Religious Fascism?

I first heard the term “Islamofascism” on a summer visit to the U.S. six years ago. Though its source was dubious — talk radio of the most strident sort — the expression immediately rang true with me. Yes, fascism did seem a good way to characterize the extreme Islamic fundamentalism that appeared to be spreading through the Muslim world and beyond.

Before going further, it's worth noting that few expressions are more offensive to Muslims than “Islamofascism,” since it associates their religion with something that is patently evil. You have only to pair fascism with your preferred religious system to see why: “Christian fascism,” “Jewish fascism,” “Buddhist fascism” — we'd like to think all of these are contradictions in terms.

So I'm going to generalize the term and use “religious fascism” instead.

What truly frightened me about the notion of modern religious fascism is how fascism in whatever form has a tendency to quickly capture the thinking of huge numbers of people. To establish its hold, a fascist movement uses totalitarian measures, including thuggery and violence, on its own people, propped up by claims of racial, national or religious superiority. The supremacist attitudes that fascism both fosters and feeds upon eventually lead to violent engagement with neighboring countries or followers of rival ideologies — all-out war, in other words.

I started wondering if the almost unfailingly pleasant people I was living among — my Moroccan acquaintances and co-workers — could ever be caught up in this sort of mass hysteria. Could the neighbor lady who regularly brings us figs and ripe pomegranates from her small garden be a few months away from denouncing my family and me as infidels deserving the sword, for the sake of the purity of Islam?

It had happened in Europe, after all. Plenty of otherwise well-intentioned, perfectly respectable, church-going folks evidently went from living peaceably together with Jews to, if not conspiring with Nazi authorities to send them to the death camps, complacently looking on as it happened.

Here in North Africa, I began to look for signs of heightened intolerance and xenophobia. Would there be notices on storefronts forbidding non-Muslims from shopping there? Would we Christian expats have to start wearing a yellow cross stitched to our clothing? Or would the persecution be more subtle — taxis refusing to take foreign passengers, or teachers marking my kids' papers more severely than their local classmates'?

That was six years ago, and I'm still looking for those warning signs. So far, I've seen almost nothing to warrant the sort of fear that I lived with for a while.

Instead, there are multiple indicators to the contrary, at least in Morocco. Yes, there may be a few more veiled ladies about, and the conservative mosques do seem to attract larger congregations. At the same time, though, I see more and more women in the cities exercising their freedom to dress as they please. I'm certain the number of women in skirts and dresses has grown, just as television and billboard advertising project an increasingly modern, tolerant image of Moroccan culture.

I have to feel that a lot of this is intentional, as if to say, “We'll not be cowed.”

(We could detour here and talk at length about the relative validity of external attributes as indicators of internally held beliefs. I know: A terrorist doesn't have to wear a beard; a female bank manager in a business suit can still be a devout Muslim; a modern secularist may dress and talk like Jimmy Swaggert. But it remains a fact that, at least in this part of the world, how people dress is often, though not always, a reflection of religious values.)

Apart from outward signs, there is plenty of evidence of significant debate going on here. Newspapers and magazines frequently address the problem of religious extremism, while political analysts argue on television about how best to give a forum to Islamic political parties without crowding out opposing viewpoints.

There is no denying that there are people in North Africa who are sympathetic with al Qaeda. Periodically, the authorities expose groups with terrorist connections or arrest a handful of young extremists. But there is no evidence of some sort of religious fascism taking deep hold on the people at large. Nor does it appear that there's an overreaction on the part of the populace against fundamentalists; in fact, I've read a number of opinion pieces arguing for the protection of the rights of those suspected but not yet convicted of terrorist-related activities.

Media portrayals to the contrary, very few Islamic fundamentalists are in the al Qaeda camp, any more than Christian fundamentalists all line up with the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, if you consider the influence of the KKK during certain periods of U.S. history and compare it with that of al Qaeda in the Muslim world now, you may find that the analogy holds pretty well. One difference, obviously, is that the KKK in its heyday didn't have access to the Internet and high-tech explosives, but it certainly managed to use terror much the same way that al Qaeda does today, to draw attention to and recruit followers for its hate-driven program, and to terrorize nearly everybody else.

What I have noticed is many Moroccans making it plain to me that they believe those who commit violence against innocent people in the name of Islam are unworthy to be called Muslims. It's clear that no one is more concerned about the spread of Islamic extremism than the tolerant majority, who simply want to live their lives, educate their children and go about their business.

Here's a telling example from a recent conversation about the growth of Internet use in this country. I had remarked to a friend of mine — a well-educated, devout family man — how I liked to see the many Internet cafés in our city filled with young people. I told him I thought it not only would help them with their computer skills, but also would broaden their understanding of the world.

“That's true,” said my friend, “but a lot of bad things come with the Internet, you know.”

“Oh, like pornography?” I asked. “That worries me, too.”

“No,” my friend said. What he had in mind is the way that extremist groups can use the Internet to recruit and train young people. Nearly every speech made anywhere in the world that is intended to rouse people to violence in the name of Islam shows up immediately on the Internet, he claimed.

Now, I know this man well enough that I'm sure he's not in favor of the widespread availability of pornography. But, when he ponders the potentially negative influence of the Internet in his country, he thinks first of the threat posed by the forces of hatred and intolerance, with the dangerous attraction they hold for many youths.

* * * * *

With the passing of another Sept. 11, I've been thinking back to the day when a call came from our kids' school — one of several American-style international schools in the city — to come right away and pick them up, as the school was closing early. The only other indication I'd had that something was amiss was that the Internet was hopelessly frozen and I couldn't collect my e-mail. On the drive to the school I could see people in cafés crowded around televisions, but I still had no idea what was going on. At the school gate a security guard told me: Airplanes had attacked New York, he said, and we needed to get our children safely home.

By the end of the day, everybody in the entire city was aware of the terrifying news. My daughter had a dental appointment that I almost canceled, but that we went to anyway. The dentist came out as soon as we entered her office.

“I am so very sorry for what has happened,” she said. “This is a tragedy for everyone.”

The coming days were marked by similar scenes with the corner grocer, a couple of taxi drivers, the dry cleaner, our landlady.

“We are so sad for you,” was the recurring message.

“Why is there so much killing in the world?” one man asked me.

“These people could not have been true Muslims,” many said.

And my favorite of all: “You know this couldn't have been done by Arabs,” a Casablanca physician told me when I went in for a check-up a few weeks after 9/11. “More than a dozen men had to board four different airplanes at exactly the right time, flying from three different airports, and manage to crash the planes into buildings within a few minutes of each another. Now I ask you: an Arab man, who'll keep you waiting for an hour for a business appointment and who was probably late for his own wedding — how could he ever do that?”

I laughed along with him, of course. But as I did so, my eyes scanned the assortment of university and medical school diplomas — one from a prestigious American institution — on the wall behind him. At some point, I thought, this guy has managed to get to class on time.

But the message of his self-effacing remarks was clear: “The evil ones are not us.”

Seven years later, I still concur.

More in National Security

Al Qaeda application revealed in bin Laden trove

Read more »