In concluding our series in examining fascism, its roots, its concrete manifestations, and its legacies, we have noted what is fascism and what is not fascism. The common threads of fascist thought include: the synthesis of the people with the state for militaristic and warring ends (since conflict defines life through and through), that fascism’s anthropology includes an enlightenment origo in man coming to dominate nature and using for its own self-centered purposes (similar to the new science approach to nature), that it is a statist ideology wherein localism and regionism are absorbed by the expansion of the state creating a homogenous whole, and that fascism actually had little to do with geography and race as oftentimes portrayed. Thus, fascism is a philosophy of eternal conflict which defines life, man ascending the hierarchy of the cosmos (or creation) to take his place as king (god) of the world, and statism.
In the previous segments of this essay we can decisively and definitively conclude that Italian Fascism and German Nazism were fascist. Vichy, Falangism, the Alt-Right, White Identity, and Identitarians are not fascist even if they have some fascist influences within their thought. In particular, the Alt-Right, White Identity, and generalist identitarian movements are something new altogether – it would be intellectually dishonest to claim them as fascist, and neither do they consider themselves fascist.
This brings us to the issue of Islamo-Fascism, of “Fascism with an Islamic face.” The idea of Islamist-Fascism is popular among the New Atheists, particular the more hawkish New Atheists types (Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens). The reality is, much like the various post-Second World War movements that get labelled fascist, Islamism is not fascist even if it shares certain fascist inheritances. Any examination of the emergence of Islamism, however, must first begin with an examination of what it arose to replace: Arab Nationalism.
To briefly go over, Johann Gottfried von Herder (one of the most important of the German romantics and historicists) maintained that the roots of a nation and constitutions is in primordialism – language – not religion, ethnicity, or anything else. Language is the basis of the nation and of culture. After all, Germany had a wide religious heritage at the turn of the 1800s, it had Lutheranism, Calvinism, Catholicism, and Pietism, but was slowly envisioned as coming together as one nation. What makes the French nation the French nation? Their language. So on and so forth. This represents a shared cultural heritage found in language, more than anything else.
Having now been exposed to these ideas, the Pan-Arabists looked back to the Middle East and saw a people’s united in language: Arabic, but not united in nation. In fact, the Arab speaking peoples were scattered in many nations. This became an embarrassment for the Pan-Arabists. If what the romantics were saying was true, how could this great civilization united by the Arabic language have fallen on such hard times? (Of course, there are other motives to this story, politics, anti-imperialism, sovereignism and so forth that adds another layer to the story, but we won’t cover that here.)
Returning to the Middle East, the Pan-Arabists began promoting a politicized romanticism that is remembered as Pan-Arab Nationalism. It was consciously and deliberately modeled after European Romanticism. Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, was the leading intellectual of the movement (PhD, Sorbonne). As were other prominent Syrian writers and intellectuals: Constantin Zureiq (also a Christian, PhD Princeton), Sati’ al-Husri (a classicist by training), Zaki al-Arsuzi (an Alawi, PhD Sorbnne) and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (Sunni, PhD Sorbonne). The Sorbonne connection was also strong, as all these Sorbonne students got to know each other and all studied philosophy.
We start to see something very common among these intellectuals, they generally belonged to religious minority groups, though not exclusively. This will become important later on for Islamism’s understanding of Pan-Arab Nationalism.
These thinkers and their ideas became the basis for the Ba’athist-Revolutionary parties that propped up in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt following the end of WWII (Ba’ath meaning “renaissance”). The Ba’athist parties incorporated Romanticist historicism into their understanding of history, and married this with elements of Marxist-Leninist Vanguard progressive revolutionary ideology to achieve their goals. As Lenin said in What is to be Done? (1901), a revolutionary political vanguard had to go to the masses to spread their ideas. Hence, we see an astonishing rise of education, literacy, philology, philosophy, and cultural studies in many of these Arab nations at the same time – they are bringing their ideas to the people to make them more amenable to their political goals. The lead thinkers often incorporated the ideas of Hamann, Herder, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Spengler into their ideology. (They were extremely well-read, but rejected Marx’s Dialectical Materialism).
Aflaq published the important work The Battle for One Destiny, which outlined his thoughts on Pan-Arab nationalism. Exploring a romaniticst reading of Arabism as leading to a collective destiny for the Arab peoples, he explored how historicism was leading the Arab people to a three-fold ideology of: unity, freedom, and socialism. Aflaq ended his treatise by claiming Euro-American imperialism and corporate interests in Middle East oil and Israeli Zionism were the two greatest threats to Pan-Arab unity.
Al-Arsuzi’s most important work was The Genius of Arabic in its Tongue, another treatise of primordialism and the importance of language as the basis of civilization and how Arabic gave rise to the great flourishing of Arabic culture and civilization. Zureiq, equally, rejected philosophical monism, positivism, and the Whig view of history in his writings.
This movement found its prime in Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, the public face of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement. Nominally, the movement was “secular” insofar that it promoted a separation of religion and state (remember, many of the leading intellectuals of the movement were Christian or various “heretical” Islamic offshoots like Alawism, so they had much invested in freedom of religion against the Sunni majorities; some 20-25% of the populations of the prospective Arab nations were also Christian). Befitting their romantic and quasi-Marxist heritage, the movement was also largely “socialist” (social-democratic really) in political-economy. (Fearful of the atomistic nature of capitalism.)
The Pan-Arab aspirations of this movement met its demise in the Six Day War in 1967 which fragmented the movement. It splintered off into three sections: Iraqi Ba’athism (generally dominated by the Christian pan-Arab intellectuals like Aflaq), Syrian Ba’athism (generally dominated by the Alawi pan-Arab intellectuals like al-Arsuzi), and Egyptian corporatism (generally dominated by the Egyptian military elite). Nevertheless, the Six Day War shattered pan-Arabist thought and ideology. However, note the historical link between Aflaq and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We should also see why most religious minorities, today, strongly support (or supported) the “authoritarian” heirs of the Ba’athist Pan-Arab movement, especially in Syria.
And here, we see another chapter of this story, the role of Romanticism and the Romantic-influenced Arabist intellectuals, as well as their general status as religious minority that’s just as much important to this story of understanding the rise of Islamism. So just as one needs to know Plato and Aristotle and the Greeks, one also needs to know the Romantics in some fashion and their contributions.
Just as Pan-Arabism was destroyed another movement arose from the ruins to replace it: Islamism. Islamism’s most important thinkers were Sayyid Qutb, Abul A’la Maududi, and Muhammad Iqbal (all Sunnis). Islamism has antecedent roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, but the MB is not an Islamist movement (Hassan al-Banna was the movement’s founder, also a Sunni). We find, here, a link with Islamism just as we did with Pan-Arab Nationalism. Just as most of the Pan-Arab nationalists were Christians or minority traditions in Islam (like the Alawites whom the current Assad Family is in Syria), the Islamists tended to be Sunnis (and not Shi’a). (Shi’a Revolutionary Islamism has its roots more in Marxism which is another story.)
The story of the rise and fall of the Pan-Arabists is important to understanding the rise of Islamism. The Islamist writers, themselves well-read and many trained in American and European academies in the 1930s-1940s. Sayyid Qutb, for instance, studied here in America at the University of Northern Colorado, A’la Maududi studied philosophy, sociology, and history in British India. Muhammad Iqbal studied philosophy and sociology at Cambridge University in England, eventually gaining his PhD at the University of Munich. (Here, conspiracy theorists pick up on this and claim Islamism is a Western created movement because of this connection of how so many of the leading thinkers studied in Western universities.)
In their studies, they too were influenced by the ideas of romanticism – but owing to their Sunni beliefs, they didn’t adopt Romanticism in the same way that the Pan-Arabists did. Instead, they read into Islamic history the ideas of Romanticism with a particular and novel (if not modern) hermeneutics and sociology of understanding Islam and Islamic history. Contrary to the news media, the Islamist movement is extremely modern, it is a modernist movement.
The core of Islamist thought revolved around certain Romantic ideas about nationalism and historicism. Unlike the Pan-Arabists, whose romantic nationalism was rooted in language and shared culture, the Islamists’ nationalism was rooted in the Sunni Islamic tradition. To these thinkers, the reason why Pan-Arabism failed was because it was insufficiently Islamic. God, therefore, destined the movement to fall to allow a growth and awareness of the consciousness of Sunni Muslims as to why they had fallen on hard times (by adopting insufficiently Islamic philosophies and ideologies). Hence, they championed a “return to the Qur’an.” But their reading of the Qur’an was not part of older Islamic hermeneutical traditions, and the irony is that their reading of Islam and Islamic history was deeply influenced by European philosophy, e.g. Romanticism.
The greatest of these works was from Sayyid Qutb, who was jailed in Egypt and wrote his 30-volume exegesis of the Qur’an called In the Shade of the Qur’an. (It’s published in multiple languages, including English for those who have the time.) In the work, Qutb’ outlines, verse by verse, a reading of the “essence” of each Qur’anic verse and links it to Islamic history. He outlines the importance of how to live, where Muslims went wrong, and how they can once again be faithful followers and gain the blessings of God.
In the work, Qutb takes aims at improper governments that are oppressive to Sunni interests. Here, he attacks the Pan-Arab nationalists and notes how they are almost all non-Sunni (some exceptions). Because, again, the Pan-Arabists were mostly Christian or heretical Muslims (like the Alawi), they have to oppress the Sunnis in order to maintain their power and control. Hence, Classical Islamism is born with the ideal of overthrowing the insufficiently Islamic domestic governments and replacing them with sufficiently Islamic governments. (There’s no interest in waging a war against “the West.”)
The classical Islamists looked back to the past to find examples of how one should act in the present. Here, they returned to classical Islamic political theology. The Abbasid Caliphate was an example of a past manifestation of the blessings God handed to his people. Islamists do not seek a restoration of the medieval caliphate as its detractors often claim. Instead, the classical Islamists are working to create a new, modern, and modernist Caliphate. (Hence why ISIS is very good at social media work.) It amounts to what political philosophers call “reactionary modernism.” The barrier to this project remains the domestic insufficiently Islamic States. Therefore Islamist movements have, historically, operated only within the countries of their origin and have sought a sort of neo-national independence (from these insufficiently Islamic and authoritarian States). The more associated figures with contemporary classical Islamist thought include Abu Musab al-Suri (another Sunni and Salafist) who wrote The Call of the Global Islamic Resistance and Abu Bakr Naji (again, Sunni and Salafist) and his book The Management of Savagery.
In al-Suri and Naji, there are calls for the toppling of local governments, to be replaced by governments committed to Fiqh (legal jurisprudence), promotion of collective welfare, and establishment of an Islamic civil society. The goals are readily visible and apparent: 1) topple insufficiently Islamic domestic governments; 2) replace them with “proper” Islamic governments; 3) allow the organic consummation of Sunni Islamism to occur which is the equivalent of the “restored Caliphate.” (We see then, the true romantic inheritance of the Islamists who see the evolutionary historicism having got derailed and they are emerging to fix the tracks and allow Islamic historicism to return to its proper evolution and consummation.)
A second school of Islamism emerges in the late 1970s and early 1980s which we call “Revisionist Islamism.” Unlike Classical Islamism, which attempted to overthrow the remnant Pan-Arab Ba’athist governments that supposedly oppress Sunni Islamic life and idealism, the revisionist Islamists made an even further claim. They feared that the monism, rationalism, and capitalism of Western Europe, and especially America, would perpetuate a universal globalism that would threaten Islamic culture just as much as these insufficiently and oppressive local governments. Why save the garden when the weather is poisonous?
What we can see emerging from Islamist thought it that it fits the mold of the basic premise of the “California Ideology,” that is, progressivist and reactionary at the same time. Islamism was a reaction to the failures of Pan-Arab Nationalism and growing secularization and liberalization from Western involvement in Islamic culture and political orders. However, Islamism has a progressivist vision of the future: what its future will look like. This is where the “looking back” element comes in.
Anyone who studies proper “reactionary” philosophy knows that reactionary philosophy is premised on historicism. Something infected the body in the past and must be identified and removed so history can unfold again to its proper end. Islamism identified Arab Nationalism and Western liberalism as the two problems that have stunted Islamic cultural homogeneity and growth. This explains Islamism’s new animosity toward non-Islamic religions which, historically, Islam didn’t have much a problem with assuming minority religions paid the protective tax and were granted the status of dhimmi (protected peoples). But because Arab Nationalism implicitly rejects Islam in favor of Arabism, which includes Arab Christians, Arab Nationalism is one of the two sins that corrupted Islamic organic growth. The other is, of course, secular liberal intrusion by Western powers. Both must be confronted.
Thus, the conflictual philosophy within Islamism is not eternal like in classical fascist thought. It is merely the prevailing zeitgeist. Islamism does not contend, despite media proclamation and ISIS propaganda, a worldwide caliphate. Most of the Islamist works seek to carve out a space for Islamic culture, society, and religion to organically flourish. The problem is, however, this also entails a forced homogeneity of the region (the Middle East and North Africa).
What does Islamism have in common with fascism? Very little. Statism is not solely or uniquely fascist. So the statism implied in Islamism cannot be honestly labeled as fascist. Islamism does not envision the synthesis of the state with a revolutionary and militarized population ready for eternal conflict. To this point, the conflictual or agonistic elements within Islamism is a reflection of the temporary zeitgeist more than metaphysical reality (as European fascists contended). Agonism, as mentioned in the previous parts of this essay series, is also not inherently fascist either. The agonism of fascism is, as stated, the synthesis of a militarized people with its state for perpetual war and conflict which defines life. Islamism may very easily be derided as totalitarian by Westerners, but perhaps Westerns should look at their own political systems and wonder if they’re not under the spell of a totalitarian system.
Like European and North American far-right movements, Islamism may be labelled fascist by its detractors. But for those who study political philosophy, philosophy, and the history of fascism, Islamism is something altogether new. Let’s just call it Islamist. Islamism is the return to the philosophy that religion, not language, is the basis of culture and society. Hence, Islamism will always be opposed to linguistic nationalism (Arab Nationalism), secularism, and have little room for non-Islamic religions. Islamism is not, as hitherto demonstrated and stated, remotely fascist. Fascism is, however, as with other movements outside the pale of “polite society,” conveniently tagged to Islamism for self-evident reasons.
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