Various people are asking Are We Fighting ‘Islamic Fascists’? This in response to the President’s claim that, “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom.” David Ignatius (linked above) says “I have been pondering since [last week] his description of the enemy. What are ‘Islamic fascists,’ and does this phrase make sense in describing America’s adversaries?” Ed Brayton chimes in that, while he isn’t wont to agree with the President, he sees the similarity. I confess that I do think that that makes the phrase sensible.
Both writers point to similarities in the practices of the Taliban or al Qaeda to the Nazis (not so much of a comparison is drawn to Mussolini or Franco). And the similarities are difficult to miss. Here’s the problem. While it’s true that one can find parallels between what we are fighting in Afghanistan and what we fought in Nazi Europe, the parallels don’t match the definitions of the relevant terms. It’s true, as Ignatius points out, that the Nazis and the modern enemy are both anti-semitic, but a pro-semitic fascist is not impossible, certainly not by definition. And non-fascists have certainly been anti-semitic as well, and have been anti-gay, anti-music, anti-women’s suffrage, and anti-literature, all problems that Brayton cites as comparisons. These are not, then, defining traits of the fascist.
It isn’t a sufficient condition for something to be fascist that it be bad. Fascism means something, and we forget what it meant and means at our peril. As Dave Neiwert wrote in his excellent “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism”: “As ‘fascism’ has been bandied about freely, it has come loosely to represent the broader concept of totalitarianism, which of course encompasses communism as well.” The historically minded will recall that communism and fascism were opposing forces. The United States managed to prevent either ideology from gaining a foothold, and while our vigilance against the former can relax, the latter remains a threat in our domestic politics.
Neiwert quotes scholar Roger Griffin, who explains fascism as palingenetic ultranationalist populism, where palingenesis refers to a phoenix-like rebirth. Griffin explains:
If fascism is defined in terms of a core ideology of ultra-nationalism that aspires to bring about the renewal of a nation’s entire political culture, then the picture changes. The features so firmly associated with it in the popular historical imagination cease to be definitional. Instead they can be seen as external and time-bound manifestations of the central ideological driving force that is its only permanent feature: the war against the decadence of society and the struggle for national rebirth.
Fascism was and is an essentially nationalist movement. The fasces were symbols of a united nation. Our enemy is, as we’ve all come to understand, stateless. It may be tribal, but it is transnational and panethnic. In this regard, it is more similar to Marxism than to fascism. Ignatius misses this point in his discussion of fascism as a rejection of transcendence. Yes, there is an element of transcendence that al Qaeda rejects, but it is also a fundamentally transcendent movement. It transcends political boundaries, and idealizes a transcendent set of laws.
What we face in al Qaeda is not fascist, because it is not a nationalistic movement. Nationalism was a tool to rally the middle class, and al Qaeda neither rallies a nation nor a middle class. It draws from the dispossessed of many societies, and in doing so, charts a different course than fascism did. As such it is more dangerous than fascism, because it can spread more readily. Fascism’s nationalistic character means that it must mutate drastically to find a foothold in a new nation. Fascism briefly flourished in the KKK and the Silver Shirts of this country, but could not tap into a broader cultural tradition. A nationalist movement can’t be borrowed from abroad, it must be domestic, and so fascism failed in the US as it did in France.
Islamic totalitarianism (a more correct term, which refers to the vigorous authoritarianism of the fascists, the communists and other movements) has essentially taken over the niche that communist ideology played in the developing world. It represents a way of rejecting the West and the changes that are happening to the developing world. During the Cold War, that’s what communism did. With its collapse, the developing world has found a new ideology to balance against the West. It isn’t fascism now and it wasn’t during the Cold War. It is totalitarian, and deserves opposition. It also deserves to be called what it is.