The recent wave of church bombings, kidnappings, and executions
of civilians in Iraq seems to support a contested claim by the Bush
administration: that radical Islam is the philosophical cousin to
European fascism; that it has less to do with politics than with
nihilistic rage. As Bush put it in his address to Congress barely a
week after the 9/11 attacks, "By sacrificing human life to serve
their radical visions--by abandoning every value except the will to
power--they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and
totalitarianism." The president has asserted an Islamist-fascist
link in at least a dozen speeches over the last three years.
Critics assail this argument as dangerously
"ideological"--there's too much moralizing about the evil of
terrorism, they say, and not enough curiosity about the "root
causes" of Islamic violence. Religious liberals such as Bob Edgar
of the National Council of Churches deride Bush's moral vocabulary
as a way of "dehumanizing" America's enemies. Writing recently in
the New York Times Book Review, political scientist Ronald
Steel scolds administration hawks for ignoring "the essentially
political causes of terrorism."
The eyewitnesses to Nazi terrorism, however, might well take
exception to that view. Eric Voegelin, whose 1938 book The
Political Religions made him a target of the Third Reich,
offers perhaps the best-known critique of the moral and spiritual
rationalizations of fascist ideology. A short work published in
1939 by philosopher Lewis Mumford, however, is also worth
revisiting. Titled Men Must Act, the book grew out of
Mumford's visit to Germany in the early 1930s. There he saw copies
of Mein Kampf ("my struggle," Hitler's autobiography and
political manifesto published in 1926) being snatched up in
bookstores. He watched how Nazi brownshirts had taken over the
streets in Lübeck, and listened at dinner parties as
upper-class Germans praised Hitler's program against the Jews.
Writing when America was still in a pacifist mood, Mumford aimed
to prod U.S. support for the Allied cause. His summary of fascist
principles reads today like a recruiting manual for the al Qaeda
network: (1) the glorification of war, (2) a hatred for democracy,
(3) a hatred for civilization, (4) a contempt for science and
objectivity, and (5) a delight in physical cruelty.
The sadism and irrationality of fascism have long been favorite
themes among scholars, but many in America came under the spell of
its pseudo-scientific arguments. Bigotry was part of the reason:
From 1933 to 1941, over a hundred anti-Semitic groups appeared in
the United States, many of them with a Christian hue. Some of
Mumford's close friends turned against him when he argued that Nazi
claims rested on racist, conspiratorial delusions. "What the leader
desires is real: what he believes is true: what he anathematizes is
heresy," he wrote. "These fiat truths bring about a debasement of
the entire intellectual currency."
How does that compare to Islamic radicalism?
The writings and statements of Osama bin Laden, and those of his
philosophical mentor, Sayyid Qutb, point to the true nature of
their grievances. The object of their hatred is not merely
"international Jewry"--the Nazi slogan--but all "infidels," in
particular the "Zionist-crusader alliance." The terrorist attacks
in Iraq show that the enemies of al Qaeda include citizens not only
of the United States, but of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan,
Kuwait, Kenya, India, Bulgaria, South Korea, and the Philippines.
They may be politicians, police, factory employees, doctors, relief
workers--anyone supporting a decent civil society. They include not
only Christians and Jews, but dissenting Muslims. Here, then, is an
ideology that reviles anyone who upholds the moral norms of
civilized states. As Christopher Hitchens has aptly phrased it,
here is "fascism with an Islamic face."
One of the first religious figures in America to grasp the
threat of German fascism was Stephen Wise, president of the World
Jewish Congress. As early as 1933, when Hitler came to power, Wise
was warning that Nazism challenged "the conscience of humanity"
with its treatment of Jews and other non-Aryans. He insisted that
Hitler be judged not only by his military aggression, but by the
viciousness of his anti-Semitism--a campaign to shatter the
foundations of every democratic society. "Peoples and churches
permitted themselves to be lulled into unawareness, because it was
only or chiefly the Jew who at the outset was hurt," Wise observed
in 1938. "Men heeded not that the Jews were assailed as symbol of
that civilization, the values of which Nazism was resolved to
Mumford similarly faulted America's political and religious
leaders for excusing "the true stigmata of fascism," its love of
sadistic violence. The roots of this pathology had little to do
with political or economic grievances, as many assumed at the time.
Rather, the Nazi obsession with violence and war was
self-generated--and insatiable. It produced a regime in which
blackmail, repression, and terror were not accidental injustices,
but part of the very structure of the state.
"We had glibly assumed," Mumford wrote, "that barbarism was a
condition that civilized man had left permanently behind him." The
Nazis refuted all those assumptions, and no appeals to reason or
diplomacy would deter them. Indeed, although a secular thinker,
Mumford came to believe in "radical evil"--that savagery is the
easy way for mankind, the natural drift of things apart from
some restraining force or grace. That insight is worth bearing in
mind in light of the 9/11 Commission report. Its authors complain
of a "failure of imagination" in the face of terrorist threats, but
it's still not clear that Washington's policy elites appreciate the
religious nihilism that sustains radical Islam.
In his recent book The Third Reich, historian Michael Burleigh
argues that Hitler's Germany clung to a Teutonic myth of heroic
doom, a high-stakes war for national and racial restoration--or
perdition. The ideology of Nazism, he writes, "offered redemption
from a national ontological crisis, to which it was attracted like
a predatory shark to blood."
Today, it seems, the predators have returned. The crisis this
time is not national and race-based, but supranational and
faith-based. The stakes are equally high, the methods as thoroughly
wicked: videotaped beheadings, the mutilation and public parade of
corpses, the murder of women and children, the recruitment of boys
for suicide missions. "We must keep in mind the nature of the
enemy," President Bush told graduates at the U.S. Air Force Academy
in June. "No act of America explains terrorist violence, and no
concession of America could appease it."
Some reject that argument--such as the governments of Spain and
the Philippines, which have bowed to terrorist demands to pull
their troops out of Iraq. Yet the early warnings about Nazism seem
eerily relevant today. "What will finally emerge, if fascism
continues to prevail in Europe, will be a system of barbarism: its
stunted, emasculated minds: its grandiose emptiness: its formalized
savagery," Mumford wrote. "The relapse into barbarism is a
recurrent temptation. Only men can resist it."
Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion
and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and editor of the
forthcoming book, The End of Illusions: America's Churches and
Hitler's Gathering Storm.