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Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Islamo-Fascism" in the history classroom...

I teach primarily online, so my classes are centered around discussions. An extra-credit discussion I have run in several recent World Civilization courses has been a discussion of the term "Islamo-Fascism."

The first time I did this, I didn't offer much in the way of an introduction. I simply recalled the term and its use in the media and asked students if they thought it was a valid term. Discussions were predictably superficial. Without more help, students do not differentiate between different forms of or labels for authoritarian government or movement. For them, fascism = authoritarian = non-democratic = totalitarian = bad = evil = not America. So, more recently, I have introduced the discussion as follows:

I'll admit right off the bat to being very sceptical of the term "Islamo-fascism" that has gotten so much attention recently. What does it mean? Why was this term coined? What message does it convey? Is the message it conveys a valid one? The point of this discussion is not to engage in emotional rants, but to consider this historical term as historians: We are faced with an historically-laden term that is circulating widely in the media. How do we, as historians, react to that term?

A student in an earlier section of this class posted this comment. I will post it here and my response to get our discussion going:

The message Islamo-fascism conveys is a valid one because it generally implies supreme rule by one person, or in the case of Iran, the President (who is not technically running the country, only responsible for implementing the constitution and the exercise of executive powers) who must get approval from the Supreme Leader.

Okay, but we could call this "authoritarian". Pinochet, Castro, Stalin, the Roman emperors, the Pope - all these historical figures have filled the criteria of being a single leader to some extent.
Now, Iran is more democratic that most of us care to believe. There was indeed a period in the mid 1990s when things were looking up. Elections mattered so much that "relatively" liberal leaders got elected, candidates that did not meet the total approval of the Supreme Spiritual Leader. It is again in a state of decline, however.

For discussion, I'll offer you the following defintion. Fascism - based on the standard examples from Europe - might be described as:

IDEOLOGY: Italy and Germany: - anti-socialist- anti-capitalist- anti-liberal- anti-conservative- various forms of nationalist apartheid: Slavs and Africans in Italy, Jews, Sinti, Roma, etc. in Germany.-

SYMBOLS: an idealized past era ("fascist" itself a Roman/Latin term)

- military style of action (force instead of compromise, military organization and action)
- military origin of earliest supporters (veterans' organizations in some countries)
- uniforms and ranks within the party organization
- destroying the organizations of political enemies
- sometimes chaotic, but progressively disciplined, channeled- "movement"/revolutionary political action, not stability and gradualism
- recruit the young, especially males
- person-orientated focus, local groups: "F├╝hrerprinzip" is partially centrifugal in the early stages
- mass political party, not an elite party of cadres, but mass party with broad membership
- large membership not required at first, only lack of restriction by class, while class was often the decisive criteria for a sense of belonging to other parties. Fascist party memberships are not based on economic interest groups.
- later expanding clientele
- once in power: totalitarian expanse of membership

There are standard lists of attributes usually associated with "fascism". I would submit that while some apply to present-day Islamic radicals, not enough apply to make the term analytically useful.

How well does my list of attributes of historical fascism match up with what the textbook says about fascism?

Have I put any dents in your favoring of the term, if you do? Do you think enough of those attributes can apply, even cross-culturally, to make the term analytically useful?

Do people like David Horowitz, who propagate the term in the American media, analyze the term at all or is it simply a label?

Over the course of the ensuing discussion, I strive to get them to consider why the term is being used: Is it used by our political leaders to foster a sense of history and historical clarity and understanding of the real danger? Is it a crude propaganda tool to tap into the spirit of the "greatest generation", much like President Bush's choice to have the same kind of dog as FDR, to mobilize sentiment for the Global War on Terror?

Methodologically, of course, the more detailed introduction results in better classroom discussion. It makes students put more thought into their writing. Student responses have been deeper and more varied. Sometimes it is still like pulling teeth, however, to get the students to do more than look up the term on Wikipedia and offer a brief thumbs up or thumbs down on whether they "agree."

Some students do not object to the "fascism" part, but do object to putting the religion "Islamo-" in front of it. That is always a good opening to point out the role of the Catholic church in some European fascist and Latin American authoritarian regimes and to return to discussions from earlier in the term about the political and non-political roles and natures of Christianity. Some students discuss this

It is more a teaching problem than a political/historical problem, however, that I sometimes find it very difficult to get students to actually invest the mental energy into looking at historical fascism - that is the context of this "lesson" more so than current events - and breaking the term down. There would seem to be a strong tendency to at least implicitly accept the term the way it is intended, a derogatory label for our enemies in the "GWOT," at least to the extent that fascism = bad people and our enemies are bad people.

As for the motivation behind the term, most students do not consider that aspect of the problem. Among those who do, I have students about equally divided between those who think the term is a legitimate comparison in the eyes of our administration and is being used honestly (whether accurately or not) to foster clarity about a real danger and those who see it as a cynical ploy to mobilize sentiment and govern in "wartime."

I have only had the discussion once in a live classroom, and that was not for 100-level World Civ, but for a 300-level class on the modern Middle East. I spent an entire lecture expounding on the historical meaning of fascism in the European context. Whether it was the opportunity for greater depth in the discussion, the higher level of student, a greater familiarity with the Middle East by the participants, or the smaller classroom, the term "Islamo-Fascism" got soundly rejected by the class.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very interesting and informative post.

It might be fruitful for the group to consider the place of justice and role of the "third power" in case studies.

Deployment of the "force of law" and relationships of regimes to core values and principles of human rights might generate some additional reflection.

Is there understanding or familiarity with the Haditha and traditions associated with the unfolding and changing principles and values of Islamic law?

10:31 AM  
Blogger Mark said...


It is here that I see that my schooling has been focused on Europe and not on the Middle East. How do you see the Haditha tying in here? Are you suggesting it broadly apply to human rights, core values, and the "force of law" etc. or are you referring specifically to a narrow application to the discussion of "fascism" in an Islamic context?

4:02 PM  

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