Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Problem with "Islamofascism"

(Image from Wikipedia)

In a recent post, I took a skeptical look at Youssef M. Ibrahim's "The West Needs To Fight Islamofascists With Big Ideas" (The New York Sun, September 1, 2006), but I didn't single out his use of the popular term "Islamofascist" for describing groups such as Al Qaeda.

One of my regular readers, "Steph," alluded to the term as an "[u]nfortunate choice of word," and I happened to agree:

I generally avoid the term "Islamofascism" because it implies a significant connection to European fascism that I just don't see. Fascists emphasize politics of the corporate state grounded in ethnic identity. Islamists emphsize the Ummah, the worldwide Islamic community, and appeal to a religious tradition that supposedly goes all the way back to Muhammad.

The label has been bandied about since 9/11 as people try to come up with a convenient term for implying more or less what ideology Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups adhere to. "Steph" noted that the term has been in use since at least 1990:

Dr Malise Ruthven wrote an article "Construing Islam as a Language" which appeared in The Independent September 8th 1990 and used the word but I don't know whether he coined it.

That was a bit surprising to learn, but I've since discovered an even longer pedigree. According to Madeleine Brand, "Verbal Front in the Terror War: 'Islamofascism'" (NPR, August 15, 2006):

A Lexis-Nexis search found the first time it was used in the mainstream press was back in 1979, in a Washington Post article describing Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni as an Islamic Fascist.

That's a somewhat different expression, but Brand suggests that:

Since then, the phrase has morphed into "Islam-o-fascist.' That word appeared in a 1990 article in the British newspaper The Independent, which argued that authoritarian governments are the norm in the Islamic world.

This must be the article by Ruthven that "Steph" was referring to, yet the term there doesn't appear to refer to groups similar to Al Qaeda but rather to the 'typical' form of government in the Muslim world. I haven't seen the article by Ruthven, but a Wikipedia entry on "Islamofascism" quotes him:

[T]here is what might be called a political problem affecting the Muslim world. In contrast to the heirs of some other non-Western traditions, including Hinduism, Shintoism and Buddhism, Islamic societies seem to have found it particularly hard to institutionalise divergences politically: authoritarian government, not to say Islamo-fascism, is the rule rather than the exception from Morocco to Pakistan.

Ruthven doesn't clearly endorse the term, but he does use it even though the term's reference doesn't look especially specific. If he's referring to Baath governments like the one that Iraq had under Saddam Hussein, then I think one could argue for the appropriateness of the label "fascist," but in that case "Islamic" (or "Islamo-") wouldn't fit well since the Baath Party was aggressively secular.

But to return to the NPR piece ... Brand cites the leftist historian Paul Berman:

Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism, says that when fascism arose in Europe in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, similar movements cropped up in the Arab world. While different from their European counterparts, Berman says, they "had similar mythology, paranoia -- a cult of hatred and a cult of death."

I've read and learned from Berman's book, but that was about three years ago, and I don't have it at hand for checking, so I don't recall if he endorses the term "Islamofascist" or even "Islamic fascist" to refer to groups like Al Qaeda. I hope not, and so far as I recall, Berman's point was to note political connections and suggest some common ideological strands, not to identify Al Qaeda's ideology as "fascist" -- but I'll perhaps have to get back to you on that.

David Greenberg, of Slate Magazine, writing for The New Republic's "Open University" blog, also learns from Berman but rejects the term "Islamofascism" in "Another Vote Against Islamofascism" (9/1/2006):

When thinkers I admire like Paul Berman first started noting the links between Al Qaeda's murderous, anti-enlightenment ideas and those of Fascist Europe, I thought the term Islamo-fascism seemed like a reasonable effort to define an ideology for which we had (and still have) no consensus name. But Ted Widmer's post is one among several recent comments that have made me reconsider. It's not just that bin Laden's vision is simply too different from Hitler's or Mussolini's to stand up to such pigeonholing. It's also that fascism has been so degraded as an epithet over the years through casual use that even if it were now being used accurately, it would still be likely to strike most ears as mere name-calling -- an expression of sentiment, not the product of analysis. Besides, if we believe (as I do, and as I think most Americans, including President Bush, do) that we're not at war with Islam, why fuse the two words into one? In his new book The Good Fight, Peter Beinart uses "Salafism," which strikes me as a tad esoteric. On TNR's blog The Plank, Spencer Ackerman proposes "anti-Western Salafist jihadism," which he concedes doesn't trip off the tongue. I tend to prefer jihadism--unless I hear a better term.

What does Ted Widmer, of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, have to say in his Open University entry, "Thoughts About Fascism" (9/1/2006)? First, he quotes the "eminent historian Robert Paxton[, who] has provided a useful modern definition of fascism":

"Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."
Widmer then observes, "Whom that precisely describes in the world today is difficult to say," but he pretty clearly thinks that it doesn't describe Al Qaeda, for he states that "[t]he first step toward getting this war right is to get our facts right. And the first step to getting our facts right is getting our words right."

I agree that finding the right term is essential, and given Paxton's somewhat unwieldy definition, which places the term "nationalist" at its core, I'd say that my own doubts about the aptness of the label "Islamofascism" have been on target.

Now, if we were to replace Paxton's term "nationalist" with "internationalist," we'd arrive at a definition much closer to describing Al Qaeda and its ilk ... but we wouldn't be talking about fascism anymore.

I prefer the term "Islamism" but recognize that it shades subtly into "Islam," and I can see why Greenberg opts for "Jihadism," for it identifies the problem that we face from groups like Al Qaeda.

What do the rest of you think?

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At 6:39 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

I've read some of the previous discussion. It's been interesting.

The fascist label is being used to describe the brutality, determination, and oppressive nature of this enemy.

"Jihadist" is acceptable. But "fascist" causes one to envision the danger the world ignored and the results of having done so.

I'm perfectly comfortable using the term "islamofascist". Especially if it gets under islamofascist skin!

At 8:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Daddio, for the input.

I think that "totalitarian" might also work well to signal the "brutality, determination, and oppressive nature of this enemy," and it's completely accurate as well, for Islamists/Jihadists do aim at imposing a totalitarian system.

Aside from what I see as inadequate in the term "fascism," I wonder if younger generations even have a glimmering of the brutality that characterized fascists.

On that score, though, whatever term we use, the brutality of groups like Al Qaeda will show us all what it means.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with daddio. If I could come up with a worse name for them, I would. I think you can call them nationalistic because to them, they are a muslim or islamic state, aiming to spread their form of law internationally. I am sure there are good muslims, but I would bet money you could go into the mosque down the street from me and they would be referring to us as infidels.

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cynthia (Mrstkdsd), thanks for the comment.

What you're describing sounds more like "imperialism" than "nationalism."

Anyway, the problem with calling groups like Al Qaeda "fascist" is that fascism is nationalist in an ethnic sense. The Germans emphasized German ethnicity. The Italians emphasized Italian ethnicity. The French emphasized French ethnicity.

Al Qaeda and its ilk, however, are open to all ethnicities.

So, I'd still prefer to use a different term, either "Islamist" or "Jihadist."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Steph, in future, I'll remove the quotation marks, which I used because I had capitalized your name and therefore altered it from your own use, but do you really want your name with a small "s"?

I must have missed some news because I don't know of any kidnapper.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are right, it is more like imperialism, the very thing we are always accused of. Islamofascism is fitting, in my opinion, because it compares the horrors of these radicals to Hitler. Had we continued to appease him, the world would be a very different place. The same is true now and too many people go out of their way to make excuses for these people and their religion. I don't believe there is only one "true" religion, and while others are guilty of that same thought, they aren't out trying to destroy others because they don't believe the same way. As I mentioned before, there is a mosque right down the street from me. Across the street from it are apartments where many of these muslims live. At least one of the terrorist involved in 9/11 lived there. I will admit it, I am prejudice because everytime I see these people walking to the mosque, I wonder if they might also be terrorists. It is not a good feeling. Ok, done ranting, lol. I think it takes a less biased person than me to create a "fair and/or accurate" name for the ones out to destroy our way of life.

At 6:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cynthia, I'm sorry to hear of your proximity to where one of the 9/11 terrorists lived. It must be harrowing to walk by that place.

In Jerusalem, autumn 1998, my wife narrowly avoided a terrorist bombing. Five minutes previously, she had been standing where the bomb went off. She was still only about 30 yards away when it happened.

So, I have a close encounter to remember as well ... though I don't have to walk past it.

As for the terms that we choose to use as labels, I guess that we have to be tough (did I learn, after all, from my father?) and choose the most precise term to describe the terrorists. With time, the term chosen will acquire the connotation that it deserves.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Steph, yes, I was serious about your name.

As for the kidnapping ... now, I know what you're talking about, except that I don't know anything about the kidnappers' response to Bush's words. Do you mean the expression "Islamic fascists"? What was the kidnappers' response?

Pardon me for using you as a news source. Living in Korea, I sometimes miss the obvious.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Steph, for that details. I hadn't heard about the kidnappers's remarks.

As for Bush's terminology, I didn't find "Islamofascist(s)" in his speech of August 31 to the American Legion when I did a websearch today. Maybe there was a different speech, for I found only this:

"They're successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century."

In a very general sense, this is correct. I can imagine that the kidnappers didn't like it, if that's what they were reacting to, but I doubt that they would like anything critical that Bush or anybody might say about them or other Islamists. After all, these people forced the two journalists to convert to Islam at gunpoint.

This has put the two journalists in a difficult position. They've recited the Shahda before witnesses, and according to some interpretations of Islamic law, that't sufficient to make someone a Muslim -- even if the confession were forced. If they now renounce their confession, will they be murtad?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Steph, I hadn't heard that the journalists had freely reached an agreement with their captors in order to allow the captors to save face.

I did read that Steve Centanni said that he and Olaf had been forced at gunpoint to convert.

Here's the statement, which I've just now located on ABC New International:

"We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint ... [I]t was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns, and we didn't know what the hell was going on."

This sounds to me like coercion of the life-or-death sort. Centanni was pretty shaken by the experience, according to reports, so I can't see that it compares to converting in order to marry a Muslim woman.

But I'm starting to get off-topic now, so I'd better stop.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Make that "ABC News International."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Steph, good luck with the move, and I look forward to hearing from you on various topics when you're living in England.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quoting a quote:

Fascists emphasize politics of the corporate state grounded in ethnic identity.

Hmmm, that seems to describe some Asian states that I am familiar with.

Aside from what I see as inadequate in the term "fascism," I wonder if younger generations even have a glimmering of the brutality that characterized fascists.

Hmmm, why do you single out "fascism" when it seems obvious that humans of all political strains have been guilty of brutality throughout the ages.

At 3:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Loki on the run quotes me:

"Aside from what I see as inadequate in the term 'fascism,' I wonder if younger generations even have a glimmering of the brutality that characterized fascists."

Then asks:

"[W]hy do you single out 'fascism' when it seems obvious that humans of all political strains have been guilty of brutality throughout the ages."

My post was written to explain why I think the term "Islamofascist" is the wrong label to apply to groups like Al Qaeda. Some people argue that the term can be used anyway to emphasize the brutality of Al Qaeda. I think that's not a sufficient reason because I'm interested in finding the precise term. I also think that many people wouldn't even know that fascists were especially brutal.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Lately, I've been wondering about the term as well. I'm hearing it more and more and it seems to have the effect of reinforcing the analogy (that the Bush admin is trying so hard to make stick) between WW2 and the Global War on Terror. Thanks for your insight on the term. Personally, I think Islamist or Jihadist are accurate, but they do lack the WW2 connotation.

At 6:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, I think that the struggle against Islamism will be a different sort than that against fascism or communism because it is a genuine religion (regardless whether it is a genuine form of Islam or not) and projects its adherents into a far larger dimension of action where God is their judge and eternity is their reward or punishment.

Jeffery Hodges

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