February 10, 2008

Six experts discuss the legitimacy of the term "Islamo-fascism"

Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, the author of the new book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and the editor of the new anthology, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam , which documents his time working for the extremist Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Bruce Tefft, the Director of CRA's Threat Assessment Center, Khalim Massoud, president of Muslims Against Sharia, an Islamic reform movement (and occasional commenter on Smooth Stone) , Robert Spencer, a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch, Donna Hughes, Professor and Carlson Endowed Chairperson of the University of Rhode Island Women's Studies Program, and Thomas Haidon, a Muslim commentator on human rights, counter-terrorism and Islamic affairs participate in a Frontpage Symposium to discuss, Is the term “Islamo-Fascism” legitimate in terms of defining the enemy we face in the terror war?. Some excerpts:

Hitchens: People like Tony Judt write to me to say in effect that it’s ahistorical and simplistic to do so. And in some media circles another kind of reluctance applies: Alan Colmes thinks that one shouldn’t use the word “Islamic” even to designate jihad, because to do is to risk incriminating an entire religion. He and others don’t want to tag Islam even in its most extreme form with a word as hideous as fascism. Finally, I have seen and heard it argued that the term is unfair or prejudiced, because it isn’t applied to any other religion. This was most recently argued by Patrick J. Buchanan, who asked us how we would have felt if Franklin Roosevelt had described Mussolini, say, as “Christo-fascist”.

Buchanan in his own autobiography describes being raised in a home where the true heroes were Father Coughlin the Jew-baiting priest, General Franco the foe of the Reds and freemasons, and Joseph McCarthy the drink-sodden bigmouth and bigot. That’s why the term “Catholic fascist” or “clerical fascist” used to be so current on the left.

This was to recognize the undeniable fact that, from Spain to Croatia to Slovakia, there was a very direct link between fascism and the Roman Catholic Church. More recently, Yehoshua Leibowitz, editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, coined the term “Judaeo-Nazi” to describe the messianic settlers who moved onto the occupied West Bank after 1967. So there need be no self-pity among Muslims about being “singled out” on this point.

The actual term “Islamofascism” was first used in 1990 in the London Independent by the Anglo-Irish writer Malise Ruthven, who was writing about the way in which traditional Arab dictatorships used religious appeals in order to stay in power. The expression has some respectable antecedents. In his book, The Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa, published by Princeton in 1965, the German scholar Manfred Halpern (himself a refugee from the Third Reich) employed the term “Islamic totalitarian” to characterize the mingled worship of a heroic past with the mobilization of “passion and violence”. Perhaps you suspect Halpern of undue sympathy with Judaism or Zionism? Very well, then, consider Professor Maxime Rodinson, one of the most intransigent critics of the state of Israel. In an exchange with Michel Foucault in the late 1970s, on the subject of the nascent Shi’a theocracy in Iran, Rodinson writing in Le Monde alluded to “a certain type of archaic fascism” taking the form of “an authoritarian and totalitarian state whose political police would brutally enforce the moral and social order.” I didn’t know about all of these for-runners when I employed the term “fascism with an Islamic face” to describe the assault on civil society on 11 September 2001, and to ridicule those who presented the attack as some kind of liberation theology in action. “Fascism with an Islamic face” is meant to summon a dual echo of both Alexander Dubcek and Susan Sontag (if I do say so myself), and in any case it can’t be used for everyday polemical purposes, so the question remains: does bin-Ladinism or Salafism or whatever we agree to call it have anything in common with fascism?

I think yes. The most obvious points of comparison would be these. Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind (“Death to the intellect! Long live death!” as Franco’s accomplice General Mola so pithily phrased it in a debate with Miguel de Unamuno). Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons) and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined “humiliations”, and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader-worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression, especially to the repression of any sexual “deviance”, and to its counterparts: the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence, and burn books and destroy museums and treasures.

Gartenstein-Ross: Hitchens draws an excellent analogy between Fascist and jihadist ideology, and offers a competent rebuttal to various pundits’ objections to comparing the two. However, the question Jamie posed is not whether “Islamofascism” is an appropriate polemical term, or whether it is fair to compare militant Islam to Fascism. Rather, he queried whether the term is “legitimate in terms of defining the enemy we face in the terror war”; indeed, some commentators now use the term this way. My contention is that as a definitional term applied to the enemy, “Islamofascism” is too imprecise and in some ways counterproductive.

Massoud: I define fascism as a totalitarian political ideology with an element of superiority. German fascism’s criterion of superiority was race. Islamic fascism’s criterion of superiority is religion. Otherwise both ideologies are practically identical.

Mr. Gartenstein-Ross says "use of the term 'Islamofascism’ makes it more difficult to work alongside moderate Muslims, who almost uniformly bristle at the phrase." I couldn't disagree more. As long as the user of the term makes a clear distinction between Islam and Islamofascism, moderate Muslims will not be offended by the term. And the ones who are offended are not moderate. In fact, moderate Muslims were the first to widely use this term to describe radicals in Algeria who murdered more than 100,000 of moderate Muslims.
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