I’ve recently been wondering whether and how one can apply lessons from history, particularly twentieth-century European history, to the problems of the present without at the same time “instrumentalizing” the past. Particularly controversial in this respect is the term “Islamofascism”, which President Bush used to justify the “war on terror”. The term is actually doubly problematic: not only does it apply a concept that originated in the thirties and forties to movements in the present day; it also applies a term originally used to apply to a European phenomenon to movements in the Middle East. Like many people, I was pretty sceptical of the term, which seemed simplistic and ahistorical. But recently I’ve been thinking again. This post is not meant to be a defence of “Islamofascism”. However, I do wonder whether behind the term there is an important point: that Islamism, as a movement, has been influenced to a striking extent by ideas from European fascism.
According to William Safire, who devoted a column to it, the term “Islamofascism” was first used by the writer and historian Malise Ruthven in an article in The Independent in 1990 – apparently to refer to authoritarian governments in the Islamic world. However, since 9/11, it has become increasingly associated with neo-conservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and with “liberal hawks” such as Christopher Hitchens (who defends the term here), both of whom tend to apply the term not just to governments but also to jihadist movements like al-Qaeda. They say there are structural similarities between Islamism and fascism – anti-modernism, anti-liberalism, anti-Semitism etc. The problem, of course, is that there are also important differences between Islamism and fascism, which is probably why the discussion about whether the term “Islamofascism” is useful tends to go around in circles.
As far as I know, Paul Berman – who I mentioned in my previous post – doesn’t actually use the term “Islamofascism”. But in his brilliant extended essay, Terror and Liberalism (I love the way he narrates the intellectual history of the twentieth century almost as if it were a fairy tale), he does discuss the links between Islamism and fascism and is thus sometimes thought of as an advocate of the idea behind it. Actually, however, it would be more accurate to say that Berman sees al-Qaeda as an example of “Islamic totalitarianism” than of “Islamic fascism”. For him, both communism and fascism are kinds of totalitarianism, and both Baathism and Islamism are “branches” of a “Muslim version” of totalitarianism. Berman is thus an anti-Huntingtonian: he sees not a “clash of civilisations” but a complex interplay between communism and fascism on the one hand and Baathism and Islamism on the other. In his view, radical movements in the Islamic world are not as exotic, or as different from radical western movements, as we think; to understand them we should “glance westward”, as he puts it, as well as eastward.
The crucial thing, however, is that Berman is not simply equating Islamism and fascism but rather pointing to the complex historical connections between them. In particular, despite its apparent rejection of western ideas, Islamism seems to have been influenced to some extent by European fascism in general and German National Socialism in particular. For example, Berman quotes Malise Ruthven, who wrote in his book A Fury for God that Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, expressed “considerable admiration for the Nazi brownshirts”. Similarly, Sayyid Qutb, probably the most important and influential Islamist thinker, wrote in his essay “Our Struggle with the Jews” that “Allah brought Hitler to rule over” the Jews.
Since Terror and Liberalism was published in 2003, more research has been done that further deepens our understanding of these historical links between Islamism and Nazism. One important example is Jeffrey Herf‘s recently published book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, which I am reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement (one of the reasons I have been thinking about this subject). Herf tells for the first time the extraordinary story of the Nazi propaganda campaign directed at the Arab world during World War II. The main vehicle for the campaign was the German foreign ministry’s shortwave radio station that broadcast to the Middle East from 1939 to 1945 and included speeches by Arab leaders such as Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem – another key figure in the history of Islamism. I’m still not sure about the term “Islamofascism” – it is what the Germans call a Schlagwort – but there does seem to be what Herf calls “ideological continuity” between Islamism and fascism.
UPDATE 20/3/10: Jeffrey Herf pointed me to an interesting podcast in which he talks about his book on Nazi propaganda for the Arab world and its implications for the concept of “Islamofascism”. Also see Robert Irwin’s review of the book in The Independent.