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What Steve Bannon and al-Qaeda have in common

Both Donald Trump's chief strategist and the terrorist organisation believe in an existential global war. 

The Arabic headline read: "Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist: Our war is with Islam as a religion. It is necessary to fight against it, and against Muslim communities in Europe." Not in Al Jazeera, or the Arabic-language daily Asharq al-Awsat, but rather al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Masra newspaper.

With his face emblazoned on the front page, the editorial was a largely factual description of Bannon’s views on Islam as an enemy of the West, its inherent tendency to dominate societies, and belief in inevitable and continual civilizational war. AQAP deemed very little propagandising necessary to draw out the salient message - with a tone of unruffled approval.

Many commentators have described Donald Trump’s election as a gift to global extremist recruitment. But the rhetoric of Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon, identified by al-Qaeda’s journalists as the "power behind the throne", does more than just reinforce the extremist narrative. The fact is that Bannon needs jihadis as much as jihadis need figures like Bannon. The former Breitbart Editor-in-Chief actively advocates for an existential showdown with the Islamic faith, as a necessary prerequisite for American renewal.

Conversations about global political theory in the halls of power used to be dominated by discussions about Francis Fukuyama’s "End of History" and Samuel Huntington’s "Clash of Civilisations" theses. However, Time magazine recently revealed Bannon’s profound conviction in a controversial historical theory based on recurring generational cycles, characterised by societal cataclysm and rebirth.

The theory, expounded in a 1997 book, The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, divides history into self-contained "Saecula" (generations) of around eighty years, each of which ends in a "crisis" phase. Such a "Fourth Turning" results in the destruction of the old order, and the ushering in of the new. According to Bannon’s reading of the theory, we are living through the dying days of the Millenial Saeculum (which began with the Baby Boomers). In other words, a phoenix-like rebirth is nearly upon us. The previous "fourth turning" was the "silent generation" that immediately preceded the Second World War, giving an indication of the scale of the cataclysm imagined by Bannon.

His view is not fatalistic. Like the Isis jihadis travelling to Syria, whose battlefield strategy is in part dictated by a religious obsession with the end of times, Bannon seems to believe that his job is to accelerate this new apocalyptic paradigm. 

But amid his predictions of “a major shooting war in the Middle East again", on a domestic level, Bannon’s conspiracy theory mindset has translated into a belief in a widespread Muslim Brotherhood effort to command the levers of power in the United States. His claims that Islam is a political project disguised as a religion are more than a cynical electoral ploy. In his previous job as a Hollywood filmmaker, Bannon developed a film outline (“Destroying the Great Satan”) about the "cultural jihad" being waged by a number of large Islamic organisations to establish an Islamic state in the US, inadvertently facilitated by the media, intelligence agencies, and the American Jewish community. Such conspiracy theories seem eerily similar to those in Isis magazines, except that their preoccupation is a Zionist-Crusader-Safavid (Iranian) alliance, aimed at the destruction of Islam.

Bannon has repeatedly aired his view that we are in the midst of a “global existential war" against what he labels “Islamic fascism". The mind-set of existential total war has been deployed in America before. It was what resulted in the wholesale internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, due to the community’s perceived culpability for the government in Tokyo’s aggression. This phenomenon of an entire community viewed primarily through the lens of threat, manifested most recently in the total securitisation of the vulnerable refugee community through travel bans from Muslim-majority countries. Both Bannon and jihadists are united in their determination to remove what Isis calls the "grey zone", the millions of Muslims living fulfilled, integrated lives in Western countries, who are able to balance their national and religious identity.

Bannon’s worldview is one of Fifth Columns and Fourth Turnings. An enemy within, and an inevitable apocalyptic showdown. This "with us or against us" binary presented by both Islamist extremism and anti-Muslim bigotry is a false one. Despite Trumps claims about “wiping Islamic terror off the face of the earth", such an approach will only roll back progress in the battle against extremist ideas.

In interviews, Bannon has described Trump as little more than a ‘blunt instrument’ for the achievement of his own broader aims. Yet those aims don’t simply play into the hands of extremists; they require such extremism to exist and flourish in order to validate Bannon’s irrational claims. It is essential that we build a broad-based movement, both within Islam and outside of it, unified in their opposition to both of these worldviews that pervert the mainstream, whilst purporting to act in its defence.

Milo Comerford is an analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.