Rally for 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West' (PEGIDA) hold German flags during a demonstration in Dresden, Germany, Jan. 5, 2015. Jens Meyer /Press Association. All rights reserved.What is fascism? Perhaps one way to answer this question is to say that fascism is a political logic that assumes that there is an easy solution to complex political, economic and societal problems, and that this solution is grounded in being ‘honest’ and ruthless about who ‘us’ and ‘them’ are.
Political practice is then understood as a necessity and even a moral obligation to pursue this reductive identity-based vision to its logical conclusions. In this view, the complexity of society and all structural socio-economic conditions are rendered ultimately unimportant, while identity is equated with ideology and political action. Hence, for example, in classic Nazism, an integrated, baptised and ‘Germanised’ Jew, who had nothing to do with any ‘Jewish community’, was seen as ultimately representing the same coherent entity, conceived as a conscious and malevolent political agent, as a traditional religious Jew, who spoke Yiddish and practised Judaism. No matter what their appearances were, they were all the same at some level and must have been treated as an alien element in the body of the nation.
Today, a very similar logic is propagated by those who are obsessed with the connection between Islam and terrorism. Charlie Hebdo’s recent editorial ‘How did we end up here?’ is a perfect example of it. The article’s main argument is that every Muslim, who publically reveals her or his religion, engages in an act of terror and is, therefore, complicit in violent terrorism.
A peaceful intellectual, a polite baker who does not serve ham sandwiches or a woman daring to wear the veil in public – they all are members of the same entity that is not only different from ‘us’, but is also attacking ‘us’, either with their alien cultural practices or their bombs, a distinction between the two turned into a difference of scale, not of quality.
A conclusion, which is offered implicitly, is that to end terrorism we must admit that ‘Muslims’ are a problem, alongside those ‘politically correct’ lefties who do not want to acknowledge that. The only thing that is still missing here is an explicit form of biological racism: we are not yet told that everyone of ‘Muslim descent’ is guilty by definition. For now, we are ‘only’ sold comprehensive cultural discrimination.
At least, this is the case at the level of discourse. When one looks at it in practice, the situation is already more blurred, as police forces across western countries are systematically harassing those citizens and immigrants who look ‘Muslim’. For many liberals and leftists, the far-right undercurrent of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial is obvious in its attempt to build a case for a comprehensive discrimination against, in fact, a heterogeneous group of people mainly engaging in harmless activities. But we should notice that there is more to it. Fascism is not only a form of prejudice, it is also a political logic. A logic that reduces complex problems to ‘us and them’ issues.
Multiple factors, homegrown and otherwise
Terrorism is a complex problem. Any attempt to deal with it cannot be separated from understanding its multiple roots, causes and structural conditions. As even security services admit, Islamist terrorism in the west is linked to western countries’ foreign policies across the globe. This is logical in the most basic common-sense way: if you claim to wage a war, how can you be so surprised that there will be people who would want to bring it back to you?
But there is also a more complex socio-economic and geo-political dimension, related to both the west’s historical support of various Islamists movements, as well as its ongoing support of the most oppressive dictatorships across the world. Next, although systematic poverty and exclusion of (post)immigrant communities in Europe is not the only explanation of terrorism (neither is it its justification, for that matter), terrorism is indeed inseparable from the structural conditions imposed on those communities by European states and societies.
Finally, one should not dismiss the role of Islamism as a form of religiously-sanctioned political ideology and practice that attracts alienated individuals seeking empowerment. In that sense, all well-meaning proclamations that ‘terrorism has nothing to do with Islam’ are not only a form of wishful thinking, but also an explicitly harmful contribution to the reification of ‘Muslims’ as a coherent and uniform group.
The key point here is that none of the reductive singular explanations will do. Islamism and its rise in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and Europe is a complex story. The attractiveness of violent Islamism to a certain segment of immigrant and post-immigrant communities in the west (a very small segment, one should add) cannot be understood outside the long history and immediate politics of the west’s actions in Muslim-majority regions, those regions’ own political, socio-economic and ideological dynamics, as well as the systemic poverty and exclusion affecting minorities in the west itself. These are just three interconnected factors causing and shaping Islamist terrorism today. There are many more, as well as many more forms of terrorism, both in the west and in the world as a whole.
All this should be fairly banal, but instead, we are constantly being sold a different identity-focused narrative. It is assembled in a few simple steps. There is a terrifying problem of terrorism, terrorism perpetrated by ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the only solution is to admit that there are ‘us’ and ‘them’ and stop pretending that ‘they’ are not a threat, with all their veils, refusal to serve ‘us’ ham sandwiches, smart talk of Muslim ethics and bombs.
Only when we admit that can we somehow get rid of the actual physical threat of terrorism. For now, nobody is yet telling us how exactly to solve this problem in practice (although Trump with his suggestions of banning Muslims from entering the US is coming close).
That is the difference between fascism as political practice and fascism as logic and rhetoric. But the latter is of course enabling the possibility of the former. This is why it should be resisted fiercely. To everyone who insists on a direct link between Islam, ‘the Muslims’ and terrorism, we should reply that there are no ‘Muslims’ as a coherent group, that religion itself, independently of whether we like it or not, is not a cause of political violence and that the problem of terrorism will never be solved by an insistence on any reductive identity-based approach to it.
Of course, a genuine solution to the problem of terrorism is difficult to imagine short of a radical transformation of the world. Such a transformation would address the three problems singled out above and involve at least three massive structural changes.
First, ending the neo-colonialist practices of the west, Russia and China. Second, opening up a political space for going beyond the wrong choice between phony-capitalist murderous dictatorships and thuggish Islamism in the Middle East (and other post-colonial regions). Third, resurrecting the social state in Europe, one able to efficiently address the appalling conditions and exclusion of its post-immigrant communities.
While these changes remain utopian, the problem of terrorism is going to stay with us and will influence where we are going to end up. Its actual influence has nothing to do with challenges to ‘our way of life’ or any other pseudo-threats, omnipresent in the rhetoric of mainstream politicians.
The real danger is in what must be called the myth of terrorism: a view that terrorism is the ultimate form of evil, simultaneously an act of war and the most despicable vile crime, somehow both cunning and meaningless. This emotional and a-political understanding of terrorism is widespread and makes the job of those who want to reduce politics to scapegoating imagined communities easier.
The potential harm here is not only in increasing prejudices against people who are already discriminated against, but also in the replacement of necessary struggles over the forms of political-economic organisation and the distribution of wealth with reductive and simplistic politics of ‘us and them’. This is why we must prevent the supporters of fascist logic from using it to enable a new age of fascist politics to prevail in the west.