The French newspapers Le Figaro and l'Humanité don’t tend to agree on much of anything. Le Figaro is right-of-center, after all, while the staunchly left wing l'Humanité is the former newspaper of the French Communist Party. Yet the two dailies reacted to the victory of Marine Le Pen’s hard-right National Front in France’s regional elections with the same headline: “The Shock.”
Three weeks after the worst attack on French soil since World War II and following years of growing popularity, Le Pen’s achievement - the anti-immigrant party came first in six out of 13 regions, securing nearly 30% of the national vote - was far from surprising. It was, as Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz, a “foreseeable earthquake”, but an earthquake nonetheless, that sent shockwaves around the world. “It’s getting closer”, warned the headline of the left-wing daily Liberation, with an ominous blurry portrait of Le Pen. The implication was clear: Delivering its best result ever, the National Front has made a huge stride in its quest to place Le Pen inside the lysée presidential palace in 2017.
Le Pen may be closer to presidency than ever, but she’s not there yet. The second round is still nearly a week away, and her stunning victory looks a bit less stunning if we consider the fact that even the trauma of the Paris attacks and the following terror panic couldn’t significantly improve on her previous election record, when National Front achieved 25% of the vote for in last year’s elections to the European Parliament.
That is not to say that we should take Le Pen’s achievement lightly. She might very well win the presidency in 2017. Five years ago the National Front was a mere protest party, now it is well on its way to becoming the leading political force in France.
But make no mistake. Le Pen and the far-right in the U.S. and elsewhere may win the electoral battle, but the real winner will be ISIS, which wanted this outcome all along.
In fact, despite the frequent airstrikes launched against it by Russia and U.S.-led forces, it has still been a pretty good month for the world’s premier millennarian death-cult. Following the terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Sunday’s knifing attack in London, Western democracies have been overflowing with Islamophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric. That serves ISIS with a huge propaganda win.
As an organization that aims to convince Western Muslims that they will never be accepted in the West, that they will never be allowed to assimilate, that Western nations will always be fundamentally Christian and therefore hostile to Muslims, there is nothing that ISIS wants more than U.S. presidential candidates advocating the creation of Muslim “databases”, pondering mosque closures, comparing Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs” and tainted peanuts and advocating the admittance of only Christian refugees, as the leading GOP candidates have recently done.
Likewise, there is nothing ISIS wants more than to have liberal democracies like France or the U.S. be willing to chuck away some of their most sacred values for fear of “Islamist totalitarianism”. The only side profiting from a “clash of civilizations” approach is ISIS itself. The rise of the far-right in Europe and in the U.S., in that sense, plays right into ISIS’ hands.
A thousand San Bernardinos
ISIS can’t win a war against the West in a military sense. Its best bet is to do what Al-Qaida did after 9/11, which is to drag Western nations into prolonged, bloody wars that are hugely expensive and end up radicalizing local populations instead of turning them against radical Islam.
But, given the right circumstances, ISIS can win a war of ideas. If countries like France and the U.S. indeed end up electing Le Pen or Trump, thereby showing a willingness to concede longstanding values like pluralism, liberty and secularism, that will go a long way toward proving ISIS’ point that these values are worthless. Otherwise, why would Westerners be willing to throw away ideas they fought for and for which they died for 300 years?
What’s more, the purpose of terrorism isn’t military triumph - it is to cause panic and exploit the media in order to change political behavior. To do that, ISIS needs to convince young alienated Muslims inside Western nations that supporting ISIS is their only option, that they have no choice but to choose a side. If done right, ISIS doesn’t even have to initiate attacks - it can just inspire them and watch them unfold on their own, until there are a thousand San Bernardinos. It can’t do this alone: It needs Islamophobic far-right politicians as its subcontractors. If they treat all Muslims as terrorists, eventually it might just make terrorists of some.
Le Pen may eventually end up not winning the French presidency, just as Trump may very well end up not winning the Republican nomination. But the wave Islamophobia, nationalism, and the bigotry currently plaguing Western democracies, gives ISIS the victory it was hoping for.