In his first response to the major terror airline scare in London, President Bush said on Aug. 10 that "The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation."
His use of the term "Islamic fascists" spurred attention and controversy, especially among Islamists.
At a pro-Hizbullah rally in front of the White House, on Aug. 12, the crowd (in the Washington Post's description) "grew most agitated when speakers denounced President Bush's references to Islam." In particular, the president of the Muslim American Society, Esam Omeish, won a massive roar of approval when he (deliberately?) mischaracterized the president's statement: "Mr. Bush: Stop calling Islam ‘Islamic fascism.'"
Nihad Awad (left) and Parvez Ahmed
of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the term "ill-advised" and "counter-productive," repeating CAIR's usual conceit that violence in the name of Islam has, in fact, nothing to do with Islam. Even more preposterously, Awad went on to suggest that we "take advantage of these incidents to make sure that we do not start a religious war against Islam and Muslims."
CAIR's board chairman, Parvez Ahmed, sent an open letter to President Bush: "You have on many occasions said Islam is a ‘religion of peace.' Today you equated the religion of peace with the ugliness of fascism." Actually, Bush did not do that (he equated just one form of "the religion of peace" with fascism), but Ahmed inadvertently pointed to the evolution in the president's – and the country's – thinking away from bromides to real thinking.
Edina Lekovic from the Muslim Public Affairs Council repeated the MPAC argument of the need to cultivate Islamists for counterterrorism: "When the people we need most in the fight against terrorism, American Muslims, feel alienated by the president's characterization of these supposed terrorists, that does more damage than good." (Supposed terrorists?) Her case, however, has recently been undercut by the example of Mubin Shaikh and the Toronto 17, in which an Islamist informer has been widely shunned by fellow Muslims. Lekovic did, however, make a valid semantic point: "It would have been far more accurate had he linked the situation to a segment of people rather than an entire faith, along the lines of, say, radical Muslim fascists."
The Muslim Association of Britain announced that it "condemns" Bush's wording and worries that such comments "gives yet another excuse for the targeting of the Muslim minority by extreme right-wing forces in the West." This fear is disingenuous, given how few anti-Muslim incidents do take place in the West, compared to the number of Muslim attacks on Westerners.
There are also rumblings of a more aggressive Muslim response. "Some hypermarkets in Riyadh," reports the Arab News, "had already withdrawn American products from their shelves in response to the US' anti-Islam campaign." Will this incident lead to a further separation of civilizations?
(1) This is hardly the first time Bush has used the term Islamic fascist (or Islamofascist); it has become a part of his routine vocabulary since his path-breaking speech on this subject in October 2005, a speech that, oddly, was dismissed by the mainstream media as a retread, while this glancing reference is treated as major news. (Newsweek calls it a "rhetorical bomb.") Go figure.
(2) What was new on Aug. 10 was his formulation that the United States is "at war with Islamic fascists." That was more direct and forceful than anything prior.
(3) Islamic fascist and Islamofascist are more used than ever before, as can be confirmed by a search for those words in my weblog entry, "Calling Islamism the Enemy." Notably, Senator Rick Santorum gave a powerful speech on July 20 in which he 29 times used the term fascist or fascism with reference to Islam. MSNBC and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have both suggested that Santorum's use of this term accounted for its adaptation by the White House.
(4) Protests from Islamists notwithstanding, Bush has indicated that he plans to continue using this term. His spokesman, Tony Snow, explained in an e-mail interview with the Cox newspaper chain that Bush has gradually shifted from the "war on terrorism" to "war with Islamic fascists." With this new specificity, Snow continues, Bush "tries to identify the ideology that motivates many organized terrorist groups. He also tries to make it clear that the label does not apply to all or most Muslims, but to the tiny factions," such as Al-Qaeda.
(5) It appears that Islamist protests have been counterproductive, managing the negative double play of bringing more attention to the term and irritating the White House.
(6) I applaud the increasing willingness to focus on some form of Islam as the enemy but find the word fascist misleading in this context. Few historic or philosophic connections exist between fascism and radical Islam. Fascism glorifies the state, emphasizes racial "purity," promotes social Darwinism, denigrates reason, exalts the will, and rejects organized religion – all outlooks anathema to Islamists.
In contrast, Radical Islam has many more ties, both historic and philosophic, to Marxism-Leninism. While studying for his doctorate in Paris, Ali Shariati, the key intellectual behind the turn to Islam in Iran in the 1970s, translated Franz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Jean-Paul Sartre into Persian. More broadly, quoting the Iranian analyst Azar Nafisi, radical Islam "takes its language, goals, and aspirations as much from the crassest forms of Marxism as it does from religion. Its leaders are as influenced by Lenin, Sartre, Stalin, and Fanon as they are by the Prophet." During the cold war, Islamists preferred the Soviet Union to the United States; today, they have more and deeper connections to the hard left than to the hard right.
(7) Nonetheless, some voices gamely argue for the accuracy of "Islamic fascists." After himself using the term on television, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff justified it by noting that bin Laden has
talked about restoring the Caliphate, the empire that existed in the southern Mediterranean centuries ago. That is nothing—it‘s deranged, but essentially it is a vision of a totalitarian empire with him leading under some kind of perverted conception of religion. That comes very close to satisfying my definition of fascism. It might not be classic fascism that you had with Mussolini or Hitler, but it is a totalitarian intolerance—imperialism that has a vision that is totally at odds with Western society and our freedoms and rule of law.
The Washington Times also endorsed the term in an editorial titled "It's Fascism."
Fascism is a chauvinistic political philosophy that exalts a group over the individual—usually a race or nation, but in this case the adherents of a religion. Fascism also espouses centralized autocratic rule by that group in suppression of others. It usually advocates severe economic and social regimentation and the total or near-total subordination of the individual to the political leadership. This accurately describes the philosophies of Hitler, Mussolini, the leaders of Imperial Japan and other fascistic regimes through history. It also describes Thursday's terrorists. It very accurately describes the philosophy of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and many other stripes of Islamism around the world.
(8) The use of Islamic fascists should be seen as part of a decades-long search for the right term to name a form of Islam that is recognizably political, extreme, and often violent. I have already confessed in that I am on my fifth term (having previously used neo-orthodox, fundamentalist, and militant, and now using radical and Islamist). While Islamic fascists beats terrorists, let's hope that a better consensus term soon emerges. My vote is for Islamists.
Aug. 14, 2006 update: I survey what some others are saying about the "Islamofascist" term at "More on the Term "Islamic Fascists'."