August 11, 2006

Neocon "Islamic fascist" designation spreads to government

I have an addition to the assorted linguistic thoughts that occurred to me during my recent experience with air travel immediately following discovery of a huge terrorist plot against civil aviation.

While on the plane I read in the Oakland Tribune about President Bush's response to the announcement of the foiled terrorist plot. The linguistic point that interested me was his used of the term "Islamic fascists".

This is familiar neoconservative terminology. The phrase "Islamic fascism" gets over 200,000 Google hits now; the one-word version "Islamofascism" gets nearly 900,000. The terminology is about sixteen years old: as far as I know, neither version of the term was used before the publication of an article by Malise Ruthven in The Independent on September 8, 1990. The locution began to spread mostly after Christopher Hitchens started talking about Islamic fascism, during his journey from being primarily a Trotskyist to being primarily an enemy of Muslim theocracy.

Anthony Clark Arend at Georgetown University notes that the phrase has crept into Bush administration's vocabulary very recently, starting last May 25, and he invites comment on the significance of this lexical change: "I will be interested in seeing how other commentators analyze this new language from the Administration." I will not indulge in political analysis, but I have just one remark about the lexical semantics as I understand it.

Arend may be right that the Bush administration is seeking a connection to the politics of the 1940s to make its conception of the present anti-terrorism struggle as a war just like the 1939-1945 world war against the Axis powers. But it does not strike me as by any means inappropriate for the neoconservatives to use the term fascism in this context.

The word stereotypically connotes a combination of complete control of all institutions by a highly militarized authoritarian state headed by a charismatic leader. It is used for political systems that are radical, totalitarian, corporatist, and chauvinist. It is quintessentially opposed to liberalism — not liberalism in the (now much more common) sense that Geoff Nunberg's latest book talks about, where it is a kind of Republican term of abuse, but the older and more technical sense: individual rights, free-market economics, and a minimum of control by authorities of how people should live, worship, trade, interact, or express themselves.

"Fascism" is not a bad term to pick for the kind of nightmare that would probably result if a global Islamic caliphate were to be established by the sort of Waziristan cave denizens who issue taped messages encouraging disaffected young Pakistanis in Britain to go out and blow themselves and a few hundred passengers to pieces on a train or a plane to glorify Allah. (Yes, I despise this corrupt cult of mass slaughter and theocratic bigotry. Did you think I would be all latte-sipping gooey-relativist about it?) The opposition to individual rights, free markets, choice in lifestyle, tolerance in religion, and expression of dissent of the jihadists is plangent.

So it may indeed be true that right now the Bush administration has a desire to forge a rhetorical connection to the struggle of the Allies against Mussolini and Hitler; but independently of any such desire, the term "Islamic fascism" seems to me perfectly reasonable one to use when characterizing the movement in question.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 11, 2006 08:16 PM