Yesterday I participated in a Hudson Institute event on Populism, Islamism and "Indigenism" versus Democracy in Latin America. What came into focus there was the joint narrative of the Bolivarian populist governments (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua) and radical Islamists, led by Iran.
It is hard, on the surface, to imagine what a secular revolution that allows women on the beach in bikinis, salsa music, racy soap operas and rum has in common with a theocracy that tolerates none of those things and believes that divine law should rule the world.
One of the primary unifying threads in the joint narrative is the utopian vision that a human system can be devised that will bring justice and peace. Hence, from this vision, both groups construct a narrative of heroic battling against the earthly forces of evil and corruption, and both have chosen the United States as its primary enemy, followed closely by other liberal democracies that, in their view, have failed to live up to the utopian ideals.
This is where, as I have written about before, the joint fascination with asymmetrical warfare and its desirability meshes with the larger story line. Both sides view themselves as small powers taking on vast world powers, a David and Goliath narrative that imbues a sense of inevitable ultimate victory with the need to find the weapons that will lead to the defeat of enemy.
The keynote speaker at the Hudson event, Spanish parliamentarian Gustavo de Arístegui, has written that those in this alliance, whether secular or religious, view themselves as "legitimate soldiers in an heroic battle within the context of an asymmetrical war of liberation. It is a theory that justifies any kind of violence, including terrorism, if it is used against the most powerful countries, the repressive forces of the West."
This view of the heroism of the actions is in part what gives such a dangerously romantic view of suicide bombings, as espoused in the book Chavez has adopted as official military doctrine: Peripheral Warfare and Revolutionary Islam: Origins, Rules and Ethics of Asymmetrical Warfare (Guerra Periferica y el Islam
Revolucionario: Orígenes, Reglas y Ética de la Guerra Asimétrica) by the Spanish politician and ideologue Jorge Verstrynge. I have written about that more extensively in a previous post.
There is little doubt that this tactical alliance would shatter if either side were to gain significant ground. The Islamists have shown, particularly in the Iranian revolution that was viewed initially by many as triumph of secular, reformist forces, that it will eat the young revolutionaries for lunch.
But for now, the common view of the struggle against the West, bound by a narrative both can offer as an explanation for their actions, is sufficient. The common enemy is there, and the weapons for the struggle can be obtained.
One of the dangers of this narrative is not just the seduction it holds for messianic leaders like Chavez in Venezuela and Ahmadinejad in Iran, but the lure it holds for non-state armed groups like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), who increasingly find themselves isolated and without a coherent reason to continue the revolution.
Chavez's willingness to embrace and help write this narrative means that he has shared with his allies in the FARC, and why his pro forma protestations of not supporting the revolutionary cause are meaningless, and will remain so. The FARC needs to articulate a reason for its continuation in the armed struggle. The narrative not only offers that, but well-trained allies (Hezbollah particularly) who can help them advance once a common agenda is established. And that is truly alarming.