I spent the last year hanging out in an edgy Islamist meme group on Facebook and it didn’t take me long to figure out that whether they’re guided by Islamism or by White Supremacism, the angry young men of the alt-right sound and act the same everywhere you go.
Whenever the ‘alt-right’ is mentioned, it is easy to conjure up an image of polo-clad white nationalists participating in the August 11 torchlight march in Charlottesville Virginia chanting “White lives matter!” and “Jews will not replace us.” Much has been written in the past year about the emergence and evolution of this recognizable extremist movement, and the manner in which online communities inhabited by increasingly toxic young men, have assisted with the growth of these ideologies.
A burgeoning network of social media pages designed for and administered by predominantly young Muslim men, has demonstrated the manner in which the alt-right’s organizing model has been instrumentalized to promote a new brand of Islamism. Islamism as a term is commonly misused to describe extremist sects within Islam. Islamism is actually a system of social organization which calls for the precise ordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by a chosen interpretation of Islam.
What we refer to as the ‘alt right’ is part of a broader global trend of ethno-nationalist identitarianism. No culture is immune from the toxic effects of masculinity, youth and nationalism. The 21st century has lead to the collapse of many traditional cultural identities as a result of both conflict, colonialism and globalization — the alt right is an insurgent entity rooted in dissatisfaction and a sort of intellectual and economic youth bulge in predominantly affluent developed countries. This dissatisfaction has reached across cultural, ethnic and religious lines, inspiring growing populism and co-morbid identitarian extremisms.
In May 2017, Facebook’s algorithm suggested I might like a closed group on Facebook. That group is called “Implying We Can Discuss Pan Islamism 3: Return of the Caliph” (abbreviated to PI3). Curious about the nature of the closed group I filled out the application form, disclosing my intent to document the group as a “Kafir” (nonbeliever) journalist. Surprisingly (and likely now, to their chagrin) I was admitted and have remained a fly-on-the-wall for the past year.
PI3 is part of a network of other pages which claim to be fighting a constant uphill battle against Facebook “censorship”. It is obvious that as soon as these groups are reported to Facebook, they are taken down. The group is called “Pan-Islamism 3” and its narrative history implies that Pan-Islamism 1 and Pan-Islamism 2 have been closed by Facebook for violations of community standards. There was also a public-facing meme page ‘High on Liberal Islam’ (HOLI) which existed to mock the ‘degeneracy’ of Liberal muslims. That page has since been shut down, or ‘Zucced’. ‘Zuccing’(sic) is a reference used in the community to describe perceived censorship by Facebook. There is a belief in the community that ‘Zucc’ (an abbreviation for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) is part of a Jewish conspiracy to silence transgressive humor. Belief in this conspiracy is commonplace among white supremacists in the alt-right as well. HOLI has largely been replaced by a new meme page So this is the Superior West which boasts an alt-right audience who are fed a steady diet of anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-leftist and similar propaganda, intended to mock western ‘degeneracy’.
The member statistics for the PI3 group were published by an admin in July 2017. While the group has grown substantially since then, and now includes thousands of members (up from only a few hundred) the major trends of age and gender have held. Members are fairly evenly distributed around the world, though as an English speaking group many members have indicated that they live part-time in the West with family or are international students at universities in Canada and the United States. Demographically, university educated males between the ages of 18–24 also comprise the membership of the vast majority of alt-right groups.
The group endorses the idea of a Calpihate, a hypothetical unified Islamist theocratic national hegemony which would ideally cover a large region of the Mideast and North Africa. There is a clear and overwhelming belief in a hierarchy which places Muslims and Islamic society at the top of the social order. Belief in a hierarchy which places whites at or near the top of society was a core finding in the study A Psychological Profile of the Alt Right.
Views on Gender and Sexuality in PI3 are likewise informed by a mixture of cultural traditionalism and contemporary norms in hypermasculine internet communities. Words like “cuck”, “snowflake” and “triggered” form a common tongue between identitarian extremists, even those of vastly different cultural and religious backgrounds. There have been spirited debates about the status of women, with the general consensus being that a chaste, ‘Thicc Hijabi Waifu’ (I’ll let you google each, or all of those terms) is preferable to the contemporary ‘THOT’ (a derogatory and misogynistic abbreviation meaning ‘That Hoe Over There’ which is used to describe a sexually active youth or woman).
PI3 members also embrace a view, widely held on the alt-right that there are only two genders. Much of the group’s discourse around gender identity is culled directly from talking points popularized by Toronto based Professor Jordan Peterson, an alt-right scion who rejects the use of personal pronouns to denote complex gender identities, a move which flies in the face of overwhelming psychological and scientific consensus to the contrary. Taking these views a step further, group members prescribe ‘rooftop’ punishment to treat transgendered and non-binary persons, homosexuality and liberal Muslims who embrace sexual diversity or attend events such as rallies or Pride events in support of the LGBTQ+ community. The “rooftop” is an ironic, but disturbing reference to an incident in which Daesh (ISIS) was recorded throwing homosexuals from the roofs of buildings in Mosul, Iraq. As a prescription for what the group regards as degeneracy, rooftop punishment is synonymous with the alt-right ‘Helicopter Ride’ commonly used to menace anybody politically left of Margaret Thatcher.
The group is certainly not unified or monolithic in its views. PI3 has suffered multiple schisms resulting from theological discussions about the validity Polygyny in strict interpretations of the Qur’an. It’s beyond my expertise to explain the root of the disagreement, but the history does reference group administrators and prominent members exiting as a result of the conflict. There have also been conflicts in the group resulting from the general distaste for Weebs (fans of Japanese Anime) which is generally recognized as Haram (forbidden), despite many group members ironically or seriously expressing interest in Anime. Plenty of memes employ the recognizable Incel tropes such as the ‘chad’ vs. ‘virgin’ meme format.
Jordan Peterson is actually one of the few far right thought leaders who seems to be traded freely between the Islamist and white supremacist alt-right spheres. His illiberal rhetoric, views on gender, promotion of misogynistic mythologies, ideas about the role of men in society as well as his views about the importance of preserving culture and resisting progressive change are all eagerly embraced by Islamist fundamentalists in PI3. Some group members have raised concerns that the late Bernard Lewis, a notable advocate for the state of Israel, is the author of the only text Peterson recommends for understanding Islam. The members of PI3 have expressed a general dissatisfaction with other far right thought leaders such as Ben Shapiro (because he’s Jewish) and Milo Yiannopolous (because he’s gay, jewish, considered to be a self-confessed pedophile and virulently anti-Muslim). Preferred Islamic thought leaders in PI3 are various imams and clerics whose videos and quotations become ammunition in the group’s unrestricted meme warfare. Though, parsing which Imams are revered and which are being lampooned takes some understanding of context and scripture as well as a careful reading of which serious-appearing posts are getting ‘laugh’ type reactions. A lot of the humor is nuanced and rooted in a shared cultural and religious understanding.
“I would gladly aid their (Nazi) cause if it means us Muslims can establish a central government within the Muslim majority nations.”
Anti-Semitism is a prevailing theme in the group, another feature shared with the majority of alt-right internet forums and groups. In the book Kill all Normies Angela Nagle writes about the rise of transgressive internet subcultures and the role which transgressive speech, particularly transgressive ‘satire’ plays in both building communities and mainstreaming ideas. The most apparent form of socially transgressive behavior in PI3 is the continual denigration of the Jewish community. It also comprises some of the group’s weakest attempts at ‘edgy’ humor.
It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the Islamists posting Hitler memes and the neo-nazis from Charlottesville might unite in the shadowy corners of the internet to push back against what they see as a ‘Jewish globalist conspiracy’. On this subject, one PI3 member said, “Islam and National-Socialism were once allies. The basis of Nat-Soc is every culture(sic) to thrive in its historical territory. I would gladly aid their cause if it means us Muslims can establish a central government within the Muslim majority nations…” Another said, “ The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But once both our common enemy vanquished (sic) It’ll be Deus Vult and Allah Akbar once more to the death.” Also appropriated from the white supremacist alt-right are various anti-Semitic memes and cartoons, including Pepe the downcast cartoon frog who has been identified by the ADL as a hate symbol.
Of course, these views are acknowledged as fringe views and not representative of Islam or of Muslims in general. In fact, those Muslims who I’ve spoken to about the existence of the page and the growing identitarian Islamist subculture have rolled their eyes or expressed shock and alarm at the group’s rhetoric and activities. These internal frictions between moderates and ideological provocateurs have played out through a history of PI3 members ‘raiding’ Muslim moderate groups. Raiding is a tactic of massing comments, messages or posts on specific target pages, and is more commonly known as ‘brigading’. The history of PI3 references raids on Halal Memes for Jannah Minded Teens, a Facebook meme page which is orders-of-magnitude larger than PI3, popular with youth, and which maintains anti-discrimination policies as well as a generally tolerant and inclusive vision of Islam and its place in modern society. PI3 members also habitually raid ‘Never Again Canada’ a Facebook page associated with figures in the cultural supremacist movement, including suspected hate criminal Sandra Solomon and the Jewish Defence League.
A final unifying theme across both the white supremacist and Islamist alt-right is general support for strong-man leaders on the international stage. While disapproving of policies which negatively impact Muslims, members of the group have expressed support for both U.S. President Trump and President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. Both are also treated with caution because of their adversarial relationships with their respective domestic Muslim communities. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is widely hated in the group, as his government is killing fellow Muslims in Syria. Competing ideologies such as Hinduism, or cultural groups with mixed heritage and beliefs, such as Yazidis and Kurds, are widely mocked. Kurds are second only to Jews in the group’s hierarchy of undesirables. Indeed, the two are often compared. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the leader of Turkey, is perhaps the most revered and is referred to by some members as the “Based Caliph”. His supporters see him as a reactionary answer to growing trends of liberalism, feminism and sexual freedom in the quasi-Islamist Turkish state.
There is notably a unified opposition in PI3 toward violent extremism that originates from within the international Islamic community.
With specific regard to Daesh, the prevailing opinion in PI3 seems to be “This is not the Caliphate you’re looking for”. Memes mock the lack of sophistication and backwardness of various extremist groups and PI3 administrators carefully curate content to expunge posts and members who advocate or even excuse any form of extremist activity. It’s also commonly acknowledged that a group comprised of young men who are accustomed to being sent for secondary screening in airports will attract the attentions of agencies like MI6, CSIS or the FBI. It’s joked about, but in context, it’s also accepted as inevitable.
Any positive aspect of a community like PI3 is outweighed by the hateful and bitter content in this echo chamber for toxic masculinity.
So why do this? Why form a community styled after the alt-right’s ethno-nationalist identitarianism in order to wage an online war against Jews, moderate Muslims, liberals, postmodernists, the LGBTQ+ community, the monolithic ‘west’ or globalization? Groups like PI3 are a reactionary force in Islam, just as the alt-right is a reactionary force in Western democracies. These young men (and they almost all are, with few exceptions) express deep concern for the rapid changes in their world and in their faith. They eschew modernization of thought and embrace traditionalism, while using bleeding edge internet humor to organize the resistance.
In perhaps its only positive aspect, PI3 has offered a place of community for these young men to grow and share their views. As fasts were broken for Ramadan, helpful conversations about pious Halal eating in various countries were commonplace. Of course, as the wildly popular Halal Memes for Jannah Minded Teens demonstrates, there are religiously centered meme communities which are perfectly capable of upholding tolerance and diversity. As we’ve seen recently with alt-right and Incel forums, any positive aspect of a community like PI3 is negated by the hateful and bitter content in this echo chamber for toxic masculinity.
Organized on Facebook in relative secrecy and insulated from opposing viewpoints, groups like PI3 risk becoming a breeding ground for further hate and extremism fuelled by opportunistic thought leaders preying on a crisis of masculinity, disenfranchisement and generational uncertainty at a time of great social and cultural change. The white supremacist alt-right and the Islamist alt-right are almost identical in their perspectives and rhetoric. Existing for the same reasons, and rallying around the same causes, it is of critical importance for the defence of any pluralistic and inclusive society that we urge young men to turn away from toxic internet communities which normalize hateful and oppressive views. One can only hope that as the Islamist alt-right grows in strength, resistance to it from within the Muslim community will reflect the lessons and mirror successes from the broader global movements against identitarianism, populism and hate.