Escalation in Terminology

Oct 18

Escalation in Terminology
When President Bush described a war against ‘Islamic fascists,’ some American Muslims became very angry.
By Lisa Miller

Updated: 2:17 p.m. ET Aug 12, 2006

Aug. 12, 2006 – In our collective relief at having dodged a bullet this week, some of us may have missed the rhetorical bomb in our midst. Just hours after Tony Blair announced the arrest of two-dozen Britons on charges that they were planning to blow up planes using liquid explosives, President Bush made remarks of his own, thanking British authorities for their swift work and assuring Americans that their safety was his primary concern. “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists,” he said somberly, “who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.” Our terrorist enemy has been described in so much colorful language by so many, one more escalation in terminology may have been easy to overlook.

Except that this time Parvez Ahmed got really mad. That same afternoon, Ahmed, who is chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, released an open letter to the president, a letter that excoriated Bush for using language that “contributes to a rising level of hostility to Islam and the American-Muslim community.” He wrote, “The use of ill-defined hot-button terms such as ‘Islamic fascists’ harms our nation’s image and interests worldwide.” he wrote. The blogs went wild.

“Islamic fascist”—or “Islamofascist” as it’s popularly spelled on the Internet—is the latest explosive in the right’s semantic arsenal. It’s explosive because it instantly brings to mind the 20th century’s greatest horror, the Holocaust, because it offends the sensibilities of millions of people like Ahmed who hold Islam sacred, and because it infuriates people who believe that the Middle East conflict can be resolved at least partially through talking. It has been in wide use for about a year, mostly by hawkish conservatives who feel that five years of “war on terror” rhetoric has not gone far enough to identify who the enemy is—that is, terrorists who are Muslim—or to describe the radical Islamic movement in the Middle East as a global threat to a democratic way of life. To compare today’s terrorists to the last century’s fascists “gets at the incredibly aggressive nature of the conflict, the craziness of it,” explains William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. “You imply that these are not rationally calculating people in the way that we have become accustomed to.”

Republican Senator Rick Santorum, who will be fighting for his seat in November, uses the phrase repeatedly. “Islamic fascism,” he told the National Press Club in July “is the great test of this generation.” In June, political consultant Mary Matalin told Fox News that “You either believe we’re going to fight Islamic fascism or you don’t,” and a week later, after an Israeli soldier was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists, Rep. Eric Cantor (R- Va.) issued a statement saying that Israel “has every right to secure its citizens from these Islamic fascists.”

Even the president is more than a little familiar with the term. Nearly a year ago, in a speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush defined “Islamofascism” as “a form of radicalism [that] exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision” and several months later he spoke of the Islamofascists becoming emboldened. On the extreme end of the spectrum, on the right-wing radio talk shows and blog circuit, “Islamofascist” has the flavor of an epithet.

Like many powerful weapons, this one had an inauspicious birth. Most academics trace the genesis of the term to the mid-1990s, when an historian named Walter Laqueur wrote a book called “Fascism: Past, Present, Future,” in which he suggested that the radical Islamic movements of the developing world resembled in some ways the facism of the mid-20th century. There followed, in the scholarly press and in European newspapers, a debate of this issue among political scientists. Yes, some agreed, elements of radical Islamic fundamentalism can look like fascism, the term born in Italy to describe a political movement that, according to Webster’s, “exalts nation above the individual,” stands for a centralized government and suppresses opposition. But in many important ways the two phenomena are very different. “What politicized Islam is doing,” explains Roger Griffin, professor of History at Oxford Brookes University in England and an expert on fascism, “is to preserve religion in a secular world. What Nazism was doing was to create an alternative to religion in a secular world.” In any case, the scholars agreed, the term “Islamic fascist” was touchy and should be used with great care.

Then 9/11 happened. Not a month later, the term made its mainstream debut with a column in The Nation by Christopher Hitchens, who wrote, “The bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face.” Soon the phrase was circulating.

Parvez Ahmed is angry because he feels the president is being disrespectful to the millions of moderate Muslims who live in this country, who condemn terrorism and who seek the government’s protection. But he’s especially angry because he thinks that the right’s adoption of the term at this particular juncture is not just historically inaccurate, it’s a cynical bid for votes. “This is an election year,” he told NEWSWEEK. “The president is down in the polls, he’s trying to appease his base. It’s a moment of political opportunism. It goes back to the idea that in some quarters it is good to perpetuate the myth of a clash between civilizations.”

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank near Boston, has a related theory. Some of the right-wing evangelicals who voted for Bush have an apocalyptic world view—that is, they are expecting the end of the world based on Biblical prophesy. Santorum, Matalin, Cantor, even the president himself—they all know this, Berlet believes, and are positioning Islam as the evil force that will bring about the End. “I am creeped out” by the term “Islamofascism,” says Berlet. The term itself is creepy, no doubt, but, however you look at it, the reality it stands for is downright terrifying.


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