Fascism, "Islamic Fascism," and the appeal of utopian antisemitism
The suggestion that Italy will anchor the UN force to be placed between Israel and Hezbollah, in addition to provoking no small sympathy for the Italian peacekeepers, provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on Islamic extremism in its historical context. President Bush recently referred to Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and their allies as "Islamic fascists," a term which was criticized for its dubious historicity and inflammatory character, but which is not without resonance for many observers. Yet the characterization also suggests the difficulty of the war America faces: for fascism has proved a remarkably strong and durable ideology, and by no means is its defeat at the hands of liberal democracy a foregone conclusion.
The roots of European-style fascism, like that of the Islamic extremist movements, lay in the search for a "third way" between liberal democracy and Soviet-style marxist revolution. According to this analysis, democracy was hopelessly corrupt and marxism--if stronger and more disciplined than its Western adversary--erred by sacrificing the emotional or religious side of human nature on the altar of economic rationalism. The winning formula, in the fascist view, would combine the revolutionary zeal of marxism with a nationalistic (and more often than not, militaristic) approach: in Western terms, a combination of left-wing economic and right-wing social policies, although this is a vast simplification and tends to undertstate the both the originality and appeal of the fascist approach. Fascism was defeated and discredited in the Second World War, and the very term has become an insult for most Western authors. But the concept never really died, and it has manifested itself with increasing frequency in the post-communist era.
The appeal of third way thinking is most visibile in Islamic Iran, which likes to style its revolution as the third "big" event after 1789 and 1917. The politics of revolutionary Iran and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, often seem bizarre to Americans, but they are presumably less so to Iranians, combining nationalism and (by Western standards) extreme conservatism on social issues with an appeal for a global revolution of "have not" against "have" countries. Recent postings on Ahmadi-Nejad's personal blog
What is especially fascinating in Ahmadi-Nejad's thinking is the role of Jews and antisemitism. Recent scholarship on Nazi Germany, including work by Saul Friedlander and others, emphasizes the role of utopian or redemptive antisemitism in German thought: a fusion of religious and racial thinking in which the Jews were seen as the ultimate source of evil for Germany (mankind) and their removal as the necessary precondition for achieving salvation. Ahmadi-Nejad's thinking has likewise moved beyond strategic opposition to Jews and Israel to a sense of the Jews, and their American patrons, as the source of cosmic evil. A recent conference calling for "A World Without Zionism," provides evidence of this transformation; assertions that a Shi'a messianic age is at hand lend further religious ballast. Crucial to this synthesis is the positive and not merely negative nature of the antisemitic claim: not only the Middle East but the entire world will be improved once the Jews have been dealt with and the yoke 0f Jewish and American dominance is lifted from an unsuspecting planet.
The problem with the Western response to Iran, I think, is the assumption that merely pointing out the parallels to Nazi or Fascist ideology will be enough to counter the threat. This is a misplaced hope for two reasons. First, European history has little if any resonance within the Islamic world. At best, nonwestern countries are likely to see Hitler and Mussolini as losers in a European civil war; at worst they may admire them for perceived toughness and willingness to challenge Anglo-American, and (in their eyes) Jewish, supremacy. By trying to "engage" Iran, the European nations are attempting to repeat the experience of Europe since 1945, but in a situation that perhaps more closely resembles the Europe of the 1930s--arguably a less than propitious endeavor.
The second, more painful, reason is that fascism--and especially its antisemitic variant--are more attractive than people like to admit. Much as Hitler's antisemitism provided him with a physical symbol of evil and enabled him to tie together the elements of an otherwise diverse and unwieldy coalition, Ahmadi-Nejad's anti-Israel crusade permits him to link various factions (left and right, Sunni and Shi'a) and stake a claim for regional or even world leadership that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to make. In laying all the evils of the planet including economic exploitation, religious humiliation, and even sexual immorality at the American-Israeli doorstep, he has provided an at least superficially appealing anlaysis of the world's problems and an all-purpose excuse for any failures he may meet in combatting them. To quote a scholar of Nazi Germany, his analysis may or may not be logical, but is is internally highly coherent, and not easily countered by appeals to external modes of thinking. His successes to date are likely to bolster his missionary zeal.
Recognizing historic parallels does not necessarily tell you much about how to deal with them. While Nazi Germany was militarily defeated, Fascist Italy was at least partially overthrown from within the country, and Franco's Spain made a peaceful transition to democracy. The role of the clergy in Iran, together with the broader differences between Christianity and Islam, make the comparison a necessarily imperfect one. What I am questioning is a peculiarly Western way of assuming the inevitability of our preferred contemporary mode of thinking: of believing that the mere exposure to our own more advanced ideas will necessarily make things turn out right. Iran may be "engaged" successfully by the West and make a peaceful return to more moderate, less menacing ways of thinking. But then again, it may not.