‘Warlike policies based on the politics of fear’
The lie that is ‘islamofascism’
President George Bush, along with other neoconservatives in the US, has adopted the term “islamofascist” to imply that a wide range of organisations are the 21st-century successors of Nazism and communism. This is not only inaccurate, it is deliberately intended to promote the idea of preventive wars.
By Stefan Durand
The use of such a crude term as “Islamic fascism” could be ignored if the words had not been used publicly by President George Bush in a press conference this August, and then repeated in statements by other United States officials, to imply that such widely differing movements as al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah were the successors of Nazism and communism. Renaming the “war on terror” as the “war on Islamic fascism” was meant to place Muslim fundamentalist movements among the totalitarian enterprises of the 20th century. It was no innocent play on words, but rather designed to legitimise warlike policies based on crude analogies and the politics of fear.
Stephen Schwartz claimed the credit for the neologism “islamofascism” in William Kristol’s Washington-based political magazine The Weekly Standard (1); he also contributes to the controversial FrontPage Magazine website run by David Horowitz. But Schwartz first used the term only in 2001, and it was actually coined by the historian Malise Ruthven in 1990 in the British newspaper, The Independent (2). The brilliant, and once left-leaning, journalist Christopher Hitchens has done much to popularise the expression in the US. (Hitchens supported Bush’s war on Iraq.) The expression’s arrival in an official Bush speech was probably due to the influence of the British historian Bernard Lewis (3), a White House adviser motivated by hostility to Islam; Schwartz is his disciple.
None of the Islamist movements that Bush lumped together under the term meet the criteria for fascism as traditionally defined by such experts as Hannah Arendt, Renzo de Felice, Stanley Payne and Robert Paxton. Not that religion is incompatible with fascism. Although Payne asserts that fascism requires for its development “the space created by secularisation” (4), Paxton and others make it clear that this applies only in Europe. There can indeed be Muslim fascism, just as there can be Christian, Hindu or Jewish fascism.
But the movements accused by the Bush administration are not in that category. Islamism must be seen as a contemporary phenomenon, both new and distinct. It is true that Muslim fundamentalist movements exhibit certain traditional features of fascism: a paramilitary dimension, a feeling of humiliation and a cult of the charismatic leader (although to a relative degree, and scarcely comparable with the cults of the Führer or the Duce). But all the other fundamental ingredients of fascism — the expansionist nationalism, corporatism, bureaucracy and the cult of the body — are generally lacking in Islamism.
The fight against occupation
Also, Islamist movements are often trans-national and far removed from the integral nationalism characteristic of European fascism of the 1930s. Fascism was by nature imperialist and expansionist. Although al-Qaida cells operate in many countries and some Islamist movements do dream of reconquering Andalusia or Sicily and restoring the caliphate, organisations such as Hamas and Hizbullah, however disreputable their religious ideology and armed operations (especially attacks on civilians), are struggling against territorial occupation. The religious absolutism of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan made it more like medieval obscurantist theocracies than the fascist regimes that emerged in industrialised countries after the first world war.
The corporatist dimension inherent in fascism, its almost total merger of state, industrial enterprises and professional bodies, is lacking in the Islamic context. The close relationship between the Islamist regime in Iran and the bazaar merchants is not comparable. Islamists are not usually supported by a national military-industrial complex, although the close connection in Iran between the religious state and the powerful arms industry suggests the opposite. (But that connection between the state and the arms industry also exists in the US and France, neither describable as fascist.)
The existence of a “partisan state” is a necessary condition for the exercise of fascist power, but these Islamist groups are most often non-state organisations marginal to, or persecuted by, the authorities of the countries in which they are based. They may be movements ideologically structured by religion, but ideology often plays only a secondary part in them, whereas Raymond Aron stresses its extreme role in totalitarian systems, based on what he called the “primacy of ideology” (5).
No ‘new man’
Islamist movements make an instrument of religion and try to use it as an ideology, but they do not intend to create “a new man”, as was the case in fascist Europe. They propound archaic religious and social precepts rather than an overall coherent ideology. The popular success of these movements is often due to factors unconnected with ideology. The Hamas vote is often a vote against Fatah corruption, not a reflection of the Palestinian people’s belief in Hamas’s religious ideology. Many people support Hizbullah in Lebanon without supporting its Islamist ideology.
Intellectuals usually support such movements despite rather than because of their ideology. But fascism and Nazism seduced many intellectuals, including some of the most distinguished minds of their time. Al-Qaida can boast only occasional support of this kind, and its crude discourse is more like that of sects than of European totalitarian regimes.
Fascism and Nazism were mass movements based on the politicisation and consent of the masses. But although the context of economic crisis and widespread humiliation is particularly propitious, in most Muslim countries Islamist organisations run up against civil societies that cherish their freedoms. The numbers supporting Islamic fundamentalist movements in North Africa are not much greater than those supporting the far right in Europe. Al-Qaida appeals only to a narrow fringe of Muslim society.
Even under dictatorships often in thrall to the US, Muslim countries have extraordinarily lively, anti-totalitarian and non-observant civil societies. Many other features of Muslim society militate against the analogy with fascism: there is no monopoly of information (even in Iran and Saudi Arabia, where breaches in the religious authorities’ strict control allow a breath of freedom), no social Darwinism, no command economy or planned mobilisation of industry, and no monopoly of arms.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is more problematic. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is supported by a partisan state, exercises tight control of the media through the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, and directs a planned economy and an impressive military-industrial complex. Is this enough reason to speak of islamofascism? Not really, given the many counterforces at work and the vigilant civil society. The Iranian president has to contend with the majlis (parliament), and it took him several months to get certain ministerial appointments ratified. Moreover, Iran’s supreme guide, Ayatollah Khameini, has subjected the decisions of the government to approval by the council of discernment, which is chaired by Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was defeated by Ahmadinejad in the presidential election.
Ahmadinejad must also contend with the former president Mohammad Khatami, a “reformer” who still enjoys considerable popularity. Zvi Barel, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, argued that Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel diatribes can be explained by ideological conflict and the balance of forces within Iran (6). The populist Ahmadinejad is finding it hard to seduce the elites and a large section of civil society is determined to resist the ultraconservatives’ hold on power.
Where are the fascists?
While islamofascism as a generic term is incongruous, fascist influence is not entirely absent in the Islamic context. The Arab and Muslim world contains many dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that could be termed fascistic — and most of them are faithful allies of the US in its war against terrorism. Support for US foreign policy “absolves” such regimes from any autocratic or fascistic tendencies. The Uzbek, Kazakh and Turkmen dictators have been spared US criticism, although the semi-fascistic nature of their regimes is obvious. The Saudi monarchy is approved by Washington despite its fundamentalism and religious obscurantism, its support for radical Islamist movements and its excesses. Colonel Muammar Gadafy, who has been absolved by western governments since renouncing his past in response to demands from Washington, celebrated the 37th anniversary of his seizure of power by calling for the murder of his opponents. Few western voices protested (7).
The term fascist could have been justifiably applied in Iraq to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the Ba’ath party and the mukhabarat (secret services). Saddam’s regime was ultranationalistic, based on an unbounded cult of the leader, made no distinction between the public and private realms, and was expansionist. In a lecture in Kuwait in 1987, Edward Said warned the governments of the Gulf states that, by continuing to provide Saddam with financial support, they were accomplices of Arab fascism and would be its victims. Not until 2 August 1990, when Kuwait was invaded, did its leadership get the message.
The US’s hypocrisy is emphasised when we recall that today’s islamofascists, especially the Afghan guerrillas during their struggle against Soviet Russia in the 1980s, were lauded in Washington as the “moral equivalents” of the US founding fathers (8). The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also received generous aid from the British and US intelligence services, and the Israeli government supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine (before the creation of Hamas) in an attempt to curb the power of Fatah, the Marxists and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Movements in the Muslim world that resort to terrorism and display fascistic tendencies should be criticised, and loudly, but without using provocative and dated terms such as “nazislamism” and “islamofascism” that stigmatise whole populations and establish a direct connection between religion and extremist parties to exploit religion in pursuit of political aims. Rejecting fraudulent concepts such as islamofascism does not prevent us from criticising the crimes of Islamists, or their view of the world. The academic Eqbal Ahmad showed exceptional courage in defending Salman Rushdie, under fatwa threat of death, against angry crowds in Pakistan.
All arguments about the definition of fascism are of little importance to the Jacksonians (9) and neoconservatives who dominate US foreign policy; what counts is the emotive charge of the words “Islamic fascism”, which allows them to frighten people. Therein lies the danger. By crediting the idea that the West is fighting against a new fascism, new Hitlers, they are preparing public opinion to accept that war can and must be “preventive”, and that the “fascist threat” requires a massive response that is justified whatever the cost in human lives. “The allies bombed Dresden” was the neocon response to criticism when Israeli F-16s dropped hundreds of fragmentation bombs on residential districts in Lebanon.
The determination to nazify the enemy is not new. Western media regularly discover a new Fourth Reich and Führer. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were all compared to Hitler. Nasser was “Hitler on the Nile”. Menachem Begin called Arafat the “Arab Hitler”.
Iran’s outlandish president and his negationist diatribes are easily open to media manipulation. Amir Taheri, an Iranian neoconservative and former associate of the shah, spread “news” that Iran was about to force its Jews to wear a yellow star. This baseless allegation was on the front page of the Canadian newspaper, The National Post, under the banner headline “The Fourth Reich”. Strong denials by Iranian Jews made no difference. The media coup was a success. Many Canadians and Americans are convinced that Iranian Jews wear a yellow star, which is a useful state of affairs if the US decides to launch a new preventive war against Iran.
Those who speak of “islamofascism” have in common the desire for preventive military action in the name of the war on terror. Over the years Bernard Lewis has popularised the idea that Arabs and “orientals” only understand force. He would do well to read Hannah Arendt, who wrote: “All hopes to the contrary notwithstanding, it seems as though the one argument the Arabs are incapable of understanding is force” (10).
Lumping together dozens of disparate movements, often in conflict with each other and pursuing widely varying aims, is a way to spread the myth of a world Islamic conspiracy, conceal secular geopolitical issues and avoid reference to the root causes of most of these movements, especially to military occupations and territorial conflicts. Only just resolutions for these can destroy the breeding ground for Islamist terrorism.
Public opinion is being prepared for new wars by cheap, Churchillian posturing; all those opposed to absurd and counter-productive conflicts are accused of Munich-style capitulation. Instead of being accepted as lucid, they are described as “useful idiots”, the modern equivalents of Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, who signed the 1938 agreements with Hitler. We should remember what Paul Valéry said: “Nothing is worse than the so-called lessons of history — when history is misunderstood and misinterpreted.”
Translated by Barry Smerin
Stefan Durand is a journalist
(1) “What is islamofascism?”, Weekly Standard, Washington, 17 August 2006.
(2) 8 September 1990.
(3) See Alain Gresh, “Malevolent fantasy of Islam”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, August 2005.
(4) In his view, “a religious fascism would inevitably limit its leader not only by the cultural power of the clergy” but also by “the precepts and values of traditional religion”.
(5) Raymond Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1968.
(6) Reprinted as “Cause toujours, Ahmadinejad” in Courier International, Paris, 3 November 2005.
(7) Reuters, 31 August 2006. In other times it would have been front-page news in US dailies.
(8) For an overview of these dangerous liaisons, especially in southeast Asia, see Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Pantheon, New York, 2004.
(9) Walter Russel Mead calls Jacksonians (from Andrew Jackson, US president 1829-37) ultranationalists who do not hesitate to intervene abroad but, unlike neoconservatives, have no aspirations to nation building. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld can be described as Jacksonians.
(10) Hannah Arendt, “Peace or Armistice in the Near East?”, Review of Politics, Notre Dame, Indiana, January 1950.