Verbal Front in the Terror War: 'Islamofascism'

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Linguist Geoff Nunberg on 'Fresh Air' in 2003:

Listen: Modern Fascists?

Last Thursday, as news was spreading around the world that British police had foiled a plot to blow up airplanes bound from London to the United States, President Bush referred to the suspects as "Islamic fascists."

The term has been described as an attempt by the White House to be more specific when describing an enemy that it has previously described simply as "terrorists."

The term has angered many in the Muslim world, who see it as tarring their entire religion — and everyone who practices it — as fascists. I think it's despicable," Middle East expert Juan Cole says.

"Linking Islam… with a pejorative term such as fascism is extremely unfair. In fact, it is a form of racism."

And it reminds Cole of another inflammatory remark President Bush made, just after Sept. 11, 2001, when he characterized America's war against terrorism as a "crusade." Its implications of Christians going to war against Muslims alarmed a lot of people.

This time, the president was more careful. Johns Hopkins Middle East Studies chair Fouad Adjami, a Shiite Muslim, says the White House actually consulted him.

"It was actually floated past me, I mean people asked me what I thought," Adiami said, adding that the people in question were from the White House. And, he says, he didn't see the harm in the term.

"I know people think it's offensive, but what's the offense here? There are people waiting to be offended. They want to be offended, they're eager to be offended."

President Bush didn't invent the term. 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.

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.

But how can a small group of alleged terrorists living in London be Islamic Fascists? Doesn't the term fascism imply a central government, whipping the populace into a nationalistic frenzy?

Historian Paul Berman says it has happened before.

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."

In 1920s Egypt, a group called the Muslim Brotherhood formed with the mission of creating a unified Islamic theocracy and crushing the Zionist movement. The group schooled many young radicals, including Ayman al-Zawahiri — now the No. 2 man in al-Qaida and considered the brains of the group.

That's why Paul Berman says President Bush's use of the term "Islamic Fascists" to describe al-Qaida-influenced terrorists is apt. He says, "It can give us first a sense of the scale of the danger we're facing. And also, by seeing these points of similarity, we can be alerted to ways to struggle against these movements."

As many have noted since Sept. 11, it's a struggle being waged as much in the media as on the ground. The night after President Bush made his remark, Al Jazeera devoted an hour of programming reacting to it. Listeners who called in said they were infuriated.

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