The Second Wave

Note: Originally Published August 16th, 2006
Daniel Pipes has an article on difficulties with the term Islamic fascism here and discusses alternate terms such as radical Islam and Islamist. I think one part of our problem in finding a term that fits is that we are dealing with a largely new phenomena and any term that connects to something we have experienced in the past is less than a perfect fit. Here is Pipes review of the arguments pro and con for the term Islamic Fascist.

I applaud the increasing willingness to focus on some form of Islam as the enemy but find the word fascist misleading in this context. Few historic or philosophic connections exist between fascism and radical Islam. Fascism glorifies the state, emphasizes racial purity, promotes social Darwinism, denigrates reason, exalts the will, and rejects organized religion all outlooks anathema to Islamists.

In contrast, Radical Islam has many more ties, both historic and philosophic, to Marxism-Leninism. While studying for his doctorate in Paris, Ali Shariati, the key intellectual behind the turn to Islam in Iran in the 1970s, translated Franz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Jean-Paul Sartre into Persian. More broadly, quoting the Iranian analyst Azar Nafisi, radical Islam takes its language, goals, and aspirations as much from the crassest forms of Marxism as it does from religion. Its leaders are as influenced by Lenin, Sartre, Stalin, and Fanon as they are by the Prophet. During the cold war, Islamists preferred the Soviet Union to the United States; today, they have more and deeper connections to the hard left than to the hard right.

Nonetheless, some voices gamely argue for the accuracy of Islamic fascists. After himself using the term on television, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff justified it by noting that bin Laden has talked about restoring the Caliphate, the empire that existed in the southern Mediterranean centuries ago. That is nothingits deranged, but essentially it is a vision of a totalitarian empire with him leading under some kind of perverted conception of religion. That comes very close to satisfying my definition of fascism. It might not be classic fascism that you had with Mussolini or Hitler, but it is a totalitarian intoleranceimperialism that has a vision that is totally at odds with Western society and our freedoms and rule of law.

The Washington Times also endorsed the term in an editorial titled Its Fascism.

Fascism is a chauvinistic political philosophy that exalts a group over the individualusually a race or nation, but in this case the adherents of a religion. Fascism also espouses centralized autocratic rule by that group in suppression of others. It usually advocates severe economic and social regimentation and the total or near-total subordination of the individual to the political leadership. This accurately describes the philosophies of Hitler, Mussolini, the leaders of Imperial Japan and other fascistic regimes through history. It also describes Thursdays terrorists. It very accurately describes the philosophy of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and many other stripes of Islamism around the world.

The use of Islamic fascists should be seen as part of a decades-long search for the right term to name a form of Islam that is recognizably political, extreme, and often violent. I have already confessed in that I am on my fifth term (having previously used neo-orthodox, fundamentalist, and militant, and now using radical and Islamist). While Islamic fascists beats terrorists, lets hope that a better consensus term soon emerges. My vote is for Islamists.

For me term Islamic Fascist does have a certain appeal because I think that the current crop of radical Muslims do have a style strikingly reminiscent of the early 20th century Fascists. Their swagger. Their glorying in the barbaric. But I agree with Daniel Pipes that they have an absolutist and totalitarian vision that resembles Marxism Leninism in its breadth and ambition. I think the resemblance arises because both Fascism and Marxism Leninism are part of a larger historical process. Both developed in the West as the old social order based on agriculture that had held the West together for 5000 years broke down under the dislocation driven by the industrial revolution. In stark contrast to the improvements in the efficiency of manufacture, the social reality was not an improvement in material circumstances for most but a switch from unchanging but reliable peasant toil to urban poverty and desperation. The sense of possibility unleased by the Industrial Revolution is hard to underestimate – it was the first time in the history of our species that we seemed to have within our grasp the means to completely transform the future. When the initial results were disappointing there was understandable impulse to institute programs of reform and revolution to restore a greater level of social order and improve material circumstances universally.

The industrial revolution began to trigger this sense of possibility and its social contradictions around 1750 and – to keep thongs simple – by 1850 Marx had put together a comprehensive theory that involved completely reorganizing society. Many other sweeping programs for revolution and reform developed over the latter half of the 19th century and by the beginning of the 20th century a spectrum of radical ideas competed to become the new organizing principle of the Western social order. Anarchism, Syndicalism, Socialism Fabian and otherwise, Social Democracy and so on. Sweeping manifestos abounded in politics, and even extended into as the arts such as the Futurists. Visions of brave new worlds were a commonplace, but the central phenomena was that a great many people believed that such complete change was not only possible but immanent.

I see this Western confidence in the changeability of everything sweeping like a wave rising in the 19th century and building to a crest by WW2 and spending itself by the end of the 20th century with the fall of Marxism Leninism. That quasi religious belief in the ability of humans to create, at a stroke, an entire new social order by an act of collective will is still with us in no small part because Marx claimed that it was not only possible but inevitable. In this broader view Fascism and Marxism Leninism are not opposites but two manifestations of the same underlying phenomena. At another level, Fascism is the bastard child of the wave of social revolution in that it has far less theoretical integrity – sinking into absurdities like racial purity. Marxism Leninism, by contrast, put forward many new and rational ideas such as universal state ownership of the means of production that only revealed their weaknesses when implemented. It is not surprising then that in Pipes example that Ali Shariati was attracted to the universal revolutionary vision of Marxism Leninism rather than Fascisms crackpot racialism or fantasy emulation of ancient Rome.

The main point I want to make in this post is that I believe that a similar wave of messianic revolution is moving through the Islamic world about 50 -70 years behind the wave in the West. Both Bin Ladens caliphate ruled under strict Saria law and Ahmadinejads Islamic Republic complete with a Shiite second coming – the return of the 12th Immam – are world transforming visions. They resemble their Western counterparts in form, but differ radically in content. I suspect the difference in content is the main factor that makes finding a suitable term from a Western point of view so difficult. The Islamists – to use Pipes current favorite term – hark back to the past – the ideal of the glorious Islamic past – but they are also thoroughly modern in that they are flushed with the overconfidence of early modern thought – drunk on the possibility of changing the entire world. In that characteristic they resemble, in form, elements of all the more extreme Western movements.

However some important differences are worth noting too. The Islamists do not need the phony fantasy based evocations of the glorious past that made Fascism ultimately absurd nor do they have any need to convert people to a entire new way of thinking as the Marxist Leninists did. They have a well established universal vision in the Koran and a ready made social order grounded in Sharia law onto which to append a modern revolutionary vision. What is specifically modern is the willingness to impose a universal vision by the unrestricted use of destructive force where the ends justify any means of achieving them. It is worth remembering in this context that Islam at its most expansionist conquered by the conventional means of its day within ethical restraints and laws of war similar to those of their opponents. To put it simply the original jihadis did not practice asymmetrical war.

To return to the idea of Islamism being a delayed second wave of early modern revolutionary excess, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the 20s and Jinnah, the father of modern Pakistan began his work at about the same time. Major theorists such a Sayyid Qutb wrote as late as the 60s. That puts the Muslim Brotherhood 50 – 70 years after Marx and the rise of full blown Islamism about 50-60 years after the Russian revolution. I expect this rough specification of milestones and time relationships could be both challenged and defended by those more knowledgeable than myself about the rise of Islamism, but until convincingly disabused of it I will stick to my notion of Islamism being a second wave of early modern revolutionary grandiosity.


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