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The Leftist Debate Over “Islamofascism”

[Note: This post is Stephen Schwartz's take on an ongoing Jewcy debate between Jamie Kirchick and Ali Eteraz about the legitimacy of the term "Islamofascism." Read Kirchick's original post; Eteraz's reply to it; Kirchick's second post; Eteraz's reply to it.] … Read More

By / November 2, 2007

[Note: This post is Stephen Schwartz's take on an ongoing Jewcy debate between Jamie Kirchick and Ali Eteraz about the legitimacy of the term "Islamofascism." Read Kirchick's original post; Eteraz's reply to it; Kirchick's second post; Eteraz's reply to it.]

I claim to have originated the term “Islamofascist” as a description of present-day jihadists. “Islamofascism” was previously used, most notably, by the British scholar Malise Ruthven to denote Arab dictatorships, i.e. in a completely different context. Writing from Washington in The Spectator (London), a week after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I intended to compare Al-Qaida with the threat of the Axis to the democracies during the 1930s, and the need to unite against the terrorists. I presumed that a common front would bring leftists and liberals together with conservatives, as it did in America in 1941, but leftists and liberals did not figure prominently in my thinking. The concept was not specifically aimed at leftists and liberals, and thus my own discourse about Islamofascism did not comprise an appeal to the left.

Rather, my formulation had emerged from my discussions with Muslims in America, in the Balkans, and by e-mail around the world, about Saudi-financed Wahhabism. These Muslims referred to the Wahhabis as “fascists in religious disguise.” Any consideration of leftists and liberals in discussing Wahhabis as Islamofascists was a secondary, if not a purely unconscious aspect of my thought process. The Muslims I then knew disliked leftist politics, and I was mainly concerned with Muslims.

In writing my book The Two Faces of Islam, however, I tried to develop the theory of Islamofascism in political and sociological terms. Last year, at TCSDaily.com, as reposted at the Weekly Standard website, I published a text titled “What is Islamofascism?” There I argued, “Political typologies should make distinctions, rather than confusing them, and Islamofascism is neither a loose nor an improvised concept. It should be employed sparingly and precisely. [Radical Islamist] movements should be treated as Islamofascist, first, because of their congruence with the defining characteristics of classic fascism, especially in its most historically-significant form – German National Socialism.”

Further on, I wrote, “Islamofascism [like Nazism] pursues its aims through the willful, arbitrary, and gratuitous disruption of global society, either by terrorist conspiracies or by violation of peace between states. Al-Qaida has recourse to the former weapon; Hezbollah, in assaulting northern Israel, used the latter. These are not acts of protest, but calculated strategies for political advantage through undiluted violence…

“Fascism rested, from the economic perspective, on resentful middle classes, frustrated in their aspirations and anxious about loss of their position. The Italian middle class was insecure in its social status; the German middle class was completely devastated by the defeat of the country in the First World War. Both became irrational with rage at their economic difficulties; this passionate and uncontrolled fury was channeled and exploited by the acolytes of Mussolini and Hitler. Al-Qaida is based in sections of the Saudi, Pakistani, and Egyptian middle classes fearful, in the Saudi case, of losing their unstable hold on prosperity – in Pakistan and Egypt, they are angry at the many obstacles, in state and society, to their ambitions. The constituency of Hezbollah is similar: the growing Lebanese Shia middle class, which believes itself to be the victim of discrimination.

“Fascism was imperialistic; it demanded expansion of the German and Italian spheres of influence. Islamofascism has similar ambitions; the Wahhabis and their Pakistani and Egyptian counterparts seek control over all Sunni Muslims in the world, while Hezbollah projects itself as an ally of Syria and Iran in establishing regional dominance.

“Fascism was totalitarian; i.e. it fostered a totalistic world view – a distinct social reality that separated its followers from normal society. Islamofascism parallels fascism by imposing a strict division between Muslims and alleged unbelievers. For Sunni radicals, the practice of takfir – declaring all Muslims who do not adhere to the doctrines of the Wahhabis, Pakistani Jama’atis, and the Muslim Brotherhood to be outside the Islamic global community or ummah – is one expression of Islamofascism. For Hezbollah, the posture of total rejectionism in Lebanese politics – opposing all politicians who might favor any political negotiation with Israel – serves the same purpose. Takfir, or ‘excommunication’ of ordinary Muslims, as well as Hezbollah’s Shia radicalism, are also important as indispensable, unifying psychological tools for the strengthening of such movements.

“Fascism was paramilitary; indeed, the Italian and German military elites were reluctant to accept the fascist parties’ ideological monopoly. Al-Qaida and Hezbollah are both paramilitary.

“I do not believe these characteristics are intrinsic to any element of the faith of Islam.”

I would add to this two supplemental notes. First, my method in analyzing Islamofascism was not original – it is derived from Trotsky’s writings on the menace of Nazism. But the influence of Trotsky as a historical and political thinker is not dependent on allegiance to socialism, much less Bolshevism.

Second, in response to a query from Christopher Hitchens, I would add that Wahhabism shares with German Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese imperialism a theory of racial superiority – as every Muslim knows, Wahhabis believe that only Arabs are real Muslims, only Saudis are real Arabs, and only Najdis – from the desert region in which Wahhabism appeared – are real Saudis.

I emphasize that none of my commentary on this topic was or is directed to the left or aimed at influencing the left. The discussion of Islamofascism has, in effect, been hijacked by leftists, such that many who take up the matter now assume that given my Trotskyist background, and interest in Trotsky as a historical personality, the theory of Islamofascism was conceived as a political gambit to summon left-liberal support to the war on terror.

I was and remain indifferent to the views of leftists and liberals about Islamofascism because I have completely given up on the left and liberals in general as agents of positive change. I broke with the left openly in 1984 over Nicaragua, and their support for the Soviet-imperialist Sandinistas. Between then and now a series of other lessons in disaffection was reinforced for me by the American left. I was prominent in the Newspaper Guild, as I had previously been active in transportation unions, but watched as a labor organization dedicated to improved income, conditions, and job security was transformed into an ideological agency fixated on concentration of media ownership and other “progressive” issues. Politics has always been the death of effective trade-unionism, and there is no substantial labor movement in America today. In the absence of strong unions, there is no real left. Nor, of course, is there a basis for strong unions in the situation of industry, which has declined as an effect of the information revolution and rise of the world market. The unions have failed to grasp the challenge of organizing information workers or acting on a global level; rather, they have turned to the narcotic of protectionism. But none of these lacunae can be filled by the blandishments of leftist ideology, especially that sheltered in the Western academy.

My final loss of respect for the left and liberals came during the Yugoslav wars. I went to Bosnia-Hercegovina beginning in 1991, working (and living) there and in Kosovo during various periods from 1997 to 2001, and returning there repeatedly since 2003. I witnessed American and other foreign leftists siding with the Milosevic regime in its program of fascist aggression, and then observed the “politically-correct” policies imposed on the prostrated Balkan Muslim territories by the United Nations as well as representatives of the Clinton administration. UN and European Union administration, with American support, kept the murderous Serb terrorists in control of two-thirds of Bosnia and still deny independence to Kosovo, which is currently threatened by revived Serb violence. How can one consider “progressive” those who cannot tell the Bosnian and Albanian victims from the Serb aggressors? I also experienced the absurd process by which American liberals and social-democrats associated themselves with the bogus anti-Milosevic “revolution” in Serbia in 2000. I published a short meditation on that misadventure titled “Nausea,” but paraphrasing Camus rather than Sartre.

I could expatiate on this turn in modern political history, but that should wait for another time. I remain a defender of the oppressed, but I no longer believe at all in liberal clichés. The war in Iraq has reinforced my indifference to, and insistence on the irrelevance of, leftist and liberal rhetoric. As if these life-changing events were insufficient, I have lived to see a widespread propaganda emerge condemning democracy, in a vocabulary indistinguishable from that employed by the fascists of the 1920s and 1930s. Such nonsense has entered the American mainstream, along with unambiguous Jew-baiting directed against the neoconservatives, and both have been adopted with enthusiasm by the former left and liberals. Today’s true partisans of democracy are found more among the neoconservatives and traditional conservatives than among leftists and liberals.

It is therefore of little or no consequence to me whether leftists and liberals understand the threat of Islamofascism. More than ever, I am almost exclusively concerned with Muslim comprehension of the term, which has been badly misrepresented by Islamist demagogues.

Those who claim that “Islamofascism” is “offensive to Muslim Americans” are complicit in such deceptions. First, the category of “Muslim American” has been confected to transform a religious community, which should be referred to as “American Muslims,” comparable to “American Jews” or “American Christians,” into a presumptive ethnic community aggrieved about discrimination, like “African Americans.” (“Jewish Americans” is acceptable as a reference to those who define Jewishness ethnically, but American Muslims are not ethnically uniform, and nobody would refer to “Catholic-Americans” as if they were members a single culture. “Christian American,” in the past, was a euphemism employed by Jew-baiters and is a precedent Muslims should avoid.)

The only American Muslims offended by the term “Islamofascism” are those to whom it is best applied, i.e. the “Wahhabi lobby” centered on the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). On October 22, the first day of the Islamofascism Awareness Week organized by David Horowitz, 1,000 American Muslims assembled at the Saudi Embassy in Washington to protest “Wahhabi fascism.” They were obviously not offended by the identification of extremist Muslims as fascist. Nor, in the time immediately following 9/11, did one of America’s most strident and extreme Islamist preachers, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, anxious to reinvent himself as a moderate, refrain from telling the Guardian in London, “there are Muslim fascists.”

Perhaps predictably, I agree with Jamie Kirchick’s view that liberals and leftists are conditioned to denounce the term “Islamofascism,” rather than to analyze the Islamofascist phenomenon, out of a misplaced solidarity with Muslims. But I find Ali Eteraz’s response to Kirchick to be fantasy and nothing more. The claim that American academic institutions shelter those “leading the charge against theocracy, anti-semitism, fundamentalism, and disenfranchisement in the Muslim world” is exaggerated, to say the least. The few individuals he enumerates, laudable as they may be, are a tiny minority when compared with the army of apologists for radical Islam found in Middle East Studies departments on American campuses. Further, I am not convinced that Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, Iranian dissidents Akbar Ganji and Haleh Esfandiari, Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud (whose activities are ambiguous and distorted by Western media), Andullahi an-Naim, Rafia Zakaria, Laleh Bakhtiar, or Ziba Mir-Hosseini can all be accurately described as acolytes of the charlatan Edward Said. The diatribe titled Orientalism is not only incomprehensible but amazingly ignorant of Islam – Said even attacked Sufism. Frantz Fanon, whose work had nothing to do with Islam except that he was a guest of the Algerian revolutionaries, is forgotten. And what is the “post-colonial left” but another trivial invention of American academics? I have no reason to believe that any, much less all, of the mentioned figures reject the term “Islamofascism.”

But perhaps they do reject it. If so, so what? I and others, who in the anti-Wahhabi combat may be counted in the millions, do not reject it. Islamic pluralism means that we who love freedom may disagree with one another about theory, typology, and tactics, if we do not disagree in condemning the fascism represented by Saudi Wahhabism, Egyptian and Pakistani-Afghan radicalism, and the Iranian clique of Ahmedinejad. Although I have criticized some allies, and reserve the right to argue with others, we should not consider it more important to dispute with our associates in the battle against the extremists than to defeat the terrorists. But only a few leftists and liberals have so far proven their commitment to such a victory over Islamist violence.

Few hate Stalinism more than I, but I would never criticize Churchill and Roosevelt for their wartime alliance with the Muscovite monster. Various enemies of Islamofascism may anger us by their criticisms of what they perceive in Islam. But the Islamofascists want to kill us. While we keep our mouths wide open, yelling our disagreements with those also under terrorist attack, a sword is being sharpened for our necks. Let me add that one of the speakers at the aforementioned October 22 Muslim rally against Wahhabi fascism, the Saudi dissident Ali Al-Ahmed, lives in the U.S., but has been threatened with beheading on a Saudi website.

I believe Islamofascism will be defeated by Saudi Sufis, Shias and other non-Wahhabi Muslims, who are pressing King Abdullah to break the official links between the Wahhabi clerics and the monarchy; anti-Wahhabis in other Gulf states; Iranian reformist intellectuals and Sufis; Iraqi Shia opponents of the Khomeinist state system in Iran, and Iraqi Sunni enemies of Al-Qaida; Algerians and Egyptians who survived Islamist terror; Balkan Sufis and traditional Hanafi Muslims confronting Wahhabi infiltrators; Turkish Alevis opposed to the Sunnicentric AK party regime; Sufis and traditionalists in West Africa, Sudan, Kurdistan, Central Asia, and southeast Asia, and the brave opponents of Wahhabis, other takfiris, and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And Western help is crucial in this war, as in earlier wars against tyranny.

But few of these Muslim heroes have heard, or care about, Edward Said or his peers. Few people in the West, including self-important Muslim bloggers, know or care about them. Many are ordinary peasants, village clerics, and local shaykhs. Some are Shias well-versed in Western as well as Islamic philosophy. But they know what Islamofascism is because they have faced it, and their opinion counts most. The left and liberals long ago ceased to advocate for such people, and instead placed all their confidence in the Western academic elite, i.e in themselves and those who aspire to become like them. Academic leftists, yearning for the ‘60s, are as repellent as old rock stars; they are to politics what Mick Jagger is to pop music – pathetically believing they are immortal. I am sorry, but I do not eat that bread.

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