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Nick Cohen on Islamist Fascism.

with 10 comments

Islamist Fascism?

“It has been a mistake on the part of socialists to see Islamist movements either as automatically reactionary and “fascist” or as automatically “anti imperialist” and “progressive”. Radical Islamism, with its project of reconstituting society on the model established by Mohammed in 7th century Arabia, is, in fact, a “utopia” emanating from an impoverished section of the new middle class. As with any “petty bourgeois utopia”, its supporters are, in practice, faced with a choice between heroic but futile attempts to impose it in opposition to those who run existing society, or compromising with them, providing an ideological veneer to continuing oppression and exploitation.

It is this which leads inevitably to splits between a radical, terrorist wing of Islamism on the one hand, and a reformist wing on the others. It is also this which leads some of the radicals to switch from using arms to try to bring about a society without “oppressors” to using them to impose “Islamic” forms of behaviour on individuals.”

“On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combating racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never”.

Chris Harman (SWP) The Prophet and the Proletariat. 1994. As John Rees (former SWP) from Counterfire and the Stop the War Coalition spoke in support for arming the Kurds at a demonstration for Kobane on Saturday a Kurd stood on his left hand side.

The Kurdish comrade was carrying a placard that read, “Kurds are heroes of fight against Islamist Fascism“.

Nick Cohen is spot on when he commented in his Observer column this Sunday that “Without knowing or caring, Kurds protesting against the world’s willingness to let Kobani fall to Islamic State have inflamed two acute causes of western discomfort. They had no hesitation in describing radical Islam as “fascism” and seeing Kobani as our generation’s Guernica.”

I personally am reminded of the first time I came face to face with Islamist reaction, in 1983, at the annual May Day Demonstration in Paris.

Iranians are all too aware that their Islamic regime has May the First as a holiday as well, one of those “progressive” gestures that seduced, for a time, their own and Europe’s left.

On this occasion a group of die-hard Khomeini supporters, knotted in a tight bunch and carrying posters of the Guide of the Revolution,  tried to join the trade union march.

Almost instantly a mixed bunch of Iranian exiles, French leftists, Turkish and Kurdish left-wingers, stood in front of them.

As I joined we shouted “le fascisme ne passera pas!”  Fascism will not pass!

The Khomeinists were pelted with bottles, stones and (in my case) a beer can. The followers of the Imman’s Line backed off, and then returned throwing tear gas directly in our faces. As the police began to intervene they disappeared. A report in Libération the following day asserted that the Islamists had been caught by the police assembling some heavier weaponry. The blood-stained tyranny that Khomeini and his followers  built was vastly more important in turning many European leftists against Islamism ,

Amongst many other events (above all the Algerian civil war of 1990s) this profoundly marked my own attitude towards Islamism. In Algeria the Islamists began – well before the cancellation of elections in 1991 which the Front Islamique du Salut was predicted to win and which let loose the decade’s fighting between a vicious military and murderous armed Islamists  – to target leftists, feminists, intellectuals and democrats. They murdered and tortured throughout that war. They have not stopped trying since.

Since then most leftists, certainly in continental Europe, have has a visceral hostility to Islamism, certainly those who’ve had contact with the tens of thousands of exiles from countries where it’s had an impact  – Chris Harman, the SWP, their splinters,  and the British Respect Party excepted.

The idea of standing on the “same side” has been ridiculous for a long-long time, well before Al Qu’eada – not to mention the rise of Isis/Islamic state and its international supporters   (in Algeria) of Soldats du califat (Jound al-Khilafa).

With this in mind, like many of my fellow leftists I have followed the tragedy in Kobane closely. Not just because it’s a tragedy – that counts enormously – but because we are politically implicated.

Cohen writes, “Flow in waves to Kobani,” demonstrators chanted as they mounted vain protests against Turkish inaction that amounts to collaboration. “Stop Isis fascism.”

This deeply echoes in our hearts. With even John Rees on board he is right to mention that, “there are heartening stirrings of camaraderie on the European left. Cohen observes that the plight of the Kurds and others attacked by Isis/Islamic State, raises broader issues,

To me, it seems obvious that militant religion is a radical reactionary force. In whatever form it comes, it grinds down on women’s rights and denies the basic freedoms of liberal society. It is equally clear that its Islamist variant relies to an extraordinary degree on fascist Europe’s Jewish conspiracy theories. If you doubt me, look at the declaration in Hamas’s founding covenants that Jews “were behind the French Revolution [and] the communist revolution”. It might have come from Hitler. (Although even Adolf would have hesitated to repeat Hamas’s claim that Jews also created “the Rotary Clubs [and] the Lions” to achieve “Zionist interests”.)

Radical Islam, like fascism before it, wallows in the cult of death: “Death to intelligence! Long live death!” cried Franco’s general José Millán Astray in 1936. “We love death more than you love life,” cry today’s Islamists fighters. There is the same support from the financiers and businessmen, from what we old leftists used to call the capitalist bourgeoisie, and the same shared belief that women can never aspire to be anything other than dutiful wives.

In one respect, radical Islam trumps the fascists and, indeed, the communists. The old totalitarianisms could promise their followers that death would lead only to the greater glory of the Fatherland or the inevitable triumph of the working class. An Islamist can tell his willing executioners that death will not only further Islam’s global triumph but take the martyr to paradise too.

Why do people in Europe, at least on the left,  not describe these groups as ‘fascist’? Cohen suggests two reasons.

Firstly, “Many liberals fear that condemning radical Islam in clear leftwing language will allow the white far right to paint all Muslims as extremists.”

Secondly, that Islamism had no state so it can hardly be a ‘real’ fascist movement. He notes, that this no longer holds: The ‘Caliphate’ has been declared, “the Islamic State, with its own supreme caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and all the modern weaponry the Iraqi army left behind when it fled.”

The first argument is really an argument at all, but a description of the way some liberal-minded people find it hard to be ‘judgemental’ about anything, above all about different ‘cultures’.

It’s the second point that’s the principal one.

It may well be that to analyse Islamism in terms of classical fascism is not always helpful.

As political concepts ‘fascism’ or ‘Nazism’ (terms the European left has had no problem in using loosely for the domestic far-right, as the name Anti-Nazi League and Unite Against Fascism indicate) are only ‘ideal types’. That is, lists of very broad features. Features such as a dictatorship  based on ultra-nationalism, ‘total’ control, repression of dissent, and the imposition of ‘class harmony’, and genocidal  racism, are just that ‘features’ not structures that get stamped into history that pop up in the same form whenever there is a social crisis. All of these elements shift and change.

Some theorists have suggested that the way the radical right can take up ‘left’ radical themes, the “popular”, even “democratic” side of the ideology, is key (Laclau, Ernesto. 1977. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism). One can see this in the way radical right-wing ‘anti-system’ parties attack  ‘rotten’ and ‘elite’  Parliamentary institutions today,  in the name of the People. Populist ‘Anti-imperialism’ also had its 1930s parallel in the far-right’s hatred of the ‘plutocratic’ nations (the US and the UK), controlled by the Jews.

Such a ‘democratic’ element – in the sense of ‘popular’, appealing to the “people”, even if it’s only to follow the Leader, is not always present.  The NSPD’s ‘race’ doctrine, many be grounded on the Volk, but other far-right groups, notably the ‘first’ fascist movement, Action Française, agitated before the First World War against the ‘Jacobin’ idea of the People and advocated a restored French Monarchy freed from the ‘anti-France of Jews, Freemasons, socialists and Protestants.

So fascist ideas are fluid – we might consider how people tried to gauge them when they first appeared, before Mussolini and Hitler, not to mention other authoritarian regimes in 1930s Europe. Perhaps only hostility to Marxism, or rather ‘class struggle’ (which divides the ‘nation’), the left-wing labour movement are constant (European) themes. A deeper link to the ‘anti-Enlightenment’ and hatred of the doctrine of human rights is possibly another.

Comparisons with Islamism tend to halt at the point where Harman begins: the Quranic ‘utopian ideal“. Comparisons only go so far: if the Islamists loath the Enlightenment it’s because  it brings the secular world forward, and gives humans, not god (and the ‘Book’ he apparently dictated), rights – a more diffuse reaction than the European far-right’s fight against the Left.

A, book, and speech bound, ideology, a religion, can be infused with a vast variety of visions. Time, class, culture, and individuals inflect it, or rather them – Islamisms. The political result however is fairly clear: a striving for a state, a regime, a power to bring it about. This, for all its various forms, tends towards “monocratic, authoritarian” and “enforced”  rule (as Michael Mann has described Islamism). This is only a tendency, as Turkey’s Islamists only drift towards this, and retain a strong democratic, if populist and Turkish nationalist, and increasingly corrupt,  authoritarian  element.

Yet, as Mann indicated, when it comes to the radicals,  Islamists are not nationalists. They do not adopt extreme blood and soil nationalism (although there are racist strains in their belief in the superiority of Arabic and the ‘original’ Muslims, underlined by the belief in the importance of descent from the Prophet and his companions).The state exists for them for a purpose, to impose and regulate the Sharia which is for ‘everybody’. Ideally Islam would embrace the world, not just a country. (Fascists. Michael Mann 2004)

There are other important differences.

Today’s radical Islamism is clearly not the product of a political crisis in which the bourgeoisie tries to head of a militant labour movement (one classical way of looking at fascism). Some claim that it is the ‘product’ of the failure of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. This fails to explain its growth in countries like Nigeria or Indonesia, or indeed Pakistan. What then is it? Nobody has a definitive answer and this is certainly not one.

Harman was suggestive when he talked of Islamism as a ““utopia” emanating from an impoverished section of the new middle class” – except that,as Cohen notes,  many of the backers of Isis/Islamic State are extremely wealthy.

From this pious bourgeoisie to an Islamic state we have to go through some important stages. ‘Islamic Behaviour’ – Harman’s words – is not so much a slogan as the key to an Islamist “transitional programme“. Radical Islamism (a continuum with other forms of political Islam) has the following features – worked through with the class and political aspects already mentioned.

  • The importance of the Sharia as the basis for ‘micro-powers’ (the equivalent of leftist ‘liberated territory’) Islamists have begun (Algeria is the paradigm, repeated in many countries, such as Egypt, recently efforts were made to create  this in Tunisia) by imposing their ‘law’ on areas where they establish their initial control. Sharia  ‘patrols’ treated as relatively harmless in London, are set up to impose Islamic norms on public life (no alcohol. women forced to war ‘modest’ dress, ‘unclean’ behaviour repressed). From small groups of the ‘pure’ (Salafists) to radicalised Mosques as centres of this ‘power’, we then turn towards creating a ‘mini-state’.
  • The Sharia state: some Islamist movements (as in Somalia, Al-Shabaab – Islamic Courts Union) centre their strategy on this ‘law’.
  • All forms of Sharia law are discriminatory and barely  merit the term ‘law’ in the modern sense: there is no equality before the Sharia, no equal rights for women or for non-Muslims.
  • This legal-political apparatus can be best be looked at in terms of the coercive categories Michael Foucault described in Discipline and Punish and Nietzsche’s history of the violent ‘training’ of people to accept legal norms in The Genealogy of Morals.
  • Radical Islamist  ‘morality’ has exceptional importance in that it is potentially more intimately imposed than even the most brutal of previous totalitarianisms; it is intended to regulate not just the heart by every single human gesture (for a comparison amongst orthopraxic religions, the  list of taboos followed by ultra-orthodox Jews, that are purely intended for believers, is about the nearest example).
  • Radical Islamism, whether Shia or Sunnite, has shown itself to be radically sectarian: always splitting internally, and only uniting against other Muslims tendencies (Shia and Sunnite).
  • It is only ‘anti-imperialist’ in the sense that it is ‘anti’ any movement but its own.
  • It becomes genocidal when these norms are imposed on those who refuse to accept them, for religious, anti-religious, or national reasons.

One conclusion is clear: these movements are not and can never be the allies of the left against anybody. Cohen rightly sounds, nevertheless, a note of caution,

If you live in Iraqi Kurdistan, the fine distinctions between fascist state-based totalitarianism and religious totalitarianism have vanished. All you know is that for decades, mass murderers have marched towards your homeland wanting to slaughter you because you are from the wrong race or worship your god in the wrong way.



10 Responses

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  1. Andrew, it’s a shame you couldn’t have been at this conference this weekend http://www.secularconference.com/agenda/
    It was ridiculously expensive but was still full, and the high cost would have probably included paying for security of which there was a lot, since Islamists unsurprisingly made threats to the organisers and the conference..
    It was amazing to sit in a room full of people who shared basic assumptions such as that socialists and communists don’t make alliances with Islamists.
    The speakers at the conference, most of them women, and most from Muslim majority countries, (Grayling and Dawkins, highlighted in a Guardian article, raised awareness of the event but definitely did not represent the politics of the conference) have direct experience of Islamism and had nothing but contempt for the part of the UK left who promote Islamists. The SWP et al were referred to as the stupid left, the ex-left, the new right, and so forth.


    October 13, 2014 at 12:42 pm

  2. Another reason why the ‘fascist’ label is often avoided is because the term has so often been abused by its being fixed indiscriminately to all manner of regimes, movements and individuals. Hence Third Period Stalinists talked of ‘social-fascism’ when referring to social-democrats, Cold Warriors talked of ‘red fascism’ when referring to Stalinism, various African and Middle Eastern regimes and Latin American dictatorships were regularly referred to as ‘fascist’ or their leaders equated to Hitler, and some silly leftists talked of ‘fascism’ when referring to Thatcher. It won’t be long before some leftists call our Kippers ‘fascist’; certainly the current anti-UKIP campaign is using the same tactics of the anti-fascist groups.

    It’s therefore not surprising that many people who are appalled at ISIS and its antics are nonetheless wary of sticking on it a label that has been indiscriminately stuck on a wide range of contenders. For me, historical specificity is an essential part of analysis: classical fascism is essentially a modernist movement, intimately mixed up with a modern capitalist society; ISIS is positively mediaeval. Does that make me dislike it any less because I don’t fix the ‘fascist’ label on it? Not at all.

    As for Cohen, he is using the Kurdish question to do his usual shtick of attacking the left — every one of his pieces comes around to do that. The Kurdish question is just another hook for his obsessions of attacking his bête noir to his left and cheering at the sight of Western military hardware giving someone a good walloping. He could be discussing the weather, the roses in his garden or the latest Youtube cat video and he’ll turn it into an attack on the left.

    Dr Paul

    October 13, 2014 at 1:33 pm

  3. I think it’s helpful to look at the different kinds of far right that flourished in early 20th century Europe before and alongside the rise of the fascist state. Many of these movements were anti-statist, revolutionary conservative and militia- rather than state like; also many were openly religious/catholic in nature, more attached to notions of divine law than blood and soil – hence more directly comparable with religious militia movements such as Isis. Heidegger remained a “revolutionary conservative” and condemned the national socialists for descending into statism and biologism. Some of Zeev Sternhell’s early work on the origins of fascism is useful precisely because it rejects the ideal-type of the totalitarian fascist state. Also some of Arendt’s remarks on the panslavic, extra national inspiration of the early nazi movement. What is fascinating about salafism in western contexts is it’s ability to speak the cultural politics of the left – to mobilize multiculturalism, anti racism, anti imperialism, respect for difference and difference feminism in defense of what is essentially a cultural nativism of the far right. What I sense in recent left abdication’s to salafi jihadism goes beyond Chris Harman’s arguments in favour of strategic alliance. When the left fails to oppose salafism on the pretext that this would be a flagrant expression of “racism” (!) there is a real psychological alliance at work. This I think is new.


    October 13, 2014 at 1:59 pm

  4. The use of the label “fascist” on groups like ISIS often says more about the person applying the label than about the group to which it is applied. Once a group has been labelled “fascist”, then the politics-by-numbers approach dictates that anyone who has doubts about a military response to it can be labelled an “appeaser”, etc. etc. Exactly the same language of “anti-fascists” versus “appeasers” was used – not least by Cohen and the like – to justify launching the war which caused the chaos which has given rise to ISIS in the first place.

    The left has lots of enemies. Fascism is one of them, although it is largely exhausted as a serious threat in most of Europe – the new hard right in Europe is a rather different set of beasts. Brutal religious zealotry is another, separate set of enemies. In its Islamist form it is almost certainly more dangerous than fascism at the moment. But its causes, internal dynamics, and the threats it poses in its Middle Eastern heartland and in Europe are different from those of fascism, and therefore the responses need to be different.


    October 13, 2014 at 2:46 pm

  5. Cohen wrote of the real existence of solidarity from the left for the Kurds Paul – and I think you can guess where he got that from……

    That the word ‘fascism’ is used in the way you describe Paul, and still is, is true – I had forgotten about social fascists, it’s gone out of favour recently. . But my own take on ‘fascism’ is to ask, Isabella, exactly what you are suggesting we begin to do, to look at its fluid origins – notably in that mixed up decade before the 1st World War (if not earlier).

    Unfortunately Sternall is very inaccurate (notably on the Cercle Proudhon) on one subject I happen to know a lot about, Georges Sorel (the best study of him that I have come across is, Shlomo Sand, L’illusion du politique. Georges Sorel et le débat intellectuel 1900 – 1984 not translated into English). There is also the Cahiers Georges Sorel (which he was part of) which contains articles sharply critical (with detailed references) of Sternhell on a wider range of topics, including Action Française.

    You can acess their articles here:

    Arendt is a great heroine of mine, but her idea that bringing the “social question” into politics (On Revolution) was an original sin of the left is not one I share, and does affect her analysis of the far right in the Origins of Totalitarianism.

    What then did people before Mussolini and Hitler consolidated their ideology call the movements that became ‘fascist’. Answer they tended to look at things like Boulangism – at its height in 1889 (France), pre Great War anti-Semitic ‘Leagues’, the equally anti-Semitic Christian social(sometimes ‘socialists’) in the German speaking world (notably. Karl Lueger, Mayor of Vienna), and so on.

    Clearly Cohen is right to point to the way Islamists take part of their ideology from the latter source – a dose of Nesta Webster on the illuminati, a stronger dose of Maurras (Action française) on the same theme but minus the “nationalisme intégral”.

    I use specific concepts (from Nicos Poulanantzas’ book L’Etat, le pouvoir, le socialisme), which synthesise Marxism with some aspects of Foucault. I could go on……

    .But essentially I agree with Cohen on the need to say clearly that the Islamists are reactionary, not at all part of any potential alliance with the left

    Francis, calling Isis fascist, well that is what the Kurdish man standing next to Rees was saying.

    He is right, a thousand times right.

    Where we are going to disagree, big time, with Cohen, is on Cohen’s idea that people should back the “rebels” (who or what we will never know, other than that they must fulfil his interventionist liberal aims) in Syria.

    Andrew Coates

    October 13, 2014 at 4:25 pm

  6. Clue as to why I wasn’t there: “it was ridiculously expensive”…..

    Andrew Coates

    October 13, 2014 at 4:32 pm

  7. It’s certainly true that the term “fascist” (including “social fascist” etc) has been widely misused – especially by the Maoist/Stalinist left. But objections to the description of the likes of ISIS, Jabhat-al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, etc, as “fascist” (to be a bit more precise, “clerical fascists”) seem to me to be knit-picking pedantry: for all practical purposes they’re fascists and should be treated as such by the left.

    Jim Denham

    October 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm

  8. Certainly this makes this discussion seem of little importance,

    Just up,

    “Horror of Kobani: Headless corpses left in the street and victims with their eyes ‘cut out’, the savagery of Isis laid bare.

    Survivors of the fighting in Kobani have spoken of the horrors they witnessed as Isis militants took control of parts of the town from Kurdish forces.


    Andrew Coates

    October 13, 2014 at 5:23 pm

  9. Note, also, how the Guardianista liberal/”left” (and also, the SWP) had no compunction in branding Narendra Modi (undoubtedly a nasty right wing nationalist), a “fascist” after his victory in this year’s Indian elections:

    Jim Denham

    October 13, 2014 at 9:04 pm

  10. […] Source: Nick Cohen on Islamist Fascism. […]

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