How We Neglect Islamists by Refusing to Pin Them With the Radical Right Label

How We Neglect Islamists by Refusing to Pin Them With the Radical Right Label[1]

It has been over 70 years since the Axis powers were defeated. The horrors of the German Nazi and Italian Fascist regimes severely discredited fascism as an ideology. An anti-fascist consensus made it extremely difficult for fascism to emerge after World War Two. Yet nearly a century after the birth of Mussolini’s PNF, we are inceasingly told by academia and the mass media that the radical right is on the march and that fascism is returning to the European continent. The Yale University political philosopher Seyla Benhabib recently penned a short piece in The Atlantic entitled “The Return of Fascism”, for example, in which she used the “fascist” label for the Norwegian terrorist Andres Behring Breivik, political parties such as the French Front National, Greece’s Golden Dawn, and Hungary’s Jobbik, and even Germany’s Pegida movement.[2]Another recent debate in State of Nature asked numerous academics the following question: “Is fascism making a comeback?”  Importantly, as Yannis Stavrakakis pointed out in this debate: “The issue of conceptual clarity is paramount. Today, almost everything we dislike is denounced as ‘fascism’.” Thus it is no accident, insisted Stavrakakis, that we confuse fascism, populism, and authoritarianism.

However, curiously most constructions of the contemporary radical right do not include jihadi Islamists under its umbrella. Tellingly, a recent edited volume on the radical right published by Oxford University Press does not include radical Islamist groups, but contains the chapter “The Radical Right and Islamophobia.”[3]Likewise, reports by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center on American radical right terrorism never mention Islamists, while the latter organisation notes that right-wing terrorists (i.e., white supremacists, militia groups, and sovereign citizens) killed 255 people from 1993-2017.[4]And arguably these Islamist extremists, which include the likes of the genocidally-inspired Islamic State and Hamas, represent a greater danger to world peace than the more secular radical right in European and American societies. In 2014, the four leading organizations committing terrorist attacks worldwide were all Islamists: the Islamic State, Taliban, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram. They killed a whopping 17,444 people.[5]

All this begs a few questions: Are the Islamists radical right? Are we continuing to underestimate their importance? And most relevantly here, are they fascists? In this piece, I tackle the first question, and in future Insight contributions for CARR, I will examine the second and third questions.

First of all, both “right” and “left” are modern concepts.  They emerged during the French Revolution and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror (1793–1794), which killed an estimated 17,000 people. In the new republican state, if you sat on the right in parliament you were a restorationist; seeking to revive the ancien régime (old regime), the defeated aristocratic system, and the monarchy. A rightist was therefore a conservative for king, country, Church, and the traditional hierarchical order. The established order and its institutions – from the family to the monarchy –were seen as reflections of the universe’s so-called “natural order”. Any attempts to tamper with this intrinsic order (for example, by erecting an egalitarian, liberal democracy) was viewed as a social evil that contradicted God, common sense, and human experience.[6]If, on the other hand, you sat on the left, you were for republicanism, secularism, political change, the universal rights of the people, workers’ rights, and a more egalitarian social order.

Yet what if you want to, like the radical Islamists of our day, establish a theocracy, rule based on divine law? You must be more on the right than left, surely, although few if any modern right- and left-wing European political movements are so religious that they would fundamentally challenge the Enlightenment’s separation of church and state.

In Mexico, by contrast, the Cristero War between 1926 and 1929 was a period when the Mexican state was threatened by “Christian nationalists,” who rejected the anticlerical provisions in the 1917 Mexican Constitution. In the Cristero War, Mexicans were caught by the savagery of the army and state, on one hand, and these “fighters for Christ,” on the other.[7]It is estimated that 90,000 Mexicans lost their lives over these three years. The Cristeros were a traditionalist movement fearful of liberal republicanism and the loss of power for the Catholic Church in Mexico. Are Islamists like the Islamic State the contemporary version of the Cristeros: religiously intolerant, politically violent and totalitarian, and agents of “cleansing violence”?

The Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio penned Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction in order to help Italian voters parse this issue in the post-Cold War era. Bobbio argued that the main distinction between right and left remained: the “pole star” of the left is equality, and the right’s is hierarchy.[8]For Bobbio, egalitarianism connotes legal or administrative equality; the liberal notion of equality of opportunity; the socialist ideal of equal conditions; and the moral, spiritual, and ethnic equality of all human beings. For him, left-wing movements and parties were far more likely than their right-wing counterparts to support more egalitarian policies in citizenship laws, the right of immigrants to vote, the legal rights of migrants, including welfare and housing benefits, or more recnetly, legalised marriage for gays and lesbians.

What about Islamists? Islamists are more likely to take harsher positions in respect of rights for minorities (e.g., Christians, Jews, Yazidis, or Zoroastrians in the Middle East), and more likely to be intolerant of women’s equality compared to secular nationalist forces. The Islamic State was even accused of committing genocide against Yazidis in Iraq.

The 1988 Hamas Charter, moreover, notes in its Premable: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”  For those thinking that Hamas distinguishes between “bad Zionists” and “good Jews,”Article 7 makes its genocidal intentions crystal clear:

The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.

In conclusion, I suggest the following three points: 1) Islamists are neglected when we are considering the contemporary radical right; 2) Islamists, like Christian fundamentalists, may well qualify as right-wing extremists; and 3) By neglecting Islamists, we underestimate their serious influence (and lethality) while overestimating the impact of fascist ideologues, movements, and political parties. In the next blog, I will examine the reasons for why we have reached this state of affairs.

Suffice it to say, the right and radical right come in different permutations. Islamists, like fascists, Greens, or Christian fundamentalists, are difficult to classify on the right-left political spectrum. Yet, if we take both Bobbio and the legacy of the players associated with the French Revolution, we recognize that objectively Islamists are more on the right than left (with a few exceptions perhaps like the more “leftist” Ali Shariati, the key ideologue of the Islamic Revolution). It is no accident that Christians were key thinkers of secular and Marxist strains of pan-Arabism because they feared the lack of equality under an Islamic state. Furthermore, those studying the radical right perhaps need to expand their view of what constitutes the radical right. This challenge may lead us towards a re-assessment of where the most significant dangers of the radical right lie.

Professor Tamir Bar-On is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Professor in the School of Social Sciences and Government at Tecnológico de Monterrey.

© Dr. Tamir Bar-On. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1]This blog piece uses some insights from a piece I wrote, entitled “The French New Right: Neither Right, Nor Left?,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, vol. 8, no. 1 (2014), pp. 1-44.

[2]Seyla Benhabib, “The Return of Fascism,” The Atlantic, 29 September 2017.

[3]Jens Rydgren (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[4]See the Anti-Defamation League, A Dark and Constant Rage: 25 Years of Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 2017) and Southern Poverty Law Center, Terror from the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City (Montgomery, Alabama: Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012).

[5]Brigitte L. Nacos, Terrorism and Counterterrorism (fifth edition) (New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 155.

[6]Martin Breaugh, “Conservative Ideology from Yesterday to Today,” Lecture delivered at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Querétaro, Querétaro, Mexico, 20 February 2012.

[7]Jean Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People between Church and State, 1926–1929, trans. Richard Southern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

[8]Norberto Bobbio,Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction, trans. Allan Cameron (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 60-79.