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Blog // Thoughts
November 7, 2007

Interesting Language Part Two: Islamo-Fascism

‚Äú‚Ķwhat we see at the moment is an attempt to interpret our present predicament in a rather caricatured World War II idiom. I mean, “Islamofascism” illustrates the point well, because it’s a completely misleading concept. In fact, there’s virtually no overlap between the ideology of al Qaeda and fascism. It’s just a way of making […]

‚Äú‚Ķwhat we see at the moment is an attempt to interpret our present predicament in a rather caricatured World War II idiom. I mean, “Islamofascism” illustrates the point well, because it’s a completely misleading concept. In fact, there’s virtually no overlap between the ideology of al Qaeda and fascism. It’s just a way of making us feel that we’re the “greatest generation” fighting another World War, like the war our fathers and grandfathers fought. You’re translating a crisis symbolized by 9/11 into a sort of pseudo World War II. So, 9/11 becomes Pearl Harbor and then you go after the bad guys who are the fascists, and if you don’t support us, then you must be an appeaser.‚Äù
Niall Ferguson – Insights for Contemporary Policies

If it were not for Fox News, then there’s a good chance I’d have lived blissfully unaware of something called Islamo-Fascism awareness week. Maybe that would have been a good thing.

Islamo-Fascism has become something of a buzzword amongst some conservative commentators. The consensus seems to be that whatever it is we are supposed to be fighting in the “War On Terror 2.0,” it is apparently inspired by Islamo-Fascism. I use the provisional language not just because I’m highly suspicious the term, but also because it seems to be defined in very loose and ambiguous ways. Sean Hannity regularly suggests that extremists are Fascistic because they use violence to achieve their political aims. David Horowitz outright called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “Nazi.”

I’ve already addressed the asinine use of the term Nazi. When we through these kinds of terms (Nazi, Fascist, Communist, Anarchist) around without paying any attention to their historical roots we do ourselves and our debates a great disservice. In effect we divorce language from historical reality and open the way to divorcing language from truth.

Clearly Iran, whatever its faults may be, is not a “Nazi” state. Moreover, Fascists do not and have never held a monopoly on the use of violence as a political tool. Finally, not all groups, movements or states that invoke the name of Islam for their cause share a common agenda. As Sarah Chayes makes clear in The Punishment of Virtue,

‚ÄúHowever, there is an important distinction that I began to discern as I poured over this issue during those early months of 2003. It is the distinction between global agendas and local ones. Pakistani officials‚Äô support for and manipulation of extremist factions seemed to be essentially local and tactical – the manipulation of religious ideology for ends that were not fundamentally ideological. Some of these officials must have been moved on a personal level by international holy war convictions. The government certainly tapped into the vocabulary of those convictions in order to win recruits. But in substance, it did not appear to me that Islamabad was embarked on an Al-Qaeda-style global jihadi movement. Pakistani officials‚Äô aim was not not to bring the world under an Islamist government of even to cut ties with the West; rather, their goals were consistently regional and temporal – maintaining an upper hand in the regional balance of power, especially vis-?†-vis India‚Ķ

It is this distinction between global and local agendas that explains how Pakistan has been able to play Washington so deftly since the Taliban demise. Every few months, the Pakistani government has caught and turned over an Al-Qaeda figure, as though throwing the United States a bone, while continuing to abet the Taliban insurgents who are aiming rocket launchers as U.S. soldiers, aid workers, and loyal Afghans inside Afghanistan.”
Sarah Chayes – The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

Broad brushstroke terms like “Islamo-Fascism” blur the important distinctions that need to be made between regional and global aims, between outright ideological motivations and cynical use of ideology of political gain. These are the distinctions we need to make in order to understand our world today and to support the kinds of policies that will make our world a safer place.

Of course, Fascism itself is a famously slippery term to define. Salazar, Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and Horty were very different leaders with, at times, incompatible agendas. In part what makes Fascism difficult to define is that it tended to arise from very specific local politics and debates about national identity. Add to the that the way Fascism evolved during the second world war from localist politics to a more International agenda.

What gets missed, of course, is the how and why behind the evolution of Fascism, especially in the years between the wars – the perceived failures of capitalism, democracy and the lingering power of politically unaccountable elites. It was an era or extreme totalitarian proposals to reality of miserable working conditions, mass unemployment and destroyed savings. Fascism was the alternative choice to communism, representing a different collectivist answer to the rampantly individualistic idea of lassie faire capitalism and a different notion of human flourishing.

That said, what frames the term Fascist for most people today is a consequence of the Second World War and particularly, the Holocaust. Fascism has become a by-word for excessive state-control, for expansionist government and for anti-Semitism. This as a crude insult (in the sense of Godwin’s law) has some little cache, but on a deeper level speaks to an ideological ‚Äúneed‚Äù to connect our current malaise to some great global conflict – like WWII.

‚Äú‚Ķ I don’t think, in fact, 9/11 bares the slightest relation to Pearl Harbor. How long have you got? We could go through it point by point. It’s clearly something very, very different. I think this language is being used mendaciously to play on the very strong pull that World War II still has on our emotions.

I’m fascinated by the fact that the most popular computer games among young males include to an extraordinary extent World War II games. They’re vastly more popular than any other history context game that proliferate. In a way, I see this in my young sons’ gaming habits. They’re fascinated by Medal of Honor, and I’m trying to persuade them to adopt a more sophisticated game called The Calm of the Storm, which actually is a historically well-informed game.

But we are drawn to World War II, and therefore when politicians want to make us feel that we’re fighting the good fight, that we’re on the side of the angels, they can use World War II era language and distort our predicament. As a historian, my only possible response to that is to run around writing books, op-eds, and doing television interviews, trying to persuade people that “Islamofascism” is a fantasy. If anything, bin Laden is more like Lenin than he is like Hitler, because he’s got a vision of international revolution, he’s certainly an anti-capitalist, he’d like to undermine the United States partly by economic means, he’s very good at recruiting what Lenin used to call “useful idiots,” too. So, there’s a parallel to be drawn, but I think it’s more with Bolshevism, pre-1917 Bolshevism, which was, in many ways, a terrorist network of extreme Communists. That’s a useful parallel but of course, it has much less moral salience than the “Islamofascist” clich?©.”
Niall Ferguson – Insights for Contemporary Policies

Next time round – Appeasement.

[tags] Islamo-Fascism [/tags]

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