Ever since 11 September 2001 reasonable people in liberal democracies have concluded that their enemies must at some level be reasonable, too. Surely such hatred must have been provoked by the west. Surely the solution must be for western governments to stop being provocative. Their rational opponents would then have no reason to commit homicidal attacks, and we would be safe. Unfortunately the belief in a rational motive is an illusion. To sustain the rationalist fallacy, you must ignore vast amounts of evidence. In the Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan and Algeria, millions have died in Islamist wars and massacres that make Srebrenica and the World Trade Center appear paltry affairs. Islamist movements dedicated to persecuting Muslims who believe in the separation of church and state or the emancipation of women are not rational on any terms but their own. This seems a simple point to make. If you pay al-Qaeda and its imitators the compliment of reading what their leaders say, you find a cosmic dream of an Islamic empire dominating the world.
But the point is rarely taken, in part because Afghanistan and the Sudan are faraway countries of which we know little. How many people, for instance, have heard of the slaughter of the "heretical" Shia Muslims in central Afghanistan by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, let alone asked themselves what foul ideology drove them to do it? Yet there is a link closer to home which ties Islamism to the mass irrationalist movements of the west. You can hear it like a faint drumbeat, a background noise behind the bombings and the propaganda that alerts the listener to Europe's baleful history. On 9 March, to take the most recent example, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at a restaurant in Istanbul. If their victims had been British, American or Jewish, right-thinking people would have said that the overthrow of the Taliban or the invasion of Iraq or the humiliation of the Palestinians was the "root cause" of the murders. As it was, the dead were members of a party of diners from a Masonic lodge, and the story died as quickly as they did.
In November 2003, 32 people were killed and more than 400 injured when the British consulate in Istanbul and the (Brit-ish) HSBC bank were attacked. Every right-thinking person agreed that the suicidal assaults were a punishment for the war on Iraq, and no one dwelt on the oddity of the statement given by the caller who claimed responsibility on behalf of a Turkish Islamist group and al-Qaeda. "We will continue to attack Masonic targets," he said. "The Muslims are not alone."
Type "Masons" and "Islam" into Google and you get about 14,000 hits. The Masons, you learn, hide subliminal messages in The Simpsons as well as the music of the Eagles, Michael Jackson and Madonna, the better to brainwash the world. (Should you be inclined to play "Hotel California" backwards, you will hear "yeah Satan", apparently.) Abu Hamza, who extolled the glories of martyrdom from the Finsbury Park mosque in London, told the Independent: "I am not saying every American government figure knew about [11 September 2001]. But there are a few people [in the US government] who want to trigger a third world war. They are sponsored by the business lobby. Most of them are Freemasons, and they have loyalty to the Zionists."
The Saudi-educated London preacher Abdullah el-Faisal, who was jailed for inciting racial hatred, ranted about "cabals of Jews and Freemasons plotting to take over the world". Hamas said that its enemies "formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, the Rotary Club, the Lions and others". Saddam Hussein's Iraq announced that the penalty for "who-ever promotes or incites Zionist principles including Freemasonry" was death. Islamist Iran executed 200 Masons after the clerics seized power in 1979. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the country that has done most to pump money to fundamentalists, announced in the 1970s that the Freemasons were "a very evil and dark fraternity".
To British eyes this is all howling mad. Every now and again, journalists receive unprovable accusations that the Masons have tied up a plum job or fixed a planning decision, but on the whole British Freemasonry has become a Pythonesque joke - "the mafia of the mediocre", as a character in Our Friends in the North exclaimed. Men who roll up their trouser legs and exchange silly handshakes are many things, but a conspiracy for world domination they are not. That tyrants and religious fanatics see them as such is revealing. It shows that the paranoias of fascist Europe have spread to many of the third world's reactionary movements.
The term "Islamofascism" is popular with American neoconservatives but has never caught on in Britain, mainly, I suspect, because of Israel. The classic fascist-conspiracy theory was "anti-Semitism". Mention those words and you are shot at from both sides. "You can't say anything for or against the Jews without getting into trouble," said George Orwell in the 1930s. If it was troublesome then, it is near-impossible now.
In a series of learned articles, Daniel Seymour, a historian of Freemasonry, has argued that it helps cut through the confusion if you take a look at Islamist theocrats' paranoia about Freemasons. It was the original paranoia of Europe's ultra right.
In the 1790s, a French Jesuit, the Abbe Barruel, tried to explain how it was that so many of his countrymen had overthrown their sacred monarch, executed the aristocrats who had cared for them and turned on the Catholic Church, which had saved their souls. In a four-volume book he explained that the French had been brainwashed and manipulated by Freemasons - the successors of the crusader Knights Templar of the Middle Ages - who formed a secret conspiracy to achieve a world republic.
The Enlightenment philosophers Diderot, d'Alembert, Condorcet and Helvetius were Masons. So were Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and many of the other founders of the American republic. QED. Representative government, the secular state - indeed, modernity itself - were nothing more than a devilish plot.
Jews were added to the conspiracy in the 19th century. Tsarist Russia used anti-Semitism to distract its subjects from the misery of their lives, in much the same way as the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt do today. The tsar's secret police fabricated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which were meant to reveal the Jewish conspiracy to control humanity.
They were and are the essential fascist document. Freemasons were in there. "Gentile Masonry blindly serves as a screen for us and our objects," the secret police had the Jewish plotters saying at the turn of the 20th century. And it is worth noting that at the turn of the 21st, Syrian and Egyptian television have shown themselves worthy successors of the tsarist propagandists by dramatising the Protocols and putting them on air.
After the German defeat of 1918, General Erich Ludendorff, controller of the Kaiser's armies, decided that the First World War and the German revolution that followed the Allied victory were the work of Freemasons. He declared that Freemasonry was a Jewish device intended to make "artificial Jews": "It is cheating the people to fight the Jew while allowing his auxiliary troop, Freemasonry, to function."
All European fascist leaders persecuted Freemasonry. About 9,000 Masons were executed in Franco's Spain. Franco was consumed by fantasies about their plots, and his goons collected rooms full of surveillance reports to pacify his apocalyptic fears. Mussolini banned Freemasonry, as did Hitler. The Nazi propagandist Alfred Rosenberg said its association with liberalism was intolerable: "Without doubt the Masonic dogma of Humanity is a relapse into worlds of the most primitive conceptions; everywhere where it is put into practice it is accompanied by decadence, because it conflicts with the aristocratic laws of Nature."
I am not arguing that Islamism and Ba'athism are simple replicas of European thinking in the 1930s, however tightly they have embraced fascist ideas. History never repeats itself perfectly. But after what Europe has been through in the 20th century, Europeans ought to be able to diagnose the disease.
There exists a people uniquely blessed by history (the proletariat) or by blood (the Germans, the Spanish, the Italians) or by God (Islamic, Christian, Jewish or Hindu fundamentalists).
These people are destined to inherit the earth. When they do, all modern troubles will vanish. Men will be heroes. Women will bring forth contented children. Yet when the vanguard of those chosen by history, blood or God look around them, they find that the blessed are not marching towards Utopia. How can this be?
The only acceptable answer is: "them". The people who work in the dark. The conspirators who corrupt the blessed, spread disorder in society, who turn women against men and children against their parents. No violence is too great to free the blessed from those who pervert them, for when they are freed an earthly paradise awaits them.
It's an insane story, and one that has produced tens of millions of corpses.
To think it died with the 20th century is pure folly.
The paperback edition of Nick Cohen's Pretty Straight Guys, published by Faber & Faber, will be out in June