Radical Islam is the New Totalitarianism

The third anniversary of the U.S.-led war in Iraq has focused attention on postwar planning, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the possibilities of civil war. Commentator Joe Loconte says these issues shouldn't distract our attention from the horrifying vision of radical Islam.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. The third anniversary of the war in Iraq has focused debate on whether the U.S. should stay and whether the sectarian violence amounts to a civil war. Commentator Joe Loconte says what's happening in Iraq should not distract attention from another emerging debate, about the ideology of radical Islam.

JOE LOCONTE, reporting:

There seems to be less talk these days about the political grievances of terrorists and more talk about their murderous ambitions. There are fewer voices demanding greater empathy for Islamist rage and more calling for recruits to overcome it. And these voices are coming from inside and outside the Islamic tradition. Last month, author Solomon Rushdie joined a dozen prominent thinkers and journalists to call for resistance to religious totalitarianism.

Their signed document, while dismissing accusations of Islamophobia describes a global struggle that pits Democrats against theocrats. Nothing, not even despair, they write, justifies the choice of totalitarianism and hatred. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman found himself stunned by a recent interview on Al-Jazeera television, the Arab network that sometimes rationalizes terrorist violence.

An Arab American psychiatrist described the war on radical Islam to the TV host as a battle between rationality and barbarism, civilization and backwardness, a contest between those who treat women like beasts and those who treat them like human beings.

President Bush has made exactly the same argument since the 9/11 attacks, linking the theology of militant Islam to that of fascism and communism. His national security strategy says America faces a totalitarian ideology that thrives on terror, enslavement and murder. Bush repeated the theme earlier this week, both in a press conference and in a speech in Cleveland, Ohio in which he called the terrorists in Iraq totalitarian fascists who seek to spread violence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

It's critical for politicians and public intellectuals to warn us about the nature of new international threats. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and philosopher Lewis Mumford did much the same in the 1930's during the rise of Nazism. Writing in 1939, when America was in no mood for another European war, Mumford called German fascism a deliberate return to barbarism. He rejected the view that Nazi aggression could be explained by political injustices and he pleaded for U.S. military intervention.

Mumford's description of fascism, its glorification of war, its hatred of democracy, its delight in physical cruelty, reads like a playbook for Osama bin Laden and his loyalists. More public thinkers are facing the possibility that Islam is being transformed into a new strain of the fascist disease. Why?

One reason is the violent reaction of many Muslims to the cartoons mocking the profit Muhammad. The other, much more serious, is the rise of an authentic fascist in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He's the leader who calls Israel a tumor and vows to wipe it off the map. He also appears determined to acquire nuclear weapons.

The barbarians, it seems, have returned. Their brooding racism, their genocidal ambitions, their corrupted spirituality. We've seen their likes before, and like their predecessors, they will not be appeased. We may disagree over how to defeat them, but let's have no more debate over what this fight is really about.

SIEGEL: Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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