Why the online Right flirt with the Taliban
Published in UnHerd.
In the weeks following its capture of Afghanistan, sympathy for the Taliban emerged from an unlikely corner of the internet: the online far-Right. In awe of the Islamist terrorist organisation’s martial spirit and revolt against liberalism, a number of online dissidents took to framing the Taliban fighters as heroes on social media. From caricaturing them as ‘Chads’ (alpha males) to sharing images of other Islamist groups with captions like ‘Wahabi boy summer’ (a play on the nationalist ‘white boy summer’ slogan), many of the memes notoriously associated with fringe digital subcultures were suddenly absorbed into discussion around terrorism — including by Taliban members themselves.
This use of far-Right tropes — in particular, the Chad vs Wojak dichotomy — is telling of the two groups’ mutual mourning over modern ‘degeneracy’ and the ‘decline of the West’. But this alliance also throws a spoke in the wheel for the conventional narrative surrounding Islam and the Right.
After all, in both fringe and mainstream conservative discourses, Islam is loathed as a prime culprit driving societal decline. Whether it takes the form of European white nationalist groups such as Generation Identity blaming Muslim immigration for the ‘great replacement’ or Right-wing newspaper columnists deeming it a ‘threat to our liberal values’, hostility towards Islam seems to be a defining feature on the modern Right. No less ambiguous is Islamists’ own hostility towards the Right as the vanguard of the Western culture that they oppose; for both parties, a convergence with one another would seem paradoxical.
Islamism and the Left, on the other hand, appear to make far more intuitive allies. Most recently, it has been suggested that some Islamists may be actively co-opting ‘wokeness’ and camouflaging their agenda in the language of diversity and inclusion. But well outside the sphere of extremism, the so-called Islamo-Leftist alliance is a well-established source of analysis. A number of mainstream trends reveal the extent of a relationship between Islam and the Left, from the crossover of Muslim and Leftist causes among student activists to the fact that Western Muslims statistically tend to vote for Left-wing parties.
Yet this alliance is not without its own tensions: the modern Left has an uneasy relationship with traditional religion, and struggles to incorporate moral absolutism, spiritual hierarchies, and the submission to a Divine order that is integral to Islam. In other words, while the modern Left seeks to break down ‘grand narratives’, Islam is a grand narrative, and one imbued with a profound metaphysical potency at that.
This is not to overlook the fact that there have been numerous attempts to systematically converge Islamic and Leftist political philosophy. Most prominently in the 20th century, movements such as the Islamic socialism of the Iranian Revolution or the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party sought to achieve their political aims through means which were, or at least strived to be, theologically sincere. It is also notable that this kind of Leftism, which was closer to orthodox Marxism, was more sympathetic to grand narratives than its contemporary forms where postmodern currents prevail (leaving aside the overtly anti-religious sentiments of Marx himself, that is).
Today, attempts by Western Leftists to form alliances with Muslims often overlook religious narratives: unsurprisingly, Islamic theological and intellectual traditions do not take centre stage in secular activism. Though modern Leftists — committed to showing solidarity with minority groups — may represent the identities of Muslims, they struggle to represent the values of Muslims. Incorporating their traditional beliefs would involve revising their own secular (and ironically, modern Western) biases, which, despite efforts to ‘decolonise the mind’, they are often reluctant to do.
In effect, the modern Left’s concern with religion boils down to identity politics; an impetus, perhaps, for practising Muslims to gravitate to the other side of the ideological spectrum. But religion is also relegated to identity politics on the modern Right, where the term ‘culturally Christian’ is commonplace. Self-styled ‘anti-woke’ commentators may invoke Christianity in their paeans for a return to tradition, but this often gives precedence to the cultural and aesthetic residues of the religion over its metaphysical and moral precepts. As far as ideology is concerned, more faith is placed in the axioms of the European Enlightenment — individual liberty, free speech and, ironically, secularism — than those of traditional Christianity, now reduced to little more than a signifier of Western heritage.
It follows that the Right’s contempt towards Islam does not come so much from a theological defence of Christianity, but a cultural one. Likewise, the Left’s representation of Muslims, owing to its own secular biases, also ends up reducing Islam to a cultural entity. In effect, theological and metaphysical considerations have been rendered obsolete on both the Left and the Right when it comes to religion.
This points, among other things, to a major shift within the Right: traditionally, it was the Right that served to uphold religious principles, including moral absolutism, spiritual hierarchies and, in a way, submission to a Divine order. But fixated as it now is on individual liberty, free speech and secularism, the modern Right overlooks this. And in relocating its origins to the European Enlightenment, it forgets that the conservative tradition was itself born out of a hesitation towards the Enlightenment.
Roger Scruton — one of the last philosophers to defend conservatism as a counterweight to the Enlightenment, rather than a full embrace of it — saw it necessary for politics to have a metaphysical dimension. Following Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Matthew Arnold, he remained true to the origins of British conservatism as a reaction against the excesses of liberalism and secularism. This conservatism was, he wrote, “a defence of tradition against calls for popular religion and high culture against the materialist doctrine of progress”.
With this in mind, the notion of an alliance between Islam and the Right begins to make sense. Islam poses many of the same challenges to Enlightenment liberalism as the English conservative tradition once did, with both traditions recognising the social and spiritual dangers of modern materialism. Islam, in a sense, fulfils Scruton’s definition of ‘metaphysical conservatism’ as a defence of sacred things against desecration. But today, the modern Right is more concerned with defending free speech against ‘wokeness’, individual liberties against collectivism, and freedom against censorship than sacred things against desecration.
What does this tell us about the alleged alliance between Islam and the far-Right? Since the mainstream Right has become indifferent towards traditional values, their ideological debris has drifted downstream to be claimed by fringe subcultures. But these fragments, severed from their original contexts, have been misappropriated to suit hateful ideologies that are just as unmoored from religious virtues. Defences of gender roles, the family and community, for example, are often articulated through crude biological reductionism rather than spiritual concerns. Whether it’s the blood and soil paganism of Neo-Nazis or the New Atheism of hardline rationalists, much of today’s far-Right is just as materialistic and hostile towards traditional religion.
The fact that many look for or encounter traditional ideas in these extremist subcultures is telling of the fact that these ideas are severely underrepresented in political discourse. This was once a role fulfilled by the Right. Yet modern conservatism’s embrace of liberalism and secularism, despite originating as a counterweight to these Enlightenment ideologies, excludes those wishing to defend the sacred. Without representation of such concerns, ‘dissidents’ will continue to drift to extremes — even if it means promoting a group as nefarious as the Taliban.