Who are you calling a fascist?

GEOFFREY NUNBERG is a linguist at UC Berkeley's School of Information. His new book, "Talking Right," is about politics and language.

IT WASN’T THE first time President Bush had described the United States as at war with “Islamic fascists.” But coming in his remarks about the arrests of two dozen terror suspects in Britain last week, the phrase signaled that the administration was shopping for new language to defend its policies at a time when the evocations of the “war on terror” don’t seem to stem rising doubts about the wisdom of “staying the course” in Iraq.

Hence the appeal of using “Islamo-fascism,” as people often call it, which links the current conflict to images from the last “just war”: Nazi tanks rolling into Poland and France, spineless collaborators sapping the national will, Winston Churchill glaring defiantly over his cigar, the black ink spreading across the maps of Europe and Asia in Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” newsreels.

Squint in just the right way and the parallels are easy to see. In a speech at the National Press Club last month, GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania raised the specter of the Islamists’ dreams of “a new, global caliphate where Islamic fascism will rule mankind,” and he reminded the audience that “we had no problem understanding that Nazism and fascism were evil racist empires. We must now bring the same clarity to the war against Islamic fascism.”


In that picture of things, last week’s arrests in Britain are connected to the Iraq occupation as immediately as the London Blitz was to Stalingrad during the last great anti-fascist struggle. Those were the connections Vice President Dick Cheney was presuming when he said that Ned Lamont’s victory over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary would embolden the “Al Qaeda types” who are trying to “break the will of the American people.”

Actually, the phrase “Islamo-fascism” has been around for more than 15 years. But it was only after 9/11 that neocons and other hard-liners seized on it to justify a broad-based military campaign against Islamic governments and groups hostile to the West.

Actually, the term “Islamo-fascism,” if taken literally, doesn’t make sense. The “fascist” part might fit Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with its militaristic nationalism, its secret police and its silly peaked officers’ hats. But there was nothing “Islamo” about the regime; Iraq’s Baathists tried to make the state the real object of the people’s devotion.

That’s why it’s odd to describe repressive theocracies like the Taliban as fascist -- just as it would be for Savonarola’s Florence, John Calvin’s Geneva or the Spain of the Inquisition, all of which reduced the state to an instrument for enforcing God’s will. The Islamic world doesn’t seem to offer very fertile soil for fascist cults of the state. In a 2005 Pew Global Attitudes survey, majorities in most Muslim nations said their loyalty to Islam came before their loyalty as citizens.

But in the mouths of the neocons, “fascist” is just an evocative label for people who are fanatical, intolerant and generally creepy. In fact, that was pretty much what the word stood for among the 1960s radicals, who used it as a one-size-fits-all epithet for the Nixon administration, American capitalism, the police, reserved concert seating and all other varieties of social control that disinclined them to work on Maggie’s farm no more.

Back then, conservatives derided the left for using “fascism” so promiscuously. They didn’t discover the usefulness of the elastic f-word until the fall of communism left traditional right-wing slurs such as “communistic” and “pinko” sounding quaint.


Time was when right-wingers called the ACLU a bunch of communist sympathizers. Now Bill O’Reilly labels the group and others as fascist, with a cavalier disregard for the word’s meaning that would have done Jerry Rubin proud. Of course, it’s the point of symbolic words such as “fascist” to ease the burden of thought -- as Walter Lippmann observed, they “assemble emotions after they’ve been detached from their ideas.” And it may be that Americans are particularly vulnerable to using “fascism” sloppily, never having experienced the real thing close up.

But like “terror,” and “evil” before it, “Islamic fascism” has the effect of reducing a complex story to a simple fable. It effaces the differences among ex-Baathists, Al Qaeda and Shiite mullahs; Chechens and Kashmiris; Hezbollah, Hamas and British-born Asians allegedly making bombs in a London suburb. Yes, there are millions of people in the Muslim world who wish the U.S. ill, and some of them are pretty creepy about it. But that doesn’t mean they’re all of a single mind and purpose, or that a blow against any one of them is a blow against the others. As Tolstoy might have put it, every creep is creepy in his own way.