Timothy Garton Ash gets it wrong, I think.
He gets it wrong in one rather specific way.
In the form “Islamofascism”, and with the added spice of references to “totalitarianism”, the label elides two things that need to be kept separate. One is the mentality of death-seeking and death-delivering fanatics. The other is a totalitarian political system…Now, if nuclear-armed Pakistan and oil-rich Saudi Arabia fall the wrong way, we could be there sooner than we think – but at the moment the only serious contender for the title of Islamic-fascist state is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Has he been paying enough attention to Saudi Arabia? It’s not a whole lot more benign than Iran. In some ways it has a much firmer grip. I would say it’s a contender.
But the other way is broader.
Most Islamic terrorists are, in some sense, Islamists, but most Islamists are not terrorists. They are reactionaries. They propose a profoundly conservative religious vision of society which, in its attitudes to free speech, apostasy, homosexuality and women, is generally anathema to secular liberal convictions (including, emphatically, my own). But for the most part they do so through peaceful political means, not through violence.
It’s very hard not to make a cheap point about the sentimental views of people who are so sheltered and safe themselves that they can’t even see how things are for other people. It is ludicrous to say that religious reactionaries ‘propose’ their profoundly conservative religious vision of society through peaceful political means – of course they don’t! They don’t propose it, they impose it, wherever they have the power to do that, which is of course at home. They don’t just propose that their daughters shouldn’t see the wrong boys or that their sons had better not be fags or that ‘apostasy’ is forbidden to everyone; they impose all those mandates, and if they are not submitted to, the response is indeed sometimes violence. Surely it’s not a newsflash that religious reactionaries do coerce people when they can and do sometimes resort to violence when they’re resisted? In fact violence of that kind is quite explicitly celebrated in some Christianist writing – that’s an important part of what is affectionately called ‘traditional values.’ One of those traditional values is the importance of corporal punishment of children.
Garton Ash is dreaming if he thinks that peaceful political means are compatible with reactionary religion. Reactionary religion is first and foremost about coercion; that is the essential point of it; that is what makes it reactionary. It is not liberal, it is not about choice, it is not about reasoned debate and free speech and leaving each other alone as long as we do no harm; it is about the opposite of all of those. That’s why it’s hell; that’s why we hate and fear it; that’s why theocracy is anathema. It’s a mistake to minimize it.