The following is adapted from a talk delivered at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 2010.
One of the greatest ironies of the past decade's debates over political Islam has been that, on the whole, the most passionate and emphatic rejections of radical Islamism in this country came from President Bush and his supporters—that is, conservatives. This is peculiar because the various forms of radical Islamism represent the third major form of totalitarian ideology and politics in modern world history. While it seeks to benefit from the pathos of Third Worldist rhetoric, its ideological themes have more in common with fascism and Nazism than with Marxism-Leninism. One would think that here in Washington, its most natural and passionate opponents would be less the heirs of Ronald Reagan than of Franklin Roosevelt. Now, over a year into the Obama administration, I hope we are at a moment when this irony will be modified, and the center-left will raise a clear and strong voice in the war of ideas with radical Islamism.
Twenty-four years ago, I published a book about some aspects of German ideologies that contributed to Nazi thought. It was titled Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich. The term “reactionary modernism” referred to Nazism’s simultaneous rejection of liberal political and cultural modernity combined with enthusiasm for modern technology. It described the way that the Nazis embraced the machine but remained true to what they regarded as the German soul. They, along with the Italian Fascists and the Japanese dictatorship, all demonstrated that the embrace of modern technology did not necessarily mean the embrace of ideas about democracy, individual rights, and equality of all persons. At that time, Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the most significant political and cultural reactionaries of the twentieth century, was using tape cassettes to call for the abandonment of Iranian modernity in favor of a society built on premodern religious notions. The term "reactionary modernism" was equally applicable on September 11, when Al Qaeda-trained engineering students flew jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Today, Khomeini's successors reject the modern world even as they race toward the possession of nuclear weapons. Yet American liberals have been slow to place the reactionary nature of these extremists at the center of their analysis about the proper response.
Though political Islamism is not identical to Nazism and Fascism, the lineages and continuities are significant. One of the most obvious continuities is hatred of the Jews and the anti-Zionism it inspires. Islamists of various ideological camps all share in the conspiracy theorizing that was at the heart of Nazi ideology. In their German-language propaganda aimed at a domestic audience, the Nazi propagandists claimed that “international Jewry” started World War II in order to exterminate the German people. They publicly assured the German audience that they would exterminate the Jews before the Jews had a chance to exterminate them. At the same time, in their Arabic-language propaganda for North Africa and the Middle East, Nazi propagandists claimed that the Jews had driven the United States into World War II in order to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, dominate the entire Middle East and destroy the religion of Islam. The echoes of these arguments come across loud and clear in the Hamas covenant of 1988, bin Laden’s declaration of war against the “Zionist-Crusader alliance,” Ahmadinejad’s calls to wipe out the state of Israel, and TV programs in Arab countries that reproduce new versions of anti-Semitic blood libels.
A second set of continuities lies in the rejection of cultural modernity, especially the extension of rights to women and homosexuals. Fascism and Nazism in Europe were, in part, a reaction against efforts to bring about both. Like the paramilitary organizations of the Fascist and Nazi street fighters, the Islamic terrorist organizations are also militant “brotherhoods” that celebrate an absurd but familiar cult of hyper-masculinity. Where fascism and Nazism sought to restore the position of women to the subordinate status they held before World War I, the Islamists view the proper position of women as something out of pre-modern times. Here again, the fundamentally reactionary nature of political Islamism is evident. It is fitting that some of the bravest and most eloquent Muslim critics of the Islamists are women.
Yet neither the left nor the right has been interested in making the deeply conservative nature of Islamist ideology and politics the leitmotif of American foreign policy. Part of Khomeini’s political genius was to combine left-wing rhetoric about anti-imperialism with the reactionary core of his vision of an Islamicized Iran. Yet while the Communists fostered a cult of martyrdom, they did not make a virtue of their own death. They wanted to make a global revolution on this earth, not to depart from it for a religiously inspired heavenly paradise. Because the Communists possessed this modicum of rationality, it was possible for the West to arrive at a nuclear stalemate and even nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence rested on the assumption that both players preferred survival to self-destruction.
The now hundreds, perhaps thousands, of episodes of suicide bombings aimed at murdering civilians are the most telling evidence that radical Islamists have a very different view of their own death than did the Communists. In view of the religious fanaticism that inspires these acts, the possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of radical Islamists, including in the hands of the current Iranian regime, would not only represent an existential threat to the state of Israel. It would cross a Rubicon on world history. This is so both because Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the map and because a nuclear Iran would be a nuclear weapons state whose religious visions of the next world could make it less likely than other atomic nations to be deterred by the prospect of nuclear retaliation, however massive. The idea that the prospect of massive retaliation will enforce rationality on this Iranian regime as it did with the Communists underestimates the depth of their ideological convictions. Nuclear weapons in the Islamic state of Pakistan are compatible with deterrence with India. Pakistan has never declared that its aim is to destroy or wipe out India. Yet the rhetoric from Tehran both about Israel and about the prospects of coming religious apocalypse is something altogether different.
Perhaps one reason for our reticence about discussing, specifically, the connection between Islamism and terrorism is the fear that doing so will offend Muslims who reject terrorism. In recent years, a reluctance to offend, and a desire to avoid the appearance of religious intolerance, sometimes called “Islamophobia,” has led the United States to substitute famous euphemisms for accurate speech about the identity of those who are waging war against us. The terms “war on terror” or, more recently, the offensive against “violent extremism” have been used in place of accurate terms that describe the enemy we are facing. The concern not to offend has made it impossible to speak truthfully about who our enemies are and what motivates them. Yet we must find a way to draw attention to the impact of religion without offending those millions of Muslims who reject the Islamists.
The third issue regarding similarities and differences between radical Islam and Nazism concerns the importance of religion. Radical Islamists tell us that they have a deep and important connection to the religion of Islam as they choose to interpret it. And it is true that the Koran is more central to them than the New Testament was to the Nazis. Yet it is important to recall that religion was important for the Nazis as well. Historians of the Nazi regime have long understood that there was no straight line leading from the Christian assertion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus to Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic essays to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, we know that however crooked it was, the line was there. No matter how modern Nazism was, however secular its radical anti-Semitism, it also drew on a radicalization of already existing anti-Semitic currents in Christianity. Though anti-Christian themes also played an important role in Nazi ideology, so too did efforts to create what Susannah Heschel has called “Aryan Jesus” or what Saul Friedlander described as “redemptive anti-Semitism.”
During World War II, American diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo documented the fusion of Nazism and political Islam, as expressed in Arabic-language shortwave radio broadcasts aimed at the Middle East. The broadcasts were the product of collaboration between officials in the German foreign ministry and the pro-Nazi Arab and Muslim collaborators, including Haj Amin El Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Three elements of these Nazi appeals are of particular importance. First, they offered a secular form of anti-imperialism aimed against British presence in the region and against Zionist goals in Palestine. Second, German foreign ministry officials concluded that the most effective way to fan anti-Americanism in the region was to associate the United States and President Roosevelt in particular, with the Jews and with Zionism. Third, the Arabic-language propaganda made explicit appeals to Muslims as Muslims, that is, as believers in the religion of Islam. The Nazi officials and their Arab and Islamist collaborators agreed that a particular reading of passages from the Koran offered the key point of entry to a very hard-to-ascertain number of Muslim hearts and minds.
The alliance between the Nazis and the Arab and Islamist collaborators in wartime Berlin was not simply one of convenience based on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Rather, collaboration rested just as much on shared values, namely rejection of liberal democracy and, above all, hatred of the Jews and of Zionist aspirations. Though the meeting of hearts and minds in wartime Berlin was relatively short, it was an important chapter in the much longer history of political Islamism. It was there that a cultural fusion of Nazism and political Islamism took place. Husseini’s ideological contribution was to offer a religious foundation for hatred of the Jews as Jews, and for a rejection of Zionism. His hatreds were both ancient and modern, based on both the Koran and the traditions of Islam as he understood them, and on secular conspiracy theories of twentieth-century anti-Semitism. His Nazi allies agreed with him that Islam–like Christianity–was an inherently anti-Jewish religion.
The ideological aftereffects of this fusion fed directly into the development of Islamic radicalism as it is formulated today. They are evident in the public statements of Hassan Al Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood; the essays of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist ideologue who was so important for the inspiration of leaders of Al Qaeda; and in Husseini’s postwar political prominence. Of course, Islam, like any other major cultural phenomenon, can be interpreted in different ways. It cannot be the task of American foreign policy to foment a Reformation and Enlightenment in the Muslim world. That is beyond our abilities. But it is within our ability to call a spade a spade. This means we should call our enemies by their proper names and avoid euphemisms.
The policy implications of this analysis include the following. First, liberals should be willing to devote more efforts to the moral and political delegitimation of radical Islamism. It is a form of totalitarian ideology. It is profoundly reactionary and deeply anti-Semitic and, in this sense, racist. It draws on a radicalization and selective reading of the religion of Islam. During both World War II and the cold war, the United States derived great strategic value from naming its adversaries and publicly discussing and denouncing their ideologies. It fought wars of ideas that accompanied the force of arms. We need to understand the importance of doing that today as well.
One way to accomplish this would be to apply the term “war crime” to the intentional murder of civilians, including Muslims. Suicide bombings or remotely controlled bombings whose purpose is first and foremost to kill civilians are war crimes. Their perpetrators are war criminals. The attacks of September 11 and those in London, Madrid, and Israel were war crimes. So, too, are the hundreds of attacks directed against Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. We should remind world public opinion that a majority of Islamist attacks on civilians have been aimed at Muslims, often denounced as “infidels” and “unbelievers.” The United States should publish and prominently feature the number and identities of Muslims who have been murdered by the Islamists. Either the International Criminal Court in the Hague or American military tribunals should try those who commit these attacks as war criminals. What stronger signal of “engagement” could the United States send than one that expresses our determination to give due weight to specifically Muslim victims of Islamist terror?
Likewise, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be indicted for incitement to genocide. His public statements are violations of Article Three of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
And, crucially, the United States must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It seems highly unlikely that even targeted, severe economic sanctions will accomplish that goal. The prospects for regime change may be remote, but the United States should declare its support for the Iranian opposition and aid it in the ways it aided dissident and opposition groups in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. During the last decades of the cold war, Eastern European dissidents made the important point that peace in Europe was inseparable from freedom and liberal democracy in its eastern half. The same principles should be applied to Iran.
However, time is passing quickly, and the Iranian opposition may be unable to end the rule of radical Islamists in Tehran. My work as a historian of the Nazis has led me to conclude that when fanatical political leaders publicly threaten mass murder, they mean what they say. A bomb in the hands of the Iranian regime raises the possibility to unacceptable levels both of a second Holocaust against the Jews and of attacks with nuclear weapons on our own country. It raises the possibility that a bomb will wind up in the hands of terrorists. Given modern history, there is little reason to believe that things will work out for the best if people with these beliefs get a hold of such weapons. Thus, conventional military strikes by the United States and our allies against Iran’s nuclear program should remain a serious option.
For almost a decade, the United States has been at war with reactionary enemies whose ideological inspiration it has been reluctant to name. The time is long overdue to break with this reticence.
Jeffrey Herf is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, and he has written extensively for The New Republic. He is a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park.