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When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor: Islamic Fascism as a Category Problem

Of course, it was Imperial Japan, not Nazi Germany, that attacked Hawaii. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the day of infamy, the United States entered a war both in Europe and in the Pacific. Although the political structures and ideologies of Japan and Germany were hardly identical and their geopolitical ambitions were not at all thoroughly aligned (who would replace the British in India?), President Roosevelt was able to articulate a clear opposition between the democracies and the fascist powers. Differences among the various fascist regimes could still leave room for nuanced policies and strategic decisions: there was no allied invasion of Franco’s Spain. Yet the fact that Mussolini was not Hitler did not prohibit the invasion of Sicily, a crucial link in the chain that would lead to victory in both theaters.

Such was the ability of American society then and its political leadership to resist and defeat the dictatorships of the Second World War, followed decades later by the successful conclusion of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That capacity for such political and military resolve is however of a completely different nature than academic inquiry which, characteristically, has developed a rich insight into the specific features and differences among the dictatorships. Scholars distinguish and differentiate, and this variegated knowledge can, at times, inform policy decisions, but, in the end, academics have the professional luxury of never having to act and certainly not to take action to contribute to national security.

Some intellectuals nonetheless have the ability to see the big picture. Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism of 1951 draws primarily on the examples of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, between which she describes important similarities. Aside from the left, which has always resented the impugning of Communism, academic objections to Arendt’s study have pointed out the undeniable differences between Hitler and Stalin, and their respective regimes. Within scholarly research, such criticisms should not be discounted, but there is a point, particularly when one moves from the university into the political arena, where this quibbling becomes a debilitating fixation: insistence on the specificity of each tree, while refusing to take note of the forest.

This is a problem with categories as such. Individual phenomena retain an irreducible particularity, which makes up the texture of lived life, the Lebenswelt; at the same time, we cannot do without a conceptual vocabulary to describe commonalities and to enable action in the world. Action is a defining condition of humanity, the ability to build on reflection to transform the world through creative innovation. Without the conceptual tools of thought, action becomes blind; but without an active pursuit of human goals—telos—thought diminishes.

Despite differences between Japan and Germany, Roosevelt and Americans of his era could recognize their commonality. The current debate over “Islamic fascism” represents a parallel category problem. Speaking to the 88th Convention of the American Legion, President Bush described Islamic extremists as “successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century.” That is the historical analogy that has caused so much anxiety on the left and among some scholars. The point I want to pursue here however is the related definition of the enemy:

“The enemies of liberty come from different parts of the world, and they take inspiration from different sources. Some are radicalized followers of the Sunni tradition who swear allegiance to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. Others are radicalized followers of the Shi’a tradition who join groups like Hezbollah and take guidance from state sponsors like Syria and Iran. Still others are homegrown terrorists, fanatics who live quietly in free societies they dream to destroy.

“Despite their differences, these groups from—form the outlines of a single movement, a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology. And the unifying feature of this movement, the link that spans sectarian divisions and local grievances, is the rigid conviction that free societies are a threat to their twisted view of Islam. The war we fight today is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

In another context, one might want to go through the New York Times article in order to note how journalists build in tendentious rebuttal. Critical journalism has given way to partisanship, as the editorial voice has contaminated reporting. Today however it is the conclusion of the article that is of primary interest.

Bush has claimed that despite differences among various factions, Islamic extremism constitutes a “network” or a “movement.” The NYT closes by citing alternative views of this alleged coherence of the extremist movement.

“In making the case that the war in Iraq is ‘the central front in our fight against terrorism,’ the president linked Iraq, the summer battles between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and the growing nuclear threat in Iran under the general rubric of his freedom agenda.

“At the same time, he placed various factions of terrorists—Sunnis who swear allegiance to Al Qaeda, Shiite radicals who join groups like Hezbollah and so-called homegrown terrorists—under one umbrella.”

Did he really “put them under one umbrella”? The quotation from the speech indicates a recognition of differences. The NYT‘s invocation of an “umbrella” has its own political resonance.

Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich, 1938

After overstating Bush’s homogenization of the Islamicist movements, the NYT finds an expert to corroborate its opinion.

“Experts said that might be overstating the facts.

“‘Network of radicals’ suggests they are actually connected in some practical fashion, and that’s obviously not the case,’ said Steven Simon, a State Department official in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush’s father.

“But the comparison is central to Mr. Bush’s message, said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the National Republican Committee, who has played an integral role in developing Republican strategy for the midterm elections.

“‘I thought linking together the different elements of this ideological movement was important to do, and was effective,’ Mr. Mehlman said.”

So, the cautious position, here represented by a former member of the State Department bureaucracy, is to minimize the claim of a “networked” connection. There is, according to this view, no “Islamic extremism,” only this or that local phenomenon, with no interaction.

No doubt there are differences between Sunni and Shiite terrorists—and at times they may do us the favor of fighting each other—but pretending that the movement, in all its diffuseness, is therefore non-existent: this is the old State Department which divides the world into pigeonholes and is surprised when airplanes blow up. Moreover, the State Department, hampered by its own epistemological limits, is necessarily focused on nation-states as actors—the cadre hiding away in Foggy Bottom have a predisposition to avoid seeing non-state actors, including the diffuse terrorist organizations.

Of course, there are differences, but there is too much in common to avoid the challenge to western modernity posed by an Islamic fascism close to acquiring nuclear arms. Sunni and Shia terrorists have more in common than did Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The political-theoretical question at stake is the relationship between “movement” and “state”—between Hezbollah, for example, as a reactionary movement and Iran or Syria as reactionary states. Arendt has much to say on this sort of issue.

The larger theoretical question involves the applicability of any ideal-typical conceptualizations to inescapably diverse realities: academics, in the pursuit of knowledge, can extend discussion and defer decision infinitely.

The cultural-critical question is whether the ever-cautious liberalism (represented here by the State-Department) will ever be able to muster the courage to defend the values it claims to represent. It is clear that in the current political season, the liberal establishment—including the NYT and the Democratic Party—will define itself against the Bush administration. We know it can, wrongly, pretend that there is no threat. Can it, instead, find the resolve to recognize the threat and articulate a strategy for victory?

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