Trump, the Islamic State, and the Cliche of Civilizations

by John Feffer

I was listening to a German parliamentarian the other night. She was making some anodyne comments about transatlantic friendship and the importance of culture. And then she veered off to mention the recent attacks in Paris and the threat of the Islamic State. This issue, she said, required an urgent response from the “free world.”

The audience murmured its approval.

I never take my freedoms for granted, but I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the phrase “free world.” It gives off the musty odor of the Cold War. Even though the phrase was tailor-made for rousing speeches a la Churchill, a division of the world into free and unfree failed to capture the complexity of international relations at the time.

However flawed such Manichean thinking might have been, the resurrection of the phrase has even less descriptive value today. Does everyone outside the limited borders of the Islamic State live in the “free world”? Where does Russia fit in? How about China, which also abhors the Islamic State but has yet to intervene militarily in Syria (except in Ben Carson’s imagination)?

And frankly, it’s not Europe, the United States, and whatever other countries constitute the zone of freedom that most need to respond to the Islamic State. It’s the countries of the decidedly unfree world — Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan — that must take on their Sunni co-religionists if the battle is truly to be won.

Perhaps for these definitional reasons, some commentators have forsaken Cold War allusions to the fight against Soviet communism for something more clear-cut. They have reached further back in an effort to rally all people of conscience against the Islamic State. After all, no one calls the Cold War — or any of the deadly battles during that time in Korea, Vietnam, or elsewhere — the “good war.” That phrase is reserved for World War II and the fight against the Nazis. For the Islamic State to qualify as a truly demonic enemy and for the conflict to be stripped of all ambiguity, then, the would-be caliphate must be composed of nothing but fascists.

Last week, for instance, British Labor Party MP Hilary Benn denounced the Islamic State in such terms on the floor of parliament as part of a successful effort to authorize British participation in coalition air strikes in Syria:

We are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.

This speech by Benn, the son of Labor’s anti-war stalwart Tony Benn, won plaudits from a range of American conservatives such as Marc Thiessen at the American Enterprise Institute and former Moral Majority leader Cal Thomas. The former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz, in his most recent column, wanted to know why the other Hillary, ditto her Democratic Party brethren, was refusing to denounce the Islamic State in similar terms.

Labeling ISIS as “fascist” contrasts with Democrats in the U.S. tying themselves into politically correct knots to avoid naming the enemy. President Obama still refuses to include “Islam” in the same breath as “terrorism.” In response to a question during last month’s Democratic presidential debate, the candidates all refused to say the U.S. is at war with “radical Islam.” Mrs. Clinton demurred by calling the term “not particularly helpful.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, I too believe that the Islamic State is barbaric. But I prefer to think of them as a murderous cult crossed with a band of criminals. Their ideology is of secondary importance. Calling them “fascist” might be satisfying at some level. But making this historical comparison can be counter-productive in conjuring up a world war of civilizational dimensions. After all, the propagandists of the Islamic State too would like to imagine that they are fighting a global conflict with the highest stakes imaginable. Bring it on, cry the followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This is our finest hour, thunder the lions of the free world. And thus the battle becomes almost cinematic.

Few are willing to utter the phrase “clash of civilizations,” for that thesis of political scientist Samuel Huntingdon from 1993 has become a cliché, and a thoroughly debunked one at that. But make no mistake: the rhetoric on both sides has escalated to that level. Lurking somewhere in this civilizational discourse, particularly on the European side, is an age-old anxiety that goes all the way back to the days of Charles the Hammer — that Islam, like fascism, is antithetical to civilization itself.

Where Others Fear to Tread

Crovitz and his brethren, to their credit, refrain from trotting out the term of abuse that was de rigeur for their set during the heyday of neoconservative posturing in the 2000s: Islamofascism. But leave it to a French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, to rush in where American conservatives currently fear to tread.

Levy’s recent article — “Paris Terror Attacks: Instructions for Warfare” — has been published all over the place (Huffington Post, Toronto Globe and Mail, Haaretz). It is a cri du coeur, a call to action, and a challenge to the “free world” all wrapped up in one. To buttress his declaration of war against the Islamic State, Levy invokes Victor Hugo:

To these vile, ignorant men we must utter the beautiful words that Victor Hugo exclaimed in September 1870, at the time of the massacres of the Paris Commune: An attack on Paris is more than an attack on France, it destroys the whole world. The only word to describe these men is fascists.

Better: Islamofascists.

“Islamofascist” became briefly popular in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. George W. Bush used the term in a 2005 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in an effort to give his “war on terrorism” a more exalted, civilizational framing. As I wrote in my 2012 book Crusade 2.0,

The linking of Islam and fascism was not new. Historians had explored the connections between Muslims and Nazis before and during World War II. The Baath movement — which produced ruling parties in Iraq and Syria — had roots in earlier fascist movements. When scholar Malise Ruthven coined the phrase “Islamo-fascism” in a 1990 article, he had in mind dictatorial governments, some of which were allied with the United States, like Pakistan and Morocco. Newt Gingrich later played around with the term “totalitarian Islam” to describe Iran. After 9/11, however, writers like Christopher Hitchens and academics like Bassam Tibi redeployed the term “Islamofascism” to describe the Islamist opposition to those dictatorial governments.

According to the venerable New York Times, the term Islamofascism had a brief life span, crashing and burning by 2006.

No term was more deserving of a fiery flameout. It was offensive on so many levels. It suggested an inherent link between Islam and fascism when historically fascism has had a more enduring love affair with Christianity (alongside flirtations with Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Judaism). Fascist ideology, moreover, focuses on the relationship between the state and the economy, favoring a corporatist model, whereas Islam coexists with many different economic systems. I could go on, but the “fascism” part of the equation was never really more than an epithet.

With the election of Barack Obama and a more nuanced U.S. approach to Islam, I thought that the term “Islamofascism” had finally been retired from service. But Levy resuscitates the term for a specific purpose. He deliberately wades into the conflict taking place within Islam itself, a clash within a civilization, between what he identifies as the good guys, the “Islam of the enlightenment,” and the bad guys, the Islamofascists. After exhorting Muslims to declare that the violence of the Islamofascists is “not in our name,” Levy then gives away his hand. He picks out, as representative of the anti-Enlightenment Islamists, not al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State or any of the terrorists who have undertaken military missions in the name of this illusory caliphate.

Rather, Levy zeroes in on Tariq Ramadan.

For those not familiar with this Muslim theologian — most famous for facing a travel ban to the United States during the Bush years — Ramadan is an articulate defender of political Islam. Born in Switzerland and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan currently teaches at Oxford University. He has consistently condemned terrorism in general and specific acts of violence in particular, thus meeting Levy’s “not-in-my-name” criterion. He’s also been on the UK Foreign Office Advisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Tariq Ramadan, in other words, would seem to be a rather odd embodiment of anti-Enlightenment values.

The dispute between Levy and Ramadan goes back more than a decade — at least to 2003, when the Muslim theologian criticized the French philosopher for his invocation of Enlightenment values in support of the invasion of Iraq. No doubt Levy is also incensed that Ramadan would have the temerity to compare Francois Hollande’s militarism after the Paris attacks to that of George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.

Strip away the personal invective, however, and the uglier side of Levy’s argument becomes clear. Yes, of course, he hates “Islamofascism.” And yes, he has some Muslim friends. But deep down, he’s uncomfortable with key elements of mainstream Islam, represented by people like Tariq Ramadan.

Cue the Donald

All of this is rather heady stuff. Leave it to us Americans to strip the argument down to its basics. Here, in the 2016 presidential race, we get Islamophobia straight, no chaser, and without European-style philosophizing.

The anti-Muslim sentiment of the Republican presidential candidates should have disqualified the lot of them by now. Ben Carson announced that he’d never support a Muslim political candidate. Bobby Jindal made headlines with his claim of Muslim “no-go” zones in Europe. Both Lindsey Graham and George Pataki urged monitoring of mosques (which, contrary to popular misconceptions, have been central to combatting extremism).

But the ugliest intervention has come from Donald Trump, who’s urged a complete ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Presumably that would include:

  • Muslims fleeing for their lives from the Islamic State
  • Muslims who have risked everything to work with and fight alongside U.S. troops
  • Muslims who have H-1B visas to code for Microsoft
  • Muslims who are family-oriented entrepreneurs and would eventually vote Republican

Far be it for me to point out to the Republican Party that it is alienating one minority group after another in its effort to hold onto the dwindling demographic of angry white men. And jeez, even “Dark Side” Dick Cheney repudiated Trump by saying that his statement “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”

But alas, Trump is no dummy when it comes to assessing the mood of the electorate. According to a Public Policy Survey, Trump’s Islamophobia will keep him at the top of the Republican heap:

Among Trump backers, 67 percent support creating a national database of Muslims, 62 percent believe the discredited story that Arabs in New Jersey cheered as the twin towers fell on 9/11, more than half (51 percent) want to shut down mosques, and a full 44 percent believe Islam should be outlawed.

These beliefs constitute the real face of Islamophobia. A few politicians and intellectuals decry “Islamofascists,” but the real target of Islamophobia is the mainstream Islam of mosques, moderate imams, and your friendly Muslim neighbors.

Which brings us back to this question of a civilizational conflict. To repeat, there is no clashbetween Islam and the West, except in the minds of the Islamic State and the ideologues of the “free world” who believe that inside every Muslim is an Islamofascist dying to get out. The real clash is taking place within a civilization, within Islam, over doctrinal issues, the nature of the state, the relationship with the market, and so on — and the Islamic State is largely peripheral to this ideological clash.

More fundamentally, an equally contentious struggle is going on within the so-called free world. Here is where the civilizational rubber really hits the road. Will enough good people of conscience — enough moderate Christians and moderate Jews and moderate whatevers in the United States — stand up to the intolerance of our native extremism?

As an unknown French wit once said in the 1930s, America is the only society to go from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization. Bernard-Henri Levy is free to take potshots at Islam. But, honestly, we here on this side of the Atlantic, in the throes of Trumpian decadence, are in desperate need of an Enlightenment of our own.

Republished from Foreign Policy In Focus

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.



  1. None of the phrases discussed get at the source of the problem: what we are dealing with is the direct result of U.S. administrations’ decisions since the Eisenhower era to deploy foreign mercenary forces as terrorists in U.S. proxy wars. To paraphrase Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is U.S.” That is the central fact that we must face in order to make any progress in the Global War on Terror.

  2. I applaud Paul Merrell. He is absolutely correct, and until policy makers recognize this fact, we will be in trouble. BTW, before the US was involved in the area, it was the UK and France (Sykes-Picot and all that, of course). Yet even before this, the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century was so large and vast and corrupt and so accommodating in many of its religious and economic policies and practices that some in the area, specifically Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab arose to link up with the Saudi clan to pursue a process of Islamic reformation to “cleanse” Islam, a reaction that still is operational today. Echos of Daesh? Thank you Paul.

  3. Brilliant. I was just today getting caught up with the latest writings addressing the so-called “new antisemitism,” prompted by a discussion currently taking place among progressive Canadian Jews. It just amazes me how many points of intersection there are between these two overwrought discourses, “islamofascism” and the “new antisemitsm.”

    Whether intentionally or inadvertently, both deflect attention away from the true source of the problems that give rise to terrorist acts and other forms of protest, violent and non-violent. Both are attempts to silence those who would question the right and/or the necessity of Western military interference in and/or military occupation of the Greater Middle East – and both have been highly successful in this endeavour. We ought really to be ashamed of ourselves.

Comments are closed.