Monday, November 12, 2007

Islamofascism: construct and reality

As part of a symposium in Slate involving various discredited "liberal hawks" on the Iraq war, including Christopher Hitchens and Tom Friedman, Paul Berman writes:
It's all too true that better leaders could have made better plans, and the French and the Germans and the United Nations could help even now, if only they would. But it ought not to be so hard to see that, even so, the prospects of the totalitarian movement are looking a lot less healthy today than they did on Sept. 10, 2001 and the prospects of Muslim liberalism are looking up, somewhat.
Huh? Unless the perilous return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan is evidence of better "prospects" for Muslim liberalism, I must be missing something. The "totalitarian movement" in question, of course, is "Islamofascism," a meaningless term that Bush, Cheney and unrepentant neocons toss about recklessly in the hope that it will eventually gain some intellectual traction.

Writing in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Stephen Schwartz—supposedly the "first Westerner" to use the term—attempts to define "Islamofascism" as the "use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology. This radical phenomenon is embodied among Sunni Muslims today by such fundamentalists as the Saudi-financed Wahhabis, the Pakistani jihadists known as Jama'atis, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In the ranks of Shia Muslims, it is exemplified by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the clique around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran."

In lumping these groups together under the rubric of "Islamofascism," Schwartz seems to have overlooked the reality on the ground in Iraq, to mention just one example, where the schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites seems to have practical significance. Or the vast differences between the Sunni Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the Shi'ite mullahs who dominate the current regime in Tehran. If there's an unifying militant ideology that unites these conflicting groups, he's unable to describe it in a coherent way.

Schwartz goes on to state that fascism is "distinguished from the broader category of extreme right-wing politics by its willingness to defy public civility and openly violate the law." By that standard, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were "fascists."

Terror, Schwartz writes, is one of major "fascist methods" that define the "Islamofascist" movement. Terrorism, though, is a tactic and not an ideology—a fundamental distinction that seems beyond Dubya's grasp. In fact, the systematic application of terrorist methods has been a political tactic for centuries across a vast ideological spectrum, from the Zealots of ancient Palestine to the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution to the 19th-century Russian anarchists and well beyond into the current century. Not to mention state terrorism, which has undoubtedly killed more people than all other forms combined.

The U.S. Department of Justice, back in 1975, offered a workable definition of terrorism that is independent of any specific ideology: "Violent criminal behavior designed primarily to generate fear in the community, or substantial segment of it, for political purposes." Terrorists are motivated by some form of ideology that provides a moral cover, however suspect, for their conduct. It's misleading to focus on the conduct without looking at the specific convictions that animate it.

But back to Berman's argument in Slate. His reference to the condition of the alleged "totalitarian movement" reveals how much he still shares the assumptions of the Bush war planners: they can only understand conflict in terms of a reductionist Cold War paradigm. So this fantasy-based community posits an all-powerful "totalitarian movement" on the communist model, with Al Qaida manipulating every nationalist and Muslim insurgency from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Philippines. Increasingly, in Iraq and elsewhere, Al Qaida and "Islamofascism" have become synonyms. In the same way, Cold Warriors imagined that every nationalist insurgency, from Vietnam to Guatemala, was precisely orchestrated in the back offices of the Kremlin. The reality was, and is, far more complex.

By this familiar process, Bush and the neocons attempt to transform disparate national and religious ideologies into a monolithic "Islamofascism" and launch a global war on it. Ironically, there's a self-fulfilling quality to all this: their "global war" on this alleged "totalitarian movement" may yet bring into being a unified Muslim counterforce that didn't previously exist.

MAP: Islam by country, showing percentages of Sunnis (green) and Shi'ites (red). Click to enlarge. (Wikimedia Commons)

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