When philosopher Erich Fromm introduced George Orwell’s novel 1984, he warned readers that the book was not about the Soviet Union and life under communism. 1984 was about the West, about democracy and the ease with which it can turn itself into dictatorship by succumbing to fear and hatred. The novel was Orwell’s warning that in the conflict between the western democracies and the communism of the Eastern Bloc, both systems would become less distinct, more like each other. Eventually, in fighting an ideological struggle, democracy would become more ideologically orthodox, more totalitarian. Communism would for its part borrow ever more the Western language of liberation and freedom. Orwell and Fromm both argued that, in ideological conflict, the main danger is not being defeated from the outside by the enemy. The main danger is that in fighting their enemy, each side will assume the characteristics of the other until the struggle becomes only a semantic excuse for a fight over power, pure and simple.
The US has entered a new ideological struggle, this time against ISIS, an incoherent network of extremists who share a radical perversion of Islam (arguably an anti-Islamic vision), who have opened their arms to the disgruntled peoples of the world in the hopes of fomenting violence against their enemy. ISIS’s enemy is the Muslim community; a community whose nations universally reject the pretended “state” and its “message.” The Muslims of Syria and Iraq have formed an even more incoherent “alliance” of sorts, with Shi’a and Sunnis fighting seemingly side by side (or at least against the same opponent) to dislodge ISIS from its power base. That power base was constructed in the vacuum of power created by Bush’s dissolution of the Iraqi Army in 2003. The base was greatly strengthened after the Arab Spring, which briefly united many Arabs and Muslims of diverse beliefs and political views against corrupt governments like that of Egypt and brutal dictatorships like that of Syria. ISIS called on extremists to reject the democratic principles that some Arab leaders promoted during the Spring, and instead to embrace a doctrine of fear, anger, and hatred toward those outside of their bubble. They have warred against minorities like the Kurds and Yazidis, they have foisted a rape state of brutal sexual slavery upon women, and they have even looted and destroyed Arab, Muslim, and Christian cultural landmarks for profit and for attention.
Furthermore, as ISIS’s initial success in capturing a territorial base has now resulted in an alliance of forces steadily taking back that territory from them, ISIS is turning ever more to a strategy of “decentralized terror” against external forces predominant in aiding their chief Muslim enemies, especially Russia, Western Europe, and the US. ISIS has reached out to other extremist groups throughout the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere to create an image of a “network” of groups that were already using terror to war against the forces of reason and community. This network is a momentary alliance of groups that have shifted their alliances among groups like al Qaeda, and represent not a growth of ISIS, but an “alliance” of convenience between groups already extant and active. Finally, ISIS has called on those outside the organization to “come to the dark side,” to commit terror in ISIS’s name regardless of their lack of actual connections to the organization. This call has been answered in places like Paris, San Bernardino, and Orlando, where disgruntled people suddenly proclaimed “allegiance” to the group, an “allegiance” eagerly accepted by ISIS as a cost-free means of confusing their enemies into thinking that they are more widespread, embedded, and powerful than they are.
ISIS is using these tactics to build a regime of hatred, racism, and fear. They hate Muslims who are not committed to their vision; and they of course also hate infidels and foreigners for the same reason. They perpetrate racism against groups within and near their area of control in Syria and Iraq, and they perpetrate rape and slavery against women. They work strenuously to frighten those in their base area to remain quiet about the extremist “state” that they are trying to establish, and to frighten those outside their power into doing their bidding. Their chief external aim is to force other societies into more extreme anti-Muslim positions, to convince Muslims that their only viable option for retaining their Muslim identity is to embrace ISIS radicalism. Those foreign leaders who do ISIS’s bidding; who follow ISIS’s game-plan by fomenting suspicion, fear, and hatred of Muslims; are helping to prop up ISIS’s failing outhouse of orthodoxy, and are keeping ISIS’s enemies from achieving victory. Those leaders are building, both in their states, as well as in ISIS, a larger world dis-community of hatred, racism, and fear.
This is the enemy against which the US is poised. In view of this enemy, Orwell’s and Fromm’s arguments from 1984 have become no less relevant today than they were in 1948. In fighting ISIS, some like Donald Trump have sought to do exactly that which ISIS requires of them, and exactly that against which Orwell and Fromm warned us. Trump seeks to “fight” ISIS by transforming the US into another version of ISIS, to transform the thing ISIS hates into the thing ISIS is trying to build: a world regime of hatred, racism, brutality, and fear. Trump followed the recent Orlando atrocity not with kind words and praise for the victims, but with calls for ever more astringent measures directed solely at Muslims, exactly the response ISIS hopes such actions will inspire. Trump could not have followed ISIS’s playbook more faithfully if he were directly in their pay.
The response of Democrats (and even some Republicans) to Trump’s partnership with ISIS, however, reflected the better angels of America’s “shining City on a Hill.” Democrats like President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and Republicans like Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, condemned Trump’s inexcusable partnership with our enemies, declaring that the US was not about to turn aside from its historical legacy of building a greater community from diverse peoples, or from America’s record of taking in refugees and immigrants as new builders of our nation. The legitimacy of our City is best exemplified in the fight with ISIS by a specific strength which Trump even denied without any factual basis. The FBI has repeatedly reported that the American Muslim community continues to serve as the nation’s best early warning system against terror attacks, helping enormously to keep such incidents to a minimum. Trump simply ignored our law enforcement and intelligence specialists, and the abundantly available facts, blaming Muslims for not supporting law enforcement or working with the government. These unfounded verbal attacks by Trump on Muslims, for not doing exactly what our intelligence and law officials say that they have been doing exceedingly well, are not only “uninformed” or ridiculous. They are seditious, slanderous, and dangerous to our established, effective, and functioning security system.
During the Cold War, the US on any number of occasions succumbed to the temptations of Orwell’s warning. The US blacklisted Communists (real and alleged), imprisoned some just for their political views, maintained surveillance against civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., put out of work people who espoused nonconformist views as when Muhammad Ali was denied his boxing awards and credentials for his anti-war views. Ultimately, however, such tactics did not weaken the Soviet Union, strengthen the US, or lead to any victory. Instead, the Soviet Union was weakened by democratic forces eating away at it from the inside, by pin pricks of republican values as Americans engaged with the Soviets in travel, commerce, and science. The US welcomed Soviet citizens seeking refuge like writers Vladimir Nabokov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who became leading voices for Soviet nonconformists seeking an alternative vision for their society. It was the best liberal traditions of our City on a Hill that pushed the Soviet Union over the cliff, not the worst moments of emulating our adversary. Our victory over ISIS, once we have achieved it, will be no different. Becoming like unto them will only strengthen them. Our best liberal values are exactly what ISIS is working to undermine; and extremist thugs like Trump who help them will not “win” anything other than a fuller ISIS entrenchment.
Our liberal traditions, the vision of the City on a Hill, are Why We Fight; but they are also how we must fight if we are to win, and if a victory is to mean anything other than a closer partnership with our enemies.
Headline image posted on imamsonline.com, “Islamic Scholars Must Unite to Combat Extremism.”