Cole, fascism, and mind quality control

Over at Sandstorm, I have a column on the intellectual history of the Islamism-fascism comparison in the social sciences. The comparison wasn’t born in the White House, but has a long academic pedigree. There I quote Michigan professor Juan Cole’s denunciation of “the lazy conflation of Muslim fundamentalist movements with fascism.” But there was nothing lazy in the “conflations” made by Manfred Halpern, Maxime Rodinson, and Said Amir Arjomand, who spent a lot more time vetting their ideas than blog-hurried Cole spends vetting his.

The full Cole quote provides but one more example:

The lazy conflation of Muslim fundamentalist movements with fascism cannot account for their increasing willingness to participate in elections and serve in parliamentary government. Hizbullah, for example, ran in the 2005 elections and had 12 members elected to parliament. Altogether, the Shiite parties of Hizbullah and Amal, who have a parliamentary alliance, have 29 members in the Lebanese parliament of 128 seats. Hizbullah and Amal both joined the national unity government, receiving cabinet posts. This is not the behavior of a fascist movement tout court.

Tout court? How about applying this to a certain Israeli party that has participated in elections, served in parliamentary government, joined parliamentary alliances and national unity governments, and received cabinet posts? A party that has even surrendered power to its opponents in free elections? This can’t be the behavior of a fascist movement, right?

Wrong, if that party is the Likud, and our analytical guide is Cole. “Likud’s real roots lie not in the Bible but in Zionist Revisionism of the Jabotinsky sort, which is frankly a kind of fascism,” Cole has written. He has described the party as “the proto-fascist Likud Party,” and its previous government as “the aggressive, expansionist, proto-fascist Likud Coalition.” So here we have a peculiar kind of science, in which one set of criteria is applied to the Muslims, tout court, and a completely separate set is applied to the Jews.

Of course, Cole’s opening premise is absurd. No one who has read and understood a college world history textbook would argue that a movement’s participating in elections or accepting cabinet posts is overwhelming evidence that it isn’t fascist. Both the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany contested elections before seizing power. But Cole’s grasp of world history is so light that he’s perfectly capable of forgetting this for at least as long as it takes to write a paragraph, especially if doing so serves his polemical purpose.

Not only is Cole unable to define fascism in a way recognizable to any historian of Europe (where it first arose), he doesn’t even apply his own definition consistently in the Middle East. This is what Yale political scientist Steven Smith must have meant when he said that Cole’s blog “opened people’s eyes as to who this guy was, and what his views were…. It allowed us to see something about the quality of his mind.”