A Brief History of a Controversial Term
In the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there has been much contention over the term "Islamofascism", which is frequently used in the polemics of those who are critical of Islam. However, it is only recently that the term has been comprehensively analysed and placed in a historical context from a scholarly perspective.
The respected journal Die Welt des Islams (The World of Islam) has published a special issue on the subject, compiled by its former long-serving publisher, the German Orientalist Stefan Wild.
Polemical comparisons involving Islam have been common in the West for quite some time. Reinhard Schulze, a Bern-based expert in Islamic Studies, has illustrated just how far back the practice reaches. In the post-Napoleonic era, for example, it was typical to denounce the leaders of the French Revolution as followers of a political religion and to associate their fanaticism with Islam. Robespierre was even depicted as a "new Mahomet."
From Bismarck to Hitler
In the years of the so-called "Kulturkampf" (a struggle between the state and the Catholic Church in the German Empire of the late nineteenth century), religious commentators used such analogies to defame political rivals as harbingers of a "new Islam." Even during the German nationalism debate at the time, these kinds of polemics were employed, although they were concerned less with the aspect of supposed heresy and more with the accusation of despotism.
The German philosopher Constantin Frantz, an opponent of Prussia's policy on Germany, compared Bismarck to Mohammed and his regime with Islam. With the rise of fascism, the theme of religious fanaticism once again came to the fore, and the use of Islam analogies became virulent. Foreign observers believed the epithets suited Mussolini: the Italian dictator was – as Hitler was too at a later date – often referred to as a "prophet."
"One is incapable of understanding National Socialism," explained the Swiss theologian Karl Barth in a lecture in December 1938, "unless one sees it as a new Islam, its myth as a new Allah and Hitler as its prophet."
What had always remained unclear in the use such polemical analogies, however, was exactly where the common ground between Islam and fascism lay.
The German theologian Hans Ehrenberg, a co-founder of the Confessing Church, was one of the first to provide solid arguments for the comparison in a lecture he gave in 1941. According to Reinhard Schulze, Ehrenberg came up with a whole argumentative arsenal that is still drawn upon today by those critics of Islam who use the term "Islamofascism".
The first point of the argument, explains Schulze, is to claim that Islam is, at its core, fascist. Then, some positive statements about Hitler and Mussolini made by Arabs or Muslims are cited and taken to be representative of Muslim opinion as a whole. Finally, the spotlight is shone on some Muslim country with a repressive regime, which supposedly borrowed its structure from the fascist model of the state.
From the Islamic Revolution to 9/11
This last point in particular featured in Western portrayals of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. In this context, the Orientalist Detlev Khalid Duran (1940–2010), who for a time worked in Germany, was one of the very first people to use the term "Islamofascism". However, it was only later that it became a catchword, namely when Duran applied the term in reference to Islamism in an interview with the conservative newspaper The Washington Times in July 2001.
The term did not suddenly come into widespread use immediately after 9/11. Instead, as Schulze's statistics indicate, it only really became popular in the years 2005 to 2008. The highpoint of the term's use was in 2006, triggered by statements made by the then American President George W. Bush.
On 7 August that year, Bush warned against the dangers of Islamofascism as a fixed ideology that threatened to overwhelm the Middle East and that therefore had to be fought. Four days later, he spoke of a war pursued by the American nation against "Islamic fascists" who would stop at nothing to harm freedom-loving Americans and their country.
Europe in 2013
Today, as Stefan Wild remarks in his introduction, the term "Islamofascism" is becoming increasingly widespread among right-wing populists and extremists, particularly in Europe. He views this as a cause for concern, among other things because the term has, until now, been inadequately addressed and discussed by scholars.
Indeed, the article by the German historian Joachim Schlotyseck in this very interesting journal, which features a total of twelve articles, shows just how problematic it is to apply the phenomenon of fascism to the particulars of the Arab world, where only superficial attempts were made to imitate fascist role models – and only by individual, politically unsuccessful groups at that.
In addition, the Arab world lacks the most important factors that researchers regard as the preconditions for the rise of fascist movements in Europe, namely, a centralised state with a well-functioning bureaucracy, a high degree of urbanisation and secularisation, and a firmly established democracy that fascists can proclaim as their enemy.
© Qantara.de 2013
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
Die Welt des Islams: Islamofascism?, Vol. 52, Nr. 3-4, Winter 2012, Brill, Leiden