`Islamo-fascism' doesn't quite fit America's foes

August 29, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Are we "at war with Islamic fascists"? That's what President Bush said right after British police broke up a plot to blow up aircraft crossing the Atlantic.

The term "Islamo-fascism" is being used with increasing frequency in the blogosphere and in conservative journals as an all-purpose label for extremist Muslims.

The label provides a rallying cry for those who want to cast themselves in the mantle of Winston Churchill fighting World War II. But does raising the specter of Islamic fascists aid the antiterrorist struggle?

Fascism originated in Italy as a mass movement that Benito Mussolini rode to power in 1922. But the term "fascist" is widely thrown around to cover almost any authoritarian movement or bully.

Webster defines fascism as "a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized government control, belligerent nationalism, racism and militarism."

In other words, fascism is a political doctrine. Muslim critics say the president's term defames their religion. Indeed, it would be more accurate to use the term "Islamist fascism" or "fascist Islamism." The distinction is more than a semantic quibble.

Why so? Because it's important to stress the difference between religious Muslims and those who use the religion for political purposes. "Islamism" is the term for a political ideology that misuses religious precepts as a tool to take power. Islamism is similar to the many "isms" of the 20th century, and Islamists are its followers.

Islamism is gaining ground in the Middle East after the failure of Arab socialism and nationalism, and growing Arab cynicism about liberal democracy. In its most radical forms, Islamism espouses a rigid Islam as the basis for an authoritarian system. Radical Islamism is hostile to the West (not just to Western policies) and to non-Muslims. In some virulent Sunni forms, Islamism calls for the death of Muslims who don't toe a particular religious line.

The Taliban are radical Islamists. Those who join al-Qaida are radical Islamists. The label also applies to the present Iranian government.

So it is philosophically apt to apply the term "fascism" to specific Islamist political movements. But does it help the antiterrorist struggle for the president to label it a "war against Islamic fascists"? For several reasons, the answer is a resounding no.

This blanket term confuses the American public about the nature of the struggle it is facing. This is not World War II, where an Adolf Hitler was bent on, and capable of, territorial conquest. This is not a war of standing armies seeking to capture land.

The West is engaged in a long-term fight against disparate radical Islamist groups that are alienated by globalization and the backwardness of their countries.

Lumping all these groups under a single rubric creates the image of one worldwide and powerful jihadi movement, rather than disparate groups whose differences can be exploited. For example, Iranians hate al-Qaida, which considers them to be infidels. And Arab Sunnis will never follow the lead of Shiite Iranians, no matter the current cockiness of Tehran's leaders.

By exaggerating the unity and destructive power of terrorist groups, we play into al-Qaida's hands, says James Fallows in Atlantic Monthly after conversations with 60 of America's top terrorism experts. We bolster Osama bin Laden's ego and reputation. We also blur the strategies for countering such groups as Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, Pakistani's Lashkar-e-Toiba, or British Islamist cells.

Raising the "Islamo-fascist" cry fosters false hope that terrorism can be halted with one great military strike - a Berlin or Hiroshima.

The term "Islamo-fascism" has political wings and plays to the president's mantra of good vs. evil. But it obscures the complex nature of the struggle Americans will face over the next decade. It misleads more than it informs.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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