Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist and senior counselor to President Donald Trump is known for his far right views. He previously ran Breitbart, a platform for ultra right-wing populist politics and the primary home of the “alt-right”. He also has a full seat on the “principals committee” on the National Security Council and was the driving force behind the string of executive orders Trump issued in his first week of office, including the ‘Muslim ban’. It’s his black-and-white worldview that commentators say makes him similar to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh and the self-declared caliph of the so-called Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS.
Journalist Murtaza Hussain from The Intercept explored the stark ideological similarities between Bannon and Baghdadi. TRT World’s Mohamed Taha spoke to Murtaza Hussain to unpack how the two men both want a war of civilisations.
How would you describe Steve Bannon?
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: I think he’s an extremist. As many have pointed out, he’s a white supremacist. He is somebody who believes in a clash of civilisations between the West which he defines as Christian and the Muslim world and even China. He is someone who has a very belligerent and apocalyptic view of world history. And he is not somebody who is necessarily scholarly in his beliefs. He has nonetheless managed to obtain a very high position in the US government. Now we’re contending with someone like him, who has fascist, racist, xenophobic beliefs, controlling the levers of power in the most powerful country in the world.
How would you describe Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?
MH: He’s a terrorist. He’s an extremist. He also shares apocalyptic views of history. His life experience, somewhat different from Bannon. He grew up in Iraq during the war and occupation. He was in prison. His apocalyptic visions are somewhat drawn off his experiences in Iraq. Ultimately, they have very similar, he has very similar perspectives to Bannon where they both see an inevitable and inescapable clash between Muslims and non-Muslims resulting in a violent conflict which they’re not only expecting but seem to be preparing for and working to bring about.
What are the similarities between Bannon’s world view and Baghdadi’s world view?
MH: They both see the world divided in binary terms between Muslims and non-Muslims. They believe in a violent clash between these two sides of the world as they see it. They’re both willing and expressed willingness to to use violence to bring that about. They’re expecting to use violence to bring that about. They both have the same hysterical and apocalyptic perspective on events which I think most people in the world do not share. But what’s troubling is these people have some degree of power now regardless of their general unpopularity.
Both Bannon and Baghdadi are religious extremists. They believe in a violent perspective of religion. They want to use religion and politics as a means of galvanising different communities to fight each other. They both believe that a very bloody and large-scale clash of civilisations is forthcoming. From their positions, they’ve done what hey can to make this prediction become reality. I think that when you look at both of their writings and words, you see a very common thread. That both of these people from different perspectives are anticipating a long bloody conflict, which is an amorphous conflict, it’s not very well defined. It’s very broad. But that breadth actually plays into their narrative. They see a world war coming between Muslims and non-Muslims and other groups and they’re preparing themselves for that and trying to prepare everybody else for that by dragging it into a conflict whether they want it or not.
What examples are there of this?
MH: So if you look at Bannon’s speech he gave to the Vatican in 2014, he very specifically calls, he tries to galvanise religious sentiment and calls for the revival of the tradition of Church militant as he calls it, to prepare for a religious war that he says is coming. It’s long, bloody and catastrophic. And if you look at a speech by Baghdadi in the same year around the same time, he had much the same to say. A long-bloody conflict coming between Muslims and non-Muslims and to gather your religious strength and to prepare for it. If you look at their statements, you see very strong parallels. These people, despite being very different, they look at the world in much the same way.
How do the right-wing radicals in the White House and Muslim radicals feed each other’s goals of civilisation war?
MH: I think they both cast the world in the same terms of binary divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims. They both advocate violence or if they don’t advocate, they say it’s necessary and inevitable. They sort of effectively advocate it. I would say they both have a similarity of relationship when you see terrorist attacks, civilian deaths, military operations. You’re just inflaming people more and more, creating more anger and animosity. That anger and animosity becomes very fertile soil for extremist movements, for extremist politics, for racism, for hatred. Then a conflict ends up being created regardless of whether it’s premeditated or planned or not.
In your piece, you said it doesn’t take much for a highly motivated minority to spark a broader conflict. How so?
MH: Well if you look at recent history especially 19th and 20th century history, you see that a lot of revolutionary movements and political movements were actually started by small vanguards individuals who were highly motivated and used violence and extreme ideology to push along a certain political program. These people were not representative of their societies per say, they didn’t necessarily share those beliefs but through a commitment to achieving their agenda, they were able to radically transform society and the world at large. I think when you look at something like ISIS, a group that is very much in that same genre of group. They’re a revolutionary vanguard which is trying to use violence to bring about changes to drag along the Muslim world, which is in every sense rejects them and has nothing to do with them. But using violence and extreme politics to try to drag them along and create a conflict that will force people to join them, for the sake of survival. When you look at Bannon, he describes himself as a Leninist. What does that mean? He’s not someone who is a socialist or he doesn’t believe in the equitable distribution of wealth. What he means is he is a revolutionary. He wants to use revolutionary tactics to bring about political change. In that sense, both he and ISIS, although they call upon antiquated religious doctrines to bring about their political program, they’re very modern, very much like modern revolutionary movements in the extreme apocalyptic tactics they’re trying to bring to bear.
Some said if Donald Trump was to be elected, he would make Abu Bakr al Baghdadi the second most powerful person in the world. What do you make of that statement? Did Trump’s presidency by default become a huge win for Baghdadi and his cause?
MH: Well I don’t know if it’s a win for him personally because he is the leader of a specific organisation in a specific place. He has to deal with military operations targeting him personally. He could be killed or otherwise disappear in the near future. I think it is a win for people all over the world who do not want to see any coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a win for people who dislike Muslims or dislike non-Muslims. They don’t want to see cosmopolitan or diverse societies exist anymore. They want to see anger, division and hatred. I think this is a great win for them. The biggest win they’ve had in decades. I think the real tragedy is not so much that he is the president but millions of people went out and voted for someone like this. Now he has the ability to implement his agenda.
He [Bannon] could be pushed out in the near future. It’s very possible. I just think that it’s a sign of the general degradation and rot of political culture that really, not just extremists, quite incompetent and not very learned people have attained such high levels of power. The chief strategist of the president of the United States is the former Breitbart head. Breitbart news which has abysmal editorial standards. That sort of rewarding of incompetence and unvarnished belligerence and bellicosity, that’s quite depressing. I don’t know whether he’s going to last, I don’t know whether his ideology specifically as he articulates it, is going to have a long life in the presidency. I just think it’s a sign that slower slowly year after year things are just deteriorating. You’re not just seeing aggression, you’re seeing real pseudo-scientific ravings and conspiracies being elevated to a level, the highest levels of power in the country. I think that should be troubling to anyone - Muslim, non-Muslim. That is a very troubling phenomenon. I think Bannon is very emblematic of it, regardless of what happens to him personally.
Thank you President Trump and Mr. Bannon for making our country less safe. https://t.co/uEDzDsyQQ2
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 1, 2017
How has Trump’s recent actions in office given ammunition to extremists?
MH: When you see the Yemen raid, you see innocent civilians being killed. Anyone around the world, regardless of their ideology, will react negatively to that. Especially as these policies, as Trump and his advisors openly say are targeted towards Muslims. When you have a government which is very openly hostile towards Muslims, when you see things like the Muslim ban and you see vast debts from US military action in the Muslim world, many people will become more anti-American naturally as a result of that. Some of those people will become more susceptible to the recruiting of extremist groups, especially as those groups gain in power out of the chaos caused by these American policies. I think you’re inevitably fermenting a wider conflict when you’re targeting for hostility Muslims all over the world, through these types of policies and at the same time you’re an endless limitless war in the Muslim world, which is generating resentment, anger. Something we’ve already seen over the last few decades which is escalating more and more and seemed to have reached a new crescendo with this new extremely belligerent administration.
In your piece, you referenced the memoirs of exiled Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. Namely how Stefan Zweig described his feelings of despair upon realising that a “tiny but loud-mouthed party of German Nationalists” had succeeded in seizing power and dragging humanity into a global conflict it had neither wanted or expected. Describe the quote by Stefan Zweig and what it means for our political situation today?
MH: I think what Stefan Zweig lived through a very similar circumstance where a small group of people, in that case, fascists in Austria, were able to, despite being loathed by most people in society, gain power in their society and then succeeded in triggering a conflict throughout Europe which ended up destroying pretty much all of Europe. It destroyed the entire world that Stefan Zweig lived in. So I think that when you read his words, there should be a very chilling warning because it was not that long ago where there were barbaric catastrophic conflicts happening in European countries which the Trump administration seems to be trying to destabilise or revive nationalistic politics. I think we should all be weary of small groups of extremists. Small groups of extremists historically have been able to accomplish quite a bit in society. I think now things are really reaching a dangerous breaking point, we need to be vigilant so as to not repeat the very egregious and tragic mistakes of recent history.