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Islamophobia and the Internet

The massacre in Oslo has focused attention on the toxic influence of the Islamophobic blogosphere from which Anders Breivik cut and pasted much of his manifesto.

But it’s important to recognise that the far right blogs do more than simply disseminate hatred – that, with the blogosphere, the demagogues of anti-Muslim bigotry have stumbled upon an organizational form that resolves some of the traditional problems besetting racial populism.

Historically, the racist right builds from those we might call the social etceteras, thatstrata sitting uncomfortably between the main classes of industrial society. Classical fascism, for instance, was based upon individuals simultaneously resentful of big capital and fearful of losing their hard-won shreds of respectability. Shopkeepers, professionals, small business owners, bureaucrats, retirees, the unemployed: people conscious of being screwed by the banks, but also fretting about immigrants flooding their suburbs. The characteristic ‘two-facedness’ of racial populism (shrill denunciations of Wall Street alongside exposes of culturalMarxism) reflects its supporters’ sense that they are squeezed from above and below, with no evident solution at hand.

That means that the supporters of the racial right are often the most atomized elements of society. There’s no innate ties of solidarity between two small businessmen – indeed, they’re in competition with each other — and there’s even less of a bond between a small businessman and a declassed factory worker.

How, then, do you organize this aggregation of flotsam and jetsam, people without any particular collectivity other than a shared sense of not fitting in?
The traditional answer is via political activity that in and of itself contrasts with the hopeless isolation of everyday existence. Hitler famously wrote of how his mass marches served to ‘burn[…] into the small, wretched individual the proud conviction that, paltry worm as hewas, he was nevertheless a part of a great dragon.’ For classical fascism, meetings, rallies and street violence served not simply to advertise the movement but to excite supporters, to give them a collective sense of participating in a grand adventure.

Nonetheless, precisely because populism grows, as Marx put it, ‘by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes’, keeping organisations together always proved difficult for the far right. That’s why racial populist groupings typically form around a charismatic, authoritarian leader, a single figure who can keep followers in-line via force of will. Even so, they tend to grow very quickly – and then spectacularly implode, as various followers decide that they, too, would like to be fuhrer.

That’s why the blogosphere matters.

Blogs are unique in that they allow supporters to feel an ownership of a political project without giving them any actual control. They are, to put it another way, simultaneously participatory but undemocratic.

That’s why the major Islamophobic blogs should be understood not simply as providing ideas for their followers but as offering them an experience.

It is, after all, far easier to become politically active online than in a traditional organisation. There’s no limit to how much you can post in the comments thread of a ‘counter-jihadi’ website: if you choose, you can spend all day holding forth about the forgeries on Obama’s birth certificate without ever leaving your La-Z-Boy recliner. Very quickly, you find yourself part of a community, recognizing and being recognized by other members. Through that participation, you can forge a new identity, one that’s exciting and meaningful.

In real life, you might be a retired dentist, aggrieved at your vermicular existence; on Michelle Malkin’s site, you’re ‘Mightydragon55’, Hammer of Islam and agent of counter-jihad.

The major sites periodically launch blog-wars and other online campaigns, and these serve to cadreise their followers. Where the far-right of the past blooded its recruits via street battles with the Left, today, you can prove your mettle and bondwith your comrades by joining a snarky pile-on against some progressive site.

Yet, while blogs enable involvement, they don’t require democracy.

As soon as you launch a real life political organisation — even one on the far right — the question of decision-making (elections, congresses, etc) comes to the fore. Which, inevitably, raises the vexed issue of who gets to play Hitler and who has to be Germany.

In the blogosphere, it’s different. The most popular sites are built around a single magnetic figure, whose accepted role is to lay down on a daily basis the political line that everyone else follows. A right-wing blog community can thus be much more stable than a right-wing organisation, simply because, online, top-down leadership goes without saying.

Furthermore, the anonymity of the blogosphere encourages a rhetorical escalation that’s very useful for the far right.

If you attend a political meeting, you might think twice about shouting out your desire to herd immigrants into camps, for fear you’ll have to explain yourself to your neighbours. But as ‘Nordicwarrior’ you need feel no such constraints, and can express yourself, as TS Eliot once put it, with ‘the braggadocio of the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter’.

Which means, of course, there’s a certain unreality to online politics, with the commenter writing all-cap screeds as ‘Wrath of Thor’ just as likely to be an aggrieved grand-dad as a skinhead or stormtrooper.

That being said, Oslo showed the folly of taking comfort from the extremity of online Islamophobia. If you visit, say, Atlas Shrugs, proprietor Pamela Geller often seems to be hallucinating on demand. Hers is a world in which Obama’s not only a Muslim: he’s both the secret son of Malcolm X and a drug-addicted Kenyan jihadi, engaged in extramarital dalliances with crack whores.

Yet Breivik hailed Geller as a savant, an authority whom he quoted extensively throughout his manifesto.

The organisations of the far right, while growing, are still comparatively small. But the Islamophobic blogosphere stretches across the globe, providing a network that allows every angry shopkeeper to marinate in extravagant fantasies of racial war and creeping sharia – not just reading about the stuff but, crucially, participating in a community in which such views are accepted without question. Given the combination of all-encroaching paranoia and rhetorical violence, it’s not so very surprising if the online world occasionally leaks bloodily into reality.

So what follows?

Most importantly, the Left needs to take Islamophobia seriously. It’s easy to snigger at the oddballs and nutters who find Muslims lurking behind every bush. But the anti-Islam sentiment is fast becoming a key tenet of the far-right,structurally identical to the anti-Semitism of the early twentieth century.

Nor is it useful simply to urge restraint, to call, Jon Stewart-style, for a rhetorical de-escalation. Right-wing populism grows because it appeals to those who feel that they have their backs to the wall. In the twenty-first century’s climate of austerity and economic crisis, many people do not feel calm – and nor should they. The Islamophobes channel genuine insecurities about job losses and social disintegration into imaginary threats from the caliphate.

In that respect, then, the growth of the far right represents, as always, a perpetual reminder of the failure of the Left, not online but in the real world. If we don’t come up with answers, there will also be an Anders Breivik who does.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.

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