The concept of a totalitarian state was an invention of the twentieth century. The notion of a state or nation whose government could control virtually all aspects of its citizens’ lives was not conceivable in prior times. It is certainly true that in monarchies throughout history, the average subject had little capability to individually alter his finances, geographical mobility or political status. But the monarch’s reach into the personal life of his subjects was largely restricted to the upper aristocratic coterie that surrounded him. Tradition, religion, ethnic constraints and geographical proximity were far more influential in determining the beliefs and behavior of the average subject than were the machinations of the king.
However, in a modern totalitarian state, technology, advanced communications and sophisticated surveillance techniques endow a relatively small ruling class with much more extensive powers. In the totalitarian state, the government completely controls the political, economic, social and cultural life of almost all its citizens. Such a level of control has actually only been achieved in two twentieth century nations: Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Although strongly authoritarian, heavily centralized and equally war-like, Imperial Japan wasn’t really a totalitarian state in the same sense as the other two. The lives of its citizens were determined more by rigid cultural and “religious” rules than by the exhortations of the Emperor and his court. There were also a few mini totalitarian states in the last century – for example: Albania, perhaps Burma and a few wannabees (Nicaragua, Belarus). But Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are really the only examples of major nations that qualify as totalitarian states.
As is well-known, the rulers of such nations have an appetite for control that cannot be sated only by its own citizens. The urge to conquer other nations is overwhelming. And, alas, the history of the two twentieth century totalitarian regimes is replete with invasion, mass murder, concentration camps, gulags, occupations and unimaginable barbarism. It is to the eternal credit of the United States that it refused to be cowed by these murderous regimes, led international coalitions to combat them and – in the words of Ronald Reagan – dispatched them to the ash heap of history.
But, to the sorrow of the civilized world, the twenty first century seems to have coughed up a third major totalitarian system – Islamism or radical Islam. There is absolutely no question that the sponsors of this ideology have in mind a totalitarian system for all regions in which that ideology will rule. It may be that the prime motivating factor in this third case is religion – unlike Nazism, in which it was race or volk; or Communism, in which it was economic or class. Nevertheless, according to the self-professed intentions of the Jihadists who espouse Islamism, the goal is to create a society ruled absolutely by Sharia Law. Based on prior experience in Afghanistan and those few despoiled spots in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria) and Africa (Sudan, parts of Mali) where rule by Sharia Law has been implemented, one must conclude that it is a political system, which seeks to control all aspects of the lives of those under its domain. Ergo, a totalitarian system.
However, there is a major difference between radical Islam as it is developing and Nazism and Communism as they existed. While in all three cases, the goal was/is worldwide domination; in the twentieth century variety, the focal point for the system and the font from which all the branches were directed, was a single nation state. That is far from the case with radical Islam. For the latter, we are witnessing far-flung eruptions – like pimples on an ugly face – all over Africa and Asia (with tentacles all over the world). Although they are only loosely aligned with each other, each is guided by the same ideology and employs the same tactics. All seek to create a worldwide totalitarian system based on radical Islam that would totally dominate the lives of all who live under it.
Here is a partial list of the blemishes: Al Qaeda (AQ), AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), AQ in the Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Boko Haram, Abbu Sayyaf, Al Shabaab, Jabhat al Nusra, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban. Breathtaking! The cancer is metastasizing all over the world and new mutations spring up regularly. Incidentally, some would add the state of Iran to the list.
The West in general and the Unites States in particular are now confronted by a lethal threat from this metastasizing totalitarian system. The system’s adherents – in every case – have declared that the West and the US are indeed the mortal enemies of Islam and that the peoples of those entities must be converted or killed. That is not a negotiating position on their part. It is their hardcore belief – one on which they have acted and on which they promise to continue acting. We in the US (and in the West) do not have the luxury of dismissing their intentions as ludicrous and not worthy of our attention. They have declared war on us and even if we pretend it is not so, it does not change the fact that we are in their crosshairs.
Part of the reason that we have not taken the threat with the seriousness that it warrants is indeed the diffuse nature of the enemy. There is no single nation state that is its chief sponsor and upon which we might concentrate any ire that we could work up. (Again, some consider Iran to be a candidate, although we are extremely reluctant to confront them as such.) Another reason is the fatigue we feel – first from our two heroic struggles to overcome the twentieth century totalitarian systems; and second, from our halting and unsuccessful efforts to engage the Jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. But I think the main reason is that, since the threat emerged (roughly 20 years ago), all of our leaders (Clinton, Bush, Obama) have been loath to identify it for what it is. They tell us that Islam is a religion of peace and that the practitioners of Jihad are a small minority that has hijacked the religion. In fact there is no objective evidence for that claim and much to support its refutation. Moreover, I doubt that our leaders believe their own words. Instead, the emergence of the third totalitarian threat does not conform to their vision of the twenty first century as the West foresaw it developing following the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Another totalitarian monster? No way! Been there, done that. It’s so twentieth century.” The eruption of radical Islam just doesn’t square with the “end of history” theme to which they subscribe, and so Islamism must be a passing or insignificant trend that does not command the attention, resources and drive required of us that were needed to combat the evils of the twentieth century. The West just doesn’t want to go down that road again.
And so we call Jihad in Fort Hood “workplace violence”; we refer to terrorist actions against us in the homeland as “man-caused disasters”; and we label the limited sorties against the Jihadists that we have permitted ourselves “overseas contingency operations.” We strive mightily to fool ourselves so as not to recognize that, for a third time, a brutal and murderous totalitarian system has emerged to threaten the civilized world and that if we don’t confront and destroy it, the fate of mankind is bleak indeed.
But we are not fooling anyone. Islamism is indeed a totalitarian system. The way it has emerged and the nature of its existence differs from those of Nazism or Communism. That should not prevent us from a clear evaluation of its nature and the threat that it poses. We defeated Nazism by building and deploying a mighty military force that bludgeoned the Nazis into submission. We defeated Communism by building a mighty economy and social engine that exposed the hollow and false nature of Communist ideology – so that the Soviet Union collapsed on its own. We clearly have not settled on a strategy for confronting and defeating Islamism. It might be that we haven’t even begun looking for one. But we better get busy. The Islamists are coming for us. For them, it’s a fight to the death. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can get to work arranging for their death.