Thursday, December 09, 2004

Joseph Sobran on 'Islamofascism'

Words in Wartime
by Joseph Sobran
November 11, 2004

Link courtesy of Tony Flood.

The war on terror, like all wars, has claimed language as one of its casualties. As a name for the ill-defined enemy, it has given us the ugly and silly coinage “Islamofascism.” What, pray tell, is that? This label is used not only by Rush Limbaugh and neoconservatives, but also by some pundits who usually choose their words with care, such as Christopher Hitchens. Yet nobody seems to have defined it. It’s more a bit of invective than a useful term of identification. The Left has been using fascism as a cussword since the days of Hitler and Mussolini. It was already very old and weary by the time it was annexed to Islam. But what’s fascistic about al-Qaeda, unless fascist just means a form of politics I don’t like, which doesn’t take us very far toward understanding what it is?

BV: Sobran appears to be laboring under the misapprehension that those who use 'Islamofascism' mean to apply it only to al-Qaeda. Not so; al-Qaeda is but one Islamic terrorist outfit. There are others such as Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. I take it that people like Hitchens intend 'Islamofascism' and cognates to apply to every sort of Islamic terrorist group.

So we might reformulate Sobran's question as follows: What is fascistic about Islamic terrorist groups? But even this is not quite the right question. The right question is : What is fascistic about the sort of society that Islamic terrorists would enforce if they had their way? The answer, presumably, is that such a society would be totalitarian. There would be no separation of private and public spheres; no separation of mosque and state; rigid imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) throughout the society by theocratic rulers; no toleration of dissent, of opposition parties, etc.

'Islamo-totalitarianism' might therefore be a better term that 'Islamo-fascism,' but I can't agree that the latter is "silly." "Ugly," yes, "silly," no. Of course, the move from 'fascism' to 'totalitarianism' involves a semantic stretch. But prickly as I am when it comes to words, I am not so pedantic as to be opposed to every such stretch. After all, with some justification we refer to National Socialism as 'fascistic,' and we sometimes speak of Communism as 'fascism of the Left.'

After all, nobody calls himself an Islamofascist. The original Fascists, led by Mussolini, called themselves Fascists, just as Communists called themselves Communists. The American Heritage Dictionary gives as its primary definition of fascism “a philosophy or system of government that advocates or exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with an ideology of belligerent nationalism.” Not very helpful. It’s more an expression of disapproval than a dispassionate and objective definition. And it hardly applies to al-Qaeda, which doesn’t seem to combine “state and business leadership.” What grounds are there for thinking al-Qaeda aspires to “dictatorship”?

BV: Sobran here repeats his earlier mistake of thinking that it is al-Qaeda that is the sole designatum of 'Islamo-fascism.'

Its chief announced goal — which we have little reason to doubt — is to drive the U.S. Government out of the Middle East. You may reject both that goal and the methods used to achieve it, but that doesn’t make it fascistic, unless you’re using fascism as an all-purpose synonym for nasty.

BV: Again, what is fascistic is not al-Qaeda per se but the sort of society that Islamic militants (a proper subset of which are al-Qaeda members) aim to establish. I cannot see that people like Hitchens are using 'fascism' in this context as a mere term of abuse. 'Islamo-fascism' may not be the best term, but I think people who use it are attempting to pick out the phenomenon of militant Islam, which aims not merely at driving the U. S. out of the Middle East, but also at destroying the state of Israel and eventually taking over Europe. Is it not part of the intention of Osama and the boys to regain control of what they call al-Andalus, i.e., the Iberian peninsula?
Muslims once had it, and they want it back.

And what is the “extreme right”? The Left generally stands for socialism, dictatorial or democratic; but the term right-wing has no such single or consistent meaning. It’s applied, usually abusively, to various political systems that can’t be reconciled to each other. Conservatives, neoconservatives, capital-F Fascists, monarchists, constitutionalists, libertarians, and even anarchists are all called right-wing, their only common denominator being their hostility to socialism. Some socialists label even liberals right-wing. Islamofascism seems designed to produce semantic frustration.

BV: This is an exaggeration even if we let the use/mention confusion pass. 'Islamo-fascism' denotes the movement of militant Islam which attempts not only to drive the USA from the Middle East, but also to destroy Israel and eventually establish a worldwide caliphate.

It is telling that Sobran ignores these wider aims. Perhaps he thinks they are nonexistent, or else no serious threat. But for those who do take these aims seriously, the term 'Islamo-fascism' is not so "silly."

It should be possible to understand al-Qaeda’s purpose without approving its terrorist tactics. After all, any cause, however noble, may be advanced, and also compromised, by inhuman methods. This basic distinction seems oddly hard to grasp. The United States has a grim record of bombing enemy cities and killing their civilian inhabitants, yet few Americans seriously ask whether these grisly means were justified by their alleged ends. Even today, few Americans are raising such questions about the war in progress in Iraq. How many civilians have died in a war that is supposed to be bringing that country democracy and other blessings? We aren’t getting reliable figures; our government isn’t publishing them. Estimates run as high as 100,000; defenders of the war call this a wild exaggeration, but would it disturb them much if it were accurate? At what point — if any — would they agree that the human price of defeating “Islamofascism” is just too high? Can’t we at least have an official body count of the innocent noncombatants? Just an estimate? If not, why not?

And this, I think, is the point of this bogus label. Just as all political scandals are now awkwardly suffixed -gate, as in Watergate, so all foreign enemies can be equated with the World War II-era enemy by being plastered with the suffix -fascism. This implies that they are absolute evil, to be destroyed at any cost. Whatever it takes. In the same spirit, all resistance fighters are now called “terrorists” and all American troops “heroes.” No heroism can be ascribed to the enemy forces, even if, in their own minds, they are giving their lives to fight a foreign invader — not to establish anything that can be called fascism.

In other words, Islamofascism is nothing but an empty propaganda term.

BV: I'd say this is a rather wild exaggeration that itself rests on using 'propaganda term' and 'empty' in dubious ways. First of all, to show that 'Islamo-fascism' is a propaganda term, in any serious sense, Sobran would have to show that it is used by government officials in their official capacity. The fact that the term is used by commentators such as Limbaugh and Hitchens does not show that it is a propaganda term. It is also not an empty term since it picks out a genuine phenomenon, namely, militant Islam whose intentions extend well beyond driving the USA out of the Middle East.

Of course, here we arrive at a substantive issue: Do these intentions exist, and how seriously must we take them? Clearly, these tough questions cannot be resolved by cavilling over a mere word. And I wonder: if we drop 'Islamo-fascism,' would Sobran be comfortable using 'Islamo-totalitarianism' or 'militant Islam' in their stead? I think not. My impression is that he does not recognize the threat. Curiously enough, he and people like Pat Buchanan on this issue join with the Left. Strange bedfellows!

And wartime propaganda is usually, if not always, crafted to produce hysteria, the destruction of any sense of proportion. Such words, undefined and unmeasured, are used by people more interested in making us lose our heads than in keeping their own. The rest of the world hasn’t picked up this word. Undistracted by our propaganda, it sees clearly what the U.S. Government is doing in the Middle East.

Joseph Sobran