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“Islamo-Fascism” in Miniature

Lawrence Bush
January 24, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

Discussed in this essay: The Way of the Strangers, Encounters with the Islamic State, by Graeme Wood. Random House, 2017, indexed, 317 pages.

IN JANUARY 2003, when I stood wearing a sign that said, "Freezing My Ass Off for Peace" amid hundreds of thousands of protestors against George W. Bush's imminent invasion of Iraq, neither I nor a large percentage of the crowd knew the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, or how polarizing that difference might be among inhabitants of the Muslim world. I would bet that President Bush's knowledge of the Sunni-Shi'a schism was at most a week old and one briefing paper deep — yet he went ahead and inaugurated an invasion-occupation-civil war that would cost at least 175,000 Iraqi lives (by the most conservative estimate; others count up to a million), 6,000 American lives (4,500 military and 1,500 contractors, plus tens of thousands of war-wounded), and a badly misspent $1 trillion.

The enduring justification for that war, long after the weapons of mass destruction "intelligence" (read: lie) was debunked, was "Islamo-fascism." That was how neoconservatives saw radical Muslim jihadism, as a world-historic demonology that had to be obliterated in Islamic lands before its power spread beyond those borders -- with the only path to that obliteration being, in Donald Rumsfeld's phrase, "preemptive war."

Graeme Wood's The Way of Strangers, Encounters with the Islamic State, has convinced me that "Islamo-fascism" -- a phrase I have always hated for its dehumanizing power -- is actually pretty apt in encapsulating the mentality and ideology of the Islamic State and its Al Qaeda rivals. In conversations with ISIS supporters and recruiters, and through examination of the teachings of radical jihadism's intellectual and theological founding fathers, Wood unveils a worldview that is savage towards all who do not share it, deeply apocalyptic, rigidly fundamentalist regarding Islamic texts and religious history, and worshipful towards martyrdom. "[T]o call it world-historical would diminish it," Graeme writes, paraphrasing the view of ISIS expressed by scholars of jihad, "because the entire cosmos was in play. . . . ISIS was fulfilling prophecy; . . . it was resurrecting laws and forms of government dormant for more than a thousand years; and . . . it would continue to vanquish the enemies of Islam until Jesus himself returned as a Muslim warrior to slay the anti-Christ."

Wood continues:

Instead of talking about imminent death but planning for long life, they talked about imminent death and sought it avidly. The letters (ISIS fighters) send home combine quiet dignity with complete moral insanity. . . . To die was the point. . . . But no propaganda effort could conceal the uncomfortable fact that for immigrants to the Islamic State, the killing was a source of profound fulfillment.

. . . They believed the state that awaited them would purify their lives by forbidding vice and promoting virtue. Its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, would unify the world's Muslims, restore their honor, and allow them to reside in the only truly just society. Its Muslim citizens would enjoy perfect equality, free of the iniquities they had suffered due to differences of race, wealth, or nationality in the countries of their birth. . . . To realize this dream, they had joined a fascist, expansionist movement of global reach . . . [and] embraced practices such as slavery, mutilation, extreme violence against non-Muslims and many self-described Muslims.

For liberal readers who are suspicious of neoconservative denunciations of radical Islam, a bit of analogizing to American Christian evangelism can do the trick of convincing us that the warriors and supporters of ISIS are beyond redemption through argument or outreach. Imagine a group of well-armed American Dominionists taking over a corner of Texas or northern Mexico and declaring a Christian Dominionist State. Here's a description of Dominionists by Claire Conner in Church & State:

Dominionism was founded by and promulgated by Rousas John Rushdoony . . . . In his magnum opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, published in 1973, Rushdoony described the Old Testament laws that would be the backbone of the new justice system in a Christian America. He wrote, “The only true order is founded on Biblical Law. All law is religious in nature, and every non-Biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion."

Capital punishment is central to imposing Biblical Law. Rushdoony called for the death penalty for crimes such as rape, kidnapping, and murder, homosexuality, juvenile delinquency, adultery, and unchastity before marriage. Crimes against faith like heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology also carried the death penalty.

Rushdoony wrote: “God’s government prevails, and His alternatives are clear-cut: either men and nations obey His laws, or God invokes the death penalty against them.”

Criminals would be burned at the stake, hanged and stoned, depending on their sins. The folks facing such punishment included gays, blasphemers, unchaste women, and incorrigible juvenile delinquents. Of course, doctors providing abortions and their patients would also be executed.

There are probably on a few tens of thousands of Americans who identify, theologically, with Dominionism, but such influential figures as Pat Robertson have espoused Dominionist views, and if the movement were to declare a Christian version of the Muslim caliphate, as ISIS has done, there is little doubt that tens of thousands of American Evangelicals would clean their guns, pile into their vehicles, and head to the liberated zone to prepare for the Apocalypse — and that affiliated satellite communities would spring up in Oklahoma, Idaho, Arizona . . .

But would we urge drone attacks, targeted bombings, and wholesale war against such communities of Christian jihadis?

ENTIRELY MISSING from Graeme Wood's account is the reality of U.S. involvement in the formation of ISIS. After the Obama Administration greenlighted the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, according to Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books (among other sources), both U.S. and British intelligence helped to channel stockpiles of Libyan weapons to the anti-Assad rebel forces in Syria — which were known to be dominated by Salafists (conservative Muslim fundamentalists), the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda allies. Writes Seumas Milne in The Guardian:

A revealing light on how we got here has now been shone by a recently declassified secret U.S. intelligence report, written in August 2012, which uncannily predicts -- and effectively welcomes -- the prospect of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria and an al-Qaida-controlled Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. In stark contrast to western claims at the time, the Defense Intelligence Agency document identifies al-Qaida in Iraq (which became Isis) and fellow Salafists as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” -- and states that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” were supporting the opposition’s efforts to take control of eastern Syria.

Raising the “possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality,” the Pentagon report goes on, “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)."

Why would the U.S. support, or even tolerate, the rise of ISIS in Syria? For the same reason it supported the forces that eventually cohered into the Taliban in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there: because, as the same Defense Department memo notes, "Russia, China, and Iran support the [Assad] regime."

Follow this train of thought, and how Russian intervention in Syria has essentially quelled the Islamic State, at least for the time being, and how Donald Trump seems committed to restarting the Russia-America relationship on a footing of greatly reduced rivalry . . . Suddenly you stand in a Bizarro world, in which your vote for Hillary Clinton this past November becomes a vote for the caliphate of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi . . .

GRAEME WOOD has convinced me of the aptness of the phrase, "Islamo-fascism," but I am no less committed to searching out the geopolitical causes, and the social and economic causes, and the blame that is shared all around for the Islamic Statem rather than merely bombing the hell out of them. As I wrote in Jewish Currents two years ago:

The great sage Hillel (in the Pirkei Avot), after retrieving a skull from the currents of a river, muses as follows: “Because you drowned others, others drowned you; and those who drowned you will in turn be drowned.” Perhaps American policymakers should contemplate this next time they’re confronted by an ISIS beheading. The terrified victim will likely be an innocent — but the context not entirely so. It is time to change that context; our meddling has not made the Mideast a better place.

And at the risk of sounding like an American Firster, I added two proposals: Announce America’s military withdrawal from the entire Middle East by the year 2018; maintain strict controls on immigration from countries that suffer from radical fundamentalist movements -- but more importantly, offer asylum and assistance in escaping to all women and children willing to flee the sexism and de facto slavery of their homelands. Our peace dividend would pay for resettling them. Asylum instead of war -- that’s what a civilized country offers.

Add in a Russia-China-American-Iranian plan build the economy of the Middle East, and you've got something to support other than slaughter.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.