The Blog

The Fascist Disease

"Islamic fascism" is an accurate--and important--term.

12:00 AM, Sep 14, 2006 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

PRESIDENT BUSH used the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks to remind Americans of the nature of the fight against radical Islam. "It's been called a clash of civilizations," Bush said. "It is a struggle for civilization." The president warned that a terrorist victory over the United States would bring a "desert of despotism" and "a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom." Yet he stopped short of repeating the phrase he used last month--"Islamic fascists"--to describe terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. The administration ought to reprise the phrase as a legitimate and important tool in the war of ideas.

Many liberals think this rhetoric too simplistic, that it is a moralistic ploy to justify military adventurism. Others, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Council of Britain, fear it will spark hate crimes and divide communities. "In the Muslim world you're going to have a difficult time having the mainstream community marginalize extremists when they feel that their faith and their culture is under attack," complained Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR. "And phrases like 'Islamic fascist' make people feel like the entire faith of Islam is under attack."

This is the language of denial, a refusal to admit spiritual corruption from within. Nevertheless, advocates of a fascist link to extremist Islam should recall that it was the West that conceived this corruption in the last century. We cannot neglect the fact that "Christian Europe" enabled the growth of fascism in the 1920s and 30s--in states such as Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Indeed, the fascist virus even managed to invade the bloodstream of the Christian church.

Immediately after seizing power in 1933, Hitler and his National Socialist Party infiltrated the state-supported Protestant churches in Germany. Soon church bells bore Nazi swastikas, crosses were draped in Nazi flags, and a new priesthood--the "storm troopers of Jesus"--preached martial sermons of racial purity and holy martyrdom. The Catholic Center Party supported steps that gave Hitler dictatorial powers, while the Vatican tacitly backed the revolutions of Franco and Mussolini. In Slovakia, a Catholic monsignor emerged as the fascist dictator. In Croatia, the Ustache openly presented itself as a Catholic movement.

Why fascism found support among political and religious leaders professing Christianity is a complex and much-disputed issue. Yet it's clear that many fascists, Hitler pre-eminent among them, were masterful at enlisting religious imagery to advance their vision of a re-moralized and re-militarized society. The "Aryan Christian" movement--call it Christian fascism--swept through Germany and other parts of Europe with blitzkrieg-like efficiency.

FASCISM WAS REPUDIATED by the Christian church worldwide, however, and throughout Europe there were courageous dissenters. Catholic priests were arrested in large numbers as Hitler tightened his grip on power. Protestant leaders Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer openly denounced the Nazi takeover of the German church as idolatry. They formed a "Confessing Church," an underground congregation committed to historic, orthodox Christianity. Exposing themselves to arrest and execution, they sheltered Jews and challenged fellow believers not to shrink back from the moral obligations of the gospel. "Be perfectly clear," Barth wrote after the fall of France, "that the demonic power of National Socialism . . . is connected with the fact that Christianity in Germany did thus retreat."

If fascism could entice and manipulate the Christian religion as it did in the 1930s, why is it hard to imagine it could pervert the religion of Islam? If liberal political regimes could accommodate an ideology of militarism and racial supremacy, surely Islamic states are no less inclined to tolerate the theology of suicide and spiritual supremacy of the new fascists.

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?

It is not only the Bush administration that makes the charge. Stephen Schwartz coined the term Islamofascism and Christopher Hitchens noted the appearance of "fascism with an Islamic face" within days of the 9/11 attacks. Bernard Lewis, has traced the influence of the Nazi party on the Islamist movements in the Middle East. French philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy has employed the phrase to reject the suggestion that "Arab humiliation" somehow justifies Islamist rage: "Arab or Muslim fascism deserves, in my view, to be condemned just like any other fascism." And Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform party of Syria, has taken to task those who "defend these Islamic fascists" and "fail to confront the true attackers of Islam."

Muslims surely dishonor their religion by excusing the extremists--as Islamic groups here and in the United Kingdom have done--with complaints about U.S. and British foreign policy. Like the Christian fascism of an earlier era, the Islamic variety cannot be defeated by compromise and accommodation. It must be met, and condemned, head on. "The cause which is at stake in this war is our own cause," wrote Karl Barth as Great Britain lay under siege, "and we Christians first and foremost must make our own the anxieties, the hardships and the hopes this war demands of all men."

Joseph Loconte is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.