Saturday, September 09, 2006

Fascism and "Islamofascism"

Fascism is an epithet easily thrown around in general discourse and extremely frustrating for serious scholarship, and for a simple reason. No one really knows what fascism is. Communism, as an intellectual movement, wrote its own sacred scriptures and had clearly defined articles of faith. Fascism, deeply anti-intellectual, never established a clear creed. As a transnational movement, Communism had an elaborate international organization that (at times) would even determine the bona fides of anyone claiming to be a Communist. Fascism, profoundly nationalistic, never established a single organization.

Which raises the question of Islamofascism. What is this fascism, anyhow? And is Islamofascism a legitimate concept?

The term "Islamofascism" is often cynically used to lump together disparate phenomena and falsly imply an alliance between Baathists (particularly Saddam Hussein) and the jihadis. But that still begs the question of whether Islamic extremists can be legitimately called fascists. And that necessarily requires a definition of fascism.

Perhaps the clearest characteristic about fascism is its extreme nationalism. In historical, European fascism, this was a secular nationalism. Can fascism take the form of a sort of religious nationalism instead? I have described Bin Laden as a religious nationalist in the past. Clearly what fascism, Islamic fanaticism and, to a considerable extent, Communism have in common is an us versus them mentality. We are good, they are evil, morality is whatever advances "us" against "them," and any moral scruples about methods are simply weakness. But each of these ideologies identifies a different "us." In fascism "we" are a nationality and specifically a nation state. In Communism "we" are a social class (and its sympathizers). In jihadism "we" are a religion.

Communism, theoretically at least, rejected the nation state. Marx dreamed of the day when the state would "wither away." The working class, it was said, had no nation, meaning that the working class owed no loyalty to the nation state because the state was merely the instrument of the ruling classes. The proletariat's loyalty was supposed to be, first, to an international brotherhood of labor and, later, to an international organization of Communist parties. In practice, telling Communists to place loyalty to their party above loyalty to their nation state ultimately came to mean being loyal to the Soviet nation state instead of their own.

Islamic radicalism, likewise, does not necessarily think in terms of the nation state. Juan Cole had a link to an analyst making this point by review of Islamicists' writings, but I cannot find the link. The point, however, was that the nation state is not their primary frame of reference. If they can seize control of a nation state (like Afghanistan), fine and good. If not, they will establish Islamic rule in whatever enclave they can control. Establishing Islamic rule over whatever they control, rather than worrying about whether they control an entire nation-state that is the focus. And, of course, Islamicists have no regard for national boundaries. They may stage attacks in one nation state to retaliate for events that took place in another.

Fascism, on the other hand, focuses specifically on the nation state. It is notable for specifically identifying the nation (in the sense of the collective people or volk) with the state (in the sense of the government and its coercive power). Nation and state are strongly identified and aggrandizing one means aggrandizing the other. And fascism seeks national aggrandizement.

European fascism, unlike Communism, does not make atheism and article of faith, but unlike Islamic radicalism, it was generally a secular movement. In part, this was no doubt simply because fascism was the product of secular times in which the nation state had superceded the church as the primary object of people's loyalty. Furthermore, the nationalism of fascism is incompatible with the universalism of Christianity or (in Japan) Buddhism (or, at least in theory, Islam). But fascism did seek to harness religion to its purposes. Hitler tried to establish a sort of German paganism as the religion of Nazism. Japanese militarists set out to coopt tradtional Japanese folk Shinto (a harmless nature worship) into a religion of militant nationalism. Mussolini, on the other hand, sought reconciliation with the Pope, although one can wonder how much he was actually seeking to coopt the univeral Catholic Church into the Church of Rome. And the Ustasha of Croatia declared Catholic holy war against Jews and Eastern Orthodox Serbs, yet let Muslims participate in their holy war as junior partners because they were considered true Croats!

In none of these cases was the religious aspect of fascism primary. Yet I believe there is more at work here than fear that universal religions will undermine nationalism. I believe that fascism, like Communism, feared existing religion, even in secular times, as a rival for people's loyalty. Communism responded by seeking to suppress religion. Fascism responded by seeking to coopt religion. Especially in the case of Japan, fascists tried to fuse and subordinate religion to nationalism. And thus I would set forth, as a tentative proposal for a definition of fascism, "worship of one's nation state."

This is, as I say, only a tentative proposal and open to criticism. But fascism is to be defined as worship of one's nation state, then Islamic radicalism clearly does not qualify as fascist. Islamic radicalism unequivocally subordinates the nation state to religion.

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