Americans have been so entangled in the Middle East for the past few decades that they have begun interpreting their own politics in the terms of that region. Is driving a car into protesters an ISIL tactic? Is pulling down statues of Confederate generals like destroying ancient Assyrian antiquities? Is Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad a mass murderer or a bulwark against fundamentalist hordes? How helpful is this importation of symbols from a region the United States has done so much to roil?
Joyce Karam points out that the white-nationalist marchers in Charlottesville had a love affair with Assad. KKK figure David Duke has been flying off to give speeches in Damascus for years, attracted by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Syria’s ruling Baath Party and its enmity for Israel (about which it mainly talks a good game). The white nationalists also admire the Russian Federation as a bastion of whiteness. Russian president Vladimir Putin has put his country’s air force at the service of Assad. Both Putin’s and America’s far right (and some elements of the American far left) see Assad as a bulwark against Muslim terrorists.
President Donald Trump struck Syria with cruise missiles last spring after allegations that the regime had used sarin gas on villagers. Breitbart, the webzine built up by current White House chief strategist Steve Bannon as a voice for the “alt-right” (white nationalists in business suits or khakis and polo shirts), suggested that the strike was the work of Ivanka Trump. Duke and a neo-Nazi site also attributed the strike to “Jewish extremism” and “manipulation” by Jews, respectively.
The far-right gangs who invaded Charlottesville last weekend chanted, “You will not replace us,” but at some point changed the slogan to “Jews will not replace us.” This sentiment reflects conspiracy theories about globalization’s being the work of Jewish business interests, leading to the offshoring of American jobs or the importation of cheap labor from abroad. These slurs have a long history in America, going back at least to Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front in the 1930s, but connecting them to Israel and Middle East policy is a recent wrinkle.
The Daily Beast and many other commenters referred to the homicide by automobile, allegedly committed by James Fields Jr., which robbed 32-year-old Heather Heyer of her life and injured 19 others, as an “ISIS-style terrorist attack.”