How does the leading Republican candidate for the US presidency, Donald Trump, square off with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the helm of the so-called Islamic State group?
For many, shoving the two names in the same headline is anathema. Drawing any association between them is an abomination.
After all, how could anyone in their right mind dare to compare the clean-shaven, white businessman and leading candidate to the highest public office in the oldest liberal democracy, with the bearded fundamentalist preacher, former inmate, and head of the world’s most notorious terrorist group, ISIL?
Extremism is a loaded word. Its use in geopolitical newspeak has never been objective.
Conferring labels such as “extremist” or “moderate” on individuals, movements, leaders and regimes has generally been ideological and therefore unproductive. It has, however, been a useful imperial construct.
Allies of global powers are described as “moderates”, whereas political opponents are classified as “extremists” or “terrorists”.
In this regard, extremism is reliant – mainly if not exclusively – on the actors and not on their actions. For example, if you are a US ally, you are by definition a moderate, because it is assumed that the US epitomises moderation.
Lumping together different peoples and groups as ‘extremists’ out of distaste for their ideas or religion is as wrong as it is counterproductive.
It is irrelevant in this context whether a group or a regime wages wars, commits acts of terror, and occupies other people, or, if they are religiously intolerant and totalitarian. On the contrary, they are defined as being moderate according to their political orientation. Even after the US invaded and occupied Iraq on false pretenses, it continued to label Iraqis as moderates and extremists, depending on their support of its endeavour.
The same applies to Russia and other imperial or regional powers. In Moscow, the Syrian regime is portrayed as moderate despite the government’s brutal policies.
The opposition movement, on the other hand, according to Russia, falls on the “extremist” end of the spectrum simply for not being in line with the Kremlin’s foreign policy. This is as false as it is misleading.
Lumping together different peoples and groups as “extremists” out of distaste for their ideas or religion is as wrong as it is counterproductive.
For the sake of brevity, let me just say that, beyond the realm of imperial constructs and “language control”, extremism as moderation can only be defined in terms of how the moral imperative is found or lost in the use of means and attainment of ends. Or more precisely, how far the “ends justify the means”, regardless of their immorality or wickedness.
Back to Trump and Baghdadi
Trump, in the words of The New York Times, is a “shady, bombastic liar”, who is hardening the image of the Republican party “as a symbol of intolerance and division”.
Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the US presumably to maintain security, or his disdain for Latinos under the pretext of protecting the “American” workers are all a case in point. He has even accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug runners to the US.
Two former Mexican presidents, not known for their haste, have compared Trump to Hitler.
Trump’s racist and extremist rhetoric, for the time being, has allowed him to succeed in rallying the support of angry white Americans in order to win the presidency.
On the face of it, such extremism could be seen as no more than a campaign tactic to eclipse his opponents, who have been repeating the same old tired slogans and cliches.
Or, as I wrote previously, Trump’s danger lies not in his political or ideological extremism but rather his vulgar populism. In the process, however, he is further radicalising the American Right.
And yet, Trump’s rhetoric does not measure up to Baghdadi’s actions. The latter has established a totalitarian “rule” that constantly represses non-Muslims and enslaves the likes of Yazidis in the name of a Caliphate.
The Bush-Bin Laden precedence
But when I think of these provocative men dominating global news and of what they may become, I remember George W Bush and Osama bin Laden.
I remember how they drove the world to the brink through terror and by labelling each other “evil”, each claiming to be holier than thou.
They gained no greater legitimacy and support than from feeding into each other’s hatred and incitement.
Each side seemed to sanction the other, and bringing down the evil empire justified all means, including the horrific attacks of 9/11, just as defeating al-Qaeda justified all means, including war and occupation, in addition to torture for good measure.
Trump is yet to be nominated, let alone elected. Yet his incitement is already feeding into ISIL’s conspiratorial propaganda, just as the latter’s actions are pushing more Americans into Trump’s lap.
It remains to be seen if or when a “President Trump” will indeed be as reckless as Bush.
There is no doubt that grievances matter, especially to those most affected. But these should not be used as a ploy to inflame the souls, and drive further extremism.
Extremism could have different roots and ideologies, and it could harden in self-defence or for self-preservation, and it can result in minor or devastating damage, but in general, the record shows that extremism on one side is no remedy for extremism on the other.
On the contrary, it provokes more of the same violence and war. And even if it results in short-term gains, the long-term consequences of extremism on the very cause they claim to be fighting for, are generally catastrophic.
That is why it is high time for the true moderates on all sides; those who believe the means are no less important than the ends; those driven by moral imperatives – not religious bigotry and political and geopolitical greed – to stand together against the immoral extremism that has fuelled the cycle of hatred and violence.
By Marwan Bishara at Al Jazeera.