Originally Published: 8/16/2006
FASCISM and ISLAMO-FASCISM
By The Issue Wonk
George W. Bush has, on several occasions, called terrorists “Islamo-fascists.”
[Islamic terrorist] attacks serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane. Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism. Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam. This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom.1 (October 6, 2005)
This is the beginning of a long struggle against an ideology that is real and profound. It’s Islamo-fascism. It comes in different forms. They share the same tactics, which is to destroy people and things in order to create chaos in the hopes that their vision of the world become predominant in the Middle East.2 (August 7, 2006)
What does “Islamo-fascism” mean? First we need to find out what “fascism” means.
According to my 1968 Webster’s New World Dictionary, fascism is: “a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized government control, belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism.” Can terrorist organizations be characterized as fascist? They are not governments. They do not engage in private economic enterprise. One might be able to argue that they engage in racism, but it appears that they are more religion-oriented than race-oriented. And while their terrorist activities may be organized under a military-style hierarchy, it cannot be said that they are truly “military” except in a rag-tag sort of way.
Is there any way that “fascism” applies to terrorist organizations? Berlet3 talks about fascism in terms of what they are against, more than what they want. He says the earliest fascists loathed the social theories of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” He states that these mean:4
Liberty from oppressive government intervention in the daily lives of its citizens, from illicit searches and seizures, from enforced religious values, from intimidation and arrest for dissenters; and liberty to cast a vote in a system in which the majority ruled but the minority retained certain inalienable rights.
Equality in the sense of civic equality, egalitarianism, the notion that while people differ, they all should stand equal in the eyes of the law.
Fraternity in the sense of the brotherhood of mankind. That all women and men, the old and the young, the infirm and the healthy, the rich and the poor, share a spark of humanity that must be cherished on a level above that of the law, and that binds us all together in a manner that continuously re-affirms and celebrates life.
Given these hallmarks of democratic civilization, Islamic governments might be viewed as “fascist,” particularly as interpreted by the likes of the Taliban, and one might interpret Islamic terrorist movements as efforts to establish “fascist” governments. But are the organizations themselves fascist? One can hardly get around the problem of fascism being a form of government and that, according to Berlet,4 “One virtually unique aspect of fascism is its ruthless drive to attain and hold state power.” [Emphasis added.]
What does a fascist government look like? Britt5 analyzed 7 fascist regimes – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. He found 14 common threads that link these regimes:
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism . . . was always obvious. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes . . . usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. The regimes themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. The methods of choice – relentless propaganda and disinformation – were usually effective. Often the regimes would incite “spontaneous” acts against the target scapegoats, usually communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other religions, secularists, homosexuals, and “terrorists.” Active opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.
4. Supremacy of the military/avid militarism. Ruling elites always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite.
5. Rampant sexism. Beyond the simply fact that the political elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.
6. A controlled mass media. Under some of the regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media orthodoxy. Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. The leaders of the mass media were often politically compatible with the power elite. The result was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’ excesses.
7. Obsession with national security. Inevitably, a national security apparatus was under direct control of the ruling elite. It was usually an instrument of oppression, operating in secret and beyond any constraints. Its actions were justified under the rubric of protecting “national security,” and questioning its activities was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.
8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. Unlike communist regimes, the fascist and protofascist regimes were never proclaimed as godless by the opponents. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug. Propaganda kept up the illusion that the ruling elites were defenders of the faith and opponents of the “godless.” A perception was manufactured that opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.
9. Power of corporations protected. Although the personal life of ordinary citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations to operate in relative freedom was not compromised. The ruling elite saw the corporate structure as a way to not only ensure military production (in developed states), but also as an additional means of social control. Members of the economic elite were often pampered by the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality of interests, especially in the repression of “have-not” citizens.
10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. Since organized labor was seen as the one power center that could challenge the political hegemony of the ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or made powerless. The poor formed an underclass, viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. Under some regimes, being poor was considered akin to a vice.
11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema to these regimes. Intellectual and academic freedom were considered subversive to national security and the patriotic ideal. Universities were tightly controlled; politically unreliable faculty harassed or eliminated. Unorthodox ideas or expressions of dissent were strongly attacked, silenced, or crushed. To these regimes, art and literature should serve the national interest or they had no right to exist.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment. Most of these regimes maintained Draconian systems of criminal justice with huge prison populations. The police were often glorified and had almost unchecked power, leading to rampant abuse. “Normal” and political crime were often merged into trumped-up criminal charges and sometimes used against political opponents of the regime. Fear, and hatred, of criminals or “traitors” was often promoted among the population as an excuse for more police power.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Those in business circles and close to the power elite often used their position to enrich themselves. This corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of government favoritism. Members of the power elite were in a position to obtain vast wealth from other sources as well: for example, by stealing national resources. With the national security apparatus under control and the media muzzled, this corruption was largely unconstrained and not well understood by the general population.
14. Fraudulent elections. Elections in the form of plebiscites or public opinion polls were usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite.
While terrorist groups do bear some of the earmarks of fascism, lacking government status still makes it difficult to view these terrorist groups as fascist rather than as militant religious extremists. They are not governments, so there can be no nationalism, no mass media to control, no national security to obsess over, no corporations to advance and protect, no criminal justice system to abuse, and no elections. Since the basic tenants of fascism are missing, there is no clear connection between Islamic terrorist groups and fascism. However, some Islamic governments (e.g., the Taliban of Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) could be defined as fascist. But once again, the term is currently being applied to terrorist groups, not governments. So, what is the rationale for the term “Islamo-fascist?” Perhaps it lies not in the groups themselves but in their goal to establish fascists governments.
Some point to an Islamic terrorist goal of a worldwide “caliphate” subject to a Taliban-like Shari’a law as a reason for calling them fascists.6,7,8 Bush (see above) says that Islamo-fascists call for a “violent and political vision: the establishment, by terrorism, subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom.” Ledeen9 sites the Islamic fundamentalist schools, called “madrasas,” as evidence of suppression of intellectual activity and the almost universal Islamic practice of subjugation of women as evidence of Islamo-fascism. And Richard Webster10 believes that the one principle that unites all Islamic countries, groups, and factions is their hatred of the Jews.
Joe Sobran11 calls the term “Islamo-fascist” more of an “invective than a useful term of identification.” He asks, “But what’s fascistic about al-Qaeda, unless ‘fascist’ just means ‘a form of politics I don’t like,’ which doesn’t take us very far toward understanding what it is?” He says:
It’s more an expression of disapproval than a dispassionate and objective definition. And it hardly applies to al-Qaeda, which doesn’t seem to combine “state and business leadership.” What grounds are there for thinking al-Qaeda aspires to “dictatorship?” It’s chief announced goal – which we have little reason to doubt – is to drive the U.S. Government out of the Middle East. You may reject both that goal and the methods used to achieve it, but that doesn’t make it fascistic, unless you’re using “fascism” as an all-purpose synonym for “nasty.”
How do Muslims view the use of this term? Milaninia12 says:
By identifying any war with any faith Bush makes the misguided and dangerous move of association. Bush’s new classification does not make the enemy any more clearer (sic), it makes (sic) confuses and conflates the notions of Islam and fascism together. It makes the superficial claim that terrorism is rooted in one religion, rather then (sic) looking at social and political issue(s) that transcend across all acts of terrorism.
Whether use of the term is accurate, partially accurate, or completely inaccurate is not of as much concern as is the ramification of its use. It certainly can be construed as an epithet used to associate Muslims with Nazis, which can only inspire hatred and fear of a religious group viewed as “the other” by most Americans – an outcome that is, in itself, a fascist trait.
1 President Discusses War on Terror at National Endowment for Democracy, October 6, 2005. White House.
2 President Bush and Secretary of State Rice Discuss the Middle East Crisis. August 7, 2006. White House.
3 Chip Berlet is a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and has spent over 25 years studying prejudice, demonization, scapegoating, demagoguery, conspiracism, and authoritarianism. He has investigated far right hate groups, reactionary backlash movements, theocratic fundamentalism, civil liberties violations, police misconduct, government and private surveillance abuse, and other anti-democratic phenomena. (See Public Eye)
4 Berlet, Chip. What is Fascism? (September 27, 1992) From NLG Civil Liberties Committee. (See Remember.org)
5 Britt, Laurence W. Fascism Anyone? Free Inquiry Magazine, 23(2), Spring 2003.
6 Gaffney, Frank J., Jr. Don’t go there, Mrs. Hughes. Jewish World Review, August 30, 2005.
7 Vincent, Steven. Rootless, Grandiose and Islamofascist. Front Page Magazine, October 26, 2004.
8 Ehrenfeld, Rachel & Lappen, Alyssa A. The Trust About the Muslim Brotherhood. Front Page Magazine, June 16, 2006.
9 Ledeen, Michael. Fear of Funning: The Cheerless Oppressors. National Review Online, October 11, 2005.
10 Webster, Richard. Israel, Palestine & the Tiger of Terrorism: Anti-Semitism and History. New Statesman, November 29, 2002.
11 Sobran, Joe. Words in Wartime. November 11, 2004.
12 Milaninia, Nema. How “Islamo-fascism” is the Pretext for Islamic Discrimination. Iranian Truth, October 23, 2005.
© The Issue Wonk, 2006