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15 March 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 8:13am

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. 

By Milo Comerford

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.

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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.

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