Islamism + Fascism = Islamofascism, but What Does It Really Mean?

The term Islamofascism is often bandied about, but the history of this term is complicated, its meaning messy and its usage unclear.

Concept of terrorism. Silhouette of a terrorist with a weapon on the background of the town hall © Prazis Images / shutterstock.com

October 20, 2022 02:18 EDT

During the recent  French elections, politicians like Marine Le Pen, but also members of President Macron’s circle, were not shy to use the term ‘Islamofascism’ to attract voters. They had often used it to stir emotions. For instance, on October 29, 2020 when three people were killed by a knife attack in Nice, Christian Estrosi, the town’s mayor said that ‘Islamofascism’ has to be eradicated from French territory. The meaning of such the term remains vague. It is used to politically demonise a segment of the population and influence the ethnic majority of voters. Although there has been some scholarly work around ‘Islamofascism’, this has not in any clear or detailed way involved a full consideration of the meaning of the term fascism.

While the term was coined in the 1930s, its use and abuse have come to the forefront since 9/11.. Those who agree with its use are mainly commentators from a journalistic or political background and rarely actual scholars. The closest such comparison is the research conducted by Tamir Bar-On, whose article on the topic proposed seeking to analyse the term according to a typology that distinguishes four competing forms of discourse: ‘Thou shall not compare’, ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamofascism as epithet’, and ‘Dare to compare’. It is however noteworthy that linking fascism, whose historical roots are clearly European, to non-European movements is not new. There have been works on several fascist movements in America, Africa, and Asia, such as Young Egypt, Japanese fascism, and the Lebanese Phalange movement.

The history of the term

The invention of the term has been abusively attributed to several commentators, , including politicians and scholars. However, none of the proposed thinkers, writers or political actors are known to have seriously engaged with studies of fascism. Those who have engaged did so  in a very selective manner.

‘Islamic fascism’, or what became known since the 1990s as ‘Islamofascism’, is a term that draws a comparison between the ideological characteristics of specific Islamist movements and a broad range of European fascist movements before and during the World War II era Europe.

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The earliest use of ‘Islamofascism’ goes back to 1933 when Akhtar Ḥusayn Rā’ēpūrī attacked the poet Muḥammad Iqbāl, who had tried to secure the independence of Pakistan as a Muslim nation. Rā’ēpūrī referred to this  campaign as an act of “Islamic fascism”. Such a use of the term fascism remains vague, and fails to reflect any broader scholarly work on the subject. That may appear understandable, as Rā’ēpūrī was writing in the 1930s, when fascism was still in its infancy. 

Fast forward to the post-World War II era. The Arab press occasionally used terms such as the Arabic al-fãshiyya al-islãmiyya (‘Islamic Fascism’) in the 1960s. They did so without any clear understanding of the term’s background and mainly used it to demonie their political opponents. The most prominent Arab intellectual to use a related term as a warning and critique may be the well-known Syrian poet, Adonis, who was born in 1933 . He used the term alislãmiyya al-fãshiyya (“fascistic Islam”). The Pakistani Muslim philosopher Fazlur Rahman (1919-88), who taught for years at the University of Chicago (not to be confused with the Pakistani radical Fazal-ur-Rehman), referred to ‘Islamic fascists’ in his works.

Meanwhile, the founder of the Republican Brother movement in Sudan, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, called the Sudanese Islamist Al Turabi, in 1968, ‘fascist’ claiming he was  a ‘student of Mussolini’. Such usage of the term served simply to tarnish a political opponent and took no account of any serious studies of fascism. Although there were some appearances of the term prior to 9/11, the phrase rapidly gained currency in Western discourse after the September 11th attacks. Just like the basic term “fascism,” used to describe anyone or any party with authoritarian tendencies, it became prevalent in Western journalistic and intellectual circles and was used and widely abused.

Proponents and Opponents

The origins of the term ‘Islamo-fascism’ remain obscure, with no agreement about the person or persons who may have invented the term. The neoconservative writer, Norman Podhoretz, played a central role defending the term and arguing for its validity. Podhoretz stands out, as the editor of the magazine Commentary, a home for US neoconservatism. He has used the term in numerous of his works. This includes a book-length argument entitled World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. He started his campaign in the immediate aftermath of  9/11, and by 2007 was  asserting that the US was already facing ‘World War IV’ against Islamofascism. 

Podhoretz describes Islamofascism as an enemy with two heads, one of a religious character and the other secular. He believes that Islamofascism is bringing about World War IV, that the fight must be taken to the enemy (the Islamofascists) on several fronts, and that it will take a long time for the war to end. He asserts that our ‘Islamofascist’ enemy is “even more dangerous and will be more difficult to defeat”than Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. 

Podhoretz nevertheless fails to provide any serious reasons why we should believe that the enemy can be considered to be in some sense fascist. He fails to cite any exact similarities between fascism and Islamofascism. Eschewing analysis, he contents himself with demonizing a movement whose contours remain undefined.

Some leftist thinkers have opposed the term and its use, citing several reasons. The American poet and essayist Katha Pollitt offered the following scholarly argument as to why she disagreed with it: “What’s wrong with ‘Islamo-fascism’? For starters, it’s a terrible historical analogy. Italian Fascism, German Nazism and other European fascist movements of the 1920s and ’30s were nationalist and secular, closely allied with international capital and aimed at creating powerful, up-to-date, all-encompassing states… You wouldn’t find a fascist leader consulting the Bible [referring to Islamist who consult the Koran] to figure out how to organise the banking system or the penal code or the women’s fashion industry.”

It’s interesting here to note how in this case the author makes an assumption concerning her readership and audience. She argues that the term should not be used because of  the specific political features of fascism, rather than because of its inadequacy attributable to the failure to back it up with proper scholarly engagement. No more than the others does Pollitt engage with fascism studies. 

Overall, politicians tend to use the term to attract voters, increasingly as elections get closer. The voices of such politicians provoke a a strong echo precisely to the extent that they refrain from analyzing or even explaining the term. In a truly rational world, scholars should seek clarity when likening fascism to Islamism or Islamism to fascism. A full examination of both phenomena is required. 

In reality, the term fascism has no place in Islamic thought, which is why serious scholars dismiss the term as inadequate or inappropriate. The term ‘Islamofascism’ correlates very closely with a tendency in Western to ostracise Muslims. Ideally the two questions – concerning the meaning of the term and the reasons Westerners vilify Islam – , should be the objects a separate discussion. Now that the term is gaining currency and, perhaps for the first time being taken up by serious scholars, the opportunity has emerged to reflect more carefully on its use.

[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right(CARR). This article has been published in collaboration with CARR.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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