August 18, 2006

“Islamofascism.” There have been a lot of people—especially conservative media personalities—that have used this word or a variation thereof over the last few years. Now people have been talking about it even more since President George W. Bush used it to talk about the recently foiled terrorist plot.

But is it accurate? Not according to many people. Daniel Benjamin, a national security expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued:

There is no sense in which jihadists embrace fascist ideology as it was developed by [1930s Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini or anyone else who was associated with the term. ... This is an epithet, a way of arousing strong emotion and tarnishing one’s opponent, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the content of their beliefs. The people who are trying to kill us, Sunni jihadist terrorists, are a very, very different breed.
Roxanne Euben, political science professor at Wellesley College, stated:

Fascism is nationalistic and Islamicism is hostile to nationalism. ... Fundamentalism is a transnational movement that is appealing to believers of all nations and races across national boundaries. There is no idea of racial purity as in Nazism.

Islamicists have very little idea of the state. It is a religious movement, while fascism in Europe was a secular movement. ... So if it’s not what we really think of as nationalism, and if it’s not really like what we think of as fascist, why use these terms?
The best critique of the word comes from a Los Angeles Times article by Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. He argues:

Actually, the term “Islamo-fascism,” if taken literally, doesn’t make sense. The “fascist” part might fit Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with its militaristic nationalism, its secret police and its silly peaked officers’ hats. But there was nothing “Islamo” about the regime; Iraq’s Baathists tried to make the state the real object of the people’s devotion.

That’s why it’s odd to describe repressive theocracies like the Taliban as fascist — just as it would be for Savonarola’s Florence, John Calvin’s Geneva or the Spain of the Inquisition, all of which reduced the state to an instrument for enforcing God’s will. The Islamic world doesn’t seem to offer very fertile soil for fascist cults of the state.

... Of course, it’s the point of symbolic words such as “fascist” to ease the burden of thought — as Walter Lippmann observed, they “assemble emotions after they’ve been detached from their ideas.” And it may be that Americans are particularly vulnerable to using “fascism” sloppily, never having experienced the real thing close up.

But like “terror,” and “evil” before it, “Islamic fascism” has the effect of reducing a complex story to a simple fable.
All of these comments should make us very cautious about using the word. It seems to be designed not to be accurate but merely to anger people. Christians should especially try to avoid using inaccurate and inflammatory terms such as “Islamofascism.”

UPDATE [8/21/06]: Here is a Wall Street Journal column that also addresses the word “Islamofascism.”