They are the new, sizzling catchphrases in America, after George W. Bush said: "The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are historical reminders that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation," commenting on British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s announcement about the arrest of 21 British Muslims, charged with plotting to blow up planes while flying to the U.S.
This new phraseology, turned into a battle cry, as it was picked up all over the world by different people to be used either in the same way or implicitly. Canadian Conservative MP Jason Kenney, the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary compared Lebanon's Hezbullah to the Nazis; BBC presenter Kirsty Wark stated that "we face a global Islamic threat and the West needs to take on 'reactionary Islam' once and for all".
Another person to take it up was Ibn Warraq, a pseudonym for a bestselling author of several books and articles on Islam, which some term as anti-Islamic, while others see them as promoting secular humanism. Ibn Warraq chose to use Umberto Eco’s article in The New York Review of Books published eleven years ago titled UR-Fascism for an article titled “Islam, Middle East and Fascism” to “show” that Islam is indeed a form of fascism.
While Umberto Eco “opposes both the believers of a superior elitist culture and those who are so fascinated by mass culture that they have lost their critical judgment”, Ibn Warraq appears to be simply opposing Islam, as he is quoted saying: “There may be moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. There is no difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism: at most there is a difference of degree but not of kind.”
As we shall see, the article uses partial data, ignores historically proven facts, confuses tradition with religion and has frequent blanket statements and contradictions. An evaluation of modern Muslim thought that only mentions Banna, Qutb and al-Maududi is one-sided and unconvincing and opens up charges of omission and superficiality, especially in a twenty page article. His use of quotations from the Qur’an is quite one-sided and he has a tendency to take them out of context, ignoring that quotations from the Qur’an should be kept within their historical context and reasons for revelations, as some of the verses were revealed after a particular incident. Furthermore quoting a well known Islamophobe Daniel Pipes makes one wonder about objectivity.
For example, with regard to Muhammad’s behaviour towards the Jews he writes: “The treatment of the Jews by Muhammad is certainly not above reproach. The cold-blooded extermination of the Banu Qurayza (between 600 and 900 men), the expulsion of the Nadir and their later massacre (something often overlooked in the history books) are not signs of magnanimity or compassion.” I am sure that with a bit of concentrated research into history Ibn Warraq would realise that Banu Nadir were not massacred, but were exiled from Medina after a two-week siege following a battle. Muhammad even married Safiyya bint Huyayy of the Banu Nadir tribe after giving her the option of embracing Islam, which she chose to do.
As for Banu Qurayza they committed high treason by dishonouring a treaty drawn up with Muhammad. It was Sa’ad bin Moa'z, an ally to them from the Aws tribe of Medina, who passed the judgement. Sa'ad ruled that all the adult males of the Banu Qurayza should be killed. One report says Muhammad approved the ruling, as it was based on Banu Qurayza’s very own book. It was based on Deuteronomy 20:12-14: “12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies.” So the punishment of the Jewish tribe was done under Jewish Law, and most certainly not because of a whim of Muhammad, but because of a serious charge of treason, punishable by death even in liberal democracies today. In an article by W. N. Arafat the entire episode involving Banu Qurayza is questioned with regard to its historical authenticity.
Another example would be what he wrote about Sharia: “The Sharia or Islamic Law is based on four principles: The Koran; the sunna of the Prophet, which is incorporated in the recognized traditions (hadith); the consensus (ijma) of the scholars of the orthodox community; and the method of reasoning by analogy (qiyas).” I am afraid the principles of Islamic jurisprudence show that they are many more, not only four. Furthermore Hadith and Sunna are not one item, but two, as the classification of a Hadith also depends on the relevant behaviour to be taken from the Sunna. Other sources in addition to the Qur'an, Sunna, Hadith, Ijma and Qiyas are Ijtihad (personal reasoning), Istihsan (equity), Maslahah Mursalah (consideration of public interest), Urf (custom), Istishab (presumption of continuity).
Writing a point by point complete rebuttal to Ibn Warraq’s article would be far too long. A more rigorous approach would be to take Umberto Eco’s framework (his fourteen characteristics defining fascism) and using exactly the same epistemological framework that Ibn Warraq used, it will be seen that Islam cannot be considered to be a form of fascism.
Umberto Eco: : The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.
Ibn Warraq claims in this section that Islam is static, rigid and inflexible and tied immutably to a sacrosanct Qur’an and an untouchable Sunna, as well as the words of the ulema, mullahs and Muslim scholars reflected in the deriving and application of the Sharia laws. Unfortunately this is not so. Interpretations and re-interpretations of the Qur’an happened many times. For example, there are so many tafseers circulating which is a proof of a certain flexibility. To name a few, Ibn Kathir, Jareer at-Tabari, Qazi Abu Saud al-Hanafi, Abu Abdullah al-Qurtubi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi, Mahmud Alusi al-Hanafi all interpreted the Qur’an differently. Furthermore in modern times Sayyed Qutb, Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, Amin Ahsan Islahi, Muhammad Al-Ghazzali also reinterpreted the Qur’an. In addition, Amina Wadud and others have recently reinterpreted the Qur'an from a woman's (or even feminist) perspective. Historically there have been grammatical tafsirs, mystical tafsirs, philosophical tafsirs, theological tafsirs, shi’a tafsirs, sunni tafsirs, etc. In any case, if Islam was indeed inflexible, then different sects and different schools of Islamic jurisprudence would not have arisen.
Umberto Eco: : Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.
Umberto Eco: : Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action's sake.
Umberto Eco: : The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.
Umberto Eco: : Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.
Ibn Warraq adds features  to  together and says: “I shall show that, mutatis mutandis, Islam also rejects modernism, is hostile to reason, critical thought, fears disagreement, and is terrified of ‘intruders,’ though Islam’s form of exclusion is based on religion and not race.”
Space constraints prohibit a thorough debate on each of these points, hence I am concentrating on only one – rejection of modernity. A Hadith says: "The difference of opinion among the Companions of Muhammad is a mercy!", which shows that differences of opinion are not just accepted, but also encouraged. If Islam truly rejected modernism we would certainly not have the problem with terrorism and the impacts of the fundamental Wahhabi doctrine today. It was Ibn Abd al-Wahhab who decided to use his own ijtihad to purify Islam of what he thought were un-Islamic influences. But there were other modernists and reformers who emerged throughout history and I would like to mention a few for balance. Muhammad Abduh taught that modern scientific thought could be accepted without damage to Islam. He opposed taqlid (tradition) only and promoted the legitimacy of reinterpreted Islam. Qasim Amin fought against the subjugation of Muslim women and called that un-Islamic. He denounced the veil, seclusion and arranged marriages arguing that equality of the sexes exists in Islam. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani blamed the ulema for their backward views of Islam. Muhammad Iqbal generated his own synthesis and reinterpretation of Islam, promoted the adoption of Islamic versions of Western concepts and institutions such as democracy and parliamentary government. Sadly, for Ibn Warraq only Banna, Qutb and al-Maududi make it to his list of modernists, whereas they are much better suited to join Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
As for exclusion of ‘others’ based on religion as Ibn Warraq argues, the Qur’an says: 3:84. Say (O Muhammad): "We believe in Allah and in what has been sent to us, and what was sent to Ibrahim, Isma'il, Ishaque, Ya'qub and Al-Asbat and what was given to Musa, 'Isa and the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one another among them and to Him we have submitted." (Additional references 5:69, 4:136, 2:136, and 5:5)
Umberto Eco: : Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.
In this section, Ibn Warraq focuses on the economic hardships endured by Muslims in their countries, the corruption and ineptitude of the governments which he then blames for the ‘Islamists’ success in pulling the Muslims towards their doctrines. While I agree to the fact that many governments of Muslim countries are corrupt and incompetent, I would like to point out that none of these governments actually practices the Islamic teachings of collecting zakat and redistributing it to the poor as prescribed, which one way of reducing poverty is. Concentrating on economic hardships endured by Muslims alone is strange, as non-Muslims in many countries also suffer from the same poverty. Poverty is caused by bad economics, bad governance, corruption, lack of investments, etc. If poverty was indeed caused by Islam, then one wonders why Hindu India, Communist/Buddhist China, Christian Africa are relatively poor (in terms of individual earnings)?
Moreover, US government statistics showed that the country with the most terror fatalities was India. Most attacks were perpetrated by secessionist groups from the Northern provinces and the Communist Party of India. In second place was Colombia, a country with a population of over 90% Roman Catholic. Following in fifth place were the victims of secular Maoist terror groups in Nepal. University of Chicago's Robert Pape found that the group leading the world in suicide attack numbers between 1980 and 2004 was the Tamil Tigers, a secular group drawing its adherents from Sri Lanka's predominantly Hindu population. Saying that frustration leading to terrorism is a result of some deep flaw in Islam is a blanket statement and not valid.
Umberto Eco: : To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.
Ibn Warraq chooses in this section to focus on a part of the explanation of the point, rather than the point itself and concentrates on conspiracy theories abound in the Muslim world. I think that his choice stems from the fact that Muslims have a clear identity, namely as Muslims. In addition, it is this very identity that allows for diversity, as Muslims are Muslims regardless of their nationality or their country of birth. As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues in his book ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’ every person on this planet has multiple identities and prioritizing one identity over the others can result in a very simplistic understanding of the person and what they really represent. In other words the same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Latino origin, a Muslim, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a dancer, a historian, a feminist, a heterosexual, etc. There is simply no evidence that Muslims lack a social identity.
Umberto Eco: : The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.
I do agree with Ibn Warraq on the point that Muslims and Arabs in particular do have a sense of humiliation. He mentions the countless defeats suffered by the Muslims in the Middle East. He blames this humiliation for the hostility towards what he terms ‘the enemies of Islam’ in form of ‘Jewish or Imperialist conspirators’. Most countries in the Middle East have great wealth in terms of resources, be they oil, coal, cotton or advantageous geographical locations facilitating trade. These caused the long years of colonial exploitation in the past and neo-colonialism in present times. It is the resentment with occupation and meddling in local affairs that increases frustration and the urge to resist it, all the way to hostility and bloodshed.
Umberto Eco: : Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.
This feature is the easiest one to debunk, as Islam focuses on social justice for the weak and vulnerable such as the poor, the hungry and the orphans (for references check the Qur’an ([74:42-44] [93:9-10] [69:33-34] [107:1-3] [4:10] [17:34] etc.). One of the five pillars of Islam is the payment of zakat (religiously mandated and predefined amount of charity) which is also called “the right of the poor on the rich”. Moreover Islam doesn’t encourage elitism as everyone was created equal; the only distinction is by piety and righteous conduct (49:13).
Umberto Eco: : For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.
Umberto Eco: : In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.
In this section, Ibn Warraq discusses the concept of Jihad, the Holy War, whose ultimate aim, according to him, is to conquer the entire world and subjugate it to the laws of Allah. The point that he misses, is the distinction between the greater and lesser jihad. The bigger struggle is not a holy war and endless destruction and bloodshed, but the struggle against the self and its desires to commit sins. All religions ask the believers to struggle and fight against evil and uphold virtue. Islam permits fighting in self-defence by those who have been expelled forcibly from their homes or in defence of justice, or to protect rights and freedoms and fight corruption and oppression. (References: 2:190, 4:75, 42:41-43, 26:151-152).
Furthermore, long before the Geneva Conventions, Islam laid down strict rules of combat, which included prohibitions against harming civilians, destroying infrastructure as in crops, trees, water-wells and livestock. The Qur’an also instructed that if any enemy declared his desire to end hostilities and seek peace at any time, Muslims must do the same. The Qur’an commands every Muslim to be a hero by being a good person, upholding virtue and fighting injustice. That is not fascism. This is simply being a good human being and good citizen.
Umberto Eco: : Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.
Ibn Warraq argues here about the subjugation and suppression of Muslim women. He supplies endless quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith to prove that women are regarded as inferior and that both Qur’an and Hadiths are denigrating and degrading women. Unfortunately, these quotes are taken out of context, therefore much too literal. Women were given full rights (such as the right to divorce their husbands, keep their dowry, receive alimony and child-support, choose their husbands, reject arranged marriages, go out to work, own property, keep their own money and inheritance and much more). If these rights appropriate to women are not applied the way the Qur’an denotes and in accordance with Islamic teachings, be it due to tribal customs, patriarchal societal norms or obsolete traditions one should not blame the religion, but rather the misguided followers for their misapplication.
Umberto Eco: : Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.
Here Ibn Warraq tries to show that there are no individual nor human rights or freedoms in Islam. A comparison between the Qur’an and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would show this to be incorrect. Article 1 (All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood) is compatible with 49:13 (O you men! surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one among you most righteous), Article 18 (Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance) is compatible with 2:256 (There is no compulsion in religion) as well as 34:46 (Say: I exhort you only to one thing, that rise up for Allah's sake in twos and singly, then ponder). Article 16 (Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.) is compatible with 30:21 (And one of His signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest in them, and He put between you love and compassion; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect). It would be much too long to go through all the articles and compare, but that is for another article, another day.
Umberto Eco: [14.] Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.
Newspeak is characterised as the use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical thinking. Ibn Warraq argues about the limitations of Arabic with regard to grammar and vocabulary. While Arabic is indeed the language of the Qur’an, it is not the only and universal language spoken by all Muslims. In fact, most Muslims do not have Arabic as their mother tongue. Moreover it has often been argued that the Qur'an is the highest linguistic achievement of the Arabic language, representing a level of eloquence unattainable even by their most articulate speakers. Attempts to imitate the Qur'an by the finest poets of their time failed miserably. The Qur’an embodies linguistic and literary beauty, introduced stylistic innovations and made extensive use of illustrations, imagery, and metaphor. It was also admired by linguists, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, for its rhythmic patterns. Moreover Muslim philosophers used Arabic to translate and comment upon Aristotle and Plato for thousands of years have not found it to be lacking. Starting from the time of the Abbasid rule there was a vigorous effort to translate all the works. Al-Kindi laid the foundation fof studying philosophical works. Al-Farabi was the firts to formulate philosophy in a manner that would be palatable to Muslim tastes and to use Islamic terms. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is the one who popularised his writings and also laid an important groundwork in every major field of philosophy and most importantly political philosophy. And there are many others such as Al-Ghazali and Ibn Tufyal. There is even a Dictionary of Islamic Philosophical Terms in Arabic. How one can argue about impoverished vocabulary and an elementary syntax is beyond me, especially as he does not show on what basis he compares the various languages in the world with respect to vocabulary and syntax.
As can be seen from the above arguments, based on Umberto Eco’s criteria of defining or characterising fascism, Islam is not fascist at all. One could have taken Ibn Warraq’s claim seriously, if it did not have serious methodological issues, omissions, and mistakes. In these days of propaganda, polemics and polarity amongst people, it is even more important that objectivity be maintained. Yes, there are terrorists who abuse Qur’anic verses to justify their heinous crimes. Yes, Muslims have to clearly state that these interpretations are wrong. Blaming the religion or calling it fascist for the fault of some of these pathological and disturbed terrorists is like blaming the car for car-accidents. Islam is a means to achieve oneness with Allah. It is a path to God and a way to live, so that the followers are good virtuous people. Do not mistake the path to God with a terrorist’s ideology, because they are certainly not the same. The challenge for humanists around the world is to find other means which do not rely on dividing the world, but rather uplifting us all. But the final judgement rests with you, kind reader.
For more readings on Fascism:
* My gratitude goes to Dr. Omid Safi for his invaluable pointers.