No sooner had the magazine gone to print with my last column, in which I critiqued the term “Islamo-fascism” as ahistorical and propagandistic, than suddenly it was World War II all over again. “Once again, we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism,” said Donald Rumsfeld, “but some seem not to have learned history’s lessons.” Just one lesson, actually, according to Vice President Cheney: “This is not an enemy that can be…appeased.” Addressing veterans at an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, President Bush referenced both fascism and communism and described “the war we fight today” as “the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century.” Noted foreign policy expert Rick Santorum summed it up: “We’re at war with Islamic fascism, and Afghanistan and Iraq and Southern Lebanon and every country around the world is a front.” Rick Santorum! Bet you didn’t know he believed in secularism, women’s rights and all that other enlightened stuff we are supposedly standing for in the Middle East. How far we’ve come from the days when Dan Quayle praised Saudi Arabia for its strong family values!
As usual, Nation readers added their two cents. Richard Rosenthal pointed out that Joe Lieberman’s comparison of the Iraq War with the Spanish Civil War cast the United States as the resistance to Franco: “Uh, weren’t they Communists?” (Yes, and anarchists too. In real life, he might have added, the United States was neutral in the Spanish Civil War, but why let facts get in the way? ) Lawrence Levi cited George Orwell’s great 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.'”
The sides may have changed since World War II, but note that the left still gets to be on the wrong one, having gone from premature antifascist to fascist while practically standing in place. Still, as the mention of Orwell suggests, the left has a long history of hurling the F-word against its enemies, so the word’s deployment by pro-warriors today is really our fault, like everything else. Starting today, let’s stick to authoritarian, heavy-handed, unjust, illegal, violent, racist, misogynist, corrupt, inhumane, undemocratic, intolerant, overly vociferous, rude and bad. It’s presumably those last three senses that erstwhile New Republic senior editor (and former Nation book critic) Lee Siegel had in mind when he coined the term “blogofascism” to describe, um, liberal bloggers. Daily Kossacks are the new Brownshirts? That takes trivialization to a whole new level.
What would be a better term? “Extremist” is too general. “Islamicist,” “Islamist” and “fundamentalist” overlook the Shiite/Sunni split. “Jihadi” captures the militant religious nature of the various guerrilla, terrorist and political movements, but it misses two crucial things. First, states that are our allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for instance, are deeply involved in promoting jihadism, and at least one state on our bad list–Syria–has a secular government with jihadist opposition. Second, the word confuses movements that have local, limited national aims, like the Taliban and Hamas, with movements with grand global ambitions, like Al Qaeda. Here is how tangled things can get: According to former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes, who has been living in Kandahar for the past four years, not only did Al Qaeda and the Taliban have different agendas, but since the Taliban is underwritten by our ally Pakistan, Afghans believe that the Taliban’s recent resurgence is supported by the United States!
Perhaps there can be no one word, because there is no one phenomenon. The point of “fascism,” Islamo- or otherwise, is not to explain our world, however, but to portray Bush critics as isolationists and appeasers, like “those who enabled Hitler,” as Newt Gingrich recently claimed. Ever since 9/11, wondering if suicide bombers are merely psychopaths means you think they’re heroes; resisting words like “evil” and “evildoers” as childish makes you a moral relativist; asking if hatred of freedom really explains everything from Iranian foreign policy to the Aceh independence movement means you hate freedom yourself. On the right, antiwarriors and leftists are regularly demonized as Osama-loving nihilists or multiculturalists too dim to grasp how bad Islam is. You’d think the American left had booked a plane to Mecca and that feminists are trading their tank tops for burqas. Never mind that these are the same people who, on another cultural battlefront, are regularly denounced as secular fundamentalists.
Still, anti-imperialism makes strange bedfellows. Quite a few Western leftists admired Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. (Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson’s fascinating Foucault and the Iranian Revolution detailed how even the notorious gay libertine could briefly be drawn to the gloomy mullahs.) I remember the attacks on Kate Millet for her early exposé of the regime’s brutal repression of women and its obliteration of human rights. It was only when Khomeini started executing leftists that the US left took his measure. And apparently hope springs eternal: In August an interview with Hezbollah leader Nasrallah published in a Turkish socialist magazine went flying around the Net: In it he expressed his deep admiration for Che Guevara and welcomed the coming together of socialist and Islamic movements. When Nasrallah furiously denounced the interview as fraudulent and the magazine admitted it had been hoaxed, you could hear the air sadly leaking out of many a celebratory balloon.
That said, imperialism makes strange bedfellows too–and in a much more important bed. The United States gave massive financial and military support to the Afghan mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation–and the more vicious and bigoted, the better. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose men threw acid in the faces of unveiled women, was a particular favorite. Now he’s making all kinds of trouble in Nooristan and Kunar provinces. If we really want to understand the Muslim world, let’s start by acknowledging that today’s “fascists” were yesterday’s “freedom fighters.”