Julia Ebner’s armoury of critical thought – and willingness to humanise even her deadliest enemies – is what makes her well-sourced book so deserving of an audience, writes Adam Barnett
The Rage – out today from IB Tauris – is part dedicated to the memory of Jo Cox, the slain member of parliament who suffered the kind of death in her home town that she sought to protect people from abroad.
She said many better things, but one remark from Cox’s first speech in parliament took on a new weight last year, after her murder by a crazed neo-Nazi: ‘We have far more in common than that which divides us.’
This rather bland statement is deceptively robust, saying something undoubtedly true, and with political implications. In the first place, we are all made of the same stuff, (though much human activity is built upon the notion that we are not). Second, there are some things most of us simply will not do to one another — a moral baseline Cox’s assassin chose to cross.
The question of how a person gives up humanity for barbarism is the subject of Ebner’s book, a charming and persuasive delve into the unlikely love affair between Islamists and the nationalist right.
The book argues, in effect, that the ‘more in common’ line could just as easily apply to these two brands of extremist. In the words of Thomas Paine, ‘While they appear to quarrel, they agree to plunder’.
Ebner was born in Vienna near the close of the 20th century, and is a student of the great civilizational collapse of that century’s early-middle, along with the subsequent meditations on ‘man’s inhumanity to man’.
Her research into today’s political extremists — first at Quilliam and now at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue — benefits from this European perspective: Monstrous acts are committed, not by monsters, but by ordinary people in civilized societies.
The book amounts to a body of evidence, from interviews and undercover reporting to academic research, detailing how Islamists and nationalists hold a strikingly similar worldview, only with victim and aggressor reversed.
As Ebner writes: ‘While Islamist extremists tell us that ‘the west is at war with Islam’, the far-right tells us that ‘Islam is at war with the west’.’
Both movements ‘are built on zero-sum games and call for ‘absolute’ solutions”, colluding in a “master narrative of an inevitable war between Muslims and non-Muslims’.
Not only do they trade in the same propaganda, but the resort to violence by fanatics on both sides appears to radicalise members of the other camp — a process familiar to observers of Northern Ireland or the Middle East.
How then to break this ‘vicious circle’? A key point about this book is that it not only gives us a glimpse into the minds of extremists – whose ideas are summarised well – but also their professional opponents in the world of counter-extremism.
Many of Ebner’s sources are those brave individuals who have moved from pushing extremist propaganda to pulling it apart, and helping others do likewise.
Their prescriptions vary, and it’s a sign of how bad things are that we are still at the stage of helping people understand the problem. But their insights are not well known, and Ebner has managed to translate them in all their complexity for a popular audience.
The book deserves that audience, as an armoury of critical thought for a public beset by lies and propaganda, by an author who strives to humanise even her deadliest enemies. This is the opposite of what extremist recruiters do, making The Rage a standing example against their pose as truth-telling moralists.
Adam Barnett is a freelance journalist. He tweets at @AdamBarnett13
The Rage by Julia Ebner
IB Tauris | 224 pp | £11.99