In his speech on the anniversary of the September 11 atrocities, President Bush said the United States is fighting “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.” OK, but remind me: What ideology are we fighting?
Five years into this war, it remains curiously difficult to answer that question. In his address on Monday, the president did not do so, though at one point he got close, describing the ideology as “totalitarian” – totalitarians being those who favor complete control by a dictator over nations, societies and populations.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin were both totalitarian regimes, cut from the same cloth even if the former was perceived as a tyranny of the right and the latter a tyranny of the left.
Bush similarly intended to suggest that whatever differences there may be among Osama bin Ladin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein they, like our totalitarian enemies in the 20th century, share defining attributes, including a vehement hostility toward freedom and democracy.
In recent days, a debate has broken out over whether the ideology with which America is at war should be called “fascist” or, more precisely, “Islamic fascist.”
The original fascist movement was Italian but the term came to cover not just the regimes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but also that of the Japanese Militarists who aligned with them to form the Axis Powers.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) has used the term insistently to suggest that the enemy America confronts today is the ideological heir to the enemy America confronted in World War II -- and is at least as serious a threat. President Bush used the term once last month, setting off a firestorm from self-appointed spokesmen for the Muslim community.
Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), sent Bush an open letter complaining: "You have on many occasions said Islam is a 'religion of peace.' Today you equated the religion of peace with the ugliness of fascism."
In response, Bahraini journalist Omran Salman noted that Bush had not called all Muslims fascists but rather had singled out those who use religion to justify mass murder.
“What would Ahmed suggest calling people who intend to blow themselves up in commercial airplanes, taking thousands of innocent lives with them?” Salman asked. “Flying angels?”
As far back as 1979, Michael Ledeen, a scholar specializing in Italian history, called e Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a “clerical fascist.” Like the European fascists, Khomeini was a supremacist. But whereas the Nazis waged a war for German domination of Europe, Khomeini looked forward to a war that would spread Islamic rule throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Back in 1942 Khomeini wrote: "[T]hose who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. … Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to paradise, which can be opened only for holy warriors!"
Khomeini's successors may soon have not just swords but also nuclear weapons to help them pursue their vision. Osama bin Laden's ambitions are the same though he dreams of Sunni rather than Shia sheiks ordering infidels to convert or die.
Also influenced by fascist ideas were the Baathists, a 20th century movement calling for Arab supremacy and domination. Though people think of Baathism as secular, one of its founders, Michel Aflaq, said: “Islam is to Arabism, what bones are to flesh.” Baathism is the ideology espoused by Saddam Hussein and by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad -- even as he has forged a close alliance with the Khomeinist rulers of Iran.
For these and other reasons, it is justifiable to call such ideologies fascist -- or Islamic fascist or Islamo-fascist or neo-fascist. It's also accurate to describe them as Militant Islamist or radical Jihadist.
In his speech this week, President Bush said, too, that the war in which America is engaged is not a “clash of civilizations” but a “struggle for civilization.” Perhaps that suggests another way we might characterize the ideology against which free nations are struggling: It is barbarism. There have always been barbarians at civilization's gates. Maybe it's time we accepted that, and resolved to fight them – wherever they are and for as long as it takes. Maybe we have to make up our minds that, difficult though it will be, on our watch the enemies of freedom – whatever their ideology -- will not prevail.
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.