The Republicans’ deployment of the term “Islamofascism” to define the enemy in the Bush administration’s war on terror is clearly an attempt to improve their prospects in the midterm elections. By conflating contemporary terrorist threats with fearsome historical enemies, the GOP seeks to divert attention from the increasingly unpopular occupation of Iraq.
But the adoption of this term also reveals the Bush administration’s ideological disarray and the Republicans’ political desperation.
Many pundits trace the neologism to historian Malise Ruthven, who used it in a September 1990 article in the London Independent. But Ruthven used it to describe authoritarian Muslim states like Morocco, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Stephen Schwartz, the neocon author of Two Faces of Islam, insists that he is the first Westerner to use the term in the contemporary context.
But the term gained its greatest currency in the lexicon of pro-war progressives Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman and Ron Rosenbaum, to name three. They argued that the totalitarian aspirations of theocratic groups like al-Qaeda threatened the libertarian freedoms that are the legacy of the Enlightenment.
These polemicists were less concerned (at least, originally) with the geo-strategic issues that preoccupied the administration’s neocon warmongers, so their arguments had some resonance on the secular left. After all, how could progressives oppose the theocratic agenda of the religious right within the United States and not reject similar developments elsewhere?
In Hitchens’ last column for The Nation, he wrote “the theocratic and absolutist side in this war hopes to win it by exporting it here, which in turn means that we have no expectation of staying out of the war, and no right to be neutral in it.”
By framing the war on terror as a struggle between the liberal soldiers of the Enlightenment and the dark forces of theocracy, these progressives gave cover to warmongers with rationales much less lofty. In fact, one of the major ironies is that their support has aligned them with right wing religious groups with their own theocratic agendas.
Until recently, the Bush administration and its corps of supplicants failed to utilize the arguments of these pro-war progressives because of their anti-religious logic. Their hostility to religion, theoretically, should cause them to reject the president’s notion of an America divinely guided to democratize the world.
But progressive supporters of the Iraq invasion apparently are willing to tolerate Bush’s Messianic conceits. Even though the president describes the invasion and occupation of Iraq in increasingly Manichean terms with theological overtones, the secularist Hitchens remains an undaunted supporter.
Bush strategists likely reasoned they could co-opt the term “Islamofascist” for their own purposes since the pundits who popularized the term seem unconcerned with consistent political principle. What’s more, the word helps the GOP frame its only remaining argument to convince the U.S. public that the war in Iraq makes sense. Our fire-breathing enemies may live in different countries, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, this line of argument runs, but they are all one: Islamofascists.
Many commentators have weighed in on the damage done to historical understanding by falsely linking the state fascism of Germany, Italy and Spain to the theocratic prescripts of some radical Islamic movements. Several Muslim groups also have criticized the use of the neologism as a gratuitous insult to their religion. Why is there Islamofascism and no Germano-, Italo-, or Hispanic fascism, they ask?
Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the AP that Bush’s use of the term “contributes to a rising level of hostility to Islam and the American-Muslim community.”
Many also find hypocrisy in hearing a term containing “fascist” being uttered by officials from an administration that ignores international law to invade a sovereign nation, tortures prisoners of war at secret sites and imprisons people without trial or evidence.
Certainly, there are troubling tendencies among the radical Muslims who increasingly see the United States as the enemy. Caught in colonialism’s lingering legacy, they have gripes similar to the “communist” and “nationalist” dissidents before them. In those days, United States ignored their concerns and subverted their secular leadership. “Godless communism” was the enemy, so we encouraged piety.
Americans now are living with the results of that failed policy, having apparently learned little. Deploying focus group-tested words for political advantage, the Bush administration is seeding fields of antagonists yet to come.
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.