In recent months, some world leaders have begun equating today's Iran with Hitler's Germany and suggesting that Tehran, like the Nazis, wants to annihilate the Jews. On Oct. 17, for example, President George W. Bush—citing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial—warned that the Iranian government is out to destroy Israel. And former British prime minister Tony Blair recently compared Iran to the rising fascist powers of the 1930s.
Alarm over the rise of fascism in Muslim society is nothing new. Twenty-one years ago, I published an article in Iran warning that elements in the regime were trying to interpret Ayatollah Khomeini's theory of government—velayat-e faqih (rule of the Islamic jurist)—along fascist lines in order to monopolize power and silence dissent. Eleven years later, I gave a talk at an Iranian university—for which I received a one-year prison sentence—in which I again warned against such readings of religion.
But there are important differences between what I said then and what Bush and Blair are claiming today. Drawing analogies between present-day Iran and Hitler's Germany is totally misleading. For one thing, the political, economic, military, technological and scientific circumstances of the world now bear no resemblance to Hitler's era. Iran today does not have the power that Germany did then. And Western governments in 2007 are much more powerful than Germany's rivals were in 1935.
Relying on its military strength, Nazi Germany sought to gain mastery over the world, conquer other countries and destroy countless lives. Even if Tehran harbored such dreams, it wouldn't have the practical and scientific know-how to achieve them. Consider nuclear weapons. Even by the most alarmist estimates, Iran is at least five years away from making an atomic bomb, while Israel alone already has more than 200 warheads.
More important, Iran does not harbor such dreams. The Islamic republic's top leader, Ali Khamenei, may be a megalomaniac, but his energies are directed first and foremost at preserving his regime and turning Iran into a regional power and, perhaps, a leader of the Muslim world.
Another important difference: Iran's political system is very different from that of a totalitarian fascist state. Power is not concentrated in the hands of one person but is diffused among competing factions; the regime is authoritarian, but not totalitarian. While elements of Iran's oligarchy might like to create such a state, they have been prevented from doing so by, among other things, the communications revolution—which (via satellite TV, radio and the Internet) makes it impossible for the government to effectively control information.
Yet another key distinction between today's Iran and Nazi Germany concerns anti-Semitism. Notwithstanding Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric on Israel, anti-Semitism does not exist in Iran as an official state policy. It's no coincidence that Iran remains home to the Middle East's second largest Jewish population (after Israel), of approximately 25,000. While their situation is far from ideal, these citizens are protected by the state and are allowed to discreetly attend synagogue.
There's another important problem with Bush and Blair's formulation: it is not at all clear that Islam (and hence "Islamo-fascism") is the force responsible for the anti-Western terrorism they decry. Too often, critics in the West lump together various types of terrorism, suicide attacks and other acts of violence and claim that they are all being carried out in the name of Islam. But such critics forget that the agent of this violence is not "Islam" but individual Muslims, who do not speak for the religion as a whole. Most Muslims do not view violence as an acceptable means of achieving political ends. And Muslims' readings of their sacred texts are far from uniform.
There are at least three main types of such interpretations: modernist, traditionalist and fundamentalist. Modernists and traditionalists totally rule out the use of violence. Only fundamentalist readings of Islam can be used to justify it. Yet even many fundamentalists do not endorse such readings, and many who do are not in fact pursuing religious ends.
Still, for us Iranians, warnings about fascist readings of religion can sensitize us to the danger posed by an organized clerical minority within the Iranian state. Such warnings can also help define our choices more clearly and thus aid Iran's transition to democracy. But when leaders like Bush and Blair speak about "Islamic fascism," many Iranians view it as nothing more than an attempt to prepare public opinion for war.
Yes, Islamic fascism is a problem, but it's primarily an internal one that Muslims need to confront. If Bush and Blair are serious about combating it they should avoid policies—like invading and occupying other countries, supporting dictatorial regimes and backing Israeli security at the expense of the Palestinians—that give rise to it. Muslim democrats can defeat the fascists in our midst, but we need peace and stability in our region to do so—not another war that will be exploited by reactionary forces.