ISLAMISM does not, at first glance, seem a fertile ground for irony. Its literalist doctrine and joyless demeanour identify it as an creed of severe sincereity. And with Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, effectively churning out bi-weekly broadcasts for our edification, the movement is more than ever defined by his monotone earnestness.
Some of his colleagues, however, appear to possess a strong ironic bent. One “senior al-Qaeda official” made headlines after the failed ‘Doctors’ Plot’ by warning an Anglican cleric that “Those who cure you will kill you”.
This was certainly not the Islamists’ first pithily-phrased paradox. Infamously, during the 2006 ‘cartoon riots’, radical protestors held up banners declaring “Democracy Go to Hell” and, seemingly without a hint of irony, “Freedom of Speech: Go to Hell!”.
An unintended lapse that may have been, but others have proved skillful at identifying ironic liberal loopholes. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister routinely described as ‘mildly Islamist’, once called democracy “a train from which to disembark on reaching one’s destination”.
These examples make it seem like Islamists’ relationship with irony only stretches to grim humour, or at most to scouting avenues of power, but this is not so: it is in their approach to the world that striking analogies may be found.
Irony tends to be used in one of two ways: as an ideology or a tool. Used as a tool, it is possessive of a deeply affirmative power: that individual refusal to be coerced or to submit to tyranny – what WH Auden calls the “Ironic points of light / [that] Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages”.
Islamists believe this is the way they employ irony. The car bombs and beheadings, the audiotapes and jihadist websites, the curers who kill and the vocal opponents of free speech – all of them are “points of light”. Each is a message from the Just, piercing the obscure lies of liberalism.
Yet as the editor of this magazine points out, “by making a narrative of irony, by fetishizing it, the fully-fledged ironist – ironically – undermines the power of his own approach. Once irony ceases to be responsive to specific injustices, it becomes a means to avoid engaging with the world, a way of turning away from it: for Islamists as ironists, The World is Not Enough”. In this sense, the ironist uses irony in the way a theist might use religion: not as a tool for slicing into reality, but as a shield that blocks it out.
Many secular commentators talk of Islamism as a radical ideology. But jihadists believe there is nothing idea-listic about it: to them, there is a moral map beneath their feet as ordered and patterned as a well-spun rug. It is a code written down more than a thousand years ago, the unchangeable words of God, and a glimpse into a higher realm. What we engage with as reality, they view as an elaborate fiction.
This leads us to the final irony of Islamism: its self-defeating futility. If we understand that the ultimate goal of the majority of Islamists is the re-establishment of a Caliphate, then their method of approach undermines the project’s aims. Modern research suggests that the historic spread of Islam was made possible by the degree of autonomy religious overlords permitted provinces, and the number of allowances they made for local customs and institutions. By attempting to spread a monolithic version of Islam, the Islamists are disregarding the very conditions which made this historical model possible.
For generations, people who would now be termed ‘Islamophobes’ have recounted a striking fable about Islamists and irony. It takes place at the ancient world’s great receptacle of wisdom, the library of Alexandria. When a Muslim commander ordered his men to raze the site, some of them demurred. “Surely”, the dissenters responded, “it is not right to wantonly destroy these books?”. Their leader disagreed: “Either the books will contradict the Koran”, he told them, “in which case they are heresy; or they will agree with it, in which case they are superfluous”.
This story is now generally regarded as a myth, but it’s all too easy to image a modern-day Islamist uttering these words. Islamists hoping to save humanity have embraced attitudes that make them monsters, and will scare humanity away. The world will only be safe when this is an irony they grasp.