The New Hysteria

THE CHIEFTAINS of the never-ending “war on terror” are peddling a newly updated enemy: “Islamic fascism.”

After British officials claimed in August to have foiled an al-Qaeda plot to blow up transatlantic air flights, George Bush said the arrests were “a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went a step further, citing Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and accusing administration critics of appeasing “a new type of fascism.” Likewise, Bush’s loyal British ally Tony Blair talked about an “arc of extremism”–in a “specifically Muslim version”–stretching across the Middle East.

Bush and Co. don’t bother with any evidence to back up these sound bites–for good reason. The notion of “Islamic fascism” depends on lumping together all Islamist organizations–from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which, like the government of Iran, is based among Shia Muslims, to the ultra-Wahhabist Sunnis of al-Qaeda, which regards Shiites as enemies and infidels to be exterminated.

No one seriously attempts to equate the tenants of the Muslim religion with the political phenomenon of fascism–historically, an extreme right-wing movement of the middle class that aims to smash all working-class organization and eliminate democracy. Fascism is nationalist and usually virulently racist–with the Nazis’ genocidal policies the classic example.

Even right-wing ideologue Daniel Pipes cautions against equating this with Islam. “I applaud the increasing willingness to focus on some form of Islam as the enemy,” he pontificated on the ultra-conservative Front Page magazine Web site, “but find the word fascist misleading. Few historic or philosophic connections exist between fascism and radical Islam.”

Pipes went on to make the case for joining the war on Islam to his pet cause–the Cold War crusade against Communism. But none of the warriors-on-terror can answer his objection.

The rhetoric about “Islamic fascism” is a pack of lies–another attempt to repackage the increasingly unpopular “war on terror” by identifying a current enemy of the U.S. government with something that everyone can be counted on to oppose.

Identifying latter-day enemies with the Nazis a longstanding public relations tool of the U.S. government.

Washington politicians claimed that Saddam Hussein–whose secular Baathist Party was a sworn enemy of the Islamists–was the “new Hitler” before both the 1991 and 2003 wars on Iraq. Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic became a Hitler shortly before Bill Clinton launched the NATO war over Kosovo.

Even the radical populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, toppled in a U.S.-engineered coup in 2004, was branded a “new Hitler”–by none other than former Sen. Jesse Helms, the arch-racist who kept up close ties with Aristide’s enemies in Haiti, the FRAPH death squads, which actually do resemble fascism.

Indeed, no U.S. political leader ever used the Hitler slur against the U.S.-supported right-wing regimes that really did embrace elements of Nazism–for example, the racist apartheid regime in South Africa or the Indonesian military dictatorship under Gen. Suharto.

And it’s worth noting that when U.S. ideologues need to hark back to a war that was popular to demonize a current enemy, they have to go back more than 60 years to the Nazis and the Second World War.

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THE HISTORY of Islam doesn’t set it apart as more oppressive or violent than other religions.

On the contrary, the message preached by Mohammed bore many similarities to Christianity and Judaism, the other religions that predominated when Islam was founded and began to flourish in the towns and cities on the Arabian Peninsula (today dominated by Saudi Arabia) at the beginning of the 7th century.

In contrast to the rival deities of the nomadic herders, Mohammed and his followers looked to a single god (Allah in Arabic) and put forward a broad code of beliefs and obligations for believers, many of which accorded with Christianity and Judaism. Like other major religions, Islam stresses a respect for order, but also social justice–the poor are to be protected against oppression, but the rich are embraced, too, so long as they show charity.

Islam’s early history does differ in one respect. The early Jews and early Christians were persecuted victims of empire, but within the lifetime of Mohammed, armies marching under the banner of Islam began a military campaign that quickly spread the religion across a huge area of the Middle East and beyond, eventually stretching from Spain in the west to South Asia in the east.

Right-wingers point to this to claim that Islam is uniquely militaristic. But the successes of Mohammed’s followers were, first and foremost, political conquests against outposts of the two great empires bordering Arabia–Byzantium and Persia. Jews and Christians, who often made up the majority of the urban populations, welcomed the Arab armies, since the Muslim conquerors respected their religious beliefs.

For centuries to come–while Western Europe remained stuck in what historians call the “Dark Ages”–the Islamic world, though far from egalitarian, was the center of intellectual inquiry, preserving and advancing the scientific breakthroughs of the ancient world.

Against this backdrop, the claim that Islam is more prone to violence than other religions is obviously false.

The history of Christianity appears especially grim by comparison–from its bloody “crusades” in the Middle East; to the Catholic Church’s sanction for the Spanish Inquisition to use torture to convert Muslims and other “heretics”; to its hand-in-glove relationship to all kinds of political tyrannies, including the fascist regimes in Italy, Germany and especially Franco’s Spain.

Bush’s hypocrisy in condemning Islamist “extremism” stands out in especially sharp relief, too. This is the man who has continually invoked his own God in defense of the “war on terror” launched after September 11–including using the word “crusade,” surely a calculated insult to Muslims.

“Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them,” Bush said in his first post-9/11 speech to Congress. As Socialist Worker pointed out at the time, had Osama bin Laden uttered those words, he would have been denounced for inciting terrorism.

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UNFORTUNATELY, A number of radicals have accepted elements of the Washington-sponsored campaign against Islam. One especially potent issue is Islam’s treatment of women.

Islamic doctrine does maintain that women are the inferiors of men–and mandates codes of behavior and conditions for women that, especially under certain currents, range to the barbaric. This is one of the most obviously backward aspects of Islam.

But there should be no debate about the fact that Christianity–in whose name women were burned at the stake as witches not so long ago–is not fundamentally different in its attitude toward women.

If the position of women in Western countries today is more advanced, this is not because of the influence of Christianity, but in spite of it–the result of political struggles that won new rights for women and contributed to a growing secularization of society.

The political and social gains achieved by women were always in opposition to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and other brands of Christianity. And by the same token, the rollback of women’s rights over the last several decades is a direct consequence of the growing power of a self-identified Christian Right, for which enforcement of women’s inferior status is a high priority.

Thus, when conservatives like George Bush complain about Islam’s treatment of women, no one should forget their attacks on women’s rights at home, or their real motives in “supporting” them abroad.

Liberating women from the tyranny of the Taliban government in Afghanistan became one of the chief ideological justifications for the first stop in the U.S. “war on terror” following September 11. But the new regime installed by the U.S.–dominated by the warlords of the Northern Alliance notorious for their record of mass rape and murder of women–enforced conditions that are little changed, if at all, for women.

Such hypocrisy didn’t start with the Bush administration. As Socialist Worker columnist Sharon Smith wrote in her book Women and Socialism, “Imperialists and their apologists have claimed European cultural superiority as a justification for dominating Muslim societies since colonialism began…

“During the British occupation of Egypt, British Consul General Lord Cromer declared that Egyptians should ‘be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of Western civilization.’ Cromer targeted, ‘first and foremost,’ Islam’s ‘degradation of women’…” But this champion of women’s rights in Egypt was, back in England, a “founding member and sometimes president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.”

In the face of such double standards, past and present, it is understandable that Muslim organizations–supported by men and women–would embrace and defend Islamic religious practices, viewing this as an act of resistance to imperialism.

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IT IS also important to distinguish between different developments in Islam and how the currents known today as “fundamentalism” first arose.

The first “fundamentalist” Islamic state didn’t appear until the 20th century, when Saudi Arabia was established, with the backing of Britain, after the First World War. The Wahhabi sect unified warring tribal leaders behind a religious movement that claimed to be “purifying” Islam. Its interpretation of Islamic law, imposed under the new state, included stoning women who commit adultery, amputating the limbs of thieves and public beheadings for other crimes.

Wahhabism became the inspiration for Afghanistan’s Taliban, a favorite target of the Islam-bashers. But Saudi rulers often escape criticism–since they are crucial allies of the West.

Likewise, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. armed, trained and supported the Islamists of the mujahadeen–among them, a Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden.

Another example of Western support for Islamist forces is Palestine. Israel backed the Islamist predecessor groups that gave rise to the militant Hamas organization–as a hoped-for counterweight to the secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Obviously, that relationship has changed. With the failure and decline of Arab nationalist organizations–symbolized by the PLO’s commitment to the Oslo negotiations that conceded on many Palestinian demands and by the corruption and authoritarianism of nationalist forces where they did attain power–Islamist movements have gained support for their willingness to organize a resistance to U.S. and Israeli power in the region.

Thus, Hamas’ wide support among Palestinians is not primarily a product of its commitment to Islamic religious tenants, but because Hamas represents a political alternative that has been willing to stand up for Palestinians’ national aspirations.

Likewise, Hezbollah in Lebanon–another U.S. and Israeli scapegoat–has growing support beyond its base among Shia Muslims because of its role in driving out the Israeli occupation in 2000 and its success in resisting a renewed assault this summer.

Another case in point is Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won election last year as a representative of the conservative Shia Islam establishment. Ahmadinejad is bitterly denounced by Western political leaders as a reactionary, especially because of his fiery denunciations of Israel, which have included anti-Semitic slurs such as questioning whether the Nazi Holocaust of Jews took place.

Middle East experts Juan Cole and Michael Schwartz warn that the U.S. media coverage is regularly distorted to make Ahmadinejad’s speeches seem for more anti-Semitic than they actually are.

But whether or not this is the case, it is clear that Ahmadinejad’s support within Iran rests on his willingness to challenge the U.S. and Israel. His campaign promised some populist reforms, but attacks on workers and a crackdown on political opponents after his election sent his popularity plunging. He has only rebounded somewhat by talking tougher about the U.S. and Israeli wars in the Middle East.

Thus, the support for this representative of conservative Islamist orthodoxy in Iran is based on his opposition to imperialism, not popular enthusiasm for the right-wing aspects of his political program.

There are many other examples of Islamist political forces and the varying degrees of their dual character. But even a brief look is enough to dispel the myths about “Islamic fascism.”

When the rulers of the American political establishment start denouncing fascism, don’t be deceived–they’re out to promote an agenda of imperial conquest. No one who opposes U.S. wars and occupations should concede an inch to this lie.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at:




ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: