It has become popular in some left circles to label Islamic movements which bomb and kill as fascist or at least fascistic in their outlook and actions. In contrast others on the left have seen Islamic fundamentalism as a chaotic and contradictory anti – imperialist movement of the oppressed. Both opinions are mistaken and dangerous. Despite some similar characteristics to past movements, such assertions are superficial, partial and therefore far from adequate. Indeed, such partial labelling is part of the current problem as well as seriously misleading.
It is true that Fascism was brutal, murderous and sought to ruthlessly gain territory by armed conflict, as do militant Islamic fundamentalists. But so too did most capitalist states during their colonialist and imperialist stages. It is also true that fascists genocidally eliminated human communities who opposed them in occupying resources they wished to control, as many militant Islamists do. But so too did the North American governments with regard to the native Americans, the Spanish in South America, the British in various parts of Africa and more recently the Zionists in Palestine, to name but a few.
It is therefore not good enough to latch on to specific characteristics which are similar and then go on to draw general conclusions – and sweeping ones at that! To my mind those on the left who do so are demonstrating their immaturity as well as frequent sectarianism. A much more detailed consideration of the phenomena of Fascism and religious fundamentalism, (of which Islamism is a part), is necessary. More detail and accuracy is necessary to make adequate sense of the world we presently live in and to know how best to react to these changes. The treatment of such socio-political developments needs to be thorough.
To be thorough it also needs to include an assessment of the utter failure of the left to create an alternative pole of attraction to religious radicalism and to the new forms of right-wing radicalism. In this regard oppression and disgust need to be viewed with peripheral vision and not narrowly focused only upon economic deprivation. Some of the most militant and aggressive are not from poor backgrounds, nor are they all those who have failed to prosper under the system. This wider viewpoint is particularly relevant, not only with reference to Islamic fundamentalism, but also to the reaction against this phenomenon and immigration both of which are assisting the appearance of neo-fascism.
The contrast between Fascism and Islamism.
Fascism is much more than simply being brutal and intolerant to those it considers the ‘other’. From the period of the Egyptian Pharaohs, Persian autocrats, through the Greek colonialist empire of Alexander, and on to the expansion of the Roman empire, practically every elite controlling societies – at one time or another – behaved in that way. Incidentally beheading, burning, crucifixion along with concentration camps, are not recent inventions of modern depraved individuals and movements. Such inhuman brutality has been in the repertoire of Catholic and Protestant establishments and government agency’s over centuries.
Fascism since its emergence in the 20th century has predominantly been, nationalist, imperialist, racist and sexist. But has also been more. Fascism, as a modern form of totalitarianism, has sought to actively structure and manage the inevitable struggle between capital and labour. Fascism in its modern form is a product of the capitalist system in crisis. Its purpose, when it first arose, was to reconcile and regulate the class struggle – within the capitalist mode of production. This was its attraction to the capitalist class particularly during the 1920’s and 30’s periods of crisis and class conflict. And this regulatory function was also the reason that Fascism was attractive to large sections of the working class – when this class also felt existentially threatened. So the past, present and any future danger of Fascism is that it can be attractive to broad sections of the working and middle classes – when they see no radical alternative.
In contrast, one of the weakness of Islamic fundamentalism is that it is not attractive to broad sections of the working and middle classes – even in countries dominated by Islamic ideology. Islamic fundamentalism is only a beacon for a small proportion of Muslims and an even smaller proportion of converts to Islam. It is true that Islamic fundamentalism in the form of ISIL and other such groups have become expansionists (now in the forming of a territorial Caliphate) but they are clearly not nationalist, not racist and not imperialist in the normal senses of the words. For nationalism, racism and Imperialism were the means by which the dominant form of capital (which was interest bearing), controlled by the banks, sought to dominate national and international economies via industrial, merchant and interest bearing capital.
Fascism retained a commitment to capitalist manipulation and involvement of big capital in developing production and consumption across the world it sought to conquer and control. On the other hand Islamic fundamentalists seek to create, or rather recreate, a modern version of a Caliphate in which there are no national boundaries, no racist discrimination and no direct commitment to local or global integration and production. Production on a national or global scale requires cultural and religious tolerance and co-operation between peoples. These are three characteristics that fundamentalists such as ISIL abhor.
So like the Caliphates before them the ISIL elite aim to spread religion and consume the world’s wealth, rather than maintain production in order to create it. So Islamism is not another form of Fascism even if it shares some characteristics with it. Just like Catholicism, Islam is a pre – capitalist form of religious ideology and so is not fit for purpose for the economic structure of modern capitalism, let alone a post-capitalist society. Modern Islamic fundamentalism is simply a militant version of a reactionary form of social ideology with its dualistic mode of thinking and total reliance on superstition and myth for its existence.
The roots of Islamic fundamentalism.
It needs to be remembered that modern Islamic fundamentalism began many decades ago in the Middle East and began as a response to and reaction against capitalist modernity both economically and culturally. Capitalist economics via colonialism and imperialism had dispossessed, and dislocated local economic activity and introduced different cultural values throughout the world. All of which were experienced by the majority population in many middle eastern countries as losses with very little gains to offset these losses. Resentment against this process eventually flowed into anti- colonialist and anti – imperialist movements.
However, political independence, once gained, did not bring economic security and well being. Instead, it brought more of the same but administered by a local elite (often claiming to be socialist) rather than a European imperialist one. Predictably this situation created a disaffected and frustrated working class, even though for a time it also created career pathways for the middle-classes within and without the state. It was during the post-colonial period that a return to the fundamentals of Islam was seen by some Muslims as the antidote to the exploitative practices, corruption in politics and state along with the decadent behaviour of western capitalist culture.
Egypt was a significant arena for the theoretical growth of this fundamentalist phenomena within Islam so it is worth considering some of the ideas which fuelled its growth there. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, was one expression of disillusionment with the inaptly named Arab Socialism headed by Gamal Nasser in Egypt, but it was not aggressive enough for some Egyptian intellectuals. One such critic was Sayyid Qutb, a secular intellectual who went over to Islamic Fundamentalism. After a visit to the USA he rejected the rampant decadence of capitalism and the political support he saw there for Israel. He therefore called for the creation of a Muslim ‘vanguard’. And in the 1960’s he wrote;
“The forming of this vanguard begins with an individual who believes in the faith coming from God to mankind; and in him begins the existence of the Islamic society.” (Quoted in ‘Fundamentalisms Observed.’ Martin and Appleby. Page 371.)
After this it cannot be surprising to read that many other such ideas emerged during that period and after. Reflecting a more fatalistic and assertive expression of Islamic aggression is the following statement;
“The Qur’an makes it clear that, whether we want it or not, war is a necessity of existence, a fact of life, so long as there exists in the world, injustice, oppression, capricious ambitions and arbitrary claims….and that is why Islam has recognised war as a lawful and justifiable course for self -defence and restoration of justice, freedom and peace.” (Hammudah Abdalati, ‘Islam in focus’, page 142.)
There is a definite ideological link between those mid-20th century ideas and practices, which runs through Islamic fundamentalism up until the 21st century emergence of ISIL. This latter extract demonstrates both the threat militant Islamism poses (ie ‘war is necessary’) which energises the Islamic extremists, but it also reflects its overall weakness in the 21st century. The Qur’an was written in a period in which a call to engage in a religious war clearly had a chance of success, so much so that an empire was built upon this call. Islam was not alone in that regard. Indeed, much later the appeals of the Catholic elite for a war against the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem, also found a multinational audience willing to respond and risk their lives on ten such crusades.
The limits of religious fundamentalism.
However, religiously inspired causes – sooner or later – always tend to tear themselves to pieces as they did in the case of Christianity and Islam. The last example of precisely this sectarian outcome was in a 30 years war between Catholic and Protestant elites, for economic and political control of European states. In addition to being irrelevant, such is the nature of modern warfare, that only a combination of industrialised nations now have sufficient state power and resources to conduct a war on the scale necessary to win any serious territorial conflict. It needs to be added that a victory in such total wars is always decidedly Pyrrhic.
The age of religious wars has gone. ISIL’s armed contingents along with its ideology could easily be outflanked as soon a really serious effort was made. Far stronger previous Islamic incarnations, than ISIL were defeated in the past. Even if ISIL managed to cling on to a significant area of territory, Islam and its religious elites have no serious cadres which sufficiently grasp the complexity of productive activity and they also lack a serious economic analysis of capital. As we have seen, Islamic fundamentalism is critical of much of the moral and political attributes engendered by the capitalist mode of production but has nothing else to put in its place except ‘terror’. Its bankruptcy and frustration is evident in its increasing reliance upon devastating acts of terror by individual cells. Its ideology is reformist and reactionary, not revolutionary and progressive. It cannot unite broad sections of humanity or recruit them to its sectarian cause. Islam in general is also exceptionally reactionary with regard to half the global population – women! Its time has surely past. For example;
“…..Muslim society does not socialise men to win women through love; they are badly equipped to deal with a self determined woman; hence the repulsion and fear that accompany the idea of women’s liberation…..Fathers and husbands feel horrified at their own family and sexual patterns being transformed into western patterns….(which leads to the ) mutilation of the women’s integrity, her reduction to a few inches of nude flesh whose shapes and forms are photographed ad infinitum with no other goal than profit. While Muslim exploitation of the female is cloaked under veils and hidden behind walls, western exploitation has the bad taste of being bare and over exposed. (Patina Melissa, ‘Beyond the Veil’ , page 167)
I hope this brief contribution has assisted the reader to avoid confusing the issues of radical Islamism and Fascism. I suggest it is important that revolutionary humanists are able to tell the difference and to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of both forms of potential totalitarian dictatorships. This is because both are a threat to the emancipation of all working people from further exploitation, oppression and prejudice. It is also important to recognise that although in the 21st century both Islamic fundamentalism and neo-fascism have roots in the fivefold crisis of the capitalist mode of production, one is actually more dangerous in the long run than the other.
The roots of Fascism and neo-Fascism.
So in the 21st century, there is a potential problem of fascistic developments, (as there was in the 20th). Actually in 2016 it is as yet only neo-fascism. The real threat of neo-fascism and full blown fascism arises from within nations not from within religions. In the 1920’s and 30’s, when the last profound economic and social crisis had sufficiently devastated the lives of millions of working people there arose among them a yearning for a solution to their problems and fears. In Europe other socio-political movements had failed to provide satisfactory solutions to these problems but fascism appeared to offer one. In Europe the fascists tried to give shape and focus to the dissident forces arising from this profound socio-economic crisis. In every country they attracted significant support from workers and capitalists. By offering scapegoats along with a programme of populist and socialist policies, fascists in three European countries (Italy, Germany and Spain) gained sufficient popular support that they succeeded in gaining control of state power.
In Europe and North America particularly we see a similar pattern evolving. Radical right-wing members of the elite are funding political movements which despite the obvious causes of workers unemployment and poverty – capitalist crisis – scapegoat the immigrants. They pretend to be concerned over the contraction of public services but instead of pointing to the reduction in funding by the pro – capitalist elite they again blame immigrant workers. However, let’s not imitate the ostrich or pretend that this developing situation is entirely the fault of the neo-fascists. Humans are not born racist or fascist, they have to become so. Exactly how and why working people become so is not a subject for this article.
However, it is a fact that many workers in the nations of Europe are increasingly anxious about being gunned-down or blown up as in Madrid, New York, London, Paris and now Brussels. They are also concerned about increasing levels of unemployment, low wages or salaries, and suffering from reductions in the quality and availability of social services. Since there is very little believable alternative proposals being offered by the left, then some workers are supporting neo-fascist policies. This and the simplistic response by the politically correct of classifying all these workers as racists and fascists, are dangerous developments. Apart from a relatively few determined right-wingers and racists, many people are learning and choosing to be racist and neo-fascist out of a heightened sense of vulnerability and the perceived needs of self-preservation. If the real culprit for their problems is not sufficiently and convincingly pointed out to them, then it cannot be surprising if many of them orientate toward the neo-fascists and blame a scapegoat.
Is History repeating itself?
Despite the differences in technology, is not too difficult to recognise that the present economic and social crisis bears a considerable resemblance to the one in the 1920’s and 1930’s. At the economic level it is characterised by a crisis of relative-overproduction. At the social and political level it is characterised by failing states. Once again there is a clear yearning for a solution to the existential fears of millions of people. There is also a growing anger over the continued disintegration of living standards, which will inevitably explode in violence – sooner or later. Nor is it too difficult to recognise the fact that extreme right-wing political movements are gaining acceptance in Europe North America and elsewhere as they did in that previous crisis. Sadly what also seems to be a similar pattern is the role the ‘left’ is taking with regard to these problematic developments.
The soft left is too committed to social democracy (ie democratic capitalism) to be sufficiently radical to defend the living standards of working people. This means they cannot act to focus the rising discontent in a progressive way in order to curtail even the worst excesses of the owners of productive, merchant and finance capital. This leaves the debate open for the demagogues to exploit. The situation of the so called ‘hard’ left means it is also currently unable to act in this capacity. It is so split into rival political dogmatic sects that it cannot even act as a focus for all those who recognise the need to go beyond capital. There is an urgent need for the left to engage in self-criticism with regard to its own failure and the resurgence of neo-fascism. It also needs to adopt radical attitudes and policies which attract working people rather leaving them to become the dupes and tools of the those who are intent to establish totalitarian forms of capitalism.
What is desperately needed in the present situation are non-sectarian groups of people who are capable of explaining to the wider community the difference between Islamism and Fascism. This explanation needs to include an assessment of their reactionary content and the reasons why neither can solve the economic and social problems created by the domination of the capitalist mode of production. It also needs to be made clear that western neo-liberal domination and armed interventions in the middle east, along with austerity in Europe, are not simply the result of misguided and heartless politicians and military chiefs. They are also the symptoms of the unfolding logic of the capitalist mode of production in the 21st century – the need for resources, markets and profits. These symptoms, therefore, cannot be overcome by a change in the politicians or the complexion of political parties in government. That is only tinkering with the symptoms, whilst supporting or ignoring the cause. These symptoms can only be removed by a revolutionary transformation of the mode of production to a post-capitalist form.
Roy Ratcliffe (March 2016)