In recent years, the bizarre term Islamofascism has begun making the rounds, usually emanating from the strange world of right-wing politics and neocon pundits and their acolytes. After a test run on the fringe, the term broke into the big leagues of political discourse in the fall of 2006, when President George W. Bush and top members of his administration simultaneously adopted its use in a desperate attempt to bolster support for the stumbling war in Iraq and the related “war on terror.” The Bush administration was finding it more and more difficult to define just who or what we were fighting against. To declare a war on a tactic is imprecise to the point of meaninglessness. To replace the Global War on Terror (GWOT), a catchall phrase was needed to label the enemy and simplify matters. The phrase had to represent something bad, something that would conjure up visceral fear and hatred. Certainly fascism, a discredited political philosophy, combined with the bogeyman status now accorded to the Muslim religion in the minds of most Americans, was a perfect match. The problem is that they don’t match up at all.
Islamofascism is a neologism, that is, a new word. Neologism’s secondary definition is “a meaningless word or phrase.” Perhaps here we are approaching the heart of the matter. First, consider the primary users of this curious term. It stems mostly from the political Right, especially in the United States, and it is constantly being repeated in the echo chamber of conservative talk-shows and associated commentators in the print media. Right-wing polemicists such as David Horowitz, Norman Podhoretz, and Daniel Pipes have been the main promoters of the concept. David Horowitz even promoted an “Islamofascism Awareness Week” on college campuses in the fall of 2007.
President Bush started using the term in a 2006 press conference. Within weeks, it became a staple commodity within the administration, repeated frequently by administration spokespersons including then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then-Press Secretary Tony Snow, Condoleeza Rice, Vice President Richard Cheney, and a number of Republican members of the Senate and House. Obviously, the campaign was well planned and orchestrated.
The use of this term represents a curious twisting of historical facts and logic. The word fascism is bandied about by many who have little knowledge of what it actually means or who simply extract a meaning to fit their purposes. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines fascism as “a philosophy or system of dictatorial government of the extreme Right typically through the merger of state and corporate leadership usually tied to an ideology of belligerent nationalism.”
How the above definition of fascism can be associated with a stateless, religion-based, transnational terrorist movement whose apparent raison d’etre is opposing Western incursion into Islamic lands is incomprehensible. Fascism, first and foremost, was a nationalistic movement wherever it came to power and sought the aggrandizement of that nation. These regimes were corporatist in how they functioned and were usually supported by the economic elite of the nation. The regimes were nominally secular, though usually tied to the Christian church in some way. They were ethnocentric, opposed to transnational cooperation, and harshly suppressed domestic opponents. These opponents were often labeled as terrorists.
Standing these historical factors on their heads, we are now asked to believe that the above definition and description of the fascist modus operandi describes the terrorist threat we are now facing. Al Qaeda and its imitators represent no single national power. Rather, they attract followers from many nations with the common bond of adherence to violent Islamic religious fundamentalism. During the ascendance of fascism, there was no talk of the threat of “international fascism” per se. It was the individual nations that posed the threat, based on their formidable military and industrial infrastructures.
Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorist actions its adherents perpetrate appear to have as an objective the establishment of fundamentalist Islamic states where Western power and influence can be excluded and secularism abolished. There is no indication that they are seeking world economic or military hegemony, not that such an objective has even the slightest chance of success. The only thing Islamic terrorists have in common with historic fascists who gained control of modern industrial nations is that they are both bad. However, that fact does not lead to the conclusion that they are equivalent. Drug dealers are bad, too, but that does not mean that they’re also fascists.
Some of the exponents of Islamofascism seem to dwell on the points made by Italian writer Umberto Eco in his 1997 book, Five Moral Pieces. In this work, Eco describes the characteristics of individuals who would be susceptible to the lure of fascism. These characteristics include such things as anti-intellectualism, the need for action, intolerance of dissent, rejection of pacifism, identification of enemies, male dominance, the willingness to use violence, and general fanaticism about their belief system. The problem is that most of these characteristics could be assigned to adherents of any authoritarian religion, including many Christian sects—not to mention that they could also resemble such disparate movements as communism, the Mafia, Japanese militarism, and any number of despotic regimes throughout history.
Anti-Semitism is also used as “proof” of an Islamic/fascist tie-in. But again, a look at the historical facts significantly weakens this argument. Only the Nazi version of fascism was violently anti-Semitic, and this was based on a convoluted racial theory, not religion. Converting to Christianity could not save Jews from the Holocaust. Islamic anti-Semitism is based on the incursion of infidels (the Israelis) into previously Islamic lands.
There have been many articulate rejections of the Islamofascism concept from across the political spectrum. In an October 29, 2007, International Herald Tribune column titled “Fearing Fear Itself,” Paul Krugman wrote, “. . . there actually isn’t any such thing as Islamofascism—it’s not an ideology; it’s a figment of the neocon imagination. The term came into vogue only because it was a way for Iraq hawks to gloss over the awkward transition from pursuing Osama bin Laden who attacked America to Saddam Hussein who didn’t.”
British historian Niall Ferguson, a conservative whose recent book War of the World covered World War II and the fascist experience in depth, declared in 2006,
. . . what we see at the moment is an attempt to interpret our present predicament in a rather characterized World War II idiom. I mean, “Islamofascism” illustrates the point well, because it is a completely misleading concept. In fact, there is virtually no overlap between the ideology of al Qaeda and fascism. It’s just a way of making us feel that we’re the “greatest generation” fighting another World War. You’re translating a crisis symbolized by 9/11 into a sort of pseudo World War II. So 9/11 becomes Pearl Harbor and then you go after the bad guys who are fascists, and if you don’t support us, then you must be an appeaser.
As Eric Margolis observed in an August 2006 syndicated essay, “There is nothing in any part of the Muslim world that resembles the corporate fascist states of western history. The clan and tribal-based traditional Islamic societies, with i
ts fragmented power structures, local loyalties, and consensus decision-making, is about as far as possible from western industrial state fascism.”
Not only is the use of this term disingenuous for the American people as an explanation of what we are fighting for or against, it also causes unneeded outrage in the Muslim world. In a September 11, 2006, article in The Nation, Katha Pollitt wrote that “Islamofascism enrages to no purpose the dwindling number of Muslims who don’t already hate us. At the same time it clouds with ideology a range of situations—Lebanon, Palestine, airplane and subway bombings, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran—that we need to see clearly and distinctly and deal with in a focused way. No wonder the people who brought us the disaster in Iraq are so fond of it.”
One deeply suspects that the foisting of this oxymoron on the public is yet another attempt at crude wartime propaganda and disinformation designed to distract a gullible public to accept a disastrous policy. One further suspects that this outlandish twist of the English language may serve another, more handy purpose. Among the harshest critics of the Bush administration, the word fascism is also wafting through the air. But it’s not aimed at the Islamic terrorists. It’s aimed at the Bush administration itself—the perpetrators of warrantless wiretaps, flaunters of the Geneva Convention, extraordinary rendition, Guantánamo, torture, secret prisons, the right to perpetrate preemptive attack on other countries, overthrowing uncooperative governments, and the grabbing of other nation’s resources. Now that is a comparison to fascism with some validity.
The disinformation strategy is simple. If the Bush administration can name the enemy as fascism, then how can anyone accuse it of exhibiting the same characteristics?