August 12, 2006

Islamic fascism? Actually, yes.

George W. Bush has caused quite a row with his recent ‘Islamic fascism’ remark. The neo-cons are quite obviously establishing the ideological parameters within which they are continuing their propaganda campaign and maintaining the American public’s high level of agitation and fear. In the process, Bush has grossly over-simplified both the nature of current geopolitics and the religion of Islam itself. Quite justifiably, a number of Muslims are quite upset with Bush’s rather sweeping and inconsiderate remarks.

That said, there are some underlying truths to the characterization of radical Islam as a fascistic ideology (again, I take great pains to distinguish between Islamic fundamentalism and the more commonly recognized benign and mainstream variant of Islam). The rise of fanatical theocracies (Ahmadinejad’s Iran) and extremist non-state actors (al-Qaeda) have the indelible marks of far-right totalitarian politics.

And I’m hardly alone on this one. Earlier this year, for example, a number of prominent intellectuals published a statement in condemnation of what they regarded as the rise of Islamic totalitarianism. The list of thinkers who signed this statement included Salmon Rushdie, French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy and exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. In the statement, they wrote that "After having overcome fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global threat: Islamism…We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."

Rushdie et al are correct in their assertion that radical Islam has the characteristics of a totalitarian ideology, but I believe they have understated its fascistic elements.

Many people have the idea that fascism is the monopoly of white supremacist types. This is not the case. At its core, fascism describes the rise of a self-identified group that has grossly exaggerated its historical and societal significance. This self-identity, which typically manifests as a sense of superiority or shared destiny, can encompass anything from race, nationhood, religion, and a shared cultural heritage.

As historian Allan Cassels noted in his book, Fascism, virtually every nation has what is referred to a pre-fascist culture. For the early 20th century Germans, they identified with their race, the volk, and their mythical 'glorious' past. At the same time, many other European nations experimented with fascism, including Italy, Spain, England and even the United States.

Today, this pre-fascist culture is weak in liberal society, but it is rearing its ugly head in some of the Islamic nations. Al-Qaeda, for example, is a paramilitary organization with the stated task of reducing the outside influence of Islamic affairs. This is very much an example of cultural xenophobia and an overstated sense of social mission. Like the fascists of 20th century Europe who feared the specter of Bolshevik globalization, many Muslims today fear the encroachment of American and Jewish values. The result is a far-right, exclusionary, militaristic, and hyper-sensitive counter-reaction in the form of fascism.

Which leads to the next indelible characteristic of fascism: a common enemy. The racist Nazis rallied the nation to deal with what they considered to be the Jewish problem. The Jews were an identifiable enemy who could be blamed for all the problems of the state. They also targeted the Bolsheviks, whose extreme left position polarized and radicalized the right even further. Today, the Jews have once again been targeted by a far-right group, this time in the Mid East—but now they have been joined by the Americans (whose capitalist imperialism and social liberalism has taken the place of communism).

Other characteristics of fascism include a charismatic and populist leader, which Iran quite clearly has in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What’s particularly frightening is that Ahmadinejad clearly believes his own hype. He is not so much a dictator as he is an ideologue.

By hype I mean ideology--or in this case, theological ideology. And in this sense Islamic totalitarianism is distinguished from the more secular or socialistic forms of totalitarianism. Where Marxism and fascism had ideologies informed by political, philosophical, and even (pseudo)scientific texts, radical Islam is a theocratic framework that draws its authority from religious sources.

It’s a fine point, but it’s worth mentioning. Islamic totalitarianism, while arguably far-right, is an ideological horse of a different colour. What it shares with more traditional notions of totalitarianism, however, is that is that the source of authority does not come from one individual or group of individuals (i.e. authoritarianism), but instead emanates from a monopolistic ideological framework that is enforced as the only true law of the land.

Indeed, democracy, due process and other elements of social justice as we know it in liberal democracies are absent in countries like Iran and the former Taliban Afghanistan. The goal of these theocracies is to embed religious ideology across the land and to maintain a monopoly on all ideas and institutions; radical Islam, like any totalitarian ideology, is enforced as the alpha and omega of personal existence (the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior). In this sense the revolution that is Islamic totalitarianism is comparable to the Stalinization of the Soviet Union and the work of the Nazis in 1930’s Germany. The Soviets tried to create a worker's utopia and the New Man, while the Nazis worked to ensure racial purity and create a 1,000 year Reich; Islamic fundamentalists want to create a heaven on earth – a phenomenon comparable to the quasi-totalitarian and theocratic efforts of the Calvinists in 16th century Geneva.

As for the Islamic revolution, one example that will forever stand out in my mind is when the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s Buddhist statues. This was an explicitly revolutionary act against those ideas and institutions that potentially rivaled the tenants of the ruling ideology; all revolutions seek to destroy the past, and this one is no different. Another example of zero tolerance toward opposing viewpoints was the recent row over the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Western notions of free expression and the free press are lost on the theologues.

So, while Bush and the neo-cons wage their obverse Christian crusade against the ‘Islamic fascists’, they have (likely unintentionally) revealed a disturbing aspect of extremist politics in the Middle East. And as each side continues to antagonize each other, modern politics migrates further and further into the extreme fringes.

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Chris said...

I don't think you need to be a neo-con Christianist to be concerned about Islamic Fascism, or Islamic Totalitarianism. Ideological extremism in all of its forms is a mortal threat to the values of liberal secular humanism, and it's been growing right in front of our eyes for the last 25 years - but the rest of us were far too busy pursuing a definition of freedom that didn't extend much beyond the right to warez and free music downloads.

Anonymous said...

Good write-up. I do however find it a bit odd that you recognize the reality and threat of Islamic fascism, yet still speak of the 'Christian crusade' against it. I am an atheist and fairly liberal socially, yet I fully support fighting and destroying these Islamists. Having listened many times to the rhetoric of Bush (and especially Blair, who is a much more eloquent speaker) I have yet to ever pick up on an overly or overtly Christian tone.

If anything, I find Bush's 'Islamic fascists' remark refreshingly clear and honest. Islam is in fact more of a sweeping political structure, not merely a religious order. Further, while it is obvious and continually mentioned that we don't consider all Muslims the enemy, it is important we acknowledge the enemy IS almost exclusively Muslim.

Mark Plus said...

Funny you should mention how the Taliban destroyed Buddhist archeological sites. The U.S. military has done similar things not only to pre-Islamic archeological sites in Iraq (including building a military base on the ruins of Babylon), but also to current Islamic shrines, for example the one in Samarra the Hidden Imam allegedly still lives under (like an immortal character from Highlander, I suppose). The cultural value of the past goes by the wayside when humans struggle for control of diminishing resources like oil.

Dale Carrico said...

Bush is using the term "fascism" to create a bogus emotional connection between his catastrophic unending and unendable "global war on terror" (by means of state terror) and the apparently morally unimpeachable Second World War.

Fascism historically is an authoritarian formation of corporatism -- and the United States is considerably closer to that formation than are most of the regimes Bush selectively attacks in his disgusting criminal oil grab.

If you get taken in by the general frame that Bush is circulating here, it simply doesn't matter how often you go on to make your ritual genuflection to the effect that "now, of course I know not all Muslims are terrorists" or what have you. Bush's triply ignorant "islamofascist" comments circulate to inculcate a universalizing connection and you all know it.

Only a vanishingly small minority of Muslims are terrorists, and the vast majority of the ones who are terrorists have been more radicalized by insecurity, hopelessness, and exploitation (usually faciliated directly by US and North Atlantic foreign and trade policy) than by Islam per se.

I'm an atheist and, believe me, fundamentalism (which is a sociopolitical formation rather than a metaphysical one) scares me as much as it does anybody here. As an atheist feminist faggot democrat I know quite well what my life is worth in a theocracy. But neoconservatives have been wreaking havoc on the planet throwing glib crapola around about "fascism" "the Muslim World" (there is no such monolithic thing) "the clash of Civilizations" and so on -- and the people who come here are too smart to still repeat these bloodsoaked know-nothing soundbites after so many years of this stupid devastation. This isn't a tea party conversation, people, this rhetoric is doing real material work in the world, it is pulling triggers and dropping bombs and radicalizing sprawling populations of people who have little to lose and with whom we will be sharing the world for the rest of our lives. Things can actually get much worse if intelligent people of good will get too lazy to understand what is afoot here.

George said...

This is my response to Dale, which is also in consideration of his recent blog entry on Amor Mundi:

Dale, I wish you had actually taken the time to refute the various points I made in my article instead of offering trite contradictions and spouting off anti-Bush remarks. I understand that the current administration has you foaming at the mouth (and I share your frustration), but my article was an effort to move the conversation outside of the neo-con perspective and offer an "outsider's" viewpoint on the political phenomenon that is theocratic Islamic fundamentalism. It's obvious that this was completely lost on you, making this post of yours very regrettable. Moreover, a discussion of American right-wing extremism was beyond the scope of my article, and consequently should not be taken as a suggestion on my part that it doesn’t exist.

I'm actually getting the impression that you didn't read the entire article, or that your brain turned off simply due to the fact that I was elaborating on an accusation made by the Bush administration. Islamic totalitarianism is not a figment. Why did you choose to ignore the fact that Salmon Rushdie and other intellectuals have made the exact same claim? Your accusation that it is "abstract" of me to tie in theocratic religious fundamentalism with totalitarian ideology is patent nonsense. How can you make such a claim? I spent the better part of 6 years studying various totalitarian phenomenons when I was at university taking history and political science; I don't make these accusations lightly nor without justification.

Dale, are you aware that people are being summarily executed in Iran for the most petty of offences (a 16yr old girl was executed recently because she was raped), or that the Iranian government is training (or is that brainwashing) children to be suicide shock troops and human shields? Ahmadinejad has people throwing themselves off cliffs to show their devotion (if you feel you need citations for these claims, please ask). And you're telling me my rationalization that this is blatant totalitarianism is somehow abstract? How *dare* you minimize these horrors at the opportunity to take a piss on the Bush administration.

The fascistic theocratic *totalitarian* Iranian regime is pure evil regardless of who their opposition is.

(btw, your characterization of fascism as an authoritarian outgrowth of right-wing corporatism is largely inaccurate. Many business owners under both the German and Italian fascists resented the sweeping socialization and domination of the ruling parties. All state activities had to be under the guidance of the ruling ideology, which greatly constrained the free market and led to an artificial command economy much like the Soviet Union)

Chris said...

Dale, I think you need to realize that while words do have power, they don't have magical power. Running around trying to get people to stop using words you think are intrinsically harmful reminds me of the campaign back in the 80's to change the spelling of "women" to "womyn" on the grounds that sexism had its roots in language, and would whither away when language was changed - a quarter-truth at best. Personally, I have no problem with the context in which George (or Bush) used the term fascist. While we could quibble all day over technicalities, there's a generally accepted definition of Fascism that works perfectly well in describing militarized hyper-theocratic totalitarian police states, and an underlying reality that will not change - even if you succeed in banning all the hurtful inflammatory words that so incense you.

Dale Carrico said...

George and I exchanged views once more in the comments section of Amor Mundi and I am satisfied that our differences on this particular issue are pretty clear and that people can make up their own minds about them.


I don't think anything has magical powers, including words.

As it happens, it is quite clear that the Bush Administration has grasped to an unprecedented extent the extraordinary power in broadcast media architectures of framing, figuration, narrativization, and repetition/citation as ways of inculcating conceptual maps, concrete positions, and talking points that either directly support their views or constrain public debates in ways that end up facilitating such support.

In a particular argumentative circumstance you may have "no problem" with what looks to you like the logical, strictly propositional content of a particular claim. But, of course, public claims in the context of an unpopular and conspicuously ideological war typically do considerably more work than is available to straightforward propositional analysis.

Bush does not mean by "fighting extremist fundamentalsm" what, say, Richard Dawkins might mean by this phrase, and this actually does matter. Bush's "Islamofascist" comments invoke the same anti-Nazi war-film nostalgia as did his early "Axis of Evil" iconography, and the same Christian evangelism as did his early suggestion that the War was a kind of "Crusade."

You can be sensitive to these effects or not. If you choose not to be, let me just alert you to the reality that there are more than one billion living people on earth who may not share such insensitivity on this question and that we will be living with most of them for the rest of our lives (I certainly hope).

There is a separate but related question here about how atheists and other secularists should understand and combat fundamentalist formations in general. This is a topic to which I have devoted nearly twenty years of study and activism, as it happens, as a feminist and a queer and an atheist worried about what fundamentalism in my own country and elsewhere could mean to me and people I love. I will admit I think it is a profount mistake to focus attention on the religiosity rather than on the sociopolitical radicalization that fuels fundamentalist formations.

Bush's charged rhetoric functions as a direct rationale for war crimes being undertaken right now in our names. I am sorry if saying things like that makes me seem "incensed," but I am hardly going to ignore key facts constituting the rhetorical context for these utterances for fear that it makes me vulnerable to cartoonish mischaracterizations.

But just as significantly his rhetoric here functions as another plank in a constantly ramifying discourse that would misdirect global foreign policy analysis away from an emphasis on social outcomes that tend to suggest harm reduction and remediation strategies, and toward strong identity formations (us/them) that suggest instead offensive military postures.

This is a huge and separate discussion, but I would suggest that this misdirect is doubly appealing to neoconservatives because it facilitates welfare (stealthed as neutral "defense") for rich conservative constituencies via unfathomably vast military spending and also because it nicely complements the threatened bearings of self that tend to gravitate toward conservative politics in the first place.

Anyway, I find it frustrating that what you seem to take away from my comments reprinted here is that I want to police or even ban people's word-use, when quite clearly (to me!) what I am doing is showing how the use of certain words suggests to blatantly mistaken perceptions and judgments. It is only because I thought I shared a general sense of desired outcomes with people who read George's blog that I offered a rhetorical critique (which is the field I was trained in) that implied ways in which outcomes I thought most here would consider undesirable would be faciliated by the position expressed here. If I thought people here actually desired these bad outcomes I am worrying about (which the unexpected defensiveness of some of the responses to my comment suggests must be the assumption being made) I wouldn't have posted here in the first place, because I don't waste my time talking to stupid or evil people unless I am getting paid for the privilege.

Now, you can describe my sort of rhetorical analysis as "magical thinking" or quibbling or some caricature of 70s feminist political correctness or what have you if you like, but I would gently suggest that this is possibly because you haven't spent a lot of time studying these particular sorts of mechanisms or taking them seriously?

Btw, I sympathized with much of what you said in your initial comment to George's post. I think you should re-read the comment of mine to which you are reacting here with more of an open mind. So, frankly, should George.

George said...

Justice: Tx for that link, I missed that article. I agree that theocratic totalitarianism probably deserves a category of its own, but it is my strong opinion that it falls right-of-centre along the left-right totalitarian axis.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if I feel completely comfortable with your using the terms "good" and "evil" George. Both terms imply a certain black and white, Us versus them type of rhetoric. I think "highly misguided" would be the term to use for BOTH Iran AND the U.S.. Peace all.

Hank said...

That was a great article, George! keep up the good work -- Hank Pellissier