“In the streets were seen piles of heads and hands and feet,” exulted the chronicler Raymond d’Aguilers, as he surveyed the massacre of Jews and Muslims across Jerusalem in the summer of 1099CE. “In the temple of Solomon, the horses waded in the blood up to their knee, nay, up to the bridle. It was a just and marvellous judgment of god, that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.”
Last week, some nine centuries after d’Aguilers and his fellow soldiers set about their slaughter, the world has seen the same impulses at work.
“For once, the person that will be called a Fascist, is an actual Fascist,” wrote Brenton Tarrant, the White nationalist who killed at least 50 people in Christchurch. “Force is power,” he said. “History is the history of power. Violence is power.”
Tarrant’s fascism, however, is more commonplace than most of us care to admit. His was not mindless violence — his belief is the primary colour of our times.
“It is blood that moves history’s wheel,” the Italian leader Benito Mussolini said in 1914, urging his country to fight the Great War of 1914-18. For him, as for other fascists, the sacrifice of life presaged the coming of a utopia in which a new kind of human could be born.
Fascism is, much like religion, a blood cult: through rites of mutilation and murder, it promises to usher in a new millennium. The Nazi philosopher Arthur Rosenberg saw this, arguing, “Nordic blood represents that mystery which has replaced and conquered the ancient sacraments.”
Blood, to fascist eyes, has two colours: ours, and theirs. In a world where religious and ethnic identity are ever-more important, this belief has normalised.
Pious Muslims were deeply outraged when worshippers in Christchurch were killed. Few, however, were moved to similar anger by bombings of churches in the Philippines or Nigeria. Those exercised by jihadist violence have rarely condemned anti-Muslim violence in the United States and Europe — or even jihadist violence directed at Muslims in Syria or Afghanistan.
In India, it has become possible — even commonplace — to at once condemn the jihadist and celebrate the violence of the gau rakshak, or to condemn Hindutva while simultaneously condoning Islamism or other religious nationalisms.
From Nellie to Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the expulsion of Kashmir’s Pandits to Akshardham and 26/11: for each there was an audience that responded with evasions, silences and approval. This is because we comprehend the world through ethnic and religious lenses, not a universal ethical prism.
In essence, the new fascism challenges the idea that humanity shares a destiny, which must be shaped by the exercise of reason and human agency.
Europe’s intellectual journey in the decades before 1939 provides a useful road-map. In the late 1800s, repelled by Enlightenment values and industrial civilisation, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called for a new order which would “grow up only out of terrible and violent beginnings”. “Where,” he lamented, “are the barbarians of the 20th century?”
Martin Heidegger’s unashamed embrace of National Socialism; Hans-Georg Gadamer’s veneration of tradition; Carl Jung’s description of Adolf Hitler as “a form of spiritual vessel, a demi-deity”, Rosenberg’s cult of the Nordic — these all grew from Nietzsche’s call.
This assault on the Enlightenment did not take place in Europe alone. Hindu-nationalist Dayanand Saraswati said “whatever truth is to be found, it has proceeded from the Vedas and all untruth has its origin outside them”.
For Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb—whose manifesto Milestones fired the minds of generations of al-Qaeda leaders — modernity was an obscenity, with reason seeking to supplant god’s word.
Politics, the reasoned negotiation of difference, has failed. Fascism holds; only a violent reordering of the world can bring about salvation.
Fascism’s post-Second World War sunrise began in the 1970s, as the European order encountered de-industrialisation. changes in gender and class relations and conflicts over identity birthed by mass immigration. In 1978, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously voiced fears that Britain “might be swamped by people of a different culture”.
In an influential 1990 manifesto, German director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg lamented that post-Nazi culture was “taken over by the plastic world”. Tarrant, likewise, says, “Western culture is trivialised, pulped and blended into a smear of meaningless nothing.”
Fascism succeeded because it “enabled a formless multitude to cover over the savage outpourings of passions, hatreds and desires with a varnish of vague and nebulous political ideals”, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci said.
Besieged by multiple fundamentalisms, mired in social crisis, India must reflect carefully on its own fascist impulses. From the Khalistan movement to Kashmir’s jihadists, to communal violence, our landscape is littered with the ruins of ethnic-religious dystopias built from blood.
Pope Gregory VII had this injunction for the Crusaders: “cursed be the man who holds back from shedding blood”. The poet Abu’l Musaffar al-Abiwardi called for vengeance: “we have mingled blood with flowing tears; there is no room left for pity”. The words were different—but their paths both led to perdition.
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