Wrong kind of radicalisation
How to explain the ‘teenage brides for IS’? Mike Macnair examines the phenomenon of hope in a disastrous illusion against the background of the left’s failure
Until the story was overtaken by the Rifkind and Straw scandal, the mainstream media was full of the three young women from east London - Amira Abase, Shamima Begum and Kadiza Sultana - who have run away from home and school to join Islamic State in Syria.
The start of this week saw mutual recriminations between the Turkish and British police; media suggestions that their school, Bethnal Green Academy, had not done enough to prevent ‘radicalisation’ (and on the other side, routine expressions from the school and locals of surprise, horror, etc); and demands from David Cameron that social media networks crack down on jihadist speech, that airlines are tighter on allowing unaccompanied ‘children’ (referring in this case to 15- and 16-year-olds) to fly - and so on.
There has been the usual psychobabble about ‘radicalisation’. The BBC has linked to an interesting study, ‘Becoming Mulan’ by Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frennett,1 published in January by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (self-described as “an independent ‘think and do tank’ working with leaders in government, business, civil society and academia to develop cross-border responses to the major geo-strategic, social and security challenges of our time”). The basic point is that, in spite of the striking character of this latest case, it is not unusual: IS has recruited significant numbers of supporters and intending brides of the fighters among young Muslim women. The authors have studied social media output of the women who have taken this path. What becomes overwhelmingly clear is that this is a political choice, not a matter of ‘brainwashing’ à la the various cult operations which recruit from campuses.
What motivates this political choice? What does IS have to offer young Muslim women who have grown up in ‘western’ countries, given that it argues for and applies a version of sharia which involves the radical subordination of women - to the point of the rape and sexual enslavement among its defeated enemies?
There is an aspect of the political choice which is specific to young women and concerns the contradictory politics of gender subordination and traditional male and female roles. IS and similar Salafist organisations can offer precisely an ideal of ‘female dignity’ under ‘separate spheres’.
There are two other aspects which are gender-neutral. In the first place, the ‘Becoming Mulan’ report indicates that a prominent value for those who have gone to join IS is the solidarity of the umma (Muslim community). Even where liberal ideology is not being used merely as a cynical cover for geopolitics, liberalism precisely denies and rejects the possibility of human solidarity. This denial is in flat contradiction with human nature. Hence, the more liberalism is in the ascendant in any society at the expense of lay solidarity (socialism, communism, trade unionism, and so on), the more it produces its ‘other’: radical traditionalist, rightwing nationalist or religious forms of solidarity.
Secondly, if, as mainstream politicians claim, IS is truly made up of extortionists and murderers operating under the flag of Islam, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and so on - the ‘western states’ - are also extortionists and murderers, this time operating under the flag of liberalism, and on a very much larger and more destructive scale. IS is at least (apparently) effectively resisting these bigger-scale gangsters. It is a false judgment, but an understandable one, given the radical ineffectiveness of the political left’s opposition to the bigger-scale gangsters.
How are women to have autonomy and dignity? The traditional view of liberals is that it is through equal rights with men. Marxists have equally traditionally argued that the entry of women into the workforce creates the possibility of the emancipation of women, through breaking their atomisation in household work and thereby empowering their collective action.
The results to date, however, have been the ‘double shift’ for working women; continued unequal pay; and so on. Perhaps most immediately obvious to young women, the ‘liberal free market’ and the internet have enabled the ‘pornocracy’, in which images of women as mere sex toys for men are omnipresent; and there is a continuing ‘rape epidemic’ (in reality, a contradiction in the regime of gender subordination, in which more rapes are reported rather than suffered in silence).
This regime naturally supports a ‘difference feminism’, in which the idea is that women can have autonomy and dignity through the recognition of the dignity of the ‘women’s sphere’ of childbearing and rearing, and so on, rather than through equal rights or participation in collective action. But this sort of feminism, as was already apparent in the 1980s, converges with the ‘separate spheres’ ideologies of traditionalist religion.
This kind of ideology can, nonetheless, mobilise young women. This is no novelty in Islamism: for only two examples, mobilisation of women behind ‘separate spheres’ traditionalism was already a feature of the conservative British nationalism of around 1800, and appeared again in the ‘neo-orthodox’ anti-democrats of 1840s Germany.2 Indeed, part of the paradox is that such mobilisation may actually function as a form of young women’s political agency as such, since precisely by virtue of its apparent traditionalism it is licensed in relation to parental control. The strong presence of militant, veiled young women was, in fact, already a marked feature of the anti-war demonstrations and those around Gaza in 2014.
To go to al-Sham with the aim of becoming a bride to one of the fighters is an extreme form of the pursuit of the ideology. It may also reflect a particular aspect of it: if there are to be separate spheres for women and men, what is the men’s sphere? The ‘normal’, traditional answer is ‘to be the breadwinner’. But traditionalist views also represents men’s spheres as that of the fighter (a striking instance of women mobilised to make men fight is the World War I ‘Order of the White Feather’3). And in these terms, the fighters of IS can be fetishised as real men or ‘young lions’ - an identification also noted in ‘Becoming Mulan’.
Human beings are a social species. We do not have the teeth and claws to live like wildcats (an individual-territorial species). And it is perfectly clear that social interactions are seriously important to human well-being. In ancient times, solidarity was close to being essential to individual survival. In modern times it remains so: individualist ‘survivalists’ and such-like expect to hoard the products of sophisticated factories producing arms, ammunition, storable food products, and so on. But this objective necessity is veiled behind the apparent individualism of the market and the appearance of the state as merely an external bureaucracy which oppresses us, rather than being - as it also has to be if it is not merely to fail - also a means of our collective action in building and maintaining roads, bridges ... and so on.
The ‘classical liberals’ thought, and their ‘neoliberal’ successors think, that the need for solidarity, for collective action can be avoided or minimised because the ‘hidden hand’ of free markets would solve most collective-action problems, so that the social need for consciously collective actions can itself be reduced to the role of the law and the ‘nightwatchman state’. Or - put another way - ‘civil society’ can limit ‘the state’. The problem is that the ‘hidden hand’ is straightforwardly false: free markets do not tend to equilibrium, but to cyclical panics and social polarisation. Equally, property is useless without public rights of way to access it (and of little use without more extensive public infrastructure). In reality, the overt action of the state is a constant necessity in ‘market society’, and hence the liberal capitalist state is stronger and more pervasive in its operations, exercising more control over the daily lives of its subject population, than European absolutism or the Tokugawa Shogunate ever was (let alone antique and tributary empires, however much Pharaoh might be called a god or dead Roman emperors be deified).
The straightforward falsity of liberalism’s (necessary) economic assumptions therefore means that liberalism necessarily produces its ‘other’: if not socialism, then increasingly violent forms of conservative communitarianism (fundamentalism, nationalism, and so on). I say ‘increasingly’ because the violence will continue to rise until a rupture in open great-power war temporarily destroys the ascendancy of liberalism, as happened in 1939-45.
It is this background dynamic which produces the appeal of the solidarity of the umma, including the IS sect version of it. Entirely analogous senses of exaltation through solidarity in common action have been reported from participants in the Russian Revolution and civil war; in World War II; and so on.
Imperialism and resistance
The third point is most fundamental. Many of the women whose social media output is reviewed in ‘Becoming Mulan’ reported ‘radicalisation’ as a result of the images of the grotesque and inhuman results of high-tech ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza ... It is profoundly important to recognise that this is not an irrational or deviant response. It is elementarily human to care about others; to care about children; to care about fairness. It is fundamental to recognise that liberalism, besides its real effect, also serves merely as a bullshit banner under which the states of ‘the west’ are engaged in unjust wars, in exporting death and destruction wholesale and on an industrial scale beside which IS atrocities are peanuts.
Moreover, ‘the west’ not only exports death and destruction in military form, but also does so through International Monetary Fund ‘structural adjustment’ programmes, the withdrawal of credit in crises, and so on. This regime is one of long-run structural and institutional subordination of the countries outside the ‘western’ core to the states and capitals within it. The regime is not one of market liberty or liberalism; rather, as it relates to the ‘east’ or ‘south’, it is one of more or less open tyranny.
The fact that young women in east London - or their male compeers - are not directly and personally affected by this regime (indeed, they have at a certain level benefited from it in terms of education, health services, and so on) does not in the least alter the fact that it is rational and human to seek by any means necessary to end it.
IS and similar groups seem to offer a remedy for the overthrow of the regime: resist, fight, through fighting unite the Muslims in a caliphate which can overthrow the imperial powers. They appear to be doing something: fighting back. Who could not be moved by it?
In reality, this last response is a profound mistake. In the first place, IS may be fighting back; but it is not going to conquer the Middle East for the projected caliphate. The reason is precisely the sectarian character of its project, which allowed the Americans to defeat the equally sectarianised ‘resistance’ in Iraq (out of which it grew) by allying with the narrow Shia majority, but buying off some Sunni ‘tribal leaders’. Every step towards conquest will stiffen the local resistance to this sectarian project, irrespective of ‘western’ intervention or not. IS, therefore, merely adds to the death, destruction and despair already inflicted by the US and its allies.
Secondly, ‘the west’ does not treat only brown-faced lives as cheap, or wage war only on Islam. With their ‘Maidan’ coup in Ukraine, inevitably and entirely predictably resulting in a civil war with Russian support for the other side, the ‘western powers’ have shown that they also treat white-faced lives as cheap if they stand in the way of ‘western’ geopolitical interests. In the so-called ‘austerity’ policy in Greece and elsewhere, the IMF ‘structural adjustment’ programmes and their nauseating consequences in mass impoverishment have come home to Europe. Not Muslims targeted here, but Orthodox Christians, as in Ukraine (and as in the 1999 war on Serbia).
Thirdly, IS is in substance funded and backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But the Saudi and Gulf regimes are, precisely, vassal states of the USA. This was originally authorised in Washington as indirect funding for the Syrian opposition, which Washington hoped would overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria and thereby weaken both Iran and Russia. Washington could, even at this date, turn off IS’s financial and logistical taps by pressure on Saudi and the Gulf. Presumably it does not do so for some geopolitical reason, though its motivations in the Middle East are now very obscure (perhaps even to US state actors themselves). But this background precisely implies that there is no chance whatever, however militarily successful it may become, of IS overthrowing the regime of western imperialism. If it did become highly successful militarily, it would be as an indirect agency of US imperialism.
The popularity of IS among some young Muslims is therefore hope in a disastrous illusion. But this hope is the product of a failure - the failure of the left to offer a serious alternative approach to the problem of resisting and overthrowing the imperialist order.
At a general level, it is not just liberalism which produces conservative-communitarian collectivism: it is our own failure to offer an inspiring alternative. Part of this failure is the mass socialist parties’ descent into the character of government or aspirant-government parties, and the catastrophic failure of the USSR, and with it ‘official communism’. But it is also the far left’s insistence on ‘toning down’ its own ideas in the hope of achieving ‘broad unity’: a hope whose only practical effect is to silence the ideas of Marxism.
In the specific, it is the failure of the Stop the War Coalition - in fact for the same reason. Once it became clear, first, that marching would not stop the invasion and, later, that Iraq was not Vietnam, the anti-war project needed to move rapidly to posing a political threat to the warmongers, by organising in the constituencies to kick out pro-war MPs. But the left was splintered: the Socialist Party in England and Wales had already abandoned the Socialist Alliance, and the Socialist Workers Party now did so in the hope of a larger dividend from Stop the War or from an alliance with George Galloway; Respect was too slow off the mark and poisoned by bureaucratism.
Stop the War itself was for this purpose trapped by building itself as an apolitical, single-issue broad front, including Labour and trade union tops and even Liberals. This alliance drove it to not merely single-issue, but also single-method: ‘We will march, march and march again ...’ As the war went on, the marches have got steadily smaller: why carry on marching without effect?
Gravitating towards IS - as Amira Abase, Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and a good many others have done - is a dead end. But to offer an alternative to this option the left needs to organise itself to fight for a really radical alternative to the present order.
2. L Colley Britons: forging the nation Yale 1992; J Sperber Rhineland radicals New Jersey 1992.
3. Brief discussion Independent on Sunday May 11 2014.