• Friday, September 29, 2023
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The new fascism


Last week, the city in which I lived and worked for half a decade was bombed by terrorists, leading to the death of 36 and the maiming of many more. Belgium is a welcoming and civilised country and its capital, Brussels, is a beautiful and cosmopolitan city. Last week’s bombings of the metro station at Malbeak and Brussels airport brought a rude shock to a Europe that was barely recovering from the Paris bombings that claimed so many lives. Malbeak is the metro station that leads directly into Place Schuman, the sprawling ornate building that houses the European Commission. I have taken that route almost every other week for meetings with colleagues at the European Commission and its affiliate institutions.


According to the philosopher Spinoza, in all matters of politics, the most important task is not to weep or to laugh, but to understand. These reflections aim to contribute toward understanding the new evil in order better to defeat it.


What distinguishes the apostles of the New Fascism from others is the fact that they are inherently predisposed to the use of violence or other extra-constitutional means across all borders to advance their agenda. During the classical age of Islam, especially during the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence had more or less accepted the notion of the separation of the religious and temporal sphere. Rulers could get on with the business of rulership as long as the dar-el-Islam and Muslims are free to practise their religion. Political Islam, on the contrary, blurs this distinction, insisting on the fusion between the temporal and the spiritual in the sphere of politics. Political Islamists must be differentiated from the mainstream of Muslim faithful who believe in working through existing constitutional institutions and who make a distinction between the spiritual and the temporal in politics.


Groups like Boko Haram, ISIS and al Qaeda represent the most familiar faces of terror today. To fully understand what inspires them and to better appreciate their ontology, aims and methods, we have to reflect on the religious roots of political Islam and why it seems to have this propensity to generate violent extremism in our twenty first century.


The French philosopher and public intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy draws a parallel between European fascism and the current forms of political Islam which he categorises within what he terms “Islamofascisim”. This notion seeks to capture the similarity of the Islamist movements to those of European fascism and other neo-Nazi Far-Right movements. Both believe in the application of mindless violence in the pursuit of their cause; both inhabit an antinomian universe that violently excludes those who do not share their beliefs; both are nostalgic for bygone empires and despise modernity; and both entertain a millenarian vision of Armageddon between Good and Evil; a struggle in which they, defining themselves among the Good, expect to prevail.


However, there are several commentators, ranging from the historian Niall Ferguson and economist Paul Krugman, who consider ‘Islamofascism’ to be a rather misleading concept. It has also been pointed out that, while classical European fascism is ultra-nationalist, groups such as Al-Qaida despise nation-state boundaries. Whereas classical fascism is based on a theory of racism, political Islam unites and indeed transcends the races.


The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic-nationalist group in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century was certainly a major factor in the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism and its stepchild of Islamic terrorism. Figures such as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb have played prominent roles in the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and in the influence it has wielded not only in Egypt but throughout the Muslim world.


For Arab nationalists, there has been no greater historical catastrophe than the unilateral declaration of the State of Israel and the ensuing tragedy of Palestinian dispossession. After the Declaration of the State of Israel on 15 May 1948, there was a massive uprising by Arab nations in support of the Palestinian people. They were defeated and there was a massive outflow of refugees into the neighbouring countries. In 1967, 1968 and 1973, the Arab nations initiated military campaigns against Israel and were roundly defeated on each occasion. These defeats have been seen as ‘the great humiliation’ of the Muslim Arab Nation. The dispossession suffered by the people of Palestine and the serial military defeats that the Arabs have suffered in their struggles against the State of Israel with help from America and the West has reinforced a historic victim mentality and inspired the quest for a new Muslim renaissance.


The Iranian revolution and the overthrow the Shah in 1979 led to the emergence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the spiritual leader of a new Islamic constitutional state. Like all revolutionary states, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not been content to keep its revolution at home. Iran has provided logistical, financial and political support to Islamist parties and militant groups throughout the world, notably in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan and Nigeria.


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s was a catastrophic military misadventure for the former Soviet Union, as they sought to prop up an ideological ally in a country that they regarded as being within their sphere of geopolitical influence. The Afghan Mujahideen that took on the communist invaders were supported by the USA, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan, among other foreign powers. Volunteers from throughout the Muslim world joined the Afghan Mujahideen, prominent among them the scion of a wealthy Saudi family by the name of Osama bin Laden.


These groups saw the Afghan war as a conflict between Islam and atheistic communism. The withdrawal of Soviet forces in May 1988 gave renewed confidence to the Mujahideen in the rightness of their cause. With the capitulation of the Soviet Imperium, their searchlight now turned to America and the West, with whom they believed they had an account to settle; an account relating to their support for Israel, the dispossession of the Palestinians and support for venal Arab tyrannies.  These were the events that were to lead to the attack on the Twin Towers in November 2011 which was known to have been masterminded by bin Laden and his acolytes.


The ’War on Terror’ waged by George W. Bush and his neoconservative brethren has only served to bolster the new fascism. The invasion of Iraq was a disaster which was to trigger the Arab Spring, which led to the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Syria is bleeding to death, with a humanitarian catastrophe that continues to haunt Europe and the West. The new fascism is gaining in strength as well as audacity.


We can identify four variants of the new fascism. First, there is what we would term ‘traditional political Islam’, associated with the Sunni Brotherhoods in Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere. Second, we have ‘parliamentary Islam’, whose adherents believe in working through existing political institutions. Third, the Wahabbi-Salafi tradition, a rather austere group associated with Saudi Arabia. And fourthly, we have ‘Global Jihad’, a group that deploys violence as a means of establishing a universal caliphate. It must also be pointed out that none of these groups would completely eschew the use of violence or terrorist methods. The choice of whether they would or would not is largely dictated by the situation and conjuncture of forces on ground. Although they may differ in their approaches and methods, they are united in their commitment to the use of Islam as a political force to unify all Muslims and to capture political power that would enforce Sharia as the fundamental law and grundnorm of civil government.


Radical jihadis explain the backwardness of their societies in terms of oppression by tyrannical regimes – regimes that are propped up and supported by America and the West. They also decry the collective humiliation by Israel; a country that they believe could not survive without American military, financial and political support. Most of them believe the ultimate solution lies in a return to a more authentic version of Islam. They also believe it is the duty of all Muslims to fight for global jihad to reclaim their dignity and to ensure that the rights and honour of Muslim peoples and nations are protected and upheld. For example, bin Laden and al Qaeda declared their objectives to be, among others: forcing America to remove its military presence from the Middle East and the Holy Lands; ending American support for Israel; and returning East Timor and Kashmir to their original Muslim ‘owners’. They also want to see imposition of Sharia in countries with significant Muslim populations such as Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. Instructively, a few years before he was killed by American marines in May 2011, Osama bin Laden was reported to have declared Nigeria to be ‘ripe for Jihad’.


Political Islam, as expressed in the garbs of Global Jihad operates on the basis of unlimited political objectives. It makes no distinction between military and non-military targets. Its adherents operate on the basis of the principle of taqiyya (dissimulation). Lying and deceit are legitimate ways of dealing with those they regard as enemies. Their military approach is based on a continuous hammering of defenceless populations through a tactical doctrine they term fitna. By constant attacks and killing, they hope to drive their enemies to complete despair, where they would see no hope but to succumb. Thus means and ends are fused together into a strategy of total war that seeks the complete subjugation of their victims.


Europe and the world must rise up to defeat the new fascists. Only strong democracies can defeat the enemies of liberty. But we must always keep in mind that the fact that the rhetoric and praxis of political Islam is not entertained by the vast majority of Muslims. Unfortunately, in much of the West, the war on terror and the discourse on religious extremism have tended to lead to a misunderstanding of the religion of Islam, and, in some cases, to denigration of Muslims and their faith, identity and way of life. This is a trap that we must avoid at all costs.

Obadiah Mailafiya