When Interpreting Fascism and Islamism, How ‘Progressive’ are ‘Progressive’ Intellectuals?

In my previous blog, I made three key points: 1) Islamists are neglected when we consider the contemporary radical right; 2) Islamists, like Christian fundamentalists, may qualify as right-wing extremists; and 3) By neglecting Islamists, we underestimate their serious influence (and lethality), while potentially overestimating the impact of radical right ideologues, movements, and political parties. How have we reached this state of affairs? Let me suggest three reasons: The penchant for intellectual fads, the so-called “progressive” orientation of most academics, and a fear of being labelled “Islamophobic” or “anti-Muslim”.

Before beginning with my arguments, I want to counter potential criticisms head on. First, I consider myself a liberal scholar, but I reject the “authoritarian” dogmatism of many sectors of the liberal-left. So, for example, numerous liberal and left-wing scholars enjoined me not to enter into dialogue with French New Right leader, Alain de Benoist, who I consider a neo-fascist. Such political correctness speaks volumes about the liberal credentials of the liberal-left. Second, having studied neo-fascism for many years, I suggest that we tend to exaggerate its importance in the West by frequently looking to compare contemporary radical right movements with their counterparts in the interwar years before the emergence of the Third Reich. One revealing example is Madeleine Albright’s recent book, in which she seriously suggests that one reason we should talk about fascism is the election of US President Donald Trump. He is clearly not a fascist.

Similarly, the Yale University political philosopher Seyla Benhabib penned a short piece in The New Republic  in which she indiscriminately used the “fascist” label for the Norwegian terrorist Andres Behring Breivik, anti-immigrant political parties such as the French Front National (National Front, now Rassemblement National, or Nationally Rally), Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, and Germany’s Pegida movement. We should recall that as far back as 1990 the historian Martin Blinkorn warned that fascism was a contested term in the inter-war years for academics – let alone political elites – and that liberals and leftists applied the term too ‘loosely’ to many right-wing movements.[1]  Finally, I do not subscribe to the Islamism equals fascism comparison. Rather, I suggest that that Islamism and fascism are two distinctive totalitarian ideologies.[2]

My first argument is the tendency of professors and graduate students to follow intellectual fads. This certainly applies to political science, where departments are usually stacked with scholars belonging to the same school or theoretical approach. Contrary to a university’s purported mision to enlighten, professors and students all too often uncritically embrace “hegemonic” intellectual trends in their fields. The reasons for this are numerous: lack of intellectual originality, deference to authority, or a cynical strategy designed to help further one’s career prospects. This is not to suggest that there are no competent scholars of the “far right”. Scholars as diverse as Matthew Feldman, Jens Rydgren, Cas Mudde, Roger Griffin, Anton Shekhovtsov,and Herbert Kitschelt have all engaged in nuanced analyses of the radical right. Yet far too many scholars fall into the intellectual trope of exaggerating the “fascist threat”. In this respect, intellectuals should be more balanced and not merely echo anti-fascist watchdog groups.

My second argument is that, especially in North America, professors have embraced the idea that objectivity is not really possible and that they should link their scholarly pursuits to left-wing political causes. The vast majority of academics who study the Western radical right openly embrace “progressive” causes such as globalism, immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism. Opponents of these causes are frequently cast as evil and beyond the pale. “Progressives” of a liberal or radical leftist hue today represent the many, if not most, of the college faculties in the humanities and social sciences.[3]In a 2017 reader on the “populist radical right”, Cas Mudde pointed out, that in contrast to the study of other party families (liberals, social democrats, or socialists), where there are sympathizers of the ideologies they study, there is ‘no openly sympathetic scholar of the populist radical right’.[4]  These scholars are thus invested with a political agenda and find it much harder to dispassonately evaluate the beliefs and activities of their political opponents. Irrespective of one’s perspective, this state of affairs cannot be good for the intellectual development of students or professors.

Third, these “progressive” intellectuals also fear being labelled “Islamophobic” or “anti-Muslim”. They accordingly tend to exaggerate the threat of the Euro-American secular right and apologize for – or at worst, even embrace – Islamists as fellow critics of the “Enlightenment project”. It is rather troubling that “progressives” as diverse as Jeremy Corbyn (the leader of the British Labour Party), Norman Finkelstein (the American public intellectual), and Judith Butler (the celebrated feminist academic) have engaged in a defense of Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah. This can be called Islamist apologism since, wittingly or unwittingly, these scholars side with murderous Islamists.[5]  This “Islamist apologism” peddles false notions such as “Islamism is “moderate” in its goals, or that jihadist terrorism has “nothing to do with Islam.” Have these intellectuals forgotten that these anti-Western, anti-US, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic movements cannot be “progressives” when they denigrate women and target Jews, Christians, Shi’ites, Kurds, moderate Muslims, and atheists?

Let me conclude by questioning whether so-called “progressives” are really “progressive” after all? First, if university faculty are mostly composed of “progressives,” then how can other professors and students really challenge the validity of their views or engage in critical dialogue? Second, should the “progressive” agenda not include difficult subjects rather than the silencing of noxious voices? Third, leftists get it wrong three ways: they jettison objective analyses, overestimate the “fascist threat”, and even in some cases fail to denounce Islamism – the most threatening, totalitarian, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic ideology of our day.

Dr Tamir Bar-On is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Professor-Researcher at the School of Social Sciences and Government at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico. See his profile here.

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© 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]Martin Blinkhorn (ed.), “Introduction,” Fascists and Conservatives: The Radical Right and the Establishment in Twentieth-century Europe(London: Taylor and Francis Group, 1990), p. 2.

[2]See Tamir Bar-On “‘Islamofascism’: Four competing discourses on the Islamism-fascism comparison,” Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, 2018, forthcoming.

[3]Neil Gross, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Cambridge, Massachustets: Harvard University Press, 2013);Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University(New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[4]Cas Mudde, “Introduction,” in Cas Mudde (ed.), The Populist Radical Right: A reader (New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 2.

[5]Jeffrey M. Bale, The Darkest Sides of Politics, I: Postwar Fascism, Covert Operations, and Terrorism(New York: Routledge, 2018), p. ix.

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