Following the recent arrest of al-Qaeda-linked conspirators planning to bomb aircraft over the Atlantic, President Bush reminded Americans that they continue to face a fanatical, determined foe. Speaking in Wisconsin just hours after the plotters' arrest, Bush declared that the West is "at war with Islamic fascists." In case anyone missed the point, a few days later Bush described Islamic radicalism as a "totalitarian ideology" menacing people everywhere.
This comparison between Islamic radicalism and fascism, which some commentators on the Right have trumpeted ever since 9/11, is misguided and ultimately harmful. Because fascism, at least in its most familiar German incarnation, was a genocidal, totalitarian movement, Bushs comparison suggests that Islamic radicalism must, as with the Third Reich, be annihilated militarily.
Not only do many moderate Muslims find the equation offensive, it obscures the novelty of the danger posed by al-Qaeda and breeds complacency about our ability to win the "war on terror." Al-Qaedas ideology and methods are not those of fascism, and this new struggle will have little in common with that of World War II.
There is no question that al-Qaeda, and Islamic radicalism more generally, spring from the same sources of resentment and humiliation as the fascism of the 1930s and 1940s. In both cases, the replacement of an old order with instability and foreign domination, whether exerted by French troops in the Rhineland in 1923 or more recently, American support for corrupt Arab autocracies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have created a wave of xenophobia and longing for an idealized, if mythical, past.
Like European fascists, al-Qaeda extols militarism, coupled with a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism. Both emphasize the community, whether the global Islamic "umma" or the German "volk," which must be regenerated through the purging of alien elements. Al-Qaeda also espouses radical antisemitism, which it shares with most, though not all, European fascists.
Al-Qaedas use of religion as an inspiration for violence and intolerance also has precedents. World War II-era fascist regimes in Croatia, Slovakia and Romania all justified their genocidal actions on the basis of establishing religious purity. The Slovak fascist leader, Jozef Tiso, was even a Catholic priest.
Yet if the ideologies of fascism and Islamic radicalism share similarities, the political and military approaches of the two movements differ sharply, and these differences render Bush's comparison meaningless in the realm of strategy. For example, Al-Qaeda is not a mass movement akin to Mussolinis Blackshirts. Instead it is a small, conspiratorial organization whose influence flows more from its ability to inspire small numbers of fanatical followers with its mastery of modern communication technology than from its ability to become a mass movement or a force in electoral politics.
Even the nature of al-Qaeda's violence is different. Al-Qaeda mostly targets foreign enemies (the West) rather than "enemies" --whether Jews, socialists, or Serbs -- within fascist-ruled states or occupied territory. Most important, European fascists all glorified the state and sought to seize state power for themselves. Al-Qaeda rejects the legitimacy of existing states in the Muslim world, which were largely created by European colonialists.
Applying the template of fascism to al-Qaeda does more to obscure than to clarify the current situation. Fascism in Europe was destroyed when the states it ruled were occupied and their governments replaced. Al-Qaeda is not a government, and it is unlikely to ever rule a state. The United States and its allies have already occupied the one state ever to come under direct al-Qaeda control, Afghanistan, without eradicating the threat. The occupation of Iraq, modeled on that of post-1945 West Germany, has been an even bigger failure.
Al-Qaeda will continue to remain in the shadows, and the struggle against it will involve spies, diplomats and police more than soldiers. Conflating the threat of al-Qaeda with fascism makes for good political rhetoric, but it represents a failure of imagination, a failure to recognize the novel nature of this new threat.
This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.