PRAGUE, August 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -U.S. President George W. Bush used the phrase "Islamic fascists" to characterize the alleged U.K. bomb plotters in a speech on August 10.
"The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom," Bush said.
Bush's use of the phrase has not gone unnoticed in the Muslim world -- where any joining of the words has long been controversial.
The Islamabad-based newspaper "Ausaf" writes today that the words are an "insult to the religion" of Islam. The high-circulation Urdu-language daily added that "at a time when Washington gives full support to Israel in its fight against Lebanon, such words only harm the United States' reputation in the Islamic world -- a reputation that is already decreasing day by day."
Muslim groups in the United States have been equally critical.
"We believe this is an ill-advised term, and we believe that it is counterproductive to associate Islam or Muslims with fascism," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations advocacy group.
A Neocon Neologism
The phrase "Islamic fascism" is a neologism that was coined by Western political commentators to draw comparisons between the ideological characteristics of certain Islamist movements and the European fascist movements of the early 20th century.
Those comparisons center on apparent shared totalitarian values of groups that seek to impose a strict social and political order that does not envision sharing power with opponents.
Bush has used the phrase before, including in a speech in October to the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy. At that time, he said terrorist attacks like those committed by Al-Qaeda "serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil but not insane. Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamo-facism."
Evoking World War II
More often, the phrase is used by neoconservative writers who interpret its meaning broadly -- from restricting it to speaking purely about militant Islam to, at times, appearing to suggest Islam itself can be invoked to justify fascistic activities.
Frank Gaffney heads the Washington-based Center for Security Policy and was assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He uses the term Islamo-facism to equate the threat faced today by the United States with the threat it confronted on the eve of World War II.
"I've written a book with some of my colleagues called 'War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take To Prevail In The War For The Free World,' which tries to explain that this is, in fact, a war for the free world," Gaffney says. "That, like in the past, we confront today a totalitarian ideology -- we call it Islamo-facism -- which is in many countries around the world, including in the United States itself. And to fight such an enemy requires both an understanding of its character -- that it is ideological in nature, even though it has a sort of patina of religion over it that confuses people about its nature."
In the United States, use of the term is sometimes challenged by commentators, who see it as a political epithet.
An Offensive Epithet
Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, calls it offensive and a far-too-broad confusion of religion and politics.
Writing for the U.S. publication "Informed Comment" in 2004, Cole argued: "Islam is a sacred term to 1.3 billion people in the world. It enshrines their highest ideals. To combine it with the word 'fascist' in one phrase is a desecration and a form of hate speech."
The confusion over just what the term means and its sensitivity to Muslims makes it a risky phrase to include in speeches.
"Regarding 'Islamic fascism,' it is a very weighty [step] to take this ideology, which was the plague of the 20th century, and to join it to the name of one of the three great global religions," Aalybek Akunov, a professor of political science at Kyrgyz National University, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "That is why, I would say, we need to be responsible when inventing such terms. We don't know yet what was meant [by Bush] when such a term was used."
Charles Heyman of the London-based Jane's Information Group tells RFE/RL he worries the use of the term could be counterproductive.
"At this time, you need to get every single Muslim in your population that you possibly can on side," Heyman says. "They are your best source of intelligence. To start labeling large numbers of people as Islamo-fascists can have the effect of driving them into the opposite camp."
There has been no immediate response from the White House to criticism of Bush's most recent use of the phrase.
Bush has frequently sought to emphasize in his public speeches that the war on terrorism is not aimed against Islam.
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