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The new fascists

Culture | Today's terrorists have a political ideology, and we've faced it before

Issue: "War in the shadows," Oct. 6, 2001

"We have seen their kind before," said President Bush to the joint session of Congress. "They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies." The terrorists are not merely religious fanatics, the president was saying. Rather, they are operating out of a totalitarian political ideology.

The president, inveighing against not just the actions of the terrorists but the content of their ideas, cited how, in countries they rule, "Women are not allowed to attend school. You can be jailed for owning a television. Religion can be practiced only as their leaders dictate. A man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough." To say "freedom is under attack" is not just rhetorical shorthand for describing an assault on our country. These enemies really are against the very concept of freedom.

The terrorists are killing for issues that are essentially neither religious nor moral but political. For all of their pious Islamic rhetoric, they have a this-worldly orientation, to say the least. Investigators of the activities of the hijackers and their support team keep coming up with testimony involving bars, adult bookstores, pornographic chat rooms, and lap dances at strip clubs.

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None of this, of course, comports with Islamic law, which also deems suicide an unforgivable sin and makes terrorism punishable by death. What we have with the terrorists, observed Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, is something new to Islam: "This brand of Islamic theology is largely dismissive of the classical juristic tradition and of any notion of universal and innate moral values."

The great cultural contribution of monotheism--Jewish, Christian, Muslim--was the notion of transcendence, that God and the moral truths He reveals and embodies transcend nature, the individual, and the culture. Nature is not divine, so people can study it. Leaders are not divine, so people can criticize them. Society is not divine, so people can change it. These notions opened the door for science, rationality, human rights, and social progress.

In the West, these ideas came under attack by a group of thinkers and social activists who became known as fascists. In his classic study of the movement, The Three Faces of Fascism, Ernst Nolte summarizes the ideology as "the practical and violent resistance to transcendence."

Fascists sought to channel people's religious energy into the here and now, away from a transcendent God, onto a divinized State. Many of them sought to re-create the old pagan ideal, in which nature, the community, and the leader were all one continuum with the gods. They rejected individualism in favor of group identity. They minimized reason in favor of emotion and cultivated a primitive mysticism devoted to blood and the soil. They rejected universal moral values in favor of instinct, emotional release, and the will to power.

They also had an economic theory, national socialism-a brand of socialism that allowed for some private property but mandated that it be controlled by the state for the good of the nation.

This is essentially what the terrorists and the states that support them believe. Perhaps the best manifesto of contemporary fascism is the Green Book by Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. In it, this self-proclaimed "Leader of the World Revolution" identifies "nature" with "religion," offers a political order based on the unity of the people in their national identity, and describes a socialism that allows people to own houses and cars, but eliminates the private ownership of land and resources. Point by point, the Green Book echoes what Mussolini wrote in the last century.

So does the Ba'th Socialist Party of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. A propaganda website describes it as "a revolutionary party which possesses a national ideology of power." Both Mr. Gadhafi and Mr. Hussein originally promoted secular ideologies. Only recently have the two wrapped themselves in the rhetorical robes of Islam. At first, their intention was to create secular states, but they found that tapping into an uninformed religious zeal can give them a sacred status among their followers.

Another characteristic of fascism of every stripe is hatred of Jews. This is more than resentment of "Jewish" capitalists or Israeli settlements in Palestine. For fascists, the "Jewish influence" is precisely that transcendence--of God, of universal moral truths, of the kinds of thought and political freedom this implies--which they hope to destroy. One difference is that Middle East fascism recognizes what Western fascists believed in private but drew back from saying in public, that if Jews are the enemy, so are Christians

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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