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Are We Fighting 'Islamic Fascists'?

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By David Ignatius
Friday, August 18, 2006

"This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom," President Bush said last week after Britain announced it had foiled a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic. I have been pondering since then his description of the enemy. What are "Islamic fascists," and does this phrase make sense in describing America's adversaries?

The judicious columnist's answer is, of course, yes and no. A look at the history of fascism produces some startling parallels to the revolutionary movements that have swept Iran and other Muslim countries over the past several decades. But the phrase is misleading, both in its broad reference to Islam and in its evocation of another century and another war.

One of the old college textbooks gathering dust in my basement is Ernst Nolte's "Three Faces of Fascism," a classic study of the social forces that created fascist movements in France, Italy and Germany during the 1920s and '30s. It's a dense book, but it concludes with one unforgettable insight. Fascism, Nolte said, is "resistance to transcendence." By that, he meant that fascism was a rebellion against the liberating but destabilizing transformations of modern society.

In the countries where it took root, fascism began as a middle-class assault on the liberal elites who were creating that era's version of globalization. Jews were a special target, but they were also symbols of a larger internationalist movement. In one passage, Nolte described the focus of fascist protest in language that might apply to today's globalized world: "The leading class performs its task of establishing the technical and economic unity of the world, and emancipating all men for participation in this undertaking, in ever new political and intellectual compromises with the hitherto ruling powers: It is the society of synthesis."

The fascist revolt against "transcendence" was driven in part by rage against the perceived corruption of the European elites, who were thought to have grown rich during the booming, inflationary years of the 1920s at the expense of the hardworking middle class. The final malign motivation in Germany was shame and indignation over the nation's defeat in World War I. Fascism gave ordinary people an explanation of what had gone wrong in their lives -- and someone to blame.

I do see many of these same factors in the growing popularity of radical Islam in the Middle East. The baseline for this movement remains the Iranian revolution of 1979, which exploded in the region's most modern and, if you will, "transcendent" state. The shah's Iran was rushing to embrace the global economy. Its elite was liberal, secular, international -- and also wretchedly corrupt. Ordinary Muslims felt, with some justice, that they were being left out of the spoils of this new Iran -- that their hard work was being used to buy mansions on the Cote d'Azur. That radical populism lives on in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dressed in his ostentatiously humble golf jacket.

I remember how that revolutionary indignation swept the Middle East in the early 1980s, when I first began covering the region. The most popular preacher in Cairo in 1981 was Sheik Kishk, who would ridicule the corruption and Western ways of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and his family. That same year, Sadat was murdered by Muslim terrorists.

Today's Muslim radicals, like the Nazis in Germany, gain support by promising dignity for a people who feel shamed by defeat in war. That's the appeal of Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah: The Arabs feel they have suffered 40 years of military humiliation from Israel. Nasrallah offers the tonic of defiance and, for the moment at least, a sort of victory. That makes him a hero, even though he brought on the ruination of Lebanon.

Back to President Bush and his "Islamic fascists." In many ways, this phrase does capture the rage that fuels America's enemies. What is most pernicious about the movement is that, as with European fascism, it has made Jews the symbol for larger forces that confound angry Muslims. This is perverse: The corrupt elites who obstruct Iranians, Egyptians, Syrians and Saudis today are their own rulers and their legions of fixers and bagmen, not Israeli Jews.

Yet I balk at the term. The notion that we are fighting "Islamic fascists" blurs the conflict, widening the enemy to many if not all Muslims. It's as if we were to call Hitler and Mussolini "Christian fascists," implying that it is their religion, not resistance to transcendence, that is the root cause of the problem. The revolution that began in Iran in 1979 must be contained so that it doesn't destabilize the region more than it already has. But it will only be broken from within, by people who are at last ready to transcend.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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