The F Word

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Now that "fascist" is back as everybody's favorite lazy pejorative, Salon's Laura Miller has a review of Robert O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism. A passage on the most popular current piece of gobbledegook, "Islamic Fascism" or "Islamo-Fascism," goes like this:

Paxton also eliminates another contemporary contender for the label, Islamist militancy, condemned as the new totalitarian threat by conservatives and some left-leaning American thinkers such as Paul Berman, who endorsed the current Iraq war as a blow against this new danger. Paxton argues that fascism only arises in states where democracy is failing miserably to solve the nation's woes and the public can be persuaded to give up their liberties to regain a sense of power, momentum and purpose. The Islamists who took over Iran or who keep trying to take over Algeria didn't live in democracies to begin with. The Taliban stepped in where there was essentially no state at all, and militants elsewhere in the Arab world have little real political power.

Perhaps, but if fascism is as culturally opportunistic as Paxton says, it is already adapting itself to new conditions. And in the non-Western world, those conditions could include a religion that is inseparable from the state. If the mullahs of Iran aren't expansionist (prosecuting war is the fascist's favorite way of stoking ecstatic national unity), Osama bin Laden certainly dreams of restoring the Caliphate: Both embrace an idealized pre-modern vision of the nation of Islam that they aim to achieve with the use of the latest technology, in classic fascist style. Maybe fascism will mutate from an ultra-nationalistic rebellion against failed Western liberal democracy into an ultra-pious revolt against failed Arab nationalism. Perhaps then it won't be fascism anymore, but it'll look a whole lot like it.

Or maybe we need to expand our vocabularies a bit. George Orwell, unwitting godfather to the many blowhards who today call Osama bin Laden a fascist, said a long time ago, "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" Militant Islam is clearly not desirable, but to call a movement that is consciously multi-ethnic, international, borderless and anti-nationalistic "fascism" demostrates only that a) you don't know what fascism is, or b) you do know but you're trying to demagogue an issue that hardly needs any more emotional inflation. Better just to adopt George W. Bush's "evildoers" than to wander back through the bogs of yore in search of a term that at best doesn't fit and at worst adds more fog to the atmosphere.

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  1. Simply replace the failed state with a failed religion and you are there, Tim. No need to be a blowhard.

  2. Yeah, I guess you shouldn’t hurt any evildoer’s feelings by calling him a fascist.

    In calling them something like Islamofascists, you’re modifying the original ‘fascist’ into something else — Islamic totalitarians who’ve adopted trappings of 20th century fascist political parties.

  3. But is soooo much easier to compare Al Qaeda, the Wahawbi sect, and Bin Ladin to “fascists.” It scares the liver out of the voters with implications of jackbooted Mohammadians goose-stepping down the streets of a conquered American small town like the Nazi’s were supposed to if we didn’t get into WWII.

    This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have done anything about Hitler, mind you. However, has anyone else noticed that there seems to be an overall attempt to equate the “War On Terror” with the WWII?

  4. Mussolini said that fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism, because it is the merger of the corporations and the State.

    What about jackbooted baptist evangelical thugs wandering the streets of America, financed by oil and chemical corporations,and hurrahed by right wing radio? Increasing my tax bill because they don’t pay a dime, even on their buisiness enterprises?

    Anti-secular-humanist, backwardlooking islamists aren’t the religious thugs wandering around my neighborhood, folks.

  5. Militant Islam is clearly not desirable, but to call a movement that is consciously multi-ethnic, international, borderless and anti-nationalistic “fascism” demostrates only that a) you don’t know what fascism is, or b) you do know but you’re trying to demagogue an issue that hardly needs any more emotional inflation

    Or that (c), you’re an ordinary human who uses existing terminology when discussing new ideas. Option (c) gives us terms like “Islamic fascism”, “gay marriage”, and “animal rights” — terms which are obviously nonsensical in a strict, linguistic-traditionalist sense, but which are nevertheless legitimate English phrases.

    “Islamic fascism” is traditional fascism, with “religion” taking the place of “nationality”. This has side-effects, such as eliminating the relevance of borders and nations. Similarly, “gay marriage” is traditional marriage, with “homosexuality” taking the place of “heterosexuality”. This too has side-effects, such as eliminating the issue of childbirth (the original *reason* for marriage, historically).

    However, I do not believe that either the term “gay marriage” or the term “Islamic fascism” is so radically inappropriate as to deserve the sneering contempt of self-appointed language police.

  6. Gotta agree with Dan on this. The phrase “Islamic fascist” is an apt and meaningful one. No need to blow a lexicon dispute out of proportion.

  7. “Now that “fascist” is back as everybody’s favorite lazy pejorative,”

    On a Top Ten List, “fascist” would be 7-10.
    One to 4 would be “everybody’s.”
    “Shithead” be in between there.

  8. So why aren’t they called “Islamo-Communists,” “Islamo-Boxers,” “Islamo-Confederates,” “Islamo-Roundheads” or “Islamo-Robespierrians”? They have at least as much in common with those movements as with fascism.

    Douglas Fletcher, with his predictable assumption that I’m afraid of insulting militant Muslims, inadvertantly provides the answer: The purpose of this term isn’t accuracy; it’s melodrama.

  9. Dan – Bravo. You said clearly what I was unable to do, especially after reading the mind-bending surrealism at the top of the page. (Dare I use the word “doublespeak”?)

  10. “Islamofascist” is an appropriate term for the likes of Saddam and the Assad family, where the leader cult has the people existing to serve the leader, rather than the reverse. Applied to theocracies or theocratic monarchies, it’s gibberish.

  11. “Simply replace the failed state with a failed religion and you are there, Tim.” What failed religion – Islam? Jihadists are rebelling against the failure of Islam? Bzzzt.

    Dan, “Islamic fascism” as you describe it already has a name – “Ba’athism.” It’s something very different from the theocratic globalism you describe. But looking at the comments objecting to this post, I can’t help but notice that they’re mostly from people whose inability to recognize that distinctin is already well established.

  12. Dan and Douglas make a lot of sense to me. I think there’s another reason why “fascist” gets used with bin Laden and company: it ticks off the left. After decades of the term being debased by people applying it to everyone to the right of Ted Kennedy (e.g. Russ’ comment above), some other people opposed to Islamic totalitarianism coined a short, easily understood phrase that expressed their opinion of the bin Ladenites in a way that puts the left on the defensive. After all, the left loves radical Third World movements that oppose the US and the West, but they are also supposed to be against fascism. Thus the term “wrong-foots them,” as the Brits say.

  13. …fascism only arises in states where democracy is failing miserably to solve the nation’s woes and the public can be persuaded to give up their liberties to regain a sense of power, momentum and purpose.

    …prosecuting war is the fascist’s favorite way of stoking ecstatic national unity

    Uh, doesn’t this sound more like modern America than any Middle Eastern country?

  14. Allan

    No, it doesn’t. While there may be a few liberties taken (and even that, as Reason has proven, is debatable), there is hardly a sense of “national unity”. Furthermore, it would be hard to think of a more-maligned, criticized and mocked leader than George W., which is, to say the least, hardly a staple of fascism at all.

    So quit being ridiculous and slinging around inapplicable comparisons.

  15. “But is soooo much easier to compare Al Qaeda, the Wahawbi sect, and Bin Ladin to “fascists.” It scares the liver out of the voters with implications of jackbooted Mohammadians goose-stepping down the streets of a conquered American small town like the Nazi’s were supposed to if we didn’t get into WWII.”

    Unfortunately, they won’t need legions of troops to march down the streets of suburbia. Just a couple bioweapons-in-a-suitcase-toting, wild-eyed “believers” after the eternal 72-virgin salute. Not all that hard to imagine, is it?

  16. So why aren’t they called “Islamo-Communists,” “Islamo-Boxers,” “Islamo-Confederates,” “Islamo-Roundheads” or “Islamo-Robespierrians”? They have at least as much in common with those movements as with fascism.

    Because they don’t have at least as much in common with those movements as they do with fascism.

  17. Dan, “Islamic fascism” as you describe it already has a name – “Ba’athism.”

    That’s just wrong. Ba’athists are fascists who happen to be largely Islamic for the simple reason that they’re in an Islamic area. Using the term “Islamic fascists” to refer to them would be like using the term “Christian fascists” to describe Italy and Germany during WW2. The Italians were fascists who coincidentally happened to be Christian; the Syrian and Iraqi regimes were/are fascists who coincidentally happen to be Moslems.

    The term “Islamic fascism” — as opposed to generic run-of-the-mill fascism — refers to a fascistic form of Islamic belief, where “Islam” is the ethnicity, “Islam” is the nation-state, and “non-Moslems” are the inferior ethnicities and nation-states. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Wahabbists, and the Iranian mullahs are “Islamofascists”; Saddam Hussein was a fascist who occasionally set foot in a mosque.

    Which is why people generally do NOT refer to the Hussein regime as “Islamofascist”, at least outside of the Little Green Footballs Comment Crowd that equates “read a Koran once” with “wants to annihilate the West in Allah’s name”. 🙂

  18. Dan,

    Saddam had a Koran written in his own blood.

    And I think you would benefit from a little background reading on Mussilini, Catholicism, and his use of the Christian imagery that defined Italian folk culture.

  19. Can’t say I much care for Islamofascist as a term. Too blanket. Too general. What is needed in the war on -anything- is precision.

    I’d rather refer to “terrorists who claim (dubiously) to be doing the will of Allah”. While long-winded, this covers al-Qaeda types who kill the innocent to make political points and puts some air between the lunatic fringe and Muslim mainstream.

    I can agree with calling Saddam Hussein a fascist but his “Islam” was no more than a PR exercise.

    Lumping Al-Qaeda and Baathists together is an error IMHO. They have nothing in common apart from a hatred of America and the West.

    The Mahdi Army are distinct mob again. All that holds these 3 sets of people together is the realpolitik of the Enemy of my Enemy being my Friend.

    Were there no America and the West to hate, the likes of Sadr, bin Laden and Hussein would happily detest and fight each other.

  20. Cavanaugh, fiercely against the war, doesn’t like being opposed to very obvious fascists, so clings to a worthless expert who’s definition of fascism, as opposed to the dictionary’s, is so ridiculously narrow as to be worthless. This is pure rhetorical crap, and suggests Cavanaugh knows his argument is no good but will try anything.

    Dictionaries generally agree that fascism means a movement or regime that exalts nation and/or race above the individual and that stands for an centralized autocratic government, strong regimentation, suppression of opposition and strong bellicosity. But Stop the Presses!Cavanaugh doesn’t favor the war in Iraq so would request everyone start rewriting now.

  21. Giving “fascist” any kind of precise meaning in a modern context is difficult.

    Historically, fascism originally referred to a specific political organization in Italy, and arose in a specific context: the notion, then popular, that the Depression had shown free markets to be an utter failure and had to be replaced by some kind of central control. Fascism presented itself as “saving” people from the Communist variety of totalitarianism.

    In a broader sense, fascism might be considered any form of totalitarianism which purports to save existing institutions from a competing, more transformative form of totalitarianism. Saving private property in name and keeping church-state ties, as Mussolini did, are examples.

    Does this concept apply in the Islamic world? Not in any way that I can see.

  22. Hussein, and Ba’athists generally, did make opposition to godless Communism part of their message, and did fight against communists in their efforts to claw their way to power, if I remember correctly.

  23. garym: not that i necessarily believe this, but could one posit that the secular west, the pervasive sphere of perversion, loose sexuality, drug taking and fun, could be the “other form” that islamists so often claim to be fighting against?

  24. And I think you would benefit from a little background reading on Mussilini, Catholicism, and his use of the Christian imagery that defined Italian folk culture.

    The fact that German and Italian fascists made use of Christian imagery is irrelevant to my point. You would expect them to, as they were attempting to control a predominantly Christian people. The point is that, as with Ba’athism, the religion was a means to an end. With Islamic fascism, the religion IS the end. That’s a pretty big difference, which is why the term “Islamic fascists” is distinct from just plain “fascists”.

    Anyway, this entire “debate” is pointless. Nobody disputes that the Ba’athists are a fascist party; they themselves openly claimed the title. If you now wish to claim that everyone now called “Islamic fascist” could just be called “Ba’athist” instead, that means that it is also perfectly fine to just call them “fascists”.

  25. If we are to label every theocratic regime as fascist, regardless of whether it has a national economic plan or a leader cult or a nation cult (but no working class cult)…

    then the word really has no meaning.

  26. Can’t say I much care for Islamofascist as a term. Too blanket. Too general. What is needed in the war on -anything- is precision.

    I’d rather refer to “terrorists who claim (dubiously) to be doing the will of Allah”.

    Lumping Al-Qaeda and Baathists together is an error IMHO. They have nothing in common apart from a hatred of America and the West.

    How about “people with a hatred of America and the West” as the target group instead, then? I mean, I really don’t see any reason to distinguish between “people who want to kill me because their god told them to” and “people who want to kill me for any other damned reason”.

  27. Mussolini on fascism in 1932:

    “The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State.”

    To expand on that a bit, in a liberal society, you have children because you want children (or have an oops). In a totalist society, you have children, at least in part, for the good of the State.

    I think it’s fair to consider Fanatical Islamism to be a totalist system not unlike Fascism. All events and actions, ultimately, are about The Faith–all spheres of life are ultimately subordinated to the scrutinty and intervention of The Faith.

    I just can’t agree with your aversion to this neologism, Tim. “Islamofascism” seems a perfectly cromulant word.

    –ME

    PS: I am embiggened by my own allusion.

  28. German fascism was exported to the Middle East by Hitler. See his meeting with the Mufti of Jerusalem.

    Now the Mufti had followers: prime among them Arafat.

    Also Mein Kampf is very popular in Muslim lands. Islamic fascism is a proper term.

  29. I don’t get hung up on the fact that “fascist” originally referred to a very specific type of dictator/violent person/whatever and has since been expanded to refer to a wide range of tyrants/violent people/whatever. Otherwise nitpickers could have a field day with terms such as:

    tyrant: Saddam Hussein isn’t really a tyrant because the term only refers to a specific type of ancient Greek dictator. (Before anybody jumps all over me and says that I’m making an absurd argument, that’s the point.)

    assassin: Supposedly the term used to refer to a very specific cult of trained killers, even though nowadays it’s used to describe a wide range of trained killers.

    Russian Mafia/Irish Mafia/Chinese Mafia/insert-other-group-here Mafia: Well, they aren’t Italian, are they?

    Any Mafia group with roots in mainland Italy rather than the island of Sicily: Well, they aren’t Sicilian, are they?

    thug: My understanding is that the term originally referred to a specific group of fighters in India. (My apologies if my historical knowledge is flawed.)

    The argument over the proper use of the word “fascist” also reminds me of a time in college when I referred to one of my cousins as a “slut.” A girl in my dorm started arguing with me, which was weird since this girl didn’t actually know my cousin. Finally, it came out that this girl only uses the word “slut” to describe women who have sex in exchange for money, and I use “slut” in a somewhat less restrictive sense that includes my cousin (who has at least 3 babies by at least 3 men, last I heard, who dumped on the only responsible man that she ever dated and cheated on all the others, and who is generally lazy, irresponsible, and neglectful toward her children).

  30. Mandrake, you demonstrate that the militant theocratic Islam behind 9/11 is a “totalist” philosophy. But that’s not the question. There are many totalist philosophies, such as Communism, Naziism, and Japanese Emporer worship. They are not the same thing, though they may have similarities. The question is whether militant Islam is the same as one particular totalist philosophy.

    M. Simon’s error is in jumping from Arafat to Mullah Omar. Two different birds. Fascism is by definition a secular, often atheist, philosophy.

  31. You got her phone number?

  32. joe,

    I’d say that the fact that “Mein Kampf” is in the top ten or the top twenty on the best selling lists in the Arabic world indicates a fascist society whatever the roots.

    One comes at Jew hatred from fascism the other comes to fascism from Jew hatred. In the end you still wind up with a people obsessed with death and control.

  33. “Plain old “theocracy” doesn’t quite do it, because Islamofascism is far more totalitarian than any of the old-fashioned religious states.”

    ?????

    er, ok. if you say so.

    let’s face it, islamofascist (with or without the hyphen) both sounds good – it rolls off the tongue, considering how long it is – and annoys the shit out of otherwise annoying people. like sending gay porn to senators from the midwest, it’s just good, clean fun.

    but it means very little outside of that. it’s a nice way to pump ourselves up and try to forget we could all die because of dickwaving between various groups of religious nutbags.

  34. “Repeat after me — it’s OK to hate Osama bin Laden.”

    Calling the movement he fights for by an accurate name in no way amerliorates its vile nature.

    I’m not trying to refer to all terrorist Muslims as “Ba’athists,” Dan, I’m drawing a distinction between actual Islamic fascists and a very different sort of problem.

    My vote goes to “militant Islam.”

  35. While Dan makes some good points I have to concur with the premise of the post: using “fascist” to describe these groups turns the term on its head.

    I think that while these groups are in pursuit of power they are “Islamo-terrorists” and once they gain power (over almost any piece of land) they will prove to be “Islamo-despots”.

  36. I think Islamofascism is a very useful term. If the Taliban weren’t fascists, then the word has no meaning.

    Basically, Islamofascism = theocracy + fascism. I know that Hitler and Mussolini *used* religion to sell fascism, but Islamofascism is much more intricately linked with religion. Plain old “theocracy” doesn’t quite do it, because Islamofascism is far more totalitarian than any of the old-fashioned religious states.

    It’s also expansionist. Just saying that, “oh, Al Qaeda isn’t going to march on our cities, so they’re not like the Nazis” ignores the fact that they certainly *want* to march on our cities. If we didn’t have such an enormous tactical advantage, they would probably try.

    You don’t have to call them fascists. “Nut-sandwich fuckheads” will do too.

  37. And another thing — I’ll give you that militant Islam is multi-ethnic and anti-nationalistic. But international and borderless? Just because they aren’t nation-state borders doesn’t make it borderless. Bin Ladenism is the antithesis of internationalism. It wants borders all right — all the believers on one side, and the unbelievers on the other side, dead or enslaved.

    Of course, no issue needs demagoguing, but I think this issue could use more emotional inflation, properly directed. It’s only been 2 1/2 years, and our rembrances of 9/11 are like a natural disaster. Repeat after me — it’s OK to hate Osama bin Laden.

  38. Usually, when the definition of fascism comes up on this site, conservatives bend over backwards to claim that THE defining characteristic is the close relationship between industry and government. Because with that definition and only two or three unjustified leaps of logic, they can pretend fascism was a leftist movement.

    So, gentlemen, is a close relationship between industry and government the defining characteristic of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Iranian mullah-ocracy?

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