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What Is 'Islamofascism'?

A history of the word from the first Westerner to use it.

12:00 AM, Aug 17, 2006 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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This article originally appeared on TCS Daily.

"Islamic fascists"--used by President George W. Bush for the conspirators in the alleged trans-Atlantic airline bombing plot--and references by other prominent figures to "Islamofascism," have been met by protests from Muslims who say the term is an insult to their religion. The meaning and origin of the concept, as well as the legitimacy of complaints about it, have become relevant--perhaps urgently so.

I admit to a lack of modesty or neutrality about this discussion, since I was, as I will explain, the first Westerner to use the neologism in this context.

In my analysis, as originally put in print directly after the horror of September 11, 2001, Islamofascism refers to use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology. This radical phenomenon is embodied among Sunni Muslims today by such fundamentalists as the Saudi-financed Wahhabis, the Pakistani jihadists known as Jama'atis, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In the ranks of Shia Muslims, it is exemplified by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the clique around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

Political typologies should make distinctions, rather than confusing them, and Islamofascism is neither a loose nor an improvised concept. It should be employed sparingly and precisely. The indicated movements should be treated as Islamofascist, first, because of their congruence with the defining characteristics of classic fascism, especially in its most historically-significant form--German National Socialism.

Fascism is distinguished from the broader category of extreme right-wing politics by its willingness to defy public civility and openly violate the law. As such it represents a radical departure from the tradition of ultra-conservatism. The latter aims to preserve established social relations, through enforcement of law and reinforcement of authority. But the fascist organizations of Mussolini and Hitler, in their conquests of power, showed no reluctance to rupture peace and repudiate parliamentary and other institutions; the fascists employed terror against both the existing political structure and society at large. It is a common misconception of political science to believe, in the manner of amateur Marxists, that Italian fascists and Nazis sought maintenance of order, to protect the ruling classes. Both Mussolini and Hitler agitated against "the system" governing their countries. Their willingness to resort to street violence, assassinations, and coups set the Italian and German fascists apart from ordinary defenders of ruling elites, which they sought to replace. This is an important point that should never be forgotten. Fascism is not merely a harsh dictatorship or oppression by privilege.

Islamofascism similarly pursues its aims through the willful, arbitrary, and gratuitous disruption of global society, either by terrorist conspiracies or by violation of peace between states. Al Qaeda has recourse to the former weapon; Hezbollah, in assaulting northern Israel, used the latter. These are not acts of protest, but calculated strategies for political advantage through undiluted violence. Hezbollah showed fascist methods both in its kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and in initiating that action without any consideration for the Lebanese government of which it was a member. Indeed, Lebanese democracy is a greater enemy of Hezbollah than Israel.

Fascism rested, from the economic perspective, on resentful middle classes, frustrated in their aspirations and anxious about loss of their position. The Italian middle class was insecure in its social status; the German middle class was completely devastated by the defeat of the country in the First World War. Both became irrational with rage at their economic difficulties; this passionate and uncontrolled fury was channeled and exploited by the acolytes of Mussolini and Hitler. Al Qaeda is based in sections of the Saudi, Pakistani, and Egyptian middle classes fearful, in the Saudi case, of losing their unstable hold on prosperity--in Pakistan and Egypt, they are angry at the many obstacles, in state and society, to their ambitions. The constituency of Hezbollah is similar: the growing Lebanese Shia middle class, which believes itself to be the victim of discrimination.

Fascism was imperialistic; it demanded expansion of the German and Italian spheres of influence. Islamofascism has similar ambitions; the Wahhabis and their Pakistani and Egyptian counterparts seek control over all Sunni Muslims in the world, while Hezbollah projects itself as an ally of Syria and Iran in establishing regional dominance.