Terms & Concepts: Use with Caution

by Chip Berlet, 2001

Islamophobia & Arabophobia,
Clerical Fascism,
Theocratic Islamic Fundamentalism,
Apocalyptic Demonization


Since the attacks of 9/11, writers and commentators have had problems in finding accurate language to describe complicated and unfamiliar phenomena while remaining sensitive to issues of prejudice. Terms such as Islamist, radical Islamic fundamentalist, and clerical fascist entered public discussion. We hope this article will help sort out some of the confusing and problematic terminology that abounds.

Islamophobia & Arabophobia

For instance, scholars and foreign policy analysts have used the terms “Islamist” and “Islamicist” for years to refer to a specific form of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. As these terms began to appear in popular discussions following 9/11 their use and meaning shifted. Some commentators began to use the terms in an overly broad manner to refer to all forms of Islamic fundamentalism or traditionalism, militant political activism by Muslims, or terrorism by Muslims.

You can see the language problem in terms of relative usage. If “Islamicism” is Muslim fanaticism, then is “Judaism” thus Jewish fanaticism? An “ism” is just a belief structure. In the context of rising anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attacks, the popular use of the terms “Islamist” and “Islamicist” can inadvertently fuel bigoted attitudes. A more acceptable term would be “Islamic supremacist.”

Some high profile conservative commentators such as Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes are using the terms while stepping over the line into anti-Muslim stereotyping. Both have a history of this type of Islamophobia. For some conservatives the problem is in how they frame the issue as a “clash of civilizations,” (a phrase drawn from Samuel P. Huntington); a tendency that promotes anti-Arab prejudice, called Arabophopia. Being an observant Muslim or even a “fundamentalist” Muslim who resents U.S. foreign policy actions in the Middle East and South Asia does not mean that one automatically supports theocracy, violence, or terrorism. At the same time–and sadly predictable–antisemitic conspiracy theories also have zapped across the Internet.



Terrorism is accurately defined as using force or the threat of force against civilians to advance a political objective. Using this definition, terrorism can be carried out by individuals, groups, or states. It can be a methodology used by the weak against the powerful, or the powerful against the weak. These complexities have been largely erased in media representations of the al Qaeda network. Terrorism is not militant non-violent civil disobedience, despite what is suggested in recent FBI reports about anti-globalization and environmentalist groups. And forces seeking the erosion of civil liberties are fanning fears of terrorism to soften their blow.



There is much confusion and disagreement surrounding the use of the term fundamentalism, to the point of even questioning its use to describe movements outside of Christianity. The original use of the term fundamentalism referred to a populist protest movement that arose in the early 20th century. It was a reaction against mainline Protestant denominations in the United States such as the Presbyterians and Baptists, and to a lesser extent Methodists, Episcopalians, and others. Leaders of these major denominations were accused of selling out the Protestant faith by forging a compromise with the ideas of the Enlightenment and modernism. In the early 1900s conservative critics of this leadership developed voluminous lists of what they considered the fundamental beliefs required for people to consider themselves Christian-thus the term fundamentalism. Anthony F.C. Wallace says similar revitalization movements exist across many spiritual and religious traditions.1 But not all revitalization movements even within Christianity are fundamentalist.

The term fundamentalism is now used to describe similar but not identical religious revitalization movements in other religious traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Fundamentalism is often confused with orthodoxy and traditionalism. Fundamentalists claim to be restoring the “true” religion by returning to “traditional” beliefs and enforcing orthodox beliefs-the set of theological doctrines approved of as sound and correct by a faith’s religious leaders. In fact, while fundamentalist movements claim to be restoring tradition and orthodoxy, they actually create a new version of an existing religion based on a mythic and romanticized past. This thesis was a central argument in Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, a comparative study of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.2

So, while fundamentalism is a reaction against the Enlightenment and modernity, it is ironically a distinctly modern phenomenon. Jamal Malik, who studies Muslim identity, explains that with Islamic fundamentalism “Islamic tradition is modernized, since the imagined Islamic society is to compete and correspond with Western achievements. This would only be possible in a centralized Islamic state over which they would wield control as the agents of God’s sovereignty on earth. . . .”3

This explanation of Islamic fundamentalism describes a form of theocracy-a system where the only appropriate political leaders are persons who see themselves as devoted to carrying out the will of God as interpreted by a common religion. Some scholars, however, argue that not all forms of fundamentalism are necessarily theocratic, at least in practice. In the most extreme case, however, theocratic Islamic fundamentalism could potentially be a form of neofascism.



Even in progressive publications, the terms theocratic fascism or clerical fascism were used not only to describe the Taliban and the al Qaeda networks, but also the government of Saudi Arabia and even all militant fundamentalist Muslims. This is an overly broad usage.

Fascism is an especially virulent form of extreme right populism. Fascism glorifies national, racial, or cultural unity and collective rebirth while seeking to purge imagined enemies. It attacks both revolutionary movements and liberal pluralism in favor of militarized, totalitarian mass politics. Fascism first crystallized in Europe in response to the Bolshevik Revolution and the devastation of World War I, and then spread to other parts of the world. Between the two world wars, there were three forms of fascism: Italian economic corporatism; German racial nationalist Nazism; and clerical fascist movements such as the Romanian Iron Guard and the Croatian Ustashi. Since WWII, neofascists have reinterpreted fascist ideology and strategy in various ways to fit new circumstances.

Roger Griffin, an influential scholar of generic fascism, argues that “fascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the `people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.”4

There are other common components of fascism, including an exclusionary form of ethnonationalism that narrowly defines who the real “people” or Volk are; the idea of the primary importance of the homogenous whole (Integralism); and the diminution of the importance of the individual in a society ruled by leaders who metaphysically represent the will of the people (Organicism). These factors create a drive for totalitarian control in fascist movements and states. Totalitarian movements and governments insist on intruding into and controlling every aspect of a person’s life-public or private-political, social, or cultural. Totalitarianism is a term that still has analytical value despite its frequent misuse to bash the Left. Most notorious was Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, 1981-1985, who promulgated a theory that communist governments were totalitarian and could never be reformed, but brutal right-wing dictatorships were merely authoritarian and thus could be reformed through alliances with the United States. While this misrepresented the work of Hannah Arendt in her definitive book The Origins of Totalitarianism, it also suffered from a certain lack of historical accuracy when communism collapsed in Europe.5


Clerical Fascism

Clerical fascism is the least studied form of fascism. We can see examples of clerical fascism in the contemporary United States. Aryan Nations is a U.S. fascist movement built around the theology of Christian Identity, Aryan Nations-plural-wants to establish many racially-pure “Aryan” nations around the world. It is nationalist in desire and yet internationalist in scope. Some of its followers have engaged in violence and terrorism. Karen Armstrong refers to Christian Identity as fascist, and sees a potential for fascism in Christian Reconstructionism. As Armstrong observes, the system of dominion envisaged by Christian Reconstructionist theologians R. J. Rushdoony and Gary North “is totalitarian. There is no room for any other view or policy, no democratic tolerance for rival parties, no individual freedom.”6

The Protestant reformation did not start out by spreading an Enlightenment critique including the idea of liberty. One early form resulted in theocratic Calvinism and the uptight Puritans. The effort to find a compromise with the Enlightenment and modernity came later and generated the U.S. Christian fundamentalist movement. The Christian Right Reconstructionist movement and Extreme Right Christian Identity movement are attempts to reform a Protestantism that already was the result of a previous process of reformation of Catholicism started by Martin Luther. This repeated process is common. Something similar is happening within Islam.


Theocratic Islamic Fundamentalism

In Islam there was a series of reformations in the 1700s, similar to Martin Luther’s reformation of Catholicism into Protestantism, but the decentralized nature of Islam was an issue, and there were several separate reform movements. One was led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), that became the Wahhabi movement-the theology behind the Saudi government. Think of the Wahhabist Saudi government as similar to the theocratic government created by John Calvin in Geneva. Both are based on the idea of the sovereignty of God administered by righteous men.

Now there is a second reformation going on within Islam that is more global-theocratic Islamic fundamentalism. It has its roots in the theological/political theories of Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) and the emergence of a theological outlook called Salafism that is complimentary to Wahhabism. As Khaled Abou El Fadl explains:

“Wahhabi thought exercised its greatest influence not under its own label, but under the rubric of Salafism. In their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis, and not Wahhabis….””Salafism is a creed founded in the late nineteenth century by Muslim reformers such as Muhammad ‘Abduh, al-Afghani and Rashid Rida. Salafism appealed to a very basic concept in Islam: Muslims ought to follow the precedent of the Prophet and his companions (al-salaf al-salih). Methodologically, Salafism was nearly identical to Wahhabism except that Wahhabism is far less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinion. The founders of Salafism maintained that on all issues Muslims ought to return to the Qur’an and the sunna (precedent) of the Prophet. In doing so, Muslims ought to reinterpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands, without being slavishly bound to the interpretations of earlier Muslim generations.”

Islam and the Theology of Power
Khaled Abou El Fadl
special section, “Islam: Images, Politics, Paradox. Middle East Report, 221, (Winter 2001).

[For a serious study of the theology of Osama bin Laden, see: “The ‘Religion’ of Usamah bin Ladin: Terror As the Hand of God.” Jean E. Rosenfeld, Ph.D., UCLA Center for the Study of Religion; Islam and the Theology of Power, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at the UCLA School of Law; Bin Laden and Revolutionary Millennialism, Catherine Wessinger, Professor of Religious Studies, Loyola University New Orleans, editor of Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (2000) and author of How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate (2000).]The result is a form of Islamic fundamentalism that is very repressive. Mawdudi argued that his ideal Islamic State “would be totalitarian, because it subjected everything to the rule of God. . .” notes Armstrong.7 In the most extreme case, this type of social totalitarianism based on theology has been called a new form of clerical fascism-similar to WWII European clerical fascist movements such as the Romanian Iron Guard and the Croatian Ustashi. This is a disputed view.

Although the concept of clerical fascism is used widely in analyzing certain forms of fascism, is it fair to apply it to certain forms of theocratic Islamic fundamentalism? Armstrong mentions there are some similarities worth noting.8 Walter Laqueur discusses its usefulness as a concept at length in Fascism: Past, Present, Future.9

A number of academics, however, disagree with the use of the term fascism in this context. Roger Griffin believes it stretches the term fascist too far to apply the term `fascism’ to “so-called fundamentalist or terroristic forms of traditional religion (i.e. scripture or sacred text based with a strong sense of orthodoxy or orthodoxies rooted in traditional institutions and teachings).” He does, however, concede that the United States has seen the emergence of hybrids of political religion and fascism in such phenomena as the Nation of Islam and Christian Identity, and that bin Laden’s al Qaeda network may represent such a hybrid. He is unhappy with the term `clerical fascism,’ though, since he says that “in this case we are rather dealing with a variety of `fascistized clericalism.'”10

In any case, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda networks are revolutionary right-wing populists seeking to overthrow existing Muslim states. They not only want to rid all Muslim nations of the evils of secularism, humanism, and Western influence, but also seek to restore a “true” Islamic theocracy based on a militant fundamentalist version of Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia is an example of a repressive and reactionary orthodox Islamic theocracy, but it is not technically fascist. The point is not to be an apologist for the Saudi regime, but to suggest that theocratic Islamic fundamentalist totalitarianism would be worse than the already repressive Saudi oligarchy.

At Political Research Associates we feel the term clerical fascism can be defended for use in public discussions and when applied specifically to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda networks. However some caution is required. The term fascism is often overused, and currently some use it in a propagandistic way. Therefore we feel progressives should only use the term clerical fascism where: it is not a justification for excessive and aggressive militarism; does not demonize or scapegoat Arabs and Muslims; and is differentiated from inaccurate and sweeping misuse.


Apocalyptic Demonization

The attacks on 9/11 generated nightmarish apocalyptic images. But the themes of apocalyptic demonization and conspiracist scapegoating go deeper than the horrific images. According to Gershom Gorenberg, fundamentalist groups within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have apocalyptic stories about heroic battles with evil before some expected messianic event-all of which involve the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.11

Apocalypticism is the belief in an approaching confrontation, cataclysmic event, or transformation of epochal proportions, about which a select few have forewarning so they can make appropriate preparations. One version of apocalyptic beliefs involves the idea of a final showdown struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. Apocalypticism can fuel a sense that time is running out, resulting in violent confrontations or acts of terrorism. People or groups that are demonized in apocalyptic visions are easy to scapegoat.

Demonization is portraying a person or group as totally malevolent, sinful, or evil-perhaps even in league with Satan.

Demonization involves marginalization (using propaganda and prejudice to set people outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society) and dehumanization (negatively labeling the targeted persons so they become perceived more as objects than as real people).

Scapegoating is blaming a person or group wrongfully for some problem. Scapegoating deflects people’s anger and grievances away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers. The problems being reacted to may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. In all these cases the scapegoats are stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait or are singled out for blame in an unfair and hyperbolic manner.

Conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating that portrays the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good. Conspiracism assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events, frames social conflict as part of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, (called dualism or Manichaeism) and makes leaps of logic, such as guilt by association, in analyzing evidence. Conspiracism sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events. Armstrong argues that with “most extreme types of fundamentalists, members see conspiracy everywhere and cultivate a theology of rage and resentment.”12

In most struggles over power and privilege, the processes of demonization, scapegoating, conspiracism, and the use of an apocalyptic style are present in some form in all the individuals, groups, or governments involved. Philosopher René Girard calls this mimetic scapegoating.13 We need to examine our complicity in these processes both as individuals and as a nation.

This article was originally posted on the Internet on 10/19/01. This is a slightly revised and updated version.
The author wishes to thank Douglas Kellner, Robert Antonio, Jean E. Rosenfeld, and Roger Griffin for conversations that helped clarify some of these issues.

Chip Berlet, “Terms & Concepts: Use with Caution.” 10/19/01

Revised in 2003. as “Terminology: Use with Caution.” In Roger Griffin and Matthew Feldman, eds., Fascism, Vol. 5, Critical Concepts in Political Science. New York, NY: Routledge.


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