Alongside the debate among foreign-policy analysts about a “post-Western world” that I discussed in a recent post, there has also been another, oddly disconnected debate about the future of the West as a normative project that, particularly since 9/11, has been dominated by two opposing groups. On one side of the argument are anti-imperialists, who see the relationship between the West and the rest of the world predominantly in terms of the concept of empire and are therefore critical of Western policy and even of the concept of the West. On the other side of the argument are what might be called “Enlightenment fundamentalists” (the term comes from Timothy Garton Ash, who, in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2006, described the Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a “brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”), who attempt to defend the values of the West, which they see as being under threat.
My colleague Justin Vaïsse has just published an illuminating new history (it was published in French a few years ago but just came out in English) of the American neoconservative movement , which, he argues, can be divided into three distinct phases. First, between 1967 and the mid-seventies, it was a movement of left-wing New York intellectuals who were preoccupied with domestic issues and in particular critical of liberal social policy. Second, from the mid-seventies through to the end of the eighties, it was a movement of centrist Democrat activists who opposed the isolationist turn of the party on foreign policy under McGovern and Carter but also rejected Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Finally, from the mid-nineties onwards, it was a movement of right-wing Republicans who believed in a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy and in particular in the use of American power to promote democracy in the post-Cold War world – including, of course, in Iraq.
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.