It’s the curse of our times: militant group self-pity. But however vexing it may be to watch powerful figures use the blame game to justify their bad actions, the strategy is proving wildly successful.
In descending order of cursedness, militant Islam takes the first prize. Their grievances are plentiful.
The West, led by the United States, wages incessant war against Muslims, cries Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani, who says disbelievers must be killed wherever found: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.” The same fate awaits those Muslims who do not agree with Islamic State: “We fight the disbelievers amongst them, the allies of the crusaders and Jews in their war against the Muslims.”
Hamas, for its part, believes the Israelis must be killed for taking their land. Khalid Mishal, leader of Hamas, told Vanity Fair last October, “We do not kill Israelis because they are Jews. We kill them because they are occupiers. They occupied our land and have transgressed against us. This falls in the context of self-defense and defending our land.”
And finally journalists, according to militant Islamists, must be killed when they insult the Prophet. A now-deceased official of al Qaeda in Yemen, Harith al Nadhari, said after his colleagues had killed 17 journalists at the magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket in Paris in January that “the leadership of AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully… [Osama bin Laden had warned about] the consequences of persistence in blasphemy against Muslim sanctities.”
The ambition of many of these militant Islamist groups — to establish a caliphate that will erase the borders between Middle Eastern states and unite Muslims in one religiously conducted state; the killing of the population of Israel; the silencing through terror or murder of all material which is held to insult Mohammed or Islam — are presented not as autonomous projects but as duties on the faithful.
Earlier this week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced measures to be taken against those who preached – not necessarily practiced – violence against Western states, and expressed militant opposition to liberal and democratic values. It’s an announcement full of dangers to free speech. It also reflects the desperation governments feel, now faced with the substantial defection of a new generation of Muslim youth – British, French, German, Italian, American – who watch executions and bombings on their computer screens, and find them good.
But Islamic State is not alone in employing the “poor us” approach.
Russia is now — according to experts’ reports — preparing for a new, not too disguised, military campaign against Ukraine. For President Vladimir Putin, the need to oppose the Ukrainian government is caused by Western governments having installed in Kiev a fascist regime bent on oppressing Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population.
These same evil Western forces have infiltrated into Russia their ideas, designed to destabilize the present administration, working through both Russian civil society organizations and foreign non-governmental organizations like Transparency International and Human Rights Watch , spreading subversive ideas like democracy, clean government and observation of human rights. Or so Putin would have his people believe.
This aggressive passivity is playing tremendously well for the Russian president. Last month, his popularity rating as measured by the independent Levada Centre reached 89 percent, the highest ever recorded. He has touched a vast theme in Russian life — that of being beset by enemies but fighting bravely, and as one people, against them.
The Ukrainian government is not fascist and the NGOs, Russian or foreign, in no way threaten his or any other government. But the narrative works brilliantly.
The most vivid case of what might be called false blame syndrome comes from the present government of Greece, the Syriza party of Alexis Tsipras. Throughout the months of red-eye negotiations, Tsipras played on one theme: that the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the other creditors “were blackmailing us with their loans.”
Tsipras has also charged the EU and the IMF with seeking regime change in Athens by denying him the agreement he wanted. Even after — successfully — calling on the parliament to back the deal, Tsipras continues to call it blackmail. To be sure, it’s a terrible deal — but as the Swedish economist Anders Pazlov writes , Greece’s future in or out of the euro is awful, and its problems (bad tax collection, corruption, a slow and erratic justice system and a lethargic, over-padded state bureaucracy) remain largely untackled.
Still, Tsipras not only won the vote, but also remained popular. Not at Putin-style levels — and down from his own best of over 70 percent — but a respectable 60 percent, 10 percent ahead of his nearest rival.
Every one of these strategies – that of the violent Islamists, the Russian president and the Greek prime minister – is popular with the target audience. These audiences are willing to ignore the hardships that their leaders have been largely or partly responsible for bringing on or deepening, and in the case of the Islamists, seem to positively like the violence displayed.
“It’s not my fault – it’s them.” It’s the new/old slogan, which may soon be taught in leadership seminars.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.