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On the Term “Islamo-Fascism”: Part 1

The war in which we are currently engaged confuses us, in part because many will not admit it is a war. We do not know what to call it. Nor do we know what to call the self-declared enemy who has been attacking us in one form or another for some twenty-five years, ever more visibly and dangerously since September 11, 2001, with subsequent events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Spain, London, Bombay, Bali, Paris, Lebanon, and Israel. Those there are who insist that it is not a “war” at all but perhaps, at best, a police issue, no big problem. Others contend that it is a result of American or Western expansionism so that its cure is simply for us to return to our frontiers and be content with what we have. If we do this withdrawal, every threat will immediately cease at this point. No, in another view, it is due to poverty and oppression, even though most of the perpetrators of the war are quite rich. Yet another interpretation is that this turmoil stems from a very small minority with no relation to national or religious origins, a kind of floating international brigade of bandits, like the Mafia, out for their own profit and glory. The variants on these themes are almost infinite.

What names should we use that will accurately define and designate the cause? Calling things by their right names is the first requirement of reality; refusing to do so, the first cause of confusion, if not defeat. At first, we were told that the war is against something called “terrorism.” Its perpetrators were logically called “terrorists.” It was considered “hate-language” to call them anything else. However, we find listed on no map a place called “Terroritoria,” where said “terrorists” otherwise dwell in peace plotting our demise. It has no capital, no military uniform for its mostly invisible troops, no rules of combat. In this designation, some difficult ensues when we try to identify or designate a group that just wants to “terrorize” others, as if that is an explanation. Some may like to travel or to fish for pleasure; they like “terror” for terror’s sake, just a question of taste.

Of course, this membership in a supposed organization called “Terror International” is not what the known “terrorists” claim for themselves. They look on this designation with contempt since it misses the whole nature of what they think that they are doing. But the term “terrorism” seems temporarily useful because it avoids the politics of naming more carefully just who these actual men (and women) are who carry out these, to us, seemingly senseless bombings. Are they so “senseless” after all? That is, do they have their own rationale and are we intellectually willing to face what it is?

All along, as a chief tactic of the “terrorists,” we have had “suicide bombers.” “Suicide bombing” is, thus far, the main delivery system of the “terrorists.” It is remarkably effective in creating immediate chaos. We have almost forgotten how used we have become to this utterly corrupt practice that undermines, and seeks to undermine, the very basis of any possible civilization opposed to it. Those who practice “suicide bombing,” (it is a once in a lifetime occupation, to be sure), called themselves “martyrs.” They are, when successful, treated as heroes by other “terrorists” and their admirers. Thus, the same action is called in one political zone “terrorism,” while, in another, it is called “martyrdom.” What do words mean?

To perform this switch of meaning, of course, the “terrorists” had also to call the “victims” of “suicide bombers,” not innocent objects of terrorism, as we call them, but guilty opponents of the cause for which “terrorism” really stands, its religious mission in the world. Even when people of one’s own religion are killed, they are said, theologically, like the “suicide bombers” themselves, to have been done a favor in reaching heaven more quickly.

So what language do we use to speak of this horrendous situation? We also hear used the word “Islamicist,” or “Islamism.” We hear “Jihadists,” or holy warriors. We are struck with the fierceness with which the “terrorists” themselves reject being called “fascists” or, what they also are, “terrorists.” They sense that the term, “Islamo-fascism,” or any of its variants, undermines or disparages, what, in their own minds, is the legitimacy or morality of their “cause.” We have here an issue that forces us to consider the very roots of the “terrorists” understanding of their own motivations.

The fact that almost all the “terrorists,” no matter their country of birth, have Muslim origins, moreover, brings us up against our own ecumenical or liberal theories which do not allow us to “profile” or stigmatize or even accuse of bad motives those who do carry out the killings. The argument goes: All religions are “peaceful.” Islam is a religion. Therefore, Islam is peaceful. This is not an historical syllogism that explains the actual record of the expansion of Islam from its beginning in Arabia till its reaching Tours in the eighth century and Vienna in the sixteenth. Nor does it explain the violence and law used within Muslim states to prevent any expression of faith or philosophy that does not conform to their own understanding of the Koran. This earlier expansion was almost exclusively by military conquest, often extremely brutal, against Christian, Persian, Hindu, or other lands.

More recently, the term “Islamo-fascism” has been coined in an effort to describe the source and nature of “terrorism.” I want to examine the appropriateness of this term, as I think it serves to get at the core of the problem. Is “Islamo-fascism” really accurate for what the reality is? Initially, the term obviously is not a product of Islamic thinkers thinking of themselves, though some more recent Muslim thinkers have studied the Marxists and the fascists. No Imam in Iran or Egypt, however, suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night and shouts, “That’s it! I am an Islamo-fascist; why did I not think of that before?” No pious youth in Mecca reads the Collected Works of Benito Mussolini and muses to himself, “Yes, this is what Mohammed was about in the Koran.”

Rather the term comes from Western politicians and writers. They are desperately seeking a word or expression that they can use, one that avoids suggesting that the war in fact has religious roots, as the people who are doing the attacking claim it does. To say that war has “religious” roots violates a code, a constitutional principle. Wars are political not religious. Therefore, their explanation must be political, must arise from modern political science. Hobbes, “where are you when we need you?” Religion cannot be a serious motivation, especially over the centuries. We must look elsewhere. Only social “science” can explain this phenomenon.

“Fascism,” in this context, thus becomes a handy term. We thought that we were rid of that menace after World War II, of course. Compared to Marxism and Nazism, it was, in fact, the mildest of the ideologies of our recent time. Many of its features, originally designed for other situations, can appear to apply to what is going on in our “terrorist”-infected world. This happy analytic result, it is said, justifies us in joining “Islam” and “fascism” together in a way that apparently absolves most of Islam of anything to do with the problem or any responsibility for themselves doing anything about it. At the same time, it demonstrates the usefulness of western political science in understanding modern movements. If science cannot understand something, it cannot be understood, as it were.

If for no other reason than the sake of clarity, let us think our way further through this murky issue of what to call what we are dealing with. We have to call it something because it is something. It will not “go away” peacefully any time soon. Aristotle indicated that the first issue in political things is to describe accurately the nature of a regime under scrutiny. What exactly is it? This seemingly simple explanatory effort can itself be quite dangerous, quite personally dangerous, as Muslims who question their own roots soon find out. Many powerful, even many weak, governments do not like to be called what they scientifically are. Moreover, a distinction can be found between what some political thing is and what we are allowed to call it because of our own philosophical or political positions. The political control of language, as George Orwell suggested, is itself an instrument of tyranny. Moreover, such a thing as political philosophy exists even apart from any actual regime and what it allows us to call it.

We should by now be used to totalitarian regimes insisting on calling themselves “republics” or “democracies” and punishing anyone who refuses to accept a government’s own definition of itself. Today, the accurate use of language, apparently something guaranteed in our amendments, is a mine field. We have something like “hate crimes” whose effect is in fact to prevent us from naming exactly what we are dealing with. Philosophy in these circumstances is driven underground. The phenomenon of philosophy being driven underground was, as Leo Strauss once remarked, a major issue within medieval Islamic philosophy.

Part two of this essay will appear on Monday. Originally published online by Ignatius Insight on August 15, 2006.

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