Episode Summary

Extremist Muslims and extremist Christians hate each other, or at least they did before the meme wars began.

It’s hard to believe, but extremist Muslims and Christians are actually starting to cheer each other online. After presidents Trump and Biden ended the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, white nationalists in this country cheered on what they called the “Chadliban” as it took back control of the country. A world away, ISIS supporters are starting to use white nationalist meme characters and phrasing, even adapting Christian nationalist images for an Islamic audience.

So what’s behind this strange synergy of the world’s worst people? In this episode, we’ll be talking about all of this with Moustafa Ayad. He’s a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and an expert in Islamic extremism and online meme culture.

A video of the conversation is below. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thank you for being here today, Mohammed.

MOUSTAFA AYAD: Thanks for having me, Matt. It’s a pleasure to be here.

SHEFFIELD: And Mohammed’s on the road right now, so I appreciate him taking time from his drive to educate us about all this strangeness that we’re going to talk about. So before we get into some of the details, I’m going to show on screen a couple of the memes that we’re talking about here.

This one here is a Nazi flag with a Confederate stars and bars. And then also some Arabic words. What does it say in Arabic?

AYAD: Yeah, that’s generally, it’s the seal of the prophet and it’s used by ISIS as well as other terrorist groups as part of their flag,

SHEFFIELD: Okay. So what does it say though?

AYAD: “There’s no God but God,” essentially, I would say it’s about the monotheism of Islam.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. And then I’m going to put another one on there as well. This one is another image.

This one is featuring Pepe the Frog who was an alt-right character as people know. And then there are some other characters on there. So who are those other characters for people who don’t know who they are?

AYAD: So those are Wojacks and they’re escaping Afghanistan. Obviously, the scenes from Afghanistan and the U.S. troop pull-out are featured heavy in this. What’s important about this is that it was used initially on a web forum called Kiwi Farms, which is a white nationalist, alt-right sort of hub. And then it made its way slowly into what I would call alt-Islamist circles, so groups that are supportive of the Taliban generally and other Islamist-inspired organizations.

SHEFFIELD: Mmm-hmm. And some of the other elements for those who are listening, I have to describe them. So we’ve got, it says they’re in front of a building trying to escape the United States embassy with a McDonald’s logo and some rainbow gay pride flags, presumably. And you’ve got one person on the wheels of the helicopter who, presumably, they’re trying to convey that individual is gay. And the flags are burning, and meanwhile Pepe in Taliban clothing is just sitting there enjoying himself.

And then let me turn into another one here. So yeah, we’ve got a bunch of Pepe The Frogs–

AYAD: Sure, this was the post-fall of Kabul when the Taliban were inside of, it was either the presidential palace or parliament building. And so their faces have been replaced with various faces of Pepe. And, of course, the sort of a look, a chagrined look on their faces as they are essentially “owning” quote unquote America with this pose.

SHEFFIELD: And who made this image?

AYAD: So this also started in far-right and sort of alt-right circles, and then gravitated into these alt-Islamist circles and their use. And this one specifically came with texts that essentially said ‘Jihad will win,’ in the Islamist circles. And then similarly, in the sort of white supremacist alt-right space, this was about the “owning” again of America.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And let’s see, I guess we’ll maybe end with this one. This image here is a slightly different.

AYAD: So this is a GigaChad in front of you. What is essentially a Chad light character who is supposedly like the prototypical, like alpha male. He’s dressed in the corrections orange along with a kufi, which is an Islamic hat.

And essentially under the text, it says “Florida corrections officer hospitalized after vicious attack for touching an inmate’s Koran.” And what they’re showing essentially through this, the juxtaposition of the GigaChad and the text, is that an alpha Muslim protects his religion at all costs. And so it is one of congratulations and praise of of attacks that are essentially born out of a need to defend one’s identity, and that identity being Muslim.

SHEFFIELD: So now that we’ve provided a little bit of the context here, let’s talk about some of the history here. Now it is true that, as an idea, people with far-right Islamic views and far-right Christian views, there’s been somewhat of an affinity over the years.

So there’s this far-right philosopher named Julius Evola, who in his writing, he expressed significant admiration for Islamic fundamentalism and said that he liked it for various reasons, including subjugation of women and encouragement of stereotypical masculine behaviors.

But kind of what we’re seeing here is a bit of a parallel between groups that hated each other for a long time in the west, far-right Christian denominations, far-right Protestants or Catholics and various denominations for a long time, they all hated each other. They were in very vicious, in some cases, literal war. They went to war with each other a lot.

But over time, as you had the growth of secularism and science and things like that, people who retained the belief in the traditional fundamentalist reading of Christian texts gradually decided, ‘Oh you know what? We actually have more in common than we realize.’

Is that something that’s happening? Do you think with with regard to this new far-right fusion with Islam?

AYAD: Yeah. There’s always been some affinity amongst white nationalists, Islamist ideologues for their principled stances in regards to their identity and their religious identity specifically.

So you have groups and group leaders who have often spoken about how Muslims are principled, the tactics that they used in order to unite them in the face of a common enemy is something that we should borrow from and ultimately use against our enemies.

And there’s also similar, let’s say, anathema to the LBGTQ community, movements such as Black Lives Matter, or feminists similarly, seculars, and liberals. There’s a shared hatred that runs through both circles. And that is essentially where the convergence is happening.

It’s not necessarily a wholesale embrace of the other, but there is a bleed where it’s cool to borrow from each other’s shared hate and responses and sort of vilification of others. Because as we’ve seen, especially with the Taliban, is that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has highlighted a number of things to both camps. One: the Western world, and the new liberal order is a failure and it cannot essentially counteract or ultimately deal with an identity-based traditionalist group, like the Taliban.

And so that emboldens both Islamists on one side and then white nationalists on the other side, who see this idea of “Western degeneracy” as the common problem of our times. And that includes, the things I just mentioned, like LBGTQ, permissiveness, feminism, racial equality. All of these things are a threat, and if they fight them together, they are stronger.

And what we saw on, for instance, Twitter, there were hashtags such as OneStruggle, in which you saw white nationalists using Confederate imagery, alongside pictures of the Taliban. You saw Nazi imagery alongside pictures of the Taliban. And it was all in some instances really about America being “cucked,” so to speak, in the language of the alt-right.

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