The problem of evil is always, to some extent, a problem of naming. Hannah Arendt understood this better than most. She saw, when others did not, that the absence of clear language had itself become a barrier to understanding 20th-century evil. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she argued that, if you’re trying to make sense of Nazism and Stalinism, words like “fascist” and “communist”, “right-wing” and “left-wing”, aren’t particularly helpful. Among other things, these labels belie the degree to which Hitler and Stalin transcended traditional political divides to forge nightmarish states that were eerily similar to each other. Stalin’s Soviet Union was, Arendt argued, best understood as a totalitarian state, not a communist state. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has just made a strikingly similar claim about the 21st-century evil known as Salafism.
If Western liberals find it hard to see Salafism for what it is, if they’re woefully lacking in moral clarity, it’s because they’re committed to tolerance and religious freedom, and Salafism is defined as a religion. This is, Taleb maintains, a grave error—because Salafism isn’t really a religion; it makes far more sense to think about it as “an intolerant political system, which promotes (or allows) violence and refuses the institutions of the West—those that allow them to operate. Unlike Shiite Islam and Ottoman Sunnis, Salafis refuse to accept the very notion of minorities: infidels pollute their landscape.” We need to stop thinking about Salafism as a religious movement and start thinking about it as “a political movement, similar to Nazism, with their dress code an expression of such beliefs.” Taleb goes on to suggest that Western liberals might be far more open to the idea of, say, banning burkinis, if they saw it as analogous to banning swastikas: “these people you are defending . . . will deprive you of all the rights you are giving them should they ever ascend to power.” Indeed, if they had their way, your wife would be in a burkini! Salafists are, then, inherently problematic, for the same reason that political parties that promise to abolish elections if they’re ever elected are inherently problematic.
If you think this is all just semantics, consider, for a moment, the case of The Church of Scientology, an organization that has done a great deal of harm to countless people. Scientologists have gotten away with all sorts of horrible bullshit for decades precisely because they were able to get themselves defined as a religion from the get-go. Respecting religion runs deep in our culture. And the bad guys know it. That’s why we have to unmask the Salafists and Scientologists of the world, deprive of them of their “religion” status, and show the world what they really are. Demonizing Islam is as stupid as it is unwise. We need to isolate the Salafists. They’ve been hiding behind the politicized bodies of women and the banner of Islam for far too long.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)