Are we "at war with Islamic fascists"? That's what President Bush said right after British police broke up a plot to blow up aircraft crossing the Atlantic.
The term Islamo-fascism is being used with increasing frequency in the blogosphere and in conservative journals as an all-purpose label for extremist Muslims. It's certainly a convenience for politicians - a great sound bite to rally voters by giving the enemy a concrete image.
The label provides a rallying cry for those who want to cast themselves in the mantle of Churchill fighting World War II. But does raising the specter of "Islamic fascists" aid the antiterrorist struggle?
First, let's examine the accuracy of the phrase.
Fascism originated in Italy as a mass movement that Mussolini rode to power in 1922. But the term fascist is widely thrown around to cover almost any authoritarian movement or bully.
Webster defines fascism as "a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized government control, belligerent nationalism, racism and militarism."
In other words, fascism is a political doctrine. Muslim critics say the president's term defames their religion. Indeed, it would be more accurate to use the term Islamist facism or fascist Islamism. The distinction is more than a semantic quibble.
Why so? Because it's important to stress the difference between religious Muslims and those who use the religion for political purposes. Islamism is the term for a political ideology that misuses religious precepts as a tool to take power. Islamism is similar to the many "ism"s of the 20th century, and Islamists are its followers.
Islamism is gaining ground in the Middle East after the failure of Arab socialism and nationalism, and growing Arab cynicism about liberal democracy. In its most radical forms, Islamism espouses a rigid Islam as the basis for an authoritarian system. Radical Islamism is hostile to the West (not just to Western policies) and to non-Muslims. In some virulent Sunni forms, Islamism calls for the death of Muslims who don't toe a particular religious line.
The Taliban are radical Islamists. Those who join al-Qaida are radical Islamists. The label also applies to the present Iranian government, which suppresses political opposition, squeezes Iran's economy, and stirs up a poisonous brew of populist nationalism and virulent hostility toward Israel and Jews. During the last Iranian election campaign, some reformist candidates warned that presidential candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's populism could lead to "fascism."
So it is philosophically apt to apply the term fascism to specific Islamist political movements. But does it help the antiterrorist struggle for the president to label it a "war against Islamic fascists"?
For several reasons, the answer is a resounding no.
This blanket term confuses the American public about the nature of the struggle they are facing. This is not World War II, where an Adolf Hitler was bent on, and capable of, territorial conquest. This is not a war of standing armies seeking to capture land.
The West is engaged in a long-term fight against disparate radical Islamist groups that are alienated by globalization and the backwardness of their countries. In the words of Steven Cook, Mideast expert for the Council on Foreign Relations: "There are different groups with different political interpretations of Islam and different goals. There is no real address for 'Islamo-fascism."'
Lumping all these groups under a single rubric creates the image of one worldwide and powerful jihadi movement, rather than disparate groups whose differences can be exploited. For example, Iranians hate al-Qaida, which considers them to be infidels. And Arab Sunnis will never follow the lead of Shiite Iranians, no matter the current cockiness of Tehran's leaders.
By exaggerating the unity and destructive power of terrorist groups, we play into al-Qaida's hands, says James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly after conversations with 60 of America's top terrorist experts. We bolster Osama bin Laden's ego and reputation (along with the inflated self-image of Ahmadinejad.)
We also blur the strategies for countering such groups as Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, Pakistani's Lashkar-e-toiba, or British Islamist cells. Such strategies differ by country, and involve diplomacy and police work as much as military action.
Raising the "Islamo-fascist" cry fosters false hope that terrorism can be halted with one great military strike - a Berlin or Hiroshima. I keep getting e-mails suggesting we can win if we bomb Tehran. On the contrary, al-Qaida would get thousands of new recruits who, while they despise Shiites, would join up because America was killing Muslims. In the meantime, the Iranian regime would grow stronger. There is still a chance to change Iran's direction through diplomacy - backed by carrots and (economic) sticks.
The term "Islamo-fascism" has political wings and plays to the president's mantra of good vs. evil. But it obscures the complex nature of the struggle Americans will face over the next decade. It misleads more than it informs.