Monday, September 18, 2006

The Islamo-Fascist Octopus

I was flipping through George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" for another post (forthcoming) when I came across this pithy sentence: "The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable'".

As a child of the new, New Left, I'm all too familiar with what Orwell means. If it was true in 1946, boy how it's true today. When I was in college, a "fascist" could loosely be defined as anyone who played by rules we didn't like, including the dining hall employee who wouldn't dish up that third helping of hash browns.

Once the preserve of the left, fascism has seen a resurgence among right-wingers. The use of the term, that is. How's that for unclear language? That's not un-like the very thing Orwell was complaining about in his not un-influential essay. Clear writing and clear thinking are essential to honest political discourse.

That's why the term "Islamo-fascism" bothers me so much. I'll admit, I used the term once myself (back in early 2005, before it was cool, man), but its appeal has definitely waned. And it's not because I'm worried that Muslims will think that all of Islam is being called fascist (this is clearly untrue) but because it's just such a lazy phrase. As Orwell writes, "[the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

"Islamo-fascism", simply put, is a foolish thought. Like banalities such as "post-modernism" (was it really that hard to come up with an original name?), the phrase speaks chiefly to a lack of imagination among the intelligentsia who coined it. Sure, certain things about Al Qaeda-style "Islam" could be called fascist, but it feels too much like an old-fashioned word being duct-taped onto a new phenomenon.

As it is generally understood, fascism consists of authoritarianism coupled with brutality and the suppression of freedom. In this sense, Al Qaeda and the pre-9/11 Taliban fit the model well. But fascism is more than just the enforced lack of freedom. Or it was. And, to be honest to the language, it still should be.

Fascism is characterized by extreme centralized authoritarianism, but it is also defined by chauvinistic nationalism, ethnic bigotry, collusion between the state and corporations and suspicion of religion (or any other possible competitor for loyalty). Understood as "something not desirable", fascism fits perfectly with the violent Islamism of Bin Laden and his kind. But dig any deeper than that and the comparison falls apart.

The "Islamo-fascists" are certainly interested in establishing authoritarian power over the Muslim world, and Bin Laden's caliphate would be worse news for them than it would be for us. But there's no state structure. There's no appeal to nationalism. There's little evidence of any economic aspect to the aspirations of the "Islamo-fascists".

I'm not for a moment arguing that these guys aren't as bad as they seem. I just think that we shouldn't be lazy about how we describe them. Is a recycled European ideology from 70 years ago really the best we can do? Shouldn't we be a little more precise in defining what promises to be a grave threat to Western and Muslim societies alike for the foreseeable future?

The threat of Islamic terrorism is relatively new and unprecedented. It deserves a new term, just as combating it demands a new approach. Only then can we make the Islamo-fascist octopus sing its swan song.
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