The death of Christopher Hitchens is a loss to the world of letters for, as the many eulogies over the last week have proven, he was clearly a stylish writer, a fantastic orator, and from the accounts of those who knew him, a voluble, generous and compassionate friend.
But as the last line of Some Like It Hot makes clear: “No-one is perfect.” Given that Hitchens never stood on ceremony, and was a great slayer of sacred cows, it wouldn’t be fitting to note his passing without decrying one of his more otiose and unfortunate legacies: as the inventor and populariser of the term Islamofascism.
Here’s the problem. Fascism and Islamic fundamentalism have little if anything in common. Fascism is – by definition – a form of extreme nationalism which shades, in its Nazi version, into radical theories of racial superiority and competition.
For all their many evils, extremist Islamic jihadist movements are by definition not nationalistic. That’s their point. They are often para-state movements directed against national states, and aim for a transnational unification of the ummah, the global population of believers.
As for the racial component, one of reasons Islam spread so quickly across the globe from 500-1500 was that it had virtually no ethnic component. One only has to look at the internationalistic nature of Al Qaeda in its heyday to see that ethnic purity was hardly a key qualification.
So what does this matter? The term might confuse two distinct historical movements, but only a pedant would care about that. So what if it displayed some historical amnesia? Islamofascism evoked the forces of repression and terror we’ve faced for the last two decades. Above all the phrase was catchy. What’s wrong with that?
That’s my point. It was too catchy. And you can trace some of the most startling foreign policy blunders and domestic problems through the spread of this glaring misunderstanding.
1. In international affairs, the term created a false link between the genuinely fascist elements of Ba’athist or Nasserite nationalism with their fundamentalist opponents such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Qaeda. It gave credence to the now provably false propaganda that Saddam Hussein was an ally of Bin Laden. We know how well that ended…
2. On a domestic level, it united an eclectic mixture of anti clerics, atheists, old new lefties, conservatives, racists and neo-cons could all unite against the Islamic threat as if they were a popular front replay of the 1930s.
But the minority Muslim populations across Europe have nothing in common with the populistic mass movements led by Franco, Mussolini or Hitler. Indeed, the spectre of Islamofascism gave cover to genuinely fascistic movements such as the EDL and the Islamophobia which spurred Anders Breivik’s murderous spree.
3. It encouraged the schoolboy debasement of the term Fascism to the point that even a so-called intellectual such as Jonah Goldberg to coin the term ‘Liberal Fascists’ – and risks invoking a wider version of Godwin’s Law which states, anyone who ends up referring to the Nazis in an unrelated debate is close to losing the argument
4. And of course, it is a crime by association for 1.1 billion believers in the various forms of Islam, encouraging the belief that Muslim states (from Turkey or Indonesia) have a deep ideological drive to commit a second holocaust
In 2006, the late lamented Tony Judt wrote a brilliant essay for the New York Review of Books, called ‘Bush’s Useful Idiots’ about how so many liberal intellectuals had enabled the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many of those who supported the invasion have, with the wisdom of hindsight, accepted how they were misled by the false intelligence over the connections between Bin Laden and Saddam – between Islamism and Fascism. They have regretted the disastrous consequences of applying the rhetoric of World War II to the War on Terror.
For some reason, Christopher Hitchens never regretted this false association. But to pay tribute to his spirit of polemic and provocation, it’s worth pointing out that his legacy was far from perfect, and that – though no thinker is responsible for the trajectory of his or her ideas – it’s the duty of others to point out stupid ideas can cost lives.