ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: That we uphold imperialism.

Unidentified Man #2: Let's not call it democracy.

Unidentified Man #3: Just say we fight jihadists.

Unidentified Man #4: Islamic fascism.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're caught in a war on terror.

SIEGEL: All this week, we're focusing on the language and rhetoric that's become familiar since September 11, the origins of that language and what it's come to mean both at home and abroad. In part two of our series, the term is Islamic or Islamofascism. It's a phrase that we're hearing more of. Even the president has used it in his speeches. But what is an Islamic fascist?

NPR's Guy Raz has this report.

GUY RAZ: If you're looking for the new anti-fascist vanguard, go no further than your remote control.

Unidentified Man #5: Islamic fascism against the West.

Unidentified Man #6: It is just part of a global war against Islamic fascism.

Unidentified Man #7: We are at war with Islamic fascists, people that believe -

RAZ: To understand how fascism and Islam came to be uttered in the same breath, it's useful to visit Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. A few weeks after September 11, historian Paul Berman began trolling the Islamic bookshops on this street and he came upon the biggest scoop of his life.

Mr. PAUL BERMAN (Historian): The scoop was to discover that the philosophy underlying al-Qaida was a deep and intelligent philosophy, a thoughtful philosophy. It was insane, it was murderous, it was pathological -

RAZ: - but it was a philosophy, and Paul Berman ended up writing about it in his book Terror and Liberalism. It's a book found on many shelves in the corridors of power in Washington. Now, a large part of Terror and Liberalism is about the let Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was executed by the secular Egyptian regime in 1966. But beforehand, he wrote much of his work from a Cairo prison. And in those writings, Paul Berman recognized the intellectual underpinnings of al-Qaida, ideas strikingly similar to the European currents of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Mr. BERMAN: The kinds of doctrines that one might find by reading some of the Nazi or fascist philosophers of the European past and the kinds of doctrines or writings that I could easily imagine might prove to be seductive.

RAZ: The seductive echoes of Mussolini and Hitler.

Mr. ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking foreign language)

RAZ: Fascists believed democracies didn't work, and as World War II historian Michael Burleigh points out -

Mr. MICHAEL BURLEIGH (World War II Historian): Fascists are completely contemptuous of liberal democracy and the rule of law, both domestically and in the international sphere.

RAZ: They also tended to believe in cosmic conspiracies, usually involving Jews, Communists or Americans. So to make the leap from European fascism to extremist groups like al-Qaida doesn't seem implausible. But Paul Berman never wrote about Islamic fascism. He was writing about the origins of modern day Islamist terror groups. Yet somehow, the words Islam and fascism got conflated.

President BUSH: It's Islamofascism. It comes in different forms. They share the same tactics.

RAZ: The definition of fascism is almost beside the point. Historians don't agree on what it means. Some have tried to define it, including Columbia University professor Robert Paxton. But Paxton's explanation, his book Anatomy of Fascism, took 300 pages.

Professor ROBERT PAXTON (Columbia University): What fascism was, historically, was a kind of consensual dictatorship, a dictatorship with enthusiastic popular support, in democracies where people had grown to feel that the democratic way wasn't strong enough to get their country out of a crisis.

RAZ: Since its inception, many people have used the word fascist as an epithet. Normally, people on the left describing people on the right. But today it's quite the opposite. For example, here's Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and Nazism, they were ridiculed or ignored.

RAZ: And here's Newt Gingrich.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): It's fairly clear that the people we are describing are all fascist. They're all prepared to use the power of the state to impose a totalitarian system on others.

RAZ: And of course the president.

President BUSH: These people are totalitarians. They're Islamic fascists.

RAZ: Fascism, or the perceived struggle against it, is now an idea embraced mostly by the right, and there's a reason why. Again, historian Michael Burleigh.

Mr. BURLEIGH: It may well appeal to people on the left who might not agree with the president's foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq and so forth, but who are what you might call tough minded liberals.

Professor DOUGLAS STREUSAND (Marine Corps Staff College): The problem with a term like Islamofascism is that it suggests to many people that Islam itself is fascist.

RAZ: And that's why Douglas Streusand doesn't think it works. Streusand teaches Islamic history at the Marine Corps Staff College in Virginia. He's not saying there aren't parallels to be made between al-Qaida and fascists, but that doesn't really matter because according to Streusand, most Muslims interpret Islamofascism as a slur, and it leaves many in the Muslim world feeling alienated. This is also a point made by Professor Kahled Abou El Fadl, who teaches Islamic Law at UCLA.

Professor KHALED ABOU EL FADL (UCLA): The thing that I think a lot of Americans don't realize is all this Islam hating materials, they reach the Muslim world. They are well aware that practically every single week, a new Islam hating book comes out, a book that talks about Islam as an inherently evil religion, an inherently dangerous religion.

Mr. RICHARD PERLE (Former Pentagon Advisor): I think the term fascist or fascism is an emotive term, which is applied with precision by very few people.

RAZ: This is former Pentagon advisor Richard Perle.

Mr. PERLE: It's a terms that's tossed around to describe people on the right who are disliked by people on the left, and it's very late in the game to become prissy about how the term is applied.

RAZ: Richard Perle doesn't use the term Islamic fascism, but he does believe that fascism in this case isn't totally misplaced. He says the fight faced by Western countries today is very similar to the fights they faced in the past, the struggles between a liberal democratic vision and a totalitarian one. And this is why Terror and Liberalism author Paul Berman argues that it's instructive to view Islamist terror groups through that prism of fascism, because that way, he says, they can be defeated ideologically.

Mr. BERMAN: If we can see that this movement has at least some qualities that put it in the modern world that are similar to the fascism of Europe, then we can conclude from that that it's possible to conduct an argument, and we should be conducting that argument.

RAZ: And for Paul Berman, it's also the only way to win the argument.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

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