September 15, 2006


Ism Schism (Peter Beinart, 09.15.06, New Republic)

The more apt epithet for bin Laden is totalitarian. Hannah Arendt, totalitarian's foremost interpreter, insisted that totalitarianism and fascism were different. Totalitarians need not deify the nation: Hitler imagined a race-based utopia and Stalin imagined a class-based one. What linked them, in the philosopher Michael Walzer's words, was their "political messianism"--their vision of a perfect new world brought about through coercive state power. The perfection of the vision mandated the scope of the coercion: It had to be total. Most dictators merely try to control political behavior--behavior that threatens their hold on power. But, in a totalitarian state, all behavior is political because everyone must do their part to create a perfect world. In fascist Italy, the church remained largely autonomous. In a totalitarian state, however, you either actively participate in the ideological project or you are an enemy. Such a state, Arendt wrote, cannot permit "the autonomous existence of any activity whatsoever." It cannot even allow "the neutrality of chess."

For Al Qaeda, the utopia is religious. Bin Laden and his supporters call themselves salafis, from the word salaf, which refers to Mohammed's companions in the seventh century. And, since salafi society was perfect, recreating it requires total state control. A true Islamic state, wrote the influential salafist theoretician Maulana Maududi, must have a "sphere of activity [that] is co-extensive with human life. ...In such a state, no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private." Thus, the Taliban banned chess and virtually every game or hobby. Music, said the Taliban's education minister, "creates a strain in the mind and hampers study of Islam." In other words, it hinders the effort to create the pure Muslims required for a pure Islamic society.

So Islamic (or more precisely, salafi) totalitarianism is a good description of what bin Laden's followers believe. But Bush doesn't apply the term Islamofascist merely to followers of Al Qaeda; he applies it to the insurgents in Iraq and to the regime in Iran. And, in so doing, he destroys its clarity. The average Iraqi insurgent is not fighting to usher in a utopian vision of Islam; he is fighting because an American soldier killed his cousin or because Shia are stealing his country. America's enemy in Iraq includes totalitarians, but it is mostly nationalist and tribalist.

Iran isn't really totalitarian either. Its hybrid political system is far from democratic (and has grown more oppressive in recent years) but still permits some public disagreement. Within limits, it allows people to differ about the definition of an Islamic state, something a totalitarian regime cannot allow. Iran has also proved half-hearted about regulating apolitical behavior--the kind that doesn't threaten the regime but impedes utopia. Ayatollah Khomeini refused to ban non-Islamic music, art, and, yes, chess. And, unlike the Taliban, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he doesn't care how citizens cut their hair. Tehran's goal is less popular mobilization than popular indifference.

While the points above are sound, fretting over the use of the term Islamo-fascism is kind of absurd. After all, the Nazis weren't fascists either, but Darwinists.

The Fascist Disease: "Islamic fascism" is an accurate--and important--term. (Joseph Loconte, 09/14/2006 , Weekly Standard)

THE HISTORICAL PARALLEL HAS ITS LIMITS. European fascism elevated the state above all else, while today's Islamists regard the state as a means to an end: the establishment of a vast, borderless caliphate. Nevertheless, Mussolini's motto--"niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contra lo Stato ("nothing outside the state, nothing against the state")--aptly describes the totalitarian impulse of Osama bin Laden and his allies.

An American observer, writing in 1939, saw in fascism "a deliberate return to barbarism." The new barbarians share much with their European counterparts: a remorseless savagery, an obsession with blood and death, and a utopian vision of purity and power. If we consider the horrific plot to blow up 10 airliners bound for the United States; the ethnic cleansing of villagers in Sudan; the bombs hidden in Iraqi soccer fields and mosques; the beheadings of schoolgirls in Indonesia; the Lebanese boys, arms outstretched like Hitler Youth as they pledge martyrdom for Hezbollah--do we not see the stigmata of fascism?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2006 7:56 AM
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