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Bassel Salloukh

'Radical Islam', the default demon

Bannon's worldview has already shaped the most controversial policies of the Trump administration [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 February, 2017

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Comment: For Bannon, 'radical Islam' emerges as a kind of 'default demon', and a Muslim way of life is presented as fundamentally irreconcilable with a Judeo-Christian one, writes Bassel Salloukh.
Michael Flynn's resignation on 13 February 2017 from Donald Trump's national security team removes what was supposed to be a key voice in shaping prospective US policies in the Middle East.

Flynn held an antagonistic view of "Islam" and "Muslims" - a term he flaunted in an orientalist manner to describe a monolithic community threatening American values and way of life.

Flynn's other obsession was Iran, a menace he viewed in offensive realist terms: An actor bent on expanding rather than defending (as defensive realists would argue) its security interests in the Middle East. Tehran, in the Flynn worldview, is the epicentre of an "international alliance of evil countries and movements" gathering North Korea, Russia, China, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, all bent on destroying the US.

Flynn's unceremonial departure may be a blessing for other voices in the Trump administration determined to set the new president's domestic and foreign policy agenda.

This is especially the case with former Breitbart News executive chairman and now White House chief strategist Steven Bannon. But where Flynn is superficial and erratic, Bannon is sophisticated, determined, has a penchant for grassroots organizing, and is thus much more lethal.

Bannon's worldview - unpacked in numerous public interventions and in the documentary "Generation Zero" - is anchored in the West's urgent need to respond to three overlapping crises.
The first is a crisis of capitalism that turns everything into a securitisation opportunity and everybody into commodities
The first is a crisis of capitalism that turns everything into a securitisation opportunity and everybody into commodities. According to this view, both the crony capitalism one finds in Russia and many authoritarian regimes in the global South, but also the kind of unhindered capitalism advertised by "the party of Davos" that ultimately led to the 2008 financial crisis, are a far cry from what Bannon labels the "enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West".

It is the difference between a destructive "corporatist" and constructive "entrepreneur" capitalism. At the heart of the former is an obsession with the kind of "hedge fund securitisation" and greediness that enriches an alliance composed of the Washington elite - both Democrats and Republicans - and Wall Street at the expense of the middle and working classes.

By contrast, the latter form of capitalism reflects Judeo-Christian values because it is based on creating both wealth and jobs: it allows for economic growth and hence distributes wealth to the middle and working classes. And this is why Bannon considers the 2008 bailouts unchristian: They saddled middle and working class taxpayers with new financial burdens while allowing the real culprits to escape unscathed, rewarding them with generous bonuses instead.

Take out the religious symbolism, and you are left with a mild leftist critique of capitalism's lopsided economic and social excesses. But the religious symbolism is important in Bannon's mental universe, because it leads straight to the second crisis: "An immense secularisation" that "has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals" in the "war against jihadist Islamic fascism", the third crisis.

There is an interesting causal logic operation here: The commodification and securitisation that comes with corporatist capitalism creates the kind of morally loose secular and multicultural societies that undermine the nationalism, sovereignty, and "traditionalism" that makes for strong countries and "strong nationalist movements" that, in turn, can ultimately confront the menace radical Islam poses to the Judaeo-Christian West.
But where Flynn is superficial and erratic, Bannon is sophisticated, determined, has a penchant for grassroots organizing, and is thus much more lethal
It is this kind of circular logic that enables Bannon to celebrate Putin's domestic achievements despite lumping him with the crony capitalist gang and recognising his otherwise imperialist objectives. It is a tactic Bannon is willing to sanction in the name of the more urgent battle against "a potential new caliphate" represented by IS' global reach.
In this dystopian worldview, then, "radical Islam" emerges as a kind of default demon instrumentally deployed to rally the anti-elite, anti-multiculturalism, anti-globalisation, and anti-secularization troops.

It also emerges as a trope for an alternative - read Muslim - way of life that is presented as fundamentally irreconcilable with the Judeo-Christian one. The result is a self-fulfilling civilizational clash between an "expansionist Islam" and a Judeo-Christian West in retreat, one that leaves no room for reconciliation, mutual recognition, and dialogue.
  Read more: Flynn may have gone, but Russia's alt-right influence persists
It is the kind of binary ideological universe in which IS and its salafi-jihadi affiliates inhabit.

Bannon's worldview has already shaped the most controversial policies of the Trump administration: From the attempt to bar from entry to the US citizens from seven Muslim-majority states for 90 days, the executive order to formally withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, to the callous posturing against Iran.

His mix of economic nationalism and vision of an impending civilizational war promises to stir problems at home and abroad, alienating not only whole domestic communities and institutions plus some core US allies but also, most alarmingly, raising the stakes with those states Bannon has identified as posing the greatest threat to America's global and regional hegemony, namely China and Iran respectively.
Trump's mix of economic nationalism and vision of an impending civilizational war promises to stir problems at home and abroad
This is either a recipe for a compostable presidency with injurious global ramifications or, alternatively, the intentional chaos Bannon deems necessary for deep domestic and international transformations. In either case, the Middle East, nay the world, is in for some challenging times ahead.

In the introduction to his 1981 book, Covering Islam, Edward Said noted that "Of no other religion or cultural grouping can it be said so assertively as it is now said of Islam that it represents a threat to Western civilization".

Said later went on to debunk not only such claims but also the very existence of a single, monolithic, and homogenous religious Islamic tradition.

It is indeed a telling sign of the power of the barriers being rebuilt today between different cultural groups as a result of a convergence of binary, reductionist ideologies of the Bannon or IS type that Said's words sound more apt today than they did some four decades ago.


Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
 

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