Since its emergence in the first half of the 20th century, fascism has never ceased to be prominent in the Middle East. Iranian nationalism, Turkish nationalism, and Arab nationalism, along with Islamism in all its forms, have shaped an ideological landscape in which fascism is completely normalized. Of course, there are often significant differences from one regime to another, but they certainly have fascism in common. The idolization of a fascist leader, glorification of violence in the name of the nation, prioritization of national unity over diversity, demonization of minorities, suppression of individual freedoms, popularization of a sense of national victimhood, and constant production of conspiracy theories are examples of fascist characteristics that are widespread in Middle Eastern countries. Unlike their European counterparts, fascists in the Middle East had no need to temper their aggressive discourse. Therefore, in this article, I do not use the word fascism to loosely refer to neo-fascism; rather, I am writing of fascism in its most discursively vulgar and physically violent form, as it appeared in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany under different guises.
If there is one thing we must learn from ideology critique, it is the fact that ideology does not present itself as ideology, that is, as a way to perceive the world. In fact, it does not present itself at all insofar as its followers are concerned. It merely describes what it purports to be the truth, i.e., what it would have us believe is reality. Once one buys into the fascist version of the truth, only fascist action makes sense. True to their religious roots, today’s dominant ideologies stand on the corpse of epistemology and point to the shining starts in their metaphysical space. If you look to the point where an ideology points, its trick has worked on you.
The norm is naturalized even if it is pathological. It is the abnormal, the exceptional, the outsider that is named, problematized, and emphasized. A dominant ideology does not hesitate to name everything else, but, of course, it does not want to be classified as an ideology among other ideologies precisely because its legitimacy is based on its metaphysical superiority. There is one way to see the truth and many ways to interpret it, we are supposed to believe; thus, the ideologue merely makes the truth visible, and their political and moral judgements then follow logically. Racists, for instance, are genuinely unaware of the fact that racism is an ideology – let alone a completely flawed one that was invented to legitimize the interests of ruling groups. For racists, to give voice to racism is simply to speak the truth. The same applies to sexists in their perceptions of sexism. This is precisely why so many racists and sexists are adamantly opposed to liberal political correctness. Another common complaint of racists is that certain minority members habitually label the actions of majority members as racist. Sexists, likewise, frequently complain that feminists see everything as being sexist. The critical response racists and sexists need to hear in response to such objection is: “Yes, everything you say is racist/sexist! The entire history behind the value system you inherited is shaped by racism and sexism.” In a similarly dismissive way, leftists have long been accused of carelessly throwing around the word “fascist”. It does not occur to the accusers that fascism is indeed all around us; even some self-proclaimed leftists can fall into their own forms of fascism, which they often couch in superficial rhetoric borrowed from Marxism or feminism. Such is the case with those self-proclaimed leftists who admire Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or so-called Islamic feminists, and national socialists.
In the two decades leading up to WWII, it just so happened that European fascists adopted the term fascism, and the term subsequently fell out of popularity and gradually became a derogatory term, for obviously very good reasons. Even at the peak of the fascist era, most fascists outside of Europe, such as in Japan, never actually identified themselves as such. However, this did not prevent political theorists from labeling the Japanese regime of the 1930s as fascist. In the Middle East, the dominant ideologies are fascist par excellence. They are racist, ultra-nationalist, puritan, chauvinist, totalitarian, anti-individualist, anti-liberal, anti-communist, anti-Semite, violent, expansionist, exclusionary, irrational, and often apocalyptic. They glorify war, rely on populism to appeal to the masses, personify the myth of the nation, demonize the Other, popularize myths and mysticism, idolize a Führer/Duce, continually produce images of conspiring enemies, and victimize a national-self in need of unity among all in-groups to root out internal enemies and defeat external enemies. Precisely because of the overwhelming hegemony of fascism among the masses and elites in the Middle East, it is not problematized or criticized.
For anyone who may find my above claim too speculative, I will turn to two significant historical facts to highlight the degree to which fascism took hold and has remained prominent in the region. First, German fascism was directly inspired by Kemalism, as Stefan Ihring has demonstrated through extensive and rigorous historiographic research (2014). Turkish fascism waged its genocidal campaigns long before Nazism became popular in Germany, and the enduring power of fascist discourse in Turkey’s political sphere suggests that it has largely outlived Nazism and other European fascist regimes. Unlike Nazism, Turkish fascism has continued to enjoy virtually uninterrupted support from Western democracies. The West tends to view Kemalism against the Islamic Middle Eastern backdrop, as opposed to the liberal European milieu. From that perspective, all that matters ideologically is that Kemalism stands out as both secular and pro-Western. The continual genocidal campaigns against non-Turkish Anatolian peoples, most notably Armenians, but also Assyrians, Greeks, and later Kurds, have never been factored into Western democracies’ diplomatic calculations. While the rise of the French National Front and the Freedom Party of Austria have, understandably, spurred panic throughout Europe, Turkey remains an indispensable ally of Europe and the US. The unspoken orientalist prejudice underlying this contradiction is that for a Muslim society, the Turkish model is good. Of course, Western complicity over the last century has only served to further legitimize and normalize Turkish fascism.
The second historical fact is that European fascism was widely embraced by Arab nationalists and Islamist elites in the 1930s and 1940s. Moreover, the fall of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany did nothing to abate Arab Islamist fascism. The Islamist and Arab alliance with Nazism has yet to be renounced in the Arab world, and anti-Semitism has arguably increased since the 1940s, as is clear to any observer of the region’s dominant political and religious discourses. Sati Al-Husri, one of the founding fathers of Arab nationalism, (in)famously drew from the ideology of the Young Turks to cultivate Arab nationalism in Syria and Iraq, particularly in his fascist reformation of the education systems. Jamal Abdul Nasser and the founders of Baathism were the next generation of Arab nationalists, after Al-Husri’s generation. Egypt, especially under the celebrated Nasser, became a welcoming refuge for surviving Nazi officials. As Del Boca and Giovana explain, many Nazi officials who came to Egypt were even given prestigious and influential positions in the government (1970). Most notably, Nasser hired Johann von Leers, a major Nazi ideologue and propagandist, as his own adviser, who thought Nasser made a better leader than Hitler (Del Boca and Giovana 1970, 401). Praising Nasser’s fascism, the French neofascist Maurice Bardéche wrote,
Nasser and his friends have discovered that the whole of Fascist mysticism is to be found in Islam, which is their past and, in the wider and more comprehensive sense of the term, their culture – that is to say, not only their source of inspiration, but something that conforms very closely with their nature and their instincts . . . Although it is just as inimitable as Hitler’s Germanism, Nasser’s crusade is, like National Socialism, confined to the men of one nation. But its geographical situation and the moment of its emergence endow it with the greatest significance. Of all the Fascist mysticisms it is probable the one which will leave the deepest mark on history on account of its enduring consequences (Qtd. in Del Boca and Giovana 1970, 401-2).
Nasserism’s rivals in Syria and Iraq were the Baathists. Both Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union and the Arab Socialist Baath Party relied heavily on the German National Socialist model not only in their propaganda (Goebbels is still quoted by Baathists), but also in their anti-Semitic discourse, depictions of the leader as the savior destined to restore the glory of the nation, and, of course, calls for national purity and a “final solution” for all those who failed to meet the nationalist criteria. In fact, concentration camps for political dissidents, defectors, rivals, and minorities figured prominently in Baathist regimes from Nasser’s Egypt to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The latter regime perfected the engineering of concentration camps far beyond the Nazis, completely erasing every trace of no less than 250,000 Kurds within its first decade in power. To date, not a single picture of any of those concentration camps has been found, and no former Baathist soldiers have revealed any information about the methods used to eliminate so many people.
With the decline in popularity of communists by the end the 1970s and early 1980s, the only popular rival of Nasserism and Baathism were Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Sunni majority Arab countries and Shia Islamism in Iraq. The Muslim Brotherhood has always been a decidedly fascist movement. For example, at the top of its political structure is the Murshid, which translates to Führer. It shares the anti-Semitism and uncompromising rejection of minority rights characteristic of Nasserism and Baathism; however, the Muslim Brotherhood, like all Islamist movements, is more restrictive in its suppression of individual rights because it abides by Sharia. Shia Islamism from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon does not differ from Sunni Islamism on their fascist principles.
Typical of Middle Eastern fascism, there is always a fascist figure who is treated as a divine being. Insulting this leader is considered a serious crime on the level of blasphemy, for he symbolizes everything the nation aspires to be. He is the teacher, the father, the leader, the philosopher, and, of course, the hero. He gazes at everyone in the nation through his images and statues positioned at the very center of social space. It is because of him – not the miserable marginalized souls who build the infrastructure, farm the land, and clean the streets – that the nation enjoys freedom and prosperity. From birth he was fated for a sacred mission, for making the nation free and powerful. He is above and beyond mistakes or misdeeds.
The fascist leader symbolizes force, and it is typical of sadomasochistic personalities to identify with the powerful and resent the marginalized. Identifying with the powerful amounts to disguising the broken personality that has suffered from prolonged humiliation and suppression. In fascist societies, the exercise of power is central to all social institutions, including the family and school. Crushed and degraded, the mass individual sees power as the magical redemption for everything, but above all power is the main path to negating their own feeling of insignificance. The fascist movement affords the mass individuals a religious experience of euphoria and a sense of purpose. What makes this source of power and purpose especially appealing is that the fascist doctrine articulated by the leader is extremely simplistic, with elements of mysticism. Notions such as “the spirit of the nation” or “the greatness of the nation,” as both Mussolini and Hitler were well-aware, designate nothing but a myth that is intended to stimulate the irrational human drives. As such, they give rise to a violent movement eager to attack at the slightest provocation, which is usually supplied by the leadership and the fascist propaganda machine.
In times of crisis, which have been more or less continual throughout the Middle East over the last 100 years, the masses’ conception of stability is deeply tied to the notion of a strong leader, a patriarch who can discipline everyone in the family. Fascist leaders, in turn, excel at playing the role of the father who can use excessive force, but only for the sake of everyone in the family, for creating unity and stability. Just like God, the leader is both merciless and merciful. When he appears to be too severe, it is only because he knows best. The leader does not have to explain anything because his wisdom is beyond the people’s comprehension; his judgement is trusted as a matter of course.
Given the intellectual impoverishment of the fascist leader, this arrangement works perfectly well. The leader’s strength lies in his manipulation of physical force, and whenever he speaks, his statements are easily quotable and relatable for the mass individual. With the passage of time, and surrounded by an ingratiating inner circle, the leader comes to believe the lie that he is a sort of divine being, which quickly gives him the confidence to talk about everything. The mass individual reads this development as the leader’s incredible modesty, insofar as he is willing to engage with issues of concern to the everyman. However, this habit of talking about everything is in fact totalitarian. Fascism is, as Giovani Gentile put it, “a total conception of life.” (1995, 54). The leader, as the embodiment of divine wisdom, becomes the authority in all arenas of social life as well as the sciences. He could pass judgement on anything from personal hygiene and eating habits to clothing choices, raising children, education, ethics, and medicine. Saddam Hussein, for instance, had no reservations about advising all women that they should shower twice a day. In the same speech, he would also make statements about imperialism, the enemies of the nation, and the glorious future the revolution would secure for the nation. Every word he uttered would be reported by the media as sacred text. In the same vein, Khomeini in his Little Green Book, which is a collection of his fatwas and is religiously followed by millions of faithful masses, unflinchingly provides detailed instructions for the proper way to defecate and clean oneself afterwards (Khomeini 1985, §21).
Under fascism, the Other is seen as an obstacle that must be neutralized, even if that means physical elimination. The fascist majority’s language, culture, ideology, and values are of course seen as natural and universal, at least within the geographic borders claimed by the fascist nationalists. In stark contrast, the language, culture, and identity of the Othered minority, are considered sectarian, tribal, backward, strange, irrational, primitive, and so on. Thus, when the fascist majority imposes its language and values on minorities, it is it is only for their own good. Unfortunately, this way of thinking continues to be indicative of how minorities are treated throughout the Middle East.
The minority is always expected to accept oppression unconditionally in order to demonstrate that they are not conspiring to overthrow the glorious nation, or simply to prove that they deserve the right to live. It is as though the minority’s only task in life is to painstakingly try to win the majority’s trust. Yet, it is virtually impossible for the fascist majority to ever really trust certain minorities, if for no other reason than because one “bad” action by a minority member is deemed representative of the entire minority group. And since it is sociologically impossible for all members of a minority group to act in the same “harmless” way, it is impossible to meet the majority’s conditions for earning trust.
The majority-minority relationship is very much analogous to the husband-wife relationship in the most patriarchal of families. Typical of Middle Eastern fascism, fascist leaders often try to evoke familial emotions to appease minorities. Again, family is the locus of suppression in patriarchal societies. It would even make more sense to see state fascism as a broader development of the fascist dynamics of the family. A particularly demonstrative example can be seen in Iraq, where Arab elites have responded to calls for independence in southern Kurdistan by repeatedly analogizing Kurdistan to the wife who seeks separation from her husband (Arab Iraq). Notably, this analogy is never phrased the other way around, which highlights how Kurds have been seen all along by Iraqi Arabs. Just as the wife in a patriarchal society is habitually exploited and abused, but is nonetheless expected to fully accept the authority of her husband, Kurds and other minorities in the Middle East must bear the brunt of fascist regimes without complaint.
Gentile, Geovanni. 1995. “Fascism as a Total Conception of Life,” in Fascism. Ed. Roger Griffin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ihring, Stefan. 2014. Attatürk in the Nazi Imagination. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.
Khomeini, Ayatollah Mosavi. 1985. The Little Green Book: Selected Fatawah and Saying of the Ayatollah Mosavi Khomeini. Trans. Harold Salemson. New York: Bantam Books.
Del Boca, Angelo and Mario Giovana. 1970. Fascism Today: A World Survey. Trans. R. H. Boothroyd. London: Heinemann.
Translated from English to Turkish: Diyadin Dargın