Islamism and Fascism: Dare to Compare

On Tuesday of last week, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) entered the fray over the Bush Administration’s description of the enemy as “Islamic fascism.” (Bush first used the phrase on August 7, and other top officials have followed suit.) Feingold:

I call on the President to stop using the phrase “Islamic Fascists,” a label that doesn’t make any sense, and certainly doesn’t help our effort to fight terrorism. Fascist ideology doesn’t have anything to do with the way global terrorist networks think or operate, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world who practice the peaceful teachings of Islam.

At the White House press briefing last Wednesday, Tony Snow came to the defense of the President, after a journalist read him a dictionary definition of fascism. “It doesn’t quite seem to fit what we’re talking about,” said the journalist. “Well, it actually does fit,” replied Snow.

I haven’t used the phrase myself, and I generally prefer Islamism or jihadism, depending on the context. But I can’t rise up against the use of Islamic fascism with the righteous indignation mustered by, say, Michigan professor Juan Cole, who’s denounced the “lazy conflation of Muslim fundamentalist movements with fascism.” My reason is that this conflation, or comparison, has had some rigorous champions within Middle Eastern studies over the years. It didn’t originate in the Bush White House; it has a long pedigree including some pioneering social scientists. These scholars, who knew rather more than Senator Feingold about both Islamism and fascism, did think the comparison made sense. I’ll let them explain why.

Any student of my generation first would have encountered the comparison in the work of the late Manfred Halpern, who spent nearly forty years as a politics professor at Princeton. Halpern grew up with fascism: born in Germany in 1924, he and his parents fled the Nazis in 1937 for America. He joined the war against the Nazis as a battalion scout in the 28th Infantry Division, and saw action in Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere. After Germany’s surrender, he worked in U.S. Counterintelligence, tracking down former Nazis. In 1948 he joined the State Department, where he worked on the Middle East, and in 1958 he came to Princeton, where he did the same.

In 1963, Princeton published his Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa. For years, this book was the basic text in the field, and included the only academic treatment of Islamism, which no one much cared about at the time. Halpern labeled it “neo-Islamic totalitarianism,” and this is how he described it:

The neo-Islamic totalitarian movements are essentially fascist movements. They concentrate on mobilizing passion and violence to enlarge the power of their charismatic leader and the solidarity of the movement. They view material progress primarily as a means for accumulating strength for political expansion, and entirely deny individual and social freedom. They champion the values and emotions of a heroic past, but repress all free critical analysis of either past roots or present problems.

Halpern continued:

Like fascism, neo-Islamic totalitarianism represents the institutionalization of struggle, tension, and violence. Unable to solve the basic public issues of modern life—intellectual and technological progress, the reconciliation of freedom and security, and peaceful relations among rival sovereignties—the movement is forced by its own logic and dynamics to pursue its vision through nihilistic terror, cunning, and passion. An efficient state administration is seen only as an additional powerful tool for controlling the community. The locus of power and the focus of devotion rest in the movement itself. Like fascist movements elsewhere, the movement is so organized as to make neo-Islamic totalitarianism the whole life of its members.

At the time, Halpern was a central figure in Middle Eastern studies, and his book—reprinted six times—appeared in every syllabus for the next fifteen years. His critical analysis of Islamism very much cut against the grain, at a time when Cold War strategists ardently wooed Islamists as allies against communism. In the 1970s, he walked away from the field, and his reputation within it slipped. But his rigorous treatment of Islamism stands up well, and his equating it with fascism was a serious proposition, made by someone who had seen fascism up close.

The comparison of Islamism with fascism also made sense to the late Maxime Rodinson, the preeminent French scholar of Islam, who pioneered the application of sociological method to the Middle East. As a French Jew born in 1915, Rodinson also learned about fascism from direct experience. He moved to Syria in 1940, but the Vichy regime deported his parents to Auschwitz, where they perished. Rodinson was a man of the left—in his early years, militantly so—but he took his thinking from no one.

In 1978, during Iran’s revolution, enthusiasm for Islamism began to spread among his colleagues on the French left, who romanticized it as the vibrant, new anti-West. The French philosopher Michel Foucault become famously enamored of Ayatollah Khomeini. Rodinson decided to set things straight, in a long front-page article in Le Monde, targeted at those who “come fresh to the problem in an idealistic frame of mind.” Rodinson admitted that trends in Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood were “hard to ascertain.”

But the dominant trend is a certain type of archaic fascism (type de fascisme archaïque). By this I mean a wish to establish an authoritarian and totalitarian state whose political police would brutally enforce the moral and social order. It would at the same time impose conformity to religious tradition as interpreted in the most conservative light.

By “archaic,” Rodinson referred to the religious component of the ideology, largely absent from European fascism.

I’m not sure whether Rodinson ever repeated this precise phrase, but putting it once on the front page of Le Monde was enough. He had accused his colleagues on the left of celebrating a form of fascism, from his perch at the pinnacle of Islamic scholarship. This especially sharp critic of Eurocentric distortions of Islam didn’t shy from the comparison of Islamism with fascism, at a moment just as politically charged as the present one.

In 1984, Said Amir Arjomand, a prominent Iranian-American sociologist at SUNY-Stony Brook, picked up the comparison and ran with it. With a nod to Halpern, Arjomand pointed to “some striking sociological similarities between the contemporary Islamic movements and the European fascism and the American radical right…. It is above all the strength of the monistic impulse and the pronounced political moralism of the Islamic traditionalist and fundamentalist movements which makes them akin to fascism and the radical right alike.”

In 1986, he took took the comparison even further, in an influential article for the journal World Politics entitled “Iran’s Islamic Revolution in Comparative Perspective.” Arjomand entertained a number of comparisons, but in the end settled on fascism as the best of them. Islamism (he called it “revolutionary traditionalism”) and fascism “share a number of essential features,” including “an identical transposition of the theme of exploitation” and a “distinct constitutive core.”

Like fascism, the Islamic revolutionary movement has offered a new synthesis of the political creeds it has violently attacked. And, like the fascists, the Islamic militants are against democracy because they consider liberal democracy a foreign model that provides avenues for free expression of alien influences and ideas. (Also like the fascists, however, the Islamic militants would not necessarily accept the label of “antidemocratic.”)

Arjomand’s conclusion: “The emergence of an Islamic revolutionary ideology has been in the cards since the fascist era.” (For much more of the comparison, go here. Arjomand later repeated the argument almost verbatim in his 1989 book The Turban for the Crown, Oxford.)

Latest word is that the State Department has persuaded the White House to stop talking about “Islamic fascism.” That should make it easier for academics to revisit the comparison as a serious analytical proposition. It’s necessary because self-styled campus progressives are repeating Foucault’s mistake. It started in earnest last spring, when Noam Chomsky made a pilgrimage to the the lair of Hezbollah’s maximum leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, and came out praising him for defying America. Over the summer, Hamid Dabashi, keeper of Edward Said’s flame at Columbia, offered this: “Both Hamas and Hizbullah, becoming even more integral to the Palestinian and Lebanese national liberation movements, will one day succeed in helping establish a free, democratic, and cosmopolitan republic in their respective countries.” Then earlier this month, celebrity philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler told a Berkeley audience that Hamas and Hezbollah are “social movements that are part of the global left.”

It’s too much to expect the mandarins of Middle Eastern studies, at this advanced stage of decadence, to revisit the Islamism-fascism comparison. The Middle East Studies Association is led by Juan Cole, who thinks such a “conflation” is “lazy,” but who’s quite capable of offering this more energetic one: “Saudi Arabia is an extremely conservative society; going to Saudi Arabia is kind of like going to Amish country in the United States.” (The State Department presently warns Americans who go to Saudi Arabia to stay only in hotels and compounds that “apply stringent security measures including, but not limited to, the presence of an armed guard force, inspection of all vehicles, and a hardened security perimeter to prevent unauthorized vehicles from approaching the facility.” Like in Amish country.)

It’s these conflations of Hamas with the “global left” or Wahhabis with the Amish that are truly lazy. In contrast, the Islamism-fascism comparison has ample and even distinguished academic precedents. Younger scholars and students should seize the moment to explore it further, with intellectual rigor and without fear.

Addendum: Who does meet Juan Cole’s criteria for fascism?