New Delhi: There might be a broad similarity between the supranational influence of the Soviet Union in the 1930s on its way to becoming a post-1945 Great Power and the ideological spread of the Islamic State despite its shrinking territory. The parallel seems most profound in the ability of both the former Soviet Union and the contemporary Islamic State to influence young and bright minds to their respective causes. The Soviet Union partly died by its own hand of overextension and partly by the “containment” strategy of the United States. That experience may provide a lead to end Islamism worldwide whose brand ambassador undoubtedly today is the Islamic State. The Islamic State may not have been physically involved in the recent terrorist massacre in the Bangladesh capital of Dacca. But it almost certainly inspired it as surely as the sun rises in the east.

The Soviet Union’s extraterritorial footprint was most extraordinarily planted in that exotic place of higher learning called Cambridge University in the 1930s as war loomed large in Europe. It led to the foundation of a destructive and traitorous spy ring at the heart of the British establishment which contributed in a little way to Britain’s decline in world affairs and the rise of the United States. Ironically, the chief Cambridge spies who were later exposed, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt (there was a Fifth Man whose identity was never clear), were likely actuated to work for the Soviet Union seized by pessimism about Britain’s impending decline with the loss of the colonies. Their hatred for the United States for taking Britain’s place was also consequently fanatical and all-embracing. John le Carre was an intelligence officer when the Cambridge spies were exposed and used the material in such of his espionage novels as the far-reaching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Le Carre tried to explain the motivations of the traitors to betray Britain to the Soviet Union in both his written works and in their picturization into movies and two highly acclaimed television miniseries. The explanations are brilliant and convincing and match the confessions and boasts of the spies themselves. To put it simply, the spies were trained to Empire. When the prospect of their talents becoming confined to a tiny second- or third-rate island with little or no influence on world affairs became unbearable, they sold their souls to a rising Great Power, the Soviet Union. They believed the romance and hard-sell about the Soviet Union. They believed they could control the world joining it. They didn’t find agreeable options open to them in the United States, a capitalist democracy which they hated anyway. They were colonialists. They were happy to become all-powerful commissars. Of course their dreams died soon after as dreams are apt to do.

The link between the Cambridge spies and the Islamic State is provided by the nostalgia for empire. Arguably Islam’s greatest expansion in empire mode was represented by the spread and reach of the Ottoman Empire, which reached its apogee with the capture of Constantinople in 1453 at a critical phase when Medieval History was becoming Modern. Like all empires, the Ottoman Empire too declined and became reduced to a single nation marked by present-day Turkey. The victors of World War I took revenge on Turkey for aligning with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished. As Indian readers would be aware, its impact was felt here with the Khilafat Movement which M. K. Gandhi supported and then-secular M. A. Jinnah opposed. Turkey’s post-war statesman, Kemal Ataturk, was more than happy to secularize and modernize Turkey.

When the Islamic State declared itself a post-Ottoman caliphate in the overrun territories of Syria and Iraq, it was trying to link the community it claimed to represent to a medieval past of greatness. This was the Al-Qaeda objective in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. But the project sputtered and collapsed with Osama Bin Laden’s assassination. To the Al-Qaeda, the caliphate was an end-objective. The Islamic State commenced with it. As it grew and struggled and fought a losing battle against the nemesis of Western powers and Russia, it gave the bright and the young of its community the same complexes as the Cambridge spies suffered seeing the British Empire in decline and leaving them without a future. By dangling the carrot of a caliphate and empire, the Islamic State gained extra-territorial control over the hearts and minds of the Islamic ruling classes. The militants who carried out the weekend massacre in Dacca came from the ruling class; they were children of the establishment: not unlike Kim Philby & Co. They probably felt cramped and diminished in their basket case nation and became drawn to the bloody glory of empire. This story may be replicating in other Islamic states. It was the Soviet Union in the 1930s. It is the second caliphate today.

Naturally, no two situations are entirely alike. Also, the Soviet Union was atheistic; the Islamic State is exaggeratedly the opposite. You could have other examples besides the Soviet Union, including Nazi Germany. But the Third Reich never had the supranational reach of the Soviet Union. And while the Second World War could be called just without excusing the mass bloodshed, the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is harder to justify the Cold War in black and white terms. Anyhow, it ended with the containment of Soviet Russia, and no one need shed a tear about it. Probably containment is the strategy to follow to end Islamism and the fatal quest for a false empire. Containment as a worldwide effort and strategy without ifs and buts may prove as successful against Islamism as an earlier variant brought low the Soviet Union.