In the days following 9/11, Americans across the ideological spectrum united in support of increased protections against terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But a handful of conservatives used the attacks to promote division among Americans and their allies abroad. For example, conservative writer Stephen Schwartz employed the term “Islamofascism” in a Weekly Standard article to describe the ideology of America’s enemies in its newly minted “war on terror.” Unfortunately, the moniker stuck with many prominent conservatives. Right-wing pundits, policy makers, and journalists started using the term, and even President Bush has employed it to describe terrorist networks in the Middle East.
That’s a shame, because Islamofascism is a misleading and harmful label: Instead of correctly identifying America’s enemies, it inaccurately describes modern terrorism, wrongly demonizes Islam as a violent religion, and dangerously obscures America’s real national security threats.
Here are the top four reasons why conservatives should stop using the term Islamofascism, and an explanation of what ideas and policies they should be promoting instead.
Islamofascism misrepresents modern terrorism and Islam.
It makes little sense to use the word “fascism” to describe today’s terrorism threat. Al Qaeda and other 21st century terrorists do not rely on the nation-state concept that defined 20th century fascism. Whereas fascists used violence to create control out of disorder, contemporary terrorists derive ammunition from chaos.
Nor is it appropriate to employ a term that strongly implies that Islam and terror are synonymous. At first glance, one might agree with conservative New York Times columnist William Safire in his assessment of the label: “The compound defines those terrorists who profess a religious mission while embracing totalitarian methods and helps separate them from devout Muslims who want no part of terrorist means.” But most who use the term fail to make this crucial distinction; instead, they employ Islamofascism to imply that Islam and terror are fundamentally entwined. National Review columnist Deroy Murdock, for instance, supplements his case that Saddam Hussein supported Islamofascism—and therefore could be tied to Al Qaeda—by pointing out that Hussein “began to pray publicly to boost his ‘mosque-cred.’” David Horowitz, known for his fallacy-ridden attacks on academia, has organized “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” on college campuses across the country and has encouraged students to show the film “Islam: What the West Needs to Know.” According to Horowitz’s website, the movie depicts “the violent, expansionary ideology of the so called ‘religion of peace’ that seeks the destruction or subjugation of other faiths, cultures, and systems of government.”
Despite the claims of some of its supporters, Islamofascism is not used “sparingly or precisely.” The label has been slapped onto groups and individuals as diverse as Hezbollah, Saddam Hussein, and the Saudi government—denigrating Islam as a violent religion in the process. Theologians recognize Islam as a peaceful religion that shares theological roots and principles with Judaism and Christianity. Religious leaders such as Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as political leaders such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and President Bush, have all publicly stated that Islam is a peaceful religion that warrants respect.
Islamofascism oversimplifies the challenge.
No one expects any different from the likes of Bill O’Reilly, but when influential political figures like President Bush use the term, Islamofascism takes on a level of significance in the national discourse that must be addressed. By suggesting that there is a unified force working against American interests, proponents of the term oversimplify an extremely diverse, multifaceted collection of groups. Simply put, the concept of a unified Muslim plot against America is a fabrication that distracts Americans from the actual challenges we face. While some Islamic groups in the Middle East do threaten the security of the United States, many do not, and their motivations, goals, methods, and levels of radicalism are extremely varied.
Political groups in the Middle East such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have varied national and international political interests that cannot be reduced to the sound-bite level. Each group has distinct political goals and operates within the unique political system of its own region. Harper’s Magazine Washington Editor Ken Silverstein points out that although many Islamic political parties maintain ties with militant factions, “it is not entirely accurate to describe them … as fundamentalist or backward or even conservative.” The term Islamofascism attempts to organize these and other ideologically and methodologically disparate political groups into one easily identifiable clan—and in the process manufactures a false sense of a unified U.S. enemy. Lumping such groups together under the banner of Islamofascism obscures our understanding of these unique groups’ distinct beliefs and methods and hampers our ability to effectively understand each.
Islamofascism poisons meaningful discourse.
There’s no question that the term Islamofascism is offensive to Muslim Americans. According to Douglas Streusand, a professor of Islamic history at the Marine Corps Staff College, “Most Muslims interpret Islamofascism as a slur.” Spencer Ackerman, a journalist who has written extensively on terrorism, observed such reactions in Dearborn, Mich., which has the second-highest Arab population in America. “Practically everyone I’ve spoken with in Dearborn,” he wrote, “from oncologists to students to clerics, brings up the term unprompted to explain how they feel themselves under collective suspicion from the Justice Department, a tone they feel Bush has set himself by using the phrase.” With such a phrase burned in the forefront of their political consciousnesses, it’s no surprise that most Muslim Americans believe it is more difficult to be a Muslim in the United States after 9/11. Instead of welcoming Muslim citizens into the greater American dialogue, labels like Islamofascism push them to the margins.
This effect isn’t surprising. As Nation columnist Katha Pollitt points out, “‘Islamo-fascism’ looks like an analytic term, but really it’s an emotional one, intended to get us to think less and fear more.” Intellectually, Islamofascism doesn’t mean much, but it does pack an emotional punch: It remarkets a complex threat as an easily defined enemy that is united against American values. The term underscores an “us-versus-them” mentality that typifies conservatives’ approach to contemporary terrorism, and positions anyone who objects to such polarizing language as pro-terrorism or sympathetic to radical Islam.
Islamofascism hurts our national security interests.
Since this us-versus-them formulation obscures and inhibits meaningful debate on the nexus of Islam and anti-American terrorism, it harms our own national security interests by preventing policymakers from accurately addressing America’s security situation.
The term has entered popular usage precisely at a time when U.S. foreign policy would benefit most from dialogue with as many groups from the Middle East as possible. As Pollitt observes, “‘Islamo-fascism’ enrages to no purpose the dwindling number of Muslims who don’t already hate us.” Although the simplicity of the term may seem helpful at first, it contributes nothing but confusion and vitriol to discussions of American national security interests. Policy makers should eschew such harmful overgeneralizations and focus instead on what we actually know about radical terrorist organizations, Muslim or otherwise.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has shown that groups that begin as violent and radical political parties can moderate if they are permitted to participate in legitimate political channels. Indeed, the least effective way to moderate a violent political group is to cut it off by unconditionally declaring it an enemy. Of course, some groups with radical millennial agendas have little interest in political participation, but the only intelligent way to build security and encourage peace is to consider groups case by case.
Islamofascism can be replaced.
We certainly need language to describe and analyze our challenges, but Islamofascism isn’t helping. Fortunately, there are ways to talk about and respond to terrorism that don’t fall into the same traps. Ackerman has suggested that we use the term “anti-Western Salafist jihadism” for its “relative precision.” Although it may not be catchy, the subsequent blog discussion confirms that it’s a good first step toward meaningful consideration of the words we use to describe our battles.
Furthermore, instead of scaring and insulting people with a mindless and divisive campaign, those who insist on using the term Islamofascism should instead join the rest of America as it attempts to prevent terrorism and encourage peaceful, democratic societies through homeland security and national security policies that effectively protect our borders and people; intelligence and research that accurately analyzes the true nature and capacities of both terrorist groups and Muslim communities; determined diplomacy that presses for peaceful solutions to difficult conflicts; and resurgent efforts to promote democracy, openness, tolerance, and prosperity through peaceful means.
Annika Carlson is special assistant to the director of Campus Progress, and Sarah Dreier is part of Center for American Progress’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.
Click here for Campus Progress’s “Islamo-fascism Awareness Week” response kit.