April June 2008Insight

“Islamo-Fascism”, Western Hegemony and Cress-Culture Violence

Ali A. Mazrui


Since September 2001 a new concept has entered the vocabulary of political debate – the term is Islamo-fascism. Is this a genuine ideological concept, or is it merely a term of abuse?

Most of the time “Islamo-fascism” is used by Islamophobes – Westerners who are either fearful of Islam or fundamentally hostile to it. But when it has been used by members of the administration of George W. Bush or by such United States presidential aspirants as Huckerby and Giuliani, the term “Islamo-fascism” has been narrowly focused on such militant Islamic movements as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The term is often interchangeably used as the equivalent of “Islamic terrorism”.

While the term “Islamo-fascism” was coined by critics or even enemies of Islam, the much older term “Judeo-Nazism” was coined by a distinguished Israeli scholar. As editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem coined “Judeo-Nazism” as a sincere concern about certain forms of Jewish extremism. The term has also been cited by Noam Chomsky in his book, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Boston: South End Press, 1983) pp. 446-7. And when Israeli bull-dozers seemed to be burying Palestinians alive in Jenin, other critics of Israel married the word Nazi to the word Zionism – Nazi-onism. But in this latter case it was a clumsy term of abuse, rather than a meaningful ideological characterization.

Similarly, the term “fascism” since the 1960s has been a term of ideological abuse. In the 1960s it was popular with the ideological left as a term of denunciation against police brutality, against apologists for the American war in Vietnam, against corporate greed, against white racists in the American South and even against university administrators under siege among radicalized students.

But since September 11, 2001 the term “fascism” has also become popular with right wing Republicans – but denouncing not the socialist left but the newly radicalized Islamic militants. However, the fascism, which originated in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, was a systematic body of thought which included a central role for the state, a personality cult of the Leader, and a fusion of corporate power and militant nationalism. In contrast, the term “Islamo-fascism” has little relationship with a body of ideological thought involving elaborate statism, militant nationalism, corporate power comparable to Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, or even mobilized personality cult of the scale of “Hail Hitler”. Usama bin Laden is admired as a remote heroic figure, but not as a powerful presence in practical politics like Hitler or Mussolini, capable of bestowing medals or inflicting punishments. It is because of all these considerations that the term “Islamo-fascism” is fundamentally a term of abuse comparable to “Judeo-Nazism”, rather than a serious ideological reformulation. Let us now turn to a genuine ideological comparison between the history of Islamic culture and the rival civilizations with which it has often been negatively contrasted.

Cultures between Virtue and Violence

Cultures have to be assessed not merely in terms of the heights of achievements to which they can ascend; but also in terms of the depths of brutality and even barbarism to which they may descend. The measure of cultures is not merely their virtue-potential; it is also their vice-potential.

In the twentieth century Islam has not often been a fertile ground for democracy (virtue-potential). On the other hand, Islamic culture has also been less fertile for the vice-potential of Nazism, Fascism and Communism than either Christian culture (Germany, Italy and Russia), Buddhist culture (Japan before World War II, Pol Pot’s Cambodia) or Confucian culture (Mao’s China).

Muslims are often criticized for not producing the best – but they are seldom congratulated for having standards of behavior which have averted the worst. There are really no Muslim equivalents of systematic Nazi extermination camps, nor Muslim conquest by genocide on the scale perpetrated by Europeans in the Americas and Australia, nor Muslim versions of rigid apartheid once approved by the South African Dutch Reformed version, nor Muslim equivalents of the brutal racism of Japan before the end of World War II, nor Muslim equivalents of Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia; nor Muslim versions of Stalinist terror in the name of Five Year Plans. What is it in Islam which has resisted the ultimate depths of human depravity?

Communism and Stalinism had once independently triumphed in such Christian countries as Russia and Czechoslovakia. Communism also triumphed is such predominantly Buddhist cultures as China, Vietnam and North Korea. If the People’s Republic of China is counted as both Buddhist and Confucian, Communism has also been autonomously triumphant in China. But apart from the dubious case of Albania, Communism has never autonomously prevailed in a previously Muslim culture.

In the 1930s we also saw fascism grow in such Christian cultures as Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain. We also witnessed a form of fascist militarism develop in Shintoist-Buddhist Japan. But the world has yet to witness the development of systematic state fascism and its organized brutalities in the Muslim world. Part of the normative background is that Islam has historically been resistant to three forces which contributed to some of the worst features of twentieth century’s worst cases of barbarism. First, Islam has historically been relatively resistant to racism. The mosque has been racially integrated from the days of the Prophet Muhammad itself. One of the Prophet’s most beloved companions was the Ethiopian, Bilal…. the freed slave who rose to great prominence as a disciple of the Prophet. Partly because of Islam’s relative non-racial nature, the history of Islam is free of systematic efforts to obliterate a whole people. Islam conquered by cooptation and conversion rather than by genocide.

It is true that there have been incidents in Muslim history which have caused large scale loss of life. Turkey’s attempt to deport the entire Armenian population of about 1,750,000 to Syria and Palestine in 1915 was catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished by starvation or were actually killed on the way. Armenians in the Diaspora have never forgiven Turkey for that horrendous episode.

But is a decision to expel a people, however disastrous in its consequences, the equivalent of the systematic Nazi Holocaust against the lives of six million Jews? Movement of people between India and Pakistan at the time of the partition of British Indiainvolved mutual massacres between Muslims and Hindus. Saddam Hussein’s use of lethal gas against Kurdish villages is more clearly comparable to Nazi behavior. But in Iraq this was a case of the use of an illegitimate weapon in a civil war (lethal gas) rather a planned program to destroy the whole of the Kurdish people. The Iraqi case was an evil incident rather than an evil program of genocide.

We must also distinguish between massacres and genocide. The history of almost every country in the world includes a massacre on some occasion or another. But only a few cultures have been guilty of outright genocide. If Muslim history has been relatively resistant to both systematic racism and systematic genocide, Muslim history has also been spared the whole experience of the Inquisition and burning on the stake. Indeed, when children in Muslim societies are caught deliberately burning insects, they are sometimes admonished with the ancient Islamic adage: “La Yuadhibu bi-nar illa’Llah” (“Only God punishes with fire.”) There was therefore never an occasion of Islam sanctioning the burning of heretics on the stake. Cultures which once had done that in their history were in danger of tolerating gas-chambers against people of another faith as late as the 1930s and 1940s.

While Islam has been relatively resistant to racism, genocide, and the equivalent of the Inquisition, it has been more ambivalent about slavery. Muslims have both owned slaves and traded in slaves across the centuries. But slavery among Muslims has been almost race-neutral – slaves could be white, black, brown or other. So could masters. This is in contrast to the trans-Atlantic slave-system which was racially polarized – white masters, black slaves. Secondly, slavery in Muslim history allowed for high upward social mobility. Both Muslim Egypt and Muslim India produced slave dynasties. The long reign of the Mamlukes in Egypt (1250-1517C.E.) was a case of sovereignty exercised by former slaves. [ENDNOTE about Mamlukes]. Finally, let us examine the interplay between Islam and violence. Against the background of all the debates about Islamic “fundamentalism” and Arab “terrorism”, one powerful paradox of the twentieth century may be overlooked. While Islam may indeed generate more political violence than does Western culture, Western culture in turn generates more deviant street violence than does Islam. Islam does indeed produce a disproportionate of number of violent Mujahiddeens; Western culture produces a disproportionate number of violent muggers.

In terms of quality of life for the average citizen, is there a trade-off between the excesses of the Islamic state and the excesses of the liberal state? Let us look at the dilemmas more closely. The crisis of the Western liberal state is still one where citizens are safer from their governments than ever before – but less and less safe from fellow citizens. The quality of life is becoming increasingly violent in the West. It is less politically frightful than in parts of the Muslim world, but the direction of social change is towards increasing social conflict. One solution elsewhere in the world is a return to pre-modernism, to indigenous disciplines and values such as in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The other solution is the search for post-modernism.

Teheran, the capital of Iran, is a city of some ten million people. In the 1990s I had seen families picnicking with small children in public parks between 11 p.m. and midnight. In four different cities I saw people walking late at night with their children or womenfolk, seemingly unafraid of mugging or rapes or slaying. This is a society which has known large-scale purposeful political violence in war and revolution – but a society where petty inter-personal violence in the streets is much rarer than it is in Washington, Detroit, or New York.

Iranian citizens may be less safe from their government than US citizens are from theirs. But Iranian citizens are safer from each other than US citizens are. The Iranian solution is, in the moral sphere, pre-modernist. Can the Muslim World find post-modernist solutions to its own anguish? There are indeed two ways of escaping modernity – retreat to pre-modernism or the aspiration to transcend modernity. Can the Muslim world pursue the positive aspects of globalization without descending into the negative aspects of Westernization? The largest Westernized city in Africa is Johannesburg. The largest Muslim city is Cairo. In population Cairo is much larger than Johannesburg – but has only a fraction of the rate of street violence of the South African city. Does Islam help to pacify the streets of Cairo? How wide is the cultural distance between Islam and the West? How long is the historical distance? The measurements are cultural and demographic.

In Search of the Future

Francis Fukuyama has assumed that the end of history arrives when we have discovered what is best. He forgot that we also need to understand how to protect ourselves from what is worst. We know that Western liberal democracy has enabled us to find openness, governmental accountability, popular participation, and high economic productivity. But we also know that Western pluralism has been a breeding ground for racism, fascism, Nazism, exploitation, and genocide.

If history is to come to an end as a quest for the ultimate political order, it can never be satisfied with the message of the West on how to maximize the best in human nature – from alcoholism to racism, from materialism to Nazism, from drug addiction to Marxism as the opium of the intellectuals. Of all the systems of values in the world, Islam has been the most resistant to the ultimate destructive forces of the 20th century – perhaps, for the time being, including AIDS. Are those societies closer to the Shari’a also more distant from the HIV? If so, should we take a closer look? The reduced levels of commercialized prostitution and the reduced levels of hard drugs have so far helped to protect the more conservative Muslim cultures from AIDS better than average.

The interplay between the relativity of culture and the relativity of history continues. In historical terms the Muslim world may be only decades behind the West in some democratic principles, rather than centuries. In cultural relativism, on the other hand, one must distinguish between democratic principles and humane principles. In some humane principles the Muslim world may be ahead of the West – including the protection of the family, the lower levels of street violence in most Muslim cities, and the relatively non-racial nature of the culture of the mosque.

How can a bridge be built between democratic principles and humane principles? Turkey is a pre-eminent example. In times of peace the Ottoman Empire was more humane in its treatment of minorities than the Turkish Republic became after 1923. The Ottoman millet system extended considerable tolerance to religious minorities. The Turkish Republic, on the other hand, gradually moved towards a policy of cultural assimilation. While the Ottoman Empire had tolerated the Kurdish language, the Turkish Republic outlawed it for a long time. The Ottoman Empire was, in peace times, more tolerant of religious minorities than the Turkish Republic was of linguistic minorities.

And yet the Turkish Republic (however imperfect) was a closer approximation of democracy and its values than the Ottoman Empire had been. This illustrates the proposition that when the country was not at war, the Ottoman Empire was more humane than the Turkish Republic, but less democratic. In the final analysis, democracy is a system of how rulers are chosen; human governance is a system of how citizens are treated. Ottoman rule at its best was humane governance; the Turkish Republic at its best has been democratic. Is what is going on in Turkey in the early years of the twenty first century a search for reconciliation between the greater humaneness of the Ottoman Empire and the greater democracy of the Turkish republic?

The partial Islamic revivalism may be the beginnings of a fundamental Turkish review of the Kamalist revolution, which inaugurated the era of Turkish secularism. In the case of England since Henry VIII, we raised the scenario of a theocracy being democratized. In the case of Turkey in the early years of the twentieth first century, is there a possibility of a democracy being theocratized? The increasing electoral support for Islamic revivalism in Turkey has increased speculation about pushing back the secular revolution of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk.

Was Erbakan’s relationship to the Kamalist revolution the equivalent of Gorbachev’s role in rolling back the Leninist revolution? Or was Erbakan a forerunner of Turkish equivalents of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin – jointly rolling back the Kamalist revolution in the years ahead? Is Turkish democracy in the process of being slowly re-theocratized?

The dialectic of history continues its conversation with the dialectic of culture within the wider rhythms of relativity in human experience. Perhaps there is no such phenomenon as “Islamo-fascism”. There is a confrontation between radicalized Islam and militarized Western hegemony, engaged in a search for a future dialogue of civilizations.

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