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"Islamic Fascism": Well, It’s Half Right

Since the 9/11 attacks President Bush has walked a politically correct tight-rope in referring to the enemies of this country operating from an Islamic geographical and ideological context. The President, and his administration, have always been careful to describe the struggle, from our end, as a war “on terror.” (In fact, the official rubric was, and remains, the “Global War on Terror,” or GWOT.) Perhaps burned by his one rhetorical sin—declaring a “crusade” to get those responsible for killing 3,000 Americans and catching hell for using that term—Bush has been bending over backwards to mollify his critics and avoid even the perceived hint of impropriety toward Muslims and Islam.

No longer. This past week, after the Brits stopped plans by Muslim terrorists on that side of the pond to blow up airliners bound for America, the President said “this nation is at war with Islamic fascists….” In doing so he seems to have finally caved in to critics, mainly of his own party, who have ridiculed the “war on terror” as inadequate, indicting merely a methodology and not the ideology behind it—akin to describing the war against Nazism in World War II as merely a “war on blitzkrieg.”

Predictably, the usual suspects—such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations—have been quick to condemn the usage of this term, accusing the President of “equat[ing] the religion of peace with the ugliness of fascism.” Indeed, CAIR is half-right: Islam should NOT be identified with fascism—but not because it is inherently a peaceful ideology. Rather, the term “Islamic fascism” or “Islamofascism” should be avoided because it’s simply another way to let Islam off the hook.

Consider: “Fascism” is a political ideology commonly said to contain the following elements: 1) extreme nationalism and/or racialism; 2) dictatorial (usually charismatic) leadership; 3) socioeconomic regimentation of some kind; 4) forcible oppression of opposition; and 5) the privileging the collective over the individual. Sometimes other characteristics, such as 6) extreme militarization of society and 7) a sense of victimization, are added.1

Does this paradigm fit with the ideology of Islamic terrorists? That ideology has four major aspects: 1) a starting point of victim-hood, especially vis-à-vis the West and Christianity; 2) an intermediate goal of re-pietizing Islamic society via imposition of “true” shari`ah (Islamic law); 3) a long-term goal of re-creating the early Islamic ummah (community) under a new caliphate, which would eventually encompass the entire planet; and 4) the preferred methodology to achieve these goals of jihad. Put up against the characteristics of fascism, Islamic-based fundamentalist ideology seems obviously to share the emphasis on the group (the ummah) and a clear sense of being victimized. Also, since a caliphate, historically, has been essentially an Islamic monarchy, the dictatorial aspect should be included as common; likewise for repression of opposition, since pre-modern Islamic regimes (and, indeed, most modern ones) have not been known for their political tolerance. The other three elements of fascism—extreme nationalism or ideas of racial superiority, socioeconomic regimentation and extreme militarization—really are not prominent themes in Islamic political thought and praxis, today or in the past. So, definitionally, while “Islamic fascism” at first glance appears appropriate, upon more careful consideration its descriptive value is nominal at best.

A second point is that the term reinforces the questionable tendency of us in the West, and especially in the U.S., to see every new global threat as a reprise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Perhaps this is because World War II was the last war that all Americans agreed was truly legitimate, for every war since then—Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq both times (albeit much less so the first time)—has had its critics. Whatever the reason, wouldn’t it be more useful to the conduct of, and debate about, the undeniable global problem of Islamic-based terrorism if we analyzed the issue on its own terms? The differences between Nazi Fascism and Islamic-based terrorism are myriad, starting with the fact that the former was a state ideology and the latter is not (at least not yet). And whatever one wishes to say about Usama bin Ladin and his ilk, they are not devotees of racial purity. Religious purity, to be sure—but that calls for a different response.

One area where some have identified a nexus between Islam and fascism is in the anti-Jewish thought that is extant in the both, albeit less so in the former than in the latter. But—and this is a third major point—the undeniable anti-Jewish element in Islam actually long pre-existed the Nazis and their embrace of Amin al-Husayni, the then-mufti of Jerusalem, in the 1930s. The founder of Islam, Muhammad, ordered the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah liquidated during the early Islamic community’s sojourn in Medina, allegedly for conspiring against him and questioning his prophethood. Yes, it is true that Jews (and Christians) afterwards were, under Islamic law, accorded the protected, and second-class, status of dhimmis. But Islamic eschatological tradition also developed the idea of al-Dajjal, the “deceiver” who comes before the end of time to lead many astray and away from true Islam. And the Dajjal will be, according to many interpreters of these traditions, Jewish and his cohort of followers will consist of 70,000 Jews. So anti-Jewish thought in Islam cannot be blamed solely on the creation of the “Zionist entity”—since it long predates that development. Bottom line: “Islamofascism” strongly implies that Islamic terrorists simply adopted anti-Judaism from the Nazis, which is untrue.

The fourth problem with “Islamic fascism” is that it insinuates a parallel between right-wing Islamic thought and that of right-wing Christianity, insofar as fascism is seen as an aberrant political articulation of Christianity. Now while it might be trendy in some circles to postulate such a parallel,2 ultimately the comparison breaks down for a number of reasons, chief among which is that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have yet to order their followers to fly jetliners into al-Azhar or the Aya Sofya. Muslims and some non-Muslims scholars have always objected to the usage of the term “Islamic fundamentalism” on the grounds that the provenance of the term “fundamentalism” is a Christian context; by the same logic, “Islamic fascism” should be eschewed.

Fifth, and the most telling reason to dispense with the term “Islamofascism” and related terms, is that Islamic militancy truly does have a legitimate intellectual and ideological pedigree within Islamic thought and history.3 As I have noted elsewhere:

Yes, there are verses of toleration in the Qur’an: Surah(chapter) al-Baqarah: 256 says “there shall be no compulsion in religion;” Surah al-Furqan: 65ff says that Allah will be merciful to those who repent and do good works; and Surah al-Nisa’: 19ff enjoins Muslim men to provide financially for wives and ex-wives. But verses such as these are arguably outweighed by others: Surah Anfal: 12ff and Surah Muhammad: 3ff command the beheading of unbelievers; Surah al-Nisa’: 34ff allows for beating of one’s wives and in verses 74ff and 94ff, promises great reward for those who die fighting for Allah; Surah al-Ma’idah: 51 says “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.” Of course there are violent sections in the Bible—or at least in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament (Joshua and David were military leaders as much as religious ones). But no one denies that, as many—both Muslim and non-Muslim—deny these violent and misogynistic passages in the Qur’an. Many arguments can be made against such verses (they must be contextualized, they are applicable only to that time, they are metaphorical, etc.) but one cannot say they do not exist. Someone who simply rehashes that “the Qur’an teaches peace” obviously hasn’t read it. No doubt most Muslims do not read the passages about decapitation as a blueprint for today. But just as some Christians take literally, for example, the command of Christ to handle poisonous snakes (Luke 10:19), some Muslims take literally the injunction to behead unbelievers. And the latter practice is a bit more injurious to other folks than the former.4

Of course, history and not just sacred texts must be taken into account when studying political ideologies, even ones that are religious-based. And no doubt moderate Islam does exist. One good historical example of it is the Ottoman Empire, which while paying lip service to jihad as holy war spent the last several centuries of its existence struggling (but ultimately failing) to evolve into a modern state. In the religious sphere, the strain of Islamic mysticism known as Sufism has often (but not always) been more tolerant and less jihad-prone than other strains of Islamic ideology. But centuries before the Bush family even existed, Muslim scholar-activists were dividing the world into Dar al-Islam, the “abode of Islam,” and Dar al-Harb, the “abode of war;” i.e., unbelievers, who could expect nothing but conquest. Imperial dreams did not begin with Hitler or, for that matter, with George W. Bush. While most modern Muslims have abandoned this violent, expansionist aspect of Islamic thought, all obviously have not. To pretend otherwise is simply foolish. And it is dangerously misleading to use a term that implies the aggressive tendency of certain strains of Islam is imported rather than indigenous.

In the final analysis, then, “Islamic fascism” or “Islamofascism” is a term that should be dropped from our political lexicon. But what could replace it? With whom are we are at war? Islamic fundamentalists? Too unwieldy. Islamists? Confusing to non-specialists. Caliphists? Again, too specialized. Perhaps the best term is one that has already gained some resonance: Jihadists. It’s short, it’s descriptively accurate and even CAIR—although it will try—won’t be able to convince the American public that jihadists are simply mundane Muslims struggling to be pious.

1 See Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, s.v. “fascism,” and Wikipedia, “Fascism,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascism

2 For just the latest example: “Religious fundamentalism is by no means confined to the Middle East. We’ve got our own brand in this country in the more extreme elements of the Christian Coalition….They are, in a sense, our very own Taliban.” John Farmer, “Main faiths must atone for turmoil in Mideast,” “Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” August 12, 2006, pp. F1-F2.

3 See, for example, my article “Islamic Fundamentalism,” Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism (2001), pp. 235-240.

4 “7 Myths about Islam,” History News Network, October 10, 2005.

Related Links

  • Daniel Pipes:"At War with Islamic Fascists"