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Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 1)

The Mainstreaming of Apocalyptic Politics in America

Comparing Steve Bannon, political operative and advisor to Donald Trump, and Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm al-Baghdādī, caliph of ISIS, may seem hyperbolic. However, close examination of the strategy, rhetoric, and ideas of the extreme movements each represents yields useful, and disturbing, insights into our current political situation.

Michael Pregill


For many liberals, the election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States in November 2016 felt like the end of the world.1 Progressives and conservatives alike would agree that this event, unprecedented in so many ways in our nation’s history, represents an epochal shift in our public affairs. They would likely disagree as to why.

The sense of apocalyptic dread so many people in America – indeed, people the world over – feel is obviously warranted in many ways. Under this administration, the existential threat posed by anthropogenic climate change will remain unaddressed; in fact, it seems to be deliberate administration policy to not even acknowledge it.2 Continuing – and worsening – allegations about the relationship between various Trump proxies and Russian actors and the possible interference of Russian intelligence agencies in the 2016 election raise grave concerns about a foreign adversary’s involvement in our affairs. The recent military action against the Syrian regime and exchange of mutual recriminations with Russia have done little to alleviate these concerns, and have actually raised suspicions that the affair was orchestrated as stagecraft meant to give the appearance of the Trump administration’s autonomy from foreign influence.3

The larger pattern of Trump’s spontaneous, seemingly arbitrary blustering against various nations, including many allies, has introduced a profound uncertainty about how American power will be deployed in the coming years. The inexperience and temperamental instability of the individual holding the highest office in the land brings an unprecedented degree of volatility to potential responses to international crisis, and many experts, opposition figures, and public intellectuals have voiced grave concerns about the formerly unthinkable possibility of casual resort to the nuclear arsenal. Many of us hold our breath with anxious apprehension at how the next significant domestic or international emergency will be handled, particularly if it can be blamed on terrorists.

Most disturbing of all, the unpredictability that has now been introduced into both our domestic and our international affairs may very well be the result of a deliberate strategy. One of the most shocking developments of the first 60 days – a period of two months that already feels like an eternity – has been the President’s establishment of a set of actors in the White House at the highest echelons of power who under normal political circumstances would be readily disqualified from serving in the administration due to their lack of real credentials or experience, to say nothing of their controversial views, statements, or affiliations. Yet these actors, foremost among them the provocateur white nationalist Steve Bannon, have been empowered to undermine the very foundations of democracy and civil society in our country. That there is now a revolving door of discredited advisors and officials entering the inner circle and then exiting it in disgrace within a space of weeks or months, as Bannon now seems to have done, does little to inspire confidence.

The access to Trump granted to individuals like Bannon indicates the president’s apparent sympathy to a form of right-wing anarchism enshrined as the guiding philosophy among at least some of the President’s top advisors. Rather than promoting the welfare and security of Americans, these advisors’ endgame may very well be the exploitation of crisis – perhaps even the provocation of crisis – to force systemic changes to our political system and disrupt the established foundations of our society.4 While previous administrations have certainly not been shy in exploiting crisis in this way, what is new in the Trump administration is the extreme ideology that informs this agenda, which it is no exaggeration to label apocalyptic. This bizarre and unprecedented situation may be seen as the culmination of various tendencies and policies currently embraced by the American right wing; we can trace these tendencies and policies along a trajectory leading back to 9/11 and the Bush era, although they are also symptomatic of more recent developments as well. The implications of this kind of apocalyptic mentality becoming a recurring feature of American politics at the highest level have yet to be fully gauged or understood.

Comparative Apocalypticism: More than an Academic Exercise

The first issue of Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, published last fall, was dedicated to the theme of “The Islamic State in Historical and Comparative Perspective.” Although the fortunes of the ISIS proto-state in Iraq were already declining at that time, discussion of its ideology was – and remains – important because of its historical significance. Scholarly investigation of the propaganda and practices of the Islamic State is worthwhile for many reasons. Critical examination of their spokesmen’s selective use of traditional sources and concepts has proven illuminating, as has comparison with similar jihadist projects throughout Islamic history. ISIS is worth careful attention as well because of the probable long-lasting impact of its messaging among the radical fringes of various Muslim communities around the globe. Graeme Wood’s new book on the Islamic State, The Way of the Strangers, demonstrates vividly how supporters are converted to its cause, constituting what is now in effect a persistent, alienated subculture within the fringe of disenfranchised and disaffected Muslims around the globe.5 Although it appeals to only a tiny minority within a minority, ISIS’ message of resistance to a Western-dominated, global cosmopolitan culture through recourse to a radically purified and coldly absolutist version of Islam that rejects all ambiguity and difference of opinion is likely to present an enduring problem for Muslim communities and Western nations alike.

dabiq1

Apocalyptic imagery from Dabiq, the English-language propaganda magazine of the ISIS movement: American “crusaders” limp off the battlefield in defeat, while the modern-day mujāhid of the Islamic State readies himself for the apocalyptic conflagration to come.

In my contribution to the issue, “ISIS, Eschatology, and Exegesis,” I emphasized the significance of ISIS’ promotion of an apocalyptic ideology to motivate support for its insurgency-turned-statebuilding project.6 Taking an explicitly comparative approach, I focused on the parallels between the interpretations of particular qurʾānic themes in ISIS propaganda and those found in the surviving literature of the Fatimid Empire, an expansionist Shi’i polity that flourished around the year 1000 that also embraced an apocalyptic-millenarian vision as a major part of its revolutionary ideology.

ISIS’ selective revival of historical ideas and practices has received much attention: its declaration of a caliphate; its attempt to restore an Islamic empire in the Arab heartland; its revival of slavery; its claim that emigration to its territory to undertake jihad is a duty incumbent on all believers.7 Most striking to me as a scholar of the Qurʾān, however, has been the ISIS movement’s reliance on a highly politicized form of interpretation that reads scripture as addressing contemporary political affairs in a direct and urgent way. The Fatimids did the same; the early Shi’a called this form of exegesis taʾwīl. Despite the fact that the former identify as Sunnis and the latter as Shi’a, the messaging of ISIS resembles that of the Fatimids in three major ways: their engagement with the Qur’an through this politicizing, contemporizing form of exegesis; their representation of their statebuilding or imperial project as the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy; and their radical sectarianism, presenting themselves as a dissident minority that nevertheless represents the purest expression of Islam. Despite being a marginal minority, both movements position themselves as the true, divinely favored leaders of the worldwide community of Muslims or ummah.

In the present essay, however, I want to expand upon other aspects of my argument concerning ISIS from the first issue of the journal. In my introduction to the issue, “Context and Comparison in the Age of ISIS,” I pursued a different sort of comparative approach to the Islamic State phenomenon.8 Here, I emphasized that the apocalyptic ideology of ISIS needs to be appraised in a balanced, nuanced way, and suggested that comparison with other examples of apocalyptic discourse, especially as tied to expansionist or imperialist military and political projects in the West, might be productive.

That is, if we are serious about confronting the apocalyptic tendencies and perspectives of fringe groups as they not only potentially radicalize populations but may eventually lead to – and legitimate – violence, then we must be ready to acknowledge that this is not only a problem “over there,” but rather also constitutes a problem much closer to home. As recent events have made clear, this is a problem with tangible consequences for our society, our discourse, and our politics, and so such comparative analysis proves to be much more than a merely academic exercise.

The ISIS Bogeyman and the Rightward Shift in Euro-American Politics

It is all too easy to denounce ISIS’ ideology as aberrant, even if it is not completely unprecedented. There can be no question about the group’s radicalism, for their ideas, claims, and practices place them far beyond the pale of modern mainstream Islam, particularly their revival of slavery (in defiance of legal norms now accepted by all the major sects and communities of the Muslim ummah across the world) and their willingness to foment and legitimize violence against their fellow Muslims.9

However, some commentators insist that it is disingenuous for some Muslims to say that ISIS’ ideology has nothing to do with Islam, or that they are so radical that they can no longer genuinely claim to be Muslim.  It is certainly true that the ISIS movement has significant roots in Islamic historical precedent. It is also true that its spokesmen might seem to cite traditional sources in a plausible and competent way, however contested their interpretation of those sources may be – and here it is noteworthy that it is often non-Muslim observers who strenuously assert ISIS’ authenticity on such grounds, generally for the purpose of “proving” that ISIS are “really” Islamic.10  But objections that the historical roots and traditional elements in ISIS’ ideology falsify the disavowals obscure (or deliberately conceal) a more significant point, too easily overshadowed in our current media landscape. There can be absolutely no question that ISIS has legitimacy for only a tiny fraction of Muslims worldwide. Moreover, their ideology represents, by historically objective standards, a serious distortion of the Sunni Islam they claim to champion. Scholarly objectivity dictates that we admit that, yes, ISIS is “real” Islam; but it also demands that we acknowledge that, judged by any equitable standard, this is the Islam of a ultraradical minority within the already marginal minority of the contemporary Salafi-Jihadi movement.13

Many observers have noted that the attempt to evaluate the degree to which ISIS is “really” Islamic ultimately reflects a specious – or sinister – attempt to reduce Islamist violence to ideology – thus implicitly indicting all Muslims as potential terrorists, and marking a fatal (and inevitably lethal) flaw in Islam itself, instead of recognizing the complex historical, political, and sociological factors that lead to violence under particular conditions – and from which no community (Muslim, Christian, or other) is immune.11 Yet Muslims are uniquely distinguished as potentially or actually violent because of supposedly essential or intrinsic aspects of Islamic culture, while Christian culture is seen as having no role in fostering or supporting violence, no matter how violent Christian individuals or communities may be.12

International campaigns against the Islamic State continue to erode its military capabilities; further, beyond the initial – and horrifying – successes of the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Nice in late 2015 and early 2016, ISIS’ ability to orchestrate international terror operations, at least in the West, seems to have proved limited. However, American and European politicians continue to invoke the ISIS bogeyman as the preeminent representative of the lurking threat “radical Islam” supposedly poses to Western freedom, democracy, and civilization. For ideologues seeking to exploit tragedy for political gain, it is not enough to acknowledge that ISIS have plausibly Islamic roots and credentials; rather, they promote the twisted idea that ISIS are Islam, epitomize Islam, expose the true, savage face of Islam that Western Muslims and their liberal advocates foolishly conceal at their – and our – peril.14

Arguably, far more than their actual military or political successes, it is ISIS’ propaganda and image – that is, the idea of ISIS – that has had a pervasive and lasting impact in the West, increasingly capable of triggering extreme reactions from government, political parties, and the general public. The recent rise to prominence of far-right groups and spokesmen throughout Europe and America – where the Trump campaign successfully appealed to and mobilized white supremacist, Christian Identity, and ethnonationalist constituencies to an unprecedented degree – has been facilitated by ISIS’ continuing visibility in the media landscape. Although ISIS’ propaganda is clearly tailored to play upon fears of an implacable Islamic threat looming over the West, the bitter truth of the matter is that it is Muslims who have been the main victims of ISIS’ terror campaigns by a vast margin, ISIS’ attacks on various communities in the Middle East (including their fellow Sunnis) wreaking havoc and bloodshed of horrific magnitude.

Provoking extreme responses in Europe and America, and so encouraging the perception of a state of ineluctable hostility between not only the West and the Islamic State but also majority populations and their Muslim minorities, has surely been an intentional effect of ISIS propaganda. That propaganda has provided grist for the mill for those who have sought – and won – political advantage by exploiting xenophobia and encouraging suspicion of Muslim minorities in America and Europe, leading to the targeting of Muslims in both street-level violence and state-sponsored surveillance and discrimination.15 Most recently, the lone wolf attack at the Parliament building in London provided an opportunity for right-wing politicians in the United Kingdom and United States alike to express their steely resolve in their armchair opposition to terror, predictably couched in nativist, “Clash of Civilizations”-type rhetoric that itself replicates the ideological terms of engagement established by ISIS. As journalist Sulome Anderson noted on Twitter the day of the London attack, “There has to be a better way of reacting to terrorism than acting out the fantasies of the people who committed it.”16

ISIS as “Death Cult” and the Apocalyptic Intimations of the War on Terror

When former British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to ISIS as a “death cult” in 2015, he was motivated by the admirable desire to differentiate between the acts and ideas of extremists and those of ordinary Muslim citizens. By doing so, he was essentially repeating the common critique of ISIS as beyond the pale of true Islam and operationalizing it as an aspect of public relations and government policy.

[deathcult]

The attempts of statesmen like Tony Blair and Barack Obama to distinguish between “real” Islam and the beliefs of extremists may have been well intentioned. But close examination of the neoliberal, imperialist ideology of America and its allies after 9/11 exposes the millenarian, messianic undercurrents of the War on Terror.

But the invocation of the specific language of ‘cult’ is self-evidently objectionable, given the background of this term in historical Euro-American responses to alternative religious formations, particularly movements that tend towards more extreme expressions of eschatological fervor. Scholars of religion no longer use ‘cult’ as an objective descriptor; rather, it is now widely recognized as a political construct intended to mark a group as so deviant that it is naturally subject to extreme sanction by authorities, even to the point of total annihilation (the Branch Davidians of Waco being the most obvious example). The commonly invoked language of “terror” serves much the same purpose in Western discourse, insofar as it serves to mark a group as unquestionably deserving of extreme sanction meted out by state actors with little or no judicial oversight.17

The particular reference to ISIS as a “death cult” is not accidental. It is a deliberate response not only to the extremity of the movement’s ideology, but specifically to its apocalyptic orientation. That is, the language of “cult” is used here to raise the alarm against strains of “radical Islam” that are apocalyptic or millenarian in nature and so that much more devastating because of their capacity to engage in ruthless warfare and terrorism, even to the point of self-destruction, against Western targets in their attempt to hasten the end of the world. The specter of an apocalyptic Islamic threat has previously been raised in regard to Iran, the ruling elite of which is supposedly driven by an irrational, fanatical desire to usher in their millenarian vision of the End Times by fostering instability in the Middle East, obtaining a nuclear arsenal, and provoking a major confrontation with Western powers. Serious scholars have written on the chiliastic aspects of Twelver messianism and their political implications, although these claims of a pervasive apocalyptic agenda on the part of the Iranian regime have been convincingly debunked.18

Some hypocrisy is evident here, insofar as the foreign policy of the powerful Western democracies in the twenty-first century, in particular the so-called War on Terror prosecuted by the United States and allies like the United Kingdom, has occasional displayed aspects of that very apocalyptic millenarianism that is supposedly eschewed by the modern secular state. Thus, paradoxically, while America and its allies purportedly seek to combat this tendency in ISIS, the very same tendency in fact enables and legitimates a state of total, uncompromising war against them.

Northcott’s study An Angel Directs the Storm offers a potent critique of the messianic underpinnings of the War on Terror during the Bush administration: the apocalyptic imperialism that shaped policy; the antidemocratic drive to consolidate power in the hands of the executive branch to support an absolute struggle against America’s enemies; and the relentless expansion of a frontier marked by violent confrontation that continues to justify keeping America on a perpetual war footing even today.19 Northcott vividly demonstrates that the Bush administration effectively communicated and played upon a new interpretation of the Christian “Kingdom of God” as a divinely-ordained mission in pursuit of global hegemony, one that was secular in orientation, at least on the surface, but that drew on ancient and perennially effective appeals to Christian triumphalism.20 Northcott’s work complements Lincoln’s compelling study of the use of religion in American political rhetoric at the outset of the War on Terror, for example revealing the deep religious subtexts of the speeches of both Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush on October 7, 2001.21

Given the tragic history of American military intervention into Muslim societies in the last fifteen years, the vision of a millenarian caliphate like ISIS, with its clear goal of legitimating state violence, is in the final analysis not so different from the neoliberal messianism used to authorize contemporary Western imperialism and state terror – enabling the paradoxical claim that the United States safeguards the world for freedom and democracy through bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military occupation.

Millenarianism and Opposition Politics

In the Bush era, the millenarianism of official organs of the American state was at most only implicit; as Lincoln notes, open promotion of such claims and ideas would have irreparably damaged the administration’s legitimacy in the eyes of secular-minded citizens. However, in the Obama era, other elements in the American political system, particularly Republican factions more concerned with securing the support of right-leaning evangelicals than with alienating the secular mainstream, came to a more or less open embrace of apocalypticism. This likewise invites comparison with ISIS, especially as this mentality fosters an absolutely uncompromising and strident approach to opposition politics that presents not just international military conflicts as an aspect of an existential, even cosmic, struggle between good and evil, but even casts internal political conflicts in this light.

Thus, in spring 2015, former congresswoman and Tea Party activist Michele Bachmann (R-MN) gave multiple interviews to right-wing Christian media outlets opining that the Rapture was imminent as a direct result of the Obama administration’s impending nuclear deal with Iran, as well as due to the advances made toward the legalization of gay marriage in America.22 This characterization, though seeming outlandish to many outside observers, is perfectly legible in terms of the political language of Christian apocalyptic rhetoric, playing upon the classic themes of indicting authorities of collusion with the forces of evil and warning of impending divine punishment upon the body politic for its wickedness.

More recently, in the first quarter of 2016, as the contest for the nomination for the Republican candidacy for president ramped up, it was repeatedly reported that Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi was openly articulating a theocratic vision for the Cruz presidency before audiences of evangelical supporters. Other Cruz proxies such as Glenn Beck and Cruz’s father, Rafael, an evangelical preacher, likewise reportedly promoted an understanding of Cruz as an anointed king divinely appointed to shepherd America through the coming apocalyptic tribulations of the Rapture.

Millenarianism can hardly be considered a fringe tendency when such ideas are openly espoused by members of Congress or surrogates of serious contenders for the American presidency, seeking to court evangelical support by promising a quasi-messianic return to a theocratic utopia should their candidacy prove successful.23 In this, the Tea Party veers towards the radical sectarianism of a group like ISIS, positioning itself as the divinely determined victors and its enemies – even, or particularly, those within their own country, political system, or party – as traitors doomed to failure and perdition. Despite the Tea Party’s success in installing politicians sympathetic to its cause in Congress, the open embrace of such language and ideas has limited the political viability of candidates for office who might seek to employ it openly. At least, this has previously tended to be the case; it is unclear what the future holds on this front.

Adopting a radical dualism that reduces problems to a fundamental, even cosmic, struggle between good and evil is especially advantageous for an opposition group that is primarily concerned with harnessing anti-establishment hostility to promote their agenda, and less concerned (or totally unconcerned) with the pragmatic considerations of genuine governance.24 The simplistic ideology of ISIS that flattens the world, rendering the complexities of global politics into a struggle between a pure Muslim elite and a host of threats from both insiders and outsiders, is much more effective as a recruiting tool for a disillusioned and alienated fringe of Muslim society – especially individuals already prone to violence – and much less effective as an ethos that can sustain a stable statebuilding enterprise. This is equally true for the Christian dualism and millenarianism invoked by some American politicians, similarly grounded in End Time fantasies. It is far easier to blame a complex, chaotic world on outsiders or diabolical forces than it is to confront the public with uncomfortable truths about problems that are difficult to address or solve. The hard work of coming up with pragmatic, sustainable solutions to problems always seems to be deferred – much like the apocalypse itself.

A Resurgent Clash of Civilizations

And yet, now we are faced with a dilemma: what happens when opposition movements that indulge in end-of-the-world fantasies – or campaigns that aim primarily at disruption of the status quo, ignoring all of the rules of engagement established to guarantee the continuation of civil discourse – somehow succeed in taking power, assuming (putative) responsibility for actual governance?

The various precedents mentioned above pale before the full-throated embrace of apocalyptic imagery and radically sectarian language by Republican political operatives, candidates, and proxies in the 2016 presidential campaign. Ironically given its resonance with Cameron’s aforementioned words about ISIS, the relentlessly apocalyptic vision presented by speakers at the Republican National Convention in July 2016 prompted one commentator to note that the Republican Party appeared to have devolved into a kind of death cult.25

giuliani

The incendiary speech given by the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, at the 2016 Republican National Convention epitomized the the morbid, authoritarian, apocalyptic tone that prevailed at the event.

The discourse and rhetoric that emerged around Trump during his campaign resembled that of ISIS in disturbing ways. That campaign, openly allied with formerly marginal extremist media outlets such as Breitbart News, sought to mobilize support among right-leaning constituencies through indulging in exaggerated nativist and xenophobic rhetoric. It presented a worldview in which American values such as freedom and democracy are being undermined and under attack from numerous quarters (in classic Republican fashion, one of the most significant threats was claimed to come from the liberal political establishment itself, especially the federal government and the ruling elites of Washington). On various occasions the campaign did not shy away from insinuating that American values are wholly incommensurable with Islam, regularly playing upon the idea of an ongoing state of conflict between America and the Muslim world, typified by the activities of radical movements such as ISIS, and supposedly confirmed by the actions of lone wolf radicals such as the Orlando and San Bernardino shooters.

Official government spokespeople in America and Europe have in recent years sought to avoid the use of damaging “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric, emphasizing that the Muslim majority should not be held responsible for the actions of marginal groups and individuals. In contrast, the Trump campaign and its proxies commonly depicted ‘radical Islam’ as an existential threat to the West and implicitly or explicitly characterized all Muslims as potentially radicalized and covertly sympathetic to terrorists. Donald Trump first called for a ban (a “total and complete shutdown”) on all Muslims seeking to enter the United States a few days after the December 2015 San Bernardino shooting; he then repeated this proposal as the then-presumptive nominee for the Republican presidential ticket after the Orlando shooting in June 2016.26 Ironically, it was the repeated public expression of interest in implementing such a religiously-defined ban by Trump and his proxies during the campaign and after the election that provided the legal basis for overturning the actual executive orders seeking to impose travel restrictions on entry from seven (or six) Muslim-majority states in early 2017.27

Questioning the loyalties of Muslims in Western nations naturally exacerbates tensions between “native” populations, governments, and Muslim minority communities in America and Europe. It actually complements a tactic adopted by ISIS of appealing to Muslims in the West by claiming that they will never truly be accepted in the non-Muslim societies in which they have sought to make their home. In both cases, the goal is exactly the same: the exploitation of anxieties about an irreconcilable conflict between Islamic and Western values for political advantage.28

Both in the runup to and following the election, some critics noted that on account of the similarity between their rhetoric and characterization of the situation of Western Muslims – not to mention the possible effect of Trump’s policies in confirming ISIS propaganda – Trump had in effect become ISIS’ best recruiter.29 Some commentators even archly noted that Trump was likely to be endorsed by ISIS, a joke that became less funny when actual reports of enthusiasm for Trump’s candidacy among ISIS spokesmen emerged.30 Sadly, although the “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm has been subjected to critique in both academia and the media for many years following 9/11, an even more extreme version of this polarizing worldview has now come to prevail in the highest levels of government in some Western states, especially America.

Centipedes and Cucks: The Ultrafitnah of the 2016 Campaign

One of the most conspicuous – and distressing – parallels between ISIS and the right-wing campaign in support of Trump was (and continues to be) the use of extreme language to assert dominance and marginalize and ridicule the opposition. As became clear during the 2016 campaign, so-called “radical Islam” hardly holds a monopoly on the use of divisive language of radical othering such as ISIS employs in its propaganda, which imposes a stark distinction between true believers and infidels, and in particular marks Muslims who dissent and resist ISIS as hypocrites and apostates, and thus as legitimate targets of violence.

[sectarian rhetoric]

The rhetoric deployed in Dabiq, the ISIS propaganda magazine, often draws a stark distinction between its supporters and Muslims who oppose it. The former are simply termed “the Muslims,” implying that the Islamic State has a natural claim to the loyalty of the orthodox, committed members of the Muslim community. The opponents of ISIS, on the other hand, are consistently given derogatory nicknames: murtaddin or “apostates,” for example. This article on the right refers to the Shi’a of Iraq as “Safawis,” or Safavids, as well as to U.S. forces as “Crusaders.”

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of ISIS propaganda is the use of codewords in polemic against Muslim groups that disagree with or oppose them. While ISIS propaganda refers to their followers simply as “the Muslims” – positioning their caliphate as the natural claimant to leadership of the entire Muslim ummah – the various state, quasi-state, and communal entities that reject their claims are designated through the use of derogatory nicknames.31 This rhetoric, coupled with a practically limitless penchant for brutality both in the theater of war and in the territory the Islamic State occupies, establishes a state of fitnah: extreme discord within the community, civil strife marked by chronic internecine violence. ISIS have displayed an implacable and seemingly limitless penchant for acute sectarianism, positioning themselves as the only true Muslims, the divinely favored, saved minority, in opposition to all other Muslim groups whose defiance of their call to submit to their caliph brands them as hypocrites, apostates, and unbelievers.32

Combining this ideology with an equally implacable, seemingly limitless penchant for extreme violence and cruelty, ISIS have established what we can only call a state of ultrafitnah in the territory where they hold sway – an animalistic war of all against all, not only of sect against sect and faction against faction, but apparently of regime against populace as well. At any moment, any believer can be declared an apostate and subject to the harshest corporal punishments. The goal is the elimination of all possible sources of dissent, all forms of diversity, in the relentless push towards ideological conformity and total dominance of the ISIS caliphate. Atrocity has become an instrument not only of intimidation in the theater of war but of state control of civilians.

Obviously, there is no parallel to this situation in any other Muslim state, let alone in the Western democracies.33 Yet in this moment of universal condemnation of and antipathy towards the ideology and behavior of ISIS, we see disconcerting parallels to their rhetorical techniques in American politics, which have verged in analogously unprecedented and extreme directions.

During the 2016 primary and presidential races, media proxies of the Trump campaign elaborated a complex coded language that is in its own way just as strongly sectarian as that found in ISIS propaganda, designed to promote an image of Trump supporters as virile, prosperous victors and their opponents as servile, submissive, emasculated, and ripe for defeat. In its own way, this rhetoric strives to induce the equivalent of a state of ultrafitnah in American politics – the complete rejection of all limits, rules of conduct, and standards of decency in the relentless drive for political domination and elimination of the enemy. The use of extreme, polarizing language goes hand-in-hand not only with an authoritarian mindset, but also an apocalyptic one: rhetoric that reflects and exacerbates a state of unremitting hostility within society is natural given a worldview of total moral absolutes, marking a stark dividing line between good and evil, strength and weakness, winners and losers, us and them.

The language used by pro-Trump cadres is an extension of the sexist, truculent, xenophobic rhetoric Trump himself used in his day-to-day speech as candidate. These unofficial organs of the Trump campaign valorize aggressive, even predatory behavior; thus, on social media, supporters are termed ‘centipedes,’ playing upon the insect’s capacity for stealthy, venomous attacks against its prey.34 As was widely documented during early 2016, the candidate himself repeatedly encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies during the primary campaign.

Further, the gloating, gendered triumphalism of ISIS and its spokesmen – who mock their opponents as “quasi-men” – is echoed in the hypermasculine discourse of Trump supporters on social media, where the default term for Trump’s opponents is cuck (short for cuckold), with the intentionally degrading and racist associations sometimes left implicit, and sometimes not.

The use of this term seems to have originated a number of years ago with the coinage “cuckservative,” an insult applied to Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative (similar to the code word RINO, “Republican In Name Only”), but “cuck” has quickly been expanded from being a term of internal critique within the Republican fold to being more widely applied, especially to liberals and socialists, who supposedly epitomize the self-abnegating, humiliating posture to which the term alludes.35 It is hardly surprising that Trump’s partisans, who prize expressions of coarse, hypertrophic masculinity, wholeheartedly embraced rhetoric that would feminize the opposition in a campaign that aimed not only to overcome but even utterly humiliate those who supported either an elderly Jewish socialist or a woman.

kingtweet

It is important to unpack the crude, racist ideas and images encoded in the term “cuck” as used by Trump proxies, as they have recently emerged into mainstream media discourse. In the imagining of Trump partisans, a cuck is a man who is not only the victim of infidelity but actually permits and even celebrates his wife’s sexual preference for – or violation by – other men, specifically a black (or Hispanic, or Muslim) man, going so far as to support the offspring of this infidelity as his own child. The nexus of political, social, and racial anxieties embedded in this image is complex; it is also, it goes without saying, morally grievous. It fundamentally plays upon the liberal’s supposed attentiveness to racial justice, support for immigration, promotion of political correctness, “appeasement” of radical Islam, and so forth, all of which directly enable the literal or metaphorical penetration of his wife(/country) – and exploitation of himself – by dark foreigners.

The image plays directly into the larger fantasies – or anxieties – of those who imagine Western civilization to be under metaphorical and literal attack. The terminology continues to be used widely in social media channels such as Reddit and Twitter, and recently received some exposure in the mainstream media when Steve King (R-IA) commented on Twitter in support of Geert Wilders, the notorious anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Dutch politician, “We can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.”36 Although the obviously racist idea here was widely condemned, the mainstream media largely missed that King was (perhaps even unintentionally) alluding to the cuckold trope, indicating his familiarity with the premises, concepts, and language of the pro-Trump racist fringe operating on social media.

Truth, Justice, Theocracy

Perhaps the most bizarre development in the 2016 campaign was the right wing’s overt turn to explicitly religious language, especially attempts to literally demonize the opposition. Trump repeatedly made allegations about Hillary Clinton’s corruption and criminality (leading to the recurring rallying cry of “Lock her up!” at his events, as well as insinuations by his proxies that she would be tried and executed upon Trump’s inauguration as president), but this eventually escalated to a straightforward claim that Clinton is literally the Devil.37 This sort of name-calling is unprecedented in modern American presidential campaigns. The Trump campaign’s capacity to vilify the opposition at times seemed without limits, as, for example, when the candidate himself repeatedly asserted that Obama and Clinton were the literal founders of ISIS, only later downplaying these comments as sarcastic.38 Such rhetoric obviously plays to the enthusiasms of the Republican base, at the very least granting the candidate political traction among a vocal minority who indulge in fantasies of incarcerating or even executing Clinton.

This rhetoric had a subtler effect as well, in that it served to locate the candidate in the camp of those fervent Christians who saw in Barack Obama in particular and the Democratic Party in general a concerted campaign against their religion. The open indulgence in religious rhetoric of a theatrically excessive but symbolically resonant sort implies a similarity in worldview to those who are already inclined to read partisan political struggles in theological terms.

This alignment of the Trump campaign with right-leaning Christians – despite the candidate’s historically profane character and questionable personal rectitude – was also encouraged by his hinting at a willingness to repeal firewall laws protecting the separation of church and state such as the Johnson Amendment. The alliance with evangelical elements eager to gain political advantage by allying themselves with Trump advanced to such a degree during the campaign that, in breaking with the well-established tradition of pastoral neutrality in public political settings, the benediction delivered by the Reverend Mark Burns on the opening night of the Republican National Convention explicitly called on God’s assistance to defeat the “enemy” –explicitly specified as Clinton and the Democratic Party – while referring to the gathered assembly as “the conservative party under God” and praying for “power and authority” to be bestowed on Trump.39

The culmination of right-wing attempts to discredit Clinton on religious grounds was predictably extreme: in October, mere weeks before the election, fringe media outlets specializing in conspiracy theory – preeminent among them Alex Jones’ InfoWars – began “reporting,” on the basis of e-mails obtained by WikiLeaks, that senior members of Clinton’s campaign staff belonged to a satanic cult that performed horrific, possibly cannibalistic, occult rituals. Acclaimed performance artist Marina Abramovic was “implicated” as the head of the cult, which was alleged to include John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, as a member.40 Allegations of child sacrifice and cannibalism have a long history in Christian discourse as a means of demonizing marginal groups and authorizing violence against them, and these allegations are typically followed by others involving accusations of sexual transgression, especially violence against children.41 Predictably, exactly this followed in the wake of the Podesta e-mail “scandal,” which involved into the fringe conspiracy theory popularly known as “Pizzagate,” in which Podesta and Clinton herself were claimed to be involved with (or even orchestrating) a child sex trafficking ring. Though generally of little serious consequence in the leadup to the election, violence erupted as a result of the continuing buzz on social media about the affair after the election when a gunman traveled from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. to “investigate” the allegations.42 Notably, members of Trump’s inner circle were implicated in seeking to publicize the story, in particular Michael G. Flynn, a political operative and son of disgraced Trump national security advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Thomas Flynn (ret.), who served as his father’s chief of staff during the 2016 campaign and transition.

The energetic vilification of political rivals in openly religious terms is of course a staple of ISIS propaganda; a particularly striking parallel appears in ISIS’ attacks on Jabhat al-Nuṣrah, upon whom ISIS spokesmen literally called down the curse of God in a dispute with their former allies.43 While right-wing politicians and pundits in America and Europe regularly decry the theocratic vision of ISIS and other “radical Islamic” groups as anti-democratic and contrary to Western values, at critical moments one can clearly see the theocratic vision that commonly inspires Republican spokesmen as well. Theocratic leanings are plainly apparent even – or especially – among top officials of the Trump administration. The religious context of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice legislation taken up in Indiana while Vice President Mike Pence was governor has been widely remarked, while the well-publicized views of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos concerning the capture of public funds for the support of Christian education was but one aspect of the controversy surrounding her nomination.44 Stunningly, the appointment of Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo to head the Central Intelligence Agency was one of the least contentious selections made by the Trump administration, despite the fact that Pompeo has close ties to notorious anti-Islam activist Frank Gaffney, open embraces the proposition that America is at war with Islam, and once opined that politics is “a never-ending struggle… until the rapture.”45 Though the basic rules of engagement in our political culture demand that such agendas be pursued quietly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, at least for some, the current endgame is not the persistence of the democratic political order, but rather the establishment of a Christian supremacist one.46

The second part of this essay will appear here on Mizan in two weeks.

 

MICHAEL PREGILL is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of the Mizan digital scholarship initiative.

 

  1. I presented some of this material at a panel discussion held at Boston University School of Theology on March 23, 2017. I thank the organizer, David Eckel, my co-panelists, Jamel Velji, April Hughes, and David Frankfurter, and the audience members for their helpful comments. Kenneth Garden, Megan Goodwin, Will McCants, and Stephen Shoemaker read and commented upon an earlier version of Part 1 of this piece. Holly Davidson and Greg Nagy read and gave encouraging feedback on the penultimate draft; Juan Cole and Todd Green did the same, and also offered extensive comments that have significantly improved the final version. I thank all of them for their thoughtful assistance with this piece, and take full responsibility for the errors and oversights that remain.
  2. In commenting on steep cuts to climate-related programs in the Trump administration budget outline released on March 16, 2017, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney noted that “Regarding the question as to climate change… We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that” (Dan Merica and Rene Marsh, “Trump Budget Chief on Climate Change,” CNN.com, March 16, 2017). Sources at the Energy Department have indicated that the phrase “climate change” is now increasingly avoided in official briefings and memos, reflecting the administration’s deprioritization of the issue (Eric Wolff, “Energy Department Climate Office Bans Use of Phrase ‘Climate Change’,” Politico, March 29, 2017). There is recent precedent for such bureaucratic blacklisting of reference to climate issues or reliance on climate science by state agencies in Florida and North Carolina, but this is the first time such a policy of avoidance has been writ large at the federal level.
  3. Conjecture that the administration staged – or at least indulged in – the confrontation to distract the public from allegations about Trump’s relationship with Russia came from both domestic and foreign media sources. Most strikingly, Chinese state media asserted this unambiguously. See Jane Perlez, “After Xi Leaves U.S., Chinese Media Assail Strike on Syria,” New York Times, April 8, 2017. The largely token gesture of a limited missile barrage against a Syrian regime airfield, as well as the rapid dissipation of tensions with Russia, would tend to confirm this hypothesis.
  4. The journalist Naomi Wolf is perhaps the best-known proponent of the argument that governments productively exploit catastrophe (or may even manufacture emergency) to overcome public opposition to unpopular policies, especially those that grossly favor corporate profit at public expense: see The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Knopf, 2007).
  5. Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State (New York: Random House, 2016).
  6. Michael Pregill, “ISIS, Eschatology, and Exegesis: The Propaganda of Dabiq and the Sectarian Rhetoric of Militant Shi’ism,” Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations 1 (2016).
  7. On these points, see especially the articles of Kecia Ali (“Redeeming Slavery: The ‘Islamic State’ and the Quest for Islamic Morality”) and Tazeen Ali and Evan Anhorn (“ISIL and the (Im)permissibility of Jihad and Hijrah) in Mizan issue 1.
  8. Michael Pregill, “Editor’s Introduction: Context and Comparison in the Age of ISIS,” Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations 1 (2016). Some of the material that follows here, especially that dealing with ISIS and the background of the War on Terror, first appeared in that piece, but has now been edited and updated to reflect more recent developments and reportage.
  9. While ISIS’ capture, enslavement, sexual violence against, and trafficking of girls and women from the Yazidi ethnic minority has received significant media attention over the last two years, Human Rights Watch has now documented evidence of the use of punitive rape even against Sunni women as a means of enforcing social control and discipline on the population of occupied areas (“Iraq: Sunni Women Tell of ISIS Detention, Torture,” Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2017). This is unsurprising, since the group defines defection or opposition as disobedience to their caliph, which in turn renders any Muslim an apostate whose blood can legitimately be shed.
  10. The credentials of Islamophobe spokesmen who attempt to display familiarity and facility with the typically abstruse arguments of the classical sources – thus ostensibly qualifying them to evaluate ISIS’ authenticity as a representation of Islam – vary wildly. Some have little expertise and make no attempt to ground their generalizations in data or proof; others such as Robert Spencer have no credible qualifications as scholars of Islam but attempt to marshal historical evidence and textual sources to bolster their claims anyway; a few rare individuals such as Daniel Pipes can claim actual expertise in the tradition, though the polemical bent of their analyses sets them far apart from the scholarly mainstream. Entire para-academic organizations have sprung up to showcase the ideologically motivated research of this fringe of scholars and pseudo-scholars, to say nothing of the role of thinktanks as venues for this type of work, enabling the institutional controls imposed by conventional academia to be skirted.
  11. Juan Cole has critiqued Graeme Wood’s much-discussed article “What ISIS Really Wants” (The Atlantic, March 2015) on this basis, as well as pointing out that the significant contribution of American foreign policy to creating the conditions under which ISIS emerged in Iraq renders analysts’ overemphasis on cultural and religious factors disingenuous: see “How ‘Islamic’ Is the Islamic State?”, The Nation, February 24, 2015. For an analysis focusing on the American imperial project post-9/11 and its effect in stimulating and enabling fundamentalism, see Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).
  12. The shift to an ideological-cultural causal model behind terrorism as perpetrated by Muslims was actually institutionalized in the Obama era, during which CVE initiatives and other surveillance programs targeting Muslim communities were established. See Arun Kundani, The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (New York: Verso, 2015). The pathologization of one culture implicitly leads to the absolution of another, as well as forestalling the consideration of other explanatory paradigms, particularly the social-scientific.
  13. See Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea (London: Hurst, 2017). Much of the reportage on ISIS rightly emphasizes that the group’s willingness to target fellow Muslims indiscriminately puts them beyond the pale of even what Al-Qa’idah and its affiliates consider tactically acceptable in the prosecution of armed jihad.
  14. For some time now Islamophobe activists have latched onto the trope of taqiyyah, claiming that because Islamic law (especially Shi’i law) permits dissimulation of one’s identity or affiliations under detrimental circumstances, Muslims in general have a strong tendency to conceal their true motivations or beliefs (e.g., that they support terror or Islamic regimes in Western states) in order to pursue their insidious agendas under more favorable circumstances.
  15. This has not occurred spontaneously, of course. As Bail and others have observed, significant moneyed interests exert a titanic influence on American perceptions of Islam, particularly by manipulating media representation of current events to fit well-established and highly prejudicial narratives about Muslims: see Christopher Bail, Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). The work of Bail is especially useful insofar as much of the literature on Islamophobia addresses cultural attitudes, social dynamics, and media representation, but overlooks the specific institutional contexts in which ideas and images about Muslims are actually generated and disseminated – that is, how resources are marshaled and channeled towards the deliberate manufacture of said ideas and images as propaganda. See also now Todd Green, The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), esp. Chapter 6.
  16. Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson), March 22, 2017, 9:33 PM. While anti-Islam activists and politicians predictably construed the attack as proof of the need for vigilance against ISIS, subsequent investigation showed that the perpetrator of the attack was a British citizen with a history of violence but no direct engagement with terror networks. Nor has there as yet been credible evidence to suggest that he committed the attack on behalf of ISIS. Meanwhile, monitoring of ISIS media output in the aftermath of the attack showed that although it had not been coordinated, ISIS propaganda outlets rushed to claim the perpetrator, Khalid Masood, as a “soldier of the caliphate” anyway. This reflects a recent tendency on the part of the movement to capitalize on and take credit for uncoordinated acts of violence as a means of asserting its continuing power and relevance in the face of setbacks (Alexander Smith, “ISIS Claims Responsibility for London Attack but Analysts Remain Skeptical,” NBC News, March 24, 2017, citing the report by Charlie Winter, “ICSR Insight: The ISIS Propaganda Decline,” ICSR.info, March 23, 2017).
  17. Sure enough, Cameron’s adoption of such language accompanied the authorization of the deliberate extrajudicial killing of British citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria: see Gary Younge, “State-Sanctioned Killings without Trial: Are These Cameron’s British Values?”, The Guardian, September 8, 2015.
  18. Ze’ev Maghen, “Occultation in Perpetuum: Shiʿite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Journal 62 (2008): 232-257.
  19. There are significant indications that the Trump administration is actually in the process of substantially escalating current military operations in several strategic areas in the Middle East: see Emma Ashford, “Trump’s Wars,” U.S. News & World Report, March 22, 2017.
  20. Michael S. Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), 103–133.
  21. Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 19–31.
  22. Brian Tashman, “Bachmann: Rapture Imminent Thanks to Gay Marriage & Obama,” RightWingWatch.com, April 20, 2015. The coincidence of an outbreak of right-wing intimations of imminent apocalypse in spring 2015 with growing awareness of the millenarian nature of ISIS ideology at that time is striking. Compare Edward L. Rubin, “Our End-of-the-World Obsession is Killing Us: Climate Denial and the Apocalypse, GOP-Style,” Salon.com, March 26, 2015, and the Vox interview with Will McCants published a week later: Zack Beauchamp, “ISIS is Really Obsessed with the Apocalypse,” Vox.com, April 6, 2015. Commentators sometimes cite the dramatic rise in the belief that the End Times are imminent in Muslim societies over the last two decades, but these figures are seldom compared to similar rates of belief about the imminence of the Rapture among American Christians.
  23. See John Fea, “Ted Cruz’s Campaign is Fueled by a Dominionist Vision for America,” Religion News Service, February 4, 2016.
  24. This point is borne out by the evidence: judging by any numbers of standards, the Tea Party-dominated Congress voted in during the 2010 elections was the least productive in American history.
  25. Epitomized by the speech of Rudy Giuliani, much of which was dedicated to a message of impending destruction should America elect Hilary Clinton as president: Jeet Heer, “The GOP is the Party of Death,” New Republic, July 19, 2016.
  26. Jenna Johnson and David Weigel, “Donald Trump Calls for ‘Total’ Ban on Muslims Entering United States,” Washington Post, December 8, 2015; Jonathan Martin, “Donald Trump Seizes on Orlando Shooting and Repeats Call for Temporary Ban on Muslim Migration,” New York Times, June 12, 2016.
  27. Notably, Trump’s comments after Orlando pale in comparison to those of other right-wing politicians, even those (presumably) within the political mainstream. The statements of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at the same time, calling for nationwide screening of Muslims and expulsion of any who express a “belief in sharia” – a more pernicious proposal of equally dubious legality due to its explicit endorsement of religious discrimination that also demonstrates considerable ignorance of how most Muslims conceive of Islam – received far less attention. See David A. Graham, “Gingrich’s Outrageous Call to Deport All Practicing U.S. Muslims,” The Atlantic, June 15, 2016.
  28. On the call to hijrah, see Tazeen Ali and Evan Anhorn, “ISIL and the (Im)permissibility of Jihad and Hijrah.”
  29. Cf., e.g., Eliza Mackintosh, “Trump Ban Is Boon for ISIS Recruitment, Former Jihadists and Experts Say,” CNN, January 31, 2017.
  30. Brooke Spiel, “ISIS: Trump’s Win Is Good for Our Recruiting,” TheHill.com, November 15, 2016.
  31. Some codewords seem relatively innocuous: Sunnis opposing ISIS in Iraq are sometimes called Ṣaḥwah (“Awakening”), after one of the epithets used for the tribal coalition that formed militias and worked to pacify the country under American tutelage in 2007-2008. But when juxtaposed with ISIS supporters who are simply termed “Muslims,” the title encourages an impression of apostasy, the Arabs of the Ṣaḥwah insinuated to prefer alliance with America over Islam. Other codewords are resonant to those familiar with Islamic history but totally opaque to the uninitiated. Prominent examples include Ṣafawī for Iranian or Iraqi Shi’a (after the Safavids, the early modern dynasty under which Iran was converted to Twelver Shi’ism), Salūl for the Saudis (after ʿAbd Allāh b. Ubayy b. Salūl, a notorious enemy of the Prophet who made an outward but insincere show of deference to Muḥammad), and munāfiqūn for Muslims who reject their authority (after the ‘Hypocrites’ or party of those in Medina who, like Ibn Ubayy, pledged their support openly but opposed the Prophet secretly).
  32. Vividly described by Wood, The Way of the Strangers, and Will McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: St. Martin Press, 2015).
  33. The hideous irony is that the ISIS regime’s human rights abuses in the territory they now govern, or at least occupy, in Syria and Iraq monopolize Western media attention to such a degree that they have by and large overshadowed an unfolding genocide against the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar, despite the efforts of the United Nations and NGOs to raise awareness about the situation: “The Most Persecuted People on Earth?”, The Economist, June 13, 2015.
  34. Trump himself being the centipede par excellence, according to a popular YouTube video that combined a narrative from a nature documentary with footage of Trump debating his opponents: “Despite its impressive length, it’s a nimble navigator… And some can be highly venomous. Just like the tarantula it’s killing, the centipede has two curved hollow fangs, which inject paralyzing venom. The centipede is a predator…” (quoted in Almie Rose, “Decoding the Language of Trump Supporters,” Attn.com, March 25, 2016).
  35. In the leadup to the 2016 election, “cuck” was regularly deployed as an epithet for Sanders and his supporters, meant to ridicule such concerns as income inequality and racial justice as effeminate. Transference of the term from Republicans to Democrats is not surprising given the popularity of epithets such as “libtard” and “traitor” for supporters of left-wing causes on social media. Rose, “Decoding the Language,” notes the basic concept underlying “cuck” but overlooks (or perhaps politely ignores) the cruder subtexts.
  36. Theodore Schleifer, “King Doubles Down on Controversial ‘Babies’ Tweet,” CNN, March 14, 2017.
  37. Trump made this comment at a rally on August 1, 2016. At the Republican National Convention a few weeks earlier, former candidate for the Republican nomination Ben Carson identified Clinton’s mentor, Saul Alinsky, as Lucifer.
  38. Trump had previously linked Obama and ISIS in his speeches, but it was his insistent assertion that Obama was the founder of ISIS and Clinton the co-founder at a rally in North Carolina on August 10, 2016 that attracted widespread media attention.
  39. Jack Jenkins, “Trump’s Top Pastor Delivers What May Be the Most Partisan Prayer in Convention History,” ThinkProgress.org, July 19, 2016. Already in April conservative Christian elements were describing Trump as divinely chosen and anointed: see Brian Tashman, “Self-Proclaimed Prophet: God Will Make Donald Trump President and Kill His Enemies,” RightWingWatch.com, April 20, 2016.
  40. Eric Levitz, “Report: Clinton Linked to Satanic Rituals Involving Kidnapped Children and Marina Abramovic,” New York, November 4, 2016.
  41. See David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
  42. Marc Fisher, John Woodrow Cox, and Peter Hermann, “Pizzagate: From Rumor, to Hashtag, to Gunfire in D.C.,” Washington Post, December 6, 2016.
  43. See Pregill, “ISIS, Eschatology, and Exegesis” on the mubāhalah, a kind of trial by ordeal in which two parties call upon God to smite whichever of them is in the wrong in a dispute, to which ISIS invited the leadership of Jabhat al-Nuṣrah in 2014.
  44. On Pence, see Hannah Levintova, “Mike Pence Has Led a Crusade Against Abortion Access and LGBT Rights,” Mother Jones, July 14, 2016. On DeVos, see Benjamin Wermund, “Trump’s Education Pick Says Reform Can ‘Advance God’s Kingdom,’” Politico.com, December 2, 2016 and Kristina Rizga, “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom’,” Mother Jones, March/April 2017. The radical views of Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary organization Blackwater (later rebranded as Xe), have long been a matter of public record: see “Erik Prince and the Last Crusade,” The Economist, August 6, 2009. Prince’s ties to Trump were noted before the inauguration (Jeremy Scahill, “Notorious Mercenary Erik Prince Is Advising Trump From the Shadows,” TheIntercept.com, January 17, 2017) and it has recently been alleged that Prince acted as a secret emissary between the Trump transition team and the Russian government before the inauguration (Adam Entous, Greg Miller, Kevin Sieff, and Karen DeYoung, “Blackwater Founder Held Secret Seychelles Meeting to Establish Trump-Putin Back Channel,” Washington Post, April 3, 2017).
  45. Michelle Goldberg, “‘This Evil Is All Around Us’: Trump’s Pick for the CIA, Mike Pompeo, Sees Foreign Policy as a Vehicle for Holy War,” Slate.com, January 12, 2017; Heather Digby Parton, “Meet Mike Pompeo, the Far-Right Christian Zealot with Islamophobe Ties Who Will Lead Trump’s CIA,” Salon.com, January 13, 2017.
  46. The most recent demonstration of the emboldening of Dominionist political factions operating at the state and local level is the introduction of House Bill 780, the “Uphold Historical Marriage Act,” in the North Carolina legislature. The bill declares the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage null and void in the state on the grounds that it violates the law of God. This claim is made explicitly on the basis of Genesis 2:24, which is quoted in full in the bill.

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Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 1)

The Mainstreaming of Apocalyptic Politics in America


Michael Pregill


For many liberals, the election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States in November 2016 felt like the end of the world.1 Progressives and conservatives alike would agree that this event, unprecedented in so many ways in our nation’s history, represents an epochal shift in our public affairs. They would likely disagree as to why.

The sense of apocalyptic dread so many people in America – indeed, people the world over – feel is obviously warranted in many ways. Under this administration, the existential threat posed by anthropogenic climate change will remain unaddressed; in fact, it seems to be deliberate administration policy to not even acknowledge it.2 Continuing – and worsening – allegations about the relationship between various Trump proxies and Russian actors and the possible interference of Russian intelligence agencies in the 2016 election raise grave concerns about a foreign adversary’s involvement in our affairs. The recent military action against the Syrian regime and exchange of mutual recriminations with Russia have done little to alleviate these concerns, and have actually raised suspicions that the affair was orchestrated as stagecraft meant to give the appearance of the Trump administration’s autonomy from foreign influence.3

The larger pattern of Trump’s spontaneous, seemingly arbitrary blustering against various nations, including many allies, has introduced a profound uncertainty about how American power will be deployed in the coming years. The inexperience and temperamental instability of the individual holding the highest office in the land brings an unprecedented degree of volatility to potential responses to international crisis, and many experts, opposition figures, and public intellectuals have voiced grave concerns about the formerly unthinkable possibility of casual resort to the nuclear arsenal. Many of us hold our breath with anxious apprehension at how the next significant domestic or international emergency will be handled, particularly if it can be blamed on terrorists.

Most disturbing of all, the unpredictability that has now been introduced into both our domestic and our international affairs may very well be the result of a deliberate strategy. One of the most shocking developments of the first 60 days – a period of two months that already feels like an eternity – has been the President’s establishment of a set of actors in the White House at the highest echelons of power who under normal political circumstances would be readily disqualified from serving in the administration due to their lack of real credentials or experience, to say nothing of their controversial views, statements, or affiliations. Yet these actors, foremost among them the provocateur white nationalist Steve Bannon, have been empowered to undermine the very foundations of democracy and civil society in our country. That there is now a revolving door of discredited advisors and officials entering the inner circle and then exiting it in disgrace within a space of weeks or months, as Bannon now seems to have done, does little to inspire confidence.

The access to Trump granted to individuals like Bannon indicates the president’s apparent sympathy to a form of right-wing anarchism enshrined as the guiding philosophy among at least some of the President’s top advisors. Rather than promoting the welfare and security of Americans, these advisors’ endgame may very well be the exploitation of crisis – perhaps even the provocation of crisis – to force systemic changes to our political system and disrupt the established foundations of our society.4 While previous administrations have certainly not been shy in exploiting crisis in this way, what is new in the Trump administration is the extreme ideology that informs this agenda, which it is no exaggeration to label apocalyptic. This bizarre and unprecedented situation may be seen as the culmination of various tendencies and policies currently embraced by the American right wing; we can trace these tendencies and policies along a trajectory leading back to 9/11 and the Bush era, although they are also symptomatic of more recent developments as well. The implications of this kind of apocalyptic mentality becoming a recurring feature of American politics at the highest level have yet to be fully gauged or understood.

Comparative Apocalypticism: More than an Academic Exercise

The first issue of Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, published last fall, was dedicated to the theme of “The Islamic State in Historical and Comparative Perspective.” Although the fortunes of the ISIS proto-state in Iraq were already declining at that time, discussion of its ideology was – and remains – important because of its historical significance. Scholarly investigation of the propaganda and practices of the Islamic State is worthwhile for many reasons. Critical examination of their spokesmen’s selective use of traditional sources and concepts has proven illuminating, as has comparison with similar jihadist projects throughout Islamic history. ISIS is worth careful attention as well because of the probable long-lasting impact of its messaging among the radical fringes of various Muslim communities around the globe. Graeme Wood’s new book on the Islamic State, The Way of the Strangers, demonstrates vividly how supporters are converted to its cause, constituting what is now in effect a persistent, alienated subculture within the fringe of disenfranchised and disaffected Muslims around the globe.5 Although it appeals to only a tiny minority within a minority, ISIS’ message of resistance to a Western-dominated, global cosmopolitan culture through recourse to a radically purified and coldly absolutist version of Islam that rejects all ambiguity and difference of opinion is likely to present an enduring problem for Muslim communities and Western nations alike.

dabiq1

Apocalyptic imagery from Dabiq, the English-language propaganda magazine of the ISIS movement: American “crusaders” limp off the battlefield in defeat, while the modern-day mujāhid of the Islamic State readies himself for the apocalyptic conflagration to come.

In my contribution to the issue, “ISIS, Eschatology, and Exegesis,” I emphasized the significance of ISIS’ promotion of an apocalyptic ideology to motivate support for its insurgency-turned-statebuilding project.6 Taking an explicitly comparative approach, I focused on the parallels between the interpretations of particular qurʾānic themes in ISIS propaganda and those found in the surviving literature of the Fatimid Empire, an expansionist Shi’i polity that flourished around the year 1000 that also embraced an apocalyptic-millenarian vision as a major part of its revolutionary ideology.

ISIS’ selective revival of historical ideas and practices has received much attention: its declaration of a caliphate; its attempt to restore an Islamic empire in the Arab heartland; its revival of slavery; its claim that emigration to its territory to undertake jihad is a duty incumbent on all believers.7 Most striking to me as a scholar of the Qurʾān, however, has been the ISIS movement’s reliance on a highly politicized form of interpretation that reads scripture as addressing contemporary political affairs in a direct and urgent way. The Fatimids did the same; the early Shi’a called this form of exegesis taʾwīl. Despite the fact that the former identify as Sunnis and the latter as Shi’a, the messaging of ISIS resembles that of the Fatimids in three major ways: their engagement with the Qur’an through this politicizing, contemporizing form of exegesis; their representation of their statebuilding or imperial project as the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy; and their radical sectarianism, presenting themselves as a dissident minority that nevertheless represents the purest expression of Islam. Despite being a marginal minority, both movements position themselves as the true, divinely favored leaders of the worldwide community of Muslims or ummah.

In the present essay, however, I want to expand upon other aspects of my argument concerning ISIS from the first issue of the journal. In my introduction to the issue, “Context and Comparison in the Age of ISIS,” I pursued a different sort of comparative approach to the Islamic State phenomenon.8 Here, I emphasized that the apocalyptic ideology of ISIS needs to be appraised in a balanced, nuanced way, and suggested that comparison with other examples of apocalyptic discourse, especially as tied to expansionist or imperialist military and political projects in the West, might be productive.

That is, if we are serious about confronting the apocalyptic tendencies and perspectives of fringe groups as they not only potentially radicalize populations but may eventually lead to – and legitimate – violence, then we must be ready to acknowledge that this is not only a problem “over there,” but rather also constitutes a problem much closer to home. As recent events have made clear, this is a problem with tangible consequences for our society, our discourse, and our politics, and so such comparative analysis proves to be much more than a merely academic exercise.

The ISIS Bogeyman and the Rightward Shift in Euro-American Politics

It is all too easy to denounce ISIS’ ideology as aberrant, even if it is not completely unprecedented. There can be no question about the group’s radicalism, for their ideas, claims, and practices place them far beyond the pale of modern mainstream Islam, particularly their revival of slavery (in defiance of legal norms now accepted by all the major sects and communities of the Muslim ummah across the world) and their willingness to foment and legitimize violence against their fellow Muslims.9

However, some commentators insist that it is disingenuous for some Muslims to say that ISIS’ ideology has nothing to do with Islam, or that they are so radical that they can no longer genuinely claim to be Muslim.  It is certainly true that the ISIS movement has significant roots in Islamic historical precedent. It is also true that its spokesmen might seem to cite traditional sources in a plausible and competent way, however contested their interpretation of those sources may be – and here it is noteworthy that it is often non-Muslim observers who strenuously assert ISIS’ authenticity on such grounds, generally for the purpose of “proving” that ISIS are “really” Islamic.10  But objections that the historical roots and traditional elements in ISIS’ ideology falsify the disavowals obscure (or deliberately conceal) a more significant point, too easily overshadowed in our current media landscape. There can be absolutely no question that ISIS has legitimacy for only a tiny fraction of Muslims worldwide. Moreover, their ideology represents, by historically objective standards, a serious distortion of the Sunni Islam they claim to champion. Scholarly objectivity dictates that we admit that, yes, ISIS is “real” Islam; but it also demands that we acknowledge that, judged by any equitable standard, this is the Islam of a ultraradical minority within the already marginal minority of the contemporary Salafi-Jihadi movement.13

Many observers have noted that the attempt to evaluate the degree to which ISIS is “really” Islamic ultimately reflects a specious – or sinister – attempt to reduce Islamist violence to ideology – thus implicitly indicting all Muslims as potential terrorists, and marking a fatal (and inevitably lethal) flaw in Islam itself, instead of recognizing the complex historical, political, and sociological factors that lead to violence under particular conditions – and from which no community (Muslim, Christian, or other) is immune.11 Yet Muslims are uniquely distinguished as potentially or actually violent because of supposedly essential or intrinsic aspects of Islamic culture, while Christian culture is seen as having no role in fostering or supporting violence, no matter how violent Christian individuals or communities may be.12

International campaigns against the Islamic State continue to erode its military capabilities; further, beyond the initial – and horrifying – successes of the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Nice in late 2015 and early 2016, ISIS’ ability to orchestrate international terror operations, at least in the West, seems to have proved limited. However, American and European politicians continue to invoke the ISIS bogeyman as the preeminent representative of the lurking threat “radical Islam” supposedly poses to Western freedom, democracy, and civilization. For ideologues seeking to exploit tragedy for political gain, it is not enough to acknowledge that ISIS have plausibly Islamic roots and credentials; rather, they promote the twisted idea that ISIS are Islam, epitomize Islam, expose the true, savage face of Islam that Western Muslims and their liberal advocates foolishly conceal at their – and our – peril.14

Arguably, far more than their actual military or political successes, it is ISIS’ propaganda and image – that is, the idea of ISIS – that has had a pervasive and lasting impact in the West, increasingly capable of triggering extreme reactions from government, political parties, and the general public. The recent rise to prominence of far-right groups and spokesmen throughout Europe and America – where the Trump campaign successfully appealed to and mobilized white supremacist, Christian Identity, and ethnonationalist constituencies to an unprecedented degree – has been facilitated by ISIS’ continuing visibility in the media landscape. Although ISIS’ propaganda is clearly tailored to play upon fears of an implacable Islamic threat looming over the West, the bitter truth of the matter is that it is Muslims who have been the main victims of ISIS’ terror campaigns by a vast margin, ISIS’ attacks on various communities in the Middle East (including their fellow Sunnis) wreaking havoc and bloodshed of horrific magnitude.

Provoking extreme responses in Europe and America, and so encouraging the perception of a state of ineluctable hostility between not only the West and the Islamic State but also majority populations and their Muslim minorities, has surely been an intentional effect of ISIS propaganda. That propaganda has provided grist for the mill for those who have sought – and won – political advantage by exploiting xenophobia and encouraging suspicion of Muslim minorities in America and Europe, leading to the targeting of Muslims in both street-level violence and state-sponsored surveillance and discrimination.15 Most recently, the lone wolf attack at the Parliament building in London provided an opportunity for right-wing politicians in the United Kingdom and United States alike to express their steely resolve in their armchair opposition to terror, predictably couched in nativist, “Clash of Civilizations”-type rhetoric that itself replicates the ideological terms of engagement established by ISIS. As journalist Sulome Anderson noted on Twitter the day of the London attack, “There has to be a better way of reacting to terrorism than acting out the fantasies of the people who committed it.”16

ISIS as “Death Cult” and the Apocalyptic Intimations of the War on Terror

When former British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to ISIS as a “death cult” in 2015, he was motivated by the admirable desire to differentiate between the acts and ideas of extremists and those of ordinary Muslim citizens. By doing so, he was essentially repeating the common critique of ISIS as beyond the pale of true Islam and operationalizing it as an aspect of public relations and government policy.

[deathcult]

The attempts of statesmen like Tony Blair and Barack Obama to distinguish between “real” Islam and the beliefs of extremists may have been well intentioned. But close examination of the neoliberal, imperialist ideology of America and its allies after 9/11 exposes the millenarian, messianic undercurrents of the War on Terror.

But the invocation of the specific language of ‘cult’ is self-evidently objectionable, given the background of this term in historical Euro-American responses to alternative religious formations, particularly movements that tend towards more extreme expressions of eschatological fervor. Scholars of religion no longer use ‘cult’ as an objective descriptor; rather, it is now widely recognized as a political construct intended to mark a group as so deviant that it is naturally subject to extreme sanction by authorities, even to the point of total annihilation (the Branch Davidians of Waco being the most obvious example). The commonly invoked language of “terror” serves much the same purpose in Western discourse, insofar as it serves to mark a group as unquestionably deserving of extreme sanction meted out by state actors with little or no judicial oversight.17

The particular reference to ISIS as a “death cult” is not accidental. It is a deliberate response not only to the extremity of the movement’s ideology, but specifically to its apocalyptic orientation. That is, the language of “cult” is used here to raise the alarm against strains of “radical Islam” that are apocalyptic or millenarian in nature and so that much more devastating because of their capacity to engage in ruthless warfare and terrorism, even to the point of self-destruction, against Western targets in their attempt to hasten the end of the world. The specter of an apocalyptic Islamic threat has previously been raised in regard to Iran, the ruling elite of which is supposedly driven by an irrational, fanatical desire to usher in their millenarian vision of the End Times by fostering instability in the Middle East, obtaining a nuclear arsenal, and provoking a major confrontation with Western powers. Serious scholars have written on the chiliastic aspects of Twelver messianism and their political implications, although these claims of a pervasive apocalyptic agenda on the part of the Iranian regime have been convincingly debunked.18

Some hypocrisy is evident here, insofar as the foreign policy of the powerful Western democracies in the twenty-first century, in particular the so-called War on Terror prosecuted by the United States and allies like the United Kingdom, has occasional displayed aspects of that very apocalyptic millenarianism that is supposedly eschewed by the modern secular state. Thus, paradoxically, while America and its allies purportedly seek to combat this tendency in ISIS, the very same tendency in fact enables and legitimates a state of total, uncompromising war against them.

Northcott’s study An Angel Directs the Storm offers a potent critique of the messianic underpinnings of the War on Terror during the Bush administration: the apocalyptic imperialism that shaped policy; the antidemocratic drive to consolidate power in the hands of the executive branch to support an absolute struggle against America’s enemies; and the relentless expansion of a frontier marked by violent confrontation that continues to justify keeping America on a perpetual war footing even today.19 Northcott vividly demonstrates that the Bush administration effectively communicated and played upon a new interpretation of the Christian “Kingdom of God” as a divinely-ordained mission in pursuit of global hegemony, one that was secular in orientation, at least on the surface, but that drew on ancient and perennially effective appeals to Christian triumphalism.20 Northcott’s work complements Lincoln’s compelling study of the use of religion in American political rhetoric at the outset of the War on Terror, for example revealing the deep religious subtexts of the speeches of both Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush on October 7, 2001.21

Given the tragic history of American military intervention into Muslim societies in the last fifteen years, the vision of a millenarian caliphate like ISIS, with its clear goal of legitimating state violence, is in the final analysis not so different from the neoliberal messianism used to authorize contemporary Western imperialism and state terror – enabling the paradoxical claim that the United States safeguards the world for freedom and democracy through bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military occupation.

Millenarianism and Opposition Politics

In the Bush era, the millenarianism of official organs of the American state was at most only implicit; as Lincoln notes, open promotion of such claims and ideas would have irreparably damaged the administration’s legitimacy in the eyes of secular-minded citizens. However, in the Obama era, other elements in the American political system, particularly Republican factions more concerned with securing the support of right-leaning evangelicals than with alienating the secular mainstream, came to a more or less open embrace of apocalypticism. This likewise invites comparison with ISIS, especially as this mentality fosters an absolutely uncompromising and strident approach to opposition politics that presents not just international military conflicts as an aspect of an existential, even cosmic, struggle between good and evil, but even casts internal political conflicts in this light.

Thus, in spring 2015, former congresswoman and Tea Party activist Michele Bachmann (R-MN) gave multiple interviews to right-wing Christian media outlets opining that the Rapture was imminent as a direct result of the Obama administration’s impending nuclear deal with Iran, as well as due to the advances made toward the legalization of gay marriage in America.22 This characterization, though seeming outlandish to many outside observers, is perfectly legible in terms of the political language of Christian apocalyptic rhetoric, playing upon the classic themes of indicting authorities of collusion with the forces of evil and warning of impending divine punishment upon the body politic for its wickedness.

More recently, in the first quarter of 2016, as the contest for the nomination for the Republican candidacy for president ramped up, it was repeatedly reported that Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi was openly articulating a theocratic vision for the Cruz presidency before audiences of evangelical supporters. Other Cruz proxies such as Glenn Beck and Cruz’s father, Rafael, an evangelical preacher, likewise reportedly promoted an understanding of Cruz as an anointed king divinely appointed to shepherd America through the coming apocalyptic tribulations of the Rapture.

Millenarianism can hardly be considered a fringe tendency when such ideas are openly espoused by members of Congress or surrogates of serious contenders for the American presidency, seeking to court evangelical support by promising a quasi-messianic return to a theocratic utopia should their candidacy prove successful.23 In this, the Tea Party veers towards the radical sectarianism of a group like ISIS, positioning itself as the divinely determined victors and its enemies – even, or particularly, those within their own country, political system, or party – as traitors doomed to failure and perdition. Despite the Tea Party’s success in installing politicians sympathetic to its cause in Congress, the open embrace of such language and ideas has limited the political viability of candidates for office who might seek to employ it openly. At least, this has previously tended to be the case; it is unclear what the future holds on this front.

Adopting a radical dualism that reduces problems to a fundamental, even cosmic, struggle between good and evil is especially advantageous for an opposition group that is primarily concerned with harnessing anti-establishment hostility to promote their agenda, and less concerned (or totally unconcerned) with the pragmatic considerations of genuine governance.24 The simplistic ideology of ISIS that flattens the world, rendering the complexities of global politics into a struggle between a pure Muslim elite and a host of threats from both insiders and outsiders, is much more effective as a recruiting tool for a disillusioned and alienated fringe of Muslim society – especially individuals already prone to violence – and much less effective as an ethos that can sustain a stable statebuilding enterprise. This is equally true for the Christian dualism and millenarianism invoked by some American politicians, similarly grounded in End Time fantasies. It is far easier to blame a complex, chaotic world on outsiders or diabolical forces than it is to confront the public with uncomfortable truths about problems that are difficult to address or solve. The hard work of coming up with pragmatic, sustainable solutions to problems always seems to be deferred – much like the apocalypse itself.

A Resurgent Clash of Civilizations

And yet, now we are faced with a dilemma: what happens when opposition movements that indulge in end-of-the-world fantasies – or campaigns that aim primarily at disruption of the status quo, ignoring all of the rules of engagement established to guarantee the continuation of civil discourse – somehow succeed in taking power, assuming (putative) responsibility for actual governance?

The various precedents mentioned above pale before the full-throated embrace of apocalyptic imagery and radically sectarian language by Republican political operatives, candidates, and proxies in the 2016 presidential campaign. Ironically given its resonance with Cameron’s aforementioned words about ISIS, the relentlessly apocalyptic vision presented by speakers at the Republican National Convention in July 2016 prompted one commentator to note that the Republican Party appeared to have devolved into a kind of death cult.25

giuliani

The incendiary speech given by the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, at the 2016 Republican National Convention epitomized the the morbid, authoritarian, apocalyptic tone that prevailed at the event.

The discourse and rhetoric that emerged around Trump during his campaign resembled that of ISIS in disturbing ways. That campaign, openly allied with formerly marginal extremist media outlets such as Breitbart News, sought to mobilize support among right-leaning constituencies through indulging in exaggerated nativist and xenophobic rhetoric. It presented a worldview in which American values such as freedom and democracy are being undermined and under attack from numerous quarters (in classic Republican fashion, one of the most significant threats was claimed to come from the liberal political establishment itself, especially the federal government and the ruling elites of Washington). On various occasions the campaign did not shy away from insinuating that American values are wholly incommensurable with Islam, regularly playing upon the idea of an ongoing state of conflict between America and the Muslim world, typified by the activities of radical movements such as ISIS, and supposedly confirmed by the actions of lone wolf radicals such as the Orlando and San Bernardino shooters.

Official government spokespeople in America and Europe have in recent years sought to avoid the use of damaging “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric, emphasizing that the Muslim majority should not be held responsible for the actions of marginal groups and individuals. In contrast, the Trump campaign and its proxies commonly depicted ‘radical Islam’ as an existential threat to the West and implicitly or explicitly characterized all Muslims as potentially radicalized and covertly sympathetic to terrorists. Donald Trump first called for a ban (a “total and complete shutdown”) on all Muslims seeking to enter the United States a few days after the December 2015 San Bernardino shooting; he then repeated this proposal as the then-presumptive nominee for the Republican presidential ticket after the Orlando shooting in June 2016.26 Ironically, it was the repeated public expression of interest in implementing such a religiously-defined ban by Trump and his proxies during the campaign and after the election that provided the legal basis for overturning the actual executive orders seeking to impose travel restrictions on entry from seven (or six) Muslim-majority states in early 2017.27

Questioning the loyalties of Muslims in Western nations naturally exacerbates tensions between “native” populations, governments, and Muslim minority communities in America and Europe. It actually complements a tactic adopted by ISIS of appealing to Muslims in the West by claiming that they will never truly be accepted in the non-Muslim societies in which they have sought to make their home. In both cases, the goal is exactly the same: the exploitation of anxieties about an irreconcilable conflict between Islamic and Western values for political advantage.28

Both in the runup to and following the election, some critics noted that on account of the similarity between their rhetoric and characterization of the situation of Western Muslims – not to mention the possible effect of Trump’s policies in confirming ISIS propaganda – Trump had in effect become ISIS’ best recruiter.29 Some commentators even archly noted that Trump was likely to be endorsed by ISIS, a joke that became less funny when actual reports of enthusiasm for Trump’s candidacy among ISIS spokesmen emerged.30 Sadly, although the “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm has been subjected to critique in both academia and the media for many years following 9/11, an even more extreme version of this polarizing worldview has now come to prevail in the highest levels of government in some Western states, especially America.

Centipedes and Cucks: The Ultrafitnah of the 2016 Campaign

One of the most conspicuous – and distressing – parallels between ISIS and the right-wing campaign in support of Trump was (and continues to be) the use of extreme language to assert dominance and marginalize and ridicule the opposition. As became clear during the 2016 campaign, so-called “radical Islam” hardly holds a monopoly on the use of divisive language of radical othering such as ISIS employs in its propaganda, which imposes a stark distinction between true believers and infidels, and in particular marks Muslims who dissent and resist ISIS as hypocrites and apostates, and thus as legitimate targets of violence.

[sectarian rhetoric]

The rhetoric deployed in Dabiq, the ISIS propaganda magazine, often draws a stark distinction between its supporters and Muslims who oppose it. The former are simply termed “the Muslims,” implying that the Islamic State has a natural claim to the loyalty of the orthodox, committed members of the Muslim community. The opponents of ISIS, on the other hand, are consistently given derogatory nicknames: murtaddin or “apostates,” for example. This article on the right refers to the Shi’a of Iraq as “Safawis,” or Safavids, as well as to U.S. forces as “Crusaders.”

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of ISIS propaganda is the use of codewords in polemic against Muslim groups that disagree with or oppose them. While ISIS propaganda refers to their followers simply as “the Muslims” – positioning their caliphate as the natural claimant to leadership of the entire Muslim ummah – the various state, quasi-state, and communal entities that reject their claims are designated through the use of derogatory nicknames.31 This rhetoric, coupled with a practically limitless penchant for brutality both in the theater of war and in the territory the Islamic State occupies, establishes a state of fitnah: extreme discord within the community, civil strife marked by chronic internecine violence. ISIS have displayed an implacable and seemingly limitless penchant for acute sectarianism, positioning themselves as the only true Muslims, the divinely favored, saved minority, in opposition to all other Muslim groups whose defiance of their call to submit to their caliph brands them as hypocrites, apostates, and unbelievers.32

Combining this ideology with an equally implacable, seemingly limitless penchant for extreme violence and cruelty, ISIS have established what we can only call a state of ultrafitnah in the territory where they hold sway – an animalistic war of all against all, not only of sect against sect and faction against faction, but apparently of regime against populace as well. At any moment, any believer can be declared an apostate and subject to the harshest corporal punishments. The goal is the elimination of all possible sources of dissent, all forms of diversity, in the relentless push towards ideological conformity and total dominance of the ISIS caliphate. Atrocity has become an instrument not only of intimidation in the theater of war but of state control of civilians.

Obviously, there is no parallel to this situation in any other Muslim state, let alone in the Western democracies.33 Yet in this moment of universal condemnation of and antipathy towards the ideology and behavior of ISIS, we see disconcerting parallels to their rhetorical techniques in American politics, which have verged in analogously unprecedented and extreme directions.

During the 2016 primary and presidential races, media proxies of the Trump campaign elaborated a complex coded language that is in its own way just as strongly sectarian as that found in ISIS propaganda, designed to promote an image of Trump supporters as virile, prosperous victors and their opponents as servile, submissive, emasculated, and ripe for defeat. In its own way, this rhetoric strives to induce the equivalent of a state of ultrafitnah in American politics – the complete rejection of all limits, rules of conduct, and standards of decency in the relentless drive for political domination and elimination of the enemy. The use of extreme, polarizing language goes hand-in-hand not only with an authoritarian mindset, but also an apocalyptic one: rhetoric that reflects and exacerbates a state of unremitting hostility within society is natural given a worldview of total moral absolutes, marking a stark dividing line between good and evil, strength and weakness, winners and losers, us and them.

The language used by pro-Trump cadres is an extension of the sexist, truculent, xenophobic rhetoric Trump himself used in his day-to-day speech as candidate. These unofficial organs of the Trump campaign valorize aggressive, even predatory behavior; thus, on social media, supporters are termed ‘centipedes,’ playing upon the insect’s capacity for stealthy, venomous attacks against its prey.34 As was widely documented during early 2016, the candidate himself repeatedly encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies during the primary campaign.

Further, the gloating, gendered triumphalism of ISIS and its spokesmen – who mock their opponents as “quasi-men” – is echoed in the hypermasculine discourse of Trump supporters on social media, where the default term for Trump’s opponents is cuck (short for cuckold), with the intentionally degrading and racist associations sometimes left implicit, and sometimes not.

The use of this term seems to have originated a number of years ago with the coinage “cuckservative,” an insult applied to Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative (similar to the code word RINO, “Republican In Name Only”), but “cuck” has quickly been expanded from being a term of internal critique within the Republican fold to being more widely applied, especially to liberals and socialists, who supposedly epitomize the self-abnegating, humiliating posture to which the term alludes.35 It is hardly surprising that Trump’s partisans, who prize expressions of coarse, hypertrophic masculinity, wholeheartedly embraced rhetoric that would feminize the opposition in a campaign that aimed not only to overcome but even utterly humiliate those who supported either an elderly Jewish socialist or a woman.

kingtweet

It is important to unpack the crude, racist ideas and images encoded in the term “cuck” as used by Trump proxies, as they have recently emerged into mainstream media discourse. In the imagining of Trump partisans, a cuck is a man who is not only the victim of infidelity but actually permits and even celebrates his wife’s sexual preference for – or violation by – other men, specifically a black (or Hispanic, or Muslim) man, going so far as to support the offspring of this infidelity as his own child. The nexus of political, social, and racial anxieties embedded in this image is complex; it is also, it goes without saying, morally grievous. It fundamentally plays upon the liberal’s supposed attentiveness to racial justice, support for immigration, promotion of political correctness, “appeasement” of radical Islam, and so forth, all of which directly enable the literal or metaphorical penetration of his wife(/country) – and exploitation of himself – by dark foreigners.

The image plays directly into the larger fantasies – or anxieties – of those who imagine Western civilization to be under metaphorical and literal attack. The terminology continues to be used widely in social media channels such as Reddit and Twitter, and recently received some exposure in the mainstream media when Steve King (R-IA) commented on Twitter in support of Geert Wilders, the notorious anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Dutch politician, “We can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.”36 Although the obviously racist idea here was widely condemned, the mainstream media largely missed that King was (perhaps even unintentionally) alluding to the cuckold trope, indicating his familiarity with the premises, concepts, and language of the pro-Trump racist fringe operating on social media.

Truth, Justice, Theocracy

Perhaps the most bizarre development in the 2016 campaign was the right wing’s overt turn to explicitly religious language, especially attempts to literally demonize the opposition. Trump repeatedly made allegations about Hillary Clinton’s corruption and criminality (leading to the recurring rallying cry of “Lock her up!” at his events, as well as insinuations by his proxies that she would be tried and executed upon Trump’s inauguration as president), but this eventually escalated to a straightforward claim that Clinton is literally the Devil.37 This sort of name-calling is unprecedented in modern American presidential campaigns. The Trump campaign’s capacity to vilify the opposition at times seemed without limits, as, for example, when the candidate himself repeatedly asserted that Obama and Clinton were the literal founders of ISIS, only later downplaying these comments as sarcastic.38 Such rhetoric obviously plays to the enthusiasms of the Republican base, at the very least granting the candidate political traction among a vocal minority who indulge in fantasies of incarcerating or even executing Clinton.

This rhetoric had a subtler effect as well, in that it served to locate the candidate in the camp of those fervent Christians who saw in Barack Obama in particular and the Democratic Party in general a concerted campaign against their religion. The open indulgence in religious rhetoric of a theatrically excessive but symbolically resonant sort implies a similarity in worldview to those who are already inclined to read partisan political struggles in theological terms.

This alignment of the Trump campaign with right-leaning Christians – despite the candidate’s historically profane character and questionable personal rectitude – was also encouraged by his hinting at a willingness to repeal firewall laws protecting the separation of church and state such as the Johnson Amendment. The alliance with evangelical elements eager to gain political advantage by allying themselves with Trump advanced to such a degree during the campaign that, in breaking with the well-established tradition of pastoral neutrality in public political settings, the benediction delivered by the Reverend Mark Burns on the opening night of the Republican National Convention explicitly called on God’s assistance to defeat the “enemy” –explicitly specified as Clinton and the Democratic Party – while referring to the gathered assembly as “the conservative party under God” and praying for “power and authority” to be bestowed on Trump.39

The culmination of right-wing attempts to discredit Clinton on religious grounds was predictably extreme: in October, mere weeks before the election, fringe media outlets specializing in conspiracy theory – preeminent among them Alex Jones’ InfoWars – began “reporting,” on the basis of e-mails obtained by WikiLeaks, that senior members of Clinton’s campaign staff belonged to a satanic cult that performed horrific, possibly cannibalistic, occult rituals. Acclaimed performance artist Marina Abramovic was “implicated” as the head of the cult, which was alleged to include John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, as a member.40 Allegations of child sacrifice and cannibalism have a long history in Christian discourse as a means of demonizing marginal groups and authorizing violence against them, and these allegations are typically followed by others involving accusations of sexual transgression, especially violence against children.41 Predictably, exactly this followed in the wake of the Podesta e-mail “scandal,” which involved into the fringe conspiracy theory popularly known as “Pizzagate,” in which Podesta and Clinton herself were claimed to be involved with (or even orchestrating) a child sex trafficking ring. Though generally of little serious consequence in the leadup to the election, violence erupted as a result of the continuing buzz on social media about the affair after the election when a gunman traveled from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. to “investigate” the allegations.42 Notably, members of Trump’s inner circle were implicated in seeking to publicize the story, in particular Michael G. Flynn, a political operative and son of disgraced Trump national security advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Thomas Flynn (ret.), who served as his father’s chief of staff during the 2016 campaign and transition.

The energetic vilification of political rivals in openly religious terms is of course a staple of ISIS propaganda; a particularly striking parallel appears in ISIS’ attacks on Jabhat al-Nuṣrah, upon whom ISIS spokesmen literally called down the curse of God in a dispute with their former allies.43 While right-wing politicians and pundits in America and Europe regularly decry the theocratic vision of ISIS and other “radical Islamic” groups as anti-democratic and contrary to Western values, at critical moments one can clearly see the theocratic vision that commonly inspires Republican spokesmen as well. Theocratic leanings are plainly apparent even – or especially – among top officials of the Trump administration. The religious context of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice legislation taken up in Indiana while Vice President Mike Pence was governor has been widely remarked, while the well-publicized views of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos concerning the capture of public funds for the support of Christian education was but one aspect of the controversy surrounding her nomination.44 Stunningly, the appointment of Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo to head the Central Intelligence Agency was one of the least contentious selections made by the Trump administration, despite the fact that Pompeo has close ties to notorious anti-Islam activist Frank Gaffney, open embraces the proposition that America is at war with Islam, and once opined that politics is “a never-ending struggle… until the rapture.”45 Though the basic rules of engagement in our political culture demand that such agendas be pursued quietly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, at least for some, the current endgame is not the persistence of the democratic political order, but rather the establishment of a Christian supremacist one.46

The second part of this essay will appear here on Mizan in two weeks.

 

MICHAEL PREGILL is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of the Mizan digital scholarship initiative.

 

  1. I presented some of this material at a panel discussion held at Boston University School of Theology on March 23, 2017. I thank the organizer, David Eckel, my co-panelists, Jamel Velji, April Hughes, and David Frankfurter, and the audience members for their helpful comments. Kenneth Garden, Megan Goodwin, Will McCants, and Stephen Shoemaker read and commented upon an earlier version of Part 1 of this piece. Holly Davidson and Greg Nagy read and gave encouraging feedback on the penultimate draft; Juan Cole and Todd Green did the same, and also offered extensive comments that have significantly improved the final version. I thank all of them for their thoughtful assistance with this piece, and take full responsibility for the errors and oversights that remain.
  2. In commenting on steep cuts to climate-related programs in the Trump administration budget outline released on March 16, 2017, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney noted that “Regarding the question as to climate change… We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that” (Dan Merica and Rene Marsh, “Trump Budget Chief on Climate Change,” CNN.com, March 16, 2017). Sources at the Energy Department have indicated that the phrase “climate change” is now increasingly avoided in official briefings and memos, reflecting the administration’s deprioritization of the issue (Eric Wolff, “Energy Department Climate Office Bans Use of Phrase ‘Climate Change’,” Politico, March 29, 2017). There is recent precedent for such bureaucratic blacklisting of reference to climate issues or reliance on climate science by state agencies in Florida and North Carolina, but this is the first time such a policy of avoidance has been writ large at the federal level.
  3. Conjecture that the administration staged – or at least indulged in – the confrontation to distract the public from allegations about Trump’s relationship with Russia came from both domestic and foreign media sources. Most strikingly, Chinese state media asserted this unambiguously. See Jane Perlez, “After Xi Leaves U.S., Chinese Media Assail Strike on Syria,” New York Times, April 8, 2017. The largely token gesture of a limited missile barrage against a Syrian regime airfield, as well as the rapid dissipation of tensions with Russia, would tend to confirm this hypothesis.
  4. The journalist Naomi Wolf is perhaps the best-known proponent of the argument that governments productively exploit catastrophe (or may even manufacture emergency) to overcome public opposition to unpopular policies, especially those that grossly favor corporate profit at public expense: see The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Knopf, 2007).
  5. Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State (New York: Random House, 2016).
  6. Michael Pregill, “ISIS, Eschatology, and Exegesis: The Propaganda of Dabiq and the Sectarian Rhetoric of Militant Shi’ism,” Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations 1 (2016).
  7. On these points, see especially the articles of Kecia Ali (“Redeeming Slavery: The ‘Islamic State’ and the Quest for Islamic Morality”) and Tazeen Ali and Evan Anhorn (“ISIL and the (Im)permissibility of Jihad and Hijrah) in Mizan issue 1.
  8. Michael Pregill, “Editor’s Introduction: Context and Comparison in the Age of ISIS,” Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations 1 (2016). Some of the material that follows here, especially that dealing with ISIS and the background of the War on Terror, first appeared in that piece, but has now been edited and updated to reflect more recent developments and reportage.
  9. While ISIS’ capture, enslavement, sexual violence against, and trafficking of girls and women from the Yazidi ethnic minority has received significant media attention over the last two years, Human Rights Watch has now documented evidence of the use of punitive rape even against Sunni women as a means of enforcing social control and discipline on the population of occupied areas (“Iraq: Sunni Women Tell of ISIS Detention, Torture,” Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2017). This is unsurprising, since the group defines defection or opposition as disobedience to their caliph, which in turn renders any Muslim an apostate whose blood can legitimately be shed.
  10. The credentials of Islamophobe spokesmen who attempt to display familiarity and facility with the typically abstruse arguments of the classical sources – thus ostensibly qualifying them to evaluate ISIS’ authenticity as a representation of Islam – vary wildly. Some have little expertise and make no attempt to ground their generalizations in data or proof; others such as Robert Spencer have no credible qualifications as scholars of Islam but attempt to marshal historical evidence and textual sources to bolster their claims anyway; a few rare individuals such as Daniel Pipes can claim actual expertise in the tradition, though the polemical bent of their analyses sets them far apart from the scholarly mainstream. Entire para-academic organizations have sprung up to showcase the ideologically motivated research of this fringe of scholars and pseudo-scholars, to say nothing of the role of thinktanks as venues for this type of work, enabling the institutional controls imposed by conventional academia to be skirted.
  11. Juan Cole has critiqued Graeme Wood’s much-discussed article “What ISIS Really Wants” (The Atlantic, March 2015) on this basis, as well as pointing out that the significant contribution of American foreign policy to creating the conditions under which ISIS emerged in Iraq renders analysts’ overemphasis on cultural and religious factors disingenuous: see “How ‘Islamic’ Is the Islamic State?”, The Nation, February 24, 2015. For an analysis focusing on the American imperial project post-9/11 and its effect in stimulating and enabling fundamentalism, see Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).
  12. The shift to an ideological-cultural causal model behind terrorism as perpetrated by Muslims was actually institutionalized in the Obama era, during which CVE initiatives and other surveillance programs targeting Muslim communities were established. See Arun Kundani, The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (New York: Verso, 2015). The pathologization of one culture implicitly leads to the absolution of another, as well as forestalling the consideration of other explanatory paradigms, particularly the social-scientific.
  13. See Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea (London: Hurst, 2017). Much of the reportage on ISIS rightly emphasizes that the group’s willingness to target fellow Muslims indiscriminately puts them beyond the pale of even what Al-Qa’idah and its affiliates consider tactically acceptable in the prosecution of armed jihad.
  14. For some time now Islamophobe activists have latched onto the trope of taqiyyah, claiming that because Islamic law (especially Shi’i law) permits dissimulation of one’s identity or affiliations under detrimental circumstances, Muslims in general have a strong tendency to conceal their true motivations or beliefs (e.g., that they support terror or Islamic regimes in Western states) in order to pursue their insidious agendas under more favorable circumstances.
  15. This has not occurred spontaneously, of course. As Bail and others have observed, significant moneyed interests exert a titanic influence on American perceptions of Islam, particularly by manipulating media representation of current events to fit well-established and highly prejudicial narratives about Muslims: see Christopher Bail, Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). The work of Bail is especially useful insofar as much of the literature on Islamophobia addresses cultural attitudes, social dynamics, and media representation, but overlooks the specific institutional contexts in which ideas and images about Muslims are actually generated and disseminated – that is, how resources are marshaled and channeled towards the deliberate manufacture of said ideas and images as propaganda. See also now Todd Green, The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), esp. Chapter 6.
  16. Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson), March 22, 2017, 9:33 PM. While anti-Islam activists and politicians predictably construed the attack as proof of the need for vigilance against ISIS, subsequent investigation showed that the perpetrator of the attack was a British citizen with a history of violence but no direct engagement with terror networks. Nor has there as yet been credible evidence to suggest that he committed the attack on behalf of ISIS. Meanwhile, monitoring of ISIS media output in the aftermath of the attack showed that although it had not been coordinated, ISIS propaganda outlets rushed to claim the perpetrator, Khalid Masood, as a “soldier of the caliphate” anyway. This reflects a recent tendency on the part of the movement to capitalize on and take credit for uncoordinated acts of violence as a means of asserting its continuing power and relevance in the face of setbacks (Alexander Smith, “ISIS Claims Responsibility for London Attack but Analysts Remain Skeptical,” NBC News, March 24, 2017, citing the report by Charlie Winter, “ICSR Insight: The ISIS Propaganda Decline,” ICSR.info, March 23, 2017).
  17. Sure enough, Cameron’s adoption of such language accompanied the authorization of the deliberate extrajudicial killing of British citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria: see Gary Younge, “State-Sanctioned Killings without Trial: Are These Cameron’s British Values?”, The Guardian, September 8, 2015.
  18. Ze’ev Maghen, “Occultation in Perpetuum: Shiʿite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Journal 62 (2008): 232-257.
  19. There are significant indications that the Trump administration is actually in the process of substantially escalating current military operations in several strategic areas in the Middle East: see Emma Ashford, “Trump’s Wars,” U.S. News & World Report, March 22, 2017.
  20. Michael S. Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), 103–133.
  21. Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 19–31.
  22. Brian Tashman, “Bachmann: Rapture Imminent Thanks to Gay Marriage & Obama,” RightWingWatch.com, April 20, 2015. The coincidence of an outbreak of right-wing intimations of imminent apocalypse in spring 2015 with growing awareness of the millenarian nature of ISIS ideology at that time is striking. Compare Edward L. Rubin, “Our End-of-the-World Obsession is Killing Us: Climate Denial and the Apocalypse, GOP-Style,” Salon.com, March 26, 2015, and the Vox interview with Will McCants published a week later: Zack Beauchamp, “ISIS is Really Obsessed with the Apocalypse,” Vox.com, April 6, 2015. Commentators sometimes cite the dramatic rise in the belief that the End Times are imminent in Muslim societies over the last two decades, but these figures are seldom compared to similar rates of belief about the imminence of the Rapture among American Christians.
  23. See John Fea, “Ted Cruz’s Campaign is Fueled by a Dominionist Vision for America,” Religion News Service, February 4, 2016.
  24. This point is borne out by the evidence: judging by any numbers of standards, the Tea Party-dominated Congress voted in during the 2010 elections was the least productive in American history.
  25. Epitomized by the speech of Rudy Giuliani, much of which was dedicated to a message of impending destruction should America elect Hilary Clinton as president: Jeet Heer, “The GOP is the Party of Death,” New Republic, July 19, 2016.
  26. Jenna Johnson and David Weigel, “Donald Trump Calls for ‘Total’ Ban on Muslims Entering United States,” Washington Post, December 8, 2015; Jonathan Martin, “Donald Trump Seizes on Orlando Shooting and Repeats Call for Temporary Ban on Muslim Migration,” New York Times, June 12, 2016.
  27. Notably, Trump’s comments after Orlando pale in comparison to those of other right-wing politicians, even those (presumably) within the political mainstream. The statements of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at the same time, calling for nationwide screening of Muslims and expulsion of any who express a “belief in sharia” – a more pernicious proposal of equally dubious legality due to its explicit endorsement of religious discrimination that also demonstrates considerable ignorance of how most Muslims conceive of Islam – received far less attention. See David A. Graham, “Gingrich’s Outrageous Call to Deport All Practicing U.S. Muslims,” The Atlantic, June 15, 2016.
  28. On the call to hijrah, see Tazeen Ali and Evan Anhorn, “ISIL and the (Im)permissibility of Jihad and Hijrah.”
  29. Cf., e.g., Eliza Mackintosh, “Trump Ban Is Boon for ISIS Recruitment, Former Jihadists and Experts Say,” CNN, January 31, 2017.
  30. Brooke Spiel, “ISIS: Trump’s Win Is Good for Our Recruiting,” TheHill.com, November 15, 2016.
  31. Some codewords seem relatively innocuous: Sunnis opposing ISIS in Iraq are sometimes called Ṣaḥwah (“Awakening”), after one of the epithets used for the tribal coalition that formed militias and worked to pacify the country under American tutelage in 2007-2008. But when juxtaposed with ISIS supporters who are simply termed “Muslims,” the title encourages an impression of apostasy, the Arabs of the Ṣaḥwah insinuated to prefer alliance with America over Islam. Other codewords are resonant to those familiar with Islamic history but totally opaque to the uninitiated. Prominent examples include Ṣafawī for Iranian or Iraqi Shi’a (after the Safavids, the early modern dynasty under which Iran was converted to Twelver Shi’ism), Salūl for the Saudis (after ʿAbd Allāh b. Ubayy b. Salūl, a notorious enemy of the Prophet who made an outward but insincere show of deference to Muḥammad), and munāfiqūn for Muslims who reject their authority (after the ‘Hypocrites’ or party of those in Medina who, like Ibn Ubayy, pledged their support openly but opposed the Prophet secretly).
  32. Vividly described by Wood, The Way of the Strangers, and Will McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: St. Martin Press, 2015).
  33. The hideous irony is that the ISIS regime’s human rights abuses in the territory they now govern, or at least occupy, in Syria and Iraq monopolize Western media attention to such a degree that they have by and large overshadowed an unfolding genocide against the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar, despite the efforts of the United Nations and NGOs to raise awareness about the situation: “The Most Persecuted People on Earth?”, The Economist, June 13, 2015.
  34. Trump himself being the centipede par excellence, according to a popular YouTube video that combined a narrative from a nature documentary with footage of Trump debating his opponents: “Despite its impressive length, it’s a nimble navigator… And some can be highly venomous. Just like the tarantula it’s killing, the centipede has two curved hollow fangs, which inject paralyzing venom. The centipede is a predator…” (quoted in Almie Rose, “Decoding the Language of Trump Supporters,” Attn.com, March 25, 2016).
  35. In the leadup to the 2016 election, “cuck” was regularly deployed as an epithet for Sanders and his supporters, meant to ridicule such concerns as income inequality and racial justice as effeminate. Transference of the term from Republicans to Democrats is not surprising given the popularity of epithets such as “libtard” and “traitor” for supporters of left-wing causes on social media. Rose, “Decoding the Language,” notes the basic concept underlying “cuck” but overlooks (or perhaps politely ignores) the cruder subtexts.
  36. Theodore Schleifer, “King Doubles Down on Controversial ‘Babies’ Tweet,” CNN, March 14, 2017.
  37. Trump made this comment at a rally on August 1, 2016. At the Republican National Convention a few weeks earlier, former candidate for the Republican nomination Ben Carson identified Clinton’s mentor, Saul Alinsky, as Lucifer.
  38. Trump had previously linked Obama and ISIS in his speeches, but it was his insistent assertion that Obama was the founder of ISIS and Clinton the co-founder at a rally in North Carolina on August 10, 2016 that attracted widespread media attention.
  39. Jack Jenkins, “Trump’s Top Pastor Delivers What May Be the Most Partisan Prayer in Convention History,” ThinkProgress.org, July 19, 2016. Already in April conservative Christian elements were describing Trump as divinely chosen and anointed: see Brian Tashman, “Self-Proclaimed Prophet: God Will Make Donald Trump President and Kill His Enemies,” RightWingWatch.com, April 20, 2016.
  40. Eric Levitz, “Report: Clinton Linked to Satanic Rituals Involving Kidnapped Children and Marina Abramovic,” New York, November 4, 2016.
  41. See David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
  42. Marc Fisher, John Woodrow Cox, and Peter Hermann, “Pizzagate: From Rumor, to Hashtag, to Gunfire in D.C.,” Washington Post, December 6, 2016.
  43. See Pregill, “ISIS, Eschatology, and Exegesis” on the mubāhalah, a kind of trial by ordeal in which two parties call upon God to smite whichever of them is in the wrong in a dispute, to which ISIS invited the leadership of Jabhat al-Nuṣrah in 2014.
  44. On Pence, see Hannah Levintova, “Mike Pence Has Led a Crusade Against Abortion Access and LGBT Rights,” Mother Jones, July 14, 2016. On DeVos, see Benjamin Wermund, “Trump’s Education Pick Says Reform Can ‘Advance God’s Kingdom,’” Politico.com, December 2, 2016 and Kristina Rizga, “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom’,” Mother Jones, March/April 2017. The radical views of Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary organization Blackwater (later rebranded as Xe), have long been a matter of public record: see “Erik Prince and the Last Crusade,” The Economist, August 6, 2009. Prince’s ties to Trump were noted before the inauguration (Jeremy Scahill, “Notorious Mercenary Erik Prince Is Advising Trump From the Shadows,” TheIntercept.com, January 17, 2017) and it has recently been alleged that Prince acted as a secret emissary between the Trump transition team and the Russian government before the inauguration (Adam Entous, Greg Miller, Kevin Sieff, and Karen DeYoung, “Blackwater Founder Held Secret Seychelles Meeting to Establish Trump-Putin Back Channel,” Washington Post, April 3, 2017).
  45. Michelle Goldberg, “‘This Evil Is All Around Us’: Trump’s Pick for the CIA, Mike Pompeo, Sees Foreign Policy as a Vehicle for Holy War,” Slate.com, January 12, 2017; Heather Digby Parton, “Meet Mike Pompeo, the Far-Right Christian Zealot with Islamophobe Ties Who Will Lead Trump’s CIA,” Salon.com, January 13, 2017.
  46. The most recent demonstration of the emboldening of Dominionist political factions operating at the state and local level is the introduction of House Bill 780, the “Uphold Historical Marriage Act,” in the North Carolina legislature. The bill declares the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage null and void in the state on the grounds that it violates the law of God. This claim is made explicitly on the basis of Genesis 2:24, which is quoted in full in the bill.

Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 1)

The Mainstreaming of Apocalyptic Politics in America

Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 1)

The Mainstreaming of Apocalyptic Politics in America