Monday, January 03, 2005

Islamofascism: Does it exist?

In a recent post I summarized the results of the little-known effort, currently ongoing, to subject the founding texts and traditions of Islam to the solvents of the Higher Criticism. These inquiries are, it is fair to say, taboo throughout the Islam world. Some of the scholars who are conducting them have found it prudent to hide their names under pseudonyms.

Still, these findings cannot be kept bottled up forever. Eventually the critiques must spread wider, at first among some circles of the Muslim diaspora, then into the Abode of Islam itself. Moderate Muslims must ask themselves what position is appropriate to assume about these matters, affecting beliefs they profess to be of central importance to them. The orthodox will respond with fury. At the very least the controversy will give the West some breathing room. It may even spark the long-desired Islamic Reformation, though this outcome is a long shot.

Regrettably, the discussion of fundamentals will not contribute much one way or the other to the spread of democracy in the Islamic world. Under present circumstances that is largely a fantasy in certain circles in the West. On the other side, we have the essentialist notion of the "Arab mind," monolithic and unchanging. The Arabs, and Muslims more generally, do change, but not usually in the ways we would desire.

Nor will the controversy do much to dissipate the historical belief in the world dichotomy between the Abode of Islam, the territories that have submitted, and the Abode of Warfare, where we have the misfortune to live. This dichotomy makes problematic the "can’t we all just get along" line of argument. Yes, we can get along, provided we agree to Muslim rule.

My main purpose in writing this posting, however, is to register my disagreement with the expressions "Islamofascism" and "Islamic totalitarianism."

Let us take Islamofascism first. Historically the fascist regimes have shown the following characteristics. A single maximum leader rules over a unified territory and people, the Volk. This group is regarded as racially superior to all others. Only one political party is permitted, and the media are strictly controlled.

Obviously these characteristics do not prevail today. Currently there are twenty-two members of the Arab League. Other sometimes-troublesome Muslim states, such as Iran and Pakistan, are not Arab. Within the Arab league is a range of polities, from traditional monarchy as in Saudi Arabia and Morocco to a (slowly) modernizing authoritarianism, as in Egypt and Syria. Libya remains unclassifiable. There is no single political party. In fact, with the collapse of the Baath, there is no party that operates outside the bounds of a single nation-state. With competing television channels, and newspapers published in London and elsewhere, there is a good deal of media diversity. The Internet makes it impossible for any regime to exercise total control over the media. Moreover, Islam is not limited to Arabs, but has been adopted by members of many ethnic groups.

In short, Castro’s Cuba much more clearly resembles the historical profile of a fascist state. It has one maximum leader for life, ruling through a single party over a single territory populated by a single people. The Cuban media are strictly controlled.

Twenty years ago, I encountered students who suggested that I was a fascist for insisting on required reading and scheduling regular examinations. The epithet fascist was a left-anarchist maid of all work. Islamofascism seems to be more in vogue among neoconservative circles, together with the ineffable Christopher Hitchens. So much then for the slogan of Islamofascism, which is completely without merit.

Recently the columns of The New Republic have been filled with exhortations against Islamic totalitarianism. For the reasons given above, contemporary Islam is not totalitarian either. The purpose of this expression seems to be to imply that we are locked in a struggle similar to that against the Soviet Union, which was indeed totalitarian. But the Arabic and Islamic states are not at all like the old Soviet Union.

What we are confronted with is a murderous nationalist conspiracy, working to gain its ends as the Irish Republican Army and the Basque ETA terrorists have. These are, we are told, fringe groups. Yet in Spain the Basque Assembly has voted, in principle at least, for independence. So the danger is not a monolithic opponent that stands against us in unified fashion. Rather we are dealing with fanatical minorities, whose cause may nonetheless prove infectious.