Islamo-fascism: George Bush's Fallacy
Islamic Fascists by Sergio Romano (Corriere della Sera, 12 August 2006)
Today, the word, fascist, has lost its original meaning and simply signifies a violence and intoleranance and perhaps even a scoundrel. Many of those who use the term only have a vague notion of its meaning but have understood that it is an insult and therefore good for a verbal attacks by political figures. But when the President of the United States says that his country is at war against “Islamic Fascists” we must assume that he knows what he is talking about even if his declarations are often ambiguous. George W. Bush is not the first to use the expression. An American leftist intellectual recently used the term, “Muslim Totalitarianism” and the British Minister of the Interior, John Reid, warned his audience of threats from those who could be termed, fascist, just before the thwarted London bombings . Does Islamo-fascism exist? And if it does, who are its ideologues, its prominent leaders, and what are its political formations?
Suspicions began to be raised when European diplomats and intelligence agents reported to their governments in the Thirties that intellectuals and military men of some Muslim countries expressed a certain interest in and admiration of fascist regimes. One of the first to realize that such sympathies could be turned to a useful political trump card was Benito Mussolini. From that moment, Fascist Italy began sending out feelers to anti-British and anti-French nationalists in North Africa and in the Levant, with particular attention to Palestine. An Arab language radio station, Radio Bari, was created. Contacts were made with Habib Bourguiba, founder of the Tunisian nationalist movement, Neo Destur, the derivative of a former Destur (the word means liberty or Constitution) that was more moderate and conciliating.
When Mussolini went to Libya in 1937, the Colonial Governor, Italo Balbo, arranged an extraordinary welcoming pageant in Bugara, outside Tripoli, where 2000 horsemen saluted him with war hymns and drumrolls. One horseman, Iussuf Kerbisc, rode out of formation and presented Mussolini with sword of solid gold. At this moment, reverberating next to our own hearts, he told Mussolini, are the hearts of all Muslims of the Mediterranean who, full of admiration and hope, see in you a great Man of State guidiing our destiny with a steady hand. Contacts with Arab nationalists increased during the war, when Italy and Germany hoped to foment an Arab revolt in the backyard of the British Empire similar to that led by T. E. Lawrence and Faisal, son of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, against the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The principal pawns of this policy were an Iraqi man of state, Rashid Alì al-Gaylani, and the Grand Muftì di Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini.
As Manfredi Martelli recounts in his book, Arab Nationalism and the Policies of Mussolini, (Edizioni Settimo Sigillo, 2003), the former came to power in Baghdad with a coup d’état at the beginning of 1941, and declared war on Great Britain with modest assistance from Axis aviation. It lasted until the end of May, when British troops entered Baghdad and forced him into exile in Iran. He fled to Iran together with the Mufti of Jerusalem, who avoided arrest by the Iranian police and crossed into Turkey (says Martelli) in possession an Italian passport and with dyed hair and a shaved beard. When he finally arrived in Rome on 10 October 1941, he was received by Mussolini in the presence of Galeazzo Ciano. The conversation took place in French and Mussolini told him that he would spare no effort to assist the Arabs “politically and spiritually”. They also spoke of Jewish aspirations for Palestine. The Fascist leader (who, during the Thirties, had supported the Zionist Movement against Britain) reassured him. If the Jews want their own state they’ll have to build Tel Aviv in America. They are our enemies and there will be no room in Europe for them. From Rome the Mufti went to Berlin, where he remained until the end of the year. He also made a trip to Bosnia to urge Muslims in the region to collaborate with the Axis; thus, the Handzar Division, comprised of SS who wore distinctive headgear —a red fez—, was conceived.
Al-Gaylani and al-Husseini were not the sole friends of the Axis in the Middle East. At the end of 1941, as the Africa Korps advanced toward Alexandria, a group of Egyptian officers gathered intelligence for Rommel’s General Staff on the movement of British troops. One of their leaders was Anwar al-Sadat, who became President of Egypt following the death of Nasser. Several crossed through the lines to join Axis troops only to reappear next to Nasser during the 1952 revolution. Jean Lacouture, in his 1971 biography of Nasser, recounted that during those days, while the Germans and the British were fighting in al-Alamein, there were demonstrations in Cairo and in Alexandria. The crowd chanted the praises of Rommel and mangled Mussolini’s name calling him Mussa Nili, the Moses of the Nile.
But none of these personalities could be considered truly fascist. They were nationalists seeking assistance from the enemies of Great Britain because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. It is certainly true that the nationalist and socialist regimes created in several European countries in the Twenties and Thirties appeared to many Arab and Muslim leaders as appropriate for their needs. The unquestioned authority of the leader, a single party, the role of the armed forces and the bureaucracy, the unbridled use of the police and secret agents and the control of society and of the press appeared to be the right ingredients for a nascent state in which the masses were illiterate and the tree of democracy struggled to enroot itself. But not all authoritarian regimes can be considered fascist or communist.
The movement most resembling fascism among those groups which appeared in the Middle East during the 1900s was a movement founded in Syria in 1940. Its founder, Michel Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. He had studied at the Sorbonne in the Thirties and had participated in the battles between Left and Right in the streets of Paris, and had absorbed an intoxicating cocktail of political literature, from Mazzini to Lenin. He was anti-colonial, pan-Arab, proud of the Arab past but resolutely secular and socialist. When he returned home, he founded the Ba’ath Party (Resurgence or renaissance, in Arabic) and one of his first actions was to join the al-Gaylani revolt against Great Britain in 1941. Aflaq died in 1989, probably in Baghdad, as the guest of a man who had much admired him and who drew on this teachings to organize the Iraqi state. That man was Saddam Hussein.
It was he who created the Party, Saddam Hussein told an interviewer in 1980. How could I possibly forget what Michel Aflaq did for me? If it were not for him, I would never have come to this position. Iraq was therefore the most fascist regime of the Middle East in the last few decades. Saddam used the Ba’ath Party to militarize the society, to set up a cult of personality modeled from that of Il Duce and Der Führer, to put the bureaucracy in uniform and to emphasize public works. At the same time, he was a nationalist and, in his own way, a socialist. This was the extent of fascism in the Arab world.
But it would be very difficult for me to identify fascism in religiously inspired movements from the Muslim Brotherhood to those that following the Iranian Revolution, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the First Gulf War in 1991. Between the Ba’ath and religious fanaticism, even against a common enemy, there is an unfathomable divide. Standing apart from his predecessors, George Bush seems to have forgotten that the greatest enemy of Khomeini’s Iran was Saddam Hussein and during the long war between the two countries, from 1980 to 1988, the United States was on the side of the fascists against the Islamists.
Sergio Romano was born in 1929 in Vicenza and earned a law degree from the State University of Milan. Joining the Italian diplomatic service in 1954, Romano served as representative to NATO and ambassador to Moscow during the crucial "perestroika" years. He retired in 1989. He has taught history at the Universities of Florence, Paria, Sassari, Berkeley and Harvard. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from Etudes Politiques of Paris, the University of Macerata and the Institute of Universal History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His most famous published works are Giolitti, the style of power; Gentile, the philosopy of power, Russia in the Balance (il Mulino 1989), and The Decline of the USSR as a World Power and Its Consequences.