How the Left’s Orientalist Stereotypes Inspired the Alt-Right

As the diffuse set of political currents often referred to as the “alt-right” continue to increase their visibility, numbers, and influence, some of their leading figures have appropriated new strategies from surprising places. If by now the media is used to “meme magic” (the alt-right’s linking of its ideas to absurd images or public figures like Taylor Swift), the alt-right still finds ways to shock. Some of its most influential writers and podcasters, such as Andrew Anglin of the infamous Daily Stormer, have begun to tie their agenda to violent Islamist movements, calling for “white sharia in white Afghanistan.”

Largely unnoticed in the mainstream media, the provocative slogan has not escaped the attention of some left-wing activist websites devoted to exposing the alt-right. But to make sense of white nationalists’ references to sharia and Afghanistan, we must understand them as a response to the left’s own rhetoric. Since the early days of the Bush administration, many on the left have compared the right to the Taliban or ISIS, invoking perceived parallels between conservatives at home and Islamists abroad. These cynical invocations of Orientalist stereotypes are now coming back to haunt American politics.

In the last days of 2001, just weeks into the American invasion of Afghanistan, operatives in the Democratic Party were urging their leadership to hammer the GOP in the 2002 mid-term elections with aggressive rhetoric. Newsweek reported that, according to this line of thought, Democrats could neutralize Republicans’ advantage of being the governing party in a popular war by conflating them with the Taliban. Claiming that both the Taliban and the GOP stood for “religious extremism and intolerance,” Democrats could “draw an outraged response” from conservatives, who would be provoked into alienating the mainstream of American opinion.

The far-right evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, who could always be counted on for an outraged response, predictably fired back. While forecasting (quite accurately) that the Democrats were headed for defeat in the elections, Falwell took the opportunity to present “conservative people of faith” as victims of liberal prejudice, “the only group that can be rigorously denounced and persecuted without the American Civil Liberties Union stepping in to defend them.”

Throughout the Bush administration, voices on the left consistently depicted the right-wing evangelical wing of the Republican Party as the “American Taliban” or “Christian Taliban.”

Conservative media complained just as consistently. Since 2008, the Christian right is a shadow of itself, with little power to shape policy on issues such as LGBT rights. But the comparisons have continued, in political cartoons, on television, and in countless opinion pieces.

The appeal of parallels between the American right and Islamist movements is obvious. During the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they allowed the left to criticize the government without expressing sympathy for America’s national foes. Indeed, the left could argue that it was the real defender of American values of freedom and equality, while conservative Christians, just like the Taliban, sought to oppress women and sexual minorities in the name of religion.

Comparing domestic opponents to hated foreign Muslims has long been an effective strategy in Western politics. In the decades before the French Revolution, the political philosopher Montesquieu drew influential parallels between the monarchy and the “Oriental despotism” of the Ottoman Empire, long the world’s most powerful Muslim state. The historian Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud likewise finds that British radicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often compared their corrupt, aristocratic government to the Ottoman Empire, which was widely imagined to be one of the most oppressive governments on earth. Reformers could draw on their audiences’ prejudices against the Ottomans—seen as violent, ignorant and wicked ennemies of Christian Europe—to mobilize campaigns for extending the right to vote. Those who opposed the suffrage, they argued, were no better than Muslim tyrants.

This strategy depends on Orientalist and anti-Muslim stereotypes. It also requires one’s opponents to be humiliated and angered by comparisons to the stereotyped Muslim enemy. In the 2000s, the American left and right seem to have largely shared the opinion that the Taliban was a horrible, backward other who represented everything America was not. Thus accusations that the right shared some characteristics with it could reliably enrage conservative pundits like Falwell. But today’s far-right is not necessarily Christian, and certainly not tied to Falwell’s evangelical Christianity. If it shares his sense of belonging to an embattled group, this group is now the white race, not “people of faith.” It rejects Falwell’s pose of indignant self-righteousness and instead reclaims the words that had been used against the far-right. Rather than eschewing any connection to the Taliban, its leaders encourage such comparisons.

The alt-right began to link itself to radical Islamist movements in any serious way only in the last several months, as part of on-going (and often violently misogynistic) discussions about the role of women in an ideal white society. With different degrees of seriousness, alt-right figures like Andrew Anglin argued that American women today have been corrupted by feminism and need to be forced back into a submissive role through “white sharia.” Anglin added that this meant “simply restoring the patriarchal system that all European societies had up until the middle of the 19th century.” Controversy flared among the alt-right’s less misogynistic or more anti-Muslim figures, who argued that places like Saudi Arabia and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan were hardly models.

The conversation took on a new dimension as alt-right commentators began to speak not only of “white shariah” but also of “white Afghanistan,” the conservative, majority-white hinterlands of Appalachia and the Mountain West. Here, just as the Afghani opponents of the Soviet Union had bided their time in mountainous regions where ethnic loyalties and shared faith gave them local support, so too might white nationalists prepare the destruction of the United States as we know it from within ethno-religious enclaves.

As Sacco Vandal (born Scott C. Wurgler), a popular alt-right blogger and podcaster, wrote in an essay “In Defense of White Sharia,” the code of masculinist violence that alt-right writers like himself seem to find and admire in radical Islamist movements is only a means to an end. The goal, he argues, is “white sharia in a white Afghanistan… extreme tribal Patriarchy in the ethno-state.” The slogans, “white sharia” and “white Afghanistan” are not meant to signal a genuine embrace of Islam, he insists, but are designed to shock readers with an image of what resistance to the “alienated, atomized” cosmopolitanism of modern America might look like: “people can imagine themselves with a beard and an AK in the Appalachian mountains.” The image of a bearded West Virginia mountain man with a Bible in one hand and a firearm in the other, once a stock feature of the left’s caricatures of the Christian right, is now a section of the alt-right’s vision of the future.

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is a postdoctoral researcher at the European University Institute, where he studies European interactions with South Asia. He writes on historical topics for Aeon, Scroll.in, and other global media outlets.

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Blake Smith

Blake Smith is a postdoctoral researcher at the European University Institute, where he studies European interactions with South Asia. He writes on historical topics for Aeon, Scroll.in, and other global media outlets.

One thought on “How the Left’s Orientalist Stereotypes Inspired the Alt-Right

  1. “Since 2008, the Christian right is a shadow of itself, with little power to shape policy on issues such as LGBT rights”

    I think you must be ignoring what the Trump administration has been doing. Although he didn’t run overtly as the Christian right candidate, he’s surrounded himself with people to govern this way (not in behavior but in outcome).

    I used to claim that Trump was at least better than W, because he wasn’t pushing an amendment to ban us permanently from marriage. And that’s still true. But increasingly it seems like the only notable difference, as his appointees seem eager to roll back the few gains of the Obama years.

    “violently misogynistic … Andrew Anglin argued that American women today have been corrupted by feminism and…”

    It’s not women, but the authorities in our culture who have been corrupted by feminism. The opposite of feminism is not “submissive role” but equality of opportunity — liberty. Let’s not lump the reasonable anti-feminist movement with “white sharia”. That is not what most anti-feminists want. We want reason, due process, liberty, and an equality that is about a lack of barriers, not an enforcement of pre-determined outcomes (often termed equity).

    I would also add that the feminist left’s coddling of Islam and hostility to ex-Muslims and moderate Muslim reformers has paved the way for the alt-right to use American sharia (a concept supported by Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour) in ways that the left cannot consistently oppose.

What are your thoughts?