Religion and Fascism: a History The nexus of fascism and fundamentalism in Europe, South Asia, Middle East
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Israel is already a racist, fascist, apartheid state. But it is a theocratic one as well, not dissimilar from Iran, Pakistan or other similar states. Religious fundamentalism in Israel allies itself with, and fuels the fascism of Israeli society. The settler movement, fueled by an especially toxic form of Judeo-triumphalism, has destroyed any last vestige of liberal democracy.
Political-religious tendencies which were once viewed as aberrant, including rebuilding the Third Temple, have become mainstream. It means, for example, the same process of Hindutva nationalism that destroyed the historic Babri mosque in the 1990s, could happen in Israel. Though it might be unthinkable now, there is the distinct possibility that a future Israeli government would indeed destroy the Haram al-Sharif, considered the third holiest shrine in Islam, in order the rebuild a Holy Temple there.
Contrary to the belief that Israel could never take such a radical step without enduring the ire of the Islamic world and global community, this is precisely what the settler movement wants: a final apocalyptic war between Jews and Muslims to establish unfettered domination by Israel (ie. Jews), along with a restoration of so-called historic rights of the Jewish people. Not to mention, that it views such destruction as a fulfillment of divine promise and messianic redemption.
As I’ve written here, politics alone may drive a movement or nation in a certain ideological direction. But politics are ephemeral. Views change as society develops. However, when religion mixes with politics, then it becomes a powder keg waiting to explode. Religion invokes the deepest of human emotions. Belief comes from profound parts of the psyche. It provides comfort, offers confidence, but sometimes offers toxic intolerance of other faiths. When human beings adopt religious fundamentalism, there can be no compromise–political or otherwise. God is non-negotiable. This explains the power of Christian evangelism in the US and the retrogressive impact that it has on society.
In Israel, settlers are not just a movement. They are not one stream of political or nationalist debate. They and their theocratic-messianic politics have taken over all major aspects of society including the army, Knesset, police and judiciary. Under Bibi Netanyahu, Israel began a systematic decimation of the courts, media and civil society in order to ensure permanent dominance over the levers of state power.
Two of the four counts of corruption against Netanyahu involve a plot to reduce media coverage critical of him in return for publication restrictions on Israel’s largest daily, Israel HaYom (known as “Bibiton”), which was itself founded by billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, to promote the prime minister’s political career. Media he cannot control like Channel 10, he seeks to drive out of business by canceling government licenses or destroying their revenue base.
The most important elements of the far-right political agenda in next week’s national election would restrict the ability of the Israeli judiciary to review Knesset legislation. This currently serves as the sole limitation on far-right legislation which would implement a fascist regime in Israel. With a fettered judiciary denied the right of legislative review politicians can pass laws even more racist or theocratic than what they’ve already done.
This fascist-triumphalist system will also guarantee that the corruption cases against Netanyahu will “go away.” Nor will state authorities like the police or attorney general maintain the right to charge any politician with virtually any crimes, especially those involving bribery and other forms of corruption.
As Nehemiah Shtrasler writes in Haaretz:
The Likud-settler-Haredi bloc is planning an assassination attempt on democracy. These politicians seek to totally change the face of our system of government. Instead of three independent branches – executive, legislative and judiciary – the executive branch (the prime minister and cabinet) will dominate the two, deprive them of their independence and turn them into rubber stamps. In other words, this election is not about a change of government, but a change of regime.
In order to seize control of the Knesset…the coalition will have to deprive the opposition of the opportunity to perform its main role – criticizing the government. It will have no shortage of hatred to draw upon for this purpose.
Demolishing the judiciary will be accomplished via Bezalel Smotrich’s “Law and Justice” plan, which promises neither law nor justice. The sole reason this plan came into existence was to save Benjamin Netanyahu from his criminal trial. But it has a broader aim as well – quashing the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Supreme Court, which are the only remaining link yet to be conquered by the right. Smotrich will crush the attorney general’s independence by splitting the role and making it a personal position of trust for the prime minister. The present attorney general will be ousted, and the personal adviser will pull the Netanyahu indictments.he impact of the Judeo-fascism represtned by the settlers leads to the obliteration of Palestinian land, culture, rights and even life itself.
These are not merely political acts, they are an entire regime designed to install what Smotrich calls “Torah law”:
Smotrich, meanwhile, is a religious extremist and messianic nationalist who won’t stop at pushing Israel into authoritarian rule. In June 2019, he said: “Israel should be run according to Torah law.” Indeed, his real dream is for Israel to become an Iran-style theocratic state.
The political “muscle” behind Israeli fascism is MK Itamar Ben Gvir, a devout follower of Meir Kahane. His partner is Betzalel Smotrich, himself a would-be terrorist arrested with a bomb in his vehicle, in order to protest Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The US Treasury, until earlier this year, had Kahane on its terror blacklist. Yet Ben Gvir, despite his criminal convictions and inciting violence against Palestinians, walks the streets of Palestinian East Jerusalem freely, as a puffed-up bantam rooster.
He explicitly favors destroying Haram al-Sharif and rebuilding the Third Temple. He sponsors regular invasions of the holy site by radical settlers who pray during their visits for the resumption of animal sacrifices and reinstitution of priestly rights there. Ben Gvir is the Ernst Romm of Israeli fascism and his shock troops are Israel’s Brownshirts.
Under such a system, Palestinians are viewed as, even more than an obstacle, a toxic presence that must be eradicated by any means necessary. This includes a gradual encroachment on Muslim religious rights and access to Haram al-Sharif, along with the vandalizing and arson attacks on local mosques; military invasion of Palestinian towns with the arrest of hundreds of children and murder of thousands who resist state-sponsored Israeli violence; and large-scale theft of Palestinian land taken both by the army itself and settlers to build new housing.
The origins of many of these policies lie in the founding of the state, which was, at the time, ruled by secular socialists Zionists. Nevertheless, Israel shed its secular socialist ideology with the ascendancy, in 1977, of the far-right Likud. Over time, settlerism replaced socialism as the dominant political force in Israeli society.
I have warned here of the lassitude and irresponsibility of American Jewish leaders and groups, in recognizing the magnitude of this danger. No one is denouncing Israel’s leaders and this encroaching fascism. They are pummeled into silence by a politically powerful Israel Lobby. As a result, they sit back and watch as Jerusalem burns, becoming accessory to this crime against the Jewish people.
It is instructive to remember the history of nations which did little or nothing to strangle fascism in its cradle when there was an opportunity to do so. Imagine if Hitler had been arrested, imprisoned and banned from political life in 1923 after the Munich Beer Hall putsch. Imagine if the state had banned all the Nazi militias and rooted out fascism ruthlessly before it grew into an unstoppable force.
The US political system offers a model of how to fight the rise of such a movement. After four years of a dismal, proto-fascist presidency under Donald Trump and a subsequent coup attempt, our political system not only defeated Trump, but held his insurrectionist allies responsible for their crimes. For sure, the trends represented by Trump continue to remain active within our political system. Trumpism has by no means disappeared. But the system responded with resilience and mounted fierce resistance to the threat.
In Israel, nothing of the sort is happening. The country is gradually sinking into outright fascism. The dream of a homeland, of some of the forerunners of Zionism (who didn’t necessarily envision a state as fulfillment of their vision) has become a nightmare of Israeli Jewish Brownshirts beating both fellow Jews and Palestinians senseless on a massive scale.
Below are some examples of nations which offer parallels to the Israeli model. They’re not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. But rather to show trends among nations which reinforce my thesis.
Catholicism: Pope Pius’ dalliance with the Nazis
This nexus between political power and religious fundamentalism is by no means confined to Israel. In fact, Israeli fascism has learned from the lesson of Euro-fascists of this and earlier generations. One of them is the cozy relationship between Adolf Hitler and Pope Pius XII. In fact, British journalist, John Cornwell, wrote the seminal work on the subject, Hitler’s Pope. Pope Pius served as a religious fig leaf for Nazi policies including the Holocaust, about which the pope publicly said or did nothing. The book’s author even describes him as a “Nazi fellow-traveler.”
Pius too adopted much of the authoritarian approach of the Nazis by systematically increasing aand centralizing power in the papacy. Cornwell calls it “the modern ideology of autocratic papal control, [with] highly centralized, dictatorial authority.” To achieve his goals, he could point to Hitler as a model and offer Hitler’s support for this process in the Church itself. As a result, religion became a willing accessory to genocide.
Orban’s “Christian Europe” against the “Muslims hordes”
Viktor Orban is a latter-day fascist who has transformed himself from an atheist adherent of democracy at the beginning of career, into an ardent promoter of Christian Europe against the hordes of the Muslim east:
Orbán argued that Western Europe had given up on “a Christian Europe” and was choosing instead to experiment with “a godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration and open societies.”
His turn to religion can be explained by a need to attract rural religious voters to his cause:
h[is] renunciation…of atheism [was] a decision that went hand in hand with his courting of religious and conservative voters
Orban has gradually silenced or co-opted independent media, encouraging wealthy businessmen to buy up the outlets which criticize him. All that remains are media which toe the party line and offer the people what Orban wants them to hear.
His political program maintains as a key tenet, xenophobic hatred of foreigners, specifically from the Middle East and, to an extent, Africa. Pitting Christian Europe against the Muslim Middle East plays on, and fuels the religious paranoia of his conservative constituency.
Further, his embrace of religious supremacism also fuels his social agenda:
Orbán’s embrace of religion has served to consolidate his power, “other” his opponents and shield Hungary from EU criticism of its attacks on the rule of law.
It is…a dangerous model for how religion can be used to fuel democratic backsliding.
Orban calls his brand of Euro-fascism “illiberal democracy,” which is in effect, a mockery of real democracy.
The most scandalous example of religious bigotry in pursuit of political supremacy was his anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros, which employed classic tropes, including the domination of global capital by greedy Jewish bankers and financiers. This was followed by an even more egregious, hypocritical embrace of Orban by Israeli figures, including no less than Bibi Netanyahu. During his term, Orban was even welcomed at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.
Poland’s Law and Justice Party alliance with Catholic Church
Roman Catholicism has always played a major role in Polish society. At the beginning of the Solidarity movement, which led to the country escaping the Soviet orbit, the Church offered tremendous moral support. This countered whatever authority the Soviet-backed government had.
But Poland paid a price for this support. After the Soviet-era government was overthrown, the Church began to lobby for its own social agenda, which included hostility to LGBTQ and abortion rights. With the rise of the right-wing Law and Justice party, political power and religious fundamentalism combined to turn back those social advances and return the country to a nostalgic past and old-fashioned traditional values:
In …Poland, making frequent appeals to religious feelings is politically profitable. Indeed, Law and Justice politicians often speak about the Judeo-Christian roots of Poland and Europe. In 2017, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the “re-Christianization of Europe” was among his priorities. Last month, Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński said that outside of Catholic ethics there is only “nihilism.”
As with Orban’s Fidesz Party, the Polish government has usurped the authority of the judicial system, turning judges into mere puppets. Abortion has been banned as a major part of the Church’s social agenda. The government rejects gay marriage and has cancelled Gay Pride events. Media has been either silenced or co-opted. These are all classic characteristics of the fascist state, in which the Church and political class are united in pursuit of their respective goals.
Hindutva religio-nationalism and destruction of Indian democracy
When India threw off British colonial rule in 1948, its leaders founded a democratic, pluralist nation embracing religious tolerance amidst a diversity of religious faiths. There was a Hindu majority, and Sikh and Muslim minorities. The secular, democratic Congress Party was the country’s most powerful party for decades.
But in 1980 the BJP, which had been an anti-Muslim militia, became a party competing with the ruling Congress. Three decades later, it took power under the leadership of Narendra Modi. He had risen to prominence as the governor of Gujarat, where Hindus rioted and murdered hundreds of local Muslims. During the violence, Modi did nothing, allowing his shock troops to run rampant for days through the city.
His political ideology is Hindutva, a heady mix of Hindu nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Though Modi claims to be a supporter of India’s multi-faith traditions, his policies belie this.
The BJP and his Hindutva followers have consolidated power adopting policies which discriminate against Muslims. The tractor, used to destroy Muslim homes under the guise of state power, has become a symbol of Hindu supremacism. Muslims have been murdered after claims that they ate beef.
In addition, India has for decades ruled Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir under military occupation. Though these provinces were considered semi-autonomous, there was always a Muslim nationalist movement seeking independence or affiliation with neighboring Pakistan. India has violently suppressed such aspirations.
Modi reversed their status and annexed them in 2019. He engineered a full takeover of the two territories and ruthlessly stamped out Kashmiri resistance. This Indian model of occupation of Jammu and Kashmir mirrors Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Both Kashmir and Palestine are majority Muslim, while the occupiers are Hindu in one case and Jewish in another. In both, the occupier seeks total domination of the minority. In both, they seek to erase the presence and identity of the minority, replacing them respectively, with Jews and Hindus.
Both Modi and then-Israeli premier, Bibi Netanyahu developed a mutual admiration society, with each one visiting the other’s country for the firstr time. India is also the top purchaser of Israeli weapons systems. They did $4-billion in trade as of 2016. But more than commerce unites them. There is a clear sense of kinship between the two countries based on their respective goals of religious supremacism.
Myanmar: Buddhism and Genocide
Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1947, under the leadership of a charismatic nationalist-socialist. Due to turmoil and his assassination, a military coup led to a takeover in 1962. Since then, the army has ruled with a heavy hand, crushing dissent, and fighting a decades-long insurgency against ethnic minorities seeking independence.
In the past two decades, a pro-democracy movemtent arose led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s first leader. The junta responded by placing her under house arrest for over a decade. It banned her political party.
The army enforced ever more brutality against the people, often forcing them into work gangs in which they “donated” their backbreaking hand labor projects on behalf of the army.
When it finally reached an agreement with Suu Kyi, she was freed and her party won subsequent elections in a landslide. After a second election, in which the army parties did poorly, the generals refused to accept the results. They nullified the vote and returned the country to military rule. In response, young people began a guerilla war against the army.
Myanmar has always treated the Rohingya Muslim minority as alien interlopers. It refused them citizenship and treated them as barely tolerated migrants, who had no place in the country.
Buddhist priests, under the approving gaze of the army, began an incitement campaign against the Rohingya:
Religion is the rhetorical means of persecuting and targeting the Rohingya. An illustration of this comes from a Guardian interview with a Burmese Buddhist monk U Rarzar, in which he explains, “The Muslims have started a jihad.The Muslims, they murdered one of our Buddhist monks. They slaughtered him. Poured petrol on him and burned him alive. Their acts of terror are causing conflict in our country.”
In this explanation, a Buddhist monk’s death serves as a justification for the alarm; the threat is identified through religious language—jihad and Muslim identity.
The Islamophobic monks demanded that the army expel them. In response, the army organized a campaign to burn their villages, engage in mass executions and rape; and force them into exile. Over 700,000 eventually took refuge in Bangladesh, which is barely able to accommodate them, given how dire economic conditions are there. The world has called this by its name: genocide.
Besides the clear religious animus, the anti-Rohingya campaign served the political interests of the army. It distracted the people from their anger at the junta. It also fractured relations among the religious-ethnic factions, which weakened them and strengthened the army.
The Rohingya genocide is one of many religious campaigns of mass extermination throughout history against a religious minority (among others, the Crusades, Holocaust, the Albigensian Crusade, and Spanish Reconquista).
It’s worth noting that Israel, which finds common cause with many of the world’s genocidal regimes, is one of the few countries willing to sell weapons to the Myanmar military.
Democracy and Islamism: Erdogan’s Awkward Embrace
In Turkey, its authoritarian leader, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, has increasingly harkened back to an earlier era in Turkish history: the Ottoman empire. That was the last time that Turkey had a truly Islamist government.
On the dissolution of the Ottoman empire after World War I, its successor was a secular nationalist, the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Attaturk. He was a devout democrat, who sought to suppress religious intervention in the political sphere.
Erdogan began his career as a believer in moderate Islam. He offered a vision of a state informed by Islamic principles, while adhering to western democratic norms. For the first years of his leadership, he embraced such an approach and the world applauded it. Membership in NATO and the European Union was discussed.
But after an attempted coup, he became more paranoid, intolerant, and fundamentalist. He clamped down on dissent and even jailed those who mocked him on social media. He sacked the senior echelons of the military and educational system for their alleged sympathies with the coup leaders.
Then, to highlight his imperial ambitions, he built himself a $650-million “summer palace” that dwarfed the ambitions of his Ottoman predecessors. He also turned the jewel of Turkish religious life, Hagia Sofia, which had once been the center of the Orthodox Church, into a mosque.
Islamism became the dominant ideology, with democracy falling by the wayside. Religion, under the Erdogan regime, inspired the support of the people and permitted him to solidify his own political power and become the quasi-dictator he has.
Liberation Theology: the exception
As with any model, there are always exceptions. And in the case of this analysis of the close alliance between religion and fascism, there are here as well. The Christian Liberation Theology of the 1970s and 80s envisioned a society in which church and the poor were united in eradicating poverty and creating a society that benefited the majority rather than the privileged elite. The Church leaders who championed it fought valiantly against the corrupt fascist political class in countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines, (among others). In the most notorious cases, Jesuit priests were murdered in El Salvador along with Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down by the military junta during Mass. LIberation theology defied fascism and championed the poor in the name of the Gospel. The sacrifices of its leaders were enormous on behalf of a better world for the poor and oppressed.
5 thoughts on “Religion and Fascism: a History – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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Trumpism is indeed a parallel fascist movement that is growing in parallel with a dozen others around the world, but that does not relieve my deathly fear for the stability of our country.
Very interesting and very alarming. The whole world seems to be taking the easier path of fascism and hate and genocide has become just another word.
Israel is a particular focus because uniquely, all of the Western powers are funding and arming Israeli campaign of genocide and dispossession.
likud/religious/nazis votes come fom one group shuffled under all the parties.
the totality of righr winger has nor grown in votes.
the center left have lost their voice to reenforce the arabs to vote in order to believe in inclusiveness.
being abandoned fot 70 year is hard to overcome an believe there is a party willing to view them as constituents. its hard for them to believe and unless a good chunk shows up then this will not happen. they heed a loving hammer to them to see the chance of belonging being a norm
Speaking of religion and Fascism, American Jews are starting looking around for the Exit.
Where will they flee in exile, Richard, Israel?
“The Jews of America […] are unlike any other community of Jews in the history of the world. […] The Jews of America can participate fully in the national life of their country. They need no longer dwell apart, a pariah community separated from the rest.”
–Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf
@ Bertrand: So many things wrong about your comment. If you read the entire column to which you linked (not the first few paragraphs, which is what you have apparently done) both the rabbi and Milbank agree that Jews shouldn’t leave America, but should stay to fight to preserve its democracy. Nor is there any mention in the column about where Jews would flee to. No mention of Israel at all.
Further, because one rabbi gave a sermon, and one of his congregants happened to be in the audience and writes for the Post, doesn’t mean, despite the claims in the article, that all, or most, and even a significant minority of Jews are planning or even contemplating leaving this country. It’s simply not true.
Btw, if the Diaspora is so dangerous for Jews and they should head on over to Israel, why are you in the Diaspora?
As for your relative, the rabbi, he too affirmed the sentiment of the column: that no one is leaving, no one going into exile.
Not to mention that Milbank quotes from Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL, a true hack if there ever was one. Not trustworthy. Biased. And just plain wrong about virtually everything.
Reread the column to which you linked. It doesn’t support what you claim.