horizons of 1920s geopolitics has, in less than a century, taken the position of a minor and even ceremonial participant in an American-led multinational campaign against one ideological descendant of that same era. The first Islamist movement of the modern era, the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in British-dominated Egypt. The boundaries of modern Middle-Eastern states were not all drawn with the dramatic simplicity of the tale of ‘Winston’s Hiccup’, a legend about imperial diplomacy which the latter-day Churchill encouraged himself in vein of his fondness for the old historical tropes of Great Man and accident-driven historical contingency. However, as Michael Collins Dunn, the Editor of the Middle East Journal stated of the ‘Hiccup’, “It’s one of those apocryphal tales in history that should have been true, even if it’s apocryphal”. The wages of short-sighted colonial map-drawing have caused generational headaches far and wide beyond the Middle East; consider the resounding successes of British ‘Divide and Quit’ partitioning in India and the post-1921 constitutional settlements for the counties of Ireland and Britain’s handling of the Mandate of Palestine up to 1948 become marginally more comprehensible.

What fun Christopher Hitchens may have between prophetic despair at the realisation of warnings about the explosion of radical Islamism dealt with in all ways but the effective. In a 2003 article for The Atlantic, the British imperial ‘legacy’ to the Arabian peninsula and surrounding regions is summarised with the relevant associations between past and present laid bare:

Sir Henry Mortimer Durand had decreed so in 1893 [the separation of Pashtun peoples between ‘India’, later Pakistan, and Afghanistan] with an imperious gesture, and his arbitrary demarcation is still known as the Durand Line. Sir Mark Sykes (with his French counterpart, Georges Picot) in 1916 concocted an apportionment of the Middle East that would separate Lebanon from Syria and Palestine from Jordan. Sir Percy Cox in 1922 fatefully determined that a portion of what had hitherto been notionally Iraqi territory would henceforth be known as Kuwait. The English half spy and half archaeologist Gertrude Bell in her letters described walking through the desert sands after World War I, tracing the new boundary of Iraq and Saudi Arabia with her walking stick. The congested, hypertense crossing point of the River Jordan, between Jordan “proper” and the Israeli-held West Bank, is to this day known as the Allenby Bridge, after T. E. Lawrence’s commander. And it fell to Sir Cyril Radcliffe to fix the frontiers of India and Pakistan—or, rather, to carve a Pakistani state out of what had formerly been known as India”

The anti-war movement is significantly quieter than a decade ago; the political mainstream, including most of the Labour Party has now in 2014 taken a similar position to that of Hitchens and his pro-interventionist ally Nick Cohen in the 2003-2011 Iraq War (see Nick Cohen’s direly necessary 2007 polemic What’s Left?, a tome I think will one day be regarded in the same breath as Paine’s Common Sense and the post-Catalonia essays of Orwell). ISIS cannot be written off as a reaction to Western neocolonialism and, as Cohen argued potently in What’s Left? and since then, an anti-imperialist narrative which places the moral responsibility for Islamist movements and their atrocities at the foot of Western powers alone is in itself an inversion of the white imperialist mentality; political power and responsibility can only be exercised by all-powerful Westerners, whilst political and moral agency cannot be ascribed to Muslims or the Global South. To deny the agency and decision-making faculties of individuals who make up Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and other groups in turn removes any agency from their victims and the cultures most radically affected by their existence. Even a recent article on ISIS by Matt Carr for Stop the War Coalition, one of Cohen’s many targets in What’s Left? recognises that, “Such collaboration doesn’t mean that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are mere pawns of Washington. It is difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States.”

Material interests are certainly not the driving force behind the exponentially growing ranks of ISIS; what material, rational, self-interested goals are realised by severing ties to the developed world, renouncing one’s identity and making tracks to join a new rogue state engaged in an apocalyptic war with all its neighbours and all the world’s major powers? ISIS has threatened attacks on Russia and promised to extend its ‘Caliphate’ to Chechnya, thus destroying any prospect of advantageous neutrality or covert support from the Putin regime. It is reasonable to provisionally assume that ISIS regards itself at war with the world, or any world outside potential integration into its proclaimed Caliphate.

One notable example of the driving mentality behind ISIS’s wave of foreign fighters (there is a debate to be had on whether one should consider any members of ISIS ‘foreign’, as the entity seeks the establishment of a transnational theocracy – is a British jihadist more ‘foreign’ to the Islamic State than an Iraqi, Syrian or Jordanian jihadist?) can be seen in this September 25th Vice News interview with Abu Usamah Somali, a Canadian jihadist who burned his passport in a video ‘message’ to the West. In a statement with some implications for the public portrait of ISIS/Da’esh theology and its relationship with orthodox Islam, Abu Usamah responded to the question “how do you guys get recruited to go?”:

“No one recruited me, actually no one spoke a single word to me. All I did, I opened the newspaper, I read the Qur’an – very easy.”

Self-radicalisation did not begin with the ease of propaganda and training availability proffered by the Internet. Much commentary has been made on the sophisticated propaganda methods employed by ISIS, which has mastered the use of online communications and social media. The FT offered the assessment from jihadist expert Aaron Zelin that ISIS was “probably more sophisticated than most US companies” in its use of social media platforms to spread awareness of its victories and draw recruits from across the globe to its captured territories. However, the individual radical can be won over without electronic media and historically radicalization has required materiel no more technologically sophisticated than pamphlets, Gospels and well-executed demagoguery. Ted Kaczynski, the ‘Unabomber’, along with his fellow ‘lone wolf’ terrorists of late-twentieth century American nightmares Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolf were brought to radicalization by readings of texts which matched up with their own frustrated understanding of the world and personal psychologies that remain difficult, if at all navigable territory for the historian.

But ‘lone wolf’ incidents aside, what makes ISIS a most relevant subject for a penetrative critique using Hoffer’s aphorisms and perceptive litmus tests for fanaticism is its very self-proclaimed status as a transnational movement. It has certainly succeeded in convincing young men and women to uproot from otherwise settled and undistinguished lives outside the Middle East to join its ranks, most with no previous experience in combat or any fighting capacity, let alone as black-garbed volunteer martyrs.

One of Hoffer’s most consistent themes in The True Believer is the relationship between Self and the externalized Self in the form of mass movements; principally, that the self-abrogation demanded by religions, political parties and other ‘greater causes’ is actively sought out by the most zealous recruits to the movement:

There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.

– Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Section 7.

Marxist analysis of class conflict and the struggle for markets can go so far in history even among non-communists and non-Marxists – it was indespensible for E.P. Thompson’s magnificent studies of the working-classes in England and Richard J. Evans’ later work on German social history. However, the individual will – from Weber’s charismatic figure of authority to Hoffer’s multitude of True Believers – exists in an historical paradigm outside materialism.

The Dialectic can help; one long-term project of this blog will be to sow the seeds of a Marxian-Weberian synthesis of a kind which accommodates for advances in psychology and anthropology, particularly in the origins of religions and the group mentality of board-room politics at the heart of global capital. But in addressing the historical questions of ISIS, we cut ourselves short by making conclusions with Empire and American geopoliticking. To understand what has caused hundreds of young individuals from around the globe and across the social strata to make flight in the direction of almost certain death, fighting for a movement which has emerged from obscurity to the world’s terrified focus in the space of mere months, we must pay attention to the individuals. Economic classes are of comparably little relevance in the question of ISIS. What drives the formation and growth of mass movements like ISIS is foremost belief. Among Marx’s shortcomings was his underestimation of the power of belief – this is where, as an historian interested in the beginnings as much as the pathology of religions and political movements, I find Weber is our better friend here.

And Hoffer, the ‘longshoreman philosopher’ of San Francisco who stated not only of the propagandistic arm of the mass movement, but of the movement in general, “Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience… and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing spectacle.” When Hoffer is read alongside the video streams of ISIS’s defiant barbarism and spectacles of neo-medievalism, proudly narrated by British, American and Canadian-born jihadists, complaints of cliche should be muted in light of the self-evident.

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