I am back, and finally I have access to my PC and my Internet connection. While strolling around the blogs and mail-lists that I usually visit, I have noticed that a heated discussion has sprung up around the Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week organised by the Neo-cons David Horowitz&Co. (i.e. Jihadiwatching Robert Spencer, and the other FrontPage’s pundits). One of the blogs that I co-authored ‘entered the lists’ thanks to Varisco’s post. The contention also reached ISLAMAAR, the mailing list of the Islam section of the AAR. During these two days I have caught up with the diatribe, which, meanwhile has seen an increase in the number of tensons. Hence, in the latest developments, FrontPage has labelled Tabsir as a stupid blog, and Spencer has counterattacked Varisco’s post and ended in dismissing all the academic establishment, ‘The academic establishment doesn’t work on the basis of reason — it just smears its opponents, and assumes the sheep will fall into lockstep.”
I was tempted to ignore this discussion. I wondered whether it might be useful or not to debate, and to engage in a tenson which inevitably lacks the great tradition of chivalric duels or the Greek agora diatribes. Furthermore, I have to admit that this debate has not attracted very much attention within the UK, and it appears to be one of these American (provincial) pre-presidential election games. Even our own home-grown Neo-Con, and Western Civilisation paladin, Melanie Phillips has totally ignored the event as well as the discussion, though she likes and supports the term Islamo Fascism. So, why should I comment on this event? I can tell you that, as an anthropologist, I am more interested in real people and real fieldwork, rather than fantasy-politick, in which labels are debated, discredited, defended, attacked in the old game of ‘I am right, you are wrong’. Yet there is something that really forces me to add my voice, and I hope it to be a quiet, reflexive, un-screamed, yet convincing one.
That ‘something’ is the word Fascism. Islamo Fascism is becoming a very popular expression, in particular among the right-wing western (but not only western) politicians, and it is slowly replacing more common labels, such as Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic radicalism, and even Islamic terrorism. The word is a neologism and its origin can be found not in the USA, but in the tormented land of Algeria during the extremely complex civil war of the 1990s. Yet now, Islamo Fascism is one of the key words of the increasingly less popular, and so increasingly defensive, American Neo-cons and Born Again Christians.
Fascism is a word that has a particular emotional and historical value for me. I was born in Italy, where Fascism developed from Mussolini’s ideas. Mussolini was a socialist politician, journalist, and convinced nationalist. Fascism has marked the history of my family. One of my grandfathers was a convinced Fascist; so convinced that he took part in the final and tragic phases of the Salo, Italian Social Republic. The other grandfather was part of the anti-Fascist, Catholic movement, or White Partigiani (which, despite some tensions, fought together with the Partigiani, who were communists and socialists).
In other words, I was born into a family which was the product of the successful, yet still troubled, Italian reconciliation process. Nonetheless, as you can expect, the two grandfathers disagreed nearly on everything. Only one thing united them, they believed that Americans were pathologically unable to understand what Fascism is and the differences that exist between it and Nazism. After reading, or even viewing video clips, about Islamo Fascism offered by the Freedom Center as well as Mr Spencer’s viewpoints, I tend to agree with my grandfathers. Although some ‘fundamentalist’ movements and radical Islamic ideologies may share, like many other aggressive and repressive ideologies, aspects with Fascism, the use of the terminology Islamo Fascism (or whatever other religious denomination one may wish to use as prefix) is an abuse to the historical drama that Fascism, and in particular Italian Fascism, has represented.
Fascism is a nationalist movement, based on the strong leadership of a Dux. It has an autarkic and protectionist view of economy, and is very suspicious of any form of religion, which should be controlled partially by the state. Fascism is an arrogant, strong belief in a superiority of the Roman, thus western, civilisation over any other. Fascism sacralised the secular leader and it is a very extremist secular creed (Pope and King have to stay where the state agree they can stay). Fascism is different from Nazism, and I have notice that Mr David Horowitz, as you can see for yourself here, tends to use Fascism as synonymous with Nazism. Fascism is a product of a certain way of understanding socialism, and Mussolini, like, funnily enough Mr Horowitz, swung to the far right, since he saw traditional socialism as a failure. Fascism advocated providing people with freedom, real freedom. Fascism was (and is) based on slogans and simplistic truisms, anti-intellectual and anti-academe spirit. It used to accuse scholars for disintegrating or opposing the real civilisation with their own intellectual ideas. The Fascist intellectual is the only one that Fascists recognise, the one that sees the ‘truth’ and does not ask questions, one that is practical, who is useful for the ‘cause’, one that has neither doubts, questions nor bias. The others should be demonised as enemies, false scholars and apologetics.
Of course, some readers would recognise easily some of these elements that characterise not only some Islamic movements, but also Italian, American, Dutch, and Danish right wing ones. Freedom, as well as liberty, understood in populist terms, has been often a strong slogan of Fascist ideology. So much that, by historical default, I become extremely suspicious of right-wing movements that defined themselves ‘House of liberty’, such as Berlusconi’s coalition (which by the way includes both the post-Fascist and not so-post new Fascists) or other ‘freedom labelled’ movements.
Said that, and strongly disagreeing with the propagandistic and sophistic use of the terminology which Mr Horowitz and for Spencer employ, we, as intellectuals and scholars have to recognize that within the Muslim world (and not within Islam as they advocate) there are troubles which cannot be adduced uniquely to the Palestinian issues, the War in Iraq, and the USA’s new, dangerously right wing, political approach. So, I welcome Mr Horowitz, Spencer, Kramer, and Pipes’ efforts to raise awareness of the issues we face. Yet I totally deplore and strongly criticise their approach and their views. At this stage, I even do not criticise their views of Islam. There is something more deep which makes me very suspicious and uncomfortable with their preaching style.
They, sometimes, are too reminiscent of that pre-Fascism Mussolinian rhetoric of ‘Civilization’, ‘Intellectual enemies’, autarkism, real Truths, essentialisation, and populist slogan-based rhetoric which, as an Italian and grandson of that tragic history, I have learnt to recognise and be suspicious of. As Americans, Mr Horowitz&Co. would never see the things in this way, they can be even emically offended by my etic observation, since they are just conservative pupils of the Leo Strauss school. Yet to an Italian anthropologist, British adopted, their rhetoric and the way in which they present their own argument reminds me of a very western civilizational unpleasant past.
These are cultural differences, but still they exist. So even if I can understand the reasons (beyond the fully legitimate economic ones) of raising awareness of the risk of what they call ‘Islamo Fascism’, I think that, with their methodology and style, they put us at risk of seeing old, and more western rooted, traditional Fascism, which I am sure would never affect probably the USA but rather my Old Europe. Even Israel, paradoxically and embarrassing as it may be, has seen, during these years, an increase of young Jewish Israeli descendants adhering to Fascist and Nazi ideology and movements.
Spencer has noticed that Varisco’s post and other scholars’ articles lack ‘a single actual statement to the effect that what we are saying about Islam is false.’ I think that before attempting to engage with Robert Spencer on this point, I would ask him to seriously reflect on one point: whether or not he may have a certain over defensive attitude which risks to exclude himself from any real debate, isolating his ideas in a autarkic selfishness prepacked for easy purchase by neo-Con and Christian Born Again supporters. I hope that this is not the case, otherwise, he is preaching instead of engaging in discussion and his efforts of offering an unbiased, real and passionate argument in support of ‘the Western civilization’ would reveal itself to be a tautology, a sort of ‘intellectual masturbation’ in which the end is a narcissistic glorification of one’s own beliefs.
I am sure that Mr Robert Spencer, or at least I hope, would demonstrate that this is not the case, and engage in a discussion which can challenge, and also offer some food to, the mind of whomever is methodologically sceptical or even extremely critical of his argument. If, by contrast, Mr Spencer and Mr Horowitz wish to find refuge in the historically preferred Fascist motto ‘me ne frego’ (I don’t give damn) or in still traditional demonization of whoever disagrees with them, well, I think that my most pessimistic views would be unfortunately confirmed.
So, I go back now to Mr Spencer’s invitation to challenge that what he and Mr Horowitz are saying about Islam is false. Although this may surprise some of my readers and the people who read my books and articles, I reply: Dear Mr Spencer (or Horowitz, or Pipes and so on) what you are saying about Islam is true, absolutely true. Surprised? Probably yes. But before, dear Mr Spencer, you add me to the list of the ‘enlightened’, there is a second part of the argument, which probably will be the one that you will disagree upon.
What Mr Spencer and the others say about Islam derives from their interpretation which is based on the interpretations offered by the movements and Muslims they wish to criticise. Then they essentialize it in an hermeneutic approach, which, like Gellner, and in different terms Geertz, (but unfortunately I have to say with less sophistication), views the Qur’an and the Hadith as the essence of Islam. In other words, they believe that Islam, as such, exists beyond complex elements such as individuality, emotions, environment and so on. Here is the reason for their constant reference, akin to that of a ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim, to some isolated extracts from the Qur’an and Hadith. I supposed (and please correct me if I am wrong) that Mr Spencer and Horowitz have never spent time, not days, weeks, nor months, with ordinary ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘extremists’, discussing and trying to understand the dynamics behind their way of thinking. Mr Spencer and Horowitz understand ordinary ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘extremists’ just by interpreting some extracts of the Qur’an that these Muslims refer to.
I believe that Mr Spencer and Horowitz merely read Qutb, al Banna, Afghani, the Qur’an and the Hadiths and so on, and from there, and the political views of ‘fundamentalist’ movements, they offered their own interpretation, not just of these movements or individual writers, but all Islam. They explain that Islam is a violent and blood thirsty religion through practices such as the ‘principle of abrogation’, and other traditional, but still debated, theological Islamic machineries. In other words, Mr Robert Spencer acts no differentially to those reprehensible commentators that, referring to the Talmud, wish to demonstrate that Jews are blood thirsty, power hungry, and even paedophiles. The intent may be different but the methodology is the same.
Yet try to fully discuss with ordinary Muslims, which are the majority, the ‘principal of abrogation’ or ijtihad, or even ask them for a detailed explanation of Qutb’s theory of governance, or Afghani’s interpretation of modernity, and you will discover that these elements play a very small role in their understanding of Islam. Mr Spencer, an extreme hermeneutic and also a historical unilinearalist, misses the main elements to explain, in a convincing way, the situation in which both Muslims and non-Muslims find themselves today. Therefore, the oppression of women which we find in certain Muslim countries or certain ideological views of radical movements, could not be reduced simplistically to the Qur’an and the Hadith. Indeed, Italy is not a Muslim country, but it shares, for example with North African culture, many of the misogynist views which Mr Spencer and others would consider to be a product of Islam as religion (even not as culture). How, then, would Mr Spencer explain such similarities (even in traditional sayings as well as practices)? I hope that he, or others for that matter, would not suggest that South Italy was for centuries under the Saracens.
Whoever would attempt to justify traditional Italian misogyny in such a way would attract derision.
However, Mr Spencer (along with the others mentioned above) often engage in something very similar. For instance, he attempts to link historical facts of the past to the present situation, so that Muslims, all of them, even the ‘moderate’ majority, are trying to reduce us to Dhimmitude, of the same kind experienced in Europe during the Middle Ages. Mr Spencer also uses the same historically unilinear reasoning and methodology for the case of Islamo Fascism, mentioning the meeting of some Muslim leaders with Nazi diplomats. The issues here are not that those Muslim leaders did not meet the Nazi and Fascist gerarca, they indeed did; neither is it the fact that they met them because Italy and Germany had, at the time, an hegemonic interest in the region, nor again the fact that Mr Spencer has omitted similar meetings and the flirtation of Yishuv Zionists with the same Fascists (see also my previous post on the topic).
My main problem with Mr Spencer’s argument is his idea that history does not change, his anti-Eraclidean vision of time. Mr Spencer and Mr Horowitz, willing or unwilling, seem to suggest that Muslims today still think and act as those at the time of Mohammed or the Middle Ages. I suppose that this should imply that there exists something like a Muslim mind. I do not know because they do not say if this is the case. But the idea of a Muslim mind does not make sense to an anthropologist more than the existence of a specifically Christian, Atheist, Jewish (and so on) mind. Of course, even those Muslims that refer, like bin-Laden, to historical concepts, do so in a totally different context, with totally different aims and strategies.
So, I would like to ask Mr Spencer and Horowitz some clarifying questions. I hope that they can help me to understand better their analytic viewpoints beyond the political rhetoric statements or the populist necessity of the catchy slogan and easy argument:
- Do you think that there is only one ‘real’ interpretation of Islam as religion so that only certain Muslims (those whom you labelled Islamo Fascists) are the ‘real’ Muslims?
- Do you think that Muslims think, behave and act in a certain way because of Islam?
- Do you believe that Western Civilization is a unitary, unilinear historical process derived from a unique historical reality?
- Do you believe that there is an attempt to reduce to the state of Dhimmitude the West, so that we have to assume that there exists a unitary plan and project aimed to achieve such a goal? If so, who is behind the plan?
- Do you believe that Muslims are a lobby trying to take hegemonic control of universities, mass media, and other key elements in order to implement the Shari’a at a global level?
- Is the Shari’a one? If so, could you provide a clear example of the applied version? If this is not the case, where can we find what you define as the Shari’a?
- Which is, according to you, the difference between Islam and Muslims? Are they the same?
- How do you define Fascism, radicalism, fundamentalism in general, and what kind of elements can make it ‘Islamic’?
- Does your definition of the West and Westerners include also the Muslim generations which are born in Europe or the US?
- What is your definition of Civilization?
- What makes the West a Civilization?
- Why do you refer to the flirtation of Muslim leaders with Fascists but omit any reference to the parallel relationship of Zion-Revisionists with the same Fascist leaders? What is the difference at a historical level?
I hope that you decide to enter into a discussion, which can be critical and based on disagreement, and not just, to paraphrase your sentence ‘smearing the opponent, and assume[ing] the sheep will fall into lockstep’. Here is an occasion to debate what is important from two completely different positions.
Academic, as well as intellectual, discussion is based on criticism and questioning, response and re-criticism. Any duel has its rules and chivalric code; I have thrown down the gauntlet, to you the choice of the weapon.