While there is a dangerous tendency to casually describe Islamic fundamentalists as anti-imperialist, there is an equally problematic trend to declare them ‘Islamic fascists’. Of late, the term ‘Islamic fascism/fascists’ has penetrated even left-wing discourses. The fact is that Islamic fundamentalism is neither anti-imperialism nor ‘Islamic fascism’.
Islamic fundamentalists are not anti-imperialists because they are not anti-capitalists. Whereas anti-imperialism symbolises liberation, Islamic fundamentalism is oppressive. In fact, it theologises oppression of women, religious minorities, ‘heretical sects’, sub-nationalisms and every kind of opposition. But it is also not Islamic fascism – as fashionable academics or Islamophobic politicians in the West lazily label it.
Before arguing against tagging Islamic fundamentalism as Islamic fascism, it is useful to properly characterise both Islamic fundamentalism and fascism. Islamic fundamentalism can be characterised as a political project aimed at implementing Shariah through (capturing) the state. When it comes to fascism, a number of attempts have been made to conceptualise it. This essay employs Ernest Mandel’s conceptualisation of fascism. Mandel, in turn, has honed his conceptualisation of fascism by building on Leon Trotsky’s work.
First of all, fascism is a ‘particular social, political, and military form’ and is ‘a product of imperialist, monopoly capitalism’ which emerged as a new stage in imperialist, monopoly capital. To quote Mandel: “‘the specific character of fascism is not that it expresses the aggressiveness rooted in human nature’ – for this is expressed just as much in countless different historical movements – but rather that it imposes on this aggressiveness a particular social, political, and military form one that never existed before. Accordingly, fascism is indeed a product of imperialist, monopoly capitalism”.
The key characteristic to identify fascism, Mandel argues, is to investigate its “posture towards two decisive classes in the modern society: big business and the working class”. Mandel observes, “Fascism is not simply a new stage in the process by which the executive of the bourgeois state becomes stronger and more independent. It is not simply the ‘open dictatorship of monopoly capital’. It is a special form of the ‘strong executive’ and of the ‘open dictatorship’, which is characterized by the complete destruction of all workers organisations – even the most moderate ones, and certainly the Social Democratic ones. It is the attempt to violently prevent any form of organised workers’ self-defence, by completely atomising the workers”.
In fact, if the fascist dictatorship is to fulfil its historic role described above, the workers’ movement must be beaten back, according to Mandel, “before the seizure of power”.
And fascism is not a random phenomenon. There were specific conditions that fathered and fostered fascism. Fascism emerged during the most acute crisis of the most modern form of monopoly-capitalist society, Mandel argues, and it had a specific mission: “The historical function of the fascist seizure of power is to change suddenly and violently the conditions of the production and realisation of surplus value to the advantage of the decisive groups of monopoly capitalism”.
While fascism is open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, it is a movement of the petty bourgeoisie. To quote Mandel:
“Such a mass movement can only rise on the basis of the petty bourgeoisie, capitalism’s third social class, situated between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. If this petty bourgeoisie is hit so hard by inflation, bankruptcy of small firms, and mass unemployment of university graduates, technicians, and the higher salaried employees, that it falls into despair, then a typical petty-bourgeoisie movement, compounded of ideological reminiscences and psychological resentment, will arise. It will combine extreme nationalism and at least verbal anti-capitalist demagoguery with the most intense hatred for the organised workers’ movement (‘Against Marxism’, ‘Against Communism’). [T]he moment this movement begins physical attacks on the workers, their organisations, and their actions, a fascist movement is born.”
To paraphrase Mandel, and for the sake of brevity, one can define fascism as a petty bourgeois movement that emerges as a new stage during an acute crisis of imperialist monopoly capital – as an open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by assuming a particular political, social and military form. Most importantly: it disarms, defeats and destroys the organised forms (trade unions, parties etc) of the working class before it assumes power.
Having defined the two movements, one may venture on to compare them. Here are the key points of divergence. First, while fascism is an ultra-nationalist ideology, fundamentalism is a phenomenon derived from religion. Theoretically, anybody embracing Islam becomes part of the Muslim Ummah. However, an Arab or a South Asian can never become a German.
Second, fascism is a product/new stage of imperialist monopoly capital. Fundamentalism, on the contrary, has emerged and succeeded in societies one may describe as pre-capitalist or capitalism’s peripheries. Ironically, the first successful fundamentalist project emerged in pre-capitalist Arabian Peninsula exactly when fascism was scoring victories in imperial Europe. Likewise, the emergence of the Taliban in a tribalised Afghanistan mirrors the different relationships between capitalisms (in their monopoly and peripheral modalities) and the two movements under review here. Also, while “the specific character of fascism”, to quote Mandel again, “can be understood only within the framework of imperialist monopoly capitalism”, one cannot observe the same about fundamentalism. In fact, fundamentalism in many Muslim countries has allied with anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles.
Third, fascism is necessarily a violent movement aimed at violently targeting the working class. In contrast, fundamentalism may or may not employ violence. While the Taliban or Al-Qaeda or Daesh use violence to achieve their political targets, the Muslim Brotherhood or Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami are not engaged in armed struggle (though neither of them has theoretically repudiated it).
Finally, fascism as repeatedly emphasised above, necessarily targets working class organsiations. On this, fundamentalism is a mixed bad. The Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, for instance, has built its own trade union fronts (despite the Jamaat’s insistence that May Day should not be celebrated since it is an ‘infidel’ tradition; it wants a Yaum-e-Khandak instead).
Do fascism and fundamentalism have any similarities? Well, similarities may also be found between fundamentalists and the Far Left. Or between fascism and the Saddam regime. Mandel warned against such analogies:
“In a country where the most important part of the capital is in foreign hands and the nation’s destiny is determined by that domination of foreign imperialism, it is senseless to characterise as fascist a movement of the national bourgeoisie seeking in its own interest to liberate itself from the domination…the nationalist movements of the national bourgeoisie in the semi-colonial countries…usually deal some serious and lasting blows to big business, especially foreign capital, while creating new organizational possibilities for the workers”
Why is it important to differentiate the two movements? First, to counter Islamophobia (ironically, a Hindu fundamentalist is a ‘radical nationalist’ while a Christian fundamentalist is a ‘messianic’). And, second, this differentiation/analogy has huge political consequences from a progressive perspective. Characterising fundamentalism means: (a) ruling out any tactical alliance even in situations as we have in Palestine where Hamas and the Left are struggling against Israeli occupation; and (b) siding with any dictatorial regime or imperial aggression that targets fundamentalist projects/regimes.
The writer is the author of ‘Media Imperialism in India and