Saturday, August 26, 2006


Yesterday I posted an excerpt from a Saudi op-ed piece on the current use of the term Islamofascism here. After posting it, I rememberred another column I had recently read on the same subject and I finally found it. It was written by Geoffrey Nunberg, the author of "Talking Right," which is high up on my 'to read' list. Written originally for the LA Times, I found it in the Minneapolis Star Tribune of August 22, 2006.

It wasn't the first time President Bush had described the United States as at war with "Islamic fascists." But coming in his remarks about the arrests of two dozen terror suspects in Britain last week, the phrase signaled that the administration was shopping for new language to defend its policies at a time when the evocations of the "war on terror" don't seem to stem rising doubts about the wisdom of "staying the course" in Iraq.

Hence the appeal of using "Islamo-fascism," as people often call it, which links the current conflict to images from the last "just war": Nazi tanks rolling into Poland and France, spineless collaborators sapping the national will, Winston Churchill glaring defiantly over his cigar, the black ink spreading across the maps of Europe and Asia in Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" newsreels.

...The phrase "Islamo-fascism" has been around for more than 15 years. But it was only after 9/11 that neocons and other hard-liners seized on it to justify a broad-based military campaign against Islamic governments and groups hostile to the West.

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. the mouths of the neocons, "fascist" is just an evocative label for people who are fanatical, intolerant and generally creepy. In fact, that was pretty much what the word stood for among the 1960s radicals, who used it as a one-size-fits-all epithet for the Nixon administration, American capitalism, the police, reserved concert seating and all other varieties of social control that disinclined them to work on Maggie's farm no more.

Back then, conservatives derided the left for using "fascism" so promiscuously. They didn't discover the usefulness of the elastic f-word until the fall of communism left traditional right-wing slurs such as "communistic" and "pinko" sounding quaint.

...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. It effaces the differences among ex-Baathists, Al-Qaida and Shiite mullahs; Chechens and Kashmiris; Hezbollah, Hamas and British-born Asians allegedly making bombs in a London suburb.
[Emphasis added]

Nunberg is a linguistics professor who is very interested in how words are used, and he has found a rich field in how the current regime uses language to keep its policies from being examined too closely. Lord knows they've been successful at that. By equating the terrorists to the hateful Nazis of World War II, the term also implies that Muslims are capable of perpetrating the same kinds of heinous crimes. "They" (where "they" are Muslims) must therefore be defeated in the same way. It does indeed sound like the 21st Century version of the Christian Crusades.

This hardly qualifies as a sensible, thoughtful foreign policy. And, as the op-ed piece I cited yesterday showed, the rest of the world has noticed.


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