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 Words in Wartime 

November 11, 2004 
The war on terror, like all wars, has claimed language as one of its casualties. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.As a name for the ill-defined enemy, it has given us the ugly and silly coinage “Islamofascism.” What, pray tell, is that?

This label is used not only by Rush Limbaugh and neoconservatives, but also by some pundits who usually choose their words with care, such as Christopher Hitchens. Yet nobody seems to have defined it. It’s more a bit of invective than a useful term of identification.

The Left has been using fascism as a cussword since the days of Hitler and Mussolini. It was already very old and weary by the time it was annexed to Islam. But what’s fascistic about al-Qaeda, unless fascist just means a form of politics I don’t like, which doesn’t take us very far toward understanding what it is?

After all, nobody calls himself an Islamofascist. The original Fascists, led by Mussolini, called themselves Fascists, just as Communists called themselves Communists. The American Heritage Dictionary gives as its primary definition of fascism “a philosophy or system of government that advocates or exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with an ideology of belligerent nationalism.”

Not very helpful. It’s more an expression of disapproval than a dispassionate and objective definition. And it hardly applies to al-Qaeda, which doesn’t seem to combine “state and business leadership.” What grounds are there for thinking al-Qaeda aspires to “dictatorship”? Its chief announced goal — which we have little reason to doubt — is to drive the U.S. Government out of the Middle East. You may reject both that goal and the methods used to achieve it, but that doesn’t make it fascistic, unless you’re using fascism as an all-purpose synonym for nasty.

And what is the “extreme right”? The Left generally stands for socialism, dictatorial or democratic; but the term right-wing has no such single or consistent meaning. It’s applied, usually abusively, to various political systems that can’t be reconciled to each other. Conservatives, neoconservatives, capital-F Fascists, monarchists, constitutionalists, libertarians, and even anarchists are all called right-wing, their only common denominator being their hostility to socialism. Some socialists label even liberals right-wing.

[Breaker quote: Just what is 'Islamofascism'?]Islamofascism seems designed to produce semantic frustration. It should be possible to understand al-Qaeda’s purpose without approving its terrorist tactics. After all, any cause, however noble, may be advanced, and also compromised, by inhuman methods. This basic distinction seems oddly hard to grasp. The United States has a grim record of bombing enemy cities and killing their civilian inhabitants, yet few Americans seriously ask whether these grisly means were justified by their alleged ends.

Even today, few Americans are raising such questions about the war in progress in Iraq. How many civilians have died in a war that is supposed to be bringing that country democracy and other blessings? We aren’t getting reliable figures; our government isn’t publishing them. Estimates run as high as 100,000; defenders of the war call this a wild exaggeration, but would it disturb them much if it were accurate? At what point — if any — would they agree that the human price of defeating “Islamofascism” is just too high? Can’t we at least have an official body count of the innocent noncombatants? Just an estimate? If not, why not?

And this, I think, is the point of this bogus label. Just as all political scandals are now awkwardly suffixed -gate, as in Watergate, so all foreign enemies can be equated with the World War II-era enemy by being plastered with the suffix -fascism. This implies that they are absolute evil, to be destroyed at any cost. Whatever it takes.

In the same spirit, all resistance fighters are now called “terrorists” and all American troops “heroes.” No heroism can be ascribed to the enemy forces, even if, in their own minds, they are giving their lives to fight a foreign invader — not to establish anything that can be called fascism.

In other words, Islamofascism is nothing but an empty propaganda term. And wartime propaganda is usually, if not always, crafted to produce hysteria, the destruction of any sense of proportion. Such words, undefined and unmeasured, are used by people more interested in making us lose our heads than in keeping their own.

The rest of the world hasn’t picked up this word. Undistracted by our propaganda, it sees clearly what the U.S. Government is doing in the Middle East.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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