“In Islam, ‘holy war’ – jihad – and ‘the path of God’ are interchangeable terms. A well known and quite characteristic saying of this tradition is ‘The blood of the martyrs is more precious than the prayers of the saints or the ink of the philosophers.’”
So said not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but self-described “superfascist” and esoteric philosopher Julius Evola, whose legacy has been recently rehabilitated as the darling of the intellectual wing of the so-called alt-right. The quote comes from his book The Metaphysics of War, during a passage in which he praises the martial tradition within Islam (and “heroic traditions” in general) as providing an external framework for elevating the spiritual self.
Many people point to examples like this in an attempt to link Islam and fascism and propose that the two are equally irredeemable, if not actually the same. After all, doesn’t the fact that fascists love Islam say something about the religion?
This line of reasoning fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fascism, as well as the nature of Islam.
A better question would be to compare Islam to Christian Europe, and to ask if fascism is an authentically European movement.
Fascism, contrary to how it is popularly represented in the media today, was not some historical aberration or an accident. It was a political movement with specific goals that arose out of a specific historical and philosophical context.
Fascism consciously drew on European history for its inspiration and self-justification. The name fascism comes from the fasces, the bundle of sticks around an axe used as the symbol of state power by bodyguards of Roman magistrates. The Nazi salute is a roman salute and the red and black color scheme of the Nazi flag is modeled on the German Imperial flag.
Was Europe racist? Absolutely. “Blood and soil” had been a concept in German nationalism for some time, and the idea that nations consisted of an ethnic group connected spiritually to a specific land took off more than 100 years before the rise of Hitler as part of the German romantic movement. When it came about it did so in contrast to the older feudal hierarchies that nationalism replaced.
“It is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews,” proclaimed Church Father Saint John Chrysostom (354-430) in one of his “Homilies Against the Jews.” These books by the revered pioneer of the early church were reprinted by the Nazi party to drum up support for their anti-Semitic policies. This antisemitism was fueled over a thousand years by the church.
Nor was this propaganda just confined to the Catholic Church, which finally officially rejected antisemitism in 1965 as part of the a package of reforms termed Vatican II. Leader of the reformation Martin Luther thundered, “Set fire to their synagogues or schools” and called for banning rabbis from teaching on pain of death in his 1543 pamphlet “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Replacement theology taught that the Church had supplanted the Jews as the people of God. Jews were charged with deicide — killing Jesus.
Do classical Islamic sources provide justification for dominating non-believers, taking slaves, rape, pillage, slaughtering the unbelievers and conquering land? Islamic history is replete with such violence.
Abbasid Caliphs are believed to have purchased eunuchs from Vikings. The Barbary Corsairs raided and plundered Christian lands for centuries, citing Islam as justification. Black slaves, including sex-slaves, soldiers and eunuchs, were bought and captured in Africa and sold in the Middle East well into the 20th century by Muslims. Laws for “dhimmis,” non-Muslims living under Muslim rule, included clothing restrictions, differences in tax law, a prohibition on weapons, restrictions on the construction and refurbishment of churches and other places of worship to name but a few.
Was Europe ultra-violent and militaristic? The Nazis built on a long tradition of German militarism dating back to the German tribal leader Arminius who defeated three Roman legions and slaughtered them to a man in an ambush in the Teutonberg forest. That event was later mythologized as the birth of the German nation. There’s also the reason Hitler’s Germany was called the Third Reich: it was building on the first and the second Reich – namely the Holy Roman Empire (800-1805) and the German Empire (1871-1918). Each one of those regimes fought constant wars (and won a lot of them).
Does Islam have a martial tradition? Absolutely. Anyone who thinks that the Islamic conquests of the Middle East were largely bloodless is fooling themselves. The armies of Islam pressed into Europe until they were halted by force by Charles Martel at Tours in 837 and by the king of Poland at the gates of Vienna in 1683.
For centuries the caliphs of Islam spread their faith by the sword. It is no coincidence that ISIS published a feature in its magazine Rumiyah praising medieval Iranian monarch Sultan Mahmud al-Ghaznawi as defeating the “idolaters” in India for his raids against Hindu rulers. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his public address as “Commander of the Faithful,” he chose to do so in the Nour al-Din mosque in Mosul, the mosque built by the fabled Crusader-era leader whose successor, Saladin, reconquered Jerusalem.
It’s not just ISIS. The jihadist Khalid Ibn al-Walid Army deliberately styles itself after one of early Islam’s greatest generals, the man who conquered Syria.
Does the authentically European nature of fascism mean that all of European culture is bad? Of course not. The same culture that produced Eichmann also produced Bach, Immanuel Kant and the Brothers Grimm. The savage and the sublime coexist and come from the same roots. It would be absurd to throw the baby out with the bathwater and declare Christendom inherently evil.
Similarly, does the presence of a strong militaristic streak within Islamic history and culture mean that the faith is inherently violent and evil? No. The same faith that produced the massacres of the Almohad Caliphate also produced the Beit al-Hikmat, Harun al-Rashid’s famed library and center of learning. Rumi, Ibn Farabi, Ibn Khaldun and many others formed the backbone of Islam’s rationalist Golden Age.
But in more recent times, tectonic shifts are taking place. A new generation of American scholars are finding their own, more progressive place within Islam. Meanwhile the King of Morocco called together religious scholars to affirm the rights of minorities. Even the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has pledged to end extremism.
So the original question — Is Islam inherently fascist? — is a false one. It is better phrased, “does Islam possess the cultural preconditions for an authentically Islamic fascistic movement?”
The answer is a clear yes. Both radical Islam and European fascism are legitimate and logical expressions of their respective cultures most negative traits, built out of over a thousand years of mainstreaming bad ideas.
What that does not mean is that the whole edifice is corrupt to the core.
In the footnote to the praise of Islam’s violent side in The Metaphysics of War, Evola’s editor comments, “I am uncertain of the origin of this saying but it is contradicted by another Hadith taken from the Al-Jaami al-Saghir of Imam al-Suyuti, “the ink of the philosophers is more precious than the blood of the martyrs.”
The Islamic tradition contains more than enough material to counter any fascistic-movement arising from within it.