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A fascist blast from the past

In proffering a new label to describe terrorists, President Bush cooks up controversy.

Published August 22, 2006

We knew about the war on terror. We knew about the war on al-Qaida. We knew about the war on Islamic extremists.

But fascists?

On talk TV and talk radio and in talk from the podiums of news conferences, terrorists are being labeled fascists. President Bush, in his first statements after a thwarted plot to blow up airplanes over the Atlantic, called the plan proof we're at war with "Islamic fascists."

His choice of words provoked American Muslims, Middle East leaders and some of Bush's own supporters.

The term fascists is inaccurate, they said, and Islamic fascists defames all Muslims. Saudi Arabia issued an unusually harsh rebuke of its ally. And the honest among us admit consulting a dictionary to recheck the definition of a word we thought we knew.

Fascism, it says, is a totalitarian government led by a dictator, characterized by aggressive nationalism. It is traditionally associated with the movement in the 1920s to 1940s under Italian Benito Mussolini, who elevated the nation over the individual and suppressed dissent. Since World War II, political groups have rarely reclaimed the label because fascism is now associated with the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Selecting the right word has been a hallmark of this administration in its efforts to rally the country after 9/11. "Crusade" was dropped. Too much historical baggage. "Operation Infinite Justice" was switched to "Enduring Freedom." Fascist seemed amorphous for a president respected for his directness.

"It's intended to push the button of World War II, the good war, Saving Private Ryan, John Wayne," said Ronald Carpenter, a rhetoric expert at the University of Florida.

He suggested that Americans are weary of a war without end, so White House advisers sought to evoke a war that was won.

"The word has not resonated as well as they hoped," said Carpenter, an Air Force veteran. "I think there will have to be another word."

Linking Islam and fascism is not new. Neo-conservatives and others have used the term "Islamic fascists" for years. U.N. ambassador John Bolton; Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.; and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly picked it up before the president.

White House spokesman Tony Snow used the language at a July 27 press briefing: "You've got to keep in mind it's not merely a war against an abstraction," he said. "It's a war against something very concrete, which are Islamofascists, Islamic fascists, whatever you want to brand them."

Snow told Cox News Service there had been no formal decision to change language, but the president was shifting from general rhetoric to more specifics.

The White House had discussed the language with Fouad Ajami, head of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, according to an interview Ajami gave to National Public Radio. "They actually floated it past me," Ajami said. "I know people think it's offensive, but what's the offense here?"

The "war on terrorism" had become too vague, too tired, too "squishy," some conservatives said. The president's intention to "complete the mission" in Iraq while polls reflect growing opposition to the war creates a need for new rallying cries, Carpenter said. Bush cannot refer to Nazis because the United States is now allied with Germany, Carpenter said. The terms Arab and Muslim tend to indict an entire culture or religion.

The British police avoid the labels "Islamic" and "Muslim." They refer to those arrested in the plot as "suspects" and "players."

Bush's soundbites offend those he most needs to enlist, said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy. The president lumps al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Sunni insurgents and the Mahdi army together and declares war, Gerges said. The movements are not the same.

"Language matters. Words matter," he said. "I would like the president to be extremely careful and precise in these moments that are dangerous."

Days after Bush's widely publicized fingering of Islamic fascists, he appeared to have dropped the label.

In comments at the State Department on Aug. 14 he referred to terrorists as "individuals that would like to kill innocent Americans to achieve political objectives."

Less punchy. No backlash.

Susan Aschoff can be reached at 727 892-2293 or

[Last modified August 21, 2006, 20:36:17]

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