Not Saussure

January 16, 2007

‘Christian fascism’: What’s in a name?

Filed under: Blogroll, Books, Politics, Religion, usa, Wingnuts — notsaussure @ 6:56 pm

Interesting post by Gracchi (pleonasm again) complaining about the labels Islamo-Fascism and, now, ‘Christian fascism’, as applied by Chris Hedges to right-wing Christians in the United States. Gracchus’ thesis, with which I wholly concur, is that fascism properly refers to an identifiable political ideology, specifically that of Mussolini’s Italy and by conventional extension to Hitler’s Germany, Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain. Gracchus is possibly rather more dubious than am I about whether it’s applicable to Franco’s Spain, but I’m hardly an expert in that period of history so I’ll willingly concede the point.

Quite rightly, though, Gracchus (sorry, I have to write about him in the singular) complains that it’s now being used as a term of abuse for any particularly illiberal political movement and, as he notes, ‘not being liberal does not make you fascist’. To my mind, it’s there primarily as a signifier of the attitude of the person who uses it rather than to describe a particular movement or ideology.

The Islamo-fascist trope serves several purposes, I think. It’s partly used by the ‘decent left’ (‘decent’ being the self-description of those on the left who supported the invasion of Iraq, though, strangely, it’s never applied to Leonid Brezhnev who, with hindsight, certainly seems to have been on the right side in 1979; quite seriously, if the West had taken seriously Soviet protestations about the sort of people with whom they were dealing in Afghanistan, how things might have been different) to evoke memories of WW2 and standing shoulder to shoulder with the Americans against fascism. It’s also convenient for the American right, since it helps to evoke memories of the folly of attempting to appease fascists at Munich.

It’s a term that has unfortunate historical resonances, certainly, in that poor old Sir Anthony Eden, who, having learned from his experiences during the 1930s, was convinced that in Nasser he faced an Arab Mussolini, thus leading to the greatest British foreign policy failure before Iraq, before the American appeasers, in the form of President Eisenhower, forced him to withdraw.

If we have to use labels, I rather prefer Niall Ferguson’s term, ‘Islamo-Leninist’ for which he argues persuasively (enough to persuade me, that is) in Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire; it’s no more inaccurate (i.e., very) a characterisation of al-Qaida’s economic policies, such as they are, than is calling them fascists, is equally descriptive of their vision of an ideological people’s state ruled by a group who understand the people’s real interests rather better than do the people themselves, and is far more descriptive of their methods.

But, in many ways, trying to apply these labels seems a bit of a pointless game. In his interview in Salon, it becomes clear that Chris Hedges is stretching the term ‘fascism’ to include all manner of people who, while certainly thoroughly unpleasant, can’t, I think, be called ‘fascists’ without making the term almost completely meaningless; he writes:

When I first covered Hamas in 1988, it was a very marginal organization with very little power or reach. I watched Hamas grow. Although I came later to the Balkans, I had a good understanding of how Milosevic built his Serbian nationalist movement. These radical movements share a lot of ideological traits with the Christian right, including that cult of masculinity, that cult of power, rampant nationalism fused with religious chauvinism. I find a lot of parallels.

Hamas, I don’t know a great deal about, though I do know that the one political party in that part of the world that’s avowedly a religious fascist party (or, at least, was founded as one) is the Lebanese Kataeb Party, or Phalange, supported by Maronite Christians and allies, of course, of Hamas’ Israeli enemies during their occupation of Lebanon. I’m not trying to make a polemical point, just saying that while the two organisations clearly have much in common, it’s a bit unhelpful to lump them together. Then if you also use the term to embrace Milosovic, it seems a bit unfair not to include his Croat enemy Franjo Tuđman, who all but formally rehabilitated the pro-Nazi WW2 Independent State of Croatia. All thoroughly unpleasant and misguided people, doubtless, but it seems strange in the extreme to discuss similarities between supposed ‘Christian fascists’ in the USA, Hamas and Milosovic without taking the the seemingly opportunity to introduce introduce into the discussion two other groups who could far more reasonably be described as ‘Christian fascists’.

I suspect the reason he didn’t is that the direct comparison between the supposed American variety of Christian fascist and the more authentic Lebanese and Croat manifestations of this ideology would point up how over-stated it is.

What we have, I think, is an example of the sort of counter-Unspeak described by Stephen Poole towards the end of his excellent book:

Having witnessed the virtuoso use of Unspeak by the Bush administration, some liberals in the US desperately want to catch up in the rhetorical arms race. Studying the work on how different terms ‘frame’ arguments by such linguists as George Lakoff, the Democrats hit on a counter-strategy: to burnish and sharpen their own language until it became as steely and weaponised as that of the opposition. The aim was expressed thus in 2005 by Howard Dean: ‘The framing of the debate determines who wins the debate’ But this may end up merely as fighting Unspeak with Unspeak. One may be wearily sceptical that it will lead to any great enlightenment. (p 237)

Certainly, it’s sometimes fun debunking some of the wilder claims made about ‘Islamo-fascism’ by taking the wilder utterances of some of the more religious members of the US administration and showing how, in the mouths of Muslim political figures, they’d be seen as evidence of dangerous jihahi enthusiasm. I sometimes do it myself. But the point of that is to suggest that people like Mad Mel Phillips are scaring themselves unnecessarily over-reacting to extravagant statements by individual nutcases (not unlike themselves, I’m tempted to add) and that we all ought to calm down a bit, not to suggest that a Christian version of the Taliban are about to sweep to power in the USA or anywhere else that I can think of.

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  1. A quick note regarding Francos’s spain (something I lived first hand under, though too young to really appreciate it) it is indeed not a clear cut thing to describe post civil war spain as Fascist.
    The Falangists were very much influenced by Mussolinis ideas, showmanship and so forth, but were only one part of a coalition that made up the rebels, usurpers, nationalists, or whatever you want to call them. These included fascist, traditionalists, carlists (royalists), and plain old army folk who were uncomfortable with the direction the Republic was taking, though i should point out that i don’t think there was a single socialist in the cabinet at the time of the rising.
    Franco wasn’t a nice man (he imprisoned my grandfather on more than one occasion for the crime of asking for his confiscated newspapaper back, and many others from our family were forced to flee to Argentina), but he was more in the mould of a 19th century military strongman. After the war he trod a fine line balancing the factions of the fascists, royalists and traditionalists. The fact that in the end he resurrected the monarchy probably reveals where his leanings lay throughout his rule, but was not prepared to commit lest it spark more conflict or weaken his grip on power.

    And what a top man that King turned out to be, treading a very dangerous and tricky path indeed to bring democracy back to the Spanish.

    Hardly a definitive answer I know, but hope that helps a wee bit.

    Comment by piers — January 17, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  2. I did originally have a friend with me- but he’s kind of dropped off though he does contribute the odd thing hence the plural.

    I agree with you- can I also just to clarify say Piers exactly expresses my view on Franco- there were fascists in coalition with him but other people too and they affected his policies- there seems to be a lot more to me in common between Franco and a south American caudillo who has the landowners, fascists and priests in alliance behind him. So Piers is right.

    Comment by gracchi — January 17, 2007 @ 2:06 pm

  3. Thanks, both. As I said, I don’t know a great deal about Franco’s Spain; a great friend of mine who grew up in Catalonia during the 50s and 60s refers to the regime as Fascist, but, much though I love the chap, I don’t necessarily rely on his political judgment over-much.

    It certainly sounds to have been very repressive, at least in Barcelona, at the time (that doesn’t necessarily make it fascist, of course). Apparently he and the other local children had to be very careful about the local shops in which they spoke Catalan, since some of the shop-keepers were known to be informers and it wouldn’t have done for it to get back to the authorities that your parents spoke Catalan at home.

    Now, and this is one of the reasons I like him so much, whenever he goes back to Spain, he speaks Catalan on principle everywhere other than Catalonia, where he speaks Castillian since he doesn’t have any more time for Catalan nationalists than for any other sort.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 17, 2007 @ 2:42 pm

  4. Love it, that sort of behaviour is very typically hispanic (I hesitate to use Iberian as the portugese are a much more laid back bunch), my own father is quite similar in outlook.

    It was indeed nastily and violently repressive, particularly in the decade after the war, but from the late 50s on you pretty much went to prison for ‘subversive’ political activity rather than be shot, tortured or sent to a ‘work’ camp. Hardly nice behaviour but preferable to the genuine fascist states. Then the great olvido set in, and discussion of the conflict is only really beginning to resurface as those who took part slowly dissappear, and some of the younger generations seek to heal the wounds, or at least finally examine their own past.

    My father used to strongly back Catalan and Basque nationalism when it was a thorn in Franco’s side, but now can’t really stomach it. To be fair he can’t really stomach Spain any more and I helped him move to a village outside Beziers recently where he is much happier.

    Comment by piers — January 17, 2007 @ 3:39 pm

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