The term ‘Islamo-Fascism’ has been in vogue for sometime among those who dismiss Islam as a political system, especially on the American political right. For the most part I have never paid attention to their arguments, thinking they were simply a means of discrediting Islam-as-religion with tenuous links to the hated Nazis.
Maybe some, even many, use the term this way. Yet there may be more of a connection to fascism-as-ideology than is properly recognized. Certainly I did not consider this before, due to the over-connection of fascism with the Nazis.
I picked up on this possibility reading a book published in the mid-80s, titled ‘Religious Strife in Egypt: Crisis and Ideological Conflict in the Seventies’. It approaches religious tension from the perspective of social and labor transition within Egypt’s political system. Only a small section addresses the relationship between Islamist groups and fascist ideology, but it was academic, not populist discourse.
The basic idea summarizes fascism as the economic rule of the petty bourgeoisie, as opposed to the wealthy, the lower class, or the administrative technocrats. In order to maintain and maximize their position in society, they must rely on the power of the state. Otherwise, the wealth of the upper class or the populism of the lower class might undue them.
Other definitions contain different nuances, but the following analysis will rely on the book in question, which describes other aspects of fascism as:
- Intense nationalism
- Elitism and chauvinism
- Emphasis on the role of the family
- Focus on youth and their regimentation
- Revolt against ideologies
The book was written in the 80s, and political Islamism has changed, or may have changed. Yet it is intriguing to measure up how today’s candidates – Muslim Brothers and Salafis – fit this criteria.
In terms of economic class, the Brotherhood fits the bill as they are generally understood. While some members are wealthy, most come from the educated middle class which was starved out of real social and political participation during the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak eras. The Salafis, meanwhile, are considered lower class. They would not immediately fit this key fascist indicator.
As for the other bullet points:
- Intense nationalism: Both can qualify, especially if nationalism is tweaked to represent the Islamic umma. The MB has toned this down since the revolution, but it is in their blood. Even if it means Egypt alone, both MB and Salafis preach their Islamism is best for the nation.
- Militarism: Both can qualify, especially if anti-Israel agitation is allowed. There is much rhetoric of liberating Jerusalem, for example. But while it can be argued this aspect is toned down also, it is more apparent true militarism is not a significant characteristic of either movement. It was so for the MB, but they have long adopted more malleable tendencies.
- Elitism and chauvinism: I would wish to pause on chauvinism lest I make the same mistake I did about fascism. If it is akin to ‘a woman has her place’, then it fits both groups, though the MB is far more ‘liberated’ than the Salafis. As for elitism, there is a palpable MB tendency to look down on and criticize the Salafis, even though there are close ideological links.
- Emphasis on the role of the family: Dead-on, for both. Earlier this year a MB figure urged MB members to marry only in their group (reflecting on elitism as well). Furthermore, the family unit is preached as the basic organizational principle in society, from which Islam takes root in the community.
- Focus on youth and their regimentation: For the MB this has always been a characteristic, as the group is highly disciplined and draws members especially among youth with leadership skills. The Salafis are more fuzzy and do not tend to have organizational hierarchies. Theirs is an ideological affiliation, centered around charismatic preachers.
- Revolt against ideologies: Just above the Salafis were shown not to qualify here, but the MB certainly does. While maintaining a strong commitment to political Islamism as a concept – and with it sharia law – there is not much more in the way of definition. This could change if the group is forced to govern, but they have shown a strong preference for flexibility in ideas. Especially in the 70s they turned away from strong ideologues who wound up in other organizations, many of which were violent.
To summarize, then, there is a legitimacy to discuss Islamo-Fascism. It is not at all clear that this is necessarily true of political Islam as an idea, but a good number of the historical circumstances of the Muslim Brotherhood have affinity. Whether or not it is fair to say this of the current Muslim Brotherhood is another question, as so much is up in the air. Do they mean their words, or are they a means to power before true colors are revealed? Who can say? Their books betray them, but many of their words betray their books.
They could well be on their way to becoming the equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democrats.
While such an outcome is more likely than them becoming Europe’s Nazis, it is far too early to pass judgment on either account.
- The History of Salafism in Egypt – January 5, 2012
- Who are We and What Do We Want? Evaluation of the Muslim Brotherhood – November 16, 2011