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. ~Geoffrey Nunberg, The Los Angeles Times