The term "Islamofascism" has rightly come in for a lot of criticism. It can easily be misinterpreted as implying that Islam is inherently "fascist", which doesn't even make much sense because Islam is a religion and fascism is a political ideology. However, even though it might not be the best word, it's a word that has continued to contain inherent plausibility when used to describe certain political movements which claim to be inspired by Islam but look much more like modern fascist movements than they do any historic Islamic movement.

This doesn't necessarily mean it's the best term, or that it ought not to be abandoned for a better alternative. If you're intent on getting "fascism" into your phrase somewhere then you'll probably want to opt for Christopher Hitchens' "fascism with an Islamic face". Closer to the mark really is Niall Ferguson's suggestion of "Islamo-Bolshevism", as the sort of movements we're talking about so far have mostly proved more adept at using terrorism to destroy (like the Bolsheviks before they took power) than seizing and using the power of the state (which was characteristic of fascist movements); but this is unlikely to gain currency for the obvious reason that "Bolshevism" isn't as loaded a word as "fascism", and so doesn't suit the user's purpose.

These phrases are all surely superior to "Islamism", in that they at least insert some qualifier to the "Islam" part; but personally I think we ought to just use the names of the movements we're describing: Hamas, al-Qaeda, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah. Nowadays even a relatively uninformed reader is bound to know that there are large differences between these groups and they can hardly be said to represent a common, united ideology. Yet, when applied to them, the term Islamofascism is more than just a smear; it has an inherent plausibility. Let me repeat that I do not condone the use of this phrase, so don't message me angrily about it. But I will at least describe the reasoning behind this plausibility.

One final point by way of an introduction is to note that the ideas and intellectual analysis behind the phrase certainly do not originate with neoconservatives in the Bush administration, or indeed anybody in it. The originators of this analysis are people like the Marxist historian Maxime Rodinson, literature professor Paul Berman and journalist and author Ian Buruma. One of these people is even French! And it is exactly the phrase which has been used by Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders and current Foreign Minister of France.

What is fascism?

Behind this phrase lies a particular interpretation of fascism which is in no way limited to people who use the word "Islamofascism". Much of what fascist movements did and wanted to achieve was limited to their local contexts - this is obviously inherent in their nationalist nature - but there were certain characteristics which made a movement obviously "fascist". On the other hand, some of the characteristics that people seem to have in mind when they use the term "Islamofascism" were really limited to Nazism, which was in many ways in a class of its own. This problem, which is inherent in the phrase (I doubt anybody is going to suggest "Islamonazism"), ought to be remembered.

The things that people have in mind about fascism when they use the phrase Islamofascism aren't things like the close alliance between the state and industry under a fascist system, or Hitler's wars of conquest, or even the close alliance between fascists in places like Spain with Christian Churches. These were, in a way, pieces of local colour. It's more about a number of related factors which boil down to who the fascists were, what it was that really pissed them off enough for them to seize power and start killing people, their specific end-goals (particularly in the case of the Nazis), and the often-underrated matter of the aesthetics of fascism.

The fundamental thing about European fascism was that even though it made use of modern tools and a very modern idea of transforming society wholesale, it was rooted in a premodern irrationalism and a specific desire to return to an earlier period which was viewed as a much purer time of a united national community. The French Revolution and Jews were frequent targets because they were both viewed as the bearers of the rootless cosmopolitanism that was taken to characterize the modern age, as opposed to this allegedly purer and earlier time. Every fascist movement was sure of the ultimate superiority of its own nation, but they were all equally sure that the values of modernity - mixed-race city life, the primacy of trade and merchant values, and consensus politics - were vastly inferior to the life of the simple, insert-nation-name-here peasant.

The points about the end-goals and the aesthetics have more to do with Nazism. Nazism's basic goal was to have a huge war in which most of Europe would be levelled and whole races eliminated in an apocalyptic struggle that would then allow the Volksgemeinschaft to be constructed on top of the ruins. Nazism glorified death and believed that through violence the German race could take control of history and impose its own will on her. It had no interest in what came before it or with any negotiation with reality beyond a temporary truce; it wanted to destroy the world of merchants and prattling politicians and build a supposedly glorious future where they had been. And in so doing the Nazis were fixated on the internal enemy which was supposedly betraying them at every turn - who they believed had stabbed them in the back in 1918, causing German defeat in World War I - and this enemy was anybody who was suspected of carrying bourgeois or foreign values, especially the Jews.


You might well be asking what any of this has to do with contemporary Islamic fundamentalist movements. Well, quite a lot. There are actually direct connections that can be traced from fascism to these modern movements. Fascism got introducted to the Middle East in World War II, where its initial appeal was based on the logic that Hitler was fighting the French and the British, who exercised control over much of the Arab world, so Hitler was alright in the Arabs' book. And fascism continued to appeal to intellectuals in the Islamic world after Hitler's defeat.

For instance, there is the case of Al-e-Ahmed, a prominent Iranian intellectual in the 1960s. Ahmed had been a Communist, then a convinced fascist, and finally he became an Islamist; he translated books which are commonly regarded as inspiring Nazism into Arabic. He also coined the term "Westoxification" for the pernicious effect that contact with bourgeois values would have on the Muslim world; the enemy within. And opposition to these values and the elites who run many Arab states - seen as embodying these values and thereby toadying to the West - has defined Islamism ever since, and played no small part in making Jews targets of Islamist hatred, for essentially the same reasons they had inspired Nazi hatred; though of course Israel was a new factor.

Here is one of the main points of our comparison. Like European fascists, movements such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood propose to build a glorious new society which they paradoxically claim will be a return to a simpler time when the Muslim ummah was a a united and pure community of believers, with all foreign influence ejected. So just like fascists, they combine the modern idea of wholesale societal transformation from above through violence with a call for a return to a traditional time. Absolutely sure of the superiority of their quest over all existing political structures on the planet, their goal is to destroy them and spread their utopia. It is significant that the word used by Islamists to describe the current state of the world - jahiliyyah - is the same used to describe the condition of Arabia before the arrival of the Prophet Muhammed.

The fact they couch their message in terms of religion rather than race hardly makes the parallel less striking. Nor can the coincidence that this earlier time was the one of their civilizational glory be easily dismissed. Just like the Germans after World War I, movements like Hamas and al-Qaeda want to return to their version of the Muslim past before their people were occupied and humiliated by the outside - bourgeois democratic - enemy. Their opponents are even the same countries!

Al-Qaeda's terrorism is explained by them as a response to certain actions taken by the United States, but their goal is by no means simply random and meaningless carnage as a form of revenge, or simply to get the U.S. to withdraw forces from the Middle East. As is well known by now, Osama bin Laden has a rather exaggerated opinion of his own role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sincerely believes that he can bring down the Great Satan as well. The goal of this enterprise is to destroy the United States, hence destroying the strongest carrier of modern, Western values in the world, and so laying the field bare for the construction of the perfect Islamic utopia upon earth.

Of course, the only endpoint of anybody who sets out to find utopia is to die before he gets there; death is inherent in the very enterprise, because eventually the force of the real world will overcome such fanaticism. And this is the final comparison between the Islamist and the fascist which is worth pointing out. Unable to find paradise here, on earth, they both inevitably hasten to it in the great beyond, either in Paradise or by attempting to find a heroic and pristine place in the national memory; the logic behind Hitler's suicidal wars and the suicide bomber is much the same. Unable to model the world in their own image, all they can eventually do is destroy what they cannot change.

Further reading

Paul Berman's books Terror and Liberalism and Power and the Idealists both concern these themes, as does Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit's Occidentalism; I have also noded them. Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof's Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam: a Reader is also instructive. Relevant write-ups I have written include the Islamic resurgence, the Iranian Revolution, Fedayeen, Islamic Salvation Front, Shamil Basayev, and Beslan massacre.