In the post-September 11 rush to make sense of the al Qaeda threat, an influential line of argument emerged that interpreted the jihadists as the latest incarnation of the sort of totalitarian menace that previously appeared on the world stage in the guise of German and Italian fascism. Such an analysis was perhaps advanced most cogently by Paul Berman in his 2003 book Terror and Liberalism (an article-length version of which appeared in The Chronicle Review).
There is another current of thought articulated in a recent address by James L. Gelvin, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, in which he compares al Qaeda-type jihadism to anarchism. (Conversely, Gelvin dismisses "Islamo fascism" as "polemic masquerading as analysis.") According to Gelvin, jihadism and anarchism claim to be defensive in nature, they both target the structures of power they perceive as being responsible for their subjugation, and they both define themselves as ideal "counter-communities."
Walter Laqueur agrees with Gelvin that the controversial term "Islamo fascism" has little analytical value, but he does not find too much worth in Gelvin's anarchist comparison either. "Anarchists were not 'nihilists,'" Laqueur writes. "They did not negate all values but deeply believed in freedom. Whatever the fundamental beliefs and aims of the jihadists (who are not nihilists either), the struggle for the realm of freedom on earth is not among them."
Laqueur also quibbles with Gelvin's claim that anarchism and jihadism are both defensive in nature. "Have jihadists really given up their hope that their beliefs will eventually prevail all over the globe, and their conviction that they are duty-bound to promote this aim?" Laqueur asks.
Laqueur outlines one more distinction between anarchism and jihadism. Whereas 19th-century anarchist terrorism "adhered to a certain code of honor," whereby targets were generally limited to prominent political figures and great care was taken to avoid innocent casualties, in our own day we have witnessed what Laqueur calls the "barbarisation of terrorism." Today, "the enemy not only has to be destroyed, he (or she) also has to suffer torment."
"How do we account for these changes in the theory and practice of terrorism compared with the age of the anarchist militants?" Laqueur asks.