Islamists in the Arab world have always consciously or unconsciously attempted to replicate leftist models of revolution and insurgency, but without importing ideological content. With the rise of ISIL, this pattern is continuing in surprising and disturbing ways.
The Muslim Brotherhood has long been strikingly reminiscent of Leninist movements. They organised along cellular lines, established sister parties abroad, were cautious about violence, emphasised services to the public and grounded themselves in the urban middle classes. When the Arab left was robust, it dismissed the Brotherhood as reactionary and retrograde. But as the left has atrophied, it has developed a bizarre crush on Brotherhood parties. Some Arab leftists are attracted precisely by these structural characteristics – despite having irreconcilably opposed ideological content and values – that mirror a Leninist ideal.
Most Salafist-Jihadist groups, by contrast, have typically behaved in a manner reminiscent of ultra-left groups prominent in the 1960s and 1970s such as the Red Army Faction. Both focused on urban terrorism and attacks aimed at highly symbolic targets. They share a deep attachment to theatrical, spectacular and carefully staged political mayhem, wherein violence comes to virtually constitute an end in itself.
But now, with the rise of ISIL, a new generation of radical Islamists are evoking an entirely different historical analogue. In some crucial ways their strategic modus operandi looks strikingly similar to that of the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong, in the late 1930s through to the late 1940s.
In contrast to more typical Salafist-Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda, ISIL concentrates on using both conventional military and guerrilla tactics to seize and control territory and assets in order to establish secured areas of governance.
There is a great deal in common between Mao’s revolutionary strategies and Abu Bakr Naji’s concept of “the management of savagery”, in which jihadist groups seek to frustrate and exhaust their opponents. The key idea inspiring ISIL is to first create and “manage” chaos, and then to offer a form of order, thereby imposing their control in a given area.
Having been driven out of China’s urban centres, the CPC established its first rural stronghold “Soviet” in Jiangxi in the early 1930s. The experiment was a failure, but the subsequent establishment, directly under Mao, of a second rural base headquartered in the remote city of Yan’an, proved the key to eventual victory.
In Yan’an, Mao secured a stronghold from where his forces could fan out to continually expand the areas under his control. ISIL is using essentially the same model from Raqqa, the de facto capital of its “caliphate”, to spread its tentacles further in Syria and Iraq.
ISIL is also beginning to migrate its governance model. For example, its “educational curriculum” first developed in Raqqa, is now being introduced in schools in recently acquired territories such as Mosul.
In both cases, the quest for state power was based in these remote redoubts. CPC rule in Yan’an was harsh, puritanical, uncompromising, but also highly idealistic and disciplined.
For some, it held a certain romantic appeal, as does ISIL’s new “caliphate”. The call is essentially the same: come join us, migrate and be part of the new “Soviet”, or “State”. Yet in both cases there is also evident anxiety about newcomers, meaning long-standing affiliations are incongruously prioritised.
A further uncanny echo is an ability to dominate perceptions of a popular liberation struggle without actually being a major part of it. Despite their intensive propaganda to the contrary, both the CPC and its nationalist rivals preferred to fight each other rather than the Japanese invaders. Similarly, ISIL – which absurdly poses as the champion of the Syrian rebellion – and the Al Assad regime avoid direct confrontation whenever possible.
Both Mao and ISIL skillfully manipulate the mystique of narratives framed in a mythical space and time. Both claim to be operating in the service of an all-powerful authority that determines outcomes: history and God respectively. Both frame society in stark binaries, preaching the absolute necessity of ruthless violence combined with endless patience.
There are infinitely more differences between Mao and ISIL than similarities, and no moral equivalency or ideological affinity whatsoever. ISIL is obsessed with tawhid (the oneness of God) which suggests a fundamental unity of all creation under divine sovereignty. The central tenets of Mao’s dialectics insist everything can, should and always will be endlessly divided. Mao despised tradition. ISIL romanticises the past. Mao cultivated an affable image. ISIL projects a calculatedly terrifying one. At most registers, the two have absolutely nothing in common.
Yet the clearly recognisable ways in which ISIL is indeed replicating key elements of Mao’s revolutionary methodology are unmistakable precisely because any such comparison is so incongruous. The analogy at first seems far-fetched, but proves actually compelling and alarming.
The current generation of jihadists is not only more extreme than ever. It’s also either reading from, or channelling, the most effective playbook for insurgency in developing societies.