Islam and Fascism

By Philologos

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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Although the terms “Islamic fascism” and “Islamo-fascism” have been around for quite awhile, the public debate over both has been heightened by President Bush’s use of them in an August 7 press conference in Washington, D.C. At one point in this conference, the president mentioned “the jihadist message [of] Islamic radicalism, Islamic fascism.” In another, he spoke of “an ideology that’s real and profound: It’s Islamo-fascism.”

Are these two terms justified? Should they be used? Is one of them more worthy of use than the other?

When one asks the first two of these questions, one is asking two things: a) Is there a genuine resemblance between 20th-century European fascism as manifested in such regimes as Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, and in the fundamentalist regimes and movements in the Muslim world — the Iran of the ayatollahs, the Afghanistan of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah — that have been associated with terror and repression? And, b) Even if the answer to our first question is positive, would it not be better to refrain from such terms as “Islamo-fascism” and “Islamic fascism” because they blame Islam as a whole for the behavior of what is only a minority of its adherents? Are we not unfairly smearing all the world’s Muslims when we use such terms?

The first question, of course, is not essentially a linguistic one. Although the word “fascism,” used as a slur on one’s political opponents, has a long and rich past of abuse, it denotes something specific in the context of European history against which its alleged counterpart in the Muslim world can be measured. And if one is willing to concede a parallel between the fascist rejection of political democracy and its glorification of the Volk, or people, to which the individual and his or her private needs are to be subordinated within a totalitarian structure, and the radical Islamic rejection of political democracy and its glorification of the umma, or community of Muslim believers, which also has the right to dictate totalistic codes of behavior to all its member, there is indeed a likeness between the two ideologies, even if they also differ regarding many things. (Whereas European fascism is unimaginable without an adulated leader, for example, fascism in Islam — witness the Taliban, for example — seems quite capable of dispensing with such a figure.)

But is it nonetheless fair to speak of “Islamo-” or “Islamic” fascism, thereby implicating, it has been argued, all Muslims and all of Islam?

Let’s try to think of a few non-Islamic analogies. Did anybody in the democratic world, back in the 1920s and ’30s, object to the terms “Italian fascism,” “German fascism” and “Spanish fascism” on the grounds that they implicated all Germans, Italians and Spaniards in fascist ideologies? Quite obviously not. No one would have claimed that the term “German fascism” branded every German a fascist, because it clearly did not. It simply designated the particular brand of fascism practiced in Germany as opposed to, say, that practiced in Italy or Spain.

Yet suppose that instead of these terms, one had spoken (as one did not) of “Germano-fascism,” “Italo-fascism” and “Hispano-fascism”? Would this have made a difference?

I think it would have. The hyphenated forms “Germano-,” “Italo-“ and “Hispano-,” like “Afro-,” “Indo-,” “Graeco-,” “Judeo-” and so forth, do not function in quite the same way as do the adjectives “German,” “Italian,” “Spanish,” “African,” “Indian,” “Greek” and “Jewish.” This is because they indicate a degree of fusion with the noun that follows them, and this is not implied by the ordinary adjective.

Take a term such as “Hispano-American,” for instance. It is surely no coincidence that it became popularized at the same time that proponents of multiculturalism were denouncing the idea of the American “melting pot,” for whereas such previous terms as “Spanish Americans” or “Spanish-speaking Americans” clearly implied that the American component of the identity in question was primary and the Spanish component secondary, in “Hispano-American” both components are granted not only equality but also a kind of hybridity. The same would have been true had one spoken in the 1930s of “Hispano-fascism.” The term “Spanish fascism” declares that fascism is fascism and that its Spanish form is simply one more variety of the same basic phenomenon. “Hispano-fascism” would be declaring that there is a unique amalgam of Spanishness and fascism that is unlike any kind of fascism found elsewhere.

If we have to choose between “Islamic fascism” and “Islamo-fascism,” therefore, there is something to be said for each. If I were an ordinary Muslim, I probably would find “Islamic fascism” less offensive, since its message is that while Islam has fascist movements and regimes of its own, these are no more inherently Islamic than “German fascism” is inherently German or than “Italian fascism” is inherently Italian. Yet if I were a historian, I might prefer “Islamo-fascism” because its message is that fascism in Islam is not quite the same as fascism in Europe and needs to be thought of as a unique entity in its own right.

In his August 7 press conference, President Bush, as we have said, used both terms. There are indeed good reasons for finding it hard to choose between them.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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