The Blog

What Is 'Islamofascism'?

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

12:00 AM, Aug 17, 2006 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Fascism was totalitarian; i.e. it fostered a totalistic world view--a distinct social reality that separated its followers from normal society. Islamofascism parallels fascism by imposing a strict division between Muslims and alleged unbelievers. For Sunni radicals, the practice of takfir--declaring all Muslims who do not adhere to the doctrines of the Wahhabis, Pakistani Jama'atis, and the Muslim Brotherhood to be outside the Islamic global community or ummah--is one expression of Islamofascism. For Hezbollah, the posture of total rejectionism in Lebanese politics--opposing all politicians who might favor any political negotiation with Israel--serves the same purpose. Takfir, or "excommunication" of ordinary Muslims, as well as Hezbollah's Shia radicalism, are also important as indispensable, unifying psychological tools for the strengthening of such movements.

Fascism was paramilitary; indeed, the Italian and German military elites were reluctant to accept the fascist parties' ideological monopoly. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are both paramilitary.

I do not believe these characteristics are intrinsic to any element of the faith of Islam. Islamofascism is a distortion of Islam, exactly as Italian and German fascism represented perversions of respectable patriotism in those countries. Nobody argues today that Nazism possessed historical legitimacy as an expression of German nationalism; only Nazis would make such claims, to defend themselves. Similarly, Wahhabis and their allies argue that their doctrines are "just Islam." But German culture existed for centuries, and exists today, without submitting to Nazi values; Islam created a world-spanning civilization, surviving in a healthy condition in many countries today, without Wahhabism or political Shiism, both of which are less than 500 years old.

But what of those primitive Muslims who declare that "Islamofascism" is a slur? The Washington Post of August 14 quoted a speaker at a pro-Hezbollah demonstration in Washington, as follows: "'Mr. Bush: Stop calling Islam "Islamic fascism,' said Esam Omesh, president of the Muslim American Society, prompting a massive roar from the crowd. He said there is no such thing, 'just as there is no such thing as Christian fascism.'"

These curious comments may be parsed in various ways. Since President Bush used the term "Islamic fascists" to refer to a terrorist conspiracy, did Mr. Omesh (whose Muslim American Society is controlled by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) intend to accept the equation of Islam with said terrorism, merely rejecting the political terminology he dislikes? Probably not. But Mr. Omesh's claim that "there is no such thing as Christian fascism" is evidence of profound historical ignorance. Leading analysts of fascism saw its Italian and German forms as foreshadowed by the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. and the Russian counter-revolutionary mass movement known as the Black Hundreds. Both movements were based in Christian extremism, symbolized by burning crosses in America and pogroms against Jews under the tsars.

The fascist Iron Guard in Romania during the interwar period and in the second world war was explicitly Christian--its official title was the "Legion of the Archangel Michael;" Christian fascism also exists in the form of Ulster Protestant terrorism, and was visible in the (Catholic) Blue Shirt movement active in the Irish Free State during the 1920s and 1930s. Both the Iron Guard and the Blue Shirts attracted noted intellectuals; the cultural theorist Mircea Eliade in the first case, the poet W.B Yeats in the second. Many similar cases could be cited. It is also significant that Mr. Omesh did not deny the existence of "Jewish fascism"--doubtless because in his milieu, the term is commonly directed against Israel. Israel is not a fascist state, although some marginal, ultra-extremist Jewish groups could be so described.

I will conclude with a summary of a more obscure debate over the term, which is symptomatic of many forms of confusion in American life today. I noted at the beginning of this text that I am neither modest nor neutral on this topic. I developed the concept of Islamofascism after receiving an e-mail in June 2000 from a Bangladeshi Sufi Muslim living in America, titled "The Wahhabis: Fascism in Religious Garb!" I then resided in Kosovo. I put the term in print in The Spectator of London, on September 22, 2001. I was soon credited with it by Andrew Sullivan in his Daily Dish, and after it was attributed to Christopher Hitchens, the latter also acknowledged me as the earliest user of it. While working in Bosnia-Hercegovina more recently, I participated in a public discussion in which the Pakistani Muslim philosopher Fazlur Rahman (1919-88), who taught for years at the University of Chicago (not to be confused with the Pakistani radical Fazlur Rehman), was cited as referring to "Islamic fascists."