Thursday, November 1, 2007

'“Islamofascism”: The Failure of a Concept'

By Gary Leupp ∙ Dissident Voice ∙ November 1, 2007

The Louisiana politician Huey Long declared in the 1930s that “Fascism will come to America in the name of anti-fascism” and “in the name of national security.” I don’t think we’re there yet, but there are some fascist-like forces mobilizing, and they’re doing so in the name of protecting American Judeo-Christian civilization from a phantom they’ve conjured up called “Islamofascism.” (Variants include Islamo-Fascism, Islamo-fascism, Islamic fascism, etc.)

They want to make it a household word, sliding easily off the tongue, interchangeable with the more familiar “Islam” or inadequately frightening “Islamism.” (The
latter alludes to specifically political Islam, including variants of it that—like the political evangelical Christianity in this country—are non-violent.) They want the media to embrace it, and politicians beginning with president Bush to routinely incorporate it into their rhetoric. They want academics to promote the concept of a specifically Muslim form of that evil phenomenon that emerged in war-exhausted Europe in the 1920s-30s and which in its principle expressions (in Italy, Germany, Spain, Hungary) had some distinctly Christian features. They’re throwing millions of dollars into a propaganda effort to popularize a concept that isn’t just politically and intellectually tendentious but calculated to vilify more targets (indeed any Muslim target) for attack.

The real (Americo-)fascists staged an early Halloween event last week, all dressed up as anti-fascists, made up as compassionate conservatives deeply disturbed by Muslim misogyny. They went door to door—or rather campus to campus—trick-or-treating, trying to scare. Their so-called “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” undertaken by well-funded, extreme-right ideologues, featuring such cartoon characters as Ann Coulter and Rick Santorum and deploying student brown shirts to lead their way, was amusing in its childishness but like most Halloween events rather spooky. They want to scare. That’s the whole point.

The scare tactics involve the promotion of the notion that we’re back in the 1930s, and a Hitler is again undertaking a program of genocide. The fear-mongering propaganda program includes the following components:

1. The promotion of a certain interpretation of modern history, according to which, having defeated fascism in World War II, and communism in the Cold War, the West now in Bush’s “War on Terror” confronts a new, terrifying global “ism”—Islamofascism—that must meet with the same sort of heroic resistance. Some pronounce this most recent war as World War III, others World War IV. (Bush personally seems to want to apply the “World War III” designation to an upcoming confrontation he apparently seeks to provoke with Iran.)

2. The disparagement of those questioning this view of the past and present, and those inclined towards a level-headed response to the various forms of Islamic militancy, as “appeasers” analogous to those who failed to challenge Hitler during his rise to power.

3. The specific vilification of Iran, involving

  • the depiction of the Islamic Republic of Iran as the new Nazi Germany
  • the depiction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new Hitler,
  • the representation of the Iranian nuclear energy program as a primarily military one, and
  • the accusation that Iran’s nuclear energy program is designed to inflict a “nuclear holocaust” and “wipe Israel off the map.”

  • One finds this fear-mongering mix of loaded terms, fringe theorizing, unsubstantiated accusations and deliberate disinformation among other places in Norman Podhoretz’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal praying for the bombing of Iran. It’s nonsense—but frighteningly influential nonsense, peddled by right-wing think tanks and articulated by pundits treated with respect on mainstream news channels. (It may be having an effect. A recent Zogby poll shows 52% of Americans now favoring an attack on Iran.)

    Podhoretz and fellow neoconservatives have George Bush’s ear, and the president has not only used the term “Islamofascism” but warned of a “nuclear holocaust” if Iran continues to enrich uranium, and in one of his most bizarre press statements to date suggested that Iran might by such activity provoke World War III.

    “We’ve got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve told people that, if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

    He is speaking of a country with cordial ties to all its neighbors, including U.S. client-states Afghanistan and Iraq, and which has not provoked a war in many centuries. Iran’s president has actually not said that he personally, or Iran, wants to destroy Israel, a country with two or three hundred nuclear weapons. Iran according to both the IAEA and CIA is years from having nuclear weapons even if it planned to produce them, and if it used them against Israel the latter and/or U.S. would respond by eradicating the regime responsible along with much of the Iranian civilian population. But no matter that Bush’s charges make no sense (actually prompting Dennis Kucinich to question his mental health). He can depict a regime of pretty much anything having vilified it as Islamofascist.

    Some very well-funded and highly energized proponents of the Iraq invasion and upcoming attacks on other Muslim countries conducted their “Islamofascism Awareness Week” October 22-26. The organizers have predictably claimed that the events on some 114 campuses (down from the 200 they’d earlier predicted) constituted a glorious victory. Extreme right-wing ideologue and principal organizer David Horowitz on his website boasted that the week “witnessed the largest, most successful campus demonstrations by students not associated with the anti-American left in the history of campus protests.” Actually, I’ve seen no evidence for any “campus demonstrations” by Horowitz-inspired, Islamophobic students at all. Rather, I’ve seen reports of reasonable people responding with appropriate revulsion to a campaign based on fear and hate.

    Take Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, for example. When antiwar activists got word—just a few days before the event—that Daniel Pipes would be speaking on campus, posters appeared everywhere exposing this neocon’s history and calling on students, faculty and staff to attend and protest. The Tufts Democrats and progressive faculty members added their names to the flier, and on the evening of the talk a poster protesting hate speech endorsed by practically every religious organization on campus, plus the Tufts Coalition Opposed to the War in Iraq, was circulated and positively received by the great majority of persons in attendance. The student brownshirt introducing Pipes was noticeably shaken by the hostile reception, and Pipes himself seems to have abbreviated his remarks and availability for questions. Almost all of the latter were confrontational.

    Pipes began somewhat disarmingly by stating that he personally did not think the term “Islamofascism” useful, nor did he think Islam itself was the problem. Rather, he targeted “Muslim extremism,” while noting that often Muslim extremists posed as moderates—another way of saying all Muslims are inherently suspect. Among the extremists he included a disparate array of movements and governments, including the Palestinians against whom Israel must not compromise but win “victory.”

    I’ve tried to determine what the necessary components of “Islamofascism” or even “Muslim extremism” might be in the minds of those using the terms so glibly. I wind up with the following:

  • Islam (of any sort).
  • Willingness to use violence to obtain certain ends, not even necessarily religious but maybe political or nationalist (such as ending occupation).
  • Opposition to U.S. policy, particularly towards Middle Eastern countries including Israel
  • Opposition to Israel, particularly Israeli occupation of Arab land

  • Notice how minimalistic these components are.

    One might include support for the implementation of Sharia law, but among the states and movements labeled “Islamofascist” by those promoting the concept there are a wide range of views on that issue. Some like Syria are pointedly secular (as was Saddam’s Iraq) and have harshly suppressed groups they consider extremist. One might include under component 2 specific reference to suicide bombing, but that’s not a feature of all the groups and states targeted by the terminology. Some, Bush included, want to associate the vilified with the idea of a revived Caliphate, but according to the authoritative Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford University Press, 1997), “in practice, there is little sign of any desire to return to the Caliphate” among Muslims. In any case, note that the four characteristics listed above are hardly “fascist” or even “extreme” by definition.

    Lebanon’s Hizbollah is a political party that controls a large bloc in the national parliament, owns broadcasting stations, and provides a range of social services. One can say this of many political parties. It has an armed wing. But so do Lebanon’s Christian Phalangists. It is a Shiite party but has enjoyed widespread support among non-Shiites as well, obtaining enormous popularity during Israel’s attack last summer. It’s often accused of trying to impose Sharia law, but a secular Christian journalist, Joseph Samaha, wrote in 2004, “One would have to be blind not to notice the changes Hezbollah has undergone. Has Hezbollah tried to ban books or impose sharia? Not once. Their electoral program is [an] almost social democratic [one]. So we’re confronting a very different kind of Fundamentalist party.” Hardly sounds “fascist.” Where is the racial theory, the drive to expand territory? (Don’t tell me the drive to recover the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms is an effort to obtain Lebensraum.)

    The Palestinian group Hamas is Sunni. Israel initially encouraged its formation as a Muslim alternative to the secular PLO. It evolved into a violent movement in resistance to occupation, employing such extreme methods as suicide bombings. But it observed unilateral ceasefires with Israel from January 2005 to June 2006, and November 2006 to April 2007, and has offered a 10-year ceasefire if Israel agrees to withdraw to the 1967 borders. Brought to power (if we can speak about power under occupation) in a free election, it is widely respected among the oppressed Palestinians as a moral and efficient alternative to corrupt PLO politicians. Last month leader Ismail Haniyeh’s spokesman stated the group’s willingness to negotiate with Israel, declaring, “The principle of negotiating with the enemy is not legally and religiously rejected” and “Hamas is ready to sit at the negotiating table if it is convinced that a political achievement can be made. But the general impression manifested by the current Israeli policy doesn’t give any positive sign.” These seem like moderate rather than extremist remarks.

    Al-Qaeda is a collection of clandestine cells plotting spectacular acts of violence designed to produce a general all-out war between the (Sunni) Muslim world and the U.S. and its allies. It may succeed in that—in tandem with the neoconservatives in Washington who want to conquer Southwest Asia, encircle China, establish permanent military bases and control the flow of oil from the region.

    If these movements have little in common, neither do the demonized states. The governments of Syria and Iran (those most in the neocons’ crosshairs) are strategically allied, but very different; one a hereditary secular dictatorship that deals harshly with political Islam, the other a Shiite theocratic state with some democratic features such as competitive elections. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan that fell in 2001 was another very different phenomenon; it had features in common with Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries that recognized the Taliban regime. Both apply Sharia law, notoriously stoning women for adultery. But Saudi Arabia is a close U.S. ally, generally exempt from vilification. Even the Taliban regime was initially welcomed by some in Washington, including the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, in recent years U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq. This neocon, as a Rand analyst in October 1996, wrote a Washington Post op-ed urging ties with the regime (in connection with oil pipeline construction) and nothing that it “does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran.”

    No demonization of the Talibs as “Islamofascists” then. No great fuss about the burqa, the ancient female garment in Afghanistan that isn’t specifically Muslim and may indeed have Byzantine origins. (And which, you notice, has not disappeared under the Karzai/warlord regime placed in power by the U.S.) Recall that the Taliban toppled the Northern Alliance forces who had been funded by the CIA all through the 1980s to “bleed the Soviets” and overthrow a secular regime pitted against Muslim extremists. U.S. policy had been to encourage jihadist mentality to defeat a government promoting modern public education, health clinics, and gender equality. Mujahadeen of the Taliban had been involved in that effort too, as well as the Saudi volunteers led by Osama bin Laden!

    The Taliban, even while stoning women in soccer stadiums, blasting away ancient Buddhist statues, and hosting bin Laden (who left Sudan for Afghanistan in a U.S.-backed arrangement in 1996) were receiving aid from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. up to 2001. The forms of “extremism” based on rigid interpretations of Islamic law were seen in Washington (appropriately enough) as internal affairs rather than cause for American fears and military intervention. But these days, allegations of Muslim maltreatment of women and cultural intolerance (which could have been made centuries before the western/capitalist phenomenon of fascism appeared) are being used to demonize and essentialize over a billion people in a heavily warlike atmosphere.

    Designed for that purpose, Islamofascism is a failure as a concept. But it may yet be a success as a propaganda tool—rather like the concept of the “Jewish conspiracy for world domination” widely promoted in the 1930s.

    Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

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