It is curious how certain writers suddenly become semantically persnickety when the term fascism is applied to Islam. I doubt if the same writers would voice similar concerns for the followers of Rush Limbaugh if someone labeled him “fascist.”
The fact is, the term fascist is now legitimately applicable to a range of movements on the basis that they share a common ethos. Here is how Roger Scruton’s Dictionary of Political Thought (Hill and Wang, 1982) lists the features that fascist movements have in common:
- Hostility to democracy, egalitarianism, and the values of the liberal Enlightenment
- The cult of the leader and admiration for his special qualities
- A respect for collective organization
- A love of symbols
One could add to the list a cult of violence and a violent anti-Semitism, in the sense of hatred of Jews.
Islam fits perfectly within such a characterization, as a host of Western scholars have noted since the beginning of the twentieth century. Far from being of only recent usage, the application of either totalitarian or fascist to Islam goes back nearly a hundred years and furthermore—far from being a loose term of abuse—has been used precisely.
In 1937, Charles Watson, a Christian missionary in Egypt, described Islam as totalitarian because “by a million roots, penetrating every phase of life, all of them with religious significance, it is able to maintain its hold upon the life of Moslem peoples.” G.H. Bousquet, one of the foremost authorities on Islamic law, distinguished two aspects of Islam that he considered totalitarian: Islamic law itself and the Islamic notion of jihad, which has for its ultimate aim the conquest of the entire world in order to submit it to one single authority.
Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje was another great scholar of the field and a longtime professor of Arabic at the University of Leiden. He, too, recognized that Islamic law aimed at “controlling the religious, social and political life of mankind in all its aspects, the life of its followers without qualification, and the life of those who follow tolerated religions to a degree that prevents their activities from hampering Islam in any way.” The all-embracing nature of Islamic law can be seen from the fact that it does not distinguish between ritual, law (in the European sense of the word), ethics, and good manners. In principle, this legislation controls the entire life of the believer and the Islamic community.
Bertrand Russell wrote in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920) that “Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam. . . . Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahommet. . . . Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of this world.”
In his 1949 study Sociologie du Communisme, Jules Monnerot called Communism the “twentieth-century Islam,” noting that it:
takes the field both as a secular religion and as a universal State; it is therefore more comparable to Islam than to the Universal Religion which began by opposing the universal State in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, and which can be said to have drawn men’s hearts away from the State to itself. . . . This merging of religion and politics was a major characteristic of the Islamic world in its victorious period. It allowed the head of State to operate beyond his own frontiers in the capacity of commander of the faithful (Amir al-muminin). . . . Religions of this kind acknowledge no frontiers. Soviet Russia is merely the geographical center from which communist influence radiates; it is an “Islam” on the march, and it regards its frontiers at any given moment as purely provisional and temporary.
In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz devoted a chapter to how people in totalitarian societies develop means to cope publicly with all the contradictions of real life. One cannot admit to contradictions openly; officially they do not exist. Hence, people learn to dissimulate their views, emotions, and thoughts, never revealing their true beliefs publicly. Milosz finds a striking analogy of the same phenomenon in Islamic civilization, where it bears the name kitman or ketman, the Persian word for “concealment.”
Islam has also been compared more precisely to Nazism or sometimes fascism, usually synonymously. For example, in an interview in the late 1930s, the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was asked if he had any views on what was likely to be the next step in religious development. He replied, referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany, “We do not know whether Hitler is going to found a new Islam. He is already on the way; he is like Muhammad. The emotion in Germany is Islamic; warlike and Islamic. They are all drunk with wild god. That can be the historic future.”
Also writing in the 1930s, Karl Barth reflected on the threat of Hitler and his similarities to Muhammad:
Participation in this life, according to it the only worthy and blessed life, is what National Socialism, as a political experiment, promises to those who will of their own accord share in this experiment. And now it becomes understandable why, at the point where it meets with resistance, it can only crush and kill—with the might and right which belongs to Divinity! Islam of old as we know proceeded in this way. It is impossible to understand National Socialism unless we see it in fact as a new Islam [emphasis in original], its myth as a new Allah, and Hitler as this new Allah’s Prophet.
Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production, wrote a memoir of his World War II experiences while serving a twenty-year prison sentence imposed by the Nuremberg Tribunal. Speer’s narrative includes this discussion, which captures Hitler’s racist views of Arabs on the one hand and his effusive praise for Islam on the other:
Hitler had been much impressed by a scrap of history he had learned from a delegation of distinguished Arabs. When the Mohammedans attempted to penetrate beyond France into Central Europe during the eighth century, his visitors had told him, they had been driven back at the Battle of Tours. Had the Arabs won this battle, the world would be Mohammedan today. For theirs was a religion that believed in spreading the faith by the sword and subjugating all nations to that faith. Such a creed was perfectly suited to the Germanic temperament. [Emphasis added.] Hitler said that the conquering Arabs, because of their racial inferiority, would in the long run have been unable to contend with the harsher climate and conditions of the country. They could not have kept down the more vigorous natives, so that ultimately not Arabs but Islamized Germans could have stood at the head of this Mohammedan Empire. [Emphasis added.] Hitler usually concluded this historical speculation by remarking, “You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?”
Manfred Halpern was a politics professor at Princeton for nearly forty years. Born in Germany in 1924, Halpern and his parents fled the Nazis in 1937 for America. He fought against the Nazis in World War II, then worked in U.S. counterintelligence tracking down former Nazis. In 1948, he joined the State Department, where he worked on Middle East affairs, and in 1958 he came to Princeton, where he did the same. In 1963, Princeton published his Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa, an academic treatment of Islamism, which Halpern labeled “neo-Islamic totalitarianism”:
The neo-Islamic totalitarian movements are essentially fascist movements. They concentrate on mobilizing passion and violence to enlarge the power of their charismatic leader and the solidarity of the movement. They view material progress primarily as a means for accumulating strength for political expansion, and entirely deny individual and social freedom. They champion the values and emotions of a heroic past, but repress all free critical analysis of either past roots or present problems. . . . Like fascism, neo-Islamic totalitarianism represents the institutionalization of struggle, tension, and violence.
A comparison of Islamism with fascism was also put forward by Maxime Rodinson, eminent French scholar of Islam and by common consent one of three greatest scholars of Islam of the twentieth century. A French Jew born in 1915, Rodinson also learned about fascism from direct experience: his parents perished in Auschwitz. In a 1978 Le Monde article censuring Michel Foucault’s uncritical endorsement of the Iranian Revolution, Rodinson admitted that trends in Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood were “hard to ascertain. . . . But the dominant trend is a certain type of archaic fascism (type de fascisme archaïque). By this I mean a wish to establish an authoritarian and totalitarian state whose political police would brutally enforce the moral and social order. It would at the same time impose conformity to religious tradition as interpreted in the most conservative light.”
In 1984, Said Amir Arjomand, an Iranian-American sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, also pointed to “some striking sociological similarities between the contemporary Islamic movements and the European fascism and the American radical right. . . . It is above all the strength of the monistic impulse and the pronounced political moralism of the Islamic traditionalist and fundamentalist movements which makes them akin to fascism and the radical right alike.”
After this parade of quotations, some readers will object to my reliance on Western scholars, some firmly in the camp that bears the much-feared label “Orientalist.” Of course, the influence of charlatans like Edward Said—and the pernicious academic climate of relativism and multiculturalism that he did so much to engender—has made cross-cultural judgments well-nigh impossible. (For more on this, see my Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Prometheus 2007.)
To dismiss out of hand any criticism of Islam simply because it comes from a Westerner is to fall foul, of course, of the genetic fallacy and further betrays a sort of racism. We who pride ourselves on being rationalists should look at the arguments and ask if such-and-such thesis is true, valid, or justified by the evidence and not ask first who developed it or put it forward. Furthermore, it should be noted that far from being a term used by “racists,” Islamofascism has also been applied to Islam by ex-Muslims and by those of a democratic temperament in Islamic countries. Finally, during the 1930s, many Islamists themselves realized their faith’s affinity to Nazism and made overtures to Hitler, among them al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
I think the evidence of such distinguished historians furnishes adequate justification for the continuing usage of the term Islamofascism.