Issue 15 of the ISIS English-language magazine Dabiq from 2016 was titled "Breaking the Cross" by the terrorist organization. It was mostly an anti-Christian edition featuring theological arguments expanding on the much more succinct ISIS threat to the West that they would "break your crosses, take your women, and paint the White House black."
The Islamic State's dreams of world conquest turned out to be a pipe dream, although the group is very much alive in the corners of the world and boosts its body count numbers these days mostly by killing African Christian civilians. But the dream of "breaking the crosses" is not limited to jihadists.
In preparation for the recent G-7 meeting in Munster, Germany's Foreign Ministry removed a 482-year-old crucifix from the city's historic town hall where the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648. Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a Green Party member of Germany's ruling leftist coalition, regretted that the cross had been removed by her ministry but could not really explain why it happened. Meanwhile in Spain, the country's ruling leftist (Socialists plus the Communists of Unidas Podemos) and anti-clerical allies are wrestling how or whether to take down the tallest (150-meter or 500 feet) cross in the world, built by the Franco regime in Spain's Valle de los Caidos ("Valley of the Fallen"). The complex was finished in 1958. Facing tough political and economic headwinds, the ruling leftist parties are eager to be seen as zealously anti-Franco although the dictator has been dead for almost 50 years.
Elsewhere in Europe, a Tory majority Parliament endorsed a ban on silent prayer too close to abortion clinics while the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled unanimously in favor a topless abortion activist who entered La Madeleine church in Paris and simulated aborting baby Jesus using a bloody calf's liver in front of the main altar just days before Christmas. The tribunal overturned the ruling against the activist and ordered the French state to pay her 9,800 Euros (2,000 for "moral damages" and 7,800 for costs and expenses).
All of these actions in Europe were in the service of the increasingly dominant ideology of the age, not Christianity of course, but a successor faith that elevates as dogma certain views about gender, race, abortion, and immigration and that is often either skeptical if not hostile toward traditional religion and traditional families and the nation state. Most flags, except perhaps the rainbow flag or the Ukrainian one, make the new faith's clerisy uncomfortable.
The partisans of the Islamic State were terrorists and revolutionaries but today much change, radical ideological change included, comes from above and not from below, not from revolutionary regimes or from populist insurrectionists but from entrenched permanent bureaucracies. These bureaucracies, often coupled with powerful NGO networks boosted with government money and a mostly left-leaning social media and academic infrastructure, act as ideological enforcers of the new dogma. Indeed, in Europe these enforcers target governments – Hungary, Poland, and possibly Meloni's Italy – seen as fallen from the pure progressive faith. Farther afield, an increasingly rightist nationalist democracy like Israel also makes them uneasy. These Western enforcers decide what constitute the new sacred cows, the new blasphemies. A Barcelona hate crimes prosecutor just sentenced a Twitter user to 15 months in jail and a 1,600-Euro fine for racist, anti-immigrant tweets.
While the United States is still different than Europe in many ways (certainly on free speech issues), the combination of bureaucracy plus the activist/academic community plus compliant media is also a powerful progressive tool on these shores. It is perhaps not surprising that the French abortion activist at La Madeleine later praised the influence of American "intersectional" Critical Race Theory (CRT) ideologues had on her thinking.
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Despite talk about a global confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism, the new orthodoxy being steadily but surely imposed on the West has parallels in, of all places, those authoritarian regimes in the East.
Certainly, in the Arab world, authoritarian regimes have often embraced political Islam or Islamist narratives for their own reasons, enabling Islamist and jihadist action (while at times fighting it). Sudan's leftist dictator Nimeiry turned to Islamism as his popularity waned. Baathist Syria channeled jihadist fighters into Iraq to kill Americans. Baathist Saddam Hussein's late Islam Campaign enabled the education of a pious young man who would become "ISIS Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All of this came from above.
While Saudi Arabia was once the chief promoter of Islamism in the region, they have stopped and the slack has been taken up by Qatar and Turkey. Probably almost as dangerous a model is in ostensibly anti-Islamist Egypt. There the national security state zealously pursues the banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood while allowing other forms of Islamism to flourish. The narratives often seen on Egyptian media, which is deeply penetrated by Egyptian security services, are replete with conspiracy theories, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism. Rather than a refutation of an extreme ideology, they complement and reinforce it. The Egyptian government is zealous in the policing of its own "sacred cows," including the power to prosecute religious blasphemy. These charges fall heaviest on the marginalized: secular or heterodox Muslims, atheists, Shias and, of course, Coptic Christians.
There is indeed in the region Islamist and jihadist grassroots, extremist subversion, and terrorism, but much of the space given to the larger Islamist narrative is provided by regimes, as in Egypt, for their own reasons, the main reason being to stay in power and distract populations from other, less popular, topics. If in democratic Spain, the Socialists would rather talk about long-dead Franco than sky high prices, in Egypt the regime can talk about immorality and blasphemy rather than deal with corruption or inflation. The power to punish "transgressors," whether they are freethinkers in the East or populists, rightists, or Christians in the West, is the ultimate demonstration of entrenched power by ruling elites.
Ironically, despite the fierce competition and incendiary rhetoric we often here about "us and them," the powerful share some characteristics. Whether in dictatorships or in ostensible democracies, raw power is being used from above to enforce conformity among the dissenters.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
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