North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

European far-Right populism and ISIS: Two sides of the same coin?

From the populist rhetoric of Germany's far-Right AfD to ISIS’s extremist religious ideology, polarizing discourse has universal features

Omar Alsawadi
26 March 2021, 12.00am
An AfD election poster in Germany
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Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

We will chase them away, and we will take back our land and our nation.” You might be forgiven for thinking this is a line from a speech by ISIS leader Abu-Mohammad Al-Adnani. Rather, it was said by Alexander Gauland, the leader of the German far-Right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), in his famous 2017 speech after winning sufficient votes to enter the German Parliament for the first time.

Polarizing populist discourses often focus on a narrative about a historic land where people with certain characteristics lived, a land that has changed with the arrival of people who ‘do not have the right to it’.

This nostalgia for bygone days is present in both AfD and ISIS discourses. For both, everything is either black or white, everyone either an enemy or a friend, a partner or a foreigner. Such longing for the past resembles the way an adult longs for childhood; it presents a simplified picture of a world far away from complexities – a childhood free from knowing more than one wishes to.

Throughout history, political discourses built around nostalgia have had many proponents, and have often found popular appeal with remarkable speed. This is because they provide simple answers to complex questions.

For example, when talking about high crime rates and the lack of assimilation in immigrant neighborhoods in a European city, it would be easier to blame the immigrants’ culture and their insularity than talking about the challenges they face, the racism they suffer, and the discrimination in the labor or housing markets. To refrain from such stereotyping means that one needs to accept the other and communicate with them to find solutions to problems.

Likewise, when the Islamists discuss the reality of Arab countries, their most important arguments revolve around a conspiracy targeting Muslims since the end of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. They do not try to understand the political and social context or the failed Arab alliances that brought the region to where it is now.

In Europe, the refugee crisis and the question of Islam were among the most important factors contributing to the rise of the populist discourse of the extreme Right – and its calls for a return to the past and hostility towards immigrants, especially Muslims. In the Netherlands, the leader of the right-wing Freedom Party, Geert Wilders even called for the establishment of a 'Ministry of Immigration, Remigration and De-Islamification' to repatriate refugees and limit the spread of Islam.

On the other hand, many Arab countries are still drowning in political crises and futile wars. In Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the totalitarian regimes that ruled for decades have collapsed, while in Iraq and Syria; the dream of freedom has transformed into a never-ending war. All this created a state of political turmoil in which polarising populist discourses grew, especially among jihadist groups.

Both ISIS and AfD work towards achieving their goals regardless of the consequences

In 2014, ISIS removed the historic borders between Syria and Iraq, establishing what is known as the Islamic State while enlarging its territory and forming ancillary groups in Africa and Asia. ISIS expanded rapidly and thousands joined from across the world; it was able to carry out terrorist attacks in European capitals and American cities. This violence led to the formation of a US-led coalition that would begin to launch attacks against ISIS.

The polarizing discourse of ISIS called for a single borderless Muslim Umma (‘nation’) ruled by Sharia law. When they removed the borders, announcing the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the region a century ago, ISIS leaders Abou Mohammad al-Adnani and Omar al-Shishani were revealing a nostalgic desire for a return to a previous time.

This radical discourse calls for the superiority of Muslims only in the lands of Islam and it battles against everyone who disagrees. It calls for the division of the world on the basis of religion or culture, and it rejects any diversity or openness while feeding on its animosity to the West – exactly as its radical Right counterparts in Europe feed on their animosity to Islam and immigrants.

Such polarization discourse has similar features universally, whether it is the populist discourse of the AfD or the religiously radical discourse of ISIS. Both seek to prove the truth of their point of view at the expense of their nemesis, and work towards achieving their goals regardless of the consequences.

History and the present

Historical narratives constitute the most important tenet of the polarization discourse, as history is integral to the identity of a nation that is proud of what it has achieved. This kind of pride never admits the mistakes of the past and sees in history only success and civilizational superiority. History is a narrative whose function is to correct the present and to redirect the people’s course.

ISIS’s 2017 video, ‘One Umma’, presents an opportunity to analyse its understanding of the significance of historical narratives and how they can be twisted to serve its interests. In the documentary-style propaganda film, ISIS presents the most important historical phases of Islam, offering definitions to concepts such as 'Islamic Umma' and its identity and territory drawing on Prophet Mohammad’s prophecy regarding the Islamic Caliphate.

According to ISIS, the military and monarchical regimes in the Middle East and North Africa rule without the consent of the people. This is why the Islamist movement promises, “a new dawn following years of loss and lack of moral guidance which sank the Umma in an abyss of humiliation and weakness. It is a ray of hope for the crying wretched in the face of their oppressors.”

In the video, as a narrating voice speaks of the return to the Caliphate in the manner of the Prophet, images appear of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001. These are seen as the start of a new historical epoch, the breaking of a new dawn for the Umma of Islam as the voice claims.

This is the dawn in which a worldwide Muslim jihad is declared against all “countries of the cross”, as is mentioned in the video. A new dawn in which the worldwide jihad and ISIS are a “Caliphate destined by God” and announced by the Prophet.

However, looking to history to correct the present is not necessarily a religious act. The AfD looks at the history of Germany as a national state for the German people despite it being a Christian state. “If the French and the British boast of their emperor or of their war-time prime minister Winston Churchill, we, too, have the right to boast about the achievements of the German soldiers in the two world wars,” says Gauland in a rallying speech.

The AfD seeks to establish a new view of German history. For example, Nazism is seen as but a small blemish in the history of a civilisation and a successful nation that has lasted more than 2,000 years, as Gauland declares in another speech. It is this pride in the past that Gauland seeks, having resigned from the party of chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013, because, he said in an interview, under Merkel’s leadership, the party was no longer what it used to be.

The hatred of alternatives

ISIS views Muslims who do not adhere to its ideology as lagging behind. At a time when ISIS is waging its sacred war in predominantly Muslim countries, it also seeks to drag all Muslims into a war in which they have no stakes. Whoever participates in the world jihad is considered a true Muslim, the ardent defender of religion and land, and if they do not, they are considered laggards or deserters.

In another video released at the end of 2015, entitled ‘Camps of Degradation’, ISIS discusses the issue of immigrants again from a religious perspective and narrates the story of the Prophet Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina and his triumphant return to Mecca after many years. The video describes how ‘today’s Muslims are leaving the Islamic State, or choosing not to migrate to it, preferring to live under humiliation in Europe’. The reasons why hundreds of thousands are fleeing from countries like Syria and Iraq, which have been destroyed precisely by armed groups like ISIS are never mentioned. Instead the propaganda video goes: “And alas, they fled death only to face it a thousand times a day and to gulp down its bitterness in the high seas. They turn into food in the stomachs of fish. Some suffer extreme cold or extreme heat in the camps of degradation. Confound this life of dishonour! Confound it!”

This way of presenting the refugee question without taking into account the reasons that push people to take boats across the Mediterranean is a polarizing rhetoric used by propagandists to tie the problems of the people or of the land to a specific group. For ISIS, the failure of Muslims to adhere to it leads to its loss, and in exactly the same way the arrival of Muslims in Germany makes it an unsafe country in the eyes of the AfD.

History is a narrative whose function is to correct the present and to redirect the people’s course

Rüdiger Schmidt, political science professor at Mannheim University and researcher on populism, explains that “the opposition to immigration and the hatred of foreigners constitute a central motive for those who vote for the AFD”. It also represents a crucial element in the discourse of the party.

According to Schmidt, the AfD is trying to revive the concept of a racial origin-based national identity, a concept that was invalidated in Germany 20 years ago with the reform of the identity law: “we hear many statements from the AfD, such as the one claiming that possessing a German passport does not make one a ‘true’ German. This is generally typical of right-wing populist parties.”

Blanket accusations

Polarizing discourse relies on the construction of an identity based on narratives about history. This identity allows differentiation between those who defend the nation and those who should not be part of it. In this context, the followers of this discourse attempt to achieve their political gains by underscoring any criminal acts or harassments that may befall the people. The goal of this is to gain voices and supporters rather than supporting or acting in solidarity with the victims. Following this logic, the AfD considers that all immigrants should be held accountable for any crime carried out by an immigrant against a German citizen.

It is for this reason that the far-Right party exploits any such incident to attack immigrants and isolate them from the rest of society instead of trying to find a unifying discourse for all citizens. This attitude became apparent in a speech by AfD’s Alice Weidel, in front of the German Parliament in 2018, when she stated “it seems that the growth in population with increasing numbers of criminal immigrants with several identities is a matter that does not bother you. But I can tell you that burqas and veiled women, as well as men armed with knives will be dangerous to our well-being, our economic growth, and our social state.”

In the same vein, ISIS seized and exploited all and every hardship endured by Muslims, whether or not they took place in Muslim-majority countries. Photographs of victims, particularly those who had fallen to the war on terror, became its favourite advertisement material in the regions under its control. Through these, ISIS criticized the West, as well as the indifference of Muslims, by appealing to emotions or by reasoned arguments.

Abou Yousef Al-Australi addresses viewers in a 2017 ISIS video titled ‘Fertile Umma’ as follows: “We only see women and children as victims of their alleged war on terror. Don’t the Muslims who live in the West feel any shame? Especially those who are medical doctors among them. You offer treatment to children who are not part of the Umma! I offer treatment to children who were hit by strikes paid for by your taxes.”

ISIS seized and exploited all and every hardship endured by Muslims, whether or not they took place in Muslim-majority countries

Al-Australi appears inside a civilian hospital, standing next to a girl who has been wounded by American strikes. The camera moves slowly and captures several shots of the little girl while the ISIS doctor talks about her impending death due to her injuries. However, Al-Australi did not ask to have the girl evacuated safely in order to treat her. He also did not call for an end to the fighting between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Rather, his speech was an attack on the West, and specifically an attack on the Muslims living in the West, accusing them of being responsible for the victims falling in ISIS-controlled territory.

In both cases, the polarization discourse gives the indirect impression that the people, or at least some people, are responsible for what is happening to them. Thus, tax money of the Muslims in the West serves to kill Muslims in Syria and Iraq, as Al-Australi contends. While for the AfD, the Germans’ tax money serves to sustain unemployed immigrants who do not offer society anything in return.

There exist many important similarities in the polarization discourses of ISIS and the right-wing populist movements in Europe. At the same time, there are many contradictions that exist within each one of them as well. For instance, they do not find it problematic to collaborate with enemies or individuals who do not share their views as long as this collaboration serves to rally more support or to secure more power whether political, economic, or military.

Indeed, the Assad regime in Syria was one of ISIS’ economic partners and oil clients. At the other end of the spectrum, within the AfD there are immigrants of African and other origins. Most notorious among the latter is the Syrian, Kevork Almassian, who is currently facing the threat of repatriation to Syria for supporting the AfD’s view that Syria is a safe country and for his promotion of the populist right-wing view about immigrants in Germany, the majority of whom hail from Syria.

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