The Weaponization of Traditionalism

Duns Scotus

Back in 1983 at a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, US President Ronald Reagan made his famous “Empire of Evil” speech. Considering its content and its audience, it was a clever and effective speech, and it hit the Russians harder than they realized at the time. In fact it sucker punched them.

The reason for its unexpected impact is that during the long-running stand-off between Russia and the West, dating back to “The Great Game” of the 19th-century, when Britain had played the main Occidental role, Russia had been perpetually playing “catch up.” This was, of course, in the natural state of things, as sea powers tend to be more mercurial and innovative than land powers.

As the West industrialized, so Russia had to industrialize; as the West moved into East Asia, so Russia had to make similar efforts; as the West developed (organically) a materialistic, democratic, scientific ethos, so Russia had to (ideologically) impose one. Western advances in weapons and technology were also matched, so that by the 1960s and 70s, Russia started to feel that maybe there was the chance of the roles being reversed and the West forced into the catch up position.

This is in effect what happened in the Space Race. The USA made a gargantuan national effort, which it would be incapable of making today, to catch up and overtake the USSR and win the race by getting to the Moon first.

But what was the practical outcome of that?

In the 1980s, in Europe, the crucible of Superpower rivalry, Russia seemed to be gaining a more important advantage with the introduction its new class of SS-20 missiles. This pushed the West into tactical nuclear inferiority, forcing it once again to play catch-up, just when the combined effects of the Sixties, Vietnam, the oil shock, and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, had sapped the will of its people to support a robust response.

Hot point in the Cold War

Hot point in a Cold War.

This seemed to be the way the world worked: the more “advanced” state developed the technology, made the moves, and gained the advantage, while the more backward states lagged behind, reacted, and played catch up. Thus had it been, thus would it apparently always be. Despite its inbuilt disadvantages as a ponderous land power, Russia had started to believe its own propaganda and saw itself as becoming the naturally more technocratic and advanced state.

It was at this precise point that America, like some mighty ninja that could turn on a dime, did the baffling, the unthinkable, and threw Russia so off balance that they didn’t realize it at first. That moment was Reagan’s “Empire of Evil” speech, an oration to a gathering of Christians that invoked archaic notions or “good” and “evil,” and even extensively quoted C.S. Lewis of all people – a man best known for inventing Narnia than for any contribution to geopolitics!

Rather than playing conventional catch up, the West, was instead sounding like a slightly irked Victorian gentleman who preferred hymns to Nietzsche and prayer-like platitudes to scientific progress.

In the speech, Reagan cast the citizens of the Soviet Union as Biblically benighted:

“Let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness – pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”

The state, and more particularly making it all powerful, that was what modernity was all about, and that was how you won, even the stupid capitalists knew that, surely! But here was the President of the USA saying the exact opposite, and then throwing in someone called  C.S.Lewis – not exactly top of the Kremlin’s reading list.

“It was C.S. Lewis who, in his unforgettable Screwtape Letters, wrote: ‘The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”

What manner of sinister magic was this?!! One can only imagine how Reagan’s speech was received by the beady-eyed apparatchiks and cold-browed analysts in the bowels of the Kremlin, as coded messages were dispatched to agents in the West demanding copies of The Screwtape Letters.

The President of the United States was fighting the ultimate battle of modernity with the words of a musty, old Oxford don, who even among his colleagues had been regarded as a stick in the mud. Rather than oil fields, tank production, or the survival rate from a nuclear blast, here was the leader of Russia’s opponents banging on about how certain people cut their fingernails and how smooth their cheeks were, and using the word “evil” as if people still believed in that kind of nonsense.

But despite its lack of Neo-Machiavellian edge, Reagan’s speech was carefully modulated to get American evangelicals to set aside their opposition to America’s nuclear rearmament. But more than this, it was also an attempt, no matter how disingenuously as subsequent events proved, to graft a new weapon onto American state power, namely a crusading zeal based on an invocation of traditionalism – family, morality, community, religion, etc. This contrasted with earlier US rallying cries of “individual liberty” and “economic superiority,” supplemented by technocratic Cold War weapons like the Apollo program, Agent Orange, or CIA-engineered coups.

The Soviet Union had hollowed out morality, and turned it into a mere adjunct of whatever served the interests of their totalitarian goals – that, after all, was the modern way. In the speech, Reagan characterized this as follows:

“The Soviet leaders have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is that which will further their cause, which is world revolution. I think I should point out I was only quoting Lenin, their guiding spirit, who said in 1920 that they repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas – that’s their name for religion – or ideas that are outside class conceptions. Morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war. And everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of the old, exploiting social order and for uniting the proletariat.”

By presenting morality as a thing in itself, external to geopolitical considerations, Reagan cunningly highlighted the self-interested functionality and therefore falsity of Soviet morality, while also implying that morality, although separate, was nevertheless aligned with the interests of America. This gave the country the much-needed boost it needed in the final round of the Cold War. The secret of this formula relied on emphasising the traditional, non-utilitarian aspects of morality rather than the ideological and functional ones.

Addressing a gaggle of evangelical ministers allowed him plenty of scope for Christian moral trivia: the Ten Commandments, prayers in school, abortion issues, etc. This was a man overtly demonstrating a lack of geopolitical credentials, but the paradox, of course, is that morality becomes more potent the less it is tied to functional and rationalist agendas. The US administration, faced with its assertive evangelicals, realized this. The Soviet Union with its few cowed church functionaries did not. The sad irony, of course, is that this “spurt of traditionalism” helped the final triumph of globalist modernity.

Thirty Year Echo

Because of its role as the less mercurial power, Russia has always been keen to learn from and mimic the West. What initially seemed to be a retrograde step by the USA – invoking pre-modern ideas – had turned out to be a leap of genius, and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the more attuned and perceptive Russian minds started to realize this. Among these was Alexandr Dugin. His theories on tradition as a means of counteracting globalist modernity bear its mark.

Dugin’s work basically seeks to invert the situation of 1983, placing America in the role of the godless, evil empire, motivated purely by realpolitik, and Russia as the state that embodies disinterested morality, traditions, and the greater good.

In his speech Reagan said:

“While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”

For a post-Cold War Russia lagging behind in terms of sheer military hardware and global economic power, these are potent sentiments and ones that have been taken on board by Dugin, as revealed in a 2011 article, “Tradition and Islam” published in English at the Open Revolt site.

It is useful to look at Dugin’s thoughts on Islam from a few years ago, as much has happened since then. More recent articles might include elements of obfuscation and backtracking. Written before the rise of ISIS and the complications in Syria and Iraq, this article is more likely to reveal the core of Duginist thought on this issue.

In the article he makes the case for a conditional alliance between Russia and the Islamic World against the globalist unipolar West.

Islam, of course, was one of the traditionalist forces mobilized by Reagan’s America in its struggle with the Soviet Union. Alongside presenting the Soviet Union as the enemy of tradition, morality, and family in a wavering West, the Reagan government realized they could also use elements of the much more palpable traditionalism of the Islamic World, namely Pashtun tribesmen and Wahhabist extremists who wished to recreate the Islamic dark ages, to serve as a check on the universalist pretensions of the Russians – not quite what C.S.Lewis had in mind, but effective nonetheless. Dugin’s article reveals exactly the same strategy emanating from Moscow.

“In today’s world, Islam is the world religion most actively resisting globalism’s force. It makes the Islamic factor extremely important for the front of traditionalism. In this war with Islam, the United States and the ideologue of the End of History, Francis Fukuyama, even tried to suggest the term “Islamofascism” to greater discredit the faith. The United States as an empire tends to designate Islam the new enemy number one. This is an almost official U.S. position now, while with Bush it was merely formal. Therefore Islam should be treated as a priority field of struggle against U.S. imperialism, the modern and post-modern world, and globalization. This determines the value and importance of Islam.”

There are a couple of major problems with this approach, one general and one specific.

The general problem is that Islam is not a unity, something that Dugin takes pains to point out. Because it is so diverse, it is unlikely that Islam can be mobilized as a totality in any grand, sweeping campaign, although parts of itdefinitely can be, as the Americans demonstrated throughout the 1980s, building up an effective Mujahedeen in a country right next door to the very same traditional Islamic state that had rebelled and humiliated Reagan’s predecessor only a few years before.

The more specific problem is that Russia has an extremely complex interface with Islam, which means that practical considerations will always come before grand ideological visions like those of Dugin. This is essentially the split between Dugin the idealist and Putin the cunning pragmatist.


Russia’s not always complex relationship with Islam.

Russia has a fast-growing Muslim population and faces a threat from Muslim radicals who want to break away portions of Russian territory, especially in the Caucuses, to form Islamic states or enclaves. There is also the constant problem of keeping the cohesiveness of any multicultural state, which, of course, Russia is. This has a certain utility for Dugin in his drive to establish the ascendency of his own form of Russian statistism with diverse traditionalist trimmings:

“The liberal pro-Western ‘modernization’ aspects of Russian power, corruption, and decay of society, traditions, and manners are abhorrent to us and Muslims, we must fight it with them, fight together and not against each other.”

In this quote he is effectively siding with certain Muslims against certain Russians, especially those who wish to bring Russia closer to the West or Europe.

Further afield, Russia’s allies Syria and Iran are threatened by forms of Islam, not only by ISIS but also by more moderate Islamic states, like the Gulf States and Turkey, while even the Kurdish quasi-state in Northern Iraq, whose ultimate goal is to re-unite the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey into one state, throws up complications. Then there is also Russia’s extremely interesting relationship with Israel.

In other words, the specific problem is that Russia’s interaction with the Islamic world involves its own complex, specific interests. These cut directly across Dugin’s declared intention of invoking Islam as a general ally in a great ideological war against American unipolar global modernity. These contradictions could only be resolved if Russia shed some of its pragmatic geopolitical interests and drastically repositioned itself. This would include:

  • Moves to reduce its own Muslim minority (future majority?) by ceding majority Muslim lands to create stable Muslim states and a demographically stable Russia
  • A policy giving equivalence to Sunni and Shiite and calls for fair-minded compromise and cooperation between them in the interests of the greater traditionalist project
  • The end of its ambiguous relationship with Israel, and a declaration that the state of Israel is an inorganic imposition on the Middle East and an enemy of the natural order

Just to state these points is to realize how unlikely they are to be adopted. Dugin’s solution to this problem is simple: he does a quick stock-take of Russian geopolitical interests and then defines “good Islam” as the forms of it that happen to align with Russian interests – the Kremlin rather than the Kaaba! He then melds these forms of Islam to Russian interests, using his most magical word – “tradition”:

“Islam is directly related to the Tradition. It is an indisputable fact. And as such it should be recognized by traditionalists. Islam is active and in favor of a traditional society. This should be supported. But Islam is not identical with the Tradition. Tradition can be un-Islamic. If Muslims accept it, agree to the terms of multipolarity, an active dialogue and close cooperation, including military, against the post-modern world and the Antichrist / Dajall, should be encouraged.”

The kind of Islam that Dugin is referring to includes the Alawite version in Syria, the Shiite form dominant in Iran, and any other kind that happens at present to be aligned with Russian interests. What most people think of as the most traditionalist form of Islam, that espoused by the likes of Chechen separatists, Al Qaeda, or ISIS, Dugin dismisses as essentially inauthentic, as an Islamic form of Protestantism, which he sees as an eviscerated form of Christianity – fanatical because it lacks substance and authenticity.


An Islamic version of Protestantism?

Interestingly this view has similarities with those of the well-known Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, recently quoted in an article by Greg Johnson:

“If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by nonbelievers. Why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued and fascinated by the sinful life of the nonbelievers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation. This is why the so-called fundamentalists of ISIS are a disgrace to true fundamentalism.

. . . Deep in themselves, terrorist fundamentalists also lack true conviction — their violent outbursts are a proof of it. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a low-circulation Danish newspaper. The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization.”

Whatever the truth in this insight, the fact remains that it is not such “authentic” traditionalists as the Dalai Lama, Indian gurus, or the Amish who are an active threat to the globalist West, but people like Al Qaeda and more recently ISIS. Dugin is at least aware of this paradox:

“Salafism, pure Islam, is on the front wing of the political struggle in the Muslim sector of the modern world. It is a fact and that cannot be denied. It is here that we meet the most clear and simple strategy, global thinking, well-defined goals: the establishment of the global Islamic State, the imposition of Sharia law, the organization of society on Islamic principles on a global scale, the doctrine of the ‘house of war’ (dar al-harb) wherever there is no ‘house of Islam’ (dar ul-Islam)’, etc…. The Salafi project, radical anti-shia, anti-sufi, and anti-traditional – and this is not a distinctive feature of individual Salafis, but the obligatory metaphysics of all this movement. This ambiguity is reflected geopolitically in the close relations of Salafism (in particular, bin Laden and Al Qaeda), Brzezinski and the CIA during the Afghan war, that Americans have always used Salafist services, giving rise to interfere in the sovereign affairs of those countries which try to resist the United States (Iraq, Libya, Syria, anti-Russian Salafism in the North Caucasus), but on the other hand, it’s Salafis we also see active in anti-globalization, attacking U.S. forces. This ambiguity should conceptualize time and time again to bring round this dialogue, to explain all sides in the conflict. In the global battle against the Dajjal – the role played by Salafism? We have left this question open.”

The main problem that Dugin is wrestling with here is actually a simple one. It is that Islam is only ever acceptable in a quiescent and supine form, the form in which it existed in most places for most of the last few hundred years. When it “awakens,” as it started to do in the late 19th century, when its encounter with modernity led to the rise of militant strains, it switches back into its core militant mode, becoming a savage, brutal doctrine of universal submission.

The best metaphor for Islam is a rattlesnake, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake. Allying yourself with such a creature when it is asleep is pointless, when awake, dangerous. Throwing it in among your enemies might have a certain utility, but even there dangers arise, as we see from the Islamist blowback in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Libya, et alia.

Rather than wasting its time appealing to the backward and savage cultures of the world – especially Islam – the ideology of traditionalism should instead focus its powers on reawakening the traditional elements in the European soul. If it can do that, we will have something much more worthwhile than a rudely awakened rattlesnake.