Blogs > Liberty and Power > Freedom & "Islamofascism"

Oct 6, 2004

Freedom & "Islamofascism"

Columnist Zev Chafets has been a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, but in a recent NY Daily News column, he argued that President Bush is suffering from delusions if he sincerely believes that freedom can grow in Iraqi soil."W's Wrong," Chafets asserts.

During [last] Thursday's presidential debate, President Bush told the American people his goal in Iraq is to spread liberty and freedom. The President believes the majority of Iraqis yearn for democracy and will express this by taking part in free elections and defending a representative government. This idea is Bush's main justification for the invasion of Iraq. It is the heart of his broader Middle Eastern policy. And regrettably, it is entirely wrong.

Chafets argues persuasively that, in general,"Arab civic culture ... is authoritarian, repressive and rooted in Islam." The member states of the Arab League understand that Islam is"more than just a religion; it is the focal point of Arab society, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, permeating [Arab] culture at every level ­ political, social and economic." As such, Islam"instructs its followers 'in all fields of life, whether they be social, economic or political,' and 'provides the Muslim with all he or she needs to know to live a good and pious life.'"

Key to this Muslim instruction is the unquestionable acceptance of authority."Islam, after all," explains Chafets,

means"submission." Father knows best. Tribal loyalty is prized. God's laws (and those who interpret them) must be honored. Blasphemy is a life-threatening offense. In this conformist world, democracy is both unknown and unnatural. Individual choice offends the divine order of society. Gender equality is an invitation to moral madness. Infidels are obviously inferior to believers. Locating ultimate sovereignty in"the people" instead of the Koran is a mockery of God.

The Bush administration presupposes that the Iraqi electorate's march to the polls will signify"a love of liberty or Iraqi democracy. On the contrary," Chafets observes,"they will vote to further the fortunes of their own narrow tribes and sects." (Alas, there is more similarity here between Iraqi tribalism and America's"democratic" interest-group liberalism than Chafets realizes.) For Chafets, the"national security" goal should simply be to implant"pro-American rulers." Considering the US track record of empowering such authoritarian"pro-American rulers" in the past (e.g., the Shah of Iran, the mujihadeen in Afghanistan, the Hussein regime itself in its war with post-Shah Iran), I'm not as confident as Chafets of the long-term wisdom of this approach. It is responsible, at least partially, for the growth of anti-American fervor in the Middle East.

Chafets is right when he suggests that not one of the member states of the Arab League is"remotely democratic." He's not quite correct, however, to keep using the preferred neoconservative phrase"Islamofascism" to describe the Arab world. (Victor Hanson uses this word regularly; see here, for example.) On one level, the very use of the word"fascism" to describe societies that draw their inspiration from pre-enlightenment patriarchal caliphate ideology is an anachronism. But there are other usage problems here. Let me explain.

An argument can be made that US political economy is a kind of neofascism or neomercantilism or"liberal corporatism" (take your pick) insofar as it embraces the same kind of symbiotic relationship between government and business that one has always found in historically fascist systems. I argue here, for example, that Ayn Rand and other libertarians have been correct to characterize the current US politico-economic context as the"new fascism," with broad statist implications for domestic and foreign policy. I have explained further that the economic essence of fascism is the union of business and government. Clearly, however, I am careful to draw a distinction between the old “fascism” and the “New Fascism”:

What unites them is the business-government “partnership.” What distinguishes them is that the first is authoritarian, while the second is more akin to “liberal corporatism.” It retains liberal institutions and democratic procedures, while keeping much of the business-government politico-economic alliance outside the sphere of democratic control. The whole panoply of regulatory agencies, central bank manipulations, and pressure group pork-barreling has been the result of an incremental process over many years, creating a whole complex structure of privilege that cannot be altered by simply changing the political party in power. The “New Fascism” may or may not entail nationalism and extreme regimentation, though in war time (both world wars come to mind), the U.S. fully embraced “War Collectivism” in the regimentation of industry, commerce, and finance, as well as the suppression of civil liberties. All the more reason to take very seriously the consequences of a long-term policy of perpetual war.

Fascism does not entail broad economy-wide central planning, like state socialism. But cartelized banking is a key component in the nexus of"ultimate decision-making."

The system has varying degrees of centralization in different sectors and industries, but this is usually the product of ad hoc, patchwork regulation that, over time, blocks market entry and creates various monopolistic rigidities. I’m certainly open to using a different label for what I’m seeking to describe, given how “loaded” the term fascism actually is. But whether we call it the “new fascism” or “neofascism” or “liberal corporatism” or “corporate welfare statism,” the result is the same: a politico-economic structure that has evolved to benefit certain groups at the expense of others.

Now, what of the Arab world? It is authoritarian. But it is a mongrel mixture of theocratic fundamentalism, quasi-socialist command economies dominated by state-monopoly control of key resources (such as oil), and hereditary monarchy. It's simply wrong to characterize this mongrel mixture in toto as"Islamofascism." Call it theocratic statism or theocratic authoritarianism or, for its more"secular" forms, monarchical-military dictatorship, but please don't call it"fascism." Not unless you mean something historically specific, as in the"guild socialist" arrangements of Benito Mussolini.

It must be emphasized that historically specific fascism does not necessarily entail institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism as in Hitler's Germany, but it certainly entails collectivism, tribal or otherwise. (I sometimes wonder if right-wing writers shy away from using the word"theocratic" to describe the fundamentalist Arab states because the word hits a little too close to home for some of them.)

Either way, every way, no matter which way you characterize it ... I think the essential argument that Chafets makes is unimpeachable, in my view:

What is too much is to expect an ancient society to embrace values and practices it neither understands nor approves of. If success in Iraq means enticing people to renounce a civic culture that flows from their deepest Islamic beliefs, then failure is guaranteed.

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Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 10/8/2004

I actually address just this issue in a new essay, "Fascism: Clarifying a Political Concept," but I'm having some difficulties posting to HNN... something having to do with the links. Trying to fix it... and hope to post soon.

David Bernstein - 10/8/2004

Much of the ideology of radical Islamic groups comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn developed its ideology under the influence of the "fascist" movements of the 1930s. So, while I originally objected to the term for reasons similar to Chris's, now that I know more about the Brotherhood, I think the term is largely apt.

mark safranski - 10/8/2004


Adding " theocratic" to " Islamofascism" would be redundant as Islam is a religion and simply saying "theocratic fascism" is generic, removing the Islamic context - though that term probably applies well enough to Iran, dominated as it is by the Expediency and Guardian councils, the Pasdaran and Ansar Hezbollah thugs.

Fascist economies varied.

Nazi Germany retained private property in theory but in addition to the state taking a leading role in planning ( for rearmament purposes)agricultural land could not be alienated for debt, strict currency and specie controls were enacted and Hjalmar Schacht's trade policies were based on barter agreements to preserve gold reserves and further the Nazi quest for autarky. And of course the property rights of Jews were violated systematically In Imperial Japan the zaibatsu were state were actually under relatively less overt government control than postwar Japanese kereitsu.

Gus diZerega - 10/7/2004

I really like Chris's post, but suggest an additional perspective. The Christian West was once a pretty poor place for the emergence of liberal, or even particularly decent, values. The 30 Years War was in part - large part - based on religious rivalries within the Christian community, and resulted in a vast and debilitating slaughter.

It also helped turn a lot of people off to theocratic claims of superiority on the part of clerics. Toleration slowly arose not because of the Biblical reinterpretation, but because of mutual exhaustion. Reinterpretation came later. The Enlightenment's hostility to religious authority was also rooted in this conflict. Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis is an excellent study of this and other fascinating related issues.

My point in bringing this up is that even sacred scriptures can be interpretetd and reinterpreted in many different ways. Some interpretations make them safe for free societies, and these dominate today in the West (except for Fundamentalists). The same can happen with the Koran.

Iran is ruled by theocrats, and by all I have read, their corruption, arrogance, and ignorance is doing a good job inoculating many Iranians to the claims that religious leaders should rule. As they lose legitimacy they undermine their longevity in power. We do not know when, but as with the Soviets and the Christian West , loss of legitimacy leads in time to loss of power. At that point Iran will be amenable to liberal insights. Islam will be reinterpreted, as the Bible was.

I suspect the best way to eliminate theocratic fantasies from the Arab world is to allow them to have theocracies in power if that is what a majority wants or is willing to accept - and best, by election. That legitimates the idea that the people should decide, and while they will initially decide poorly, the misrule thugs like that will institute will in time wither the ferocity of their theology and their commitment to mindless interpretations of scripture.

From a Hayekian perspective, I am saying we should allow cultural learning, and then stay out of the way while the people of that culture work out their own response to their problems.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 10/7/2004

Yes, of course, there are Muslims who live in democracies and there are even a few democracies with predominantly Muslim populations, outside the Arab League, and you are right to note that we're talking about a specifically Arab civic culture.

I do think, however, that there is something about the way in which Islam has been integrated with Arab culture that speaks to its current incarnations in the Middle East. In other words, in philosophical parlance, there is a kind of "internal relation" here between Islamic ideology and Arab cultural formations, wherein each is partially constituted by its relationship to the other. So, while authoritarian civic culture may not be inextricably intertwined with Islam, solely, its current incarnation does seem to be a function of the ways in which Islam and Arab cultural formations have coalesced in this particular historical moment and in this particular geopolitical context.

I suspect, therefore, that there is influence coming from both sides of that equation.

And this is not unusual; certain ideological strands when transplanted to entirely different ethnic and geopolitical contexts are distinct in both their preconditions and effects. That is precisely why I believe the use of a word like "fascism" requires a lot more historical specificity, that is, a lot more attention paid to context.

Thanks for the comments, Jonathan!

Jonathan Dresner - 10/7/2004

As much as I appreciate your analysis, there's a shorter route to critiquing this argument. He is conflating "Arab" with "Islam", a very common but nonetheless profound error. There are Muslims who live in democracies, even Muslim-majority democracies.

The civic culture he is talking about is Arab, but it is pre-Islamic in origin and not inextricably entwined with Islam, even in its more radical forms.