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Term Limits

During the week of Oct. 22-26, David Horowitz and an alliance of conservative organizations sponsored a series of lectures and protests at universities around the United States to draw attention to “Islamofascism.” Just in time for this “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” Christopher Hitchens penned a defense of the term. This is ironic, given Hitchens’s stated admiration for George Orwell, who said in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that fascism “has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”

The word “Islamofascism” never had any meaning, except as a catch-all for whatever regimes and groups the word’s users wished to make targets for military action. Hitchens is also well known for his tendentious misunderstandings of all forms of religion, likening theism to a supernatural totalitarian regime and attributing all of the crimes of political totalitarianism to religion. It was therefore appropriate that he should promote the term “Islamofascism” since it defines a religious movement in the language of secular totalitarianism.

The key problem with the label is its stunning ignorance of both fascism and jihadism. Fascism was a specific, secular, modernizing ideology—what historian Stanley Payne has called “revolutionary hyper-nationalism”—that emerged out of Europe’s ruins in WWI. It was focused above all on exalting the nation. Search in vain for any resemblance to a transnational, religious movement that claims to seek the restoration of a theocratic state. In art and architecture, fascists were champions of modernism; jihadists clearly have no such interests. The valorization of war and death that Hitchens cites in his defense as proof of the similarity between the two is common to all armed revolutionary movements.

In addition to its rhetorical and historical errors, the designation reveals interventionists’ monomania about the lessons of WWII. Every threat must be likened to Nazism as much as possible, and every crisis must be another Munich 1938. Historical myopia of this sort leads to strategic blindness, as the endless use of WWII analogies to rationalize the Iraq War has abundantly shown.

Like the pejorative term from which it derives, Islamofascism means whatever the person deploying it wants it to mean. It is ultimately not an attempt at description or explanation but a demon word designed to generate visceral, irrational reaction. This is precisely the opposite of the careful, deliberate, and informed responses we need to cultivate. And since it obscures the actual nature of jihadism, it is not simply a crime against the English language but a dangerous source of misunderstanding.

As Marxists once used the term “fascist” to vilify everyone to their right as a means of wielding influence, Horowitz and his allies use “Islamofascist” to group together the many regimes and groups they wish to cast as a cohesive, united enemy, conflating mutually hostile forces into a single, undifferentiated mass.

The campus protests against Islamofascism Awareness Week have been no less absurd, with critics flinging charges of racism and “Islamophobia.” As intellectually vacuous moral bludgeons go, Islamophobia is almost in a class by itself. Those deploying the term try to make any attempt to criticize any aspect of Islam taboo. Like Islamofascism, the charge is meant to confuse listeners, chastise opponents, and end discussion.

“Islamophobia” is a word favored by both jihadist apologists and the conventional enforcers of “tolerance” and opponents of “hate speech.” Attributing acts of violence to Islam, criticizing practices in Islamic countries, or even associating the name of Islam with crimes carried out in its name draw the charge. It, like other thought-policing labels, is a tool for defining the limits of speech and shutting down critical thinking while securing select groups from reasonable inquiry and political opposition. The term implies irrational fear and loathing and classes an entire perspective as nothing more than hatred, denying to critics of jihadism their rationality and so denigrating them as being less than fully human. Control of debate, indeed, control over whether there will even be a debate, is the goal.

The proper use of names and words is essential to rational argument, and the proliferation of nonsense terms and thought-policing labels is fatal. Use of propagandistic terms like “Islamofascism” and “Islamophobia” is an attempt to wield power through confusion and intimidation: they aim to mislead about the nature of our actual enemies on the one hand and invent new heresies against “tolerance” on the other. The debasement and cheapening of language are assaults on the quality of thought and discourse, and they are intended to prevent the proper, sober understanding of the realities of the Islamic world and our policies overseas.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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