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Bush Uses The Word
Fascism To Mislead

By John Cox

02 October, 2006
The Florida News-Press

As a historian of Nazi Germany, I have been intrigued by the widespread use of the term "fascist" in public discourse over the last few weeks. Since early August, the Bush Administration has undertaken a coordinated campaign to link "fascism" with political Islam and with Muslim-based opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East.

President Bush claimed that the arrests of terrorist conspirators in England were "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists," and referred to an "Islamic fascism ... totalitarian in nature" in Lebanon and elsewhere.

This raises the question: exactly what is fascism? What is served by the application of this term to Muslim fundamentalists—does this help clarify history or deepen our understanding of current events, which is the goal of historians like myself?
Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding "no." There may be a superficial resemblance between European fascism of the first half of the twentieth century—the heyday of those movements—and al-Qaeda and other such groups. They each subscribe to right-wing beliefs and favor violence to achieve their ends. But this is about as deep as the similarities run, and there are many dozens of organizations and ideologies of recent history that share those broad characteristics.


More instructive are the many differences between fascism and political, fundamentalist Islam. Nationalism is always at the center of fascism, while the Islamist groups seek allegiance along trans-national, religious lines. Groups like Hamas or Hizbullah do not glorify the state, another defining feature of fascism. The European fascists (as well as fascist movements in Latin America and elsewhere) were secular, and only occasionally invoked the symbols or traditions of religion.

While some fascists, like Mussolini, harkened back to the glories of Rome, fascism has always had a modernizing thrust, shrouding its reactionary ideology in rationalism and science. This also sharply distinguishes it from modern fundamentalist Islamists, who exalt Islamic law (their interpretation of it, that is) and long for a return to a "golden age" that never really existed.

Further, the term "Islamic fascism" implies that this new "fascism" is rooted in the Islamic faith, which is patently untrue. And finally, we cannot understand the popular appeal of a group like Hizbullah — which draws much of its support for its nationalist resistance to Israeli policy, especially during the 18-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000 — by simply labeling it "fascist."

There have, however, been a handful of political movements in the Middle East that did resemble fascism, such as Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party. But Hussein's regime was militantly secular, and it's also worth remembering that its semi-fascist politics and heinous crimes did not prevent U.S. administrations of the 1980s from providing it with political and economic support. And the term "Islamic fascism" encompasses a large variety of parties and movements that, like Hussein's Ba'athists and bin Laden's al-Qaeda, have little in common, and are often sharply at odds.


So what is served by the bandying about of this misleading term? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the true aim is simply to inflame opinion, at a time when support for the war on Iraq is waning. Fewer Americans are willing to accept the linkage, so often suggested by Cheney and others, between the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq. The horrifying human costs of this misguided adventure are also harder for us to ignore. So with the November elections on the horizon, it's time to try out a new strategy to market the war.

"Islamic fascism" also is being used to bludgeon critics of the administration's war against Iraq. Invoking the "fascist" menace, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently accused his critics of "moral and intellectual confusion." He and other Bush spokespeople have linked antiwar sentiment with the appeasement of Hitler by European diplomats in the 1930s, a particularly outrageous parallel.

More than ever, we need reasoned and informed debate and reflection. Overheated and cynical oratory does not help, and we can appreciate the inhumanity of terrorism without equating it with Hitler. And as a historian, I believe we should try to learn more about the true nature and crimes of fascism and Nazism — crimes that are diminished by the indiscriminate use of those terms.

John Cox is assistant professor of European history at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Copyright 2006, The News-Press

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