Articles > Middle East > The origins of facism: Islamic Facism, Islamophobia, Antisemitism
Oxford University Press, 25.10.2006

The origins of facism: Islamic Facism, Islamophobia, Antisemitism
Walter Laqueur
The use of the term “Islamic fascism” and “Islamofascism” by both politicians (including the president of the United States) and publicists in various countries has created a minor storm and led to a search for the origins of the term. I have been among those mentioned in this context in some Arab media and the Wikipedia; this is less than half correct but it is probably true that I was among the first to explore the origins of the term "clerical fascism" and its meaning


The use of the term “Islamic fascism” and “Islamofascism” by both politicians (including the president of the United States) and publicists in various countries has created a minor storm and led to a search for the origins of the term. I have been among those mentioned in this context in some Arab media and the Wikipedia; this is less than half correct but it is probably true that I was among the first to explore the origins of the term "clerical fascism" and its meaning. In Fascism: Past Present Future (Oxford University Press 1996) I noted that the term “fundamentalism” was imperfect for a variety of reasons, but in the present context it had come to represent a radical, militant fanatical movement trying to impose its beliefs on others by means of force. I also wrote:

Fundamentalism, is not of course, an Islamic monopoly as it can be found in Christianity and Judaism as well as in other religions . In extreme forms it is manifested in political terrorism (such as the antiabortionist murders in the United States, in Kahanism in Israel, in Hindu attacks against Muslims in India.) Fundamentalists have exerted political pressure on secular governments in America, Europe and Asia. But only in the Muslim world have radicals acquired positions of influence and power and are likely to have further successes, from Algeria to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and even beyond.
I see no need to add or subtract to these lines looking at them at perspective of a dozen years.

The term “clerical fascism” is very old. I found it first mentioned in 1922 even before Mussolini's march on Rome. It referred to a group of Catholic believers in Northern Italy who advocated a synthesis of Catholicism and fascism. A multi volume German language Encyclopedia of Religions published in the 1920s contained an essay entitled “Faszism (sic) and Fundamentalism in the USA” and it argued that political fanaticism fueled religious intolerance, how extreme nationalism and populism went hand in hand with radical religion and how the Ku Klux Klan cooperated with the fundamentalists. Both were based on the same social strata, the poorly educated and discontented looking for primitive and violent solutions.

In later years it was often argued that there could be no lasting understanding between fascism and religion simply because both were holistic weltanschauungen staking claims to the whole human being in all respects. Furthermore, a fascist-religious synthesis was said to be impossible because all varieties of fascism were deeply nationalistic; modern secular nationalism was irrelevant, if not anathema --especially to Islam. However, if Hizb al Tahrir and some other radical Islamic groups rejected nationalism and advocated Khalifat, a Muslim world state, many other militant Islamic groups found it not particularly difficult to combine a fanatical religious belief with militant nationalism (and this is true also for some East European countries). The same is true with regard to the present leaders of Iran who with all their religious fanaticism aim at the domination of the Persian Gulf region (and beyond) not by Islam but by the Persian state—and never made a secret of it.

A German Catholic émigré writer Edgar Alexander (Edgar Alexander Emmerich) published an interesting work in 1937 in Switzerland entitled The Hitler Mythos (which was translated into English and reprinted after World War Two) in which he compared National Socialism with “Mohammedanism” and found similarities between them. Alexander was no Islamic expert, in his book he stressed all along the central importance of hatred and fanaticism in the Nazi movement, the brutality of its repressive policy, its strong appeal to social and national resentments. He referred frequently to Hitler's “Mohammedanism” but made it clear that this referred only to external organizational forms (whatever this meant), to mass psychological effects and militant fanaticism. Alexander believed that Mohammed’s religion was based on sincere religious fanaticism (combined with political impulses) whereas Hitler’s (political) religion and its fanaticism had different sources. Alexander also quoted in this context Hitler's “Mein Kampf” to the effect that ideology however truthful and vital was insignificant as long as it was not represented by a fighting movement. In other words –the sword as the means of the propagation of the new religion.

So much about religious and quasi religious impulses. Fascism made certain inroads in the 1930s among secular elements in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. It should be recalled that Haj Amin al Husseini the Mufti of Jerusalem spent the war years as Hitler's guest in Berlin. But in retrospect there are doubts with regard to the depth of Haj Amin's religiosity. He requested for instance the bombing of Jerusalem by the German air force. It is unlikely that a truly pious Muslim would have acted this way.

Some general observations about fascism: How much did the various European parties and governments of the 1930 and 1940s which we now call “fascist” have in common? A great deal, they were anti democratic, anti liberal, nationalistic, populist militarist, aggressive, they believed in violence, there was one party and a leader; when in power, propaganda and terror (from above) played a decisive role. But there were also considerable differences between them—Hitler, no doubt, would have emphatically rejected the fascist label—Nazism, as he saw it, was a specifically German phenomenon and despite certain ideological communalities and common interests was quite different from Italian fascism. Later day political scientists have frequently invoked a “fascist minimum” such as the specific features mentioned earlier on. Unless a certain movement shared this minimum of features it would be misleading to call them “fascist”. The debate as to which features are crucial continues to this day.

Thus the Austrian Catholic regime in power from 1934 to the Anschluss in 1938 was often called "clerical fascist" by its enemies, but it was certainly far more Christian than fascist in inspiration. The same is true, for instance to the Slovak regime headed by Monsignor Tiso during World War Two which was authoritarian rather than totalitarian. In Franco's Spain there was a fascist party but it was one among several political forces and by no means the decisive one. The country was far more similar to an old fashioned military dictatorship than a modern fascist regime. Argentine under Peron was regarded by some political scientists as a a ideal type fascist regime but this assessment never gained wide currency because Peron was far more in the tradition of Latin American caudillos, military dictators of the populist variety, than in the tradition of European fascism.

On the other hand it is not difficult to find strong religious influences among certain Europe fascist movements, not at all in consonance with the pagan influences in Nazism or the anticlericalism of Italian fascism. Romania is a good example, priests took a prominent part in the activities of the Legion of Archangel Michael (later the Iron Guard,) the same is true with regard to the Ustasha regime in Croatia. The fascist Rexists in Belgium were originally the leading Catholic youth movement in that country. Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist group wrote after the war that his movement would have been far more successful if it had been more religious and one could also refer in this context to father Coughlin in the United States (or the Reverend Gerald Smith) who believed in the coexistence of a Christian spiritual revolution and fascism.

In brief, fascism was less monolithic than Communism, there were significant differences in theory and practice from country to country, and coexistence with militant religion was by no means ruled out in principle or in practice.

In their search for the origins of the term “Islamofascism” investigators have relied, not surprisingly on computer search engines which have pointed to two leading students of Islam in this context-- the distinguished French Orientalist Maxime Rodinson and the British writer Malise Ruthven. In 1978 in a polemic against some of his leftwing friends such as Foucault who welcomed the revolution in Tehran as a great progressive achievement. Rodinson wrote in Le Monde that far from being left wing in any meaningful sense, movements such as the one headed by Khomeini and the Muslim Brotherhood were predominantly fascist, or to be precise constituted a form of “archaic fascism”. This comparison was picked up on later occasions by several other students of Iran sympathizing with the Iranian opposition, but the Iranian president Khatami also warned of the danger of fascism in his country in a speech in 2001 even though he did not use the term Islamic fascism.

Malise Ruthven, the godson of the famous traveler and Orientalist Freya Stark wrote in an article in the London Daily Independent in 1990 that unlike other non Western religions Islam has found it impossible to institutionalize political divergences: “authoritarian government, not to say Islamic fascism, is the rule rather than the exception from Morocco to Palestine”.

The use of the term “fascism” by both Rodinson and Ruthven is open to criticism. “Archaic fascism” is a contradiction in term, because fascism was a modern form of dictatorship quite distinct from older authoritarian regimes. Ruthven too seemed to be unaware of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism (and the debates on these lines). Ruthven followed up his comments in a number of books on Islamic fundamentalism in later years. Neither Rodinson nor Ruthven could be possibly charged with lack of sympathy for Islam and the Arab world to which they had devoted their life's work. Both were outspoken anti Zionists and critics of Israeli politics. Rodinson, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia was a Marxist and for many years a member of the Communist party; his autobiography (Souvenirs d'un Marginal, Paris, 2005) conveys an interesting account of his younger years in radical Paris circles.

But computer search engines do not go back very far in time and it is the merit of Martin Kramer to have disinterred a leading textbook of the 1960s Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa (1963) by the late Princeton professor Manfred Halpern in which he wrote that the neo Islamic totalitarian movements are essentially fascist movements. They concentrated on mobilizing passion and violence to enlarge the power of their charismatic leader and the solidarity of the movement. I knew Halpern, albeit not very well, and have to confess that I did not pay much attention to his argument at the time; it seemed to me misplaced. To what movements could he refer in 1963 when Gamal Abdul Nasser, a secular dictator repressing the Muslim Brotherhood, was in power in Egypt and his prestige was high throughout the Arab world?.. There were no “Islamic totalitarian movements” in Turkey (except perhaps the secular PanTurks), Iran, or Pakistan at the time True, there were totalitarian and fascist elements in the ideology and the practice of the Muslim Brotherhood with its branches in various Arab countries. The Brotherhood had been quite strong in the late 1940' and early 50', but after its repression by Nasser it amounted to very little.. It was only with the fall of Nasser and the breakdown of Arab nationalism and communism that Islamism had its revival. While Halpern's observations were wrong, (or to be precise not very relevant) at the time they were however to some extent prescient.

How helpful is the “Islamofascism” label at the present time with regard to the radical Islamists? There are striking parallels—the populism, the anti Westernism, the antiliberalism, the antisemitism, its aggressive, expansive, anti humanist character, the interpretation of Islam as both a religion and a totalitarian political-social order which provides answers to all problems of the contemporary world. It could be argued that while it lacks a Fuehrer or a Duce, the supreme clerical leader (such as Khomeini) fulfills a similar role and while there is no political party which has a monopoly, the mosque fulfills a similar function as far as the mobilization of the masses and their indoctrination is concerned.

But at the same time there are differences that should not be overlooked. Fascism was an European phenomenon, dictatorships outside Europe (such as for instance the Japanese regime in the thirties and forties) were bound to develop on different lines according to historical tradition and political conditions. The age of fascism came to an end in 1945. Since then there has been neo-fascism and neo-Nazism which also differ in certain respects from its historical predecessors and models. Radical Islamism could be interpreted as a post fascist movement. But such a label tends to exaggerate the role of its European predecessor and to downplay the specific homegrown, in other words, the Islamist elements. Hitler did not engage in Jihad and he did note want to impose anything like the sharia.

Unfortunately, the fascist label has been used rather indiscriminately in the past; the German Social Democrats were called social fascists by the Communists at one time , Roosevelt and the New Deal were branded as fascist, so were de Gaulle, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, President Bush and a great many other political figures since world war two. Political movements and regimes can be barbarous and genocidal—Pol Pot's Cambodia might serve as an example, but this does not make them necessarily fascist. It would be much more accurate to define the present Iranian regime as a new (populist) form of oriental despotism than as fascist.

It is one of the ironies of the debate on Islamofascism that some of those who have argued that Islamic fundamentalism is at most a cultural but not a political or military challenge to the West have had fewer hesitations to call Christian fundamentalism in the US and elsewhere at least “potentially fascist”. It is another irony that one of the main arguments against the use of the term has been the allegation that it was deeply offensive to Muslims all over the world especially to Arabs.

But whereas “liberal” or “secular” might cause offense in the Arab world, the term Fascism (al fashiye and al naziye) has never been , nor have Hitler and Mussolini been considered great evildoers. The negative connotation connected with fascism or Nazism are purely Western and have never extended to Asia and Africa and least of all to the Middle East. There are various good reasons to find the term Islamic Fascism wanting and unhelpful but the argument that it might cause offense outside Europe and North America is not among them.


If Islamic fascism is a dubious term so is, for different reasons, Islamophobia. It was first used in French in the 1980s but did not gain wide currency prior to the publication of a report by the British Runnymede Trust in 1998. This was followed by yet another report in 2004 by the Commission on British Muslims on Islamophobia. The report argued that Islamophobia, the discrimination and persecution of Muslims had become one of the major problems of Western societies. However, the new term soon came under criticism. There was no fear of Islam in any Western country.

Commentators identified eight components which they said define Islamophobia. Above all “Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.” But given the civil war in Iraq between Sunni and Shi'ites in Iraq and the many other conflicts between Muslim believers it will be difficult to find people in the West assuming that Islam is a “monolithic bloc”. The other seven components are not less dubious—such as the belief that Islam is separate and “the other”, that it is aggressive, a political ideology used for political advantage. True, there are people in the West who have reached such conclusions—as the result of reading the books of Sayed Qutb or listening to the speeches of the leaders of Iran who have been preaching precisely these doctrines. Another “component” is based on the complaint of exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society. Such emergence of alternative, separate societies in Europe is undeniable, but it is above all the result of the indoctrination of radical imams preaching “apartheid” as the only way to keep the commandments of their faith.

Islamic radicals too have criticized the term “Islamophobia” albeit for different reasons as an inadequate term. They suggest that a more accurate term would be “anti anti Islamic racism combines the elements of dislike of a religion and active discrimination against the people belonging to that religion.” The political purpose underlying this alternative definition is obvious but it is based on the manifestly absurd assumption of an Islamic race including Muslims from Kosovo, Senegal, Indonesia not to mention converts to Islam in Britain, France and the United States. Against this Muslim radicals have argued that Islamophobia is a new form of racism whereby Muslims are attacked not as as race but as a ethno-religious group, prejudice is no longer based on skin color but on notions of cultural superiority and otherment. This argument is equally feeble but even if it were true, it would still be wrong to use misleading terms (racism, ethnic group) that are clearly not applicable trying to define such prejudice.

If anything there has been indifference and lack of interest outside the Muslim world in Islam as a religion and its believers for a long time; paradoxically, such interest has grown in recent years, more copies of the Koran and books about Islam have been sold than ever before, there have been countless ecumenical dialogs and conferences sponsored by churches and other bodies. It is true that there has been growing fear of terror and those engaging in it, especially since 2001; terrorophobia would be a far more accurate term. There was and is also resentment against extremist movements aiming to impose their religious law and way of life on the rest of society. But this too hardly amounts to Islamophobia.

It is also true, that there has been xenophobia and also attacks against new immigrants at all times in many countries, but these attacks have not been on religious lines. In Germany, to give but one example, immigrants from Black Africa and the Far East have been attacked more often than Muslims, in Russia students from Black Africa and Christians from the Caucasus (Georgians and Armenians) have been attacked at least as often as often as those from Muslim Azerbaidjan. If there has been latent hostility towards Islam India would probably be a better example. But Islamophobia has never been used in the Indian context, hence the suspicion that “Islamophobia” came into being as a public relations stratagem (partly as a counterweight to antisemitism) in the West in which it was expected to have a political impact in view of guilt feelings prevailing in these countries. This is not of course to deny the existence of tensions and conflicts but these were and are mutual and the term “Islamophobia” clearly intended to allocate responsibility and guilt to one side only.


Antisemitism is in many ways yet another unfortunate term. That there has been hostility towards Jews as a people, a religion, a social or cultural group going back far into history and culminating in the mass murder during world war two is beyond dispute. But what is antisemitism? The term was coined according to many sources in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German writer originally of the far left who later in life moved to the extreme right. (The word was in fact used before and it even appeared in encyclopedias but Marr certainly gave it wide currency as pointed out in my The Changing Face of Antisemitism, Oxford University Press, 2006). But what did it exactly mean? Opposition to semitism, a term taken from the realm of linguistics. Semitic refers to such ancient and extinct languages as Phoenician and Accadian as well as many still widely used, including Arabic and Hebrew. But there is no Semitic religion or people or race and for this reason the use of the term has given rise to endless misunderstandings and deliberate distortion. Hannibal and Jesus Christ were speakers of Semitic languages but the antisemites clearly had nothing against them. Even the most rabid enemies of the Jews were not happy about the use of the term antisemitism; the Nazis did not want to antagonize their well wishers in the Middle East and during world war two Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda gave instructions to use the term as little as possible. Muslim antisemites have routinely argued that they cannot possibly be antisemites because they are themselves Semites.

Since 1945 even confirmed antisemites have distanced themselves from the term using various forms of circumlocution (such as for instance “cosmopolitans” in Stalin's Russia); sometimes they have done so for legal reasons, (racialism being outlawed in some countries) without however changing their attitude towards Jews. Some quite obviously use “antizionism” as a cover for antijewish attacks, but others have claimed that it is false to paint all critics of Israel with the antisemitic brush.

In brief Islamic fascism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, each in its way, are imprecise terms we could well do without but it is doubtful whether they can be removed from our political lexicon.



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