Exploring the fascist roots of Islamophobia

Contemporary Islamophobic discourses thrive in a fascist imaginary which Slavoj Zizek analyses.

Tony McKenna
2 July 2012

The relationship of fascism to organised Islamophobia is an intimate one. Not every Islamophobe is a fascist but, in twenty first century Europe at least, it is difficult to find a fascist organisation which doesn’t have embedded Islamophobic tendencies.

Fascism itself, it can be argued, provides a mechanism by which a ruling elite is able to salvage its power from the jaws of uprising and revolution. In times of great social crisis, and when control through normal parliamentary means is no longer assured, a section of the elite may sponsor lumpen and atomised elements – i.e. state dependees, ex-military personnel, semi-criminal elements who operate within the interstices of the division of labour; the ruling classes may even finance such elements and use them as a means to neutralise the power of radical social movements. But fascists need to provide their violence with a coherent ideological cloak and a justification, albeit an illusory one.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has a unique and brilliant take on the Spielberg movie Jaws. According to him, the film does not focus on the shark at all; rather it provides us with a parable on fascism. Each summer the community of Amity faces an influx of tourists, and this creates an underlying tension in the collective psyche of the small island - a fear of littering, of public disorder, of crime more generally; an overall sense that the traditional island way of life is being overwhelmed. The shark is a conceptual umbrella under which all these fears shelter, providing them with a visible and coherent form. Uniting these fears in a single guise provides the sense that they can be neutralised with one fell swoop: by killing the monster in question, the worries of the islanders are abated.

This, Žižek argues, has parallels with the use of the figure of the Jew in Nazi Germany to fulfil a similar purpose. In times of acute social crisis it allowed collective fear to shelter under a single concept providing the ideological justification for the violence of fascist repression. In both cases, of course, the concept is entirely fantastical – the ‘Jew’ as articulated by Nazi ideology is no more real than the fantastical shark the fevered small island mentality has conjured up from the subset of its own fears.

Such underlying reactionary anxieties and fears appear to have shifted their focus from the figure of the Jew to that of the Muslim, especially since September 11 and the subsequent wars of aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan. Increased migrations – some of them caused by geo-political tensions in the Middle East - provide a never-ending excuse for fascist aggression, and fuel right wing pejorative discourses. So did the widespread sympathy for the aggressive foreign policy of Israel amongst the American far right.

The very nature of prejudice seems to have changed as well. Thanks to the tireless work of anti-fascists and scientists like Steven Jay Gould who clearly exposed supposedly scientific based notions of racial inferiority as vulgar chimeras, racist pseudoscience is now by and large discredited. ‘Islam’ as religious target thus appears more plausible and more acceptable, although such discourse provides a thin cover for a racist logic. To most fascists Muslims still present as a homogeneous lump which is, by nature, primitive and uncivilised and somehow other; only now these innate differences are said to derive from the substance of religion rather than race.

Unfortunately much of the mainstream press has colluded in such a world view. A report from the FBI database covering the period from 1980-2005 shows that only 6% of attacks occurring on US homeland soil were conducted by Islamic extremists. However the media coverage of terrorism concentrates disproportionately on Islamic acts, sometimes even going as far as to assume the presence of Muslim fundamentalists without any supporting evidence. Violence against women, and particularly those cases in which victims are murdered in the name of ‘family honour’ are increasingly portrayed as a widespread Muslim phenomenon, though better informed studies such as one carried out by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have reported that such crimes are indeed cross-cultural.

Žižek’s analysis can help us make sense of how the theme of Islam may contribute to consolidating disparate social fears and traumas into a genocidal imaginary. This may look like a strong claim. Yet hints of its truth may be found even in the language of those who are in the political mainstream. In 2008, the now US secretary of defence Hillary Clinton felt sufficiently inflamed to threaten to obliterate the Islamic Republic of Iran if it launched an attack against Israel. This might be dismissed as bellicose sabre rattling if similar examples had not multiplied. Last month, for instance, disturbing reports exposed how a US military college has been teaching its alumni that there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam’ and moreover exhorting trainees to forget the ‘irrelevant’ al-Qaida as their main enemy in order to concentrate on the Islamic faith itself.

Even self-proclaimed rational intellectuals such as the New Atheists let elements of this hostile rhetoric slip into their discourses, as when, for instance, the late Christopher Hitchens fantasized about the destruction of Islamic ‘enemy troops’ as the steel pellets of cluster bombs ‘go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too.’  

Tony’s writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, New Internationalist, Monthly Review, ZNet, The Philosopher's Magazine, New Left Project, Critique Journal and the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

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