The other day I found myself in a discussion on Facebook about the strategic aims of Islamic State/Da’esh. I won’t bore you with the details, but one of the issues that came up was whether an organisation like Da’esh will ever “normalise” – that is, ever give up its fanaticism and become a more or less normal political organisation operating by more or less normal, civilised methods.
I think the answer is probably not: I think the most likely outcome is that Da’esh will dwindle to irrelevance or disappear well before it attains enough maturity for that to happen. But I confess I’m not certain about that; it’s actually remarkable, if you look around the world, to see how many respectable political parties started out once as extremist, violent, underground organisations.
So I didn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. And I was fortified in that opinion by reading an op-ed piece published last week by Joschka Fischer, once famous as the leader of Germany’s Greens.
Now, of course, the Greens have never been in Da’esh’s league of extremism. But it’s easy to forget just how radical they seemed back in the 1980s – they seemed to embody the rejection of all that was normal and respectable in western societies. Fischer himself had started out in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a Marxist revolutionary, who was involved in groups with names like “Proletarian Union for Terror and Destruction.” (There’s a rather good German documentary, Joschka and Mr Fischer, about his background and subsequent transformation.)
But by the time Fischer became joint parliamentary leader of the German Greens in 1994, both he and his party had mellowed. That process intensified after 1998, when he led his party into a coalition government with the Social Democrats and became deputy prime minister and foreign minister, posts that he held for seven years.
In that time he took a number of positions that sat oddly with his radical past, including support for the NATO campaigns in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
And now here’s Fischer again, active in retirement, talking about the threat of Donald Trump and the “new nationalism” in Europe, and defending some very conventional positions on security policy:
We will soon know what comes next for NATO, but much harm has already been done. Security guarantees are not just a matter of military hardware. The guarantor also must project a credible message that it is willing to defend its allies whenever necessary.
As more and more centre-right parties drift into Euroscepticism and fellowship with Putin’s Russia, groups that we used to think of as radical left have come to take up more of the burden of defending economic integration and collective security.
Those who read News Ltd, of course, may well think the Greens are still dedicated to the overthrow of western civilisation. But the reality is that Fischer’s ideological journey is reasonably typical of the Greens in many countries, including Australia.
That move has encountered some internal resistance, but for what it’s worth, it seems to me a very welcome development. One of the keys to the success of democracy is its ability to bring disaffected elements within the tent, where their radical zeal can be tempered enough to enrich the body politic without destroying it.
But it does raise interesting questions. Will we one day see former Da’esh militants holding ministerial posts in a right-wing coalition government somewhere in the Mediterranean?
I think not, but strange things sometimes happen.