Is it Accurate to Call ISIS Fascist? - updated

Is it Accurate to Call ISIS Fascist?

by Yannis Toussulis

Many years ago, the neo-conservative writer, Stephen Schwartz coined the term “Islamo-Fascism” to describe groups like Al-Qaeda. The term was then picked up by other Neo-Conservatives like Steve Emerson, and writers for the Weekly Standard. There was an immediate outcry from a number of Muslim organizations and the sympathetic left. Appending the term “fascism” to one of the world’s great religion’s seemed to smear it entirely. I partly (and I emphasize “partly”) agreed with that position, but I also always suspected how religion could be easily used to justify authoritarianism.

Leftists are sometimes overly liberal in using the term “fascist” to describe the United States. Anxious to support the underdogs of the world (the latest being Middle Easterners), the left, like the right, will often bend over backwards to excuse Third World authoritarianism. In my youth, I was utterly repelled by leftist demonstrators waving little red books in avid support of Mao and China’s cultural revolution. I was equally put off by celebrities like Jane Fonda waving the flag of the Viet Cong. The Right’s partial admiration for Hitler, and the United State’s support for authoritarian regimes that were anti-communist, similarly disgusted me; but the Left’s exoneration of Communist dictatorships were a worse betrayal. Because of all of that I remained a left-centrist.

After the fall of Soviet Communism in the late 1980s, Francis Fukayama declared the “end of history,” by which he meant that the great, ideological struggles of the twentieth century had ended. Liberal capitalism had won. The world could now go about its business of attending to the business OF business. But the struggle for democracy did not end there. As Sheldon Wolin was to assert in 1993, the new threat to democracy was corporatism and, even more so, a plutocracy that promoted mind-numbing consumerism.

This, Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism,” and it was “inverted” because it no longer depended on the classical features of Fascism or Bolshevik Communism: leadership of a charismatic dictator; an emphasis on the state exerting total control, and (in the case of fascism) a belief in a superior race or people. Wolin claimed that not only the United States, but the entire Western world was now being led by a mostly anonymous coterie of international plutocrats who had bought governments and who had side-lined critical thinking through expert manipulation of public relations and the mass-media. This plutocracy had become ever-more “totalitarian” by exerting its influence over every facet of life: economics, politics, education, intimate relationships, self-motivation, the very basis of thought itself.

I immediately recognized Wolin’s theories as highly relevant, and an echo of the Frankfurt School of the 1940s which had not only critiqued Bolshevik Communism and Fascism but had warned against new forms of totalitarian control hiding behind the mask of Liberal (later Neoliberal) Democarcy. The new totalitarianism, it seemed, was based on a quasi-religious belief in consumer capitalism. And populist support for a fictive entity called “the free market” supported that belief and let it become an idol for people to worship. Jack boots and concentration camps were no longer needed. Instead, the power of the media would control the masses, and anyone who did not conform to a consumer-based society would simply become largely unemployable, thus marginalized and—more importantly—rendered powerless. Most brilliantly, such dissidents would not need to be “disappeared,” in the best of all worlds, they (themselves) would simply come to believe that they had killed themselves by being “irrelevant.”

Wolin’s theory made sense to me and especially so when co-joined with Morris Berman’s and Zygmunt Bauman’s reflections, and even more so after the so-called “recession” of 2008—which for certain classes and nations could more accurately be called a depression. But what does this have to do with “Islamo-fascism?” Quite simply neo-fundamentalist movements in Islam are a twisted expression of the same epidemic nihilism. The difference, in their case, is that they have combined a fantastical longing for the perfection of the Prophet’s earliest community (of which they know little in a verifiable, historical sense) with resistance to the neo-liberal, world order. The structures of groups like ISIS are more than somewhat reminiscent of Fascism and Soviet Communism, both of which also seemed to be the only, viable alternatives to Liberal Capitaism at the time. Naturally, this great conflict of competing ideologies resulted in Word War Two, and Capitalism and Communism survived to fight another day. That battle, perhaps euphemistically called “the Cold War” only ended in the 1980s, and what arose in its place (gradually) were reactionary, religious movements, and most dramatically, “Islamist jihadism.”

What the Islamo-fascists have managed to do is to put fundamentalist authoritarianism to work in an actual bid to create an Islamic “caliphate” through open warfare. What they have done (quite marvelously, though repellently) is to capitalize on the misery of most in the Middle East by playing on their already existent religious/authoritarian conditioning. Islamo-fascists are, so to speak, “the cherry on the top” of a huge layer-cake that has taken over a thousand years to assemble. And what is that cake? The politically driven form of institutional Islam which has always harbored a desire to control the world and deliver it to “the right path.” Lest we ignore it, an authoritarian form of Islam consolidated around the imperial ambitions of several, successive regimes in much the same way as Constantine’s “Christianity” allowed the Roman Empire to further expand and dominate the populations of Western Europe. The difference between the Christian West and the “backward” Middle East is that the former succeeded, for various reasons, whereas the latter failed to do so.

The result of this age-long defeat is that Muslims, oppressed by two hundred years of colonialism, and then Western support for secular dictatorships, harbored an understandably deep resentment, a narcissistic wound that would emerge erupt in grandiose fantasies of an Islamic political renaissance. And the shape of such a “new-old” society would not be traditionally Islamic, but rather a synthesis of some of the worst aspects of National Socialism combined with fundamentalist Salafi-Wahabi Islam.

The synthesis that has resulted in ISIS (and groups like it) was already at work during World War Two when German Nazis sought to make alliances with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in a bid to undermine British control of the Middle-East. As part of that alliance, the Nazis further inflamed anti-Jewish sentiments that accompanied Jewish settlements in Palestine, and Nazi (and Czarist) propaganda like the “Protocols of Zion” became standard fare in Arab-speaking nations. Fascist ideas about the corruption of the Jews and their control of the Western (Capitalist) nations, (i.e. the Allies) found fertile soil among Arab populations that already resented the impositions of the British Balfour Declaration. The onerous synthesis of National Socialism with Islamic cultural traditions lent inspiration to the ideas of Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sayyid Qutub, who revived Salafi Islam and gave it a militant direction.

It is this form of Frankenstein monster that we can accurately label as “Islamo-fascism.” The ideology of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS take-up elements of authoritarian (institutional) Islam that harken as far back as the Umayyads and Abbassids and modernize them. And as a public in the Middle East that saw its hopes crushed with the defeat of Pan-Arabism, Ba’athism, Nasserism, and all the rest, it’s only evident hope (besides liberalism) was the resurrection of Pan-Islamism. The latter, it is important to note, is a distinctly “modern” response that is simultaneously anti-modern. But why is accurate to refer to it as “fascist?”

Turning to classical definitions of fascism, we find the following necessary constituents: 1) a cult of personality surrounding a charismatic leader who is dictatorial; 2) an idealization of the State as necessarily all-powerful; 3) a conviction in the inherent superiority of a particular race or people; 4) a sense of “manifest destiny,” or inevitability in succeeding at conquest. This is how ISIS and Al-Qaeda express ALL of these elements in Islamic dress—

1) Osama Bin Laden as viewed as mirroring the attributes of the Prophet Muhammad. (The leader of ISIS, Al-Baghdadi, is supposedly a descendant of Muhammad, and thus he is also imbued with a certain sanctity). Both of these charismatic figures were thought of as representative of the Mahdi (or “rightly guided one”) who would restore Islam to its original, “pristine” condition. In short to follow either of these representatives is follow Muhammad himself.

2) The Caliphate or “Islamic State” is thought of as an all-powerful manifestation of God’s law (i.e. the shariah). Following the Caliiph is thus thought of as a religious duty, and especially so, since the Caliph is the living “representative” (Ar. khalifah) of the Prophet. The Islamic State seeks to regulate all facets of society, both public and private, and the only citizens with full rights are those who “convert” to that state.

3) ISIS promotes the idea that only the Sunnis, more properly, ahl as-sunnah wa l-jama’ah (“the people of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the community”) are God’s chosen. Though not, strictly speaking, a racial category, the term strongly implies a religiously based ethnicity that is inherently superior to all others (the real “ummah” or godly community). Because of this, the Shi’a are to be extinguished as “apostates,” groups like the Yazidis are to be forced to convert or be killed because they are pagans, and Christians and Jews are to be forced to pay a “poll-tax,” humble themselves before Sunnis, or die. The best that Christians and Jews can expect it to be expelled from the Islamic State. That or convert.

So, whether or not the term “Islamo-fascism” originated with Neo-Cons, and whether or not it is misused by right-wing Islamophobes, the term still has validity. The reason why I am now re-adopting it is in order to cut through some of the confusion that exists on the Left. Make no mistake my fellow “progressives,” the rise of ISIS is much like the rise of Hitlerian Fascism. All liberals, secularists, or people who subscribe to a peaceful form of democracy are targets for ISIS. The latter are not people open to “dialogue” nor mediation and they detest pluralism. They are not only militarist, they are clearly implacable expansionists. For them it’s simply “make it or break it.” And if they make it, you can be sure, Europe and the United States will be targeted for repeated, better planned, and much better financed terrorist attacks.The situation, in this respect, is not unlike World War Two and the Cold War, in which the choice was between Capitalism and Western Imperialism or Fascism or Soviet Communism. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room for anything else as a viable, political alternative.

Today, as formidable as it may seem, we still have a choice to reform capitalism and bring it back into alignment with a real form of representative democracy. But, make no mistake, there is no way to simply “contain” the threat of Islamo-fascism and limit its effects to the Middle East. Like it or not, we live in a smaller and more interconnected world, and sometimes one has to choose between a greater or lesser evil.

This was posted by Yannis Toussulis on his Facebook page on 9/4/2014

TAM EDITORS NOTE:  I was informed by Yannis Toussulis that there were two errata in his online posting.  The first was an incorrect spelling of Stephen Schwartz’ name, and the second was the inclusion of Daniel Pipes name in a list of those who had used the term “Islamo-Fascism”.  Both of those errors have now been corrected.