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Hitchens' One Troubling Legacy: Islamofascism

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.  

1 comment

  1. But the theistic portion of the show pushes it into an authoritarian realm that even the National Socialists sort of backed a bit away from, gingerly, and with some trepidation even looking in that direction.

    The conflation of Islam and Fascism did no one any favors. Sort of like Al Gore being the “Global Warming” poster child, when all that particular trope does is give folks who REALLY don’t like their profit margins cut a bit of leverage.  

    The brand of Authoritarianism that religious Fundamentalism breeds ARE shockingly similar. But no one wants to draw the line between them very much. Be they Christian Fundamentalists, and firebombing clinics for Jesus, Jewish Fundamentalists who have lashed the mechanisms of state to even deny the inherent Jewishness of Jews in Europe of the US–or clash with Fundamentalists of an Islamic nature, locked in an eternal battle of some Holy War that means that one or the other is not only wrong, but must be expunged from the land. But putting a name of those similarities scares some folks. It scares them because it illuminates an uncomfortableness in confronting Fundamentalists in your own backyard. You can point to the “Islamo-Fascists” and give a name to movement that is very much against your encroachment into their lands, against their faith, their way of life, bitter at the political fallout of an increasingly connected international community that rejects the supremacy of one faith over all others–it is another matter to recognize the same elements that rise within your own borders, pushed by many of the same sort of pressures, albeit in far differing flavors, and no one likes to think that they’ve sat around for years allowing whackjobs who hate their neighbors to get into power, hand it to them, and let them creep in with comment.

    There has been a rise in Christian Militias. They are lashed together with a nationalistic pride–to use Jill Lepore’s words, “flag as totem”–and often with healthy lashings of racism and fear of immigration and watering down the proud panethnicity of the “white” race.  It is an outgrowth of Christian Fundamentalism here, which would love to bind itself to the state, and force the state to end other ministries, other faiths, and bind us all in a glorious vision of an America that never was. It isn’t the same as Islamic Fundamentalism, but it shares some features that make people very uncomfortable when they realize them. And illuminating them means exposing yourself to a backlash from a highly organized mishmash of decentralized groups that are eager to be pointed in the “right” direction.

    You can look at the Lowe’s nonsense recently.  Prop 8.  Walker’s veto of health care funds for breast cancer because information and funds would touch in clinics with Planned Parenthood. The increasingly strident voices that decry “Happy Holidays” for this “Christian Nation.” The lack of voices that stand against this actual minority is a far more greater threat to our republic than any Jihadist. The lack of testicular fortitude by our leadership to stand against voices that cheer for people dying in the street from hunger, or are bombed in a clinic says volumes for how deep Christian Fundamentalists have in this country, and it’s far easier to give a misleading name to a bunch of pannationalists who want to join their nations under Allah, than address the rising tide of Fundamentalism that would like to see theocracy grip our own nation, and others, “Under God” and then eventually gear up for a clash with the other People of the Book.

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