TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

British Home Secretary John Reid on “fascist individuals”

Exploring the validity of the designation “fascist” to strands of contemporary Islamic extremism becomes complicated not only because of ambiguities in the adjective—what is fascist?—but also because of the different levels of political organization under scrutiny: states controlled by extremist regimes (contemporary Iran or Taliban Afghanistan); mixed political and military, or paramilitary, structures (Hamas, Hezbollah); and terrorist conspiracies of varying degrees of coherence (al-Qaeda). With local nuances, a jihadist ideology of expansionist conquest and anti-modernity links them, despite whatever political competition may occasionally separate them.

Part of the difficulty in accepting the term “fascist” as appropriate to describe these phenomena is the inescapable association with what in memory seem to have been strong “states” of the 1930s and 1940s. Yet of course there were fascist movements prior to their seizure of state power, just as there were fascist movements in countries where they failed to come to power. Therefore “Islamic fascist” may hold as a term, even in the absence of a state apparatus. But if the political actor is not a state, who is?

In a speech of August 9 entitled “Security, Freedom and the Protection of Our Values,” delivered to Demos (a London think tank), John Reid made a pertinent argument. Western structures of civil liberties were formed in opposition to the fascist challenge of the twentieth century and matured through the Cold War. This modernity is threatened today by opponents who do not act primarily as agents of states but with greater independence as “individuals.” In his words:

“What happens when the threat to our nation and hence to all of us as individuals, comes not from a fascist state but from what might be called fascist individuals. Individuals who are unconstrained by any of the international conventions, laws agreements or standards, and have therefore, unconstrained intent.

“Individuals who can network courtesy of new technology and access modern chemical, biological and other means of mass destruction, and who have therefore unconstrained capability.

“Individuals, who would misuse our basic rights and freedoms but, if they had their way, would want to create a society which would deny all of the basic individual rights which we now take for granted. As the Taliban have shown in practice and Al Qaeda espouse globally, the society they want would have no place for freedom of expression, thought or religion. No respect for private life or the rights of women. No compunction about unlawful killing or detention.”

Reid is able to present the stark choices that confront the West. The question that follows, as has been posed in this space before, is whether the West retains the will to defend its way of life. Or, again citing Reid: “It is up to each and all of us to ask the questions: what price security? At what cost preservation of freedom? What values are at stake? And what is the cost of making the wrong choices? This is not an abstract discussion. It is one which touches upon the preservation of the values and freedoms.”

The full text is available here.

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